Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Ask the Food Bloggers" Takes on Date-Night

At, we just debuted an irregular installment that brings together the divergent opinions of Richmond's food bloggers. For the debut, they tackled, "What is your favorite date-night restaurant." As a bonus, comments are enabled in this ER exclusive. Help us define the elements of culinary fore-play. And, float some ideas for future features.

Thursday, February 26, 2009 Starts Today

Food blog readers in Richmond are in for a treat. A few of us have gotten together to launch a compilation of local food blogs at This new site will enable cooking/eating hobbies in a major way. But, it's as much for bloggers as it is for blog readers.

Gordon Ramsey: I've got your menu, but for the life of me, - I don't know where to start. It's 23 pages long, man! For Christ's sake, pare it down. Your customers are drowning in choices. Bollocks."

Am I the only one who's got Gordon Ramsey in my head, berating me 24/7. Did his caustic Kitchen Nightmares show give me post traumatic stress disorder? The popularity of food blogging in Richmond has been evident on RVABlogs for a long time. There's nearly enough food flying around on there daily to support a local online foodie magazine and the culinary posts net a lot of clicks. Personally, a great deal of my traffic came from Ross Catrow's stellar aggregator (so, I should probably ask him to swap out my old URL for my new one). Among the nearly 400 blogs, some of the food bloggers were clearly touching a nerve with their critiques and recipes. While I've really enjoyed my hobby of throwing my thoughts into such a large and diverse collection, sometimes my most proud food posts got lost in the shuffle, and I was too often tempted by the popularity contest that takes place on the "popular posts" list. Nonetheless, RVABlogs, in my point of view, is clearly the primary inspiration for this new niche site, and it'll probably continue to be my primary local alternative media vice.

So, for my own sake, I wanted to see all the food posts all together and on you'll find fifteen of those bloggers aggregated together. I'm sure you'll recognize some and others may be new to you. Either way, now you can get your arms around it all on one screen, so dig in: (is that better, Gordon?) Whether the blog posts are gossipy or informative, personally, I'll be breathing a sigh of relief. No longer will I feel obligated to blog about food (although that's clearly what my readers prefer - personally, politricks and baby pics just happen to compete for my mental space). Now, I actually won't be obligated to blog at all (my life is exponentially crazier right now than most any time I can remember). It's a blogger's bailout. An infusion of socialism (not really - rugged individualism will probably win out among the food bloggers). Nonetheless, there are plenty of more experienced and informed people than me in this town sharing their culinary knowledge on a daily basis. is a tribute to their past and future online contributions. Chances are, you will find yourself enriched in some way each time you set mouse into one of their humble cyber abodes.

So, with that, I leave you in the good care of

Jason/RVA Foodie

ps: Yes, my wife, Karen, worked on the graphic design (her freelance gig: Darling Octopus Design). She's also a food blog junkie as you'll notice if you check out her Twitter posts. We'll probably be taking advantage of her kindness for some time to come. There are lots more pretty bells and whistles on our wish list (like the obviously missing food porn), but all good things in time, right? For now, I hope people just enjoy seeing this site do what it does: make you hungry and never at a loss for recipes or restaurant suggestions.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The New RVA Foodie Site

I'm going to start using this site, which is based on a Wordpress platform, which I'm probably going to be tweaking for some time to come. But, for the meantime, this URL isn't going to be good much longer. When I figure out how to redirect it, I'll do that. In the meantime, you'll find me (and all of my old content and ongoing discussions) here:

ps: If you want to help me test the new site, please pop by and leave a comment. It'll help me get the ball rolling in this new direction.

FREE: A Reason to Watch Fighting

Mixed Martial Arts (or "UFC") is usually relegated to pay per view for $44.95 (higher for HD), a price I'm not willing to pay (big surprise there). Some of you are fans, others kinda curious, and most probably happy that the violent sport is not in front of your face (or your kids' faces) very often. Well, on Saturday the 20th, there are two chances to watch two live events for FREE. A bargain, if you ask me.

On Saturday night, the UFC 95 event in London will be tape-delayed for American primetime (hence why it's FREE) if you get the Spike Network on cable. Some interesting match ups are scheduled, including a strident Republican (Chael Sonnen) taking on Damien Maia, one of the best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu submission fighters in the game. Both are in title contention, headed for a date with a guy called "The Spider." I was a sucker for WWF drama as a kid. To heck with skill, gimme sub-text!

Then there's the main event: Joe "Daddy" Stephenson who became a dad at age 17 and one day wants to be a teacher, but figures he'll pursue that once his fighting career peters out - a really likable, if hapless, ball of muscles. He's up against Diego "The Nightmare" Sanchez, a born again woo-woo who belts out Tony Robin's style affirmations while bringing his mean temper to bear on his opponents (Karen thinks Jasper Diego was named after some left-wing painter, but really it's the ultimate fighter - j/k). Diego is going to sweat out 30 lbs before he fights (has to make 155lb limit for his first time). That's a lot of holy ghost power that may leave him depleted come fight time . Should be interesting. Another spectacle is Josh Koscheck (pictured), a bad boy seemingly plucked from the Cobra Kai dojo in The Karate Kid. Strangely, his sneering, two tone hair, and brash attitude is starting to grow on people (cuz it pairs nicely with his masochism).

If this whole arrangement sounds a tad unethical, that could be because the UFC has a bit of a stranglehold on the MMA market. Maybe you'd prefer to support the local promotion. At George Mason's Patriot Center there's a great fight card taking place on Saturday night. The Ultimate Warrior Challenge is showcasing really talented fighters (including females) who aren't quite ready for the big time. This is kind of a misnomer, because some have been to the big time and are trying to get back there, while others are totally deserving, but there just isn't much room at the top (in the UFC) with MMA's current level of popularity (and illegality in some states). If you can't visit the DC metro area to watch the UWC, you can watch the live stream for FREE at Levon Maynard (pictured) is fighting too. You might remember him from the time that I covered a story for a MMA blog who sponsored the VA Beach based fighter. A really swell guy. I'll be rooting for him for sure.

Well anywho, that's my hobby - the only sport I take an interest in (aside from Top Chef) shared with you. Enjoy.


*for an economic perspective, check out NPR's Marketplace coverage

*these two events do seem to be airing at the same time, but there are ways of watching the London event live during the day (or you can tivo it). I'm not going to say too much about the strategy that saves you a flight to London. But, is a good place to start your research.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Creecy Greens, Two Ways*

Watercress is a bitter green, like mustard greens, or nasturtium leaves, but they're also thick, like collards or kale. And they're spindly, like arugula. Does this sound good? Well, it is. You just gotta be brave and you gotta work. Today was my first time cooking with the stuff, so feel free to throw out my preliminary conclusions. For instance, another drawback is the preparation. For my purposes, I took the leaves off the stems - a real pain since they're small, and there's not a lot of leaf on each stem, and the stems are all tangled up in this spiderweb of tendrills that connect at a knot that sends the root down. No wonder they were $1.50/lb at the 17th Street Farmers Market.

