Monday, April 28, 2008

Bacchus: Seafood Supper and Six Pounds of Satan

I don't usually revisit restaurants to amend my "reviews," but tonight was an exception. I've done it before with Cajun Bangkok, but I didn't think my Bacchus brunch experience needed updating (even after the 2nd visit). As a weekend treat, I made reservations at Bacchus for dinner, telling Karen, "let's order whatever we want and just enjoy the experience."

For the past three years, I've avoided dining at Bacchus because it seems too popular despite its high prices. Brandon at Style was puzzled by the place's success as well, and she's probably not as apt to make superficial judgments of clustering bourgeois bunches of bistro diners. But, the throngs turned me off, because I assumed that they were seeking status and lacked discriminating palates. On this night, I planned to shelve my predispositions and accompany my wife and child for a meal, regardless of the quality or value of the meal.

After a slew of preventative measures, we successfully pacified our three-week old Jasper and started pushing him down Meadow Street for our 6:30pm reservation. We passed a few cop cars pulled over with flashing lights and crossed busy streets with some trepidation. Once inside, we were seated by the window at a booth bathed in sunlight. The helpful server stowed our stroller with ease and we put Jasper's carseat up against the window with the hood up, so he could enjoy the relative darkness.

The meal started with a bang: Karen's first G&T in ten months and a rusty nail for me. She was loopy after two sips. We ordered the house-cured salmon gravlax to start and proceeded into an animated discussion of our past stresses that once caused us to seek out these very same beverages back in the pre-preganancy days. The drinks were strong, satisfying, and cathartic, and Jasper didn't stir once. A toast: To new stresses.

Somewhere in the middle of our emancipation celebration we were served a beautiful plate of salmon slivers, swimming in olive oil and herbs. It was terrific, if a bit salty. A pretty good $6 plate for nibbling along side our biscuits and olive oil. (this reminds me that I asked for butter with my rolls at my last brunch visit with Bookstore Piet. He mentioned this detail in his entry, but he didn't mention that olive oil is present on the table, typical of any Italian place. So, I don't mean to correct Piet's critique, because these seemingly home-baked rolls are crying out for butter - not olive oil. Add in the circumstance of brunch and you've got an airtight case for butter over olive oil. Anyhow, enough about that. Billy Bread would be an improvement, but then every customer would compare Bacchus to Edo's, and that's some stiff competition.)

The Edo's comparision continues because we ordered items that were similar to dishes we've had there. Also, the menu featured many of the same Mediterranean items found on the brunch menu, with a heavy focus on seafood. For entrees, Karen and I got the skate wing with Virginia morrells and cream sauce, as well as the rigatoni with stir-fried calamari and of course. At Edo's we always get the calamari and we've recently tried skate wing for the first time there as well.

Karen's skate wing was beautiful to look at, laid on top of a pile of flavorful mashed potatoes and perfect tender-crisp veggies. All around was a shallow moat of cream sauce made deep tan with several dark and sinister looking super-contoured morrell mushrooms. We both loved this dish. It was pricey at $24, but we ate up every bite and mopped up every drop of sauce. Where Edo's skate wing was oversalted, this one was right on, only slightly mushy in a few spots. We were both surprised at ourselves for discovering this new fish (new for us). We were first exposed to skate during a fantastic episode of Jamie Oliver's reality food show "Jamie's Kitchen" (one of my fave reality cooking shows) and now two successful face-to-face encounters. Please, no one tell me that the skate is a being that should inspire my empathy and not my appetite.

We wound up with the calamari pasta because we'd already chosen one creamy dish and everything else we wanted was creamy as well (and I have this OCD insistence on a variety of flavors and styles of dishes whenever). The dish was an enormous steaming pile of noodles, curlicue squid parts, and an inch deep pool of buttery sauce. The sea-creatures were tender and not rubbery. There were loads of purple tentacles on the plate, which would delight of my fellow foodies. The pasta was appropriately cooked and the sauce was light but briny. Nonetheless, it didn't really hold my attention. Karen skipped the solid ingredients and used a spoon to drain the sauce pool.

By the end, we both fessed up that we're not really squid people. Calamari is fun for us if there's a light and crunchy batter and even then, we'll focus on the sauce (marinera at Edo's, tangy Asian broth at Mom Siam, and Thai chili garlic at Cajun Bangkok). We wound up taking more than half of it home. At $16, it was kinda high for a bowl of noodles and squid, but on par with the range on the menu.

By this point, a group of dark gray clouds were gathering overhead, worrying Karen half to death (she'd only had one drink to my two). Jasper still slept soundly and I was 100% certain that we'd him the eight blocks home before the downpour began. The server, a total sweetheart, offered to drive us home. I paid the tab and we ducked out. Pleasant surprise: The drinks were under $7 each and they were strong. It all added up to an above average expenditure for us, but we found a dish we loved, singled out one that we don't need to try again, and I may have discovered my new walking distance watering hole of choice. By the way, a lot of people have told me in the past, that the prices at Bacchus can be moderated by ordering half-portions of pasta. I'd seen those on the menu in the window, but they weren't on there now. Hmmmm...

On the way back, we passed more cops pulling people over. We narrowly avoided the rain, but Jasper did start to wake up from the bumpy ride. Once inside, he started into his newfound shrieks at unholy decibels. Karen was biding her time on nursing him, waiting for the G&T to clear out of her system. As I bounced and shushed him, I got an idea to try a new calming experiment, even though Jasper was summoning demons from the depths with his ear-shattering siren sounds. I broke out a brand new pacifier and dropped it into the gapping hole in Jasper's beet red face. Wow, did that stun him. The audacity of a mere mortal to disturb baby Jasper's transformation from human larve into six pounds of satan. I can still feel the wrath coming out of those eyes as my ears recovered from the shock of his guttural screams. This was Jasper's first experience with a pacifier and it worked (for about 15 seconds).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Revolution Will Dine Al Fresco (Sunday, in Byrd Park)

Sunday picnic! Where? In Byrd Park! Who? You! Everybody! Anybody! Just bring a bite to eat and expect to find people to meet. Come out of your cave. Simple as that. Picnic Revolution is organized by Basket Head Productions (see their announcement below), the first in a series of public gatherings centered around food and the great outdoors. It's scheduled from 11am-3pm on Sunday, April 27th.

