Friday, March 28, 2008

Contradictory Cookware: the Bayless Bargains

Rick Bayless, one of my favorite chefs, was just on Bravo's Top Chef. A couple years ago, I went to his Chicago restaurant, Frontera Grill.* It was fantastic. Recently, Bayless followed the crowd and jumped into the celebrity chef signature cooking accessories market with Sur la Table doing most of the promoting. After just a handful of months, the Bayless brand can be found at reduced prices at TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and for criminally low prices on Even Sur la Table has reduced their astronomical prices.

Everyday Mexican is one of my very favorite cookbooks, as it synopsizes the phenomenal flavors and the essential ethics behind authentic Mexican food. So, at first, I did not judge Rick's latest marketing move. Instead, I presumed that the Bayless brand salsa maker, pepper roaster, and avocado masher must be essential additions to every kitchen (but, I sure as hell wasn't going to pay full price for them). After all, the Frontera line of salsas and cooking sauces are absolutely delicious (and worth every penny).

Bayless used Le Creuset pots and pans on his Mexico One Plate at a Time PBS show and thus many of the vessels sporting his name are slightly cheaper imitations. The stuff is all made by Copco - the same company behind the Mario Batali line of cooking utensils and enameled pans. They've been around a while and their products generally don't suck. However, they are all made in China, despite the fact that Bayless wanted his products "Hecho en Mexico" (not profitable enough for Copco, as it turns out).

Since we're on the subject of celebrity cookware, do any of you swear by a certain signature product? Jamie's T-Fal? Rachel's orange everything? Puck's panini press? I think the Emeril brand non-stick pans are probably pretty good, since they're made by All Clad. I keep a keen eye out for those in the clearance section. But, it looks like I'm going to have to sift through the piles of Bayless products for a while to come.

As you may have noticed on this blog, I can't pass up a bargain. A few weeks ago, I brought home this avocado masher from TJ Maxx ($5). It's a good idea, because you need to use a spoon to scoop the avocado out and then a fork (or potato masher) to make the guacamole. With this thing, it scoops and mashes, almost in one fluid motion. So, it's almost completely unnecessary, but I had to patronize my boy Rick, just a little bit. Oh, and I grabbed his cast iron griddle (comal) for less than half price as well.

Then, I saw this pepper roaster on Amazon, for $9.99, down from $59.99 (w/FREE shipping for a limited time, I'm sure - as Amazon deals tend to fluctuate). It's cast iron, pretty, and it doubles as a griddle. Wow. Who knows if I'll ever use it, but again, I can't and didn't pass up this bargain.

Another major reduction is the Bayless beanpot for $9.99, down from $39.99 (again with FREE shipping). One blogger was outraged by the beanpot, as were some Amazon reviewers. It seems that you can't cook with it over direct heat and it might only be safe in the oven up to 325 degrees (even though all stoneware is fired at 2400 degrees). So, perhaps there is cause for concern. But, you can still soak dried beans in it, or serve soup out of it, or just fill it with cookies! At 10" across, it's still a bargain, so I bought one for my dad.

If you're going to take up one of these Amazon bargains, you'll have to get your total up to $25 in order to get that FREE shipping. Do what I did and order the Top Chef cookbook. If you ever enjoyed the show (maybe more so before the formula and casting became so predictable), you'll love this book. It's designed beautifully, with a cloth cover and luminous pictures of precision plated food.

Readers, "pack your knives and go" buy some bargain cookware thanks to Rick Bayless' marketing misteps.

*We couldn't afford Rick Bayless' Mexican fine dining restaurant, Topolobampo.

Blogging Burst of Miscellanea

Not writing does something to a person. I feel like I've got blogging blue balls. My main symptom, besides inarticulation, is alliteration. I can't stop putting together repetitive same sounding words whose consonants have consonance. Oh, well. I've admitted my problem, and now it's time to heal through the theraputic sharing of foodie feelings.

Just a couple more weeks until Karen is due to deliver _____ , my first son. She's totally over it. Gestational diabetes has meant that she constantly has to eat food that she's not excited about, pricking her finger 4x/day, and then skip dessert (and no G&Ts!). I try to pitch in, but she's really transformed into a warrior goddess who can do anything to to ensure her baby's health (and I learned quick, not to get in the way). It's awesome to behold (and to help). This picture doesn't do her justice, but it does capture her situation pretty well. So, I just wanted to mention this and praise Karen online for posterity. She's doing a really great job. Can you believe that those darned dietary restrictions has meant that she's actually lost a pound over the past two months while this fetus is growing ever larger? Celebutante moms will beat a path to our door if she decides to market her secret slimming technique.

In my last post, which may have gone unnoticed, I told of Abraham pushing his Nabulsi cheese at the Mediterranean Market (where they have the best baba ghanouj in Richmond). This week, I went for it after he clarified that the stronger tasting halloumi is for grilling and nabulsi is for panfrying (30 seconds per side at medium heat). The stuff is from the gods. Actually, it's from the West Bank Palestinian town of Nablus, but the flavor is divine. Aside from some scattered black caraway seeds peppering the outside of the rectangular block, this stuff looks ordinary. But, when you cook it a bit, the air is filled with the smell of baked goods (not sure which kind, but something baked, swirling with complexity and comfort). Try this stuff and don't be worried if it gets runny in the pan. When it cools, it will hold its shape again. Or, you could just keep it in the fridge right up until cooking time. Given the time of year, you should probably try and grill (briefly) both Halloumi and Nabulsi chunks on your next batch of kabobs.