So, you've got to rinse them good, since all their intricacies tend to mingle around in the dirt before you buy them (actually, they're kinda water-dwelling plants). Then, I spent about an hour de-stemming the things. It took so long largely because I was watching Jasper, singing/dancing for him, trying to get him to eat his dinner. As for the adult food, I had to use up some watercress that I came across by accident (see the previous post). A commenter, "M," gave me a link to watercress soup and watercress hummus from a Scottish food blog. I made both, and I still have some of the greens left over.

This is what was going on at my feet while I prepped the greens. He doesn't walk yet, but he's all about pulling himself up and "cruising." While I cooked, Jasper fussed and tore sh*t up, but he didn't bonk his head once. Instead, he's learning to carefully lower himself down. Who taught him that?

"Is somebody talking about me?"
Does this even look like the same baby as the picture above?. We couldn't pick between the two pictures. That's why you've got both of'em here... Jasper, two ways? Okay, back to the "greens party."

While I simmered some (previously sauteed) celery, onions, and potatoes in stock, I pulsed my watercress in the foodpro. After tossing it in the soup, I hit the pot with the immersion blender to smooth out the veggies. It's a really easy soup, except for the de-stemming and the baby juggling. It reminds me of the "Gumbo Z" at The Black Sheep, another soup chock-ful-o-greens (and really tasty).

The color doesn't pop in this picture. I wanted it to be green on white and more vibrant, but the base here is kinda yellow. I peeled my potatoes (not my usual style), but the onions might have browned a little and fond probably developed on the bottom of the pan. I'm thinking the color might come from my veggie stock (I always use this "better than bouillon" stuff from Kroger). Or maybe it's that I blended the greens into the soup base (duh). Getting past the looks of the soup, the flavor is surprisingly LOUD. I didn't use much salt (the bouillon, again?), so it had to be the greens. You could taste the watercress - kinda sour and bitter and because it had diffused into the broth and pureed potatoes, the flavor mellows and fills your mouth. The greens don't really cook a whole lot when you stir them in fresh and then simmer for only five minutes. Another reason for their pungency. Karen and I both scraped the bowl clean.

With some of the remaining raw, food processed watercress I made watercress hummus. Basically, all you have to do is stir it into the hummus and it's done (yes, this some store-bought stuff). My thought? Watercress ruins some perfectly good hummus. But, if you stop thinking about the dip as hummus, and think of it as a tart, spreadable multi-vitamin, then I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. That piece of bread came from a fresh loaf purchased from Williams Bakery (the one way out on Chamberlayne in Mechanicsville, where I picked up some used Britax carseats from a Craigslister). Karen got a variety box of their sweets on Valentine's Day. Ya see? Plenty of good came out of that holiday for the foodies.

Update: I forgot to pour out some truffle oil for Fabio, the most recent Top Chef to get sacked. He fought valiantly... for his mama, for his country, and for the loot. But, you just can't fake the southern style, especially if you're a Euro.

Update #2: It seems that my "watercress" may actually be "creecy greens", a weedy version of the refined product that is at somewhat related to watercress.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Palate Cleanser

This is a palate cleanser to wipe the slate clean from all the blogger drama.

I meant to take Jasper's picture pushing this wheely thing, but he stopped and played my favorite game with me. Oh, and I accidentally had the camera on video mode, so it's sideways by accident. Haven't I done that before?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Train Wreck Brunch: Valentine's Delay

When the day after Valentine's Day came, Karen and I were excited. The grandparents were taking Jasper for a few hours, leaving us time to go out for brunch and then some much needed alone time at the house. Being fans of Millie's, we decided on Lulu's, the sister restaurant to Richmond's brunch mecca (and we'd never been in before). (**I want to spoil it and tell you that our meal was bad times and they waved the whole bill, so this isn't one of those irresponsible blogger beefs. It's just a wash. Sometimes a restaurant's most loyal customers are people who've been burnt, then complained, and were taken care of, and kept coming back. That might be us, if we're ever able to go out for meals regularly again**)

The whole thing started badly because Karen and I were kinda butting heads over the scheduling of our tiny allotment of time (my fault for being really wound up about my grad school paper deadlines). Even after finding a great parking spot by the 17th Street Farmers Market, we had a tiny black cloud over us. Not how we wanted to spend our deferred V-day. From outside, we could see that the place was packed and we worried that we'd have to go somewhere else. But, a spot opened and we got a seat in the middle of the busy-ness. We admired the details of the place, the two toned wood grain tables, clever ceiling fans, and the island of booths. Lulu's looks like a great hang out, for eating or drinking.

On the menu, I didn't see any sides to order ahead to snack on (like you'd find at Can Can), but everything came with potatoes (like you WON'T find at Can Can), so we were both starting to get happy although really hungry. Karen ordered the petite fillet with poached eggs and asparagus and hollandaise and I got the... what else? Huevos rancheros (none of the frittatas were veggie, so I couldn't compare Lulu's with Richmond's abysmal frittata scene). There were some other interesting specials, but they'd already sold out of them by 1pm.

After some awkward moments, we made small talk about Jasper (he'd captivated us at dinner the previous night when he laughed, which made us laugh, which made him laugh, and he worked a call and response routine for almost 10 minutes to everyone's delight). Then we launched into an unexpected discussion about our dream kitchen renovation: a reworking of our entire livingroom/diningroom/kitchen first floor. The result would be more like a "great room" for cooking and hanging out with the old kitchen space serving as the pantry of our dreams and a corner booth dining nook. We got so excited about the fantasy, I took notes down about every detail in my phone for future reference. Does anyone know a cheap home makeover pro? Oh, and we're also gonna need about $20k. I promise I'll blog about the whole process if you all paypal me that money ;0)

When we came out of the exciting conversation, we realized it had been about 45minutes since we'd ordered and the place was really thinning out. I made eye contact with our server enough times that she came over and apologized, saying she'd bring us some toast to hold us over (um... coulda used that 30 minutes ago - stomach complaining to brain complaining to whichever organ makes one cranky). The table next to us said their food took over an hour.

By this point, the server just hung out at the spot where the food is supposed to come out of the kitchen, throwing stressed out glances our way. Karen and I were trying our best not to think about the fact that our precious little "alone time" (on Valentine's day, you get the drift) was being traded in for this waiting game. We checked in with each other and felt helpless that our briefly sunny dispositions were hiding behind the clouds again. The server, a really nice woman, actually, kept popping by to apologize.

Eventually Karen's steak and eggs came out. It was stacked: meat, eggs, sauce, and two tiny asparagus spears laying across the top. Those green twigs were more of a garnish than a side. The steak was less than a half inch thick. I guess when I thought of petite, I figured it would be smaller cut of fillet mignon, but still thick. She'd ordered it medium, but it was well done - cooked all the way through (probably because it was so thin to begin with). Karen ate with little enthusiasm and I just had to sit there and watch. It was another 10-15 minutes before my dish came out and we were both getting exponentially surly. Can you see this leading to good alone time, if there would be any time at all?

