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.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

This Weekend's Weird Bargains

Some therapeutic shopping went down this weekend. For most people, that means splurging. Not for the frugal one. No, I get all twisted with my purchases in order to blog blow off steam. It all started at Ross Dress for Less in Willow Lawn. Yeah, I know. The place totally sucks. It's not half the discount store that Marshalls or TJ Maxx are, and it doesn't even compare to it's Northern Virignia counterparts. I don't know why Willow Lawn seems to require suckiness (also evidenced by my latest Hair Cuttery do - the one next to Ross). It's just a fact of life in Richmond.

First off, I found a Penguin brand sweatshirt for $13. It's not really my style, but since it probably retailed for $135, I think I can adapt in order to increase my NYC fashion cred (goes great with Chacos and socks, right?). One isle over, I happened upon some really obnoxious MMA fight-gear brand clothing from "One More Round" (round of beer?). The t-shirt I bought for $5 looks about like this one. the tiger-headed dude in the lotus position is probably supposed to be the fighting spirit of the MMA guy whom the shirt was designed for. This shirt was designed for a guy nicknamed "gumby." Two days after buying it, my new joke shirt gets nominated as an example of "worst MMA clothing company of 2008." Well, you can forget about seeing me out in this thing anytime soon. Someone might think that I'm the baddest man on the planet and therefore I'd be up for a barroom scrap... at which time, I'd have to buy everyone "one more round " of beer to get out of fighting. All this for a $5 t-shirt. But, I'm wearing it now. It fits good and it's comfy. Perfect for watching Fedor/Arlovski on Saturday. That's all I wanted it for: to look silly while enjoying my silly hobby.

On Sunday, Karen went to Trader Joes while I walked Jasper to Stakolee's house after stopping at the "Guns and Amoco." Predictably, the BP at Cary and Meadow serves crappy coffee (my only reason for going). But, there's no other options closer to Byrd Park (we usually walk 10 minutes to Carytown). Maybe one day a locally owned coffeehouse will decide to rent one of the empty Cary/Meadow storefronts that haven't attracted any businesses in the year or two since they were built (brilliant development planning, Richmond).

Karen brought surprises back from her Trader Joes trip. The one I want to share with you is this four pack sampler of Spanish cheeses for $5. There's a manchego (flavorful, but relatively mild and kinda dense,), a curado (creamy and salty, almost ocean-like, exciting to nibble), a semicurado (a lesser version of the full on curado, still good tho), and a tenero (had a delayed effect, plain and then strong, like swiss). The pieces aren't big, but we went through each of them five or six times without eating more than half of the stuff. Okay, they were little slivers for each bite, but we're not schooled in cheese tasting. We're cheapskates and this is how we do it - satisfying, nonetheless. After that fun bit of cheese comparing, Karen and I agreed that we'd had our $5 worth already and plenty more cheese to nibble. Jasper liked each of them as well, by the way (even tinier bites). Anything dairy is okay by him.

Hey, you see those pizza crusts up there in the cheese picture? I don't know why Karen doesn't eat her crusts when I make the pizza from scratch. Well, no longer do I have to give them to the dogs or eat them myself. I've got a little helper now (your surprise is the picture at the end).

The other surprise that Karen brought me was from Marshalls in the far West End. We never get to go to that one. It's not so hot, because the people out there grab the best brands before they go on clearance (the only section I shop). Southpark Mall's Marshalls in Colonial Heights, on the other hand, is overflowing with high end stuff that hangs out untouched for weeks before being reduced a couple more times for quick sale. I guess the folks down there don't have the same tastes as I do.

Wait, where was I? Karen brought me a thoughtful and totally selfless surprise (she won't watch this stuff and I don't blame her). Never before have I seen a UFC dvd at a discount department store (it was $3 on clearance). This one is UFC 56 from 2005, featuring the fighting math teacher (and holder of a Masters of Education), Rich "Ace" Franklin. In the headlining fight, the devout creationist, Frankin ,punches his reformed Jehova's Witness opponent, Nate Quarry, in the face so hard that Quarry goes stiff and falls over like a piece of lumber. In an earlier bout, two guys who may have 1% body fat between them both (GSP/Sherk) wrestle to the ground to make an especially homoerotic muscle sandwich. Well, in all the excitement, one thing leads to another and the smaller guy's nose gets broken (you can hear him go "aaaaaaahhyee!" as it happens and similar sounds are heard with each successive shot). As blood starts running the way broken noses tend to do, the ref jumps in and stops the fight.

Jasper wants you to know that he likes to wrestle big stuffed animals (and his daddy) and he's ready to bust some moves if you send the people from Social Services over.

Peeking into Ruchee Express

On my way home from doing my civic duty on MLK Day (speaking at the General Assembly Budget Committee meeting), I stopped at the latest eatery to pop up on Main Street (at the Morris corner by VCU/7-11). Ruchee Express Indian Cuisine is a welcome addition to the Fan. Downtown really doesn't have any Indian food to speak of, except for that lunch cart down by MCV.

