Archive for July, 2009

Weekly Roundup: I’d Rather Be Picking Peaches Edition

WSJ Wines

Looking forward to a glass of wine (or two) tonight. I need it after this week!

Good afternoon ModernDomestic readers! I’m hoping that pending “severe” thunderstorms won’t ruin my evening plans – wine and dinner with friends at Vinoteca, in U Street. This weekend I’m off to pick blackberries and peaches at a farm in Maryland, and on Sunday I’m at all all-day sewing workshop. It’s going to be a busy, domestic-themed weekend. I’m excited!

Recipes I want to try:

Other news from this week’s Internet ramblings:

  • Michael Pollen chronicles how the rise of food TV has changed cooking from a daily necessity to a spectator sport.
  • Will taxidermied animals replace Mid-Century Modern furniture as the new “hot” design trend? First, The New York Times has an article about the new “antique” style that features way too many dead stuffed animals. Then, Design*Sponge sends out an email about Hello Victory’s German vintage biology charts featuring partially dissected animals.
  • Capitol Spice has tips for stretching your dining dollar. Thank you – this is exactly the kind of post I need!
  • A preview from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s new book, Rose’s Heavenly Cakes.

Happy Friday!

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Julia and Julia – Exciting? Or Annoying?

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Meryl Street as Julia Child in "Julie and Julia." I think Julia Child deserves her own movie, thank you very much.

I’ve been watching the previews for Julia and Julia, the new Nora Ephron movie, with mixed emotions. I thrill every time I watch Meryl Streep declare “I’m Julia Child” in that famous, high, lilting voice. But I find myself getting annoyed when I watch Amy Adams ask “Do You Think I”m Lost? Is this lost?” And, I care . . . why?

My ambivalence towards the film stems from the book it’s based on, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, Julia Powell’s memoir about the year she spent her way cooking through every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blogging about it at the Julie/Julia project. I didn’t actually read Powell’s blog because I was living in a dorm room when she wrote it and, given that I did all of my cooking in a microwave or toaster oven, the last thing I wanted to read was a blog that taunted me with all the things I couldn’t cook.

My sister was a big fan of the Julia Project and lent me her copy of Julie and Julia a couple of years ago. And, honestly, I hated it. Now, no offense to Julie Powell – I just read some of her blog and she’s a freaking fantastic, funny writer. But I was frustrated that the memoir focused so much on her personal life and not on the food. I didn’t want to hear about her boring administrative job, or the various romantic lives of her single friends (especially not that) – I wanted to read about Mastering the Art of French Cooking, damn it! The book was way too much memoir, and not nearly enough food – a decision that probably lay with an editor and/or marketing department.

So when I heard that Sony Pictures was making a movie of Julie and Julia, I was . . . unenthusiastic, to say the least. But my interest was piqued when I found out that the movie actually drew from two memoirs – Powell’s book and Julia Child’s My Life in France, which covers Child’s culinary awakening and her time at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.

Still, how exactly is this movie supposed to work? It’s not that one couldn’t make a good story arc for Julie Powell and Julia Child – but merging the two story lines seems so unnecessarily difficult and clunky.  Julia Child became a legendary cookbook author who changed the way Americans cooked at home. Julie Powell wrote a book. Julia Child underwent an extensive culinary education before writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julie Powell did what bloggers do, myself included – write about cooking from an amateur’s perspective. The only way I can see these story lines converging is with a whole lot of cheesiness.

Ariel Levy’s profile of Nora Ephron in The New Yorker, which discusses the movie at length, cemented my skepticism. While Levy doesn’t exactly review the film, she does say that Julia Child’s story is so fascinating and Meryl Streep gives such an excellent performance as Julia Child, that the Julie Powell sections pale in comparison.

The really annoying thing about Julie and Julia is that Julia Child needs a movie. Her story is a compelling classic – Julia Child moves to Paris with her husband, enrolls in a cooking school at the age of 36, falls in love with cooking, and writes a book that changes the face of American food culture. Just thinking about it gives me chills. And that story deserves its own movie – but I don’t think it will ever get made.

But maybe I’m just over-thinking this movie. Did others like Julia and Julia? Do you think Julia Child deserves her own film? Anyone else wondering how this movie will “work?” Are you afraid that it will become another You’ve Got Mail, with some quiches and souffles thrown in? Does anyone else find this New York Times profile about the movie’s food stylist an annoying piece of fluff journalism that epitomizes the decline of the American news media? Dish in the comments.

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July No-Cook Project, Take Four: Mint Chocolate Ice Box Cake

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My God, I loved this cake.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – simple desserts are my favorite. It’s not that there’s isn’t place in my heart for multiple-course dessert “experiences,” or elaborate tiered cakes – there is. It’s a place that’s been cultivated by family summer vacations to San Francisco, dinners out in Seattle at all the Tom Douglas restaurants, and a childhood spent obsessively reading Martha Stewart Living.

