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.


  1. I love ordering delivery from Dalat although I have not eaten there yet. Will try soon!

  2. After much difficulty, I was able to upload this image of the tart. I hope it's satisfying to look at.

  3. I enjoy Dalat.

    I have enjoyed the Festival of India for many years- I will not say that the recent intrusion of politics there is bad, but it is a bit jolting.

    I am glad to hear you are an Entertainment Book coupon fan also. I always feel guilty though if I leave too many coupons unused, and then I get tempted by fast food.

  4. Here's the plan: If you live downtown and you have to go to the west end (short pump, Circuit City, whatever) stop by Da Lat on your way home. Order the tofu with lemon grass and maybe a clay pot something or other if you've got more than one mouth to feed. Ask them how long it will be. Then walk next door to TJ Maxx while you wait. Fifteen minutes should be enough time to hit the clearance sections in housewears, bath products, and maybe clothes (if you don't try anything on). Then, pick up your grub and drive home. This worked for Karen yesterday, so I thought I'd pass it on.

  5. I can attest that Jason's Thai Slaw is to die for. I was one of the people who gobbled it up.

  6. Thanks Vsanborn. I knew that of all of my coworkers, that you would benefit most from this post. I mean, not everyone in the public sector takes kindly to "furrin food" or fusion dishes like this. But, I think it's an improvement on the original bbq staple, if you as me.


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