The place is small, as you might recall from Sweetpeas and the catering company that was there before them. But they've already got their system figured out: $6.49 Lunch special of one meat and two veg, naan bread, rice, raita and probably a little chutney. Sound good? Ruchee has reason to believe their new location will be a success (they've got another one on Midlothian Turnpike). VCU's dining hall has been bringing the Ruchee staff in regularly to serve their curries and biryanis and they could barely keep up with demand. Now, VCU students will be able to duck into the little store front and scarf down a delicious bargain lunch between classes, right there in the armpit of the campus (seriously, from Harrison to Papa Johns on Main is a second class substitute for the Grace Street corridor - but, there be bargains here).

Before leaving, I had to sample the food. But, I only had a couple ones and change for the meter stashed away in my car. I got two samosas and one garlic naan (yes, they have a real tandoori oven). Back at the house, we tore into the food. The naan was great, crispy, bubbly, garlicky, and buttery. Go there (or any competent Indian restaurant) and order this stuff. The samosas were okay. Remember, I'm a samosa snob. Plenty of good Indian restaurants make sub-par samosas, while some grocery stores make awesome ones. These were small and the flavors weren't significant enough to keep me from the coriander and tamarind chutnies. A suitable stand-in - about a 7 on the 1-10 scale, being generous.

Anywho, I hope everyone embraces Ruchee, as Indian food is sooooo good in the winter time (okay, all year round too). Their primary location on the southside used to be a real diamond in the rough. Lately, the quality of the buffet hasn't been what it used to be. Let's hope they return to full strength once this new endeavor gets off the ground.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Take a Drive on the Rustic Side

A meal without Jasper has gotten to be a fantasy that Karen and I pine for. At home, Jasper schedules his fussiest behavior for the exact time that we sit down to eat. Hot food has gotten to be a luxury. Usually, it goes cold while we juggle the baby or I scarf it down and burn my tongue and then play with the baby while Karen eats at her own pace (being a slow eater, by nature). On Sunday, Karen's parent's took Jasper away for a few hours and we jumped at the chance to go out and enjoy a leisurely meal.

It was brunch time, and there were plenty of places that we both wanted to try for egg dishes: Lulu's, 821, and various tapas places (eggs or otherwise). In the end, we settled on Cafe Rustica. I'd been once before for a lunch of the signature seafood cakes with this guy and became curious about the rest of the menu. This made me want to return with Karen for a second opinion and to share the experience. Also, since my once upon a time food blogging coworker knows Chef Andy, I had inside info that he'd like to see more people ordering something other than their Mediterranean Shortstack (at least once in a while). I looked forward to that assignment. And or course, the chance to throw down with that ornery Chef Andy character was another attraction. (I can't find their website, if they have one - a little help?).

Off to a Strong Start

At the restaurant, we debated our choices as we sat in one of Cafe Rustica's half-dosen wooden booths. We both prefer booths and were feeling very comfortable. If it weren't for one of my chronic headaches, I'd say everything was perfect, even the prices. Plenty of the $7-8 options sounded really good so we added a couple extras. It started with a house salad for Karen and a cup of pumpkin/apple soup for me. Both were served with a piece of grilled bread. The salad greens and wide variety of veggies made for a healthy start. I overheard Andy saying that he'd used a 30lb pumpkin from his porch and still had 25lbs of it stored away (watch the menu to see it pop up again). This reminded me of the enormous porch pumpkin that I'm still feeding to Jasper. The soup gave me ideas for making Jasper's puree more palatable. I was already using apple for sweetness, but the addition of clove might help. And, did I detect some roasted garlic or maybe caramelized onion? Well, I mopped the bowl clean with my bread and even the pumpkin-persnickitty Karen said she liked it.

When Karen threw in the towel on her salad, I finished it and her bread. Damn that bread is good. I tasted salt, but I wasn't sure about butter, olive oil, or garlic. Whatever it was, it may have spoiled my appetite. I knew I'd be struggling with my entree of poached eggs served over corn polenta, tomato sauce and gorganzola cheese. The variety of flavors piqued my interest, making me forget that I'd had a similar brunch dish at Bacchus a few months back.

The dish was really pretty, arranged in layers within a cazuela pan and that familiar grilled bread on the side. The eggs were perfectly poached ran all over the bread. The rest was good eatin' as well, but I've come to the conclusion that I'm not a good judge of polenta. What am I looking for in quality polenta? It was more firm than at Bacchus, but it didn't have that congealed blockiness that you sometimes see. In fact, it was even a little creamy tasting as it soaked up the tomato sauce. The thing that makes me most unsure about this dish (twice now) is the combination of gorgonzola and tomato sauce. It must be a classic dish, but I don't really understand why one would want the tanginess of tomatoes with that swirling intensity of a blue cheese. Eggs in tomato sauce seems kinda weird to begin with (but Karen is getting into this kinda similar Israeli recipe). Whatever, I'll read more carefully and get something else next time. A high quality dish, nonetheless.

Out of the Frying Pan...

Karen's "Rustica Skillet" was really impressive to behold. A big square cast iron skillet with two eggs, a pile of roasted potatoes and onions, and slices of rope sausage. Oh, and the grilled bread, of course. The vessel and its contents were nearly sizzling and set an ambiance of excitement at the table (good think Jasper wasn't there to burn his hand on the pan). As Karen worked on her new project, we both noticed a nice smell in the air. It was coming from a small rosemary branch laid in the middle of the skillet. Each element was great and very simply prepared. The potatoes were really eye popping with their golden brown roastedness. Karen really enjoyed the sausage and the flavor it added to the tiny bit of grease that unified the dish at the bottom of the pan (I guess, I did too, to be honest).

