Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cooking Class at Sur La Table, Practiced at DC Central Kitchen

With all the restaurants we go to, you might be surprised to learn that we eat at home a lot and love to cook.  When it comes to cooking, it hasn't been all smooth sailing for me.  I grew up as a picky eater who preferred dumping Ranch dressing on my food to trying new things.  Until we moved to DC, my idea of cooking was pouring something frozen from Trader Joe's into a wok (confession: I still love TJ's frozen food!), heating it up, and putting it on a plate.  I was completely petrified of fresh vegetables and anything that wasn't pre-cut.  I didn't even know how to hold a knife, much less julienne something.

I watched my mother-in-law cook amazing meals and bake tons of desserts and just sort of froze at the thought of being compared to her.  When your husband grows up with homemade everything, you want to homemake nothing.  But, as my interest in food increased, I started to realize that a part of me secretly wanted to be a good home cook.

I adopted Julia Child's "don't be afraid" motto, put on an Iron Chef apron, and started to experiment.  I started really slowly with recipes from Real Simple that I would not alter even when B commented that the dish was under-seasoned and needed salt.  "It's not in the recipe!" I would say.  I eventually became brave enough to start adding my own seasoning and going off the script if I didn't have all of the ingredients that Real Simple told me I needed.  I finally began to shed my Real Simple crutch and tackled more challenging recipes.  While there were a few miscues here and there (and maybe some tears), I began to grow more confident with each meal. 

Despite my growing confidence, I still found myself hacking the crap out of vegetables because I didn't know the first thing about how to properly use a knife.  I decided to go to the pros and signed us up for a knife skills intro class at Sur La Table in Pentagon Row.  Our very friendly (and not at all scary) instructor M.J. taught us a ton of useful tips from proper knife holding, to how to attack tough items (pineapple, tomatoes, squash, etc.), to how to care for your knives.

Ready to put our new skillz to the test, we signed up (through One Brick) to volunteer at the D.C. Central Kitchen.  The DCCK deserves its own post on the amazing things it is doing to feed D.C.'s hungry masses and give people job skills to enable them to work in the culinary field.  It's a magical place and we were happy to get to spend a morning there.

They put us right to work peeling and chopping a giant vat of onions.  B and I teamed up (he peeled while I chopped, then we switched) and flew through about 200 pounds of onions in a few hours.  We were a lean, mean onion cutting machine!  With each onion I grew a little bit more confident and a little faster.  By the time we walked out the DCCK doors (with a pair of matching blisters), I was ready to jump back in my kitchen and cook up a storm.

I'm no Julia Child, but thanks to Sur La Table and DCCK, I'm a small step closer to being the confident cook I hope to be.

Second Thoughts from B

I hate to admit it but I was spoiled growing up... at least when it comes to food. Every meal was made from scratch, from the french toast in the morning to the lemon tart at night.  I grew up thinking that everyone was as skilled in the kitchen as my mother.  Fortunately, not everyone loves cooking as much as she does, so when it came to finding a sous chef, I was the only choice (let's just say my father has been blessed with skills that don't involve the kitchen).  The result is that I enjoy cooking and am comfortable doing so.  I wouldn't go so far to say that I have any talent for it, but I can follow a recipe.

When J and I first started dating, I always felt that I had cooking as a way to impress her.  Now, however, I have to admit that her abilities have exceeded mine.  It is humbling, but also wonderful to see her confidence grow.  Cooking is a regular part of our lives and we've had great fun learning together (for more on cooking classes, see here and here).  It has gotten to the point that I think it is fair to say that an enjoyable Sunday afternoon for us involves several hours in the kitchen together.

About once a month, this Sunday cooking session involves me making a huge vat of pasta sauce.  Since I'm my mother's son, I'm proud to say that it is completely from scratch which means a lot of time chopping garlic, onions, carrots, celery, etc.  Needless to say, taking the time to learn proper technique and getting the chance to practice has saved me a lot of time.  That we were able to feed some people at the same time is a pretty awesome bonus.