I was recently treated to Red Lobster and Kabuto's (two separate ocassions) and I reluctantly relished every bite of the food, the cheesy service, and the fact that it was free for me. I'd never been to a Japanese steakhouse, with all that hibachi theatrics. It was really silly, but sometimes impressive. The budgetary shortcuts were evident in the quality of the ingredients, but they figured out how to make the stuff taste good and keep people coming back. At Red Lobster, the seafood was predictable. My wife and her parents have been ordering the same thing at various franchises for decades: shrimp scampi, king crab legs, and generic fried fish. I went for the special, which they swear up and down is fresh caught. They broiled my lunch portion of haddock perfectly and the veggie sides were plain and simple, which is better than bad.

I got a great deal on my new blender. It's a masculine machine that revs like a stock car and tears up any organic matter you put inside. Instead of buttons, it only has an old school switch and a dial to speed up and slow down. Sure, you can tell the speed by the sound, but it's even got a tachometer so you can read the RPM (revolutions per minute). I got it for $125 shipped (best price on the net). The Vitamix and Blendtec are the next step up (if you want to blend tree branches or cell phones), but they cost between $300-400. So, I think the L'equip RPM is a great choice, especially with its six year warrenty. And Cooks Illustrated agrees with me. I even heard that Alton Brown has one on his counter in all of his Good Eats episodes. This thing is going to be perfect for my green smoothie weight loss scheme (and making baby food).

The scores of latinos laboring in the back of most American restaurants are seldom seen on the Food Network (and latin flavors were previously only represented by Bobby Flay). No, those folks aren't part of the branding plan (corporate media white supremacy, anyone?), just as showing flag drapped coffins is a big no-no during our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, despite my political positions, I can't help liking Ingrid Hoffman's Simply Delicioso. Her packaging is about as transparent as Giada's kitchen negligees. But, Ingrid still manages to reach down to her latin roots in a way that yeilds great recipes and common cooking techniques that real everyday people can relate to and learn from. So, with reservations, I'm a fan.

A couple weeks ago, Bookstore Piet had us over for dinner. He wrote a story about it. And now, we're trying to return the favor with a little brunch. What should we cook? Smoothies from the new blender. Right. What else? We've got meat eaters, a vegetarians, a diabetic, a Southbeacher, and a 4yr old. I was figuring on short order cheffing, but I live with a planner. Any tips?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Halloumi, Ras el Hanout, and Richmond's Best Baba Ghanouj

Baba ghanouj is often associated with hummus, because they're both thick and pasty middle eastern dips that involve garlic and tahini. But, when done right, the two couldn't be more different. Rather than offering a needless comparison between softened chickpeas and roasted eggplants, the two dips' main ingredients, I want to help you get your hands on some good baba ghanouj. Hummus of varying qualities is available all over the place. But, good baba is like caviar, or a fine cheese, with an intoxicating flavor and a silky smooth texture. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for anything that tastes smoked.

My current favorite baba ghanouj is from the Mediterranean Market at Broad and Meadow. It's about $3-5 or so for a small or medium size container. The profoundly smoky dip is swimming in olive oil and topped with diced tomato and parsley. He's fairly new in that location, but Abraham brings a lot of know how from years of slinging falafels at Alladins. Now, he's stocked all of his favorite grocery items to go along with his prepared foods, and select butchery items. On this visit, Abraham got me to buy meat.

"You're still vegetarian, right?" he always asks me, with a hint of disappointment. Yeah, but my wife eats meat. Abraham perks up. "You have got to come back on Thursday. I get the best lamb, chicken..." he continues the list, but I politely change the subject to a more appetizing topic. Well, that's how the conversation usually goes. But on this visit, it was Thursday, and the meat case was full. Since it was such a nice day out, I figured I should grill and chill on the porch with a beer. But, I'm not completely selfish. A package of "beef chunks" would be Karen's surprise for the night. But, how would I make them extra special? Answer: an exotic spice rub for the meat and a side of grilled halloumi cheese. First, the spice:

On the most recent episode of Top Chef, one of the dishes combined beets and something called "ras el hanout" (pronounced: rawz el han-oot). Tonight, while rifling through the cupboard for a premade spice rub that I could use to coat and crustify the beef chunks for Karen's kabobs, I discovered a previously unnoticed package of ras el hanout. WTF? As it turns out, ras el hanout is an aromatic spice rub of North African origin, sort of like a curry, but lighter and impossibly fragrant. It smells so delicious that I can see why they say it's an aphrodisiac. Karen loved her seasoned steak tips, but the stuff I cooked with didn't come from Morocco, spiked with Spanish Fly. Karen brought this stuff back from World Market in Short Pump ("Product of USA" says the package). They have all kinds of neat spices in one ounce packages for $1-$2. If you're like me, a good bargain might get you in the mood quicker than ground up beetles.

I was introduced to halloumi cheese recently at the Phoenician. The strong tasting dense sheep's milk cheese is apparently a fairly well known appetizer at Greek and Lebanese restaurants. But I haven't been to many of either for one reason or another. I haven't even had saganaki, which probably makes me a degenerate. So, whenever I find myself playing cultural catch up, I try a little DIY, so I can learn the ropes quickly.