Although I had quit before finishing my polenta, I helped Karen eat her bread and eggs after she was done. The eating experience was a pleasure from start to finish, in large part because Chef Andy makes sure that every plate reflects the European tastes, both in flavor and appearance. I was struck how each item seemed significant and thoughtful, even the $3 soup and the $5 salad. On the other hand, maybe it was the magic bread putting each dish over the top. I seriously think they're kinda cheating giving carb-addicts like me such a temptation at every turn.

Did I say Throw Down? I meant Bro Down.

On the way out, Andy chatted us up about his latest vegetarian special, an ugly pile of spinach and cheese dumplings mingling in tomato sauce. He showed me the NYTimes mag page that he'd evidently posted in the kitchen for inspiration. The stuff is called "malfatti" which means "poorly made." But, they sure sound better than the ubiquitous gnochi that I always regret ordering. Too bad, I probably won't get the chance to try the malfatti. Jasper makes mincmeat of most sitters at night (recall that the Twilight movie featured a teenage vampire named Jasper). But I get the impression that I could easily make some "poorly made" at home, although they do look delicate. Which reminds me that I really want to try my hand making Chef Andy's scallop, shrimp, and crabcake that distracts everyone from his menu's other offerings. Luckily, I've learned to look a little deeper at Cafe Rustica, cuz there's good stuff beyond the shortstack. Also, I'm thinking of revising my personal superlatives for best new restaurant to include Cafe Rustica along side the Black Sheep. It will probably be just as good next time, when we bring Jasper along for lunch, but we especially enjoyed the adult getaway for brunch.

Taking Rustic on the Road

After brunch, I drove Karen down Route 5 so she could take in the country passage that really floored me during a long bike ride last weekend (over 20 miles round trip). We followed a series of slight rights passed Rocketts Landing, loads of train tracks and river views, pastures and plantations, rustic old-timey houses, Hadaad's Water Palisades, and eventually all the way to the Fort Harrison battlegrounds where confederates lay in trenches waiting to shoot some Yankees. The day was overcast and too cold to keep the windows down, but Karen definitely understood the appeal of this off-the-beaten-path getaway. In short, "Hell no, I'm not riding a bike all the way out here and back."

On our way to pick up Jasper from my in-laws, we tried to stop by a Marshalls but got lured into an Old Navy. They were having a clearance sale that returned the word to it's real meaning. Everything listed as clearance was an extra 50% off. Neither of us usually like Old Navy, but I wound up buying three pairs of khakis for $6 each and $1 socks and boxers. Jasper got loads of clothes to cover his next 12 months of growth spurts. I asked the cashier and she says the do this every year to get rid of the Christmas inventory. I said, "Thank goodness for China and the wastefulness of capitalism." The sale lasts through Monday, yall.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pizza from the Home (Depot) Hearth, Part. Deux/Dough/Doh!

I have a confession to make. Since publishing the results of my "Home Depot" pizza story, I've had to go back to the drawing board. As you may recall, the whole point was to circumvent the trap of gourmet store's overpriced pizza stones and find a cheap alternative that would do just as well. I've kept you in the dark about the past two months of drama. I've had to go back to the drawing board three times, reached some humbling conclusions, made some great pizzas, and now find myself totally unsure of anything I've allegedly learned. I guess I should probably bring you up to speed.

Red onion and sausage (GimmeLean brand fake stuff - delicious)
on the Home Depot red brick slab

At first, it seemed like I'd done my homework, cuz the pizza came out fine using a tile from Lowes as my pizza stone. Sure, there was a slight stuffiness in my house from running the oven with a big rock in it, but I figured that would dissipate with time - maybe part of the seasoning/curing process. Karen kept any critical comments to herself, cuz she didn't want to rain on my parade. A couple days later, I was using the leftover dough to make calzones. They came out awesome (but the pictures didn't, so you never heard about'em). Loaded with veggies and 3-4 kinds of fake meat, and weighing at least a couple pounds each, they'd have brought in big bucks on the Grace Street corridor.

However, this time around, I noticed a crack formed in my tile (makeshift pizza stone). Also, Karen and I both couldn't ignore the chemical smell in the air. So, the stone went out to the alley and into the supercan and I set out on another hunt. This time, I went to an actual Home Depot instead of a Lowes and brought home a virtually identical stone. Having selected it using the same Flintstonian process of elimination (it didn't look glazed), I may have actually picked the same brand, make, model (but it said, "natural" on it! probably referred to the color. doh!)

The next experiment was like an instant replay: Beautiful pizza, terrible smell, and a trip to the supercan. After looking online and seeing that others had sought out smaller "quarry" tiles (mine were 18"x18) at local tile specialty stores, I poked my head into Best Tile on Broad Street. When I asked for an unglazed and untreated tile, they acted like I was crazy. When I told them I wanted to cook with it, they acted like I was from Mars. Moving right along then. About the smaller tiles, I asked Sketchy, a local blogging baker, about this and he said Home Depot had them. When I asked if they slide around in his oven during use, he said that he always puts parchment paper down, and that makes everything easier (mental note).