As one of the basket-cases informed me, it's all about "buying local grub and eating/sharing with others in our own backyard - in this case along Shields Lake in Byrd Park." Who can't handle that? "Hopefully we will get a handful of true Richmond foodies showing off their picnic tins or baskets packed with local market produce." Not a foodie? If you eat, you qualify.

If you're not familiar with Byrd Park. There are three lakes: the one with the fountain, the one with the island, and then there's Sheilds Lake, the one closest to Maymont with all the tables, benches and grills under the canopy of trees; perfect for a picnic. Let's hope the weather cooperates and clears the way for some Springtime spontaneity.

For more information, keep reading:

---------------------

Greetings,

Reminder- You are invited to the first Basket Head Productions gathering of Picnic Revolution. The first gathering will be this Sunday, April 27, 2008 on the south west shore of Shields Lake (along Shields Lake Court) in Byrd Park from 11am to 3pm. Please note: this is a revised location from the lastemail. Click the following link for location via Google Maps:

http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&ie=UTF8&ll=37.540043,-77.475339&spn=0.0061
34,0.009999&z=17

Picnic Revolution is Richmond's local, sustainable, and mobile food celebration. Picnic can be defined as 'a pleasure excursion at which a meal is eaten outdoors, ideally taking place in a beautiful landscape'. The focus of Picnic Revolution is to promote and support our local food and park systems.

Who's invited? Everyone! Spread the word.

What to bring? Food- local, fresh, and ready to eat. Beverages. Flatware. Blankets. Games.

For more information stay tuned to www.basketheadproductions.com


Sincerely,

The Basket Head Staff
baskethead@threemiles.com
www.basketheadproductions.com



Virginians Take Action on Immigration

A couple Virginia activist friends of mine have participated in a public act of protest to draw attention to the treatment of immigrants. Below is a press release for their provocative action which has received a good deal of media attention. For those who want to learn more about the motives of a couple white Virginians who chose to cross the us/them divide and stand in solidarity with Hispanic immigrants, please check out the media coverage and/or listen to the Weekly Sedition show that was on WRIR 97.3. Maybe you're asking "who are they and why are they here?" This public action may not give direct aid to the undocumented, but I hope it will encourage others to think deeper about a polarizing issue that has both parties scapegoating Latin-American people for political gain.

----------------------------
For Immediate Release
April 22nd

CONTACT:

Virginia Leavell

virginia@mexicanossinfronteras.org
202-674-0900

www.thepeopleunited.org

Virginia Activists Illegally Cross U.S. /Mexico Border and Immigration Checkpoint

Two Virginia immigrant justice activists completed their trek crossing from Mexico into the United States illegally Monday afternoon, April 21st. Upon reaching Arivaca Road, forty miles north of the border, Jeff Winder and Sue Frankel-Streit approached a Border Patrol highway checkpoint with a banner that read "From Virginia to Mexico, Open Borders and Justice for All!" The trekkers strung shoes and other belongings left behind by migrants to the
bottom of the banner.

Border Patrol officers did not attempt to stop them or inquire about their citizenship at the checkpoint. Winder added, "Where people of color are routinely stopped, interrogated, and searched, we walked through without confrontation."

Ricardo Juarez, coordinator of Mexicans Without Borders in Virginia, says that the organization endorsed the action to, "focus attention on the reasons why people are forced to cross the border in search of jobs and survival."

Winder, also an organizer with The People United, says he hopes that for communities back in Virginia the action, "exposes the reality of a borderwhere products move freely through ports of entry all day while human beings die in the desert. A militarized border and anti-immigrant policy do not make us safe; our safety will come when the vast disparities of wealth and power represented by trade policies like NAFTA are eliminated."

In light of anti-immigrant policy, such as the resolution passed in Prince William County, Virginia, requiring police to verify documentation for anyone under suspicion for having committed a crime, and limiting county services to citizens, Frankel-Streit says that the action, "has raised the awareness of thousands of new people about the harsh reality of the border crossing, the roots of immigration, and will help us engage in dialogue about how to build stronger and more diverse communities."

###

Monday, April 21, 2008

Jasper Diego's Birth Story, by Karen Guard

My wife Karen wrote a birth story and sent it in to her pre-natal yoga class as it is customary to read these aloud in class each week after a classmate gives birth. She gave me permission to post it here verbatim. A lot of details about our trouble with the medical establishment are not included in this feel good narrative. That's a story for another time/place. I've asked Karen to monitor the comments here and consider responding, so please feel free to address your responses to her. Without further adieu, here are our events of 4/3 and 4/4, 2008, as told by my wife, the "guest blogger." (more pics in previous posts)

Jasper Diego Guard’s Birth Story
by Karen Guard

It all started at my 39 week doctors appointment. I was anxious to find out how far dilated I was but my doctor had some more surprising news for me. My blood pressure was high and she wanted me to go directly to the hospital to be monitored for pre-eclampsia. I wasn’t really worried – I had a really stressful day at work and I had been running late for my appointment. I was sure once I could relax my blood pressure would go down.

So my husband and I went to St. Mary’s and I was admitted to a labor and delivery room because the regular rooms were all full. They did some tests and although my blood pressure readings were all normal they had found something in my blood work that worried them and they wanted me to spend the night. They started throwing around the word induction and I started to freak out. I was really hoping for an all-natural birth and Pitocin was not part of my ideal plan.

