Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Viva la Revolution!

In recent months, my free time has been held in the choke hold that is Baltimore City public school teaching. The spirit of my poor neglected blog lives on, however, in the determined sugary tagging of this SanFrancisco street. My favorite aunt sent this little gem to me from the city by the Bay in an effort to nudge me toward a new post: write something already!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Offal Truth: A Call to Arms

You know, I get it. I've read everything Bourdain's talented nicotine-stained hands have ever written. I've vicariously enjoyed the earnest and unusual meal descriptions on deependdining. I've wincingly watched Alton sample brain sandwiches with gusto if not delight. And I've sincerely tried to eat several bowls of spicy korean tripe stew and a plate of sausages lovingly crafted from blood and vermicelli noodles. A tiny subsection of offal offerings, I know... but both meals ended, uh, poorly.

I'm blushing as I write this since it seems to be only proper for a proper lover of food to properly love offal. And I don't. This is bad, right? After all, it's fine and well to glibly claim to love good food while daintily cracking a brulee with the back of a spoon whilst speaking of rainbows and ponies. It's quite another to say the same thing when you're up to your elbows in a bowl of crispy sheep's testicles. I admire people who can. I want to be one of them. I think of people who love offal as the Steve Irwins of dining. They're not content to observe food in the safety of their own kitchens. Oh no, they want to chase it down, sit on it, and stick their heads in its gaping mouth while it's thrashing about and trying to bite them. On the face.

So be it. I am really going to try this time, the last time, to like offal. Baltimore's recent Restaurant Week gave me a head start at this venture when I dined at the acclaimed Petit Louis Bistro in Roland Park. Classic, classy, and delicious through and through, the atmosphere and impeccable service lulled me into a state of delirium during which I ordered the sweetbreads (read: random scary animal glands) in a demi-glace with mushrooms. And they were awesome. The crispy, delicately fried exterior gave way to molten, juicy center. Each bite was enveloped in the salty, earthy sweetness of veal jus and mushrooms. I not only ate all of them, I wiped my plate squeaky clean with a chunk of bread. I am a changed woman...I think.

I am hereby accepting, nay, begging for offal recipe submissions that will make me a (complete) believer. I promise to use all my powers, all my skills, to make and eat 3 offal-related dishes from the pool of submissions. Then, I'll write all about it. Even if they bite me on the face.

Let the games begin.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Dutch Lovin'

Growing up in New Tripoli, PA, deep in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, had its perks. Usually, they came in the form of fried food. Exhibit A: homemade deep-fried pierogies stuffed with potato and sauerkraut or onion were served at all public events, and were especially prevalent at high school football games. Funnelcake often made appearances as well. Crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, both treats were served hot enough to almost blister your tongue. But on a frigid November night under the lights of the stadium, there's nothing better than one hand thawing against the heat coming through the paper plate, the other burning as it holds onto the fried dough.

Exhibit B: Fastnacht Day. Also called Doughnut Day, or Fat Tuesday, is celebrated (as all holidays should be, in my opinion) by the mass production of homemade deep-fried doughnuts. This is a sort of grand devil-may-care gesture of gluttony before the start of Lent. Before modern food refrigeration and preservation technology, the fat most commonly used was lard, which didn't have a shelf life long enough to stay usable throughout the 40 days of Lenten fasting. P.A. Dutch women, therefore, needed to use up their family's stores of lard before Ash Wednesday so that it wouldn't go to waste. And what uses more lard than deep-frying? Not a whole lot. So the delectable legacy of the noble Fastnacht was born. Made with potato starch and yeast, these syrupy delights invaded my home town every Fastnacht Day. From local truckstops, farm stands, and diners to my school lunch tray, they swarmed like delicious locusts, ready and willing to trounce any hopes of eating vegetables. Don't even think about it. For one glorious day, doughnuts were king. One pastry to rule them all. And then suddenly, when Ash Wednesday reared its ugly, abstemious head, they all disappeared for another long year.

Not every Dutchie dish is lucky enough to be as tasty as a fastnacht or pierogi, mind you. Many a meal of my youth required that I turn a blind eye to such atrocities as chow-chow (random sweet pickled cauliflower and beans) and hot bacon salad dressing (sugar, vinegar, and bacon drippings) and head cheese (don't ask). As a child, these dishes seemed to be crimes against nature, obscene in their use of sweet pickling and gristly bits.

