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1963 Wants to Know: Is Your Food Glamorous Enough?

I often find myself asking that very question. IS my food glamorous enough? I fear, though, that by the exacting standards of the ladies of 1963, my efforts aren’t quite up to snuff. I don’t serve my fruit salad in darling carved grapefruit baskets, my radishes are rarely roses, and I don’t think I’ve turned mushrooms but once.

All is not lost, however, as I received this little blast from the past for Christmas from my friend Susan. I mean, not only is it a food glamorizer, it’s a KITCHEN MAGICIAN food glamorizer. I mean, really, what could POSSIBLY be cooler? Nothing, that’s what.

It’s kind of fascinating that the era that produced frozen peas, condensed soups, and a cascade of other “convenience foods” also produced the glamorizer. I wonder what it could do to frozen fishsticks?

I have yet to unleash any glamorized food on this unsuspecting world, but the time will come to string the celery, carve the pumpkins, and peel the carrots as they have never been strung, carved, or peeled before… or, well, at least not for a good fifty years. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some radishes in dire need of glamorization.

Seasonal Produce Watch: Figs, Figs, Figs!

Having had some divine figs–right off a ginormous old tree–on vacation, I was debating whether or to write about the arrival of this fall’s fresh figs back here at home–totally worthwhile, yes–but necessary? And then I remembered that I’d never had a fresh fig until Mr. T brought some home one day not so many years ago. They were so novel and delicious I ate the whole pint myself… and spent the next two days in very close proximity to the potty. But the less said about that, the better.

So yes, anyway. On the off chance that anyone else is, like I was, not clued in to the manifest delights of fall’s fresh figs, let’s dish. A yielding, velvety skin surrounding lush, honeyed flesh? Yes indeed. While there are tons and tons of fig varieties, we’re most likely to see Black Mission, Brown Turkey, or green Calimyrna in markets here in DC. And, providing that you don’t eat them all at once, they’re as healthy as they are tasty; full of all sorts of needful vitamins and nutrients in addition to, *hem*, lots of fiber.

Regardless of variety, key to picking good figs–is to look for soft, yielding, fruit. If they’re a bit beat-up looking, that’s often a good indicator that they’re ripe. Also an excellent indicator is if they’re oozing a bit of sticky juice from their bottoms. This makes the best tasting figs frequently not the best LOOKING figs, particularly if you’re not plucking them, sun-warmed, from the tree yourself. Get over this, as I had to, and you will be rewarded.

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If Life Gives You Laotian Sausages: Make Summer Rolls!

A few weeks ago after work, Mr. T and I tootled off in a trusty zip-truck to the furthest reaches of Northwest DC to help friends move some furniture about. It wasn’t really that far, but that part of the city does tend to feel like another (gentler, more bucolic) planet… In any event, we found ourselves out in the leafy suburbs. I’d already categorized this expedition as our mitzvah du jour, so it was an added bonus when we got to the pick-up location to find a lovely dinner waiting for us.

The simple spread of salad, corn, and things from the grill (oh, to have a grill and a yard to put it in…) was as delicious as it was unexpected, but the sleeper hit was definitely the Laotian sausage. Oh my lord, were these things good: juicy and crackling from the grill, richly porky, and redolent with garlic and lemongrass.

The chatelaine of the house is quite renown for her encyclopedic knowledge of the greater DC food scene, particularly of the Asian persuasion. So, no surprise that she’d managed to track down the one artisanal producer of Laotian sausage in the DC metro area. There are apparently clandestine phone calls and secret knocks on a certain door involved in their procurment. Of course. And I got the leftovers: winning!

Of course, I am unlikely to see a Laotian sausage ever again, and unless you’ve got some serious hook-ups, you’re probably not likely to see a Laotian sausage… ever. Nevertheless, their fleeting transit through our culinary orbit serves as an excellent starting point for a discussion of summer rolls, as my precious haul of magical sausages found themselves all bundled up with herbs and veggies in translucent rice paper wrappers. Totes delish.

