Monday, May 30, 2011

Night Out in DC: Oyamel

I stayed with my brother Kevin and his girlfriend Dina the night before I flew out to Korea.  Kevin had once told me about a restaurant that served grasshopper tacos and I had always been intrigued.  So, as a way of gearing my palette for the upcoming food adventures, we decided to go out for dinner at Oyamel, whose chef, Jose Andres, was the 2011 James Beard Foundation Winner of Outstanding Chef.   Normally, I do more of a review style of restaurants.  For Oyamel, though, I decided it might be more fun to just walk you through a photo collage of the adventure.    

Oyamel is a very attractive restaurant, filled with authentic themed Mexican touches as well as thoughtful colors, décor, and seating area.  For instance, there is a really beautiful bright orange flower ceiling piece right when you enter the restaurant.  There are also really great hanging pieces of butterflies that accent the restaurant. 
For drinks, Kevin got Oyamel, Dina the Sagrado Corazon, and me the Sangre y Fuego.  We passed them around and agreed that the Sagrado was probably the best, being a little tangy, a little warm, and a hint of the bright cilantro.  The Sangre was smoky, full, and a good alternative for those who don’t really like sweet cocktails.  Kevin and Dina liked it, but I wasn’t such a fan of the salt “air” of the Oyamel. 
From Left to Right: Sangre y Fuego, Sagrado Corazon,
and the Oyamel
For food, there were lots of things to try.  I ordered a Chapuline (sautéed grasshoppers, shallots, tequila, and guacamole) and Taco de Acelgas (Swiss chard, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, salsa, and chipotle), then split a Cactus Salad with Dina and the Ceviche de atun Pacifico, which is tuna with lime, scallions, avocado, pecans, jalapenos, and crispy aramath.   
The crickets were crunchy and soaked up a lot of tanginess and tartness from the tequila and lime.  I also really liked the simplicity of just crickets and avocados. 
The tuna in the ceviche was soft and creamy but needed more jalapeño.

The cactus was a first.  I really liked it because it reminded me of slightly heartier and tangier snap peas.
Kevin also order the Papas al mole, which was fries with a mole poblano sauce, sesame seeds, and queso fresco cheese.  This was the first mole I ever have and Dine and Kevin said it was richer and a little chocolatier than other moles they have had.  This one also had a lot of spice to help offset the richness of the cocoa. 
Dina ordered the Huevos Enfrijolada.  This was a nice classic dish of egg, black bean sauce, chorizo, and salsa that was great eaten with the homemade chili and lime spiced tortilla chips that come with the meal. 
Although a very upscale restaurant with somewhat pricey drinks, I liked that the food prices were fairly reasonable for small plates style.  The tacos were only about $3.50 to $5.00 and many of the other dishes ranged from $8 to $11.  All in all, it was a really fascinating food adventure, allowing me to try lots of Mexican food I’ve never had.  I appreciated the freshness of so many of dishes like the guacamole you can have made at the table, the homemade corn tortillas and tortilla chips, and the fresh complex salsa.  You can also even sit at the ceviche counter and watch the ceviche being made, cut, and assembled.  All of those touches give Oyamel a feeling of an upscale experience that wants you to reconnect with strong Mexican cooking traditions. 
Oyamel on Urbanspoon
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Winner of the Mystery Cookbook Giveaway

The winner of the Mystery Cookbook Giveaway is . . . . Marnley!!!! Congratulations Marnley!!!!!  Please check out her blog,

Thanks to everyone who participated! :)
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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mystery Cookbook Giveaway

Mystery Cookbook Giveaway!!!! One of my readers will win six cookbooks! Several William Sonoma Cookbooks included and one cookbook from a FoodNetwork Star!