When my huevos finally came out, the server apologized again saying she'd buy us desert (we declined because we had some pastries at home that we were looking forward to). Then I kinda cut her off and pointed out the steak and asparagus issues and she wanted to make it up to us and I think I said that we kinda wish we hadn't come there to eat, sounding likewise apologetic and defeated. The server, Karen, and me all frowning and crestfallen. It was a sorry sight. I tore into the beany eggs and we both ate in silence.

Time out for the upside. The potatoes rocked. They wore the tastiest grease I've had at brunch in long time. My huevos had a delicious pico de gallo and every fresh tomotoey bite popped with acid and cilantro. I tried to heap praise and elevate the mood at the table, but we were kinda in a rut by then. Karen hates conflict, so I'm always the one to assert myself in these situations. If I sound like a jerk, well don't worry. I felt like one, even though Karen agreed with my speaking up about our dissatisfaction. But, we both agreed that the coffee was nice and strong. Trying to focus on the positive now.

As we finished eating, I was going over in my head how to approach the bill. I was treating, but I didn't feel like we should be paying for one of the entrees. I mean, I couldn't take it out of the tip. It wasn't likely our server's fault and withholding the gratuity on $25 wouldn't really be much of a trade-off. When the server came by I started to ask her how to handle it, preparing to negotiate some kind of compromise. To my surprise, she said she was not going to charge us for the meal. I was astounded, Karen breathed a sigh of relief (no Jason tantrum in the restaurant during our supposed romantic dining out). I thanked the nice lady and that was that.

Minutes later, Karen is still nibbling her potatoes cuz they're really freakin' good. I looked in my wallet and I have no money. I'd intended to pay with a card. How do I tip with my credit card if there's no bill to pay? Damn. With Karen's permission, I run out of the Lulu's to the ATM on Main Street - really sprinting with huevos and frijoles bouncing around in my belly. When I took out a twenty, the ATM asked permission to charge me $3 on top of whatever my bank 's service fee is. "Do you agree to this charge?" Um, is it negotiable? Grrrr! Not interested in tipping $20, I bought two pounds of fresh water cress from the produce vendor on the corner (no idea what I'll do with'em).

Back in the restaurant, there are only a few tables left. Karen is still pecking at her plate. People, she eats like she tweets (140 bites per meal - plug for Karen's Corner over there on the right). I put a bulging plastic bag down on the table, turning a few heads. It seemed awkward to walk out without paying, but it's also weird to spend almost two hours having brunch. I leave $5 on the table, which probably confirms most of my readers' suspicions that I'm not just frugal, but inappropriately cheap (whatever, I spent the rest of the day kicking myself for not leaving double that since the server advocated for us and we ended up not paying). The stars just alligned in a way that made me extra-miserly.

In the end, I figure that bad tippers and burnt customers is the cost of doing a booming business for Lulu's and for our server. They made a shitload of money that brunch service. When quantity goes up, quality goes down. When demand is high, supply can dry up and people get pissed off. On this day, we drew both of those unlucky cards from the dining-out deck. But, I don't have any bad feelings. Lulu's is successful for good reason. I'll probably go back one day, but considering our limited opportunities, less popular places just got bumped up in my queue.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Valentine's Dinner on the Cheap (reposted)

Not sure where to go for your Valentine's Day meal out? Most of my recommendations from last year are still in business.* I can't do up a new blog post just now, so you have to check out that link (not really a repost, I know). It can also serve as general cheap date night suggestions. I would also add Momotaru, the new sushi in Carytown, to that list (my mini write-up is here and touches on a few other relative bargains). Of course, the issue of personal finance is certainly relevant. To me, cooking at home seems like the most appropriate maneuver, if the economy has you taking evasive action.

However... Karen and I deserve a little romance. So, we are going to avoid the Valentine's Day fuss (both the restaurants and the baby) by going out for lunch on Sunday. We haven't even discussed where to eat yet. All we know is that grandma is going to watch the baby. If you have any suggestions for us, please speak up. Proximity to an hourly rate hotel is a plus ;0).

Enjoy the weekend. I'll be spending every waking hour writing about incentive-based motivation theories of public management. Oh joy!

*Did Taqueria del Sol go under? What happened?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kinda/sorta Breaking Up with Blogging

Friends, I'm holding back on some really choice blog topics... but not by choice (it's not you, it's me - insert complaint about grad-school overextendedness here). Basically, I've decided to see other people besides Blogspot. To sow my wild oats, I'm electing to micro-blog on Twitter haphazardly. Brevity isn't my strong point, as you know. But, that's how it's got to be for now. There will still be break-up and make-up blog posts with reckless abandon. So do keep an eye on this space, even if only to check in on Karen's Corner (on the right there - you all are seeing that, right?).

I still can't seem to get the Twitter updates for both Karen and me to run simultaneously as Blogger gadgets (any techies out there, please help!). Otherwise, you'd see my Twitter updates on the right hand side as well. Hopefully soon... (HEY, IT'S FIXED. THANKS MARINARA MAN!)

Anywho, here's what you'll be missing cuz I can't allow myself to blog to my heart's content:
  • A rant about (blech) Panera Bread
  • Highlights of my email exchange with Peter Reinhart
  • An internal battle of epic proportions over Ellwood's new coffee shop
  • My attempt at duplicating Chef Andy's Mediterranean Shortstack
  • Where to find the cheapest walk-in yoga - a discussion post
  • DIY mental healthcare: aka Dr. Weil's 4-7-8 relaxation breath
  • Cedar plank fish experiement (i.e., next time don't use frozen fish)
  • Best and worst meals with Jasper ever: both at P.F. Changs, of all places
  • More pizza stone sleuthing
This is less than a week's worth of posts, some already partially written. I had 164 blog entries last year. I'm sure you all know that I won't be able to stay away.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Pugs + Babies + Mud = ?

This pug got his mug all up in the camera, while others planted sloppy wet kisses on our baby. Their paws spread mud all over Jasper, Karen, and me. (I think the dog's name was Oscar. Hard to tell with over 20 pugs stampeding around Barker's Field.

This four month old pug was overwhelmed by everything, except Jasper.

Some people bring non-pugs. It's a free world.

By this point, you're probably noticing how good pugs are with babies. This is an incomplete picture. Pugs have many unappealing idiosyncrasies. I don't want to enable breed fetishes by promoting pug propaganda (but damn, we love our pug).

This fawn pug (means beige) was as soft as a $50 teddy-bear.

For those keeping score at home, the black one on the left with the green harness is Frankie Poo Bubbas.

Previously mentioned pug mug hamming it up.

We all had to get changed after this romp.

The outting wasn't perfect. Jasper wanted a nap really badly. That basically means he was looking for anything to nurse on. Right on time, the pugs offered their tongues.

It's Baby Picture Time

I hope you're ready for baby pictures. Jasper may not be everyone's favorite blog topic, but my family calls the shots around here last time I checked, so let's get these over with all at once. You might even learn something. At least one food bargain is referenced in here too.

Tight bros, chillaxin'.*
Today, they're both going to make mad mayhem at
the pug meet-up
(Jasper's first, Frankie's twentieth - they're herding animals, you know)

Jasper is "a big stand up man." Gettin' vertical has been his favorite thing since maybe he was six months old. But, it's kinda hard to photograph, cuz he you gotta have your hands ready to catch him.** Now he's "cruising" on anything he can get his hands on and giving dirty looks when you act like he's gonna fall (which he does all the time).