Luckily for me, the Pennsylvania Dutch Mall in Cockeysville, MD exists to drum me out of the anti-sweet relish stupor of my youth and into some truly delicious fare, from old-fashioned light and dark roasted peanuts to tasty shoo fly pie and slow-cooked pulled pork. And since the illustrious Kutztown festival is too far for a day trip, it's my only source for Dutchie goodness other than the internet. Joanna's got a great (Polish) pierogi recipe on her blog and other tasty P.A. Dutch recipes can be found here. This is true in my hometown.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some fastnachts to wait for.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Diner Dilemma

It was during a recent outing to the Book Thing with my friend, Sanjit, that I was asked something that made me question some of my very deepest beliefs about food. "What's so great about diners?" he asked. "I don't get it." Rummaging elbow-deep in a bucket of books, I stopped cold.

"Whaddyou mean 'what's so great about diners'? It's a diner." He stared at me blankly. "I don't think we can be friends anymore," I said, and went back to rummaging.

He was still standing there, though, waiting for me to defend myself. I sighed. How do I quantify this? I've spent countless hours at many diners throughout my years, and thinking about those diners immediately recalls the countless stories that took place within them just like a certain song reminds you of an old love. Naturally, there are bad diners out there, ones with cold coffee in cracked cups and crusty yolk stuck to the sides of the sugar dispensers. And slimy pie. In those diners the short order cook blows his nose with a pancake off of your short stack. But those are not my diners.

"What makes them so great? Uh...nostalgia," I said. "And eggs." I don't think either of us were satisfied with this answer.

I was about seven years old when I slid into the pleather booth of my first diner. My dad would often load my brother and I into our beat-up Toyota and drive from Allentown, PA out to Harrisburg to get gooey grilled cheese sandwiches at the Tom Sawyer Diner. My brother, then just two years old, would inevitably throw a fit and sling his food at the ceiling. Tight-lipped, my father would carry his screaming progeny out to the car as I watched through the diner window, chewing a french fry.

Late nights during high school found me in my acid-washed jean jacket, trying to look nonchalant enough to catch the eye of one of the busboys at the Hamilton Family Restaurant (Ham Fam). I sat in a booth while my friends smoked limp cigarettes pilfered from older siblings. At a nearby table, an old woman in a house dress and slippers read dog-eared romance novels and gummed a slice of lemon pie. Looking back, my self-consciousness must have been as pronounced as the scent of frying bacon.

In college, the State Diner in Ithaca, NY was the backdrop to many late night conversations held over heaping sides of buttery, crisp-edged homefries redolent of green peppers and onions. The future was so big and nebulous then. My friend Andrew and I would stay up all night, chainsmoking and eating squat blueberry muffins, talking about theory, and form, and writing. Once, the the entire cast and crew of the Rocky Horror Picture Show showed up in costume for breakfast at 4am. Unruffled, the waitress poured everyone coffee and went back to the lunch counter to read the funnies.

Since moving to Baltimore, Pete's Grille, with its unparalleled tuna melts and joyful, homely plates of eggs, has become my occasional weekend solace. On those weekends, the whole meaning of happiness fits in the space between C's hand and mine as we walk, tousle-haired and t-shirt-clad, into Pete's for grits and an over-easy. We laugh at our goofy rooster hair, and I sop up the rich orange yolk on my plate with a slice of toasted rye and he presses his knee against mine. Nothing's better than that. Diners are great like that. They're always pleasantly familiar in one way or another, and that has the power to comfort. You can walk into any diner anywhere in America and know that there's a hot plate of breakfast awaiting you, that the waitstaff will treat you like family (which means, my friend Sarah says, that they'll most likely ignore you for periods of time), and that the meal won't take very long...unless you want it to. And if, by some twist of fate, a slice of pie gets mixed up in there somewhere, well, all the better.

So, I'm officially sticking to my previous answer. Nostalgia and eggs.

