Tuesday, November 21, 2006

An early holiday respite at Can Can's happy hour

At this point in the calendar year, I think we're all pining for those soon to come days off of work. Personally, Karen and I talk about x-mas break as it were heaven's gates. Luckily, to the rescue comes high-brow happy hour at Can-Can to occupy us until we can savor the savior of free-time. Stiff drinks and a raw bar at an affordable price - mmm, delightful.

I've never been one for drinking during the daylight, but hey, it's dark out at 5pm this time of year. And I've hardly ever been lured into a watering hole for happy hour that didn't feature a complimentary taco-bar. So, why Can-Can? Well, the problem with bars and bar food at happy hour is that it's cheap and nasty. Some would say that these attributes explain the charm as well and maybe the clientel. But how many stomach-aches from cheap rail liquor (meaning that they keep it just under the rail of the bar for easy access - often Aristocrat brand) does one have to suffer before learning to seek out more discriminating drinking venues?

At Can-Can, the happy hour is from 5-6pm and features $3.50 hi-balls. Karen's regular drink is a gin and tonic (G&T) that she usually orders by name, "Tanqueray and Tonic" to avoid getting some painful cheap liquor that tastes bad and makes you feel bad. At Can-Can they make this popular happy hour drink with their rail brand of gin which happens to be Bombay Dry - Karen's favorite, the one she keeps ample amount of in the kitchen. When the bartender spoke those words, I could see it on Karen's face, "Um, hell yeah."

So, when you're at work and dreading the rest of the week, or counting the days until vacation or retirement, here's something you can do right when you get off work to lighten your load. No, don't get drunk. But yes, do enjoy a tasty bev at Can-can during the sale hour, because you can bet that it'll be a quality worth paying for at a price that makes you feel drunk before you drink (maybe that's just me). The venue is pretty, as are the variously gendered servers. In short, it's relaxing, therapeutic, and somewhat economical. Just remember not to drink and drive. I prefer to bike, myself.

To keep from getting too tipsy too early in the day, you might consider a bite of food, some sustenance to soak up that alcohol. Well, happy hour at Can-Can also features 1/2 price raw oysters, shrimp cocktails, and burgers. Karen and I enjoyed a 1/2 dozen oysters and a 1/2 dozen shrimp for $12.00. Personally, I think this price was semi-extravagant, but the presentation was awesome and the quality of the seafood was top notch. Considering that it was on sale, I savored it all the more (bargains taste better in my book - you'll learn this about me in due time).

Maybe the burger will prove to be a better deal for you, if you're an omnivore. Considering my dietary restrictions, I enjoyed the oyster adventure quite a bit, slurping them down and nauseating Karen who can hardly look at the slimy innards of the oyster shell.

At really nice places, like Can-Can, oysters are served with minuet in addition to cocktail sauce. Since this was my first time with the vinegary diced red onions, I heaped them on my first crustacean. Yuck! You should have seen the wincing and puckering I performed in public at the bar. Maybe it's an acquired taste, but you can count me out. I'd rather go with the ketchup and horseradish concoction every time.

But hey, it was an affordable experience. And my pronouncement that oysters are an alleged aphrodisiac didn't make Karen wince or pucker. Wish me luck with that.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Food Not Blogs

Down with reading and writing. Up with eating and fighting. Help me, gosh, I’m having an existential struggle about the ultimate irrelevance of food blogs, aka web-based foodie subculture/support-groups. And now I’ve broken the first rule of food club: you don’t talk about food club.

Okay, enough nonsense and onto some philosophical jibber jabber. Last night I went to a presentation about the way blogs, wikis, and open source software have changed the very fabric of our lives. Because our knowledge base is now ever-changing and subject to collaborative authorship, we’re becoming (for better or worse) dependent on collective intelligence. Truth is increasingly subjective and consumerism is being replaced by a producer/consumer role that encourages feedback and exchange of ideas and knowledge (prosumer?).

For many, the web has revolutionized life, making our world infinitely participatory. I’m excited about all of this, but I’m also skeptical and acutely aware of the limitations of this new “marketplace of ideas.” I mean, should I really count myself among the cadre of web-based insurgents taking the power back from Big Brother, authoritarian academia, and the main stream media? Is my food blog really so significant as all that? Sure, you can get whole host of opinions on a local restaurant, rather than just relying on a semi-professional critic or Zagat survey. But can you really trust a blogger with an axe to grind cuz he got an overcooked halibut? Are cookbooks obsolete as we now see benefit from online recipes that are democratically embellished and tweaked indefinitely via comment sections of sites like Epicurious and Vegweb? And can you really trust the collective intelligence, or hive mind? Is that what the buzz is about?