Learning how to chop a vegetable might not be as glamorous as taking a pie making class, but there's nothing better for accelerating your abilities in the kitchen.  Sur La Table is a great place to start but as anyone will tell you, practice makes perfect.  It may feel weird at first and result in a blister or two, but trust me, it'll be worth it.  So instead of buying 100 pounds of onions and making your home stink for a week, run down to DCCK and do some good for the community... just make sure to bring a Bandaid or two.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Birch & Barley

Brunch at Birch & Barley sat at the top of my must eat list for months and months.  Every time I would remember to try to snag a reservation, they'd be booked solid.  People flock to B&B for their hip vibe, sunny patio, and the culinary creations of Chef Kyle Bailey and Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac.
I finally snagged a table through Opentable about 3 weeks ahead of time for a prime brunch spot.  If you're not such a planner, you can walk in and take your chances.  We saw walk-ins being seated with minimal waiting.

We passed on the $30 boozy brunch.  It includes donut holes, 2 cocktails, an entree, and bottomless iced tea or coffee.  If you want 2 cocktails and you like coffee or iced tea (not us), this is a fantastic deal. 

We ordered the pear and blue cheese scone to start.  We both agreed that we're not big scone fans but this one could make us scone believers.  Unlike the dry-as-a-desert scones we're used to, this one was melt-in-your-mouth buttery.
B&B is famous for the donuts, and for good reason. What could be bad about a plate of toffee-bacon, lemon poppy, and bittersweet chocolate donuts?

Because we hadn't already eaten enough carbs for the morning, we ordered the chicken and waffles and the french toast.  B was the day's clear winner with the fried chicken and waffles.  Crispy chicken, belgian waffles, with pecans and maple-chicken jus was a blue ribbon combination.  Kind of like a classed-up version of Roscoe's without Big Mama and a vat of whipped butter.

 Unfortunately my french toast didn't live up to the high expectations set by the other dishes.  The french toast was dry, the bacon was not crisp and was hard to cut, and the apple-mascarpone topping felt disjointed.  I was eyeing the fried egg BLT on a pretzel roll and I should have gone with my instincts.

If you skip the french toast, I think you'll find that brunch at Birch & Barley is worth the effort to get a reservation.  Did somebody say toffee-bacon donut?

Second Thoughts from B

If TwoDC was a sports team, J would be the advance scout.  Before we ever enter a restaurant, J has read professional reviews and blogs, analyzed the menu, and for all I know, created a new sabermetric algorithm to calculate the value of each entree a la Bill James.

Of all the eateries in DC, Birch & Barley was probably the number one target on J's list.  To say she coveted a reservation for months is an understatement.  I've been hearing about this place for years.  Thankfully, it did not disappoint.

Among the many things I've learned about myself in the course of writing about food is how much I like to be surprised.  Sure, I also like lamb and bacon and contrasting flavors and textures, but most of all, I like to be surprised.  There is nothing like that first bite that defies expectation and allows you to think about an ingredient or dish differently.  Birch & Barley did that on multiple occasions.

The first was with their scone.  I've never had a scone that I liked.  In fact, I've never had a scone that I didn't dislike.  But something about this one seemed different on the menu, and since my advance scout knew the pastry chef was also part magician, we gambled.  It was surprisingly moist and flavorful, and left me wanting more.

I also loved the spicy kick of my chicken and waffles.  Unlike many other editions I've had that are too sweet or overly seasoned, the spice on the chicken perfectly balanced the dish.  Each bite left a hint of burn in my mouth that could only be quenched by a mouthful of sweet, maple syrup-covered waffle.  Needless to say, I cleaned my plate in a hurry.

Nice work J.  You nailed your scouting report on this one!
Birch & Barley on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 14, 2012

District of Pi Pizzeria

We first wrote about District of Pi last April when we tried the mobile version, Pi on Wheels.  We were impressed by the deep dish pizza from the truck and eagerly anticipating the opening of the restaurant in Penn Quarter.
We finally got around to trying the non-mobile version of Pi and were equally pleased.  We started the meal with an unhealthy, yet delicious, BLT salad featuring romaine, red onions, pepperoncini, crispy bacon, cherry tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and peppercorn ranch dressing.

