Sunday, July 31, 2005

Amy's Tomatoes

tomatoes Another amazing batch of tomatoes from Amy's Garden at the 17th Street Farmers' Market. , , ,

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Iced Tea

iced tea Temperatures rose and fell over the course of last week, and as they hit their ascendancy, iced tea played a large role in my day-to-day management of the heat. I didn't want to cook, I didn't want to leave the house, and when I did either, immediate liquid refreshment was necessary. Now, I know I should have been drinking water and I did, lots of it. However, despite the overwhelming selection of (very similar tasting waters) on the market, I craved something with a bit more of a kick, something that said "summer in the south" a little louder than all of the cicadas droning on and on in the background of every boiling day. Iced tea was the only solution. The US is divided into two iced tea-drinking camps: the sweet tea camp of the south and the unsweetened camp of the north. Virginia, as the northernmost outpost of the south, has always been conflicted about to which camp it owes its allegiance. While I was growing up here in Richmond, tea was generally served in large pitchers unsweetened, but venturing even just a few miles southward towards Charles City or Petersburg, the tea became abruptly sugar sweet. As Richmonders, my family always gave me the feeling it was vaguely déclassé to stir sugar into your tea (what was that tall skinny spoon there for then?), and it was years before I discovered that sugar did, in fact, make that brown stuff sitting on the dinner table every night more palatable--and even enjoyable. My grandmother served her tea resolutely unsweetened and lightly infused with the fresh mint that grew wild all over her backyard. I've tried to duplicate her tea over the years and because she wasn't the kind of fondly maternal sort of grandmother who carefully imparted her culinary wisdom to the rising generation, I've tried different techniques I've been told or read about over the years. What's so hard about iced tea, do you ask? Well, for one, consistency. Sure, you can dump some teabags in a pitcher, pour over boiling water, and let it steep for a while, but invariably, this kind of haphazard method leads to nasty, weak tea, fit only for plant-watering--not to put too fine of a point on it. Steep it longer you say and add more tea bags? Well, that leads to acrid, foul-tasting dark brown sludge you can't even drink. You need a formula to get it actually right each time. I like my tea amber gold, minty and slightly sweet. True to my upbringing, however, I leave the sweetening to the individual, although I have discovered a mere 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of sugar added along with the tea bags during the brewing process cuts the acidity of the tea without adding any noticeable sweetness. A pinch of baking soda will also do the same thing--it's your choice. I've never had much luck with sun tea and I like instead to brew a concentrate to which I add cold water. That way, my tea is ready to drink right away without having to chill in the refrigerator, and (even better) the ice cubes don't melt and immediately dilute my tea to dreck. I don't think you need to be too fussy about the kind of tea you use. We all grew up on Lipton's and that's the flavor most people are looking for in a good glass of iced tea. That being said though, my personal favorite is a half and half combo of any good quality English breakfast and orange pekoe teas. The orange pekoe gives it that Lipton-y amber flavor and the English breakfast tea lifts it a bit and adds a little complexity (Yorkshire Tea, if you can find it, is another good choice). Water? I use tap water but I'm sure the more discerning would prefer spring water (they always do). Just make sure it's at a full, rolling boil before you pour it over the tea. None of this "near boiling" stuff you read about for brewing hot tea; you want to extract all the flavor you can and you don't need to be finicky about it. Iced tea should be easy to make, at any rate, and watching the proverbial pot doesn't sound like a lot of fun. Lastly, pour over ice in a tall glass, sweeten to taste, and garnish with a sprig of mint if you have company. Ahhhh . . . now sit back, relax, and cool off. All those sweaty chores can wait for another day. , Iced Tea (makes 1/2 gallon) 6 tea bags or 8 teaspoons loose tea in a large tea ball 1 bunch fresh mint 1/2-1 teaspoon sugar 2 quarts water Add mint to the bottom of an unbreakable pitcher and bruise with the back of a large spoon. Add tea and sugar. Bring 2 cups of water to a rapid boil and pour over the tea. Steep for 15 minutes. Strain out mint and tea, and add 6 cups of cold water. Serve.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Pizza, Again?