Look out Tim Kaine, Jasper has stolen your raised eyebrow shtick.
(this is his new play area upstairs, by the way)

Yellow pepper and shaved fennel pizza, slightly overdone. Trader Joe's herb pizza dough kinda killed the subtlety of the fennel.
Hey! We got the most gigantic organic fennel bulb at Kroger for $2.69. They're usually tiny, non-organic, and $2.99 or more. We've used it in five dishes so far and still going.

This is Frankie's spot on the couch, where he looks out the window. He won't give it up no matter how often Jasper uses him for drum, or pulls on his ears.

I didn't show you lots of xmas pictures, probably because Jasper had to get dressed up in corny clothes. But that didn't dampen his excitement. This big furry toy came from BJ's and it inspires a wild-child wrestling style from Jasper.

You might have thought Regency mall was dead, but actually it's been taken over by babies. We found this one (on the right) to be very approachable. He and Jasper took turns patting each other on the arm and then kinda shoving each other until they both nearly tumbled off the couch - but Karen caught them.

The baby foodie spies his future toys. Actually, he plays with these every time he does a drive-by in his jeep. Sorry for the product placement.

Jasper's eating disorder: requiring two hands to get his puffs in his mouth. This was taken a while back. He uses his fingers instead of his whole hand now. His latest thing is dropping the food on the floor for the dogs.

*this word should not exist
**Much to Karen's design disapproval, out of focus pics is the best I can do these days.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Breakfast and Wifi on the D.L.

I'm sitting here in a booth at Aunt Sarah Pancake House on W. Broad, by The Phoenician. Sometimes, I have to go into hiding like this to make the world slow down for minute, get some school work done, and some work work too. The FREE WIFI sign has been attracting me for a long time now. Whenever I do this thing, playing hooky from work, I can never seem to figure out where to sit down and be productive for 2-3 hour stretches. I could stay home, but Jasper and I tend to distract each other (even while grandpa is doing sitter duty). Anywhere near VCU is parking prohibitive and swarming with students. The Black Sheep has no wifi. Do you all have any suggestions?

In the meantime, let's take a look a little closer at my surreal setting. We've got CNN on one TV and FoxNews on the other. The table looks all sticky. It's not, but the tri-fold menu is. I can hardly wrap my mind around the choices. Sadly, no huevos rancheros. The place is non-smoking. So, that improves the air quality and reduces the griminess. Remember those stained glass lamps that Ruby Tuesdays smashed in their commercials, making a big deal about their long overdue redesign? I think they got handed down to Aunt Sarahs.

Can you tell I haven't been in a big chain greasy spoon in a long time? I've got so many good memories about breakfast food at Ihop (childhood), Denny's (high school), and Shoney's (college). This visit requires an indulgent trip down memory lane. As you may have noticed in past posts, I love biscuits and gravy. The stuff appears in multiple locations on the laminated pop-up book of a menu. To make sense of the whole thing, I narrowed my choices to the 6am-10am specials (simply can't pass up a sale). And there it was at the bottom, "Sizzlin Skillet with biscuits and gravy, two eggs and choice of potato" for $5.99. Well, I planned to go to the gym today anyhow. Let's do it.

The last skillet meal I had was at Cafe Rustica. So, that probably put an unrealistic expectation in my mind (more of a mental image than a real belief ab out what I was going to be served). I asked the server if they could do my gravy without sausage and I saw a little twinkle in her eye before she said, "Sure thing, baby." It's not really that big of a deal what they had to do to accommodate me. I know there's bacon grease in that gravy. It's probably on my coffee cup too. And the cook probably just poured the gloppy white goodness through a slotted spoon before putting it into my skillet. Whatever. I didn't ask them if they have GimmeLean or Morningstar Farms.

Within five minutes my breakfast arrives; a silver tin pan (not a cast iron skillet) resting in a wooden cozy. There's no sizzle. I touch the pan. It's not hot. My mound of white gravy sits atop two halves of an english muffin, not biscuits. The potatoes are thin previously frozen disks, and the eggs over easy are... perfect, of course. If you're reading this thinking that I'm trying to tear Aunt Sarah's a new one, then I must have faked you out with my wind-up. Mediocrity can be a thing of beauty.

There was nothing especially good about the gravy, or the potatoes, and what can you say about two made to order eggs? But I wouldn't site any shortcomings either, just trade-offs. The privacy, the TVs, the Wifi, the six refills on my coffee before I'd finished eating and writing this... plus a disturbingly full belly all for under $10? Why was I asking for suggestions about other work-day getaways? Not quite sure, but I welcome your input nonetheless.

Wait, didn't I say I came here to do some work? Doh!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Debut of Karen's Corner

I've said that I was gonna blog less and I've done anything but. Can you tell I have a grad school paper due? Luckily, help is on the way. No, Karen won't be filling in for me (well, not completely). She's not keen on writing, being a graphic designer (hit up her freelance website, Darling Octopus Designs, if you want to support her true talent). The news is that Karen is beginning to use Twitter. From now on, you'll find her latest 140 character microblog entries, titled "Karen's Corner," in that right-hand column.

Who can name this Richmond glutton's paradise?
(I'm having deja vu. Did I already give this quiz?)

This is really a load off my shoulders. Knowing that Karen is going to be reporting out on her extra-marital food-blog reading lets me breathe a little easier and focus on my studies, child rearing, work, house chores and maybe a little exercise. Between the two of us, our tweets will hopefully keep this site relatively fresh when full fledged blog posts aren't possible. Of course, you can also follow us on Twitter, if you're into that sorta thing. (If any one can help me figure out why blogger won't let me post gadgets for both of our Twitter updates, please let me know. It replaces my tasty tweets with Karen's. )

Now, I don't wanna downplay the significance of this event. You all have mostly heard from Karen through me. The "even better woman" behind this man has largely been silent (except for her birth story). I could tell you all about her creative cooking mind and her incessant planning and her internal radar for locating clearance sections - but I don't wanna spoil the treats that you're in for. Maybe, if you're persistent, we can even get her to correspond in the comments section. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 02, 2009

You Asked for It: Cheap Restaurants

You might have noticed that I tried to survey my readers to see what kinds of posts you'd like to see more often (comments aren't an accurate indicator). After a month of votes slowly trickling in, the readers' choice is pretty clear: CHEAP RESTAURANTS (four included at the end of this post). I didn't vote, personally, figuring that I've kinda got like a president's veto power thing in this case. But, if I had voted, I'd have called for more cheap eats as well. Unfortunately, I don't know how much dining out I'm gonna be doing this year considering our precarious income situation and the difficulty of containing Jasper's boisterousness. Plus, in the past year, the number of Richmond blogs dedicated to food has increased ten-fold, mostly restaurant focused. And I'm still not sure anyone is really filling Brandon's shoes (my initial influence to blog about food). So, as usual, I gotta be different, and try and set this site apart from the crowd. Please feel free to provide your own data analysis in the comments section (especially considering the larger Richmond and food blog contexts). Regardless, expect more unpredictability, and that includes me turning over some rocks and finding bargain places for you to binge while we're suffering through cabin fever at home.