A regular room had opened up so they moved me over. Meanwhile my husband went home to get our bag, just in case. He returned with Chinese takeout and my PJ’s. We ate dinner at 10:30pm and my husband was getting ready to head home when I had one strong contraction and then felt a pop! My water had just broken! (11:15pm)

So back to the labor and delivery room I had been in earlier. The contractions didn’t take their time getting started – they were 2 to 3 minutes a part, right from the start. I was really expecting a gradual increase in the level of pain, so I was really surprised at what I was feeling. Our doula was called and soon I was getting a foot massage to distract me. We worked our way through several positions – practicing “active labor.” I sat in a rocking chair, leaned over the bed, and sat on the birthing ball – all while trying to stay relaxed and open. The breathing we practiced in yoga really helped me.

Next my doula suggested the shower. I have always been really into water and I thought this would feel great. I got in the water and my contractions started to get much stronger. I remember hearing in my Lamaze class that if you change positions the next couple of contractions can get really intense but just wait it out and it will get better. Well I waited and nothing was getting better. I had to get out of the shower. All I wanted to do was lay down in the bed. The contractions were so strong now I couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t focus on anything. I wanted to run away from my body. That’s when that all so common phrase came out of my mouth – “I don’t know if I can do this.” My doula suggested we check and see how far dilated I was. The nurse checked and after 5 hours of labor I was 9 1/2cm. Thank god!

After two or three more contractions I felt like I needed to push. I wish I could say that this part went smoothly but 4 hours later I was still pushing. The baby’s head was turned a little funny and the doctor had to reach in and re-position it. Part of the problem was that my contractions had really spaced themselves out – but I was happy because I really felt like I needed to rest in between. All the sudden everyone started scurrying around getting things into place so I knew we were finally near the end. I pushed threw the ring of fire and my Doula told me to reach down and grab my baby but I couldn’t even open my eyes. Next thing I know they are placing my beautiful baby boy on my chest and everything else was forgotten. Jasper Diego Guard was born at 8:18 AM, April 4th. He weighed 6 pounds and was 18.5” long. He is the new love of my life.

I know I had a small baby and short labor but it was still the hardest work I have ever done. I am so glad that I got the natural birth that I wanted – I couldn’t have done it without my doula and my husband.
------------

I just wanted to add that the little guy was coughing a lot last night, so keep your fingers crossed for him not to get sick. And, incase you passed by the Landmark Theatre and saw something called Go Diego Go showing there, let me pre-empt your question. No, we did not name out child after a Nickelodeon cartoon character (or a ditsy Ultimate Fighter for that matter). Pop culture names come and go, and we tried our best to avoid being influenced by trivial concerns. In fact, we almost named him Dexter. (there were loads of inspirations, but a couple obvious ones are Jasper Johns and Deigo Rivera).

Stop the Madness, Start the Movement

Ditto. That title deserves an eloquent post. I'm going to let two other firebrands do the talking on the topic of the race for the White House. Mega-dittos.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Tasting Macarons at the Farmers Market

When I saw Veronica's announcement that she'd be selling her delicacies at the 17th Street Farmers Market, I knew I had to get down there and meet the chef in person. Something about the change in seasons is making me want to meet a few bloggers outside of the internet. As the sun/son has come out, my social side is feeling loud and proud.

With a fridge full of veggies, my only reason to hit up the Farmers Market was to try a macaron (and to show of baby Jasper). This is a little odd for me, since I'm really not very keen on sweets or baked goods. That's Karen's department. I mostly just wanted to break this artificial barrier down and show some support for a fellow blogger. But honestly, I was prepared to not like the products of Veronica's Petites Bouches, because pastries just aren't my thing.

Before wading into the sparsely attended market, we popped into Cafe Gutenberg to grab our first cup of coffee of the day. It felt pretty urgent, considering our erratic sleep schedule. I ordered two large 16oz coffees (the only other size is a 12" small). "That'll be $6.55." I froze as soon as I heard the price. Standing there flipping through a few bills, I started gripping my money tightly and doing math in my head, not sure if she'd gotten my order mixed up. I looked at Karen with questioning eyes. "Just pay her," she said under her breath. I handed over a twenty and asked, how much is coffee here? The barista looked surprised at my question. "Um, $3 for a large. It's an Italian blend. It's good."

A little while back I decided to cut sugar from all of my coffee consumption. Not just discontinuing my usual three packets in each cup, but no more mochas or syrupy whatever-chino drinks that usually cost a fortune. I figured I'd be saving money by only purchasing black drip-coffee, the common-joe pick-me up. This has been my rationale as I often carry around the paper cups of brew: It's only a buck or two.

The "Italian blend," is Illy coffee, found at many fine dining establishments. And yes, it is good. Not great, but good. Is it seven dollars for two cups good? No. You could have at least a half-pound of the beans for that price. As soon as we walked out the door of Cafe Gutenburg, I turned to Karen and said, I'm never going to that place again. "I knew you were going to say that." Have I said it before when we've been in there? "Maybe."

I haven't been able to keep up with the changing status of that Cafe Gutenbert since they announced that it might be closing. However, one thing there hasn't changed: their target market. In my estimation, a coffee shop or cafe is a community hub; a common stopping point in the daily routine of nearly every kind of person. If the brew is good, the people will come and they'll add their own fixins and make the place a universally popular spot. There may be other offerings, from bagels to eggs Florentine, but it all starts with that cup of coffee that everybody buys and helps the business secure a foothold in the storefront marketplace.

Cafe Guttenberg is aiming at a different kind of subsistence. One that seems geared toward an elitist impact on downtown and a much less accessible corner of 17th and Main. Not inviting, at all. For to many restaurants, it isn't enough to be popular and successful, the goal seems to be glamor. It's a shame and I hope they change their approach (yes, I've gone off on this digression/rant all because they charge a dollar too much for coffee, 50% over comparable cups most anywhere else).