Same pizza, out of the oven, with especially bad lighting
(it's light on cheese, cuz we ran out and I refused to add cheddar - but you can really get into the crust if it's not over-cheesed).

Back at Home Depot, I actually got up the courage to inquire with the staff. "Quarry tiles? Never heard of'em" They didn't think they had anything that would work. (next time don't mention the cooking/pizza part). Then on my way out, I noticed 16x16 red brick walkway stones. They were 2" thick and weighed 39lbs each. Hey, brick ovens are supposed to make great pizza, right? For $3.99, why not? I even stopped by Mary Angela's and picked up a large dough ball for $2.50, saving myself some work.

Back at the house, it was deja vu all over again. Only this time, I got a headache from the fumes and I'm pretty sure Karen had had enough of my subjecting the baby to this questionable air quality (although we were both crazy about the chewy crust on the pizza (thanks Mary Angelas). With a little effort, the red brick was heaved out the door. At this point, Karen points out the obvious, "How much have you spent so far? Couldn't you have just bought a pizza stone for that?" I'd spent almost $20, and yes, that's how much they cost at Bed Bath and Beyond, but those models are crap and they'll crack over time (according to the discussion forums). I wanted something equivalent to the high end pizza stones and I wanted to pay pennies on the dollar. Plus, I'm doing this for yall! My loss is your gain (if I actually find a suitable alternative).

Peeking at the crust told me that it was gonna be chewy. I was going for crispy, so I put half of it back in and got that distinct twice cooked sensation you get with pizza sold by the slice - but it did crunch.

My next stop took me to Southern States. I was looking for a huge piece of terra cotta. Someone online said they'd just flipped a 16" base over and used the flat bottom of it. Well, they had one that size, but it had a ridge on the outside and some other grooves that would have gotten in the way. Plus, it was $14.99.

Gang, you're gonna be so disappointed in me. You know where I went next? Bed Bath and Beyond. Dammit, I just wanna make good (and safe to eat) pizza at this point. To heck with an industrial strength stone. To heck with the irresistible bargain hunt fueled by self-righteous principles and a touch of OCD. I read right up to the recipes section of this amazing book about the search for the perfect pizza. Reinhart's search is over and mine won't begin until I have a rock in my oven to burn the bottom of my pizza. So, I cheated. But, I'm not satisfied yet and I haven't given up. There must be a way to hearth your home oven from hardware store products. If you stay tuned for the third installment, you'll find me further confounded, but still hot on the trail of this mystery. You'll also find recipes for Napolitana pizza dough and... some really fantastic breakfast pizzas. See you on the flip side.

This is the box for the 15x14 stone, by Oneida from Bed Bath and Bleccchttt! (it's really an awful store). On Amazon, it's basically this one or this one (one of them will be cheaper and offers free shipping).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Divinity of Double Walled Stainless Steel

As I've started drinking coffee more regularly, I'm trying my best to bring my own travel mug wherever I go. Most coffee shops give you 10-15 cents off of the usual price if you provide the cup. But, all travel mugs are not created equal. In fact, most are created quite crappily.

Personally, I feel like our Starbucks-addicted society is piling up used paper coffee cups and those little cardboard sleeves like wastefulness was some kind of fashion symbol (it is - especially when combined with "green" products/propaganda). My reaction has been kinda extreme. These days, I can hardly leave the house without considering if I'm gonna buy a drink somewhere (and how 'bout you, Karen?) and then I'm scrambling to find thermal coffee mugs and keeping wife and baby waiting. If I forgot my mug, I lose my appetite for coffee. Am I OCD about this?

Whatever the motivation, travel mugs are the solution and for some reason, they grow on trees. Well, the crappy ones grow on trees. Quality might not matter to you if you lose yours too often to pay attention to its construction or if you drink your coffee too fast to care if it stays hot. Personally, I want quality 100% of the time in nearly every item I own. It's just a thing for me. That's why I have fallen head over heals in love with double walled steel thermal coffee mugs. The coffee stays hot for several hours (sometimes too long) and they are very easily cleaned (being stainless and all). You've probably noticed that coffee shops keep their dairy products in carafes made of this stuff. Why not coffee? Why not the consumer?

I don't think the double walled is a recent innovation. High priced Nissan brand thermoses have been made of the stuff for a while (not the plastic with glass inside variety). You probably think you're seeing them everywhere. But, if you look a little closer, the aesthetic is imitated as they only use steel for one layer and the inside is usually plastic (or vice versa). Plus, the bigger the gap between the two layers of steel, the better insulated your coffee will be (hot or cold). But, a little homework and you'll find the best mugs on the planet. You can even buy espresso cups that are made of the stuff, which should keep you from getting upset about your cup letting your espresso get cold.