My biggest concern is that the knowledge revolution isn’t really a revolution unless it can address the basic needs of people: food, shelter (and I think there’s another one, like clothes or something). Anyhow, this may sound silly, but I just want to express my frustration that the instant gratification of the internet is ultimately superficial. No one gets actual nourishment from food blogs. We just get tantalized and teased and maybe titillated. No matter how long I stare at the white winter truffle on Veronica’s Test Kitchen, I’m not actually any closer to knowing what the expensive fungus tastes like. And I may never find out, cuz I can’t rationalize the expense.

For many, the internet is just that: a representation, not reality; superfluous entertainment, an artificial distraction that only serves to delay actual unmitigated experiences. My food blog might put a pretty picture of food on your screen, but it doesn’t put food on your table. So, I’m wondering what it is that we’re all actually doing on here. Just playing? Is virtual reality every bit as legitimate as tactile reality? If I checked my email at home and never got up from that chair, I'd miss work, lose my job, get thirsty, mess myself, and die of thirst. And for what? Just because the blogosphere has accelerated the learning curve of almost any subject imaginable, does that mean that those who ignore us are somehow lesser than? Shoot, I don’t read blogs. I mean, I didn’t until I started writing one.

Okay, I’ll stop this confessional exercise in self-deprecation. It’s pointless. I just wanted to share a bit of what’s on my mind and to let you know that I'm only partly sold on this technology thing. When we return, I’m aiming to share a little list that might inspire you to spend a few dollars, but ultimately will save you time and money in the future. Bank on it, a reality- based worthwhile blog entry. No more idle fluff - for now.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

VA the hate state, blogger's block, Tsai-slaw, cloning Vietnamese heaven, and Webb's curried winnings

I do not have writers block, or bloggers block. No, this little space on the web is supposed to serve as a therapeutic distraction for me, but instead, I’ve found myself distracted from it just as I’ve gotten started. Over the past two weeks, I wanted to bring you my tales of the Festival of India, Asian slaw experiment for my office potluck, my first experience at Da Lat (Mekong’s precocious little sister), an asparagus and gruyere puff pastry tart that was heart-stoppingly good, Ming Tsai’s frozen shrimp popsicle dim sum, and last night’s traditional but vegetarian Thanksgiving meal. Since I procrastinated, you're in for another long read (see capsule entries below).

Just as Karen and I got ready to come out of our post-restaurant week catatonia I got sidelined by a stubborn cold that I’m still trying to kick. Of course, Tuesday Nov 8th set my health back even further when I pulled a 15 hour day in the rain trying to get my pal Art elected to the Richmond City School Board. Then my cell phone stopped working mysteriously (and no, it didn’t get wet) and I lost all the contacts in my phone book. Trying to fully appreciate the new political landscape while grieving for our state's continued parade of intolerance made my food obsession seem more frivolous than ever. And now, just as I’ve sent away for the new Entertainment coupon book, another development is threatening my free time: I’ve registered for the GRE exam on December 1st and hope to resume my graduate studies in January. So, I’m gobbling up analogies and algorithms these days. And since our honeymoon in Mexico is coming up next month, I may have to cut back on $20 entrees to afford the trip. Probably positive developments all around, but I just thought you all should know where I’ve been and what sort of sporadic content to expect in the months to come.

Okay, I can’t just mention the things that I should have written about without going into some kind of detail, so here goes:


Karen and I have always gone to the Festival of India, alone or together, since we first heard of it years before meeting one another. This year, we brought our mothers. Her mom doesn’t like Indian food and my mom is coo-coo for korma and kachori. Except for accidentally running into Jim Webb, it played out as expected. Each of us gathered up two items to share and regrouped at a big round table in the middle of the Convention Center. The stuffed and puffy kachori is always a standout. Karen’s mom was mildly interested in the butter chicken and spent most of her time shopping. On the way out, we had to squeeze past a frenzied mob of Jim Webb supporters who chanted zealously as their candidate entered the festival. Clearly, he was making an appearance to collect the Indian community’s endorsement, considering that Senator Allen had already demonstrated his attitude toward these folks.