Veronica's Tiny Tasty Time-Machines
Okay, where was I? After a lap around the seriously underwhelming market (only 1/3 of the vendor stalls were populated), we stopped at Petite Bouchees. Although we'd never met, Veronica recognized me instantly. So I introduced myself, Karen, and baby Jaz. I told her up-front that we were here to buy stuff and support her business, but I had questions first. How do you pronounce "macaron"? She said it a couple times and I strained my ears (Karen too). Not like "macarOOn", right? "No, because then people think coconut and..." To be honest, I'm not sure what Veronica said. It wasn't "macarAWn," which was the only other option I imagined. It was more of a French kind of sound that my mouth doesn't make and my ears find confusing (how North American!).

She offered samples of the little treats. I had chocolate/coffee (my favorite flavor combo) and Karen had pistachio. As soon as I got the 1/4 macaron sample into my mouth, I was impressed by the delicate crispiness of the exterior and the sensuously chewy middle. This was a special creation, indeed. Then it hit me: waves of rich chocolatiness accented by the coffee and then something really different. Was it hot buttered toast? No. PB&J? No, but it felt like I was re-experiencing some distant flavor from my childhood. Karen and Veronica watched my reaction and asked for my thoughts. But, hot on the trail of this inexplicable flavor/memory, I couldn't talk. Karen covered for me, saying nice things about her pistachio macaron. My mind was racing. Okay, not quite toast or french toast, maybe french toast, not sure, I'm in my parents kitchen, eating... what am I eating? How old am I? Grilled cheese? No, not salty, but buttery. Yes. Butter...

And then it fades away and I've lost it. Karen and Veronica come back into focus and there's this guy. Oh, that's Hungry Hubby. Wow, am I making a good first impression, or what? I tell them that I tasted something that I couldn't put my finger on. I'm embarrassed, because I don't know what they've been talking about while I was searching inside myself chasing a childhood sensation. Then I ask for another sample, as unashamed as a junkie scrounging for his next hit. We buy a couple bags and leave Veronica with our well wishing for her fledgling business and my mind is already on getting back to the house to greedily work my way through these newly purchased macarons.

The Ethics of Carrying Coffee into a Restaurant

I'd never laid eyes on Lulu's and Karen had never heard of it. They're serving brunch. Let's go! We were both hungry, having only had Veronica's tempting amuse bouche. Karen agreed and as we made a few steps toward the restaurant, we started to argue.

"We can't go in there with these coffees," Karen informs me.

Why not? It's brunch.

"They sell coffee there, so we can't bring our own. How much do you have left?"

Mine's almost full and still hot.

"Well, we have to toss them."

Fuck that!

"It's just a cup of coffee. Don't be unreasonable."

Karen, after paying seven bucks? Hell no. I'm taking my coffee in there.

"Not with me, your not. Let's just go home."

Look, I really don't think that I'm physically capable of relinquishing this cup right now. I'm sorry. I'll make you some eggs."

(would any of you like to weigh in on this ethical dilemma?)
By the way, we love cursing. It's actually more fun right now, knowing that we won't be able to do it around the baby in about a year. So, we're getting our fill now.

Back at the house, I immediately get on the computer to write and Karen ends up making the eggs (doh!). Soon, I recruit her to help me figure out this coffee/chocolate mystery flavor. I sit on the couch next to her holding a macaron in my hand for the first time. It's like a little hamburger shaped play-dough creation, only it's both heavy and light and feels like something precious to be careful with. I take a bite and I'm transported again, following the flavor, listing sensations in my head. Butter rum, buttered raisin, butter pecan, etc. Karen's got it now. After a bite, she doesn't speak. I take another bite. "That's damn good," she says.

It feels like we're passing a joint back and forth, going into orbit briefly after each "hit." I'm no closer to identifying my memory, now enjoying the euphoria more than the noble cause of revisiting my youth. How much time has passed, I wonder. Where's the baby? (still latched on, nursing). Are we bad parents? Is Social Services coming for us?

Karen breaks the silence. "It's that coffee butter-cream. That's the flavor that hits me. It's really good." We agree on that, half satisfied, and decide to get on with our day.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Prejudging Penzey's

As a self-confessed stick in the mud, I feel the need to say that I am NOT glad to see Penzey's arrival in Carytown. I've actually never purchased anything from them before (although my wife says she has). My problem is that I've already got way too many spices. There's this awesome and artsy rack that Karen dreamed up and mounted on our wall. There's the stove-side cupboard for easy access seasoning while cooking. And then we have the mother load on the corner cabinet lazy-susan (and the many little containers that've been thrown off that carousel in every direction). It's like a Bermuda Triangle for ground seeds and powders. Why on earth, would I want more spices?

Half the time that we buy a spice for a recipe, it turns out that we already had it in our kitchen. It was just hiding somewhere. And how long do spices really last? People often recite a "6 month" shelf-life for spices, but who actually dates and rotates their spices out of the cupboard before finding them in a solid mass stuck at the bottom of their jar? (Here are some tips on spice care and shelf life)


I really don't have anything against Penzey's products or services (yet!). I just don't want the temptation. My seasoning situation is already in a tailspin; too many flavors to possibly keep track of. I feel the same way about candles. They look (and often smell) nice, but we never light them once we bring them home. They sit and collect dust and lose their appeal. And yet, there are entire stores full of candles, propounding candle culture, and a cacophony of putrid potpourri smells. When I pass a Yankee Candle store (or a Bath and Body Works), I have to cover my face to keep from inhaling the artificial essences. Likewise, something about the idea of a spice shop just smacks of unnecessary specificity; a concentration of things that need to be diffused. If you need Middle Eastern spices, go to a specialty market. Richmond has lots of these and I'll bet they have more to teach you than an "all-inclusive" spice shop.

The siren song of the spice purveyor has already lured me in like a pied piper. A light went off in my head: I need a crushed red pepper shaker. Countless trips to discount stores didn't turn up a single suitable vessel where I could store (and use to quickly scatter) my pizza peppers. When I visited the Penzey's website, it felt like I'd walked into an old fashioned apothecary. Was this website developed in 1902? Mayberry might be a touchpoint for some people's kitchen creations, but the site didn't stir any of my appetites. The mills and container's section is extremely limited. And yet, they do have several sizes of shakers.