But most of the time, I prefer to make and eat simple desserts – the kind that the household cook has been rolling out for weeknight dinners for generations. Pound cakes, pies, every day cake – even ice cream was a simple dish until Ben and Jerry tarted it up.

The final entry in the July Cooking Project – recipes that won’t heat up your kitchen – is one of these desserts. Five ingredients, easy assembly, great flavors, and no oven required. It is a great example of minimal effort with maximum results.

I’m talking about ice box cake. Yes, you heard me, ice box cake. The “cake” is made from layering chocolate wafer cookies and whipped cream. After a couple of hours in the refrigerator, the cream softens the wafers, making a cake that is a cross between an ice cream sandwich and an Oreo.

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I like the architectural structure of this cake.

According to The Washington Post, the recipe dates from at least from the 1920s; a 1929 ad for Nabisco’s ‘Famous Chocolate Wafers’ suggests to layer the wafers with whipped cream, chill, and serve. The ice box cake was one of a number of refrigerator desserts that food companies developed in the 1920s as a way to market their products to busy housewives. The cake is a stripped down version of a charlotte, a dessert popular in the late 19th century that is made by lining a mold with cake strips and filling it with gelatin-thickened custard.

I would like to raise a glass to those 1920s Nabisco recipe testers, because this is one hell of a cake. I brought this to a pot lock dinner and it was a big hit. And it’s easy to see why – the cookies become soft and yielding, the cream is billowy and sweet, and the chocolate and cream are a wonderful flavor combination. This cake was so good I’m afraid it might be addictive – and all for almost no effort.

A couple of notes: I based my recipe on two sources, Alice Q Food and Chowhound. Based on Alice Q Food’s post, I layered my whipped cream very thick – otherwise the cookies will absorb all the cream, defeating the layering effect. I also doctored up my whipped cream – adding mint extract and quite a bit of powdered sugar – with the goal of making the cake taste like a mint Oreo. And it did. Actually, I think it tasted better than a mint Oreo.

How good was this cake? It made up for my past no-cook failures. And that’s saying a lot.

Mint Ice Box Cake 1

When can I make this again?

Recipe: Mint Chocolate Ice Box Cake

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Weekly Roundup: After the Storm Edition

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It's Friday. Have some cake. Or an entire roast pig.

The thunder and lightning were beautiful last night but I’m hoping for a drier weekend. Incidentally, next week is my last week of being 26. Anything I should cross of my list before the big 27?

Recipes I want to try from this week’s internet perusals:

  • The Arugula Files is topping pizza with peaches. Pizza . . . peaches . . . I never would have thought of it but it sounds like something I need to try.
  • Gradually Greener is making a salad with Mexican sour gherkins. A box of of these showed up at work last week and I had no idea what I would do with them, but mixing them with cherry tomatoes and dressing them with olive oil and vinegar is an excellent idea.
  • Peri peri nitty chicken, from the Washington Post. I am desperate for a new chicken recipe, and this may fit the bill.

And in other Internet news:

  • A new cupcake shop has opened up on Wisconsin – Something Sweet, at 3708 Macomb st NW. You can see some of their offerings here. Anyone up for a cupcake run this weekend?
  • Lemmonex is in love with Texas, the state where bread is a vegetable.
  • DC Foodies gives us a tidbit of DC cocktail history, and a preview of Rickey Month.
  • Poste will roast you a full pig. An entire pig. All you need is six to twelve people and seven days notice. Via Metrocurean.

Happy Friday!

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Are Food Blogs Making Food Writing Trivial?

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Cupcakes - are they really worthy of all the media scrutiny?

New York Times food critic Frank Bruni wrote what I can only describe as a very snobby article last week bemoaning the current state of “trivial” food writing. I read it this weekend and, days later, I’m still annoyed.

“Foie Gras Palates, Hot Dog Pocketbooks” responds to the widespread media coverage of Tim Hortons, a Canadian doughnut chain that recently moved into twelve NYC locations previously occupied by Dunkin’ Doughnuts. The so-called Canadian invasion promoted numerous articles, commentaries, and taste tests – including a piece from the Times’ own Diner’s Journal. But Bruni implies that mass-produced doughnuts don’t merit such attention, saying that food writers for both traditional and new media fetishize pedestrian foods like cupcakes, burgers, or pizza that, 20 years ago, would have been beneath the notice of restaurant critics.

While I understand Bruni’s point – the kind of attention that the food media pays to fast food outlets used to be reserved for upscale restaurants – I fail to see why this is a bad thing. Why should we be bemoaning a media culture that pays more attention to the things people actually eat on a regular basis? Yes, it’s fun to read a review of a new upscale restaurant; I get to live vicariously through the review. But as someone on a “hot dog” budget, I’m much more interested in a review of, say, a new Pho place in Columbia Heights.