Your second choice was expensive restaurants. I'm guessing that my stories about fine dining are more for entertainment value than my unqualified opinion. But, those are the real rackets that often need to be scrutinized, whereas cheap places often exceed expectations. So just Paypal my email address with the subject line of the bourgie place you want me to and Karen to go for dinner (and send a sitter over too). Which brings me to a minor regret. I should have asked if you wanted to read good "reviews" or bad ones. The negative reviews get the most hits, but they also get the most angry comments. Plus, positive reviews really help you decide where to go for dinner and what to order. There's so many ways to be useful. I hope to be responsible in the process.

In conclusion, the outcome of this poll is really enlightening for me. I wish I could design this site to suit everyone's needs/tastes. Unfortunately, I'm too temperamental to guarantee any kind of consistency in my future posts. The fact is, i'm gonna blog about what I want and you're gonna like it. I mean, I really do hope that you'll like it. But, that's really a secondary consideration, at this point. I mean, are you gonna ask for a refund? Seriously, though. If you read this site, please feel free to email me with ideas/suggestions/questions (see profile for contact info). Hearing from yall reminds me that it's not just me and WetlandSusie out here.

Now, lemme try to give you enough cheap eats to cross that one off my list for the next few weeks. Here we go with a few very affordable meals I've had recently:

Momotaro Sushi
2803 W. Cary St.

Hold tight for high praise. On my way home from work, I popped into Carytown's newest sushi joint (and the closest to my house) and then called Karen to say that I was bringing home a surprise dinner. The price of the rolls were cheaper than I've seen at a lot of other places, plus they give 10% off if you have a student ID. I ordered very unadventuraously, trying to play it safe, save money, and put off an extravagant meal for dining in. I took home a spicy tuna (we have to try it everywhere), a california roll (not real sushi, but still an important benchmarker), a spicy yellowtail roll (the special of the night), and the momotaro roll (california-like with crab and spicy mayo). Folks, this was some of the best sushi I've had in Richmond (I know, maki rolls aren't sushi, blah blah blah - but it survived the ride home on my bike). The yellow tail was so delicious that Karen was sure they snuck some kind of "deep fried goodness" into the minced fish. We never figured it out, assuming the texture was the sesame seeds. We both really admired the subtle perfection of the spicy sauce added to the fish (same with the tuna). The momotaro didn't feature a lot of crab, but it didn't matter. That spicy and fatty topping together with tender sweet crabmeat was nearly erogenous. I'm going back early and often to help them get off to a good start, since we can't go to that other Momo place in NYC any time soon. (Momotaro is a Japanese folklore hero who's story is a lot like the genesis of the American Superman).

La Palmera
7701 Midlothian Tpk

Best plantains I've ever had. Karen said the chicken in her enchiladas was tastier and more moist than most and the sauce was deep and mole-like. When I told the server that I'm vegetarian, she said she'd throw together some sides that would fill me up "until you don't feel vegetarian." I'm not sure exactly what she meant, but I seriously did overeat. Maybe it was that the horchata was over-sweetened. But, I think the place is a safe bet for lots of authentic Mexican options. Go here and swear off Casa Grande, El Paso, and Mexico restaurant. Even if you're already discerning enough to steer clear of those chains of culinary crimes, La Palmera will deliver at or above your standard for decent Mexican. Plus, Janet from Richmond swore by it in 2007.

Young Bin Restaurant
7437 Midlothian Tpke # B (next to a Marshalls, bonus!)

If I told the whole story of my visit to this place, I'd be revealing too much of my ignorance. Let's just say, I'm vegetarian, don't like kim chi, and I'm not really into very many pickled veggies (although I should learn to love the stuff, cuz they're free with everything here). Korean food may not be for me. But, for the rest of you, Young Bin will probably be a real treat. If you like beef, go there now. The tables around me had platters of steaming meat and a dozen small bowls of accompanying veg. Some dropped the meat in broth, others in lettuce leaf wrappers (so jealous at the sight of this). They were having fun and you probably would too. The highlight for me was the complimentary hot tea. It tasted like brown rice syrup, only hot and appropriately dilute. Mmmm. I'd go back for that. On the way out, I said "go mop sum nee da," (Korean for thank you very much). A useful by-product of my three years of Tae Kwon Do. They've got a little grocery store there too. Take home a big sack of rice, cuz times are tight.

Bacchus for Brunch
Main and Meadow

I hear both Bacchus and Rowland's brunch services are suffering (must be my kiss of death). The best thing about an empty restaurant is not having to feel bad about my high energy wild child spinning around like a top in our booth. I just wanna relay the highlights, cuz it wasn't all good. Eggs baked in tomato sauce for $5 (came with home fries). A great deal (but needed crusty bread instead of dried up corn bread). Karen is more into the egg/tomato combo than I am, but it was big and pretty and tasty. I got a frittata with broccolini, mushrooms, and riccota and it was the size of a medium pizza. It made me ask Karen on the way home, "is there anywhere in Richmond that makes good frittatas?" (feel free to answer that one for me). She responded, "Maybe you're just not into frittatas, Jase." "You like them. Name one that's any good." I'm not going to tell you Karen's answer, cuz you'd think I was ego tripping. But I will say that I don't put big chunks of bland potato in mine, and it's small and concentrated enough that every bite is eventful and cheesy, instead of big gaps of plainness. Bottom line: Bacchus' prices are much better at brunch. Help'em stay open.

Jasper demands a recount!
(this is the face he makes whenever he spots a camera pointing at him. Basically, he wants to put all technological devises in his mouth - after a thorough inspection, of course)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Restaurants Ruined by "Those People"

Have you ever stopped going to one of your favorite restaurants because it started attracting "the wrong crowd?" Maybe you felt out of place once your spot became home to clientele that were different from you. It happens. Restaurants change to tap into more viable targeted markets and ensure the survival of their business, or maybe the word spreads to different communities creating a tipping point, and sometimes sociological factors make those changes permanent. To be honest, I haven't given this concept much thought. I like going where I stick out like a sore thumb. That uncomfortable out of place feeling is kinda exciting to me. The feeling of presumed "belonging" makes me feel guilty in some way. But, in the larger scheme of things, I probably do follow the birds of a feather and flock together with other young middle class whites. So, let me get on with my reason for this prelude.

The other day, when I was getting my haircut, my barber and I talked restaurants for a minute. I've learned to avoid discussing current events with him and figured food would be a safe topic. I mentioned a nearby place that I liked a lot and he asked me, "Is it run by blacks?"

Um, no.

"Surprised I haven't heard of it."

What if it were run by blacks?

"Well, they got a whole bunch of places now. You remember that seafood place?"

(sigh) Which one is that, Croakers Spot?


Ya know, Richmond is a pretty segregated place, with black restaurants and white restaurants, just like the barber shops.

"That's true. What's the name of that place? Dang, I can't remember. They had good seafood before it was a black place."

Well, I think some of the best food in town is at restaurants run by black people... and latinos, and...

