Friday, April 04, 2014


Photo by Bonavita
With super-premium small-batch coffees like Ceremony in Annapolis selling for $15 for 12 ounces, I realized it was time to move on from my dinky little Mr. Coffee coffeemaker. I've been so happy with my Capresso conical burr grinder after a Sur La Table sales assistant recommended it, I decided to follow their advice on the coffeemaker as well and plunked down the hefty purchase price for Bonavita.

This German-engineered appliance gets a lot of praise on the Web as well. It heats the water a little hotter, getting it in the 195-05-degree range considered ideal for making coffee. It has a great spray nozzle that covers the whole filter. One of my problems with the Mr. Coffee was that it wasn't reaching all of the coffee, which was simply too expensive for that kind of neglect. I've found that I use much less coffee with the Bonavita, and of course it tastes much, much better.

Other features I like are that the thermal carafe is lined with glass -- which conserves the heat much better than the all-metal thermal carafe in my old Krups. Also, the carafe has no lid during the brewing process. One of my issues with the Krups was the brewed coffee had to go through the little opening created by the pressure of the lid against the filter bottom, and I felt it got gummed up with old coffee that affected the taste.

So there's no drip-stop function to take the pot out earlier if you're in a hurry, but the whole brewing process is just 6 to 8 minutes. Bonavita is serious in other respects, too. There's no timer. Serious coffee drinkers don't load up their coffee the night before so it can get stale overnight and be there when the timer goes off.

Truly serious coffee drinkers don't believe in any automatic coffeemaker. They insist on pour-over or French press (or Turkish). I've had experience with all these, including the Chemex pour-over. I will probably get a small porcelain filter-holder and kettle to brew individual cups of coffee in the afternoon. Bonavita wants you to make at least 6 cups to get the best result and I don't want two 6-cup pots of coffee a day.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Chicken with escarole, apples and potatoes

This unusual combination from Sara Jenkins' cookbook adds a layer of flavor to the chicken and is fun to make. As she says in the headnote, you accumulate flavors cooking everything in the same skillet, so that when you finish the final sauce with a swirl of butter it all goes over the chicken again.

The recipe calls for 4 skin-on boneless chicken breasts, which most supermarkets don't offer. So I bought the bone-in breasts and de-boned and trimmed the breasts myself, saving the tenders for another day and freezing the ribs and bits for stock. You brown the breasts in olive oil and pop them in a 250-degree oven in a baking pan covered with foil. Pour out the oil from the skillet and add 2 tablespoons butter to saute the pieces of 2 semi-tart apples (I used McIntosh), peeled, cored and cut into 8 pieces.

Earlier, you boil 12 ounces of new potatoes until tender, cool, and flatten with a chef's knife. After sauteeing the apples, you add 2 more tablespoons of butter and fry up the flattened potatoes, about 2 minutes a side. (She doesn't call for it, but I slipped the potatoes into the oven with the chicken to keep them nice and hot.) Next, you add a peeled, crushed clove of garlic to the skillet and start filling it with 2 pounds of torn escarole leaves, adding more as they wilt. Add 1/2 cup white wine and cook until lettuce is tender and liquid is reduced. Return the apple pieces to skillet to warm up again. Plate the potatoes, chicken and escarole mix, swirl another tablespoon of butter into the juices in the skillet, and pour that over the chicken.

The breasts remain moist and their skin has all the flavor from the oil. The bitter escarole is balanced by the apples and the potatoes and butter just round out the whole dish in a very satisfying way. It is a simple, easy revelation.

Urban Butcher

Photo by Urban Butcher
The highlight of this place is the curing room, where they have big, beautiful hams and strings of sausages hanging in a controlled environment. When we had dinner there, the bratwurst appetizer was delicious (though nothing like what goes by the name of bratwurst in Germany) and the steak-frites and burger were both very good. I would go back to buy sausage and ham.

Because what is lacking here is anything like atmosphere or charm (the photos on the website showing an empty restaurant are somewhat deceptive in that regard). Their attempt at nouveau warehouse is strong on a warehouse look and feel, but missing the nouveau element of charm or personality. It is basically just a dump, with hard surfaces, lots of noise, uncomfortable chairs and very tight spaces.

The worst thing, though, for what purports to be a butcher shop as well as a restaurant is the butcher counter, where a dismal array of small cuts vacuum-sealed in plastic have as much appeal as meat made from lego pieces. It's another disappointment in my search for a decent butcher in DC.

My beef, so to speak, with the nouvelle boucherie shops that have sprung up in DC is that it's hit and miss what they will have. You can't go there and count on finding the cut you want for the recipe you've chosen. I have dozens of recipes that want lamb shoulder, for instance, and you can never find that cut anywhere. Whole Foods, of course, only carries popular cuts that sell well (and hardly ever carries veal because it rarely meets their oh-so exacting standards).  The other places are largely adjuncts to restaurants and on a particular day will carry whatever chef didn't use. 

