Monday, February 23, 2015

Old Friends, Good Food

As I mentioned last month, this is the year that most of my high school friends turn forty - which means this year, we will go to a lot of parties that involve black balloons.

February is a big month for us, with the birthdays of two of my oldest friends - guys I met in kindergarten at Benfield Elementary (one of the top schools in the country, obvs). Rasim and CJ both turn forty this week - Ras on the 22nd and CJ on the 25th. The original plan was to celebrate them with a party at Kooper's in Fells on Saturday night (organized by more Severna Park friends - our high school friend Chris and his tireless wife Adrienne). But the weather had other plans - and fortunately, Kooper's was very cool about letting us move the party to yesterday afternoon.

So from 4 until 7 yesterday, we took over the upstairs of Kooper's, drinking and eating burgers and nachos and pizza (on Rasim's tab - thanks!) and listening to some deafening 90s rap. Around 6:30, a transformer blew, leaving a bunch of Thames Street and lower Broadway without power. So...it was memorable in more ways than one.

Adrienne absolutely crushed it with the incredibly delicious, incredibly funny cake, from Herman's in Dundalk, and with a poster including tons and tons of old pictures of all of us. A fake Instagram photo prop, amazing cookies and tiny bottles of Fireball as favors were hilarious and really quite delicious (the cookies, anyway).
Top row, from left: Rasim in our 5th grade class picture; the "40" poster, which we all signed. Middle row: Rasim and me in a picture from high school; the Instagram prop; the cake. Bottom row: Rasim's "Sexual Chocolate Chip Cookies"; CJ in our 5th grade picture.

******

We'd actually had dinner with Rasim and Chris and Adrienne at our house, not too long ago. A little backstory: Rasim went to the University of Michigan. Last fall, when the Orioles were playing the Detroit Tigers in the playoffs, he and a college friend made a bet on the series.

Rasim won, obviously, and his prize was a $100 gift card to Zingerman's, the incredible deli and specialty foods store in Ann Arbor. Rasim quickly turned the card over to me, with the understanding that I'd use it to make him dinner.

So we figured out a time for Rasim to come over, and invited Chris and Adrienne, too. The dinner presented a couple challenges: Rasim doesn't eat pork and Chris is allergic to shellfish. So...that takes a lot of proteins off the table.

Nearly all the meat Zingerman's sells is of the porcine variety, so I decided that instead of buying core ingredients, I'd buy a few of their cool sauces and marinades. They source from all over the world and end up with a genuinely interesting mix of products.


The meal, then, was an experiment. I used chicken as the base protein, simmering chunks of meat in a trio of spicy sauces. Maffe sauce, from West Africa, was peanutty and rich. Yassa sauce, also from West Africa, was intensely spicy. And a Jamaican jerk sauce was full of herbs - and, like the others, pretty hot.

My favorite was the jerk - I liked the flavor of the dried herbs, and that the heat didn't overwhelm the other flavors. But everyone had their own preference.

Before dinner, we had some cheese and crackers, and some very fancy roasted Cristal peppers from Spain, washed down with Brewer's Art's Green Peppercorn Tripel, courtesy of Rasim (really, it was all courtesy of Rasim).  True to its name, the beer was packed with green peppercorn flavor.

With the chicken, I made roast cauliflower (always a hit) and sundried couscous from North Africa, which was genuinely better than grocery store couscous. The pearls were large, like Israeli couscous, with smooth texture and fuller flavor than I expected.

After dinner, we ate Craquelin bread, a brioche studded with orange zest and sugar cubes soaked in Grand Marnier. That makes it sound like it's super heavy and boozy - but it wasn't. The bread itself is somewhat dense but overall, the slices weren't overwhelming in any way.

Dinner was a blast - as was this weekend's party (despite the numerous disasters threatening the party's success).

And both events, of course, gave me more than ample opportunity to reflect on how lucky I am to have had such great friends, starting at a very, very young age.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Say What You're Thinking

I am an unabashed fan of well-constructed stationery with sarcastic, inappropriate or even downright rude messages. Especially during Valentine season. So you can imagine my delight when I saw this Lonny article, suggesting cards people might wish to send to one Kanye West.


It's just a whole lot of yes.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Good Stuff

I am a Martha lover from waaay back. Maybe not as long as she's actually been doing her thing - but as long as I've been an adult.

When I was living in my first post-college house, back in the late '90s, I bought, and fell in love with, her 1997 book Good Things. Filled with advice that somehow both practical and aspirational, it promised a life that was organized and blessedly efficient - but also pretty and fun. I still can't use a drill, and I'm useless in a garden. But that doesn't mean I don't want to be Martha.

On her website, she just shared a slideshow of forty favorite "good things." The list is full of good tips - including a few I've done before. And some that just make so sense I can't believe I didn't think of them myself.

