Food Trekking to Eden Center

One thing I’ve noticed about DC is that it is an epic, EPIC event to go grocery shopping.  There are no bodegas, no corner stores, no little delis or random markets tucked into places that wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a storage closet.  It’s weird that in a city this wealthy that there aren’t more easily accessibly places to get fresh food.  Compare this to New York, with it’s kickass bodegas, 24-hour organic markets and countless fruit stands—fresh food is everywhere, even though most people have kitchens the size of postage stamps.  It makes cooking here in the District a pain because you have to plan everything out in advance—no dashing across the street or around the corner to grab the one thing you forgot.  Another thing that drives me crazy (and then I’ll stop kvetching) is that there aren’t even any ethnic markets in the District (please, PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong!).  I relied wholeheartedly on a little Korean market across the street to get all of my fresh produce when I lived in Brooklyn, sometimes going there multiple times a day.  Asian markets have always been my favorite for the bounty of produce, spices, and the ability to pick something up because it looks interesting and hope for the best.  In the market situation, NYC=massive win over DC.

But … I’ve found something DC does better than New York.  Like, a lot better.  Granted, it’s a 15 minute walk, 20 minute metro ride and another 20 minute walk away, but I like to think of all of the transit as prep work for a marathon eating session.  And where is this mythical, far-off place?  Not that far, actually, if you have a car … Eden Center, in Falls Church, VA.  And what does it do better than New York?  Vietnamese food.  I know, I know, it’s sacrilege, saying that New York is lacking in a certain cuisine (especially Asian cuisine), but really, I’m not the first person who’s said it. Though of course now I can’t find that article,  so you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.

 

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Eden Center is a big, occasionally warren-like maze of shops, bakeries, restaurants, more bakeries, and more restaurants.  It does boast one traditional-style market, but you go there more for the eating than the buying of things to make later.  But enough of me talking … time for FOOD!

Oh, also, it should be noted that my partner in food crime, Jing, was with me for this excursion, and it was her Droid, patience with me and excellent directional skills that prevented us from ending up Delaware.

First up was Ngoc Anh—which actually ended up being the food highlight of the day.  There was a huge hot food bar, a menu for eating in the restaurant and a large number of Styrofoam cases with room temperature items ready for takeaway.  Jing and I picked out two takeaway items but ended up eating them in the restaurant.  First, we had a thick rice crepe, filled with dried shrimp, fresh scallions, crispy shredded green papaya topped off with crispy fried scallions.  We dipped them into a clear, liquidy sauce— not sure exactly what was in it, but there were definitely chilies, sugar, and a healthy dose of fish sauce.  The crepe was perfectly chewy and the flavors were so fresh and clean, salty, spicy, a little sweet with a ton of umami—exactly what I love about Vietnamese food.

 

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The second item we got was a summer roll.  To be clear, I love summer rolls. Love. Them.  I make, really, really good ones, but for anyone who has made them before, they’re kind of labor intensive, and they taste just that much better when they’re made for you … even if you know that yours actually would win in a contest.  Anyway, having eaten our share of summer rolls, we zeroed in on one that was a little different from the norm: it had the standard basil and mint with the delicate rice wrapper, but inside was an ultra-thin sheet of turmeric-dyed egg along with dried shrimp, Chinese sausage and more green papaya.  The peanut sauce served with it was dark and smoky—heavier than what the standard gỏi cuốn would call for but perfect for this version.

 

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You can just see how fresh the ingredients are.

 

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From there, we stopped in a few different places, scoping each out before deciding where to make our purchases.  There were a ton of places selling a selection of hot foods, but we didn’t want to overdo it our first hour there.  We visited just before the Moon Festival and stacks of mooncake tins crowded every shop and bakery.  Everywhere seemed to sell dragonfruit, steamed buns, rambutan, and green mangoes.

Next we stopped at Huong Binh Bakery and Deli, where we got a steamed bun made with pandan, filled with seasoned chicken.  Pandan is actually a leaf, and it’s extremely aromatic—the compound that gives jasmine and basmati rices their scent is also found in pandan.  The taste is … well, it’s pandan.  Slightly perfumey … hints of coconut and pineapple … it’s entirely unique and is complemented by either sweet or savory notes.  If you’ve ever seen an alarmingly green cake in an Asian bakery, it’s flavored and scented with pandan.