The Verdict:

I have compared a number of brands and found varying quality among the double-walled steel mugs. And I'm not particularly jazzed to be telling you that Starbucks has really gotten it right when they caught on to the efficacy of this model of mug. They sell bombproof mugs and personal french presses (now discontinued) for around $20 a pop. Keep an eye out for them at thrift stores and yard sales, because they last forever. My wife puts two scoops of grounds (and a little cream) in the bottom of her Starbucks french press mug every morning and pours in the hot water before heading out to work. Perfect coffee every day. Who would have thought that one $tarbucks product would prevent hundreds of stops at that chain coffee shop (just bring your home brew with you), acres of felled forests and wasted landfills space, and... dinero, yall.

My favorite use for double walled stainless steel is the thermal carafe coffee pot (or this one for cheap). Don't you hate it when your coffee at the office tastes burnt just because you had to send a couple more emails before you went and poured your cup? The steel carafe fixes that problem. The coffee is not heated from the bottom. It just stays hot for 4-6 hours because it went into the steel carafe that way. Or better yet, how about a 12 cup french press model? Expensive, but probably worth it.

Anywho, I hope this homage helps you incorporate a little more quality in your 2009.

Monday, January 12, 2009

MILK and The White Dog

At the end of an eventful and productive weekend, I'm reunited with Karen and Jasper, and it's time to take stock of exactly what transpired during the 48 hours after getting off work on Friday. By Sunday morning, there were so many stories I wanted to tell, I made a list and turned it over to the preferences of whichever readers happened by during a span of 10 weekend hrs. The response was light, but a good sign that you all have better things to do than read blogs on the weekend. And that's precisely why I didn't take the time to post 9 times in two days. Too busy livin'.

So, according to this makeshift democratic process, a focus group of you all wanted to hear about the movie, "MILK" and to a lesser extent, my drinking/eating experience at The White Dog. Am I overblowing the representativeness of the comments of four readers? Maybe, but I gotta honor the process. Readers' Choice. So here goes...

MILK Makes an Evening Good

Even though I was all set to follow up last weekend's debauchery by painting the town red one way or another, I decided to spend Friday night in relative private. The lone rusty nail that I had at Can Can on my way home from work was a big one. By party time, I was fatigued and cranky and didn't have party plans anyhow. So, I made my way to the Westhampton for the 10pm show.

Everything I'd heard about MILK focused on Sean Penn's performance. Already having seen the famous documentary, and being a pretty big Penn fan, I wasn't going to the movie for an education so much as to see a potential Oscar caliber performance. Within minutes of laying eyes on Penn in his 70's get-up and fay affectation, I was charmed. But what unfolds in MILK is not simply an acting achievement. The film tells a story that depicts an ongoing cultural war in America and cuts through numerous political topics that are integral to our democracy. As an aside, I should mention that I was born in San Francisco in 1974, during the ponytail era of Milk's development. As the movie unfolded, it was funny to think that blocks away, my mom was probably toting me around town, preparing to open a bookstore or start an acting career. The next night, the movie was discussed during my night out, so I'll revisit MILK in that context.

Where Everybody/Nobody Knows Your Name

Saturday night, I had two blogger friends over: Matthew Freeman and Stakolee. It was 9pm or so and two of us hadn't officially eaten dinner. We'd been discussing obscure restaurants that deserved our business but wouldn't be too loud. However, walking distance from Byrd Park narrowed our options to mostly unappealing Main Street and Fan watering holes that would be overrun with 23 year olds making their rounds from Sidewalk to Curbside and all points in between. Then, I recalled a comment I left at Matthew's blog and the guys followed my lead to The White Dog.

Once in a blue moon, I'll duck out for a nightcap, often with grad school homework in hand. The White Dog's secluded sunken basement is the perfect hiding place. Since it's usually late, I found out that they reduce all of their appetizers to $5 a piece during the last hour that the kitchen is open (typically 10-11 on weekends). When we got there, it was 20 minutes to 10pm and the only two of us eating weren't even willing to splurge on their cheapest option: their legendary BIG Salad for $14 without the addition of meat or portabellos. That's right, we were out on the town, not really wanting to pay "out on the town prices."

Luckily, the server said she'd bend the rules and take our order for three $5 appetizers and bring them out at 10pm, when the discount kicked in. Is that a cheapskate anecdote, or what? The highlight were the catfish fingers with creamy jalapeno dip. They are seriously breaded, but expertly fried. When you're drinking beer, that crunch counts for a lot. The bruschetta trio looked like a snack plate I'd make at home and balance on my protruding belly in front of the TV. Three medium sized pieces of french bread toast topped with hummus, artichoke spread, and sundried tomato pesto with feta. The pesto was the only significant flavor among the three. There were also some pickled veggies on the plate, mostly forgettable, except that the carrots were hella spicy and the pitted black olives tasted like canned Richfood brand from the back of my cupboard. Regardless, it was comfort food for me, and I was picking it clean long after the others stopped. Hey, I rode 20 miles on my bike that day. What's your excuse?