Halloumi can be had in the dairy case Abraham's (although he recommended a different one for grilling. Was it nabulsi?). Later for that. I was on a mission. Fast forward to the cooking. With just minutes of grilling left for my other dishes, I slathered olive oil on the block of tough cheese and put it on the medium heat area of my charcoal grill - two minutes per side and it was beautifully golden with tantalizing char marks (sorry, no pics - too hungry. wait for the grilling guide entry). I sliced it into half inch fingers, drizzled more olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice (Bobby Flay recommends oregano, whatever). Mmmmm, so chewy and salty. Now, I'm really getting curious about middle eastern cheeses. But, not shanklish. Never again for that one.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cheap-O Nutrition on Two Wheels

My most recent pillaging of Vitamin Shoppe's clearance bin netted a pirates booty of treasure. This has become a routine for me in my quest for fitness, but this time it was a little different. Since I was on bike (cuz it's the season for pedal power), I was only able to tote a few items. Here they are along with their supposed beneficial effects (can't wait to find out):

Berry Green: A Probiotic Awakening of Organic Greens and Fruits
Seemingly every fruit and veg there is freeze dried and reduced to a brown/black powder to be stirred into juice or water. Smells yucky, but it's going to be a shortcut when I'm not able to use my new L'equip blender to make a green smoothie. Wait... I just made and drank my first batch. Disgusting! Good thing it was 75% off. Now, only 35 more servings to go.

Ultimate MulitPLUS Vitamins: Morning/Evening
One pill for daytime energy/exertion and one for nighttime rest/rejuvenation. Sounds reasonable. But wait, it's actually three pills in the morning and three pills before bed. At 75 pills per bottle, this stuff will be gone in 25 days, but the box says I'll notice a big difference in my life. These have all the fancy extracts that that you don't find in Centrum or most any brand from Target. So here goes nothing, or next to nothing. The 75% off brought these down to five bucks.

Sleep Care Rx
You spray this under your tongue, like Rescue Remedy and it's supposed to help you fall asleep. It's a pretty similar concoction, except that it's bitter. With active ingredients like passion flower, and valarian root, and melatonin, I don't guess it's gonna hurt me. If Karen wakes up in the middle of the night with mild contractions, we're both going to need to go back to sleep and rest up for a bumpy couple of days. Maybe this will help. Normal price is $14.99, but I got it for fifty cents.

Adora Dark Chocolate Calcium Supplement
These gourmet tasting candies feature 500mg of calcium hidden among a very short list of all natural ingredients. Since Karen's got a parasite stealing all of her nutrients (even the molecules that make up her bones!), she's got to take supplements day in and day out (but she won't swallow pills). Such a tiresome ritual has got to have an upside. This bag was purchased for $6, but the one before it was a clearance bin find for $1.49. Buying this product was the whole purpose of the trip. That's the risk of bargain hunting, that you find something you really like and you have to go back and pay full price next time around.

An Infusion of Two Wheel Travel
Probably the best health product I got on this little health shop run was the hour-long bike ride. From the office, I headed west on Broad for 3 miles until I got to the Shops at Libbie Place. As you can imagine, the ride was pretty unsavory; full of bumps, dirty debris, broken glass, and the exhaust from rush hour drivers. I won't go into the close calls with cars, cuz Karen would worry. For the record, I was wearing my helmet.

After that, I was hardly in a mood to deal with the overbearing staff of the Vitamin Shoppe. So, I didn't linger and I didn't ask probing questions to help me choose my next whey protein powder purchase. Besides, the 6lb jug wouldn't fit in my bag. From Broad, I rode my bike South on Libbie, another 3 miles. By this point, having sweated through my office clothes, I was not trying to strike a pose of sustainable travel for bourgie Carytown shoppers. So, I took the backroads over 4 miles east into my neighborhood, Byrd Park. By the time that I had put my bike away and greeted my dogs, it was 6pm.

That's ten miles and two stores in under an hour (forgot to mention stopping at Target for a sharps container for our doggie diabetes syringes). By the end of it, my right foot was asleep and my left knee was making a slight clicking noise.

You know what a body needs after this kind of work out? Vitamins and sleep.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Peet's (electrifying) Coffee: $3 Off at Ukrops

If you like strong coffee with a complex taste, now is the time to get a bag ofPeet's, cuz it's on sale at Ukrops. To explain the allure of this coffee, I've got to give you some biographical information.

Growing up, in the San Francisco bay area (until I was 9) and the DC burbs (from then on), I always saw bags of Peets coffee in the kitchen. When I went off to college and got a job in a coffee shop, I finally asked my parents why they were so loyal to thisPeet's brand.

The story of my Peetnik parents' peculiar addiction was actually a very common happening. Peet's is based in Berkeley, where we lived for my early years, and the artisan company was wildly popular for serving coffee with a kick - just a tad more caffeine and punchy flavor. It got to be that other coffee just didn't do the trick the way Peet's did (a common opinion in the cult of Peet's coffee drinkers). So, when we moved from one coast to another, my household mail ordered a steady supply to keep from having to drink the wateryimpotent coffee equivalent of methadone that every other coffee shop sold. Apparently, they weren't alone. People like my parents have helped Peet's expand into an international distribution success story.

It's coffee crack, but it's not the Jolt cola of coffee, though, cuz this stuff has the complex flavor of a good artisan crafted cup. I'm actually surprised Ukrops even agrees to carry the stuff, it's so suspiciously and possibly sinfully stimulating. I brought some into work today and took my first taste in a while: Oh, yeah! The stuff delivers the goods with the first sip. It's similar to the Starbucks effect, where other brews just don't measure up because they don't have that burnt flavor;Starbuck's signature overroatedness (I prefer their dark roast for this reason. At least it's supposed to taste like that). Only, Starbucks' appeal is about jolting flavor, and notelectrifying effects. As Peet's loyalists say, "If it's not Peet's, it's not coffee." And, if you try the stuff, you'll understand why.