The only place that has come close to offering what approaches a decent butcher counter is Stachowski's, which unfortunately is not very convenient. However, I'm dreaming of the osso buco they had in the counter there and will surely go back one of these days to get that.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Le Diplomate

Photo by Le Diplomate
Finally made it to the uber-trendy French bistro, and it is worth getting enthusiastic about, though maybe not as hysterical as DC has gotten. It is a high-quality take on the the standard bistro items served up in a comfy, warm atmosphere with plenty of buzz, so no complaints.

We had a couple of nice drinks made with bubbly -- mine was the classic French 75 with gin and lemon and was very refreshing. I had the venison terrine, which was just the right mix of fatty and spicy and meaty, with a nice texture and a fresh taste. I followed with the veal escalope served with chanterelle cream -- love the mushrooms! The veal was hot, tender, with just a light coat of flour to soak in the flavor of the fat. Perfect execution. Andrea had an exquisite tuna carpaccio for starter and a lightly breaded salmon fillet that she couldn't stop raving about. To accompany we had a serviceable Brouilly at a very fair price.

Part of the fun for me was simply to soak up the French atmosphere. to see again all those familiar plates, to revel in the retro feel of it. The food is several notches above, for instance, Bistro du Coin or other French bistros in town, and service and atmosphere, too, are way ahead of the others.

Too bad it's so hard to get into.

Sara Jenkins' New Italian Pantry

We love Sara Jenkins' cookbook, Olives and Oranges, and have been waiting impatiently for her to come out with another. In the meantime, she has an app that offers 75 recipes based on 16 pantry items and a handful of fresh ingredients.

I'm sure the recipes are good but I'm not a big fan of the app. For one thing, it is obviously very limited. Even though she cheats on the 16 items -- some of them, such as "pasta and grains" or "onions and garlic", are multiple items -- the recipes I've looked at seem to be simple variations on a theme -- lemon, capers, garlic, parsley, olives, anchovies, etc. So whether it's lamb chops, chicken legs, cod or halibut, you're going to get a combination of these ingredients. Not too exciting.

Since, however, it is really more a technique than a recipe, the directions do encourage swapping out the various elements, and creating your own quick dish.

The app itself leaves much to be desired as app. It is slow, the user interface has gaps -- there is no way to get to the recipe page except to put "all" into the search box. The videos explaining the pantry items are a bit hoaky and very banal. In her cookbook, for instance, Jenkins has numerous specific recommendations for brands of olive oil and other products. Here she just says she cooks with olive oil.

Good effort, but I think she'd be better off getting that second cookbook out.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Palena Coffeehouse

Glazed donuts (Photo by Palena)
The kouign-amann est arrivee. This lovely confection of layered dough, butter and caramelized sugar is a Breton specialty and we discovered it on our recent trip to San Francisco. Wikipedia says it means cake-butter and that pretty well sums it up. It's a bit crispy, very buttery and sweet and delicious.

It is front and center at the wonderful new Palena Coffeehouse. This is the front part of the pre-expansion restaurant, where the bar and cafe menu used to be served. It has been renovated as a coffee bar, serving sweet and savory pastries from 7 (8 on weekends) and desserts in the evening.

Frank Ruta, who has the best cheeseburger in town and one of the best prix-fixe menus, has brought his trademark exacting standards and doing everything himself from scratch now to breakfast. The pastry array is outstanding, with all the usual croissants, scones, coffeecakes and his takes on donuts and bagels with cream cheese. The cappuccinos are very good, nice and creamy in porcelain cups, though the Swing's espresso is not at the level of Dolcezza -- still miles better than Starbucks, which is not even in the race any more for us.

When the young baker brought out a new plateful of kouign-amann a customer asked, "What are those?" She heard "How are those?" and just said "They're wonderful." Andrea asked her what time she got up to bake all this, and she said 3 a.m.

We were a little late catching up to this new operation, which opened in November. We went the previous night for a cheeseburger in the Cafe and only when I went to use the restroom did I discover what they'd done with this section. It's a clever way to optimize use of the building and the kitchen and makes Palena a very special destination.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Ragout of duck legs with turnips

More fowl! It sounds better in French, ragout de cuisses de canard aux navets. This recipe from Anne Willan's The Country Cooking of France was the simplest I could find in a quick browse of the cookbooks in the kitchen (there were many others but too complicated for a weekday). This recipe, a variation on one for a whole duck, was just the right way to use the duck legs that beckoned from the meat case at Broad Branch.

Brown the duck legs and set aside, drain off some fat, brown some flour and whisk in chicken stock and wine and boil to thicken. Put back the duck legs with a bouquet garni and simmer on the stove. In a separate pan, saute sliced onions in the drained duck fat and remove, then saute turnips (sprinkle some sugar on them) cut into eighths. Stir the vegetables into the duck legs and sauce and cook until tender (it took considerably longer than the 15 to 20 minutes she prescribed).

This is a great old-fashioned French dish, complete with thick sauce. The duck never got quite tender but had a great flavor. The turnips lost their bitterness from the sugar and lent an earthy note to the dish, accenting the creamy onion sauce. We had brown rice with it.