Now, here I stand with my mind made up, totally smug and satisfied with my anti-boutique bigotry. And yet, I'm about to stop by Penzey's on the way home to pick up a spice shaker. Is there no end to the list of compromises and contradictions that can fit into one life?

Pepper Soup and Shroom Sammiches, Dot's Pesto, a Worthy Brunch, and a Bargain Knife

I've discovered eclecticity! Last night, I put a bunch of my recent cooking related purchases to work for a tasty, but unspectacular meal. It was a couple recipes from the Top Chef cookbook, veggies prepped with Cooks Illustrated's top-rated santoku knife, and I used a Rick Bayless pepper roaster and griddle in the process (and an immersion blender). The achievement was in the multiple resource utilization and the inclusion of several foodie interests simultaneously. I think that qualifies as blogable.

It all started with the usual... thinly sliced onions. But, this time around, they were a pleasure to chop, because I was using my new Forschner Santoku knife, which glides through most anything with ease. Amazon, has these drastically discounted. I'd seen several magazine reviews that heralded the Forschner chef's knife as the best value of any knife on the market. Their santoku is cut from the same cloth. In the past few years, I've gone through a few Kitchen Aid and Cuisinart knives found at discount stores. It turns out that the cutlery at Marshalls is practically disposable compared to the high dollar stuff. Where for art thou, reasonably priced quality knives?

The Best Knife Deal:
The real competition for these Swiss Victorinox knives are the German forged steel knives by Henckels and Wusthof. At a third of the price, there's hardly a comparison to make for a frugal guy like me. But, they always wind up in the same league when tested by experts. Here are some of the significant differences. Forschner's economical line of knives have Fibrox (plastic) handles and thin metal blades. In your hand, they feel light and cheap. But, don't let these underwhelming traits fool you, because the knives cut like a samurai sword and rarely need sharpening. Hence, the high quality and low maintenance Forschner knives are especially popular in professional kitchens. On the other hand, the prestigious German knives are weighty, require frequent sharpening, and make their owners feel like they're sitting in a sports car at the showroom. That sensation might be worth paying for (if you're an impedent man), but in the kitchen, such pretensions are hardly necessary or practical.

T.G.I. Not Fridays
I posted earlier about the Rick Bayless line of cooking accessories. For the past month, I hadn't used my $10 pepper roaster (reduced from $60). But, tonight, I roasted three peppers perfectly and then used it as a griddle as well. The recipe I followed was from season two of Top Chef. Betty's portobello grilled cheese and roasted red pepper soup won a childhood comfort food challenge and can now be found on the menu at TGIFridays. But you don't need me to tell you how to make soup and a sandwich, take your instructions from this video on Bravo's "The Wong Way to Cook." We enjoyed the meal tonight, but it was more effort than it was worth. Don't think we'll be going to TGIFridays to try the massed produced version, or for any other reason, for that matter.

Dot's Back On Television
All the bloggers are talking about Richmond's own Dot's Back In being featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Well, I've never been to Dot's on MacArthur Ave, but having watched the episode, I'm dying to go and try those corn cakes covered with beans and salsa. Of course, now the place is going to be so popular that I may never find out if Dot's is a diner or a drive or both. Even though this episode will probably air ad nauseum, it was fun and I'll bet every Richmond viewer saw someone they know during the few minutes of dining room footage (hi Emily and Ethan!). Karen recognized an old co-worker in Jimmy, Dot's new owner, from her days of waiting tables at the John Mashall restaurant. I got so interested in Jimmy's walnut pesto that I made a batch myself, only omitting the cheese (not vegan, just ran out) and mashing the ingredients with my mortar and pestle (hard work if you're spoiled on food processing).

?Donde Esta el NiƱo?
By this point, many of my readers are wondering where their Jasper Diego update has gone to. I didn't work in any stories about the baby and I'm ready to stop typing. He's generally sleeping, nursing, staring at us and making quizzical faces. But, mostly he's sleeping. On Sunday, we dragged him to Carytown in a stroller. A week after giving birth, and Karen does a three mile walk. Did I mention that she's only one pound over her pre-pregnancy weight? This is Jasper after the long walk. As you can see, his feet are killing him and he wants you to kiss them.

Come to think of it, at one week old, Jasper had his first meal out and it was Sunday brunch at Can Can. That's blogable, right? I was all geared up for a baby hunger tantrum that would disrupt our meal and the surrounding diners. I imagined Karen brazenly nursing amid the clamor and dining chic-ness. Wouldn't that be a provocative post? Karen getting thrown out of a French restaurant with her top half-off? Oh, we'd have fought it tooth and nail, dontcha know. Well, maybe next time.

Jasper slept through the meal and the only news to report is my revelation that Can Can's premium prices buy a hell of a good brunch experience: strong coffee, terrific breads, yummy sides, and attentive service. I'm always cranky as I suppress my cheapskate tendancies and place my order for a freakin' $12 omlet PLUS a $3 side. But, then I'm treated to an awesome meal and I do dig the ambiance (although I fet underdressed). Having our newborn along for the ride, may have also tamed my inner Mr. Cranky. Karen and I agreed that we would have to drag Jasper out again for happy hour sometime. Life is getting sweeter, if you ask me.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

How NOT to Eat the Best Ice Cream

Fleur de Sel Caramel by Haagan Dazs became my new favorite flavor of ice cream a couple weeks back, but I didn't follow the instructions to achieve the product's full potential. The touch of salt gives a punch to the sweet caramel and oh so fatty Haagan Dazs ice cream that my taste buds go into epileptic shock. Then, as if to deliver a knock out blow, itty bitty dark chocolate covered caramels can be found throughout, really sending me over the edge.