This suggestion - to make vinaigrette in nearly-empty mustard jars - is so logical, I can barely stand it. Why haven't I done that? I roll through mustard at an alarming rate around here. And I make salad dressing all the time. Why not combine the two?

Mise-en-place? Oui. Seriously, if you're having people over for dinner, or if you are, say, responsible for dinner during a weekend away, taking 30 minutes before the weekend/party starts to prep makes an absolute world of difference. When you don't have to think about measurements, or focus on not cutting off your fingers while you chop, it's much easier to enjoy yourself, and your guests.
Teensy muffin tins are so useful. I, admittedly, do very little baking. (That's what Alicia, Missy and Erin are for!) But muffin tins are actually good for more than muffins. Case in point: I made the little frittatas pictured for a wedding shower for my friend Alison (in 2002!). They were simple - I couldn't cook at all back then, but I was able to make them and they were good. Just chop some herbs and vegetables, place them in the tins. Beat a couple eggs, season with salt and pepper, and use a ladle to fill the tins 3/4 of the way. Bake, pop out, and you're done.

They were adorable - perfect shower food - and gave me a ton of confidence.
This ribbon bulletin board was probably the first Martha project I ever attempted, way back in the nineties. I covered a bulletin board with navy linen then attached grosgrain ribbon with round silver tacks. It didn't involve anything more than a stapler, some tacks and some scissors - but it looked much, much nicer than a standard issue, brown cork board.

I think it was destroyed in one of my early-to-mid-twenties moves. But when I moved into the house where I am now, I covered two boards with green leaf-printed fabric and attached them to the inside of a kitchen cabinet. Still better looking than a regular cork board (and hidden)!

Martha...she's a genius.

[Photo credit: marthastewart.com]

Friday, January 30, 2015

Pique

The first time Cooper and I ate Cyrus Keefer's food, it was April of 2012 and we were reviewing the now shuttered 1542 Gastropub, which was located in one of those restaurant dead zone spots on the outer edges of Federal Hill.

That night, we took one bite of octopus and freaked out. It was so tender and so well-seasoned. Everything we ate that night was awesome. We've probably been  to close to 200 restaurants since then...and it still stands out as a memorably great meal.

Since the 1542 days, Cyrus has helmed several solid kitchens, including Birroteca and Fork and Wrench. People love him - and with good reason.

Now, he's opening his own place, a BYOB in Hampden, and he's raising money, with a Kickstarter campaign and also via a multi-course dinner he threw last week at Sotto Sopra (which, very generously, allowed him to take over the entire restaurant for a whole Thursday night).

The meal was totally fun, with all kinds of food people in attendance, including Chad Gauss from The Food Market and Cyrus's former boss, Robbin Haas, the owner of Birroteca. Chefs supporting chefs...it warms my heart.

And you know what else warms my heart? Kickass food...which is what we ate. My photos are, predictably, crappy - but trust me when I say the food itself was gorgeous.
From left: Menu, duck pot au feu, egg custard, octopus in green curry. Not pictured: pork belly dumpling and insalada bianca.

In addition to the seated dinner, the meal started with passed appetizers, including incredible beef tartare spoons and the escargot buns that Cyrus made famous at Fork and Wrench.

Dinner itself was creative, technically perfect and wonderful all around. The octopus was, predictably, my favorite - texturally, it was just phenomenal. And sandwiched between two creamier courses, its green curry sauce was bright and bold.

Cooper played against type, choosing the salad course (not pictured) as his favorite. His rationale was that he knows Cyrus can rock the octopus but the salad was more of a surprise.

It wasn't a traditional green salad - at all. White fruits and vegetables - apple, pickled mushrooms, tiny onions and cauliflower were scattered across a thick cylinder of marscapone. White on white...totally intriguing and full of surprising flavors and textures.

The rest of the meal was just as good. Adventurous and risky and never dull. Pique promises to be an exciting addition to Hampden (and, let's be honest, who doesn't love a BYOB?).

The Kickstarter has another week or so to go. If you're inclined to help support the local food scene, donating would be a good way to do so!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Birthdays Birthdays Birthdays!

Back in October, when I wrote about my mom's 65th birthday and Dixon's 8th birthday, I mentioned that around here, fall is birthday season. And is it ever - especially when you let "fall" stretch into early winter. 

Since those first two September birthdays, we have been in full-on celebration mode. This is just a taste of the fun.

October: Patsy, Cail, Xander and Bill

Clockwise from top left: Chicken tortilla soup; Chickens at the Stambaughs; Cail's cake in progress; Stambaugh chili; Cail's cake, the final product.

Cooper's mom's birthday celebration was low-key this year but Cail's was a little less so. My parents and I went down to Richmond to visit for the weekend and Cail's parents and her brother came up from New Orleans.