Now, I don't usually send people to Ukrops with money in hand. The place gives me the heebee jeebees: higher prices, higher falootin, and allegedly higher spirituality. Spare me. But, will make an exception for high-test coffee, cuz I don't know where else to get Peet's coffee. And for the time being, Ukrops has it on sale for $3 off. I couldn't pass it up and I had to share this news. Buy enough of the stuff to hold you over until Trader Joe's gets here with their bargain bins of coffee. Then, sit down with a cup and join the discussion about Richmond Public Schools on this here blog.

By the way, Peet, is a Dutch last name. Not to be confused with Piet, the Danish bookstore owning foodie who had me and Karen over for dinner and made me all drunk on scotch, bourbon, red wine, white wine, akvavit, and almost tequila. That's a story for another time, unless you click that link.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Style and the City Schools Stalemate

Can we talk about the City schools stalemate? This week's Style cover story certainly shone a light on the policies and practices that have perpetuated our city's ongoing gridlock where public education is concerned. (full discloser: I have volunteered a bit with the Build Schools Now initiative and will probably continue to do so).

In the story, we see Tichi Pinkney-Eppes, the president of the Richmond City Council of PTAs maligned for pushing obstinate officials to do better for Richmond's children. We see PTA groups pitted against each other for existing in a modern-day version of a separate/unequal school system. We see children receiving the misguided punishment of frustrated administrators. And, we don't see nearly enough about the need to change the systemic pattern of neglect in the significant portions of Richmond where poverty is rampant; neglect: between parent and child, parents and teachers, local government and low-income citizens, and between citizens with common interests. It's a vicious downward spiral of suspicion and simmering hostility that keeps our city in a constant state of toxicity.

Seriously, read that Style piece and see if you learn something, get mad about behind the scenes behaviors, or the misdirected focus on infighting, and an overall lack of hope. Take your pick of an issue. I think this story warrents your attention, speculation, and participation. And, in lieu of hope, maybe there is inspiration to act. We can pick apart the story, the actors in the drama, or their charicterization, and we can update the story with recent developments. I'm interested, not as an expert or an insider (I'm neither), but because I've got a kid on the way and I want him to feel good about my public school options. I'm not hoping to use this space to put my platform forward (although I hope to voice some more opinions in the comments section). I'd rather see some dialgue among those who've read the article and care about our schools and our city.

Richmond, the ball is in your court.
More required reading: James River Maven's Letter to the Mayoral Candidates

My Quickfire Cocktail Challenge during Top Chef

During the first commercial break in the Top Chef 4 season premier, I raced into the kitchen with the task of making a rusty nail (my favorite drink), but without the Drambuie. RVA Foodie, you have 3 minutes to complete this quickfire challenge. "Yes, chef." Starting... now.

Introducing a new drink: Shiva's Liquid Linga (aka a Henna Tattoo)
By the way, I'm a Top Chef junkie and now that The Wire has abandoned me, I'm happily rebounding with my other TV love. This space will not, however, be a TC4 blog (although maybe in the comments of this post). There are experts that you can consult for such needs, if you have them.

In my cupboard, all I had was scotch, having run out of the overpriced Drambuie liqueur during the week. Several bartenders have informed me that there is no suitable alternative for the mysterious scotch derivative cordial. I had only a moment to concoct something sweet to cut thru my Dugan's Dew scotch (always on sale for much less than Dewar's).

I'm thinking notes of licorice, mint, maybe a more mellow flavor to smooth those out. I pulled some prepared simple syrup (sugar water) from the fridge and pictured a box of fennel or anise tea that I could brew and reduce quickly. My tea drawer had no such box, so I grabbed some Yogi brand Indian Spice Tea (basically chai): complex, spicy, and featuring the flavors I needed , but kicked up several notches. A tea bag went into a cup with 1-2 oz of water and I microwaved it for one minute, removed and squeezed the bag and microwaved it for another 30 secs to reduce it. Then, I mixed this with roughly the same amount of simple syrup.

With a minute left on the clock, I made my drink as I always make my rusty nails (1 part sweet liqueur, and 3 parts scotch with two ice cubes). On my way back to the couch, with the Top Chef theme music starting up, I'm making a short list of names for my new drink (whether it's drinkable or not). Hmmm, a rusty nail with an Indian twist... liquid nails? a rusty chai? um, henna...

The drink isn't bad at all. I hate scotch by itself, but this concoction, like a rusty nail, makes the liquor go down without a hint of yuck face. My drink was a little watery, cuz the tea didn't reduce enough. It's also not as strong as a rusty nail, because there's no alcohol in my cheap imitation Drambuie liqueur. However, the chai spice loved the sugar and together they put a smile on my face (or maybe that was the scotch). The chai competes with the scotch a bit instead of complimenting it (like Drambuie), but what do you expect for a substitution that costs pennies on the dollar in comparison.

What shall I name this drink? A Henna Tattoo or (Shiva's) Liquid Linga?

If you're familiar with Hindu symbols, you'll know that the Linga is the representation of the phallus or male reproductive energy. Shiva uses this "symbol" to tame wild goddesses, or so the story goes. I wanted to stick with the "liquid nails" idea, and this is where I wound up (being a lover of alliteration and mysticism). The Henna Tattoo idea just seems like it'd go over bigger at Beach Week than my literary creation.

How's that for an impromptu 3 minute challenge?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Dust Off Your Bicycle, Richmond (and get it fixed up)

As the weather is starting to warm up, maybe it's time to dust off that bicycle of yours and see the city from the two wheeled perspective. Before you ride, I think you would be well served to take your bike in for a tune up at either of my two favorite bike shops in the city. Snappy breaks and a cleaned and oiled drive train make the ride so much smoother, carefree, and safer* (please see the safety disclaimer/dedication at the bottom). Already a bike rider? Chime in with a comment about why you find bicycling so satisfying.