This flavor is one of those "reserve" items from Haagan Dazs, which may challenge traditionalists (see the Toasted Coconut Sesame Brittle flavor, which is also good, but in small doses). According to the HD website, this variety comes with recommended "Wine Pairings and Food Pairings." Let's skip the wine and get to the ridiculous part:

After a bucketful of fresh salty oysters, take the empty shells and scoop on dollops of Fleur de Sel Caramel ice cream.

Gourmet foodies can take things too far sometimes. Don't you think? A little salt with your sweet, yes. But to scoop ice cream onto a seashell that's still glistening with the membranes of quivering a slimy oyster? Well, I'll drop that in the fois gras category of "something else is clearly going on here and I think I'll pass." In case you've still got your appetite, Kroger in Carytown is one of the few locales to carry the salted caramel pints. Oyster shells are optional. Spoons work fine too.


Here's a little bonus:

Today, we're staying in and watching movies and baking coconut-chocolate chip cupcakes. Karen was all worked up to make these before the gestational diabetes diagnosis and sugar became contra-ban in our house. Everyone keeps telling me that the baby being born means that my life is changed forever (or as the more obnoxious like to phrase it "your life is over now"), but in many ways, for Karen and me, life is finally getting back to normal.

Second bonus:
On his one-week birthday, Jasper Diego woke from a nap, stretched his arms, and neatly interlaced his fingers on his chest. He doesn't have the muscle control to reach or grab for things, but he has pulled off the contented philosophical look. By the way, they say that you can tell if you're left-brained (a linear thinker) or right-brained (a global thinker) when you interlace your fingers, because the dominant thumb will be on top (do this and look at your thumbs). If that's the case, then Jasper is a super big-picture guy who thinks outside the box cuz his right thumb AND forefinger are on top in this picture. On the other hand, if the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, then maybe it's the other way around and Jasper is a linear left brained baby. Considering his erratic sleeping schedule, I don't think he's too structured at this point.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

8 1/2: Food for Superheros and their Mortal Families


On Friday, I found out that my wife is a superhero. All this time, we thought she was a normal person, which caused lots problems until it finally came to a head. Karen had spent months on a doctor imposed diet, akin to kryptonite for Superman. But, she broke free through 9 hours of intense cardio-vascular exercise, muscle exertion akin to lifting a house, and stretched and contorted herself though a bizarre human mitosis that resulted in her first offspring. All of these feats of heroism deserved some kind of treat. What would Superman order out for from his ice palace? That was the question as my Superwoman lay in a hospital bed, surrounded by two gourmet best girlfriends and a really finicky mom.

I've already got my long term plan down for sustenance at supper time at the house. But, on this occasion, for me and Karen, it was a natch: 8 1/2 take-out Italian classics. After several months of drastically reduced carbs, pasta was suddenly on the menu, and believe me, she earned every noodle. It was the day of Jasper's birth and I left Karen in the hands of her girlfriends and mom at the hospital so I could attempt a nap (didn't work, too anxious). Before heading back to St. Mary's, I called and asked if I could bring dinner. "Please, bring anything, I'm starving. This hospital food is CRAP!" Okay, baby. I got you covered. How many people are we feeding? You want anything in particular? "There's five of us. Bring whatever you want. Oh, but my mom is here..." (pregnant pause) Lasagna from 8 1/2 then? "Yes. That's perfect!"

Karen's mom is not an adventurous eater. Jasper will probably embrace a wider range of foods by the time he's three years old. She won't touch most of my cooking and it often makes for some tension and reluctant compromises. But, if there's one area that we've all staked out as our common ground, it's Edo's and 8 1/2. She loves the marinara sauce and the lasagna. Although, Karen and I usually go for something with more vegetables or seafood involved, neither of us can think of a more satisfyingly garlicky and tangy pasta sauce in Richmond. I find myself trying to recreate their braised fennel or baked cabbage at least every other week.

At 8 1/2, I ordered one meat and one veggie lasagna, an eggplant penne, a house salad, and a white pizza. Something for everybody, for sure and just enough to fill five paper plates at least once, delivering strong flavors, diverse textures, and plenty of carbs that wouldn't have been allowed with a gestational diabetes diet.

While waiting my 30 minutes, I sauntered up and down the one-sided block of Strawberrytown. I picked up some gerber daisies (Karen's fave) from a florist, and the front page of the RTD from that bourgie convenience store that replaced the totally awesome Prices Market (yeah, I'm still holding a grudge). The front page reminded me that Jasper was born on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The other above-the-fold story ironically highlighted problems with Richmond's unequal schools that continue to suffer under defacto segregation. These two legacies will shape Jasper's world, whatever he grows up to believe or achieve. And our family will no doubt look at him as a ticking clock that will force us to confront our respective perspectives on the the local school system.

Back at the hospital, I rolled into the room with all of my treasures sticking out of our Craigslisted stroller and carseat "travel system" (PegPerego for cheap!). It was quite an entrance (or so I'm told), and everyone proceeded to ravenously wolf down the tasty Italian dishes. In the corner of the room sat a lonely tray of meatloaf and green beans. Both looked like they'd come out of a tv dinner. I'd hate to imagine what the hospital charge for that "meal" service.

There are probably going to be more meals from 8 1/2 now that we're back home. Now that Karen's secret identity has been revealed, she'll probably be called on to fly circles around the globe and turn back time or something crazy like that. When that happens, she's gonna need lots of carbs and calories to bring her back to earth. I can't wait to be a part of those cathartic meals.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Grow Your Own Foodie

On Saturday, the second day of my son's life, I went to the Tricycle Gardens seedling sale looking to fill in the raised beds that I built in my backyard. After failing to grow grass for three years, I decided to embrace the practice of (and not just the slogan) "food not lawns." The past couple years I bought up all the plants I could carry from the Maymont Herb Sale (coming up 4/28), and now I've decided to branch out. I'll probably hit up the Lewis Ginter Sprint plant sale on 5/1-5/3, where the Tricycle folks will have a wider selection of veggie plants.