Still hungry? Learn more about diners here.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Harry Potluck Highlights

Friday's Harry Potluck party, hosted by my friend Margaret, was tons of dorky fun. DIshes included Harry Pot Roast, Cho Slaw, Gillyweed Salad, Butterbeer, Cho's Chinese Chicken Stir-Fry and my own Berry Potter Trifle. Here's some tasty pics of various Hogwartian victuals that Margaret cooked up. I was told that the Cockroach clusters are made from dark chocolate, pretzel sticks, and raisins. Three cheers to all involved!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Behold! The Power of Cheese!

Holy crap. You and I both knew it was only a matter of time before camembert stopped pretending and accepted its true identity: peace keeper of the world! Only in D.C., in that wacky town of slums and silver plaques, would you hear of something this nutty. Apparently, a gunman attempted to rob a family during a backyard dinner party. After being offered some wine and cheese (and accepting it), he changes his mind, asks for a hug, and leaves. You hafta read this.

Pho Sure

The best Pho joint in Baltimore is housed in a ghost-town food court of the semi-abandoned Security shopping mall way out on Security Blvd. Just the act of walking into the mall immediately ends even the liveliest of conversations. Something about it makes you suddenly realize that you were speaking very loudly a moment ago. It feels cavernous with so many empty store fronts staring in desperation. Faded Big Sale! signs are still taped in windows, and they smirk knowingly at the one tiny hair salon and karate school still clinging to life. Gliding up the escalator affords you a deeper glimpse into the corpse itself: a dim food court that would offer a wide array of pan-asian treats...if it were open.

A cash register hunches at the centralized check-out stand, bookended by stacks of colorful plastic trays imprinted with pictures of bamboo. Delicate, ornate metal barriers decorated with cranes and tigers outline the court itself, separating it ridiculously from the shops that surround it, as if to keep out hoards of shoppers that do not exist.

In the far corner of this deserted place, one bright and lovely neon sign stands alone against the desolation. The Open sign is startling, unexpected. It is Pho Huong Moi. The first time C and I ate there, at chowhound's recommendation, we peered into the restaurant with worried expressions, as if expecting to walk in on a mafia drug deal or some other illicit transaction. What else could keep a soup place open in such an improbable environment? One meal quickly provided us with an answer: uh, the impeccable food.

Pho, in theory, is very simple. It's a big bowl of clear beef broth with long noodles and pieces of beef. And some onion. That's it. This is accompanied by a plate of Vietnamese fixin's one can add to taste: lime, Thai basil, jalapeno pepper slices, and fresh bean sprouts. In reality, however, it involves some kinda magic. Pho broth is light enough in color to see the noodles happily lounging at the bottom of the bowl. The added basil and lime juice blossom in the heat of the soup and perfume the dish with delicate bright and savory notes. So how does it manage to taste so...beefy? The flavor is tantalizingly full and complex. Tear up the basil and plunk in the peppers first so they can steep. The longer they steep, the more the broth evolves. Don't screw around with any soy or cock sauce; you'll ruin it.

Pho Huong Moi , our one true source for a good pho fix, boasts a wide menu of delicious meaty Pho options, from the classic "brisket and sliced rib-eye" to the more adventurous "soft tendon." All are delicious, especially when preceded by the fresh summer rolls, refreshing and perfectly accompanied by a sweet, rich peanut and hoisin sauce for dipping. They're too good to share. Be greedy and order your own.

C and I get cravings for both of these delights often enough to give home production the old school try. Rolling these bad boys takes some practice, and an organized assembly line of ingredients. The effort is well worth it, though, especially on a hot day. Even the funky-looking ones we made were still delicious, and looked quite impressive filled with shrimp, mint, Thai basil, crunchy lettuce and vermicelli noodles. We used this recipe, minus the carrot and coriander.

Last night, however, I would accept no substitutes. We drove the 25 minutes out to the mall, which had more people in it than I'd ever seen five. And gorged ourselves on giant steaming bowls of heaven. Other than s'good and oh god, we didn't speak a word for twenty minutes. I don't even think we looked at each other. I only had eyes for Pho.

When the smoke had cleared, our bowls were empty and our bellies were distended. We were grinning from ear to ear.

Not in Baltimore? Find your city's pho fix here.