pizza Is it easier to make your own pizza instead of ordering take-out? A few years ago I would have scoffed at the idea--make your own dough, sauce, chop toppings? Crazy! Then I moved to a neighborhood a mere ten minutes away from my favorite pizza joint and inexplicably, they won't deliver to my house. Nope, absolutely no delivery to the northside of Richmond from Carytown. We have our own pizza delivery service, of course, but the pizza is so bland, so unexciting that I can't even bring myself to eat it even when I'm exhausted. For years my husband and I debated whether Piccola's pizza or Mary Angela's pizza was the best and the most authentic (in that NYC slice kind of way) in town. My husband was partial to Piccola's and I was a staunch Mary Angela's fan. Complicating the debate is the fact that the two families who own these places are related; the pizzas are very, very similiar. It becomes therefore, a debate hinging on degrees of greatness, and as you probably know, that kind of discussion can continue indefinitely. Nevertheless, the whole issue was rendered moot when we moved. No delivery service from either Piccola's or Mary Angela's (I will repress my ranting and railing vis a vis this issue for the moment); if we wanted pizza, we had to drive ourselves and get it. One day though, as we were loading our car to leave for home, my father-in-law stashed a pizza stone and a peel in the back along with our luggage (this is how my in-laws get rid of things they don't need). At first, I began making pizza just to see how it was done and then, as the drive to Mary Angela's became more onerous, I slowly started to take it for granted that when we wanted pizza, I would make it. Once I began stocking up on the basic ingredients--yeast, flour, mozzarella, cans of crushed tomatoes--I didn't really think too much about it. We still drove to get take-out, non-delivery pizza now and then, but I also made my own more and more. Eventually I developed a comprehensive, will-please-everybody sort of pizza that comprises three distinct sections: a pepperoni section, a plain cheese section, and for adults, an artichoke-goat cheese section. Remembering to make the dough ahead of time is the only real challenge. Leave it to trusty Christopher Kimball, however, to streamline even this process and reduce the rising, topping, and cooking time to a mere 75 minutes. Here's a link on the web to his Quick Pizza Dough. I also use his uncooked tomato sauce but you'll have to go to Cook's Illustrated-Recipe Resource for that one (again, I must exhort you to subscribe to this site--it's well worth it). Once the dough has risen and then rested, I roll out the entire ball, instead of dividing it in two as recommended. I have a hard time stretching the dough wide enough (although I have found Lora Brody's Dough Relaxer helpful) when it's that small, and I also prefer my crust a little thicker. Crispy is nice but crispy is also easy to burn. And as everyone knows, if it's black, children won't eat it, even if they're starving. Goat cheese, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and chopped scallions are my current favorite toppings, although with tomato season now in full swing, fresh tomatoes and fresh basil (the basil under the cheese to keep it moist) may replace them. I'd also like to try my hand at grilling a pizza--somehow that starts to sound like too much work though. Come to think of it however, I think--actually--it may not be so bad after all. The mandatory 500 degree oven for pizza cooking is a real killer these days and the grill would relocate the heat outside of the house. Hmmm . . . is it worth sacrificing dinner and losing a whole pizza (I have horrific visions of all of the toppings sliding ineveitably into the coals when I try to get it on the grill or try to take it off) just in the name of culinary experimentation? Maybe I should call Mary Angela's and have them hold me a table before I start.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Taste Unlimited