This site is not going to be a baby blog, but the people close to me (and their eating habits) are bound to wind up in my writing. Jasper Diego's diet is in transition. He spent the first few days gulping down mama's milk, which is actually colostrum, aka "liquid gold," during this stage. Like a reverse version of royal jelly, which ordinary bees feed to their queen, Karen, my queen bee, feeds colostrum to Jasper to prepare him for life outside the womb. Adults can buy it at the local supplement store and it may have some alleged benefits. But I think I'll stick with my clearance bin royal jelly from Vitamin Shoppe and let the little guy conduct his own naturopathic experiements.

At the seedling sale, I was a little disappointed. The only plants they had were greens (lettuce, kale, etc). They told me that these are spring plants, but I was hoping to get a jump on the summer with some heirloom tomatoes, obscure chiles, annual herbs to replace what didn't come back from last year. I don't know much about planting seasons. In my past experience gardening every I've lived since college, I usually only had a few square feet of space and so the plants that went in there stayed until they didn't produce any longer. And by then, it's usually past season to introduce new plants. Now, thanks to these raised beds, I've got a little more space, but not much. The empty spaces here (and on the other side of the salvaged bedposts turned garden fence) Karen will probably plant tomatoes and such during her maternity leave.

On his first night home, Jasper earned a new nickname. You see, as the nursing turns from liquid gold to regular old mama's milk, babies' diapers go from odorless black meconium to stinky yellow dijon mustard. Last night was the debut of "RVA Poopie." He didn't sleep well at first, not having any idea why he was left alone in a dark room. I took the first shift, bouncing him around the house, trying all of the various rocker/swing contraptions, and ultimately reading !Hola Jalapeno! to him. In the end, the secret was a really snug swaddle to recreate the womb and the "4th trimester" experience. Frankie the Pug snuggles Jasper: Brothers in Poop and Couch Snuggles

Greens will have to do for now, because these April showers are going to pay dividends for whatever crop gets sowed. A couple weeks back, I bought cauliflower plants (for cauliflower popcorn!), brussel sprout stalks (just so I can see a living phallic pole of mini-cabbages), and collard greens (so I can make my own Cajun Bangkok coconut apps.). To that, I've added some red romaine, kale, and some exotic sounding lettuce mix. Does this sound like a recipe for a good diet? No doubt that I'll be making green smoothies from my own backyard in no time.

This post was created rather hastily and will be updated/edited in the next day or so.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

April Showers Bring... a Statistical Anomaly

Full report to follow during the week. In the meantime, here's a teaser:

Rachel, our doula, was almost as pregnant as Karen. But she was a superhero for us, making the labor more bearable, more natural, and efficient (important if you don't want to huff and puff for a day and a half and experience a series of nervous breakdowns). Karen went from 2 to 9.5 cm dilated in 5 hours of controlled breathing, visualization, and many many body positions as suggested by our advocate. Seriously, we highly recommend having your first baby with a doula/midwife on hand... that is, unless you want all the medical interventions suggested by most modern obstetricians and hospital staff (who happily usher 40% of today's mom's to be into C-sections, 95% spinal administered pain management and an at least 85% pitocin inducements/augmentations)*. Achieving our aspirations during this birth was really satisfying, and improbable. Jasper's safe arrival was all we really wanted, but keeping it natural was the icing on the cake (and very possible if you surround yourself with the right people).
Splashdown! After 4 hours of pushing, Jasper Diego Guard popped out and landed on top of Karen. My wife went from utter exhaustion, through the sheer terror of the "ring of fire", and landed safely in euphoric bliss de amor - all in that final 30 seconds around Jasper's arrival. Karen is my new hero. I knew she could do this.
While Karen got fixed up and delivered the placenta, me and Jasper got to know each other. His expression here is a better representation of the moment than mine. The little guy was on high alert and ready to bond with his parents.


Skin-to-skin nuzzling for regulating baby body temp and stimulating the nursing instinct (and a good natural pain reliever for mom).



The nurses got Jasper away from us long enough to weigh him and put him through XYandZ other processes. I think he found the bureaucracy a bore... or maybe Jasper had just had a hard day at the office.

I sometimes got to bro-down with the little monkey, which immediately gave me ideas for fun and games.

Our class on caring for newborns said that you can start "tummy time" any time after a baby is born. Here, Jasper got down to do some push-ups (3 sets, 10 reps per), but before he could get a good upper body workout, he fell asleep.



Don't worry, we know about the back-sleeping only rule. I just wanted to give his body a few different sensations to keep him in the fluid motion feeling of his 9-month free-float in amniotic fluid. He seems to like to sample a variety of poses, which is good since there will probably be more photo-ops to come (especially once we get him in his aquarium).

*We chose Kathy Stewart, our Lamaze teacher from Full Circle Child Birth, for our doula. When Karen's water broke, Kathy had another birth in the works, so her trusted back up was Rachel Thompson, who is connected to Christian organization called Charis Child Birth. Lucky for us agnostics, Rachel gave supremely secular service. We didn't have a clue about the religious orientation of her organization until I affixed the link to this post. Anyhow, just thought I'd share this nuance. And I should probably say that we never would have wound up working with either Kathy or Rachel (or managed a natural childbirth) if we hadn't seen The Business of Being Born. Even non-breeders should check out that flick.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Enough Vanilla Extract for Seven Years?

I knew we were running out of vanilla extract, but kept trying to convince Karen to put off buying the stuff and falling prey to the vanilla extract extortion scheme that is the local baking supply isle. I'd seen it on clearance at Marshalls; 8oz for $7.50. I think the price is higher for half as much at the grocery store.

On my way home from work this week, I popped by Marshalls and found the bargain I'd seen before, but next to it I also found a bottle for about the same price that contained three vanilla beans, but no extract. The instructions said, slice the beans down the center, return them to the bottle and fill with 16oz of vodka and let it sit for 4-6 months. After that, I could use it as I would any bottle of extract and keep adding vodka to replenish it (for up to 7 years!). All this from three vanilla beans?