To Enter: You may do any or all, just make sure to leave a separate comment indicating what you have done. 
  • Sign up to follow DownHomeFoodie on Twitter** (=2 entries)
  • Tweet (or retweet my post) about the contest and leave the link to your tweet in your comment on my blog page (can only do once and worth one entry) (=1 entry)
  • “Like” my page on Facebook (=2 entries)
  • Add my badge to your blog (=5 entries): Badge code is located in the right margin
    • Also please send me a link to your blog to confirm that it is up. 
  • Sign up to publically follow my blog (=3 entries)
  • Subscribe to my blog via email (=3 entries)
  • Publish a post on your blog mentioning the contest with link. Please leave the link to your post in your comment.(=2 entries)
  • If you are already following my facebook page, blog, or twitter and would like to be considered, just say so in the comments. 
Contest ends Saturday, May 28th at 11:59pm EST and a winner will be chosen at random.  Within a couple days, I will post the name of the winner on my blog as well as Twitter and Facebook.  The winner will then have 72 hours to email me with his/her shipping address.  If the winner does not respond back, a new winner will be drawn.  Open to US Only.
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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cookbook Studies

When I first started cooking, cookbooks were a must.  They gave me a sense of portions, flavor pairings, tips, and new ideas.  Eventually, as I learned more, cookbooks became more of a consultant than a mentor.  Although it is common to think about cookbooks as guides, in reading about food studies I’ve learned that cookbooks are becoming a source for text studies.      
On the negative side, cookbooks can be a symbol of the false and unattainable.  Anthony Lane in his article, “Look Back in Hunger,” reprinted in Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, discusses the joys and flaws of cookbooks.  Though they provide guidance and direction, the missing steps and unanswered questions make them unreliable.  He even goes so far as to say that the trouble with cookbooks is that “like sex education and nuclear physics, they are founded on an illusion.  They bespeak order, but they end in tears.”   In that way, cookbooks give misleading promises of culinary panache and the ability to wow.  The dish never looks quite as good as the picture and fails to taste quite like the flavors you concocted in your head.   
Although I think some cookbooks are about promoting superficiality (i.e. Martha Stewart), good cookbooks are a form of narrative, contributing to a cultural history.  Like Water for Chocolate ends with the grandniece of Tita talking about her mother’s and Tita’s cookbook legacy.  As I talked about in Sunday’s post on the movie, Tita uses cooking as a conduit for emotions.  Because of that, her cookbook “tells the story of [her] buried love” and serves as way of letting her live on through recipes.
An interesting article about the legacy of cookbooks is one by Rosalyn Collings Eves called, “A Recipe for Remembrance: Memory and Identity in African-American Women's Cookbooks.”  In the article, Eves argues that cookbooks function as memory texts and create a feeling of collective consciousness and identity.  Eves points out that recipes and cookbooks are tied through cultural identify because recipes foster group identity through a larger community or through a smaller family unit.  Through naming dishes after family and friends or commemorating important moments by naming a recipe after the event it was cooked for, a cookbook creates a narrative of the past.  The introduction to the Black Family Reunion Cookbook states, “Through choosing this cookbook [...] you are partaking in centuries of history, tradition and culture [. . .] that is central to the fabric of African-American life.”  The quote, according to Eves, challenges the reader to be a “part of the African-American community by consuming and digesting culturally invested recipes and instructions.”   
The value of cookbooks is that they are a written text beyond being keepers of food equations and ingredient permutations.  Cookbooks are a form of storytelling, a link into memories, and a manifestation of a community.  Another quote Eves gives from the Black Family Reunion Cookbook is a woman remember her grandmother: "Every time I make biscuits I remember those early days with my grandmother [...] I can still feel grandma standing next to me.”  So, next time you post or write a recipe or receive one from a friend, take a minute to think about the way that one recipe will create a legacy of your life.  What will your children remember about your through making it?  How will people associate that dish in their sense memories of you?  What will your cookbook say about you? 
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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Films for Foodies – Like Water for Chocolate

I'm taking a note from two fellow food bloggers, Ingested Read and Island Vittles, who blog about food fiction, and I am writing a post on a foodie film.

One food film that I revisited recently was Like Water for Chocolate. The film, made in 1992, is an adaptation of the book written in 1989 by Laura Esquivel. The book uses the technique of “magic realism” that is found in many Latin American authors, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The story is about a woman, Tita, who uses cooking to express the feelings she isn’t permitted to communicate. Because of a family tradition of keeping the youngest daughter from marrying so that she can look after her mother, Tita is kept from marrying Pedro, her true love. So that they can be together, Pedro ends up marrying Tita’s oldest sister.

In the film, cooking becomes an act of subversion, rebellion, and expressionism. Tita takes the sorrow, anger, pain, and love that she is feeling and puts those desires into her cooking, resulting in her feelings being communicated to all who eat her dishes. On Pedro and her sister's wedding day, Tita's tear falls into the wedding cake batter, resulting in the wedding guests eating it and immediately feeling sorrow and sick over lost loves. When she hears her oldest sister promise to carrying on the family tradition, denying her daughter a chance at marriage, Tita’s anger and curses manifests itself in a food that causes her sister to be bloated, gassy, and suffer from bad breath.