"I'm sure you're right. But I can't even go to to that seafood place cuz it's over run with blacks." (barber's words in quotes, if you haven't caught on)

So it's just too crowded, you're saying?

"No. I can't enjoy a meal with all those black people ruining it. Red Lobster, that's it!"

My in-laws love that place. It's a national chain. You don't go to any of'em anymore?

"No, sir. Not since the blacks took over. I even went to the one in Fredericksburg and it was the same thing, blacks all over the place."


"The last time I went, there was a whole family of'em in the next booth." (he's looking at me with bulging eyes like he'd just described coming face to face with a grizzly bear while hunting) "The most unruly children you've ever seen."

Yeah, kids can really make a racket in a restaurant.

"But black kids are the worst, I tell ya."

Now, I know this interaction is both sick and comical (but it is an accurate retelling). So, let me give you some background. I've been going to this barber shop on and off for years. The man's racist rant was no surprise on this day, and yet, in the moment, I'm always in denial about what I'm hearing. The haircut is so much more reliable and faster and lower priced than anywhere else, that I keep going back. But, I'm not going to name the place and I may delete comments that do. If I wanted to expose this barbor shop, I really should have done it years ago. At this point, I feel totally complicit. This anecdote was a very mild episode compared to those I've tried to forget. He usually goes off about nigger this and nigger that, with extra special hate speech for Barack Obama. At times I would object (while he's got the straight razor on my neck), and other times I would stop going there for stretches. Now, I don't know if I'd feel right going back at all after bringing this to light.

It's clear enough that he's holding court in his business and so he feels comfortable speaking his mind. I'm guessing that he meets very little resistance when he flaunts his prejudices and uses racial slurs in his shop, but I'll bet plenty of his customers feel the same way and take part, rivaling his enthusiasm with their own bigotry. His customers are almost exclusively white, but loads of them are cops and firefighters and other public servants. Not everyone is cowardly quiet in response, and surely it's only a few who protest openly, because he's so obviously proud of himself when he's maligning people of color. I can't help but think that this anachronistic barber shop is a refuge for Richmond's white racists. Here, behaviors that receive shame and condemnation elsewhere are welcomed and reaffirmed back and forth all day long. Do you think that's far fetched? (please save the comments about who can or cannot use which n-word and how the same kind of stuff goes on at black barber shops, etc)

Looking Out Instead of In

Okay, so enough finger pointing. I started this story with a challenge to look at ourselves and the way we consider certain places to be our domain and others not. It's most obvious, as the barber noted, when a place changes and we are forced to make a decision. I remember when I would hear other white people suggest meeting at the Martini Kitchen and Bubble Lounge at Main and Meadow, even though the food sucked and the drinks were too steep. Now, I never hear the place spoken of among whites, despite it's prominent location. I haven't heard it mentioned once among whites (nor on the blogs) in the couple years since it became popular among middle class blacks.

Richmond is a strange place. Division is one thing, but inflamed polarization on this level is bizarre. Karen was telling me recently that she's struck by the awkward (at best) race relations in Richmond when she gets back from any kind of travel. In December, we were in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, rarely seeing other white people on the streets or in the subway, which were densely populated by African-Americans. But there weren't any bad vibes, even though we didn't fit in. No, not until she was back home, walking Jasper in a stroller down Meadow Street. Then, in "downtown" Richmond, she draws multiple "what the hell are you doing here" looks. (answer: we live less than two blocks away and this is how you get to the thrift store).* It makes me wanna yell at this town, "Richmond, what the hell is our racial hostility doing here? It's 2009 for Christ's sake!"

*I think the disparity in these two examples (NYC/RVA) has a lot to do with the fact that non-white communities in Brooklyn are thriving and secure, in comparison to Richmond where suffering and economic hardship is decades/centuries old and generally specific to the African-American experience in Richmond.

I'm providing these GIS mapping results to provide a little context of segregation in Richmond, both racial and economic, and to demonstrate the overlap of poverty with blacks and affluence with whites.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Iron Chef Battle Vegan

Every time I watch Iron Chef, I'm kinda hoping to see "the Chairman" announce the main ingredient as "no animal products may be used in this meal." If you're thinking that would be a nightmare to cook (or to eat), then I've got my work cut out for me in writing this post. From my point of view, dietary limitations should be a welcome challenge for any chef (especially at home chefs), a true test of knowledge and skill (and maybe understanding of ethical and health concerns). For a good cook, vegetarian fare should inspire creativity and a deeper appreciation for the delicious attributes of natural non-sentient ingredients. In other words, if bacon is the go-to ingredient for flavor and texture, that's a one trick pony approach to cooking that neglects a whole world of flavors.

When I toyed with veganism from 1999-2003, I put loads of energy into the popular reenactments of non-vegan staples: nutritional yeast mac'n'cheese, portobello stroganoff, liquid smoke accented collard greens, tempeh chicken salad, etc. Truth be told, I can make all of these look and taste beautifully (so that only the finickiest eaters would turn up their noses). But, I'm left with the nagging suspicion that a truly great cook could do so much more within the confines of a diet free of animal products. Sure, it's not hard to point to the really energetic vegan cookbook authors, and right here in Richmond there are some great veggie meals to be had (did I mention how much I love Ipanema Cafe and Harrison Street Coffee Shop?). But, wouldn't Eric Ripert or Thomas Keller make all of them look like amateurs, even with one arm tied behind their back? Well, now we know the truth...

Great Chefs Cook Vegan
, by Linda Long

No they don't (but for this book, they did). Great chefs don't usually cook vegan. In fact, more often than not, most chefs with a household name love to talk trash about vegetarians, and they really tear into the vegans. It's too bad. What is the threat? I mean, who's afraid of an emaciated hippy? (I'm kidding. Vegans come in all shapes/sizes/stereotypes) I've long believed that vegan cuisine offers a challenge to cooks that forces the imagination into new territory because they have to go forth without the crutch of bacon or fish sauce or chicken stock, etc. Maybe that's it: insecurity. Great chefs, please break free from the link sausage chains that bind you and show the public what is possible with non-animal ingredients. You all are the experts, now prove it. Maybe then, vegans can stop ordering bean burritos without cheese from Taco Bell.

Personally, I'm hoping the best cooks in the world will write the ten commandments of vegan cooking and hand them to Anthony Bourdain so he can promulgate the "the Word" to the people (wouldn't that be some deliciously ironic justice?). This book is not written with that kind of goal (reparation for animal exploitation and needless suffering, clogged arteries, and environmental destruction, etc). The author of this book was a photographer for the Vegetarian Journal magazine. If you're not familiar with it, they've really got a lot of integrity, taking no ads, and generally trying to educate the public. That's a good sign, in my view.

