September 27, 2006

Tender Chops with Roasted Baby Carrots

I grew up under the impression that pork chops were nothing more than overcooked, underseasoned, scrawny scraps, typically accompanied by overcooked, underseasoned roasted potatoes and carrots. [No offense to my mother, she just had certain culinary limitations.]

My children, fortunately, will grow up knowing that pork should be tender, succulent, and always a surprise. It might be a Tex-Mex influenced pork tenderloin or, as is the case here, it might be center-cut pork chops coated with an easy, but elegant spice rub.

Coupled with carrots that you cook in the same pan as the pork and some herby smashed potatoes and you’ve got yourself a fantastic and easy mid-week meal.

Rub (from Fine Cooking magazine)

  • 3 teaspoons of dark brown sugar
  • 3 teaspoons of crushed fennel seed
  • 2 teaspoons of sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons of garlic powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of black pepper
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of kosher salt
  • 4 center-cut pork chops
  • 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 to 3 handfuls of baby carrots (cut any particularly big ones in half)
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh tarragon (or thyme)
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Combine and mix all of the rub items together.

Put a little olive oil on each chop, rub it in, and then coat each chop with some of the spice rub.

Combine the carrots in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of oil, salt, pepper, and tarragon.

Put the remaining olive oil (at least one tablespoon) in a large, oven-proof pan and heat over med-high heat. After a minute or two (you want that pan to be hot), put the chops in the pan and don’t touch them. After 3-4 minutes, flip over (with tongs) and don’t touch them. You want to sear the chops, so don’t move them around in the pan!

Put the carrots in the pan with the chops and put the pan in the oven for no more than 10 minutes. Pull from the oven and serve immediately.

September 25, 2006


It was a ludicrous question, really. The waiter didn’t even understand it. I have to assume that John and Rachel, the couple there with us, were terribly embarrassed. They knew the restaurant owner, as I recall, a friend of a friend.

They had been going there for dinner regularly since moving into their apartment, which was right next door to ours, in a garden-style complex in one of the more fairly-undesirable locations of Alexandria, Va.

The question I asked:

“Can you leave out the mint? Can I get it without the mint?”

To this day, I’m glad the waiter didn’t speak English. If he had, he probably would have either a) laughed hysterically or b) spit in my hair.

The “it” in which I did not want any mint included was number 31. A traditional Vietnamese dish, number 31 consisted of shredded lettuce and mint leaves covered by squiggly vermicelli noodles. Resting atop the noodles were two skewers of grilled pork that had been marinated in lemongrass and other spices, two halves of a Vietnamese spring roll (also filled with pork), and crushed peanuts. Served on the side is a small cup of a traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce, nuoc cham.

Visit any Vietnamese restaurant and you’re likely to see this same dish, as well as a version with beef or chicken. For reasons I don’t know, only the pork version is accompanied by a spring roll in the bowl.

At the moment of “the question,” I knew absolutely nothing about Vietnamese food. In fact, I knew very little about food at all. To that point in my life, I ate no seafood, no vegetables to speak of. Meat was ordered medium-well. Salads were iceberg lettuce topped with creamy dressings. Beverages—alcoholic ones, at least—were no better. I avoided wine and drank only the water-dressed-as-beer offerings from America’s mega-brewers.

Our presence at this restaurant was the direct result of a new friendship we had developed with our soon-to-be-mollified neighbors. Aside from proximity, we had other important things in common with John and his then-girlfriend (and later ex-wife) Rachel. They, too, were only a year or two out of college. They, too, were new to Washington, D.C. They, too, were working disturbingly low-paying jobs, which meant dining out was a treat.

John had grown up not far from Maryland’s eastern shore, and for many years his father worked in Washington as an attorney for the federal government. His family had friends there, including a Vietnamese woman who had a friend who owned a small restaurant in an area known as Little Vietnam, a single plaza off of Route 7 in Alexandria’s Seven Corner’s area in which every business is geared toward Vietnamese clientele.

It was a weeknight and only a few other customers were there. We were the only Caucasians. It was clean, in that there were no visible signs of dirt or bugs or soiled utensils. There were maybe 12, well-worn tables, with likewise well-worn chairs. Nothing could be described as glimmering. Vietnamese muzak floated around our giggly conversation.