Well, I bought it and I've started my batch. I even bought an attractive bottle of premium vodka that purports to be "eco-friendly," was on sale for $5 off, and came with a $10 rebate card. Cha-ching! Okay, the green themed graphic design also made me swoon, but I'm just a sucker for progressive promotions and manipulative marketing campaigns. Probably makes me think I've relocated to the left coast.

This DIY vanilla extract story just sounds too good to be true, right? I did some research and one site says that you must use "SIX (6) whole beans to make ONE cup (8 fluid ounces) of single fold vanilla extract...Anyone who tells you any differently is just teaching you how to make vanilla flavored booze." The person behind this "indistructable" really seems to know his/her vanilla, but I'm not quite willing to accept that I was only using 1/4 of the vanilla beans needed to make certifiable extract. If you have any leads on some kind of confirmation, let me know (not the FDA's mathematical formula, please).

One deal that you can take from this story that is guaranteed is decent quality vanilla beans. They're probably about $3.50 each bean at gourmet food stores (and every recipe calls for a whole one for sure). At Marshalls, you get three in an attractive reusable bottle for $7.50 (but only $5.00 at TJ Maxx) last I checked. Buy enough of them and you can use some straight and maybe make some extract using whatever ratio makes sense to you.

Black Bean Brownies. Believe It.

If you ate these, you wouldnt know you were eating sugar-free and gluten-free brownies. But, if you had gestational diabetes, you'd get down on your knees and thank god for the miracle of agave nectar.

When Karen picked up the Baking with Agave Nectar cookbook, I didn't expect a black bean and chocolate combination. But, Karen attacked the recipe with high hopes for a sweet payoff. Agave nectar, is a naturally occuring sugar substitute. It does contain carbs, and those are in the form of sugars, but there's something about the stuff that prevents a spike in blood sugar. They call it a "low glycemic" food. The label says danger, but the body assimilates the sugars at a slower rate, making it safe for those who are sensitive to carbs.

The verdict: The brownies taste like brownies without a hint of beaniness. They're gooey, but without the glue that binds sweet flour products. Thats' why, you have to refridgerate them to get them to really set up and solidify.

Another issue is the price. The recipe calls for two bottles of agave nectar. At $4-5 per bottle, that's a high price to pay for a 9x13 tray of sweetness (unless you go with this deal right here). Of course, beans are cheap. The're boiled forever and pureed along with the other ingredients. And the batter isn't bad for spoon licking either. Again, no beaniness.

Now, I was hoping to be the news leader in black bean brownies, but it seems that everybody's favorite health-conscious food blogger beat me to the punch (with recipe included). Heidi has saved me the trouble by posting the recipe. And, she's amassing hundreds of comments. I'm so jealous.

For those interested in reducing the fat/cholesterol in their brownies (but not the carbs), here's a recipe that basically says to add an undrained can of black beans to a package of brownie mix, stir it up and bake it.

Any takers for this cooking challenge?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Baby Jay Will Sleep with the Fishes

When Karen and I met, she was an omnivore and I was a vegetarian (ovo-lacto: meaning that I eat eggs and dairy). Eventually, we met in the middle: pesca. I eat fish now. After two or three years of drooling over the "fish boat" at the 2nd Street Festival, I used Karen as my excuse to finally indulge. It was early in the relationship, and Karen decided to tell me that she was sitting on a prize that she'd recently won: an all expenses paid trip for two to Jamaica.

It was hard to believe that I was going to a tropical island for FREE. First, a girl likes me. And second, I've won a tropical vacation. It was one improbable addition to my life after another. As it turns out, monogamy has it's rewards. Actually, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Karen had purchased a bottle of delicious Ting soda and was greeted at home with a voicemail message from Ukrops informing her that she won a stay at the Sandals resort in Ochos Rios, Jamaica. At the time, she was still living with her ex and decided to bestowe the free trip on her first steady rebound, I mean boyfriend - me. Before long, we were dining at Croakers Spot, training my stomach (and conscience) to handle seafood.

In Jamaica, we went snorkeling and scuba diving and we loved swimming among the schools of fish and looking for underwater adventure. The feeling was otherworldly. Four years later, the bright colored marine life amid the crystal clear water has served as our inspiration for the baby's nursery. We both said, fuckabuncha corny wallpaper borders with baseball mitts and fire engines. We'd rather immerse Baby Jay in the natural world.

"It's okay to eat fish, because they don't have any feelings." Of course, our diet isn't all fish all the time. We've both remembered the long stretches while swimming around Jamaica when we didn't see a single fish. The guides explained that overfishing has depleted the waters and that landlubbers like us probably won't take notice until the prices at the fish market go through the roof and it's too late to do anything about it. He pointed to the monstrous fishing boats in the distance, with telescoping arms making them look about as natural an ocean fixture as an oil rig.

Slowly, the room has been coming together. Karen's dad prepped and painted the 80 year old windows and I painted the walls green and blue. We stenciled fish outlines on the walls and debated the room's style. I wanted to mimic one of those museum/textbook species diagrams with realistic and mysterious looking creatures of from the various reaches of the depths. Karen's faves were cuter and a bit cartoony. Regardless, neither of us felt confident about painting animal life, especially not in the detailed realism that I envisioned. So, we just agreed that we would not have any Disney characters on the walls and moved on.

We've been in that holding pattern for a while. But every week or so, someone will come over and paint a fish after eating some of our homemade appetizers. Eventually, Karen and I pitched in. Those are my blue/gray/yellow guys, and the brown tiger-striped shark. The pelican isn't finished, but he's getting there. If you want to come over and help out, don't be shy (but do call or email first).

If this title of this post sounds familiar, it's from the Godfather. Tessio says "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes." Karen and I aren't Sicilian and we're not "connected," so I can borrow this saying naively and wax romantic about our baby to be (the name is a secret) sleeping in a fantasy waterworld with his sea creature companions.

In case you're wondering, my fingers are dirty from gardening. I planted brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and collard greens.