The author, it seems, really likes expensive restaurants (or has money to burn) and did loads of leg work making special dietary requests of the chefs at 4 and 5 star restaurants all over the country. The result is a beautifully photographed book, featuring 3-4 courses from 25 different famous chefs. Overall, Great Chefs Cook Vegan will be fairly inaccessible to regular folk who'd like to learn how elite cooks approach meat/dairy/egg free food. For me, the story in the 2-page introduction is more insightful that the three hundred pages of recipes, but I haven't spent much time with the book yet. Upon first glance, it's some really pretentious grub intended to look at home next to Iron Chef-style dishes like truffled foie gras and sea urchin soup vessels. But, what should I expect, but some slight of hand tricks from the culinary equivalent of Sigrid and Roy? (slight of hand implies quickness, when in fact, these are labor intensive recipes that seem to revolve around cauliflower and lean toward side-dishiness)

If you're a fan of any of these top-notch chefs, you'll want to know what they elected to make for this book and how they made it. Well, aside from a full page bio for each chef, there's scarcely more than a sentence from each on the topic of vegan cooking, and not a word about their inspiration or thought process for each of their recipes. Hey! If you're so great, how about a little insight? I'm hoping that closer inspection will reveal some tricks of the trade that home cooks can bust out when working with veggies. But, for the meantime, the stars are these: Thomas Keller, Jean-George Vongerichten, Eric Ripert, Charlie Trotter, Alex Stratta, Anne Quatrano, Cat Cora, Daniel Boulud, David Burke, Gabriel Kreuther, Josef Huber, Jose Andres, Marcus Samuelsson, Matthew Kenney, Michel Nischan, Suzanne Goin, Todd English.

Great Cooks Matter

While I do my best to form a more informed opinion about Great Chefs Cook Vegan, I want to bring your attention toward a food world revolution that may actually touch the lives of more than just the upper crust diners who call ahead to The Inn at Little Washington to order a vegan meal. Around the same time that I picked up this book, I also got my hands on How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman.
Not only did Bittman drop this thousand page kitchen bible to rival his version intended for omnivores, he's now promoting a vegan until dinner diet for a healthier lifestyle and planet (see his video excerpt below). The guy is a cooking guru and now he's busting out a thoughtful critique of the world around him, including his past work and ideals. In fact, more and more people are looking for ways to eat less meat, sourcing local ingredients for their homemade meals, and then there's that whole eco-green priority that's showing up on grocery store shelves. Truly great cooks are helping us make sense of our diets with these things in mind.

Tune in next time for part two, where I'll talk about some of my favorite vegetarian cookbooks and maybe some social commentary to boot.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Peanut Chili in the RTD

In today's Richmond Times-Dispatch, I've contributed a recipe for peanut chili.* There are a few quotes provided and some general food prep/philosophy as well. But, I'm sure you all will have questions? I mean, peanut chili must be a pretty foreign concept. It was for me in 1999 when my mom made it for me during one of her forays into vegetarian/veganism. She'd subscribed to Vegetarian Times magazine** and zero'd in on the recipe included in a story about cooking with nuts. We've both been wild about the stuff ever since. So, please check it out and share your thoughts. In the hard-copy, there's a picture of me with a bad haircut - sure to become a collector's item.

*It seems that the recipe isn't on the RTD website, just the preface. If you're interested, this link is almost word-for-word the same.
** Didn't VT relocate their corporate HQ to Richmond a few years back?

Heaven Layer Dip

With a big sports-watching weekend upon us, I want to fess up about an irrational weakness of mine. I only watch the Super Bowl so I can hover over the inevitable platter of seven layer dip. I seriously think it's my favorite food in the whole world. I don't know why I find the stuff so satisfying, but I guess there's no accounting for taste. I pride myself on my discernment and appreciation of authentic (tipico) latin cuisine, and yet, I can't get enough of this domestic American football food. Do any of you make this stuff regularly? If so, can I trouble you for some advice? There are plenty of ways to make this dish and it's not REALLY cooking, so I expect even the lurkers and those who only wish they could cook will feel free to let loose and chime in on this.

Three questions:
  1. What are YOUR seven layers?
  2. What order do you layer them and why?
  3. Any other possible regional themes besides southwest? Mediterranen? Middle Eastern?

To stir this pot a little, I'll relay some of my seven layer dip beliefs, since I'm pretty opinionated about this subject. But first, here's a seven layer dip tutorial that will increase your competence (skip it if you feel you're a mensa select level dip maker).

Most versions of this dish start with a layer of canned refried beans on the bottom. This is so common that no one is surprised when they break the first five chips off in the dip and then just scoop the stuff onto a plate (or straight into your mouth with your four cupped fingers, depending on who's watching and how much beer you've had). To loosen up those beans, whip some cheap gooey nacho cheese into them, preferably the spicy stuff. That solves part of the problem, making the beans more pliable. You can get a chip into the dip, but the beans may still stick to the bottom of the pan, causing more chip breakage. Solution: put your seasoned and sauteed fake meat crumbles (or ground beef) on the bottom before the bean layer. You'll need enough to act as a buffer. The "meat" will release from the pan, but stick to the beans. Any left behind will get cleaned up by the next dunken chip dipper.

I was looking for a popular conventional recipe for seven layer dip and the one I found at had a common but glaring error that led reviews to call it bland or "not spicy enough." The problem? The sour cream was plain. Next time, stir a packet of taco seasoning into the sour cream and add some mayo before shmeering. If you're competent with southwest spices, skip the packet and mix your own, but don't skimp on the salt. This tip comes from my mother, by the way. I remember helping out by making the doctored sour cream as a kid. This step is really crucial if you don't want to go to great lengths to season the other layers to make them pop. Apparently, many of the recipe reviewers are familiar with the taco seasoning packet trick as well.

About an hour into the Super Bowl party (or the UFC 94 Penn/GSP mega-fight), you'll notice that the dip is half-gone and there's a nasty looking soup pooling in the empty portion of the platter. There could be a few reasons for this. If my old coworker made the dip, then there's a layer of shredded iceburg lettuce on the bottom, completely wilted and basically liquified. Don't ever do that, mmmmkay? The more common cause is the lazy approach of dumping a jar of salsa as your tomato layer. Flavor-wise, it makes sense, but it's usually a consistency disaster. Over time, gravity pulls the water out of the salsa to the bottom of the pan. Instead, you can go with seeded fresh tomatoes (as we see in the video), or you can go with a jar of taco sauce poured into the shredded cheese layer to hold it in place. I recommend Frontera brand taco sauce if you want your dip to win friends and influence people (or maybe a start a blog).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pizza from the Home (Depot) Hearth, the Turd Installment

When we left this pizza making story, I had caved in and bought a cheap pizza stone, frustrated by several attempts to turn hardware store products into a suitable baking surface. The problem seemed to be chemical treatments on the tiles, or ingredients in the composite ceramic materials that ended up producing smoke and/or a foul odor in the house. With this total sellout seasoned and sitting in my oven, I was ready to start making pizza for real. Operation, breakfast pizzas. Game on.