My brother threw Cail a surprise party in the private room at a cute wine bar called Secco and Cail's dad, who has made her birthday cake every year forever, outdid himself with a gorgeous pink and turquoise "drama queen" concoction. Mr. Moran is an architect and very artistic - watching him work was super cool.

Later in the month, we celebrated Nathan and Liz's son's birthday up at their house in the country. It was a gorgeous day to roam around their yard, checking out the chickens and eating their awesome food - including chili, hatch chili queso and root beer braised brisket. Oh, and apple pie moonshine. Because that is how they roll.

To wrap up October, we celebrated Bill's birthday on a Sunday afternoon at our house. I made a big batch of chicken tortilla soup, since it was starting to get chilly...and Bill likes Mexican food. It was one in a long string of fall Sundays that we spent at our house, surrounded by friends and delicious food. I could do that every day.

November: Mike

Seafood tower; Mike and I with our gifts; Stacy's first oyster.

In mid-November, Mike turned forty, giving us a great excuse to head to Thames Street Oyster House, where our friend/neighbor Teresa proved once again why she is one of the best servers in the city.

Bill was out of town but Stacy came down from New York, so with the Swartses, we were a group of seven. We did our best to order everything on the menu, including tons of oysters (and Stacy's first oyster ever!) and a suckling pig special that came with a side of oyster and butternut squash dressing. Ridiculousness.

I loved my monkfish entree but my favorite part of the night was a quail appetizer accessorized with chestnuts and quince puree. I absolutely couldn't stop thinking about it. They are so good at what they do there.

The night was funny, too. Alicia asked us each to come up with a story or two to roast Mike. Which...we did. I created a "strengths and weaknesses" roundup that was quite funny, if I do say so myself. I keep telling my friends that I'm funnier than they give me credit for. I stand by that.

December: Cooper, Tom and Me

Clockwise from top left: Cooper and Dixon at Parts and Labor; Corn fritters at Shoo-fly; Clay Davis mug from Patrick and Amanda; Me with Suzanne and Alison at Alison's party.

December is an especially busy month around here, with not just Christmas but also Cooper's birthday, Clark's birthday (the same day as Cooper's), my birthday and my brother's birthday.

We didn't celebrate with Clark this year (he was in DC, we were in Baltimore) but we did manage to have a bunch of good meals out. For Cooper's, he and Dixon and I went to Parts and Labor, which was just as good as everyone said it was. Tons of meat, beautifully cooked, in a super cool space. We'd already been to the butcher shop a few times, so we knew what to expect...and we're looking forward to going back

December birthdays are tough, since it's such a busy month. But it's also so much fun. Since we're in celebration mode, I usually get to see friends from all over the place either right before, on, or right after my birthday.

This year, my birthday was on a Monday but the celebrating really started on Saturday night with a party at my friend Alison's house. She's my high school friend and old roommate (from our Canton days) and her husband is one of Cooper's college friends. So the party was full of people I love.

The next day, I made my annual trip to McGarvey's, where a bunch of high school friends came to celebrate with Cooper, Dixon and me. We ate oysters and crab dip and burgers and crab cakes and drank a bunch of Aviators. Just like last year and the year before and many, many years before that.

That night, we came back up to Baltimore and got to hang out with Patrick and Amanda, of Paris fame (they have since moved back to Denver). They came over for crab soup and general revelry - and brought us an awesome Clay Davis mug made by someone they work with. We loved it and it was especially timely, what with the re-release of The Wire.

Finally, on my actual birthday, Dixon and Cooper and I drove through Hampden in the rain, then went to Shoo-fly for dinner and I remembered that I can't get enough of their corn fritters. They come with spicy honey and are just so good.

After Christmas, Tom, Cail, Erin and Clark all came up and stayed with us for a couple days. The 27th is Tom's birthday, so we met my parents at Clementine, where we got to have one last big family dinner before everyone returned to their respective homes.

Some of the Waskoms had been to Clementine for lunch or brunch, but not for dinner - and Cooper and I were happy to introduce them to some of our favorites, like the charcuterie and the basil-lime elixir. We all loved our meals, ending a big visit on a high note.

January: Kyle, Bert and Matt

Top row, left to right: Kyle's birthday at the Waterfront Hotel; Dinner in Deep Creek; Pear and bourbon cocktail. Middle row: Dixon at Wisp; Bert using the sabre; Puzzled in Deep Creek; Bottom row: The table at Matt's party; The entire Deep Creek crew; Matt and his "40" glasses.

We took a break for dinner at our house on New Year's Eve, then jumped right back into the birthday celebrations. Kyle's birthday is on January 4th - a Saturday this year. Immediately after our great dinner for Mike's fortieth, Kyle announced that he wanted to go back for his birthday. So we did.