At one point in the story, Pedro gives Tita some roses, which scratch her chest before she uses them to make a quail dish. When Tita’s family eats dinner that night, they are consumed with Tita’s passion. The narrator reports that in the dish “a strange alchemical phenomenon seems to have occurred. Not only Tita’s blood but her whole being had dissolved into the rose sauce, into the quail, and into every aroma of the meal. That’s how she invaded Pedro’s body voluptuously, ardently fragrant, and utterly sensual.” This passion creates food that becomes a sexual act itself. It also speaks to the title, which comes for an expression that a person in a state of sexual excitement is said to be “like water for chocolate.”

We usually think about food as a way of being an artist, an inventor, or even a magician, but I enjoy that Like Water for Chocolate makes the argument that who we are and what we feel can enter into what we cook--a common idea in songwriting, poetry, and art, but not always so common in cooking. It relates back to the old axiom about food fixed with love. Like Water for Chocolate takes that a step farther to add on anger and rebellion as well as love and passion. At one point, a woman asks Tita for a recipe, and Tita responds that the dish is made with lots of love, which is the reason why the woman will never be able to fix it the same way.

Ultimately, the definition of food in Like Water for Chocolate is food is an extension of our personalities, not just something we put in us. When my boyfriend expressed his surprise about me being willing to share my Loaded Baked Potato Salad on my blog, I joked that although everyone had the recipe, that didn’t mean they would make it like me. That is because, as Like Water for Chocolate claims, the food we make carries all the desires, hopes, and expressions we have inside, and because of that no two dishes will ever taste alike.
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Friday, May 20, 2011

Pampered Palate Café

Pampered Palate Café was the first restaurant I ever ate at in Staunton.  My family was living in Charlottesville, and my mom and I had come to the Frontier Culture Museum and afterwards went walking around Downtown.   We were attracted by the quaint looking interior and decided to check-it out.  I loved Palate then, and I still love them now.  I have eaten there many times and I’ve never had a sandwich I didn’t like. 
Pampered Palate really is a quintessential Staunton icon.  The menu is based on local buildings, places, and attractions.  There is the “Historic Staunton,” hot roast beef and brie on buttered multi-grain French bread.   Or, you can get the “Masonic Temple,” ham and swiss with mustard on rye.  There is even the “Parking Garage Club.”   
Along with sandwiches, they feature soups, quiches, and baked potatoes, which remind me a lot of the “jacket potatoes” you get in England.  I once had a special baked potatoes concoction I would order regularly—herbed butter, feta, olives, and broccoli.  Eventually, the waitress knew me by this potato because I was the only one who ever ordered that combination of toppings.  The quiches are also a really solid choice.  They are good hot or cold and have a nice variety of vegetarian or meat options. 

I have several favorite sandwiches. One is the Seafood Salad.  Palate has a great Seafood Salad that has plump pieces of cut up shrimp, imitation crab and a not to heavy dressing.  I like it on the pita because I like the combination of squishy pita and chunky seafood.   A second favorite is the “Blackfriars.”  This is one Dennis introduced me to and is hot pastrami, swiss, rye bread, pickles, red onions, and spicy mustard.  I always feel a little manlier eating it because it has fantastically strong flavors that come together well with no one flavor dominating any other.  Thirdly, they make a mean “Gypsy Hill Gyro” with a smashing tzatziki. 

My ultimate favorite, thought, is the “Mount Laurel.”  My mom came up to visit me last week and since she ordered that I got to have something different, knowing that she would still let me have a bite of hers to satisfy any “Mount Laurel” envy.  The “Mount Laurel” is a gooey, rich, and spicy sandwich of croissant, ham, brie, green apples, and grainy mustard.  Every bite is a balance of spicy, sweet, tart, savory, and buttery so that all your taste buds get to feel satisfied.  It is served warm so that the brie melts into all the crevices and binds all the ingredients even more steadfastly together.    It is one of those sandwiches that affirms your faith in the potential food. 
I’ll be leaving Staunton in either August or December and so have been blogging a lot about Staunton so I can have a taste dairy to remember the town by.  One of the places I’ll miss most is the Pampered Palate.  The “Mount Laurel” will always be the preeminent brie, apple, and ham sandwich by which I compare all brie, ham, and apple sandwiches.   Even if some new place’s brie sandwich is good, even if it is better, that combination of ingredients will still remind me of all the great lunches I had at Pampered Palate. 