Taste Unlimited Virginia Beach, Virginia. Tangy, creamy, savory, unctuous, delectable--it's hard to come up with a way to describe the house dressing at Taste Unlimited. It transforms a simple sandwich into an amazing and addictive meal, one whose sum far outweighs its parts. Neither mayo nor mustard, nor most delicatessens' ubiquitous Russian dressing, the Taste Unlimited dressing is unique, one-of-a-kind (although I have sampled a pale imitation at Take It Away in Charlottesville), and memorable. My first sandwich was a gift; my good friend Courtney Allen road her bike over thirty blocks from her parent's beach house to the beach front store and back when we were teenagers just to introduce me to what would become one of my very favorite sandwiches. A small local chain of prepared foods as well as a comprehensive assortment of gourmet items, Taste Unlimited, then and now, offers no lettuce, no tomato for its sandwiches, just a pile of meat and cheese on a variety of freshly baked breads. That day, Courtney brought back French bread sandwiches, layered with thinly sliced, rare roast beef and imported Swiss cheese, smothered in Taste Unlimited's amazing house dressing. As I mentioned before, it is the dressing here that emphatically makes the sandwich. For years this dressing was unavailable beyond a sandwich you purchased at the store, but now, thankfully, you can buy an entire bottle of the stuff to take home with you and enliven even the dullest of home sandwiches. And through stealth and persistence, I, years ago, even got a hold of its proprietary recipe. Unfortunately, one of its key ingredients is no longer available, and I'm not sure what's taken its place--the dressing tastes exactly the same. Previously, the dressing was combination of Hellman's mayonnaise, Kosciusko spicy brown mustard, and imported Sharwood steak sauce. The last ingredient is no longer available (I think they've stopped manufacturing it) so I'd speculate that perhaps HP Sauce replaced it. Unfortunately, not being a fan of steak sauces, I never compared Sharwood's to any other brand and therefore, can't give a definitive answer. Besides, they sell it in their stores now--why make it when an expert will hand you a bottle ready-made? I love to cook but I also love to eat. Somehow, the real Taste Unlimited house dressing always tasted better than mine ever did when I did make it. I just don't have the incentive to experiment like I used to when I had to drive 100 miles to the beach to get a sandwich dripping with the stuff. And, in fact, now that I'm a little older and a little more adept at delaying gratification, a trip to Taste Unlimited becomes an integral part of my trips to the beach; the prior deprivation only enhances my satisfaction once I take that first bite. ,

Country Club Living

boat Virginia Beach, Virginia. I don't really get to experience the lifestyle of the rich and comfortable too often, and country club living is generally beyond my purvue. Nevertheless, during the 4th of July weekend, I was fortunate enough to partake of the lavish brunch at the Cavalier Golf and Yacht Club in Virginia Beach. As I ascended the curving staircase to the upper floor, I was greeted first by a spectacular floral display in the middle of a light, lovely room. Lining the walls were tables groaning with a diverse array of culinary delights. There were muffins, pastries, cakes, biscuits, fruit, sausage, bacon . . . there was an omlette station and crepe station . . . there was caviar, smoked salmon, bagels, and my very favorite breakfast food of all, eggs benedict. Most eggs benedict are disapointing; the eggs are usually rubbery and over-cooked with tasteless, bland hollandaise topping them. I'd almost given up ordering them when I went out, assuming only what I prepared at home would be acceptable. The Cavalier (at long last!) proved me wrong by serving eggs benedict almost exactly how they should be. I must qualify with an "almost" because the thick, English muffin rounds (Wolferman's, no doubt) were soggy from soaking in excess hollandaise. Not altogether a bad thing, especially considering how perfectly creamy the eggs were poached, how ever so slightly crisp the ham was cooked, and how delectably smooth and lemony the hollandaise was. A little excess butter, after all, hardly offends the palate and I can, without qualification, pronounce these eggs benedict, the best I've had outside of my own kitchen. I've always relied on Julia Child for hollandaise. You'll find her (always perfect) recipe below. Hollandaise 3 egg yolks 2 TB lemon juice 1/4 tsp. salt Pinch of white pepper 1 stick (4 oz.) butter, melted until bubbling hot Place egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and pepper in blender. Cover and blend at high speed for 30 seconds. Uncover, and still blending at high speed, start pouring in the hot butter by droplets. Allow time for the butter to absorb and emulsify with eggs. When about two thirds of the butter has been added, you can pick up the pace a little more. Makes about 3/4 cup. From The French Chef Cookbook