The last item was a few crispy fried spring rolls with apricot chutney. The rolls were standard, with crunchy but greasy paper wrappers and sparse and stringy veggies inside. The chutney didn't quite provide the excitement I wanted, but it was sweet and spicy. Again, good with beer. The three of us had five beers and one coffee (for the guy who's regained his edge). As the evening wore on, the place filled up beyond anything I'd seen there before. The proprietor was singing exuberantly along with some Simon and Garfunkle tunes which he'd turned up way too loud. Before you know it, they were lighting a birthday cake and singing Happy Birthday. If that sounds off-putting, you really never know what to expect at The White Dog. And if you're wanting to make sense of my recommendation of the discounted appetizers, that's it right there. I wouldn't be eating them if they weren't $5. They might be worth that. Personally, I can't resist a sale, and I find it kinda rare to order food that isn't a guaranteed rip off. So, proceed to The White Dog and see for yourself. I'm sure I'll be returning.

Back to MILK

Somehow, amidst the clamour, we still managed to talk politics. I was totally distracted by the dessert list, hoping Stakolee would order the bread pudding with bourbon sauce and some other decadent topping (so I could have a bite). It never happened. So, I couldn't resist talking up MILK, since neither of them had seen it. Both Matthew and Stakolee had been advised to see MILK in the theatre rather than waiting for the DVD to come out. I speculated that it was the impressive volume of young men in tight pants that could only be appreciated when larger than life. I mean, is there a better way to showcase either gender than tight pants? Joking aside, I concluded that the movie is just damn deserving of urgency. It's too relevant and too well made by Gus Van Zant for anyone to sit on the fence and risk forgetting about it.

As I was saying earlier, the movie quickly takes you from a character study (and Sean Penn worship) into a profile of a social movement that is still struggling for respect and legitimacy, despite America's promise of equality. Harvey Milk had incredible ambition in fighting back on a national level while running for and holding municipal office. As much as I like social justice themed movies, this one provides more insights per minute that I've seen on screen in a long time. The gay movement of the 70s had many unique characteristics and Van Zant brings those to light often. Activists are pushed to come out to EVERYONE they know as part of their campaign ("they vote two to one for us, if they know one of us"). They had a hard time with those who wanted to enjoy the lifestyle they held dear in San Francisco, but didn't want the trouble of fighting for acceptance and understanding.

As Harvey Milk's numerous campaigns evolve in the film, we're treated to a whole gamut of strategies and maneuvers that I can only compare to The Wire in terms of the stark portrayal of harsh political realities. I feel like we really see how a politician changes in order to win and in order to do his/her job once elected. But Milk shows the rare integrity of continuously operating with an eye on the gay movement and boldly leveraging his strategic/symbolic role in it. When you go see MILK (not "if"), expect an exciting political roller coaster. Expect a love story, where all of Harvey Milk's passions are on display. Expect an education, because the story is rich and it is timely. And expect a tragedy, because you can feel it building from the moment the movie begins.

Need I say more? Go on now and don't eat too many twinkies when you have a bad day. Watch the movie and you'll see what I mean.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

VOP on NPR's Morning Edition

I have served on the Virginia Organizing Project's (VOP) State Governing Board since 2001. I'm really excited to share the news that we're getting some press on NPR, the station I listen to every morning before work. Starting Monday, a NPR installment piece about community organizing is going to include VOP. I hope you hear it, cuz it's gonna be good (see the written story here). Here's an email from our executive director:
During 2009, Pam Fessler is doing a 4 or 5 part series for NPR's Morning Edition about grassroots participation in the new Obama Administration. She attended the December 4 Center for Community Change forum in Washington, D.C. and heard VOP Chairperson Jay Johnson speak and decided to have VOP be the group to follow for this series. Pam came to the December 13 VOP staff meeting to find out more about the role of community organizers and did some additional interviews.


Pam plans to spend some time in the next month or two with VOP folks in the Shenandoah Valley and VOP Organizer Larry Yates will be coordinating her interviews there.

VOP is moving forward!

Joe Szakos
Executive Director
Virginia Organizing Project
703 Concord Avenue
Charlottesville, VA 22903-5208
434.984.4655 x 222
434.984.2803 fax

If any of you have questions about VOP's work, I'd love to discuss it in the comments section. Considering the scope and variety of VOP's multi-issue state and local campaigns, my contribution has always been relatively tiny. (But, I did get to pitch VOP's General Assembly legislative agenda to the Henrico NAACP last week.) Community organizing has been a passion of mine long before I ever heard of Barack Obama. It's groups like VOP, working for long term change and slowly building infrastructure, that makes electing a progressive president possible. Well, that's my opinion. Let's see what they say on NPR.

You Pick the Topic: I'll Blog It

This weekend has been pretty action packed for me. Karen and Jasper are out of town and I've tried to have a bunch of adventures. Most of them would be worth a blog entry, but I don't want to sit still long enough to write about all of them. Here's the chronology of my activities. Drop a comment and let me know which is actually of interest to you. Don't be shy, this is a "made to order" blog entry on whichever topic gets the most (or any) requests). Plus, I'm indecisive and need your help with that. I'll sit down to blog Sunday night and post it Monday morning.