Pampered Palate Cafe on Urbanspoon
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Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I have only gone to Brix in Lexington, Va, about three times; but, even in those three visits, they made an impression.  Brix is a small plate, tapas style restaurant, and the menu is strongly influenced by the foods in season—the asparagus soup of the day came from asparagus growing in Hunter’s (the owner) garden. 
After hearing the story of the soup, my parents, brother, and I all got a bowl.  I was worried because I love asparagus, but have had some pretty fowl luck with asparagus soups.  But, I put my faith in Brix and that faith was rewarded.  This soup amazed me on two levels.  One level was the taste.  They maintained the green, fresh, and slightly floral quality of the asparagus, but got rid of the bitterness and muskiness that haunts some asparagus soups.  In fact, the asparagus almost had a meaty quality that my mom pointed out and that I agree with, and that fullness was unexpected, but appreciated. The second level was a technical one.  This was a cream of asparagus soup that was completely vegan.  Even without the cream, it was smooth, delicate, and rich.  How you do that without cream baffles me and I really love being baffled by a restaurant.   
For the protein, I had chermoula spiced shrimp and polenta with coconut milk and za'atar.   The shrimp were cooked perfectly and the grilling gave the shrimp a great smoky flavor that complemented the chermoula.  The polenta also had a flavor that starts subtle and then builds to strong Middle Eastern flavors.  I had let mine get a little cool and so the texture got a little gummy, but beside that you still got the sense of the texture being a nice balance of grainy and creamy.

The family got to them before I took a picture. 
As a side, we ordered the glazed turnips.  They are more like candy than turnips, but not in a bad way.  The garam masala and palm sugar combination lend sweetness while also balancing the sweetness with the warmth of the spices.  This is one of my mom and my favorites that I've gotten every time I've gone to Brix. 
Since I had gone on my birthday, Brix was nice enough to give me a complimentary birthday dessert.  I chose the banana bread which was sautéed in maple syrup, topped with a maple syrup whipped cream, and with a side of cardamom spiced rhubarb.  You would have thought that maple syrup would make the dessert too sweet and potentially cloying, but instead it provided a nice caramelization to the banana bread and a hint of warmth.  The cardamom in the rhubarb helped bridge from the sweet banana bread to the tart rhubarb, creating a nice balance to the dessert.   
The Bolognese - my mom's
favorite dish

My only complaint was an aesthetic one.  Something I noticed more once I got home and started organizing pictures was how monotone the color of the dishes were.  Especially  against the wood of the table, all the plates we ordered tended to be browns, beiges, and oranges.  Although if we had gotten one of the salads to help shake things up, that would have provided variation to the overall meal, but I would have liked a color juxtaposition here and there within each plates.  The asparagus soup was elegant with a soft green hue and topped with dainty chives blossoms.  For the other dishes, though, a sprinkling of parsley would have gone a long way in giving a little more color and help provide visual complexity to match the taste complexity of the dishes.  
Brix’s small plate theme works on many levels.  One, they are a small restaurant, and so small plates are in good proportion to the space.  Two, they are also a small, but dedicated staff that is so enthusiastic about Brix that it shows.  They answer questions, make suggestions, and do whatever they can to make you feel welcome.  Three, they are mindful about the products they use, they put care in the food they prepare, and they take joy in seeing it appreciated.  Brix, like the food, is a small place with a big impact. 
Brix on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Down Home Foodie Goes to Korea

Although I have had a lot of Thai, Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese food in my time, Korean has not often come my way. I never even really heard of Korean food as a dinning option until late in high school when someone told me about a Korean BBQ place outside of Charlottesville.

My only real experience with Korean food was over a year ago in, of all places, Huntsville, Alabama. At the point, my good friend Kim had been teaching in Korea for about a year and I had heard from her a couple of stories about her food experiences. So, when I was driving by a strip mall-like area and saw a Korean restaurant, I was intrigued.   I gave it a shot and was really impressed. The food came with about five different sides of kimchi, which is fermented vegetables, and other pickled vegetables. I had a soup with dumplings and Dennis had this amazingly red and spicy sautéed squid that was like nothing I had ever tried.