 

don't be scared by the green.

 

Don’t let the color scare you off, because it’s actually really good.  Most of the time.  While this bun was promising initially, it had lost its appeal once we got it home.

 

no bueno.

 

The following bakery, Song Que, was far more satisfying (it’s owned by the Four Sisters).  I got a pillowy sponge cake, which was light and fluffy on the outside but still moist and a little gooey on the inside—exactly the way I like it.  Look at the delicate structure of the cake—the very center should feel a little bit cool and moist (ick. I hate that word so if I use it, it’s significant) when you touch it so you know it hasn’t been over-baked.

 

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I also got jackfruit, which is one of my all-time favorite fruits.  It has notes of pineapple, coconut and an aftertaste of cinnamon.  It’s highly aromatic, and is enormous and beastly to look at (like a warty pineapple on steroids).  It’s not always easy to find fresh, let alone cut into manageable pieces, so when I saw this waiting for me, I pounced.  I hadn’t had jackfruit this good since I was in India.  The little fruit parcels you see here are all clustered inside the rind of the jackfruit and you just pop them off.  The flesh is firm but smooth—totally different from any other texture food I’ve ever had.  Inside is a huge seed that you chuck away—just be careful not to break a tooth on it.

 

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I also got a steamed bun filled with a sweet and salty egg custard.  Not exactly a health food, but ohmygod so good … There were tons of other foods I wanted to try there—lots of Bún dishes, more summer rolls, bubble teas, frozen ices, Bánh mì… but I exercised self control. Mainly because I want to have something new to try the next time I go back.

 

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We also found some funny translation errors (or typos?).

 

monk beans are delicious.

 

Our last purchase was at Phước Lộc.  I was tempted by the barbecued pork buns because they’re kind of like crack to me, but I decided to try something new and got two sticky rice rolls wrapped in banana leaves.

 

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One had a banana filling, the other mung bean.

 

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Jing got grilled sticky rice …

 

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… filled with banana.

 

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We had high hopes … but the banana tasted really, really odd … kind of fermented and boozy and not in a good way.  The mung bean one was okay though.  At least they’re pretty to look at.  We returned home full (stuffed, even) but overall very, very happy with the day’s eating.

If you want to know more about Vietnamese food, I’d suggest checking out Andrea Nguyen’s blog, Viet World KitchenWikipedia is also a great resource.  Or, you know, you could just eat some and learn as you go– experiential learning, if you will.

Rainbow Curry

 

from top center, clockwise: yellow mustard, red pepper, cardamom, brown mustard, turmeric, whole cumin

 

I’ve always liked Indian food but it wasn’t until my junior year of college that I got truly addicted.  I spent six weeks in Bangalore, India for school (with a week or so spent on some farms and in Mysore) and ate Indian food for every single meal of the day.  Some people, when they travel, get sick and tired of local food and suddenly crave things like toast or a Big Mac—anything that reminds them of home.  That would not be me (though I will make an exception for coffee anywhere except for India, where I’ll take a hot cup of chai any day).  My host mother in India was a phenomenal cook and introduced me to the delicious flavors of Southern Indian cooking, which is very different from the Northern style that we mostly get in the US.  Southern cooking, to me anyway, is a lot lighter than Northern cooking—it still sticks to your ribs but doesn’t leave you feeling as though you just ate a lot of (very tasty) cement.  There is a lot of coconut used in the South, and it tends to be predominantly vegetarian as the south is majority Hindu.  This recipe is loosely based on curries that Chaya, my host mom, made while in India (note: you could easily swap out the ghee/butter for sunflower or canola oil to make this vegan).  I crave curry as soon as the weather gets colder and make it in huge batches to freeze for quick dinners when I’m tired and/or lazy.  It tastes just as good as the day after I made it—curries are always better once the flavors have a chance to mingle.  See the instructions below for the scoop on “resting” time and freezing.