Friday, after work:
  • Oysters, a rusty nail, and bad clams at Can Can with Piet and Matt
  • VCU gym was closed, so I had Rodney Yee and Baron Baptiste run me through some yoga via dvd in my living room
  • Saw "Milk" at the Westhampton

  • Cleaning house to El Guincho. Impossible to keep up with the staccato rhythm/vocals. Fun tho.
  • Bike-ride to the Battlefields out Rt 5 (10 miles each way! Legs still like jello)
  • Pizza at Tarrantino's Pizzeria informed by the book I'm (still) reading (American Pie, the search for the perfect pizza)
  • Drinks with bloggers at the White Dog (three discount apps for $5/each served as dinner for two of us)

Sunday AM
  • Finished assembling the Ikea furniture.
  • As yet unplanned brunch.
UPDATE: Brunch is off the table as a blogging topic. I didn't put much effort into arranging any kind of companionship (got tired of waiting for some people's hangovers to subside). Plus, I've got this fantasy of going to the gym today (but not before eating). So, I decided to try my first attempt at "eggs in a hole." A perfect finale to a weekend of flying solo.
I didn't consult any cookbooks, websites, or experts, aside from my stomach (hence, two eggs and BIG sourdough toast). There are probably loads of thinks I should have done differently here. That red stuff around the sides is LightLife brand "Smart Bacon" (I had a coupon). It's not as good as Morningstar Farms.

I'm really not sure if you're supposed to flip it or not. I did, because the pan was starting to smoke a little and the egg wasn't even close to setting on top. As you can see, the white spilled a bit during the flip (actually, I had no idea what kind of catastrophe was under that toast). Nonetheless, the top came out pretty.

Here's the underside, not too catastrophic. As I plated it, I craved a sauce. Unfortunately, I could feel that I'd cooked the yolks through, so there wasn't any yolk sauce to count on. It still tasted good, if a little dry. It wasn't until I called Karen and she informed me of the missing last step: Deglaze the pan with some sherry vinegar, assuming a lot of butter was used to fry (see Bittman's #27). Pour the tangy yumminess on top. Maybe next time.

Okay, back to the voting!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

3 Bloggesrs, 2 Watering Holes, 12 beers

When I went to the gym on Monday, I felt like I was swimming against a heavy current. My domestic life and sedentary career has seemingly compounded the effects of gravity and lethargy. Despite my regular duties as a manservant to Karen and Jasper, I find myself in 2009 having lost a step. A change in direction is going to require a concerted effort. I need to get social. To get out and get active. And, yes, as a reward, to get drunk. Here' s a quick recap of two recent nights rubbing elbows with fellow bloggers at a couple downtown bars. I'm hoping there'll be more adventures to come, at the gym, the bar, and wherever food and friends gather.

Hammered at Halligan's*

Saturday night, Karen and Jasper were out of town. So, I hopped on my bike and met up with another blogger in Shockoe Bottom. Until recently, I wouldn't have been able to share his name. But, now Urban Richmond~ is out in the open and his name is Matthew Freeman. After poking our heads in Papa Ningo (too loud to talk), we hopped into Halligan's, pushed through the meat market barroom, and sat down to talk in their smoke-free dining room. The menu said they had Yeungling (my favorite beer - if they don't overcharge for it). But, when I inquired, they said they were out. So, I switched to my other favorite: Stella Artois.

A couple hours flew by as we got caught up on all kinds of things I can barely remember now. I made three pints disappear and so did Matthew. If you're a blogger, we probably talked about you. If you're a reader, but you don't comment (or do so anonymously), then you definitely received some slightly slurred degradation. After all, what are bloggers gonna talk about, but blogging? I kid. We also talked about our respective home renovations and bicycles, the awesomeness of the new Erykah Badu album, and the reality of politics in the City's 7th district. Plenty of stones were left unturned, providing impetus for a future meeting.

The bike ride home was a blur. Was it the cold? The beers? Or the bourbon and coke that I downed before leaving the house? Ah, a brief interlude with bachelorhood. Caloric intake and output probably offset one another, leaving only braincells and time expended (and money).

Cheap Drinks at Chiocca's

I made a new year's resolution for 2009, to have a beer with a Republican. It doesn't seem like such a big deal. And I probably have done so more often than I even realize. But, most of my buddies are politically progressive. So, it seemed like a challenge to imbibe with the goal of finding commonality, rather than enjoying assumed same-pagedness for hours on end. Luckily, local Republican blogger, Jason Kenney and I had been talking about getting a beer since comparing our predictions for Virginia's Democratic primary.

I remember it well. Watching the returns, I wished there was a political pub where the TVs always showed Jim Lehrer and John McLaughlin or at least CNN and everyone could pontificate to friends and strangers. Jason chimed in with a comment suggesting Chiocca's because it's small enough to turn it into whatever kind of venue you want (the place really does conjure the small town watering hole vibe). More than half a year later, I got a Facebook friend request from Jason and I said, "not until we have that beer at Chiocca's. So, we finally met up and wouldn't you know it? Tuesday is Yeungling special night: $2 bottles.

Jason and I talked about politics, blogging politics, food politics, and the politics of paying the tab (he treated! I usually prefer to go dutch on the first date. However, I handled the tip, understanding the tables will likely turn one day). About politics, Jason may have designs on running for office one day, but in the meantime, life seems pretty lonely for a Republican in a state newly turned blue. With any political perspective, comfort is found in going on the attack. So, keep looking over your shoulders, Dems.