When it comes to specifics about what defines Korean food, I am still fairly in the dark. I know about kimchi and the use of side dishes of things pickled, fermented, or spiced. I have heard my best friend’s cousin talk about how spicy Korean food is and from my limited experience, I would agree with that statement. The calamari dish in particular tasted strongly of cayenne pepper and chili pepper paste.

I am about to get a crash course in Korean food right from the source.  As you are reading this, I am sitting on a very long flight from Washington, D.C, to Seoul, Korea. After two years of trying to get the trip underway, it finally worked out for me to go and visit Kim, who is still teaching in Gangneung, a city on the east coast of Korea. I'll be gone for 9 days and will have lots of Down Home Foodie adventures to blog about. Start keeping an eye out for those starting around May 31st!

While I'm gone, I still have blog posts scheduled on a regular basis. There is going to be a review of Brix, a small plate restaurant in Lexington, Va, a food film review, and an upcoming Mystery Cookbook Giveaway!
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Sunday, May 15, 2011

New Beer Garden at Coffee on the Corner

When the Starbucks first came to Staunton, it almost didn't make it. I found out from a friend who worked there that it wasn't until Starbucks logo was put on the exit signs on 81 that the Starbucks become viable. Granted, the Starbucks is on the outskirts of Staunton and not in the downtown area, which is Staunton's main attraction. So, Starbucks struggle isn't quite a testament to the loyalty of Stauntonites to their downtown coffee houses, but I like to think it is.

Like most towns and cities, what coffee house you go to in Staunton says a lot about who you are. Families, thirty-somethings, and middle-age adults tend to go to Blue Mountain Coffee. Tweens, teens, twenty-somethings, hipsters, college students, and thirty-somethings, tend to go to Coffee on the Corner. I can't talk with authority about who goes to Mug Shots. I like to go to Blue Mountain when I want to get work done and have a nice bagel sandwich; I go to Coffee on the Corner when I want to run into people and be distracted.

Coffee on the Corner is named so because it is on the corner of Market Street and Beverley Street. Its location makes it a great docking point to people watch as well as to enjoy great coffee. They have the usual caffeinated concoctions, but also have Italian sodas, steamed milk or soy milk, tempting desserts, and tasty sandwiches. My favorite sandwich is their chicken salad that is slightly sweet from a touch of honey but is savory on only with a little mayo. They also make a great grilled cheese and a mean pastrami sandwich.

Last week, Coffee on the Corner branched out to being more than just a great coffee house and now have become a great coffee house with an awesome Beer Garden. With an a select couple of wines and an extended beer list offering all sorts of beers and microwbrews, you can sit outside, enjoy the landscaping, and take in the evening air. While most of Staunton's outdoor seating areas on streets or off parking lots, Coffee on the Corner is a below street level cove that allows a slight feeling of seclusion so that you can enjoy friendly conversation and a cold beer. They also have subtle background music that gives ambiance, but still allows you to hear the person you are talking to.

At the opening last Monday, you could tell by the happy, content looks on people's faces that this is what they had been waiting for in Staunton. Sitting felt so natural and it made it seem like it should have been there all along. I've already been back sense and I'm looking forward to more warm summer evenings of meeting up with friends, enjoying a cold beer, and checking out the night sky.

Coffee On The Corner on Urbanspoon
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Friday, May 13, 2011