Note:  The recipe below is pretty spicy, so if you prefer yours less so, cut down on the chilies and pepper flakes. Alternately, serve with fresh plain yogurt or raitha to cut the heat.

 

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Rainbow Curry

Serves 4-5

4 tbsp ghee/butter

1 tbsp mustard seeds (I split this between yellow and brown but either are fine)

1 tsp red pepper flakes (adjust to spiciness preference)

½ tsp ground turmeric

1 tbsp whole cumin

5 whole dried chilies (again, adjust to spiciness preference)

3 thumb-sized chunk of fresh ginger, cut in 3 pieces

5 whole cardamom pods

4 bay leaves (dried)

4 tbsp minced shallots

1 tbsp fresh minced garlic

2 pints tomatoes, halved (canned are also okay – about 16 oz should be fine. I used multi-colored fresh for the “rainbow” effect but you don’t have to)

1-2 fresh peppers, cubed (not green)

2 tsp salt

1 cup canned coconut milk (I used low fat)

3 pounds potatoes, cubed, skin-on (again, used multi colored for the rainbow effect but any kind and color are fine)

2 cups frozen peas

 

red, orange, yellow and green baby heirlooms.

 

 

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Melt butter in a large saucepan or stock pot over medium-high heat.  Add pepper flakes, garlic and shallots and sautee until aromatic.  Add cumin and mustard seeds and sautee quickly until mustard seeds start to ‘pop’ (about 20 seconds).  Add tomatoes, salt, ginger, turmeric, bay leaves, cardamom and ginger.  Cook for about 3-4 minutes; for fresh tomatoes, cook until skins start to pucker.  Add coconut milk, peppers and potatoes and cover.  Cook for about 25-30 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through/nearly cooked through.  Stir periodically (you can add water if it looks like things are drying out a lot, though the potatoes will release a decent amount of water as they cook).  Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary during this time.  Add in peas and cook for about 2 more minutes, until peas are heated through but still retain their bright green color.  Grey peas are gross!  Remove from heat.

Curry always tastes best if it is let to sit for a bit.  Ideally I’ll make my curry in the morning and let it sit out on the stove, covered, until that night.  I’ll quickly reheat and serve over basmati rice (removing cardamom, bay leaves and whole chilies first).  Life being what it is, however, the ideal thing never happens and I usually make it the night before.  It’s fine to sit out overnight and during the day as long as you keep it covered (rules change slightly if it has meat in it).  Reheat in your microwave or on the stove.  To serve, top off with fresh coriander/cilantro.

You can also add in any number of veggies to this dish.  Mushrooms, carrots, eggplant, cauliflower … it can all go in.  If you’re using delicate veg like mushrooms, though, don’t abuse them by adding them at the beginning of the cooking process—toss them in about halfway through the 20-30 minute simmer session.  Carrots, on the other hand, take f-o-r-e-v-e-r to cook so you can add them in with the potatoes.

Punkin Love

It’s officially fall today in DC– it’s chilly and overcast, much like the fall I’m used to from growing up in New England and three years of living in NYC.  It’s time for sweaters, hot cider, apple picking, and all things pumpkin.  I never, ever get sick of pumpkin (or the word pumpkin.  Pumpkin. Pumpkin! It’s so fun to say).  Baked started busting out the pumpkin (teehee) this past weekend in the form of pie and cupcakes, and my roomie (a fellow New Englander) brought home some tasty, tasty pumpkin beer this weekend.  It’s a trifecta of pumpkin deliciousness.  My camera and I are still in the honeymoon phase, so here we go … pictures!

pumpkin trifecta

Cupcake and pie both from baked & wired.  Beer from Maine!  It was the first time I’ve had Kennebunkport, but when I did a little intrepid googling to research found out that it’s actually an alternate label for Shipyard (and Sea Dog, which are all brewed at Federal Jack’s in Kennebunk).  So confusing!  Either way, I’m happy I get my boozy pumpkin fix.

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This pie is phenomenal.  The crust is flaky and mild, really letting the fluffy, smooth pumpkin filling take center stage with lots of warm spices.  It’s not overly sweet, too, which I really enjoy.

pumpkin? cream cheese? what's not to love?