Before going to bed, I whipped up some dough using this revelatory recipe that's oh so simple (and guess who wrote it? - my pizza book guy, Peter Reinhardt). Wait, you're not making your own dough? Why not? Do you prefer to pick yours up from the local pizzeria like I did from Mary Angela's last week? That's fine too. For the rest of you, let's talk for a minute. You get a pizza stone, because you want good pizza crust. The snap, the char, the contrast between the chewy inside and the crusty outside. It's all gotta be there and the only way to bring that about is a hot rock and some fresh yeasty dough. No holes in the aluminum baking pan will suffice. That only keeps the pie from stewing in its own sweat - no scalding occurs. The stone even makes your store bought DiGiorno taste not like delivery, but closer to a real pizzeria. Oh yeah. Dough. If you have a stand mixer, it only takes a minute and there's no mess. Make that recipe linked above and consider buying this book (wait! complete text here)

Back to baking. I divided my dough into six balls, bagged them up, and left them in the fridge overnight. The next morning, I baked two pies with whole eggs on top (one red and one white). That's them baking away. Now, before dropping the pies on the stone, I had to preheat the oven with the stone in it. Most people just let their pizza stones live in the oven, by the way. And ideally, preheating should go as high as 800 degrees. My Hotpoint oven only goes to 500 and I don't think I even went that high. Anyhow, before you know it, I've got the exhaust fan going on high and both front and back doors open with Karen complaining that it's too cold for that sh*t. Why? Because smoke and that familiar awful smell starts filling the house.

The pizzas, again, came out great. I over cooked the eggs. The red sauced pizza was so much better than the white (probably the cheddar that snuck onto the white one to please Karen's cheese cravings - still out of pizza cheese). But I couldn't enjoy the results. Another pizza stone experiment literally up in smoke. Grrrr. That crust should be transporting me to Naples right now! (it really was good) Why would this be happening again? Do you know what a confounding variable is? In this case, it's a common factor among experiments that prevents the outcome that I want. What's common among my experiments? The oven. I refuse to accept that something is wrong with my oven, because this never happens unless I put a piece of tile in there. What else? The oil. I read that you're supposed to season the tile with grease or oil. Doh! That's it. I used olive oil, which has a low smoke point. No need to take the pizza stone to the supercan this time. The oil will cook off through repeated use. (wheels still turning, right? hold that thought)

In the next day or two I used up three more dough balls and gave one to a neighbor. There was an lentil and kale dish inspired by my visit to Ruchee Express (and the fact that we're introducing both ingredients to Jasper - he does NOT like them... yet). So, I made a poor excuse for naan bread that was really just garlic schmeared flat bread (still tasty). And then I rolled out the remaining dough ball really thin - while worrying that I'd let the dough hang out in the fridge too long. Whatever, let's make another white pizza.

I dunno, yall. Does this look edible? By this point in the pizza stone charade, the house stopped stinkin up. The smell was faint, if detectable at all. Still lacking any pizza cheese and now out of red sauce, I took some cottage cheese (strange substitution for ricotta) and whipped it with crushed garlic and olive oil using an immersion blender. On top of that, I put some paper thin zucchini slices (using this) that were sauteed in olive oil. When it came out of the oven, I covered it in a light snowstorm of parmigiano reggiano and a drizzling of olive oil. Damn, that sounds pretentious. Sauteed zucchini is a pretty good vegetarian pepperoni, in my opinion. My favorite squash by a mile, cuz it caramelizes so well.

Look, I really needed to end on a high note. Ya know, hit one out of the park, just for my own sense of self-worth. Cracker crust is a favorite in my house. I've even got fond memories of Pizza Hut's thin and crispy pies from my childhood. To paraphrase Peter Reinhardt, your paradigm of pizza perfection is contextual; it's based on what you grew up loving. So, I'm a sucker for a little snap in each bite, and a pizza stone is my ticket to my personal pizza heaven and eating-activated memories.

So, that brings me to the elephant in the room. What about those other tiles that didn't make the cut? Was it the chemical composition of the tile or the olive oil? Ah, the confounding variable. But wait, what's this? Jes, in the Fan, left a comment saying that saltillo tiles are the way to go according to Alton Brown of the Food Network. That links takes you to a place where the minimum order is 900 sq feet (for an over bigger than the first floor of my house). Looks like the hunt is back on. Where in Richmond can one get "raw" (unsealed) saltillo tiles? And are they safe?

I guess this is to be continued after all. In the meantime, I'm going to keep experimenting with crusts and toppings and gadgets when I make pizza. I am starting to think I need one of these to scoop up my pizza, instead of using my flat cookie sheet. The Epicurean model is great and their stuff is so overpriced and unpopular that I often find their cutting boards at Marshalls. Maybe their pizza peel will show up soon. Before that happens, I'll bet we'll see these pizza scissors in the clearance bin any day now. Ah, so many useless things to collect.

Back to Reinhart one last time. In his pizza hunting travels, he found several of what he would call "perfect pizzas." Among all of them, and even those that fell short of perfection, there is a pizzaiolo tending to every detail and taking pride in his or her work, even when the results are unpredictable. Few restaurants have this going for them. But, your kitchen does! That's you. Making good pizza seems so simple, but the devil is in the details. From my experience thus far, it's a painful frustrating process (ask Karen about my kitchen nervous breakdowns), but the satisfaction of producing even a mediocre homemade pie is pretty terrific. At this point, I'm wondering how many times per week Karen will let me make pizzas. I can always use the "Jasper needs more pizza crust teething biscuits" excuse.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Scaling Back Blogging, Sorta

As 2009 gets under way, I'm finding myself really interested in writing about food and generally mixing it up in the blogging world. However, I am also starting a new semester of grad school (only one class, really) and I've got to face facts: when I'm blogging, I should be studying (or paying attention to Karen and Jasper). So, I plan to, and probably will, decrease my attention to this site to some degree. I know, just when I got mentioned in RVA Mag.

But wait! This really could just be one of those overcompensations, like Jim Duncan forecasting a disastrous snowstorm headed straight for Richmond (translate: just covering my... and setting reasonable expectations). I typically use blogging as a form of procrastination during school time. This class has me scheduled to write four 20 page papers, with 30 references each, and eight citations per page, plus an average of 5 chapters of reading per week (plus all those scholarly articles I'll be "referencing"). Nonetheless, the devious angels of my nature will inevitably compel me to blog. And when that happens, it will be stream of consciousness style-sloppy (sorry ladies) and full of therapeutic venting. What's new, right? Have I ever been anything but temperamental?

Despite all of this, I do plan to focus my blogging a bit more by improving my coverage of the areas that receive the most votes in my survey (currently, "cheap restaurants" - vote now). But I won't be confined by public opinion. With the time crunch, I'll probably go with more pictures and less verbosity (yeah right, no promises there). And then there's micro-blogging (see my Twitter updates on the right). Maybe you all can help me find some people who make good tweets and I can use them as my inspiration.

I'd also like to convene (or at least attend) some face-to-face gatherings and break through the barriers that this whole "online community" idea minimally addresses. Some of this will be neighborhood centered or relatively private, but some of my other ideas include wide-open invitations. For instance, Karen and I are lamenting the number of cookbooks that we've stockpiled. So, we'll be giving a couple piles of them away. Hopefully, that will mean new and old friends (maybe some of you anonymous readers) coming over IN PERSON, some munchies and drinks, and books going home with people who will appreciate them more than we were able to.

Okay, enough with my predictions. I've got several blog posts in the works. Hopefully, they'll make it up here soon.