Ming Tsai has rolled out a line of frozen foods and sauces, but you can only get them at Super Targets. There’s one in Fredericksburg and Karen brought home some of our favorite chef’s creations. So far, they are proving to be intensely flavored and memorable experiences. Ming has a way with spices and loves to push the levels of his flavors to the edge. In the case of frozen foods, that’s just what one has to do to hide the fact that you’re eating a petrified product. So far, we’ve had the shrimp popsicles (very limey), veggie fried rice (uber-gingered), and spring rolls stuffed with quality cabbage (topped with pineapple glaze). Karen and I would be happy to eat all of these for our lunch at work in the future, but I don’t think we’ll be making any special trips to Fredericksburg again. Personally, I don’t want to have a superstore Walmart type experience when I go grocery shopping. So, until Ming’s wares show up in Kroger, I’ll bide my time and mind my pennies by getting back to my roots: Michelinas and leftovers.


Last week, I had to prepare a dish for an office potluck and what I wound up with would make Ming Tsai proud. I wanted to make something that didn’t have to be reheated and I had one head of cabbage in the fridge. Reflecting on my commitment to experimenting with the combination of mayo and soy sauce, I decided to try and whip up an Asian coleslaw. So, I coarsely chopped up the resilient veggie (next time, I’ll spend more time on my knife skills) and threw in some grated carrots and ginger. Then, I whisked together a large amount of mayo (Vegenaise is the superior product, in case you haven’t discovered this) as I gradually added the San-J tamari variety of soy sauce (high end, but so much tastier). I also added a touch of sesame oil, Sriracha brand garlicky hot sauce, and a smidgeon of lemon juice. A little fresh parsley and cilantro went in, but not enough to make a big difference. This all got stirred into the slaw and I let it sit overnight (although, that may not be necessary). An hour before serving the dish, I stirred in a pile of chopped peanuts and it was divine. People scarffed it down compulsively. (full disclosure: I used Trader Joe’s Thai spice peanuts and they added a really complex flavor that wouldn’t have been present otherwise, but really, the flavor base was already present, so g’head and experiment).


I love Mekong. Karen does too. Like the Festival of India, we’ve both been going there since before we met. Most of our friends rave about the place, even the vegans. Well, for lovers of Mekong’s creative Vietnamese cuisine, now there is another franchise called Da Lat, just a mile or two west on Broad Street in the TJ Maxx shopping center (an otherwise unremarkable strip-mall only known for being next to India K’Raja). We ate there over the weekend and really enjoyed the clay pot fish, as instructed by Brandon/Style Weekly. In fact, I nearly got up and did a football touchdown style victory dance after each bite, thanks to the deeply satisfying caramelized flavor. I asked the employees and they said the restaurant is run by the same family as Mekong, features the same menu, and all the dishes should taste the same. So, if you like a smaller restaurant with eager to please staff who are lighthearted and playful, then drop on by Da Lat. I recommend any of the rice noodle salads, clay pots, lemon grass sauce, calamari, and garden roles. But seriously, it’s just like Mekong, so you can’t go wrong. And when you’re done, cap it off with an ice coffee. Heaven.


The other day, I was watching some kind of cooking show on PBS or the Food Network and they made a beautiful asparagus puff pastry tart. I’ve never worked with puff pastry, but their instructions sounded easy enough that I committed them to memory on the spot. Once I’d gotten my hands on the frozen dough and a block of gruyere from River City Cellars, I went to work on it. Lay the dough flat and roll it out to make sure it’s even. Cut a little 1 inch border (but keep leave the dough sheet intact) and brush the whole thing with butter. Place it on parchment paper or a silpat and poke bunches of holes in the interior section (within the border) to dock that area to the baking sheet. Bake it for 15 minutes until the edges have risen and it starts to become golden. Spread out a big pile of shredded gruyere to cover the middle, leaving the outter border section untouched. Cut a bunch of asparagus to fit into the center section on top of the cheese (removing the tough bottom part of the shoots). Cover the whole middle area with the spears pointing them in both directions, but not lengthwise (just across the shorter distance of the rectangle). Sprinkle some salt and pepper (and if you’re like me a touch of crushed red pepper). Bake the whole thing for another 15 minutes, or until the spears have shrunk and settled into the cheese. You’ll know when it’s done because it will be so pretty that you can’t help but call your neighbors over to take a gander at it. The flavor is so rich and decadent, you’ll wonder if there’s a consequence to eating the whole thing. Probably not a good idea for one person to eat the whole tart in one sitting, but you won’t want to let it hang around, because it doesn’t keep well. So, share the experience and teach someone else to make it.