Head Heart Gut Groin

When my boyfriend found out that he was going to be moving to Nebraska to get his MFA, his mom said that she would lure me to live with her in Cleveland to ensure that Dennis would visit often.  Her plan?  Using grilled cheese and cupcakes as bait. 
This story reminds me how with every year, I am becoming more of a belly driven person.  Lately, when Dennis and I go on trips it is his job to plan hotels and sightseeing while I take care of finding places to eat.  When I travel by myself, most of my trips are planned around places to eat and are less about things to see.  I had to go to Philadelphia for a conference three years ago.  While there, I passed up the Liberty Bell for a tour of Reading Market, Independence Hall for Morimoto Restaurant, and several conference panels for a dim sum quest in Chinatown.  I did see the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but I paired the Antique District with a Cuban restaurant.  
In acting, one tool that some actors use is something called Head Heart Gut Groin.  These are objectives that you can assign to a character by looking at their language and using that part of your body to determine acting choices.  Hamlet is a head character; Romeo a heart; Othello a gut; and, Antony a groin.  Someone like Falstaff gets to be several and move from head to groin to gut depending on the moment and his goal. 
As a teacher, I should be a head and in certain times and circumstances, I am.  When problems arise, I take them apart from lots of different sides.  However, it is my gut side, or my intuitiveness and instinctive reaction, that often comes in conflict with my head.   In picking colleges, I went with the school that felt right, or with my gut told me.  What is funny is that recently, I also started picking restaurants on not only how the menus look, but also on what my gut saysa gastronomical sixth sense.  And, my gut has a much better track record then my head. 
I think adults need to embrace the value of being a gut, thinking about basic needs, natural feeling, and core desire.  What I like most about little kids is that they have no fear of their bellies.  They walk in a way that pushes bellies out and allows themselves to lead with their tummies.  As adults, we are trained to hide bellies.  My yoga teacher always has to reassure the class that it is okay in yoga breathing to inflate your stomach and to not be ashamed of watching it swell. 
I've decided to embrace being a belly driven person.  Dr. Michael Gershon talks about in his book, The Second Brain, that “the brain is not the only place in the body that's full of neurotransmitters . . . .A hundred million neurotransmitters line the length of the gut, approximately the same number that is found in the brain.”  In other words, your “gut” is capable of relaying information in the same way your brain does.  I think my belly does a lot of good thinking for me.  So, next time you are in doubt, go with your gut.     
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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Blue Collar Joe’s Donuts

I went over to a friend’s house for Wrestle Mania over a month ago and a friend coming up from Christiansburg, VA, had stopped and picked up donuts from a place in Daleville. I am someone who gets really excited about donuts, and so when I heard there were donuts I was already doing a happy donut wiggle. But, when I went into the kitchen, I was not prepared for the awesome sight in front of me.

Donuts with vanilla icing and pretzels.

Donuts with Oreos and cream.

Donuts with bacon.

My donut wiggle turned into a donut dance.

I immediately inquired how such an utopia existed without my donut senses tingling. So on Easter weekend, when I went home to visit my parents, I made the pilgrimage to Blue Collar Joe’s Donuts.

Blue Collar Joe’s is off Highway 81, exit 150B, and is a converted gas station. The menu features lots of coffee options, wraps, and around fifteen different donuts. The flavors include things like strawberry cheesecake, red velvet, coconut crème, cow tail, Reeses pieces, crèamsicle, and many, many others. My parents and I each got something different and I also got one to take home for my boyfriend. Here is what we got . . .
  1. Nutty Buddy Donut – vanilla cake donut with chocolate frosting, caramel drizzle, ice cream nuts, and pieces of crumbled up sugar cone.
  2. Blueberry Pancake Breakfast Donut—typical blueberry style cake donut made extraordinary with a maple glaze and bacon crumbs. It is breakfast with a whole in middle.
  3. Chocolate Mousse Soufflé -- sweet chocolate cake donut with a light, frothy chocolate mousse on top.
  4. Turtle Donut – chocolate cake donut with a caramel frosting, chocolate drizzle, and ice
    cream nuts.
They were all awesome, moist, sweet, and definitely more a dessert than a breakfast. With a cup of coffee, you feel like you are communing with a center-less ecstasy. If I had to choose the best, it would have to be the Blueberry Pancake Breakfast Donut. I like pancakes. I like blueberries. I like maple glaze. I like bacon. So, it only stands to reason, that I would love such a union of all these things.

As the band Devil’s Makes Three sings, “If you're gonna do wrong, buddy, do wrong right.” Blue Collar knows how to do wrong right.