At John and Rachel’s recommendation, Sarah and I both ordered number 31—and a Coke, which was brought to the table in a can, accompanied by a small (possibly plastic) glass.

Based on the menu description, it was clear I had never eaten anything like this before. And, yet, apparently the only thing about it that gave me pause was the mint. As far as I knew, its only use was to flavor iced tea.

The ludicrous question was posed. Because it was obvious the waiter didn’t comprehend it, I gave up. I’d pick out the mint.

When our meal arrived, John and Rachel explained that you pulled the pork off of the skewers and poured the nuoc cham over top. The mint was at the bottom with the other stuff, so it might prove difficult to scoop out.

I was probably pretty hungry, so I just went for it. I tossed it altogether into a big, mysterious heap. I may have even used chop sticks.

The pork was incredible. It was actually tender, something I did not realize was possible. Lemongrass was a revelation for my inexperienced taste buds. The nuoc cham was sweet, a little spicy. The shredded lettuce and peanuts were crunchy.

And the mint? Little bits of it would sort of burst in your mouth, and it made everything else taste that much better.

Over the next year, we would visit Number 31—which is what we came to call the restaurant—at least once a week. Number 31 was our usual. On occasion, we tried, and usually liked, other things.

And we always got a Coke, in the can.

September 15, 2006

Holy, Holy Guacamole

I have developed a strange obsession with guacamole this summer. Not surprisingly, that obsession has coincided with actually taking the time to make my own.  It’s so simple to make that it’s hard to understand why anybody buys it pre-made at the grocery store. Well, that’s not necessarily true. I think I know why.

First, you have to have ripe avocados, so timing is an issue. Fortunately, our local grocery store almost always has ripe, or nearly ripe, avocados, so that has not been a problem.

The other factor is cost. Avocados are expensive. That said, if your making delicious guacamole, you might be able to justify the cost by using it for more than one meal. We’ll do fish tacos one night with some guac and chips, and then use the leftover the next night to put on a burger or a hot dog. So, if you plan it right, you can stretch that guac as a component of dinner for two nights.

This recipe will be enough for a group of 4 to 6 people.
  • 3 ripe avocados
  • 3 tablespoons of finely diced red onion
  • ¼ cup of chopped cilantro
  • One ripe tomato, diced
  • Two jalapenos, seeded, and finely chopped (one, if you don't like too much heat)
  • Half of a lime
  • Kosher salt

Combine the onion, cilantro, jalapenos, and a good-sized pinch of salt and mash them with a mortar and pestle until it forms a loose paste.

Cut the avocados in half, take out the pit, scoop out the insides into a bowl. Add the cilantro mixture and squeeze in about half of the juice of the lime, mash with a large serving fork or something similar and combine well. Add the tomatoes and gently combine.

Taste at this point. Might need a little more salt, lime juice, or cilantro. If you have some leftover cilantro, which you should, dice a little up and sprinkle it on top as a garnish.

Tip: Use a roasted jalapeno instead of just a plain ol' raw one. Put over top of a flame on the oven top until blackened all over, about 3-4 minutes. Wrap in plastic wrap for 5 minutes. Remove, scape off the blackened skin with a steak knife, remove seeds and ribbing.

September 11, 2006

The Nation: All About Food

I missed this, but the Sept. 11 issue of The Nation is all about food. Looks like there is lots of good stuff here. Any thoughts on the articles are welcome (via the Comments, for you blog virgins)...

September 9, 2006

A Good Piece of Flank Steak

(Adapted from a March 2004 Food & Wine recipe)

One of the meals from my childhood that I remember with a good deal of fondness is cube steak. At the time, I didn’t realize the cube steak was most likely pieced together from some of the least desirable cuts of the cow. I wouldn’t have cared anyway. I was a kid and, unlike my mother’s overcooked pork chops, it tasted good.

It’s been years since I’ve had cube steak, but a cut of meat that I think some people may lump together with cube steak and that I’ve really come to enjoy is flank steak.

One reason that I suspect flank steak is underrated is, well, because the cuts available at many grocery stores, or even butcher shops for that matter, are of fairly poor quality. Also, once it’s cooked past medium, even a quality piece of flank steak starts to toughen up (like those overcooked porkchops from my childhood) and lose its flavor.