This pumpkin cupcake was seriously outstanding.  The cream cheese frosting is light (I think it might be whipped) and nicely seasoned with pumpkin pie spices.  It lends the perfect amount of tanginess to the cake, which is unbelievably soft and airy.  Again, it’s not overly sweet, which is key to a successful pumpkin dessert.

Disclaimer: although I do work at baked & wired, I’m writing this of my own volition and even paid for my pie and cupcake.  Just sayin’.

Play Time with the Alpha

As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, I got a new camera.  It’s my new favorite way to procrastinate.  First, since I do other things besides eat, cook, shop for food, and write about all of those things, some shots of the awesome Batala drumming group in DC that I took yesterday morning (fine, it was en route to the farmer’s market):

these ladies practice every saturday morning at mcpherson.

Batala Washington - the only all-women's Batala group in the world.

And just in case you need further incentive to check them out:

But I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t constantly preoccupied by food, like when I made tri-color Native American popcorn to snack on while reading about the disaster that was the IMF and World Bank in the 1980s (note on the corn: tastes the same, smaller pops, tri color kind of noticeable but not really– was it wrong of me to hope for purple popcorn??!).

tri color native american popcorn. smaller pops, same taste ... and not really tri-color.

Or when I made pickled chilies (technically these are cayennes) when I should have been running regression analyses:

the spicy, pickled.

I’m letting the peppers pickle fully before I taste test– and also because I need to pull together the ingredients for a dish that they can go in.  These lil guys are super picante and I have no desire to burn off my tastebuds. For once, my impatience is coming in second place.  If they’re good I’ll pass along the recipe.

Until then, the time I allotted myself for faffing around is over. Back to work I go!

A Present for Myself

As I’ve mentioned in a few posts, my little point and shoot camera has decided to relocate itself to whereabouts unknown.  I’ve wanted a good DSLR for a few years now, and after a few weeks of saving up my paychecks and stalking various ebay auctions, I took the plunge and got myself a Sony a100.  It’s the same camera my brother-in-law has, and while there are newers models out there, I’m a) not in need of a bajillion megapixel model and b) couldn’t afford one anyway.

So … what does this have to do with food?

I took my new (to me) baby out for a spin this morning at the 14th and U Farmer’s Market (after a brief stop at Pro Photo to pick up a few lil extras that my ebay bargain price hadn’t included).  While I didn’t snap any pictures there (short on time, hands), I did take a picture of the bounty when I got back to my apartment. In lieu of a recipe, I leave you with this pretty picture:

bitter melon, shallots, mustard greens, purple kale, purple peppers, liberty apples, indian popping corn, dried apples.

Peashew Chicken

A long-running joke between some of my closest friends is that I’m secretly Asian.  This could have something to do with the whole dark hair/dark eyes/fair skin combination, or the fact that out of the four people that make this joke, three are Chinese and one is Japanese.  More likely, though, this has to do with my undying obsession with Asian cuisine.  When people ask me what my ultimate comfort food is, my immediate response is ‘miso soup with brown rice.’  I have a mild addiction to shrimp crackers, I brought hondashi, matcha and an economy-sized bottle of Sriracha with me to South Africa because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find it in Cape Town, and I would definitely run back into a burning building to rescue my Zojirushi rice cooker.

I’ve already featured some Asian recipes here; krayasaat, the warm soba salad, and sesame matcha macaroons.  This time, though, I’m skipping authentic snacks and all things Asian-inspired in favor of a super easy, super delicious Chinese recipe.  Don’t be intimidated by the ingredient list, since everything will be available at a regular grocery store.  It’s a well-rounded, healthy meal in a bowl with notes of salty, sweet, and umami, and of course, is served over perfectly cooked white rice.  I swear it tastes better when you eat it with chopsticks (if you don’t know how to use them, learn!  Once you can pick up oiled peanuts, you’re an expert.  At least according to my a-yi 阿姨).  This meal is also great reheated, so don’t feel like you have to share.

Oh, and since you’re probably wondering what’s up with the name; either peanuts or cashews work well with this recipe.  I’ve made it both ways and love them equally, and in the interest of avoiding nut discrimination decided to be inclusive when titling the post.

the chicken in its cashew incarnation.