Of course, summer rolls (or salad rolls, or garden rolls, or fresh spring rolls, or fresh rolls, or crystal rolls; the branding seems a bit schizo) aren’t Laotian, but Vietnamese. National borders have never stopped the PassionFruits, however, and in any case, the summer roll is well on its way to being a truly global food. Vietnam’s neighbors have adopted the dish into their own repertoires, and the West is understandably quite enamored with the combination of light, cool textures and strong, pungent flavors that the summer roll has to offer.

Part of the summer roll’s appeal, I think, comes from its protean nature. Within the accepted boundaries (as espoused by me, obviously) the summer roll can accommodate any number of delicious fillings. Here, though, is what you absolutely have to have in order to make a decent summer roll:

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ProTip: Your Ginger Grater is Great for Grating Garlic

Ok, so, it turns out that I’m not quite done banging on about garlic. Having just insisted that everyone use fresh garlic, I now have a nice tip for you all: the adorable little ceramic ginger grater languishing in the back of your gadget drawer actually does an even better job of reducing garlic to a smooth paste than it does ginger.

The tiny porcelain teeth make short work of garlic and ginger, but aren’t so sharp as to damage your fingers, so you can really get into it. Yes, your hand will get some garlic on it, but so will anything else you do now that you’re using real garlic. And you need to wash your hands more anyway. Objection overruled.

Furthermore, most other methods (mortar and pestle, flat of the chef’s knife) get multiple things dirty and rely on the addition of salt, whose hard crystals help break the garlic down further. But then your garlic is all salty. Grating the garlic using the ginger grater is quick and easy, and results in a very fine mush that can be stirred as-is into just about anything.

This is particularly nice for uncooked dishes–unexpected chunks of raw garlic can be rawther unpleasant, particularly in summery preparations like bruschetta or gazpacho. And, if you’re doing nearly any kind of Asian cookery, you’ll likely need both garlic and ginger. Do your garlic first, then the ginger, whose fibers will help get all the garlic where it needs to go, and you’ll be sitting pretty.

Be an RSVP MVP: Yes or No, Just Say So!

First off, a confession. If I am going to get all up in your face about how you should RSVP to every invitation that asks for one–and you’d better believe that I am–I’d better come clean now. I too am guilty of this cardinal sin of disrespect and inconvenience. Like, last week, even. And not just to some random fundraiser that someone sent to ALL their facebook “friends”.

No, it was a WEDDING invitation. Sent by good friends, no less. And yet, I dragged my feet. Not because I didn’t want to go, or because I was waiting for a better offer, but because I didn’t want to say no. And that, along with any of the other idiot reasons for not RSVPing to an invitation–no matter how slight–is really, really stupid.

This is what ends up being the most challenging challenge facing today’s would-be host- or hostess with the mostest. It’s not the ridiculous schedules; lack of plates or chairs; over-ambitious menus; exotic, weird, or missing ingredients; or even militantly vegan, gluten-free, fruitarian guests. It’s the wondering how many people are gonna show? Will they be on time? Will they bring their entire kickball team with them? It’s a wonder anyone tries to entertain at all.

Ultimately, the big reason to respondez vous s’il vous plait–the only one that REALLY counts–is that an RSVP represents a contract of significant import, both socially and economically. On the social side, the host or hostess generally has invited people that he or she would like to have at the event in question. That does not mean, however, that he’ll be crushed and disconsolate if you say no. A note of regret–regardless of how sincerely regretful–will be more appreciated than a non-response left hanging and the anxiety it will bring.

Indeed, your perspective host will likely be pretty ticked if, on the day of the party, he has no idea whether or not your coming–particularly if half of the guest list has similarly elected to prevaricate. While this is most true if the host needs a headcount to ensure there are enough wine glasses, canapes or, heaven forbid, seats at the table, (there’s the economic side of the contract) it holds true for even the least organized of to-dos.

And yes, all those semi-personal invites still deserve the honor of your reply. I know, I know, we’re all awash in the damn things these days: the random happy hour benefiting ADD Outback Parakeets, the first recorder recital of a darling little moppet you’re not even REMOTELY related to, the book launch of a frenemy you’ve not seen (or wanted to see) in years. It doesn’t matter if someone’s pulled every address from their AOL email account circa 1998 and you don’t even remember who they are.