Jason did make one interesting concession: the Republicans need to drop the whole immigration issue and adopt the amnesty position, because our country should be able to adapt to the reality of as many as 30 million latinos integrating into society - otherwise, America's "melting pot culture" is hypocritical, not sustainable, nor worth protecting. This surprised the hell out of me, and Jason says his position catches his fellow Republicans off guard too. I hope he writes a book about this one and goes on The O'Reilly Factor.

(stop - while writing this, our 12 year old black lab-mix just let out a long fart that sounded like a child's first attempt at playing the kazoo - just thought you oughta know)

By the time we had compared notes about our respective positions and projects, we'd each had three Yuenglings and a platter of nachos (pretty good with the addition of roasted red peppers). I resolved to try their veggie sub one day, since I hear they're known for their sammiches. We were both glad to have expanded our understanding who is really behind these blog things anyhow (he's been at it for 8 years!). Now, I've just got to make it back to the gym and see if Yeungling's fountain of youth has paid off in sets and reps and cardio. Regardless, I'm feeling more upbeat for the change in pace.

*I reserve the right to make any any noun plural or possessive, as one who speaks baby-talk, and like all Richmonders, I feel like I have some special relationship with every bar/restaurant in town (despite staying home for the past year).

Matthew has informed me that, in fact, we were not at Halligan('s), but across 17th Street at Rosie Connolly's. Details shetails. A pub is a pub.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Yeah, what he said...

I'm not gonna lie. This site is no kinda food blog (too eclectic and personality focused). For a real treasure trove of foodie knowledge, go here. It'll help your kitchen start the year off right. Go on. Git! Come back later and I'll have something whipped up for ya.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Citrus Soup: Just Another Manic Monday

Having worked through part of my winter break, I took Monday off to have some fun with Karen and Jasper. Bad timing. The little guy was in rare form virtually all day. He fussed, screamed, belted out new guttural sounds at top volume, and he tried to perform every Olympic gymnastic event (requiring frequent assistance, considering his general immobility). Are we entering a new period, an early terrible two's? Or, is it just another manic Monday? (whoa whoa). As a precautionary measure, we picked up a case of Yuengling cans to hunker down for a long winter of discontent. (does he look all coked up to you?)

Over the weekend, Karen was up in DC helping her BFF Corbin give birth. They had it all planned out with a mid-wife and everything. First is was gonna be a home birth. But, after lots of timing issues, it became a natural birthing center birth. But, after Corbin hit an emotional and physical wall, it became a hospital birth with an epidural. (contrast those baby faces? What a difference 9 months makes - Jasper's age, yall)

Then, after too much time had elapsed and the baby officially needed to be gotten out of there, and maybe the baby's heart-rate slowed a bit, "it" became a 8.3 lb baby boy named Everette Maxwell Goldstein. Sounds like a lawfirm, don't it? Not like Jasper Diego, international playboy.

It seems Jasper was totally fascinated with his eventual playmate and wanted nothing more than to touch the little baby bundle. He made excited sounds when he saw Everette, kinda like he does with our pug, Frankie. But, Karen made Jasper keep his hands to himself, as he tends to claw the ones he loves and grab and twist things like ears and nostrils, lips, etc. I told you he's totally off the wall, right? (that's Barbara, Corbin's mom, now a new grandmother)

Just in time to deal with Jasper's spastic rage-aholic outbursts, we converted a corner of the living room to a freakin' awesome play area. All it took was a a trip to Ikea and about $150 or so. The big addition is that wood shelf with pull out plastic tubs. We expect he'll turn that angst into creativity in this spot, maybe learning to crawl. The pillows are there to keep him from knocking his head against the cast iron baseboard heaters. Can you see an outburst beneath the surface of this simmering pot of sour crab apples? Momentarily, Jasper will have all of the toys out of the drawers and alternating them in and out of his mouth.

Speaking of food, Karen decided to make a weird dish to go along with our weird day. This soup is a twist on your standard carrot ginger. It's also got loads of orange zest and yogurt in it. Before serving, she topped it with pickled ginger slices. It's from this evidently unpopular and out of print cookbook that we got from Marshalls, but I couldn't find the recipe online (this looks kinda close). To make matters more bizarre, we had this soup with sourdough toast topped with cheddar cheese. Ginger and cheddar is kind of a strange combo (on paper), but it was still delicious (I dunked repeatedly). After dinner, I tried to reward Karen for pacifying hurricane Jasper. I poured her a snifter with a couple glugs of brandy and a few drops of this homemade additive plus a bit of agave nectar. She liked it, but didn't finish it. I'm working on it now.

Jenny McCarthy warned us in her book, Belly Laughs. The chapter was titled, "". Well, now we've got baby clutter everywhere. And that means storage (which, in turn means Ikea). You've seen the toy corner solution. Well, here's the everything else solution. Despite polishing off the vanilla brandy concoction, I managed to put this piece of Ikea furniture together after everyone else went to sleep. The shelf was $80, plus the baskets, and then these unfinished feet from Lowes were an unexpected expense. That box sticking out of the middle cubby contains parts for two really slick looking slide out drawers. The directions were just a bit more involved that I cared to attempt at midnight. But, at least I can tell Karen that I "put the drawers in." See? They're in.