This flank steak recipe is very simple to make, yet is reminiscent of a meal you could get in a good Asian restaurant. It involves just a few ingredients. But the key to its success revolves around two factors.

First, it requires a quality flank steak. We have had great success with flank steaks purchased from Whole Foods, which gets a lot of its meats from Coleman Natural. Yes, you are going to pay probably twice what you would pay for a flank steak from your usual grocery store, but the end product is well worth it. That said, some of the bigger grocery chains are now carrying their own line of hormone-free, antibiotic-free meats, and they seem to be of a decent quality—although, again, they are more expensive.

Second, the meat cannot be cooked past medium. Even medium, in my view, is a minor travesty, particularly if you’ve actually paid for a good piece of flank steak. So, if you’re one of those squeamish sorts who, for whatever reason, equates eating red or pink meat with pouring laundry detergent in your eyes, then perhaps you should skip this recipe. It’s your loss.

  • 1 tablespoon of canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon of minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon of finely grated fresh ginger (do NOT substitute ground ginger)
  • ½ cup soy sauce (low-sodium is fine, and healthier)
  • 1/3 cup of dark brown sugar
  • Two pinches of crushed red pepper
  • 2 lbs or so of flank steak
  • Salt and pepper

Get a grill going over medium-high heat

Heat the canola oil in small sauce pan over medium heat. Add garlic and ginger and cook for about a minute or so, stirring a few times, until garlic is just starting to golden. Dump in the soy sauce, brown sugar, and crushed pepper, stirring here and there, and let it get syrupy, which should take 3 or 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and let it cool. Reserve about 2 tablespoons or so in a separate bowl.

Season the flank steak with salt and pepper and put on the grill (and leave it alone!). Cook for 4-5 minutes and then turn it over. Cook for another 3-4 minutes, and then brush on all of the glaze (except for the reserve) for the last minute or two of grilling.

Remove it from the grill and let it sit for a few minutes on a cutting board. Remember, it’s still going to cook for a few minutes while it sits there. So unless it's a particularly thick steak, 10 minutes is the maximum time it should be on the grill.

Slice the steak crosswise into half-inch strips and drizzle the reserve glaze over top.

Note: In terms of a side to eat with this dish, I would highly recommend making a little bit more of the glaze than the recipe calls for (just adding a little more of each ingredient to the pan), and using one tablespoon or so to quickly marinate some asparagus, which you can grill at the same time as the flank steak. We’ve done that on several occasions and it’s a perfect combination.

September 5, 2006

Alotta Frittata

This is a favorite mid-week meal in our house. Frittatas are kind of like an omelet, but you don’t flip them over. Instead, the eggs and “the stuff” all stay flat like a pizza and go under the broiler for a few minutes.

Although there are some hearty frittatas you can make, this one is light, so I’d recommend some toasted fresh bread or a side spinach salad (or both) to make it a complete meal. To save some time, you can cut up the tomato, fontina, and onion the night before.

  • 6 eggs, cracked and beaten
  • ¼ cup of whole milk (or, if you’re not counting calories, cream or half ‘n half)
  • 1 ripe tomato, diced
  • ½ to 2/3 cup of Vidalia or other sweet onion, thinly sliced (We’ve really been enjoying the PA Simply Sweet Onions, as of late)
  • 3-4 ounces of fontina cheese, diced (if you can get your mitts on some good fontina, I recommend it)
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano
  • Couple passes of freshly ground nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to broil

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large frying pan (the big boy) over medium heat. Add the onions, sauté for a minute or two, then add the tomatoes and sauté for one more minute. Season the eggs with salt, pepper, and two or three dashes of nutmeg, and add to the pan.

Cover and let the mixture sit for two minutes. Uncover, tilt the pan a little to the side, lift up some set egg and let some of the runny stuff from the top go underneath. Sprinkle the oregano and the fontina over top and put into the oven. Remove from the oven once the top shows the first signs of browning, about 3 or 4 minutes.

Let it set for a minute or two. Loosen up the frittata with a rubber spatula and slide it onto a cutting board. Cut it into 4 pieces and serve.