Once again, it was fantastic. Alicia got the porgy, which is served standing up and is crazy good. Mike kept it simple with a lobster roll (outrageous) and I ordered against type, getting tuna, which was also delicious. The quail, again, was a show-stopper, as was the octopus, which I can never resist.

After dinner, we went to the Waterfront Hotel to watch the Ravens beat the Steelers (much to Mary's chagrin), finishing the night on an extra-sweet note.

A few weeks later, Cooper and Dixon and I headed off to Deep Creek, to celebrate our friend Bert's fortieth with a bunch of people I've known since high school or longer. (Bert's birthday is in December but we couldn't get it together to go away until January.)

It was four days of so much fun. We ate and drank way too much, did a bunch of puzzles, played some Cards Against Humanity, hung out in the snow, watched our kids bond and retold stories about stuff that happened two decades ago. And, of course, I got sentimental about how lucky I am to have so many great friends from high school and even elementary school.

Last Saturday, we got to celebrate with even more of those high school friends, when we went to a party for another fortieth - this one for my friend Matt. It was at his parents' house, near Severna Park, and was gorgeous. Matt's mom works at a flower shop; she and a friend often do flowers for weddings and they are so good at it. The party was catered by Mission BBQ, so the food was awesome, and was tons of fun, all the way around.

But the celebrations really aren't over. Because this is the year my high school class turns forty, we are in for a year full of parties and big nights out. Which is busy, it's true. But wow is it fun.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Trend Mapping

On Facebook this morning, I discovered an infographic - courtesy of Kathy - that was absolutely calling my name. Put together by a British company called thefoodpeople, it's a graphic representation of 2015 food trends, including several fairly specific food trends (things like the rise of fermentation and multiple condiments on the table), how broad food trends fit with larger consumer trends, flavor markers (smoke, hay, spice, etc) and how national cuisines fit as overall influencers. Needless to say, I am all about it.

Trends have been on my mind lately, as they often are at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. In past years, I've made my own predictions and written summaries of others' predictions. I didn't get to that this year...but I did just write an article about McCormick's flavor forecasting efforts. (It appears in the Sun today.)

I found one piece of thefoodpeople's infographic, the cuisine influence map, especially interesting. The map charts different cuisines in terms of trend influence and market appeal - it seems very useful for people thinking about food marketing and product development:

It caught my eye, in part, because I'd just spotted this map, also someplace on Facebook:


Many of the above findings are no-brainers. Steak in Wyoming? Yes. Southern food in the South? Tex-Mex in Texas? Who could've guessed? But Maryland and Virginia are more into Peruvian cuisine than the rest of the country. That was a bit of a surprise. I'd noticed an uptick in Peruvian joints around Baltimore...but I didn't realize it was a regional phenomenon.

So it's interesting to me, then, to see that on the cuisine map above, Peruvian cuisine is about average in terms of trend-setting but it's fairly low on the market appeal scale. The cuisine map is not about the US - or at least not all about the US - and doesn't deal in any regional cuisines, so the two maps don't sync perfectly. But still, the overlap is interesting.

Food for thought, as they say.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Speaking of Regionalism...

VinePair totally just got me with this map:

Is it totally reliable? No chance. There aren't even any actual sources attached, so even the wine vs. beer attributions are suspect. But still, it's cute. And it made me laugh. And...maps!

Regional Resurgence

Years ago, when I was just a couple years into blogging, I wrote a series of posts (here, here, here, and here) lamenting the promotion of global cuisine and flavors over regional ones. The posts were written between 2006 and 2008, a time when, it seemed, the notion of global cuisine was eclipsing regional foods - and some of those local foods were in danger of disappearing altogether.

By 2008, "local" had become more of a buzzword in food culture, though at the time, it had more to do with producers than with flavors. But even then, there were regional movements bubbling under the surface, especially in the south.

Also in 2008, I linked to a map that focused on disappearing regional foods and the power of food regions as a whole. In 2010, I wrote about how psyched the Woodberry Kitchen staff was after I ordered scrapple at brunch.

And in 2012, I wrote a long post about how the rise of southern cuisine's popularity represented a shift in the local/global preference landscape.

Consider this an addendum to that post, a few years later.Today, it's not just southern cuisine that's on fire - it's anything and everything hyper-regional. It's Southern Foodways Alliance gone national. We've come full...half circle. Done a 180 on the global/local front.

This was cemented, for me, a week or so ago, when I read Bill Addison's Eater roundup of the 38 essential American restaurants. Addison includes Woodberry in the mix - which feels right to me, especially since he groups the restaurant with a handful of other places that best represent "Regional Americana." 

There are several in the south - but not all. The Pacific Northwest and New England both make appearances. Probably the southwest could use more representation (the lack of Arizona on the list is a complaint of many commenters) and the Midwest, with just one Minneapolis restaurant, is definitely underrepresented. 

But still, it's nice to see that in there at all. 

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