Lastly, Karen and I had a fairly traditional thanksgiving dinner last night, consisting of mashed garlic potatoes, vegan gravy, fake sausage stuffing, roasted butternut squash and a Quorn roast as our fake turkey. Sounds pretty non-traditional, I’m sure. But, we’re having the parents over for Turkey Day and we’ll be cooking up some very un-pilgrim products to recreate our Inn at Little Washington experience for them, so last night was our chance to do it up the way you see on tv during this season. Since I don’t eat birds and Karen loves Quorn fake chicken products, we tried their “roast” loaf product. In true turkey form, it turned out too dry in the middle. But, my vegan gravy was so good all over everything, it didn’t much matter. The garlic mashed potatoes were pretty rich, thanks to several cloves of oven roasted garlic, butter, sour cream and heavy cream and then lots of air whipped in using a stand mixer.

All Karen really wanted was stuffing to satisfy her holiday craving, but she wasn’t happy with the way it turned out. She included another favorite of hers, Morningstar Farms fake sausage links, so the fake meat wasn’t the problem. After sautéing the soysage with onions and celery, she stirred in vegetable broth and then Pepperidge Farm stuffing cubes of dried bread. Somehow, the stuff never really got soft and Karen was long-faced and let down. Nonetheless, I ate it up proper including a heaping helping for lunch today and dinner again later tonight. So, the boring Thanksgiving meal is behind us and we’ve got roasted eggplant ravioli with lobster and cream sauce to look forward to in a week or so. Actually, that’s just the appetizer. I’m making potato-sliver crusted rainbow trout and Portobello medallions pretending to be filet mignon. Between these three dishes, we’re pretty sure the ‘rents won’t be stopping by Shoney’s buffet on their way home. But you never know.

Okay, now my fingers need a rest as I’m sure you’re eyes do. Next time, I’ll keep these entries shorter and sweeter.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

VOTE NO jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin seed recipes

It's no wonder that Halloween and election day are so close together. While politicians and lobbying groups do their best to SCARE the people into voting for them, I tried to connect with my neighborhood using pumpkins and a simple civic message: VOTE NO.

Okay, maybe I lured the children to my house with candy so I could talk to their parents while doling out chocolate bars. Most folks liked the fact that I was urging the community to vote, but many didn't know about the "marriage amendment." Since I'd already helped canvas the neighborhood with a combination of Commonwealth Coalition literature and some flyers with my own anti-homophobia and pro-civil rights messages, I was surprised that so many people hadn't gotten the word about the upcoming attempt to write discrimination into our state's constitution. Well, not really. But, more on that later. This is an annecdote, not a dissertation. It turned out to be a fruitful discussion with 20 or 30 batches of parents.

While I was busy whittling my pumpkins, Karen was inside turning the seeds into tastiness. From 101cookbooks.com:

(be sure to parboil the pumpkin seeds before starting the flavoring/toasting process. It makes them less chewy.)

Sweet & Spicy Pumpkin Seeds

1 egg white
1/4 cup natural cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
scant 1/2 teaspoon fine grained sea salt
1 cup fresh pumpkin seeds

Preheat oven to 375. In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the egg white, sugar, cayenne and salt. Add the pumpkin seeds and toss well. Drain off any excess egg white (using a strainer) and place seeds in a single layer across a baking sheet. Bake for about 12 minutes or until seeds are golden. Sprinkle with a bit more sugar and cayenne pepper when they come out of the oven. Taste and season with more salt if needed.

Curried Pumpkin Seeds

1 egg white
2 teaspoon curry powder
scant 1/2 teaspoon fine grained sea salt
1 cup fresh pumpkin seeds

Preheat oven to 375.

In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the egg white, curry powder and salt. Add the pumpkin seeds and toss well. Drain off any excess egg white (using a strainer) and place seeds in a single layer across a baking sheet. Bake for about 12 minutes or until seeds are golden. Sprinkle with a bit more curry powder when they come out of the oven. Taste and season with more salt if needed.