Misunderstanding the machine can make biking a chore. Luckily there is help available. Sure, you could do some of those pesky maintenance tasks yourself, but bike grease is really messy. Nothing gets it out of your clothes. Wouldn't you rather help some of Richmond's most competent grease monkeys to stay in business by letting them do the work for you? Let me entice you with some details. But first, let me explain this picture. My office threw me a baby shower yesterday (oh yeah, Karen too) and these balloons were presented. At quitting time, I tied them to my bike and rode the 2.5 miles home, a little pudgy from too much cake. But, you don't gotta be shaped like bike to ride one. Did anyone spot my balloons trailing behind me through the Museum District and Carytown?

Bunny Hop Bicycle Shop

A cute little shop gets a fittingly cute name. But, you don't need a chic bike to fit in here, cuz the proprietor, Luke, will turn anything you've got into a high performance machine. VCU students seem to think he's a guru of single speed track bikes (because he is, simply by meeting the high demand for trendy two wheelers). But the Luke that I knew prior to his bike shop proprietorship was all about cobbling together high quality parts into a sweet ride WITH GEARS, lots of gears! Bring Luke your old 10 speed and you'll make his day. Or better yet, dust off your mid-80's Italian steel frame with a full set of Campy components, cuz he'd probably enjoy working on that one too. Either way, when you get on your new and improved bike after he's finished with it you'll be pedalin' thru butta on your ride home (on W. Grace, across from Ipanema).

Richmond Re-Cycles

This place is more than a bike shop. It's a multi-platformed campaign for bicycling accessibility in Richmond. Although they started in 2005, turning old used bikes into ridable bargains, today they're an expanded storefront treasure trove of used and new parts and accessories. Amid the menagerie of salvaged wheels and handlebars, two or three mechanics are always busy working on repair jobs. Bikes for sale are fewer and far between these days compared to their initial few months, but a call ahead will let you know if they're going to have what you need (located at Cary and Robinson). Is there another bike shop in town that lets the neighborhood kids hang out all day? Surely a sign of wholesome goodness.

In my humble opinion

By this point, you might be asking what makes these two bike shops "Richmond's Best?" Considering that there are more than 15 bike shops in Greater Richmond, it's a wonder that they've all found a niche even though the city is not particularly bike friendly. Well, I'm not saying the other 13 places aren't worthy, it's just that these two shops have given me good service, and they tend to support my world view. By that, I mean that they share in common a couple attributes that are really important to me and bicycle ethics in general.

First, they don't try to sell you high end stuff that you don't need (hi, Agees!), or crappy parts that won't last. Instead they're likely to find cheap replacements to help you keep your bike riding hobby relatively inexpensive. Second, in the spirit of community service, they teach the do-it-yourself approach, if you're interested. When these shops aren't slammed, they'll often show you how they're fixing your bike so you can maintain it yourself between visits. That kind of personable skill sharing builds community and, possibly, a more bicycle conscious city.

Safety first: Wear a helmet, please

*I want to dedicate this post to Ronnie Graham and Jonny Zanin, two young men who died in bicycle crashes in the past year. I knew them both and they were similarly extroverted, generous, and full of energy. Both died in bizarre freak accidents, which makes it hard to present some kind of moral. But, another parallel should be highlighted. I don't think either of them were wearing a helmet when they wrecked on their bikes. Here's the helmet that I recommend, cuz it doesn't look like you're off course from the Tour de France. I know that Ronnie and Jonny would smile knowing that I promoted bike riding (and safety) in their honor, even though I clumsily affixed their invocation. With that, all I ask is that you enjoy the ride, and don't let the stress of sociopathic car culture ruin your still point.

Monday, March 10, 2008

OpiNIONated Restaurant Listings

I have finally listed all of the restaurants that have received my attention in a convenient clickable list in this blog's template (for now, only shown on the homepage). It was an hour or so of laborious HTML manipulation, but it's finally done. Many of the older "reviews" are still representative and timely and others may need updating. So, I hope that you'll feel free to round out my OpiNIONS with your own comments. We've all got our points of view and I'm hoping that consumer advocacy will increase as a community ethic through this kind of online discussion. Or maybe, "I just wanna see something different every day and write a story about it." (from the Wire's final episode)

A minor programming update like this is probably a trivial development for most blogs, but it was hard for me, SO BACK OFF! Yeah, I just stole that joke from Billy Madison, my favorite Adam Sandler movie. In the spirit of irreverence, I included a few ALL CAPS exhortations that aren't actually restaurants, per se. Those are just bonuses from the archives that were relevant, but hard to categorize.

There are other online listings of Richmond restaurants, like, or Style Weekly, and eventually the new RVA Eats. All of these are probably more informative than what you see here, but they may not include consumer feedback.

With that backhanded comment, let the clicking and schticking commence.

RVA Foodie

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Cajun Bangkok REVISITED

When Karen said she wanted Thai for lunch after errand running I suggested Cajun Bangkok. "Are you sure? I thought you -". "Toasted coconut platter, Karen. We have to go try it." "Do they even have Thai food?" "Yeeesssss, c'mon. Trust me."

Dear reader, you may have seen my "Heaven and Hell" piece about having smelly fish after a couple awesome starters. This was our only real reason for trepidation. Since then, everyone's talking about the appetizer where you make your own little wraps out of collard greens, toasted coconut, etc. So, I had to satisfy my curiosity. In the end, we agreed that we'd had one of our best lunches out in a long time. Here's the boiled down play by play.