Blue Collar Joe's on Urbanspoon
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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Blue Mountain Brewery

Picture yourself sitting at a table, relaxing in the cool evening air, looking at the Blue Ridge Mountains, and sipping a great beer.   No, you aren’t in a hops scented dream; you are having an evening at Blue Mountain Brewery.
Blue Mountain Brewery is one of several microbreweries in the Shenandoah Valley, and the strands of cascade hops they grow on premises are a testament to how seriously they take their product.  With both indoor and outdoor seating, it is a place where twenty and thirty-somethings converse over pints, where families with young children can feel welcome, and all relax with good food and great beer.  
To start, you should orient yourself with the beer sampler (only $5 to try all six beers) and the meat and cheese plate ($13).  The beer sampler is a great way of taking a flavor journey through the fruitier wheat beers to the fuller, hoppier IPAs, and then end with the bold, rich stout.   While the beers stimulate your thirst, the meat and cheese plate acquaints your belly with the finest meats, cheeses, and fruits from Goodwin Creek, a local farm.  Our cheese plate featured smoky pepperoni and salami, coupled with jalapeno cheddar, mustard seed cheese, and gruyere, brightened with fresh oranges, pears, apples, blueberries, and blackberries.  You won’t be sorry for having ordered it. 
For the main course, I got the Nitro Chili Dog ($9) and Dennis got the Beer-Boiled Local Bratwurst ($9.50).  The beer bratwurst is from Double H Farm, a Nelson County Farm, and is boiled in Blue Mountain’s Lager.  It was plump, juicy, and heaping with sauerkraut that gave it a pungent and vinegary balance.  It also had a drizzle of their homemade beer mustard that has a great grainy texture without being too spicy.  The Nitro Chili dog combines a juicy all-beef hot dog with a bold and zesty chili that is spiked with their Nitro Ale.  I loved the chili dog and got a big kick out of revisiting a grandstand favorite, but I do have to admit that the beer bratwurst stole the show.  But, I don’t think you can go wrong either way. 
Although the sausage and hot dog were satisfying, the star dish of Blue Mountain is their Bratwurst Pizza.  A homemade thin crust dough cooked crisp pairs with toppings that are an unexpected combination for a pizza.  It has the standard pizza components of marinara and mozzarella, but the addition of brauts, apples, caramelized onions, and finished with a balsamic reduction, make this a one of kind flavor experience.   It is complex, smoky, sweet, and savory.
As well as the unforgettable food, there was also the beer.  For the beer, I’m not going to say more, I’m just going to let your curiosity make you try for yourself.  The only thing I’ll say is IPA lovers, get the Full Nelson.  If you want to experiment, try their Dark IPA which was a beer that four local breweries, Wild Wolf, Devil’s Backbone, Star Hill, and Blue Mountain, came together to create.  It is not a traditional IPA, but almost brown ale meets IPA--a combination I whole-heartedly support.   
If you live in the Staunton, Waynesboro, Charlottesville, and Nelson County area and have not been to Blue Mountain, drop what you are doing and put it on the schedule.  But, for everyone who  loves beer, good food, and a restaurant committed to local farms, all combined with a great mountain escape, than get to Blue Mountain Brewery.         
Blue Mountain Brewery on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Cinco de Mayo Toast to Tequila

I love tequila. Although in the hard liquor category, I most often drink bourbon, tequila has a special place in my heart. While I associate calm, relaxing, and contemplating with bourbon, I associate happiness, camaraderie, spontaneity, and joy with tequila.

I know not everyone has those same associations with tequila. It is most often used in connection with drunken mistakes, intoxicated blunders, and liquor lapses in judgment. As someone once said, “Computers have enabled people to make more mistakes faster than almost any invention in history, with the possible exception of tequila and hand guns.” Although I once felt that way about tequila, I now know how much more complicated tequila is. The citron and floral notes seduce you, presenting one mood and one side, only to have the more elusive, dangerous undertones catch you unaware.

Sometimes, I like it brown and dirty. Sometimes, I like it clear and clean. Sometimes, I like it to provide a precarious undertone to a green, tangy lime soaked concoction. But, if I’m feeling sassy, just tequila, a slice of lime, soda water, over ice will always leave me content.

When I’ve done tequila infusions, my two favorites were watermelon tequila and pepper tequila. For the watermelon, you just take half a watermelon, cut it up, and leave it to soak in the tequila for a couple of days. Even after you strain out the watermelon, it will have doubled in bulk because of all the water in the watermelon, making the tequila lose a little edge. It makes a great punch with a liter of Sprite or soda water, some orange and lime slices, and some muddled mint. While watermelon tequila is for everyone, pepper tequila is not for the faint of heart. To make this, I let about a tablespoon of peppercorns and a sliced up jalapeno sit in a bottle of tequila for 24 hours. You strain the peppers and just serve on the rocks or with ginger ale. The tequila will take on a fiery bite, so make sure to play nice.