I've had a soft spot for Anne Willan since I took a course at the original Ecole de la Varenne in Paris, though she was not the teacher. I saw her soon after my arrival in Washington when she was promoting her Chateau cookbook, which I also have. I haven't got a lot of use out of her books, but this was certainly a welcome find.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Fowl weather

Snow, ice, freezing temperatures -- what could be more comforting than a slow-roasted chicken with potato wedges sizzling in the fat. Especially if the chicken was smeared with a herb paste and stuffed with lemon, garlic and more herbs, resting on a bed of herbs as it roasted away for three hours at 300 degrees.

Photo by Epicurious
This was the recipe we culled from the latest issue of Bon Appetit. We picked our favorite plump roaster, the kosher chicken at Whole Foods, and rubbed the herb paste of coarsely ground fennel seeds and red pepper flakes, chopped thyme and marjoram, salt, pepper and olive oil inside and out. Then put a quartered lemon and a halved head of garlic in the cavity with a couple more sprigs each of thyme and marjoram and placed the bird on sheet pan on top of more sprigs and surrounded by the yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed, quartered and tossed in olive oil. This goes in the oven, the potatoes get turned and the chicken basted every hour while the house fills with this incredible aroma.

The chicken comes out beautiful, moist, shreddably tender, with a crisp, flavorful skin and dark potatoes that manage to be gooey and crisp at the same time. Too often we tear out these appealing recipes and lose track of them. The key here was immediate consumption. This one is a keeper.

We have gradually come to the conclusion that the old WF at Tenley has a better and more interesting selection of produce and perhaps even meat than the big, newer WF at Friendship Heights, where we usually shop. While buying the chicken at Tenley, I noticed that they had not only frozen guinea fowl, which I almost never see at Friendship, but also frozen pheasant. So I took the pheasant home and quickly found not one but two pheasant recipes in Roden's Food of Spain, one stuffed with apples and the other stuffed with duck liver pate. I opted for the healthier apple version and we roasted our pheasant for a festive Oscar night dinner, accompanied by a crunchy, healthy barley and cauliflower salad from Bon Appetit.

As is typical for game birds -- though this was certainly farmed -- the recipe called for larding with several strips of bacon. In addition to half an apple in the cavity, it also had sauteed apple rings in the pot with a sauce made from deglazing the skillet with Calvados (I used applejack). Our bird at 2-1/2 pounds was considerably bigger than the recipe's 1-1/2 pound, so it took considerably longer than the 30 minutes at 425 degrees prescribed in the recipe. No matter, we waited happily. The breast meat was tender, with a more delicate flavor than chicken, just a bit dry in spite of the larding. The dark meat was gamier, altogether different than a chicken thigh, and was especially delicious cold the next day (yes, there were leftovers from a bird that big).

Roden's book has a number of game bird recipes -- partridge, woodcock, quail, and squab in addition to pheasant. Who knew the Spanish were such avid hunters? That's along with a good assortment of chicken, turkey, capon, guinea fowl and rabbit recipes. So plenty to look forward to still.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mediterranean winter

It's been a hard winter and we've had our usual round of beef stew, chili, sauce bolognese, pork roast and other wintry comfort food. But not every day in the Mediterranean is hot and sunny and these countries have their own winter dishes that have helped keep us warm.

Stewy lamb is a good start. I dusted off our tagine and made Ghillie Basan's lamb tagine with shallots and dates. Lamb shoulder is hard to find so I used butterflied leg of lamb, a small piece that provided just the 1-1/2 pounds called for in the recipe. After browning the lamb, and then the 12 peeled shallots and 4 to 6 garlic cloves, you add turmeric and cinnamon sticks, put the lamb back in and cover with water. Evidently, Basan's tagine is smaller than mine, because when I put in water to cover, it comes out too watery, even after 1-1/2 hours of cooking. The dates and honey go in after the first hour, and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds finishes it off at the end.

Although it has some of the same ingredients, we moved on the same week to Ottolenghi's lamb meatballs with barberries, yogurt and herbs. Whole Foods now apparently grinds its lamb shoulder so that fresh ground lamb is available, and it made these meatballs -- which also have onion, parsley, garlic, cinnamon, allspice, barberries, salt, pepper and egg -- very tasty. After browning the meatballs, you then saute shallots (again!), add wine, stock, bay leaves, thyme, figs and sugar, place the meatballs back in and simmer for 1-1/2 hours, uncovering it after 30 minutes. Garnish with Greek yogurt and chopped herbs (cilantro, mint, dill, tarragon).

Both dishes were very warming, with the meatballs clearly ahead in the flavor department. We actually threw leftovers from both dishes together and served that over couscous -- lamb, figs, dates, shallots galore.

For my solo fish dinner this week, I went to Claudia Roden's The Food of Spain and found an easy recipe for the monkfish that looked good to me at the Fishery. This called simply for caramelizing an onion and then sauteeing the monkfish in the pan. At the end, you light some rum and flambee the fish. Monkfish has this lobster-like texture and sweet flavor that I like, so this worked perfectly. I got used to the fish in France under its much more appealing French name, lotte (also more appealing than the Spanish rape), where it often appeared on menus. It is easy and cheaper than a lot of other fish.

The Roden recipe was very nice and since Whole Foods had frozen pheasant this week, presumably farmed, I'm looking forward to using her recipe for pheasant with apples. More on that another time.