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CSA PSA: Decapitate those Adorable Baby Veggies, STAT!

As Spring whips itself into high gear, everything’s abloom (gesundheit!) and profligate baby veggies abound. Whether in the supermarket, farmers’ market, or your weekly CSA delivery, now is the time for adorable little carrots, beets, turnips and other such things. And, more often than not, they’ll come with some frilly, flouncy greens attached. Aren’t they pretty?

Well, yes. Yes they are. But cut the green tops off of your springy spoils the minute you get them home. If you leave them attached, the rooty bit will continue to feed moisture up into the greens, and you’ll end up with wan, flaccid baby carrots. And really, who wants that? No one. It’s sad.

This really holds true for any root vegetable, like the celery root at right. The longer the plant stays whole out of the ground, the worse off it’ll be by the time you get around to cooking it. And as the adorable baby seasonal veggies are so small, things can get dire pretty quickly.

Of course, if your greens are edible (celery, beet, and turnip top, for example), just rinse ‘em well and cook ‘em up after you’ve trimmed ‘em off. The tender little celery stalks are really wonderful–like super celery. I’ll be putting mine into a fava bean cassoulet for Easter lunch. Other greens are delicious too, whether sauteed on their own, or blanched and added to mashed potatoes. It’s like getting a bonus vegetable while preserving the freshness and resilience of the rooty bits you bought in the first place. Now, get out there and get your sassy baby vegetable on!

Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion: Chocolate Layer Cake Contest Benefitting Martha’s Table

Alrightly, then. I seem to have entered myself–or my Chocolate Malted Milkball Birthday Cake, rather–in the 2012 Makes-Me-Wanna Shout! Chocolate Layer Cake Baking Challenge. And, since the recipe’s gone and made it to the semifinals purely on its written merits, I now need a little help from my D.C. peeps at a public tasting event on Saturday, March 24, from 2 to 4. You’ll have the chance to taste (and vote on) 15 chocolate layer cakes, and $15 of each ticket will go directly to Martha’s Table. So all you lovers of cake (and, ahem, of moi), should up and get yourself a ticket.

Martha’s Table is a venerable D.C. institution that provides meals to the homeless, maintains tutoring and learning programs, and provides a variety of other family support services. Consider your attendance a bit of chocolatey good karma.

As for the cake I’ve entered, it’s the best, most original ”Operation Birthday Cake” cake I’ve come up with to date. A rich, smokily dark chocolate stout cake layered with a white chocolate-cream cheese-malt filling and wrapped in a milk chocolate malt frosting. The birthday girl in question actually gave up alcohol for the week after her party so she could eat the leftovers! High praise indeed. Definitely decadent, totally tasty, and maybe even award winning? Hope to see you there!

D.C. Peeps: Help Us Stuff the Bus for D.C. Central Kitchen

So, lovely people–particularly all y’all in D.C.–I have an exhortation for you: Stuff the Bus! Fun foodie events and an opportunity to help feed, train, and otherwise care for those in need? Totally in already, aren’t you?

Stuff the Bus is the coolest food drive I’ve ever heard of, that’s for sure. The aim? Stuff the aforementioned bus with 5,000lbs of fresh (or digital) food for D.C. Central Kitchen, a venerable institution providing a dizzying variety of much-needed services to D.C., from fresh meals sourced from recycled food to job training and actual jobs.

The drive, sponsored by Venga–a new D.C.-centric dining & entertainment app that promises to keep you in the know–kicked off on the 17th and runs through the 30th. The bus’ll be making a variety of appearances at local hotspots and hosted by local celebrities and even a food blogger or so. I’ll be co-hosting the Stuff the Bus bus next Friday the 30th at Truckeroo. So, come out and see me, or check out the calendar below and pay a visit at any one of the hip Venga-approved locales to say hi and make little gift that’ll make a big difference to your neighbors.