We stared at the menu and told the charming server that we KNOW we're starting with the Toasted coconut platter. Meanwhile, we sifted through the options looking for Thai food. Because this place is an attempt at fusion cuisine, there are a lot of funny concoctions that lean toward either Thai or Cajun and always avoiding authentic tried and true recipes. But this day was not for experimenting. We wanted a sure thing.

"Everything is either noodle, meat, or sandwich," said Karen, who is currently prohibited from eating noodles due to some medical hocus pocus about her blood sugar levels during pregnancy. Since we were going to share, and I'm a vegetarian, that ruled out most other options (noodles evidently being the standard replacement for meat). And, of course, sandwiches are not Thai. We wondered if we wouldn't have been better off at our old standby, Mom's Siam, getting some tofu dish that we've had a hundred times.

We decided to go with what we know to be delicious at Cajun Bangkok: Thai she-crab soup and southern fried Calamari. That's right, three appetizers and no entree. As we ordered, we were presented with the cutest platter of separated ingredients I've seen in a while. It was a ramekin of toasted coconut in the middle, surrounded by lightly browned peanuts, diced red onion, green chili pieces, fresh ginger, dried shrimp, tiny lime pieces, and perfect little circles of collard greens. There's a picture that almost does justice to the artfulness of the platter in the February RTD review. Everything was in miniature, to the point that my initial reaction was to feel slighted by the small portion.

Feeling famished, we dug in, making our little wraps, squirting them with a the provided sauce (really understated and smooth), and scarfing them down. For a few minutes, there weren't many words spoken. Then Karen proclaimed, "This is the perfect salty, spicy, sour, sweet." I agreed. And, to my amazement, when Karen gave up, there was still lots left and I had to race to finish it as the next two plates arrived.

Our soup and calamari were just as before: amazing. The rich and spicy she-crab was again spiked with curry and coconut milk. And the light and tasty breaded calamari came with the same inexplicably delicious dipping sauce (which we had to request more of). What the heck is it, anyhow? Thai spiced... tomato based... whatever. There's a drop on my shirt that I'm tempted to lick right now. This meal was now at three layers of perfection.

We decided to forget the blood sugar fear-mongering and ended with mango and sticky rice. As in any Thai place, it was beautifully presented. But the flavors were a cut above. "This is the most perfectly ripe mango I've ever had," gushes Karen between mouthfuls. And the sticky rice was not overpoweringly sweet, despite the coconut creme glaze that oozed around the plate. We gobbled with gusto.

The level of satisfaction at our table was positively post-coital. Both of us were mildly euphoric as we praised the server and paid the tab (which consisted of $5+$6+$7+$8). Looking around the dining room which had remained empty for our entire visit, I asked how business was going. You could see a little trouble in our server's face. But he perked up, saying that things had improved since the 3 outta 4 stars in the RTD review.

I felt bad for having dissed the stinky tuna that we got a few months back, and hoped that they truly were bouncing back. As far as I know, fish may not be their strong suit, or it was just a bad night. For my household, ordering will be a little more fun if they would add a tofu option to some of the entrees (and after the starch ban is lifted in a month and we can order noodles again). But either way, from here on out, we're gonna head back to this place often as long as they can overcome the skeptics (like me) and keep the lights on.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Getting Rid of the Byrd Park Geese

As an animal rights oriented Byrd Park resident, I was a little ambivalent about the plans for goose herding using trained dogs. Apparaently, this is set to take place on Monday. However, I got an email from a civic-minded nature-buff that won me over (see below). And I thought I'd contribute my own thoughts.

First, here's the announcement, from my Civic League prez:
On Monday the City's Parks Department with its contractor will be running the trained Border Collies through and around the Roundhouse and Swan Lake. These dogs are specially trained to chase ONLY THE CANADIAN GEESE. The domestic geese and ducks will not be chased. These dogs are highly trained to simply being used to push the nuisance Canadian geese out of the Park. This "chasing" will be occur again on a regular basis with the goal of encouraging the Canadian Geese to begin to migrate.

NO GEESE WILL BE HURT IN THE PROCESS. Please remember that these geese are SUPPOSED to migrate and have been living park now for several years.

My thoughts in brief:
First, my house had pigeons roosting (and popping) all over the eves of my porch and windows for years. We constantly heard their racket inside. One day, I brought home a tube of "tangle foot" pigeon deterant and squirted the stuff on every window sill. I've never heard from them since! And I have no remorse. They've got wings and can make their home almost anywhere. I wouldn't kill a bird for food, but I'll put some sticky stuff on the bottoms of their feet if it means less poop and more peace. The Moral: Deliver your message to the birds in a language they can understand and they'll change their behavior.

Second, I walk my dogs around the lakes in Byrd Park, mostly sticking to the sidewalk. The whole way, the dogs have their nose to the ground, scooping up disgusting green goose poop with gusto. Blech! I hear that the birds can sometime have parasites that can be passed through their feces. Either way, it can't be healthy dietary supplement and it's just bad form for a house dog. Of course, my little black pug would probably trade his poop scooping habit for a chance to chase some birds in Byrd Park. The moral: Byrd Park will be soooo much better when you don't have to watch your every step to avoid stepping in slimey green pile of crap.