Though Pi offers thin crust pizza, we came for the deep dish since it's not as easy to get in DC.  Pictured below is the small Kirkwood (mozzarella, meatballs, red peppers, basil).  We were impressed with how Pi manages to make a crisp deep dish crust without a hint of grease.  It's like a taste and texture hybrid of a pie crust, cracker, and cake. Like all respectable Chicago-style pies, the cheese is tucked underneath the layer of tomato sauce. The pizza didn't skimp on toppings (or underthings?) as there were large chunks of sausage and peppers throughout.
While we went old-school slumber party style and ordered pizza and soda, Pi has an impressive beer selection as well.  It would be a fun place to gather with a group.  You can even invite your really loud friend because the noise level in Pi is stadium-loud.

Second Thoughts from B

I remember fondly the days of Domino's Pizza, 2-liter bottles of Coke, and a brand new Nintendo system.  I'm talking about the old school 8-bit NES.  Duck Hunt, Legend of Zelda, Mike Tyson's Punchout, and of course, Super Mario Bros.  I'm sure other generations have equally fond memories of the early Atari games or the next generation of Nintendo that had controllers with so many buttons it looked like something from NASA.

Regardless, there's something child-like about pizza and soda.  Being the "kids" that we are, J and I occasionally crave the food that fueled all of those 11 year olds in sleeping bags who played video games until 3am (sorry to all those parents who endured sleepless nights - but seriously, what were you thinking when you agreed to host such a party?). 

District of Pi was able to recreate those happy memories.  Let me be clear, this is not to say their pizza is Domino's-like.  Rather, the energy in the room (it was filled with hoards of teenage tourists), along with the familiar and comforting flavors were exactly what we needed.  The brick walls and open spaces may have easily reminded me of Chicago but the deep dish pizza did not. It wasn't something that will make a city famous, inspire cookbooks, or cause culinary experts to fawn over.  It was, however, filled with happy memories, and on this night, that was exactly what the Dr. (Mario?) ordered.
District of Pi on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 7, 2012

El Rinconcito Cafe

We're on a mission to try every restaurant within a couple block radius of our house.  Our biggest fear is that there is a hole-in-the-wall gem right next door that we're overlooking.  With that mission in mind, we checked out El Rinconcito Cafe, a tiny Salvadorean-Mexican restaurant on 11th St NW.

The reviews I read online encouraged us to stick to the Salvadorean part of the menu and skip the Mexican food.  When we think Salvadorean food, we think pupusas, so we ordered a couple (one pork, one cheese).  They were served piping hot with a side of tangy cabbage slaw and we destroyed them in about 4 seconds.  A great ratio of tortilla to filling, these were among the best pupusas we've tried.

B ordered a Salvadorean shrimp and tomato dish that was approximately as hot as the surface of the sun.  I love spicy food and I was dying after one bite of this dish.  He embraced the heat (and gulped down the water) and loved every bite.  Somehow, the searing heat didn't overwhelm the flavor.  Our waitress warned him that it was spicy, and she was right!  If you're not a heat seeker, you can ask them to tone it way down on the spice level.

Yelpers raved about the carne deshilada with egg and they were spot on.  This classic Salvadorean comfort food dish features shredded flank steak tossed with a fried egg.  It was paired with a generous side of avocado, rice, beans, and cheese.  Nothing fancy, just simple ingredients done really well.

If you want to get your Salvadorean fix without leaving Downtown, head over to El Rinconcito.  Be warned that the restaurant is tiny (maybe 20 seats total) and the food is cooked to order (which is a nice way of saying it takes forever).

Second Thoughts from B

You know the old Warner Bros. cartoons that go for the cheap laugh by torturing their antagonists?  Anvils falling on toes, characters flattened by speeding trains, and of course, spicy food that makes tongues and eyes shoot out of heads, you know the drill.

That's how hot my shrimp was.  The spice grew in intensity as beads of sweet immediately formed on my forehead.  Handmade tortillas and buttery rice provided only mild relief.  It was painful....

But... painful in a good way.  I am not a fan of burning my face off for the satisfaction of saying I was able to endure it.  Rather, spice should add another element to a dish to provide balance. I appreciated the pain because it married well with the familiar flavors of Central America. It made me mindful of the creaminess of the rice, the sweetness of the tomatoes and shrimp, and the tart acidity of the slaw, not to mention the warmth of our waitress who seemed genuinely entertained/pleased that someone was enjoying this dish.

So while I might have looked like Wile E. Coyote after Bugs had swapped a hot dog for a stick of dynamite, I was grinning from ear to ear with every bite.
El Rinconcito Cafe on Urbanspoon