Tequila has battered me, embarrassed me, calmed me, and pleased me, but on this Cincdo de Mayo, I still raise my glass to say, "Here's to Tequila."  
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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Thai Cafe

For a long time, the two main Thai restaurants in Harrisonburg, VA, were Thai Café and Taste of Thai. I was introduced to Thai Café and it was love at first bite. When I eventually got over to try Taste of Thai, I was impressed by the interior décor, the comfy booths, and the soft romantic lighting. At the end of the meal, though, I couldn’t see why Taste of Thai got so much buzz when it was more expensive and not nearly as tasty. Taste of Thai is the place you might take your date to impress them, but Thai Café is the place were you are going to have a happier belly and leave with more money left in your pocket.

My favorite food from Thai Café is the pho. I tried the other pho joint in Harrisonburg, but I always end up back at Thai Café. Even by looking at the tables, you know they are serious about pho because each table has a small lazy susan stocked with hoisin, sriracha, red pepper flakes in oil, fish sauce, chopsticks, and soup spoons. However, as you can see from the picture, I did take-out and Thai Cafe does a great job of setting you up with all the fixings.

The pho itself is fantastic. It has hints of anise and cinnamon and you have the option of chicken or beef broth. I tried the chicken broth once and have been a dedicated meat broth person since. Although you can get the usual meat, steak, and pho balls (as my best friend calls them), I always ask for fried tofu because it greedily soaks up the broth. The portions are huge with a regular size bowl costing around $6.95 and a large, $7.25.

Besides pho, Thai Cafe also has a good pad thai, ginger chicken, and rich curries. Nine chances out of 10 at any Thai restaurant, I will get the green curry (because green curry is my favorite). Thai Cafe's has sharp hints of ginger and spicy jalapenos, lightened with fresh cilantro, and offset by sweet coconut and basil.
Thai Cafe is tucked away behind the Target in Harrisonburg and it is part of a strand of three of the greatest ethnic restaurants that are all in one little strip mall. Thai Cafe is sandwhiched between Inca's Secrets, that has awesome fried yuko and Peruvian chicken, and Cafe Jacko, that serves up sushi, bento boxes, and udon soup. All three are a deal and will make it hard for you pick.   But, who says you can't get a pho starter, peruvian chicken for a main, and then an eel roll chaser.  I wouldn't judge. 
Thai Cafe on Urbanspoon
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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Pho Magic

In my “Blog Manifesto,” I wrote about what people on death row choose as their last meal.  I know what mine would be.  It would be a bowl of Pho. 
Pho is my ultimate comfort food.  I had my first bowl when I was 21 and I have had many, many bowls since.  I’m very lucky because my best friend is Vietnamese, and her mom is an excellent Pho maker.  Her mom jokes about the fact that I am an “Asian Baby” because I find such joy and happiness in Asian cooking.  And, of all Asian dishes, nothing makes me happier than a bowl of pho. 
At one point I had thought about having Kathy’s mom teach me her secrets, but I never was able to find a good time.  When I first started eating Pho, I did look into recipes.  It usually entails a rich broth made of ox tails, vegetables, and spices like anise and cinnamon.  The soup itself is made by adding in rice noodles, meat (or fried tofu, which is my favorite), and onions.  In addition, most restaurants then provide Hoisin sauce and sriracha and a plate of cilantro, basil, lime wedges, and bean sprouts for you to add according to your desires.   
Even though I know the components, the exact chemical equation and construction is a mystery.  The odd thing is that as much as I love Pho, I have come to have no interest in learning how to make it for myself.   The closest I came was buying a ramen style pho packet that came with rice noodles and two secretive packets.  I guess the main reason I have no interest in learning how to make Pho is that I think of Pho as a magic healing spell and knowledge of the enchantment seems blasphemous. 
To me, it seems strange that someone like me who spends so much time thinking about food, dissecting recipes, and identifying nuances, compositions, flavor profiles, textures,  variations, and subtleties (basically just over-analyzing food) could be happy not knowing about the mystery of her favorite food.  But, I think for all of us there is one food that you accept whole-heartedly as is.  Either it is a food your mom makes like no one else or your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant.  For those foods, something is taken away by finding out it is just food, an equation, a permutation of ingredients. 
So for me, Pho is off limits.  It is magic.  I have no need to conjure it up or find out how the trick is performed.  I am content just to sit in awe of it. 
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