Bruni also implies that the food media’s hyper attention to fast food joints and neighborhood restaurants is a new phenomenon. But that can’t be true – otherwise, why would New Yorkers have such heartfelt beliefs about where to get the best pizza, the best hot dog, or the best Chinese food in the city? Who doesn’t have a relative who swears that McDonald’s has better coffee than Dunkin’ Doughnuts, or vice versa?  When I lived in Seattle, everyone I knew had an opinion on which coffee shop served the best latte (it was never Starbucks). And I won’t even hazard a guess about which DC restaurant makes the best hamburger, lest I anger the vast army of Five Guys fanatics.

People have always paid attention to the food their communities have to offer – both the upscale and the cheap. The difference is that now, with the advent of blogs, people have a medium to publish these long-cherished opinions.

And I say more power to them. I find a blog post on who has the best delivery pizza in DC as valid as a review of Proof. And as someone who’s very interested in a food item that Bruni deems trivial – cupcakes – all I can say is that there’s a world of difference between what you get at Cakelove and what you get at Hello Cupcake. And that’s worthy of a blog post.

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Cold Dinners, Take Three: Vietnamese Fresh Rolls

Fresh rolls

Sigh. At least they look pretty.

I love fresh rolls. Whenever I go to an Asian restaurant I eagerly scan the menu and order them as often as possible. And, after a suggestion from Elpis and Justice, they seemed like a natural project for July’s cooking project (recipes that won’t heat up your kitchen).

At least, it seemed like a perfect fit before I actually ate them.

Whenever I’ve had fresh rolls before, I’ve enjoyed the synergy between the crisp greens, soft noodles, sweet shrimp, and savory dipping sauce. And the recipe I ended up choosing seemed to promise the same culinary experience –  vegetables, rice noodles, and shrimp wrapped up in soft rice paper wrapper. I altered the recipe slightly – using pre-cooked shrimp and soaking the noodles in hot water I heated up in the microwave, to make the recipe truly no-cook.

But there was something horribly off about these spring rolls. Some of this was my fault – I used too much cilantro, which I always end up doing because I can only buy cilantro in huge bunches that I always feel pressured to use up before it goes bad. Consequently, the spring rolls were heavy on the cilantro and had a soapy, unpleasant flavor.

But the other problem, which was entirely out my control, was the rice paper wrappers. The wrappers had a strange, chemical flavor and acrid smell that was incredibly off-putting. I don’t know if there was something wrong with the wrappers, or if there’s something horribly wrong with DC’s tap water – or a combination of the two. But whatever it was, I ended up throwing most of the fresh rolls away.

So it’s strike two for no-cook meals. July can’t end soon enough.

Given my issues with these spring rolls, I’m not even going to try to put together a recipe for you. But if you would like to try where I have failed, you can find the recipe I used here. Epicurious also has a recipe for mango shrimp summer rolls that looks worth trying. If you dare.

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A Dirty Vegetable Secret

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Beets - the newest addition to my dinner table.

I did not grow up in a beet household. Beets did not make an appearance at the table – along with lima beans, acorn squash, and other foods that my parents were forced to eat as children. My mother, who was the resident beet hater, even made a valiant attempt to like them again when beets started showing up on the appetizer lists of all our favorite local restaurants. But she remains a solid beet hater – even of the local, organic, family-farmed variety.

So the following statement will probably be the cause of some family controversy, but I actually really like beets. I’ve been buying golden beets at the Mount Pleasant farmer’s market lately and they’re the perfect way to dress up an otherwise boring dinner of fried eggs.

I’ve been roasting them, topping them with a little vinegar, salt, pepper, and goat cheese, and serving them with the sauteed beet greens. The greens are a little acidic, but they mellow out with the addition of garlic and a sprinkling of goat cheese. I know that Mark Bittman thinks the combination of beets and goat cheese is overdone, but to the beet novice like me, it’s a revelation. The creamy and tart cheese against the sweet, earthy beets is a perfect combination.

Sorry Mom. But I think beets have found a new convert.

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Beets - lovely to eat, lovely to look at. Another reason to love them.

Roasted Beets With Sauteed Beet Greens
Adapted From Martha Stewart
Makes two (largish) servings

Ingredients
One bunch beets (approximately 4-5 beets)
Olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
1/4 oz goat cheese (approximately)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the stems from the beets and set aside. Wash beets, wrap in foil, place on a baking sheet, and roast 35-45 minutes, until easily pierced with a fork.

Meanwhile, wash, drain, and roughly chop the beet greens. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté 1-2 minutes. Add beet greens and sauté until wilted, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a serving platter before topping with goat cheese.

When beets are done, remove from oven and let cool until able to handle. Remove the skins by holding beets in a clean paper towel and gently rubbing off the skins. Slice into 1/4 thick slices, place on a serving tray, and lightly sprinkle with vineger, salt, and pepper. Top slices with the remaining goat cheese, and serve.

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