From Byrd Park's resident naturalist:

Just a brief comment for the people who are concerned about harsh or discriminatory treatment of our Canadian geese with the border collies. I'm not representing any group, but am writing this strictly on my own. This issue hasn't received much full attention yet in our media, so many people haven't received much relevant info. We had a helpful in depth presentation at a recent Friends of Wm Byrd Park meeting by Christy Everson from Rec & Parks on how and why this program with the border collies will help get the 300 Canada geese out of our park. The number of these geese has increased dramatically in recent years as they've stopped and stayed here instead of migrating south. Each goose leaves 1.5 lbs of droppings per day. Do the math for 300 geese X 365 days and you'll see this amounts to 164,250 pounds of rather large droppings per year, on sidewalks and grass, which are unhealthy and messy. One example: I've recently been talking with people over at the VA Home on the east side of WBP and when their residents go out on the nearby sidewalks near VH and next to Swan Lake, when they come back inside the treads of their wheel chair tires are often full of goose droppings.

Last year I attended a presentation by the owner of a local professional group of border collies who do precisely this type of work. The border collies are highly trained to chase them until they persuade the Canadian geese to leave the park and live somewhere else. They do not harm the geese in any way. Many cities with geese problems have used border collies to deal very effectively with this problem, like Manhattan to get the canada geese out of Central Park. Search the Internet for "border collies and canada geese" and you'll find many examples.

I hope some of this info helps put this topic in a bit of perspective.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Cheap-O Kitchen: the Herb Keeper

Buy a bag of cilantro/basil/parsley and stick it in the crisper. By the end of the week, the stuff is not crisp; it's brown and maybe growing mold. That's not a good return on your $2.19 investment. The solution: the Herb Keeper. Now, you can opt for fresh herbs over dried more often.

What's it for? You put your weed in it! Okay, I got that comment out of my system. Seriously, it's as simple as putting fresh cut flowers in water and changing the water every so often (plus the refrigeration extends the herbs' freshness). You're really just keeping the stems submerged. There's even a little bottom area that unscrews so you can leave the herbs undisturbed while you replace the water. I've had parsley that was usable for as long as three or four weeks. And, it's also great for asparagus. I've picked up a couple of these over the years at Marshalls ($7).

Okay, I'm having trouble singing the priases of the Herb Keeper effectively, so I'm just going to hand over the reins to the professionals. I often calibrate my preferences against Cooks Illustrated or Consumer Reports. In this case, I'm just going to go ahead and paste in the official word from the master kitchen experimenters themselves (cuz it would cost you to subscribe to their site yourself). They're usually pretty down on gimmicky gadgets, but this one is simple enough to get approval.

Herb Keeper
Written: 12/2004 in Cooks Illustrated

We tested the Herb Keeper against our preferred herb storage method: wrapping the herb in a damp paper towel and refrigerating it in a plastic bag to see which was better.

Because stores sell fresh herbs in larger bundles than called for in most recipes, we are always interested in finding new ways to maximize storage time. The Herb Keeper is an acrylic canister that holds long-stemmed herbs upright in water. It has a rubber lid and a removable bottom segment that can be unscrewed to refill with fresh water every three to four days. The jar fits inside refrigerator door shelves, making it easy to store.

Using parsley, we tested the Herb Keeper against our preferred herb storage method: wrapping the herb in a damp paper towel and refrigerating it in a plastic bag. After 10 days, the parsley kept in the bag was noticeably more wilted than the parsley in the Herb Keeper. It's important not to crowd the herbs in the keeper; some of the outer leaves were damaged. We also tested basil and found that the leaves in the Herb Keeper were noticeably fresher than the bagged basil even after one day. They survived another four days in excellent condition.

We think the Herb Keeper is an excellent option for storing leftover herbs, especially if you need to conserve refrigerator space. It can be bought for $12.99 at, item #20351.


Don't put it in the dishwasher, cuz ours developed cracks from the high temperatures. But, if you do, you can probably find a new one in the clearance section of your favorite discount store.

Other Cheap-O Kitchen installments: immersion blender and mandolins slicers.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

!Hola! Jalapeño (w/queso fundido recipe)

One of the books that we were given at the baby shower was "Hola! Jalapeno," by Amy Wilson Sanger (who wrote a bunch of foodie kids books). We got such a kick out of reading it, that I decided to post the words here. Also, I'm going to include a little report back on a couple of the latin flavored dips I served at the party (and I'll include a recipe and a recommendation).

Hola Jalapeno!
I say, hello my chile friend.
Seniorita Quesadilla,
cheese is melting out your end.

Here's la cocina en mi casa
(that's the kitchen in my house),
where I eat a big burrito,
almost wider than my mouth.

Corn tortillas make my tacos,
my tostada,… and my chips.
Tomato salsa, por favor,
and guacamole dip!

Gracias, tamales, for your
masa dough surprise
wrapped up tight in leaves of corn
a present in disguise.

Dance frijoles negros,
with rice we call arroz.
Roll on, enchiladas
in your bed of cheese and sauce!

Chicken in a mole bath
is my special dinner treat.
Then flan! a caramel custard
that's silky smooth and sweet.

Stir a cup of cold horchata
with a stick of cinnamon spice.
Adios! my green amigo
I can't eat another bite.

Reading this little book makes me hungry. In fact, right now, I could go for some handmade tortilla temptations from Taqueria del Sol along with some horchata. Which brings me to my baby shower dips. As usual, the jalapeño pesto continues to impress (and I'm as surprised as anybody, cuz I invented the stuff). Karen is now saying it's her favorite dip on the planet. There's never any left when I put it out. The recipe is on this blog, but I think I added a bit of lemon juice and tamari as I tinkered with it.