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Ham Biscuits and Holidays

hambiscuit Wakefield, Virginia. One of the pleasures of beach traffic during the summer is--wait a minute, what am I saying?! Every year, the traffic along I-64 East from Richmond to Virginia Beach seems to get worse and worse. It bottles up around Williamsburg, it bottles up around Hampton, and then it stops dead at the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. Hours and hours pass as all of the adults in the car sigh heavily, use colorful expletives, and generally bemoan the fact that they didn't choose to take Rt. 460 instead. Yes, 460 is longer and has annoying stop lights, and yes, you feel like throwing yourself out of the moving car when you have to loop back onto I-64 in the end in order actually to get to Virginia Beach but, BUT no one else is on the road except you and the small-town cops in the speed traps; it's smooth sailing all the way. When it's finally conceded that 460 is the best way to go, gratitude to the traffic gods overwhelms me, and I am compelled to offer my thanks at the Virginia Diner in Wakefield, VA. Or, more precisely, I am thankful for the Virginia Diner and the absence of 21st century homogeneousness that plagues the highways of this country. I've been going to the Virginia Diner all of my life; there was a time before the existence of I-64 (believe it or not) and this was the way everyone went to the beach. Although the Virginia Diner has spiffed up some since those days, has expanded and added a gift shop at the entrance full of various varieties of boiled Virginia peanuts, it's not so entranced with its own quaintness and anachronisticity to forget why people stopped there in the first place--the food. Basic southern fare like ham biscuits and fried chicken provide the bulk of the menu, although when we stopped there last Friday on the way to the beach for the 4th of July weekend, they had a pretty impressive buffet happening. There was a large roast beef (medium, of course), fried shrimp, fried fish, barbecue, ham, corn, biscuits, etc., etc, for $10.95 a person. That was a little steep for us, so we opted for the menu and immediate seating in the smoking section since there was a long, long wait for non-smoking. Oddly, no one at all was smoking in the smoking section--not a single person. Of course, we were stashed in the back, away from the windows in what looked like a banquet section, but then, we weren't really there for the atmosphere. Ham biscuits were my goal (although I was sorely tempted by the fried chicken)-- barbecue for my husband. The children, of course, wanted hot dogs. The biscuits at the Virginia Diner aren't the flaky kind that pull apart in layers; these are high-rising biscuits, fluffy and buttery, that seem indigenous to this part of the country. I love those flaky kind, but I've never been able to make them and I can't recall ever eating them when I was growing up at anyone else's house either, unless they came from a can. Inside my three hot biscuits, folded in paper-thin slices, was a mound of salty, smoky country ham with just the slightest hint of sweetness in the sliver of fat left around the outside rim of each slice. After the addition of a little more butter to the inside top-half of each biscuit, my dinner was perfect and ready to eat. Each bite reminded me of the ham my grandmother would send us for Christmas every year and the somewhat laborious process involved in readying same ham fit to eat. First you had to remove the cloth covering, then peel away with a sharp knife the mold that invariably grew over the outside (my mother would always assure me that the mold was "normal"), and then soak the ham in water overnight to remove the excess salt. Then and only THEN, was that ham ready to cook--for hours. I think that's why I love ham biscuits so much: they are presented to you ready to eat, no work involved, just the perfect hot and tender vehicle to transfer the cold and salty deliciousness to your mouth. Accompanying my wonder biscuits was the Virginia Diner's signature side of Peanut Waldorf Salad. Now, don't forget, Wakefield is the center of peanut country, and the cooks at the Virginia Diner try to slide peanuts in wherever they can. They're most successful with their peanut pie--think pecan pie and replace the pecans with peanuts--and this great twist on the traditional Waldorf. The usual apples, celery, and raisins were there but peanuts subbed for walnuts and topping it all was a lusciously sweet, almost Asian peanut dressing. It provided a succulent counterpoint to the salty saltiness of the ham (reduncies just abound with Virginia ham), displacing my (usually) favorite salt back-simmered green beans, and almost replacing dessert. As I slid behind the wheel, I knew, fortified with ham, I could deal with any traffic exigency, as long as I had enough water to slake my thirst all the way to Virginia Beach. I tossed back a few peanuts and settled in for the long holiday drive through the country, and the seashore that waited at the end.