Peashew Chicken
Serves 4, or just you for 4 meals, because this is so good you won’t want to share
based on a recipe from Appetite for China

Ingredients:

1 pound skinless chicken breast or tenders, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/3 cup soy sauce (low sodium variety is best, you can also use Tamari to make this gluten-free)
¼ cup water
1 tablesoon white rice wine or mirin
2 teaspoons chili sauce (I used sriracha because I was cooking for others, though la jiao is excellent if you can really handle the heat)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 to 3 scallion stalks, chopped
2 large handfuls mung bean sprouts
1 head bok choy (about 6-7’’ long), chopped, though feel free to add more
1 handful unsalted peanuts or cashews, crushed (either roasted or unroasted are fine)
Cilantro for garnish (optional)

A bit on rice:

I like to use Nishiki medium-grain white rice, but any plain white rice will be fine, with the exception of that microwaveable Uncle Ben’s crap.  Buy your rice in a bag and cook it properly, it’s worth it.  Make sure not to use Jasmine or Basmati; even though they’re delicious, they will make this dish less so.  You could also use brown, if you want to be uber-healthy.  I use about two scoops using my rice cooker measuring cup, but if you’re cooking rice in the pot follow the instructions at the bottom of the post.

Instructions:

Place the chicken pieces in large bowl. In a small bowl, mix together the soy, water, mirin, chili sauce, and sesame oil. Reserve half and set aside. Pour the remaining half over the chicken and stir to coat. Let marinate for a minimum of 20 minutes, though 2-3 hours is way better.

Once the chicken has absorbed all of those delicious flavors, heat the peanut oil in a large wok or skillet over medium-high. Add the shallots and garlic and cook for about 30 seconds.  Your ingredients should be aromatic, but not browned.

Add the meat and cook, stirring constantly or about 3 minutes, until meat is lightly browned/not pink on the outside.

Add the rest of the sauce and let it simmer until it thickens.  The first time I made this was on a hardcore Viking range and it took about 4 minutes, but then when I’ve subsequently made it on my lil old electric stove it has taken at least 10 (this could also be because I tweaked the recipe to cut down on the saltiness factor, which I found a little too intense even with low-sodium soy). Add in the bok choy and bean sprouts, stirring to coat.  Throw in the scallions and nuts. Cover and cook on medium low for another 1 to 2 minutes. Serve over rice, topping off with fresh cilantro and a few extra nuts if desired.

Rice is nice:

If you’re using a rice cooker, follow the rice cooker instructions.  And make sure you rinse/soak your rice first (for white and brown rice, respectively).  Otherwise, try this foolproof method.

Brown rice should be soaked for at least an hour before cooking.  You don’t need to soak white rice.  No matter the type, rinse in a mesh strainer until the water runs clear.  Drain excess water, and put into a small saucepan and spread it evenly over the bottom.  Now, place your index finger in the center of the pot until the tip of it just touches the rice.  Carefully pour water into the pot, ensuring that you don’t agitate the rice overmuch and ruin your nice level surface.  Keep pouring until the water comes up to the first joint on your finger, the one closest to your fingernail.  Cover and cook on medium until the water is nearly all evaporated.  Remove from heat, stir and let sit covered until you’re ready to eat.

To Market, To Market, Pt II

I love working morning shifts.  M Street is loud and chaotic during the day with tourists and it being the favored driving route of ambulances, fire trucks and delivery vehicles.  But at 5:30 or so when I head off to work, it’s quiet.  There are a few cars out but virtually no pedestrians, and you can hear the wheels of the few bicyclists whirring as they fly past you.  5:30 am is also awash with that rich blue light; you know the sun is there but it hasn’t quite peeked its head over the horizon just yet.  Then the sun rises in gold, violet and red, and the light shifts from it’s voluptuous blue to a shade that’s a bit starker, but no less pleasant.