My mole flavored cheese dip got altered a bit when I started looking for a recipe that would help me get the technique down for making the cheese dip creamy and smooth. The answer, I think, is to start with a roux and whisk in some milk before adding the cheese. Here's Bobby Flay's famous queso fundido from Mesa Grill (a chi-chi Mannhattan restaurant that I gave a mixed review). Oh, by the way, I wouldn't put mole in my cheese dip again. Try roasted poblano vinaigrette instead.

Queso Fundido
1 tbls unsalted butter
1 tbls flour
1 cup milk
3 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese (12 oz)
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
8 ounces goat cheese cut into 8 slices

1. Preheat the broiler

2. Melt the butter in an over medium heat. Whisk in flour and cook for one minute. Whisk in milk and cook until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and stir in the Jack cheese and salt and pepper.

3. Scrape the mixture into an 8 inch cast iron pan (or whatever) and lay the goat cheese slices on top. Broil until the cheese is golden brown on top.

This is where I added some mole sauce, but I think you're better off sticking with Bobby Flay's directions. So, make this sauce and drizzle it on top of the cheese (and maybe drop some chopped cilantro on top too).

Roasted Poblano Vinaigrette
2 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 tbls red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 teaspon honey
1/4 cup veg oil
salt and pepper

Combine and blend in the food processor, blender, or using a hand blender.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Bodacious Brunch at Bacchus (on a budget)

Since moving to Byrd Park in 2004, I assumed that the closest restaurant, Bacchus, was an overpriced eatery intended for young aristocratic swilling and $25-30 entrees. The cheap half-portions of pasta almost inspired Karen and me to walk the seven blocks for dinner, but something about the place just turned me off. Maybe it was the knowledge that one of the worst restaurants in Richmond had flourished in that Main and Meadow location before graduating to Broad Street bistro status. Surely, more overpriced underachieving had followed in its place.

Last week's Style noted that Bacchus is now offering Sunday brunch. Our recent weekend morning stroll to Cirrus was sorta underwhelming. But this trip was shorter and it gave me an excuse to peek inside an eatery that I've always found foreboding. I just hoped that this treat wouldn't be too expensive. The day after our babyshower, Karen and I walked to Bacchus for Sunday brunch (they don't do Saturday, btw). (it turns out that Style broke the news after 7-8 weeks of Bacchus brunches)

First of all, I don't consider myself a brunchaholic. I don't muncha buncha bruncha while downing bloody maries. Hair of the dog? No thanks. But I do jump at the chance to eat fancied up eggs in a relaxed setting. In my opinion, most Richmond brunch menus consist of the same boring line-up and feature unadventurous flavors. One exception is Kuba Kuba, and another is... of course, Millies. While I'm not ready to rank Bacchus with those two, I do think the brunch scene just gotten a little more interesting.

The mouth-watering 34 entree menu begins predictably with four varieties of eggs benedict, a simple dish that's too labor intensive for most of us to make at home. These feature a variety of meat and seafood that help justify the $10-12 price. From here, the fare launches into the Mediterranean with a list of inspired flavor combinations and very affordable prices. Read that last line over again, please. It's the one thing I want you to take away from this story and probably what's going to lure me back into Bacchus.

The next section of the menu involves polenta; with eggs, or sausage, or shrimp, all between $5-9. I had to try it. Luckly, polenta can also be had as a side, with marinera, for an extra $2. So, despite my curiosity, I kept looking. Below the polenta is a curious heading "Egg dishes with breakfast potato." What the heck is a breakfast potato? Well, they're homefries spiked with fennel, but the real excitement is generated by the additions to the eggs: gorganola, spinach, saffron, or olive oil fried (from $4-6). Karen got the eggs carbonara with basil: creamy, meaty, herby eggs. She loved finding something on the menu that she hadn't heard of and plans to roll her leftovers in a tortilla for the next day's breakfast on the go. For an extra two bucks, she got a side of perfectly cooked asparagus.

I chose from a list of eight delicious sounding frittatas ($6-9). These things are big and pretty and it had me wondering if there was any difference between the Italian frittata and the Spanish tortilla. They don't come with breakfast potato, but there are usually spuds embedded. The wild mushroom and ricotta frittata sounded good, but I had a lot of trouble choosing. One of them simply says "spaghetti". Chef Chris (who looks familiar, but I'm not sure where from) says it's eggs, potatoes and spaghetti. Maybe one of you will have to order it and leave a comment to clue the rest of us in. I got the smoked salmon, roasted red pepper, and cream cheese frittata and I was very pleased to see that it was wearing some tasty saffron creme. Before I was halfway done, I was full and picking through the potatoes and egg for the remaining salmon and peppers.

For many, brunch doesn't stop at eggs, and at Bacchus, there are a dozen or so salads ($5-7), pancakes ($6-7), a steak ($12), seafood dishes ($12-16), and an Iron Chef impressing Kobe beef burger ($12). Some of these incorporate eggs and all of them sound like a good way to start the day. Can you tell that I lifted one of their menus?

A note on the eating environment. Karen and I had a some time to take in the surroundings because we got there just as they were getting slammed. Chef Chris may have been in the weeds, but you wouldn't know it. His kitchen sits in plain view of the diners and the dude looked stoic. It also seemed that help was on the way, as another employee seemed to be apprenticing - watching his every move. Meanwhile, our server answered my every question, keeping us supplied with cornbread and butter and always refilling my coffee.

Along the bar sit a row of posh looking cushioned high-backed bar stools. I could see why people flock to this place for a cocktail on a cold night, because it does look like a comfortable setting. Personally, I'll probably stick to the brunches, but you never know. For me, there's more to Bacchus than I would have predicted. You can bet I'll be trying the saffron eggs or the fried goat cheese salad on my next visit.