Fast forward about 9 hours.  The chaos and energy of the morning (plus access to a really excellent espresso machine) has faded and I sit down and realize that I am really, REALLY tired.  This is not helped by the fact that I wake up periodically during the middle of the night in a panic, worried that my alarm hasn’t gone off.  Although I am feeling pretty delirious at the moment having lived through exactly what I just described, I’m determined to get this New Amsterdam Market post completed.  Today.  I think I’ve exhausted my descriptive abilities, so we’re going to do a mostly visually inspired tour of the market, which I will embellish as needed.  Here we go …

visual appeal

Everything at the market is visually beautiful.  In addition to whatever food is for sale, all of the vendors have these sort of rough/polished booths that, visually at any rate, really bring the market together into a cohesive whole.  I like to call this aesthetic “Brooklyn Rustic” because it reminds me of a lot of my favorite restaurants and shops there (including, but not limited to, Cafe Pedlar in my old neighborhood of Cobble Hill).  The lines and palette are simple and soothing, utilizing the industrial aesthetic of a city (note the metal) combined with materials like raw wood.

mushrooms

Among the (few) produce stands was one vendor selling rich, meaty mushrooms.  One thing I don’t understand is a dislike of mushrooms. To me, everything about them is appealing; their soft/crunchy/chewy texture, their rich taste, their versatility when cooking.  They’re also gorgeous to look at, too.  Something about their striated colors reminds me of the Painted Desert.

I can practically feel my mouth pucker as I look at these.

Another vendor was offering early-in-the-season apples. Tart and firm, these apples would be delicious on their own, with cheddar, or maybe baked into a galette …

duck, duck, mousse.

Next was a seriously yummy duck pâté (I forgot to write down the name of the vendor).  I’ve gone from being a serious vegetarian to being seriously interested in consuming everything animal related, but this particular flavor combination was very approachable and appealing for those who don’t always like the richness of pâté.

In the midst of this initial phase of exploring, it had been lightly drizzling.  Then suddenly, it started to pour.  The Brooklyn Bridge went from looking like this:

dry.

To this:

soggy.

Inches of water were pouring down some of the aisles between vendors, literally rushing over the bare toes of people who weren’t paying attention to where they walked.  But since the market itself was covered, no one was exactly going to leave.  Jing and I waded through one of the soggier aisles to sample Ruis bread, a sour Finnish rye flat round bread.  Although I don’t usually like sourdoughs, I am never one to say no to a sample, especially when that sample comes with cheddar and bright green cucumber.

finnish sammie.

I wasn’t disappointed, so I left with two (which I then prepared and ate exactly the way I tried it at the market).

although the bread looks hard, it's actually very soft and moist.

Next came Mast Brothers Chocolate, of infamous video fame.  These guys are obsessed with chocolate, and I do mean obsessed.  They bring their cocoa beans in by boat.  Sailboat.  They sort through their beans individually, and use a unique machine designed by a NASA engineer to separate the hulls from the beans (really, just watch the video).  And just look at the pretty, pretty packaging, designed by the girlfriend of one of the brothers and then carefully wrapped around each bar by hand.  Actually, by hand defines how the Mast Brothers do everything.  A trio of these were picked up for my dad’s birthday present.

mast bros.

It was still pouring buckets, with everyone taking shelter.  Jing pointed out this bicyclist trying (in vain) to stay dry across the street.  At least we were stuck where the food was …

waiting it out.

We dawdled around some more, looking at poached fruits stewed with cinnamon and other warm spices:

frutas and cinnamon.

and a creamy soft goats cheese hanging out in oil and bright green herbs:

chevre and green.

We stopped at Narragansett Creamery, where they were sampling ricotta with blueberries and honey.  It was so delicious and fresh tasting that I had to stop and talk to them, which turned into a huge conversation about where they should distribute in Mystic (where my family now lives part-time, and only a stone’s throw from Narragansett, RI).  These lovely people gave me a big tub of their lovelier cheese as thanks, which I baked into my not-a-cake-birthday-cake.

ricotta, honey and blueberries.

At this point, the rain had mostly abated and Jing and I fled the market, full of food and good conversations with people as passionate about making quality products as we are about eating them.  We may have come out on the other side a bit soggier than when we started, but all in all, there wasn’t a better way to spend a Sunday.