Easing back into the blogging habit

I know, I know – it’s been a while.  Between my new job and a busy Spring filled with soccer, Cub Scouts, school activities and family obligations, Summer is finally here!  Our whole family has some time to relax, and I have the opportunity to hit the reset button on my blog.  So here goes:

Ever since I started working at Virginia ABC, I’ve been meaning to wash out our growlers and hit up Growlers to Go on the Boulevard.  The Friday before Father’s Day, my husband and I finally got around to stopping by.  We met up after work and headed inside, where a small, open space with a back wall lined with taps awaited us.  A large board hangs above the row of taps listing the fifty or sixty different beers, ciders and other beverages (kombucha, cream soda and root beer!) available.  The board shows how much of each item is left, and the friendly staff offer each visitor up to four samples before you make your purchase decision.

My husband chose a German Hefeweizen, Franziskaner, and I picked an Isley Brewing peanut butter stout called “Choosy Mother.”  Both were delicious, but the peanut butter stout was really amazing.  You could definitely smell – and taste – the peanut butter, but it wasn’t overpowering.  Honestly, it was one of the best stouts I’ve ever had.

My Father’s Day gift for my husband this year was something he’s mentioned but would never actually buy for himself.  I got him a French Press and a bag of Death Wish Coffee Co.’s Valhalla Java Odinforce blend.  This dark, whole bean, organic coffee was made for guitarist Zakk Wylde, and is the most delicious coffee we’ve ever tasted.  I don’t know whether it’s the quality of the beans, grinding them fresh, or using the French Press, but this coffee – hot or made as cold press for iced coffee – is smooth, rich and flavorful.

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We made a yummy crab and shrimp steampot for dinner, and for dessert I made one of my favorite French treats with a gourmet twist:  orange cardamom madeleines.

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madeleines require a specially-shaped pan, which is first greased with butter.

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Mix and whisk the dry ingredients first:  3/4 cup flour, 1 tsp. baking powder, 3/4 tsp. ground cardamom and 1/4 tsp. salt.  Next, melt 1/4 cup butter in a small saucepan, then remove from the heat and stir in 1 tbsp. honey and 1 tsp. vanilla extract.  Preheat your oven to 325 degrees, and mix 2 large eggs with 1/4 cup sugar in a separate bowl.  Fold the flour mixture into the egg and sugar mixture, then fold the butter mixture into the batter.  Refrigerate the batter for about thirty minutes, then spoon the batter into your madeleine pan, filling each mold about halfway.  Tap the pan gently on the counter to remove air bubbles, then bake about 7 to 8 minutes, until golden brown and puffy.  Let cool first in the pan, then un-mold the madeleines and allow them to cool to room temperature.  To glaze them, mix 1 tsp. freshly-grated orange zest, 2 tbsp. orange juice and 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar.  Brush the scalloped side with a pastry brush dipped in glaze.  Delicious!

Unfortunately, there are several different stories about how madeleines were invented.  Even the Bible of French cuisine, the Larousse Gastronomique, has two different origin stories.  Suffice it to say that, sometime in the 18th (or maybe 19th) century, a baker named Madeleine created the delicious treat we now enjoy.

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Hail King Ragnar! – A Viking Feast for Season 3 of “Vikings”

It’s Thor’s-day (see what I did there), and my favorite pillaging and plundering Vikings are back in action on the History Channel tonight.  In honor of the new season of “Vikings,” I’ve prepared an authentic Viking feast to enjoy while my husband and I watch the first episode of season 3.

Vikings were farmers and hunters as well as warriors, and the type of food they ate reflects their surroundings as well as the trading empire that was developed later in the Viking age.  For most Vikings of moderate means, there were two daily meals, usually consisting of some sort of meat or fish, along with farmed or foraged vegetables and herbs.  Stews were common, with meats like pork, lamb, goat, beef and horse being kept for milk and meat, and wild game like deer, rabbit, squirrel and wild birds being hunted.  In terms of vegetables, potatoes were unknown to the Vikings, and the only carrots they knew were white in color, not orange.  Turnips, parsnips and other root vegetables provided starch in the Viking diet in the absence of potatoes, which did not arrive until the Columbian exchange in the 15th and 16th centuries, when Europeans colonized the New World and brought back its native plants.  Herbs like dill, coriander, mustard, fennel, thyme, wild parsley and juniper berries have all been discovered in the archaeological record of Viking sites across Scandinavia and in the British Isles.  Later trade networks brought access to spices from as far away as the Middle East.

Nearly every meal would have included bread – typically made from barley or rye, with oats added occasionally (although oats were more often used as animal feed – hello baby goat!).  Wheat was grown, but not as widely as the other grains.  Thin, flat barley breads were baked by an open fire, and barley or rye was often mixed sparingly with wheat to make a dense, chewy, dark, biscuit-like bread.  Often, small, round bread loaves were baked with a hole in the center, then strung on wires or rods.

The most common beverage at the Viking table was ale, which varied in potency from the very weak, watery brew offered to children and women, to the strong ale Viking warriors consumed at feasts.  Along with barley, the main ingredient in ale, Scandinavian brewers flavored their ales with juniper branches and berries, hops, alehoof, bog myrtle, horehound and yarrow.  Of course, when there was a feast or other special occasion, nobles, jarls and kings in the Viking age indulged in finely-brewed mead, an ancient form of honey wine.  Scandinavian rulers also imported wine from the Rhineland and other areas with which they traded.

The serving of ale, mead or wine at a formal feast was no small task.  Only a noble woman, typically the king’s or jarl’s wife, was capable of serving the first round of drinks, and she did so ceremoniously, by presenting the cup to the king or highest-ranking noble present in the hall.  Once he (or she – like Earl Ingstad!) drank, the cup would be offered to the ruler’s warriors in order of their rank.  Often, ceremonial words or poems were repeated, such as these lines from the Eddaic poem “Sigurdrifumal”:

“Bjorr I fetch to you, bold warrior

With might blended and right fame,

The full is strong with songs and healing-staves,

with goodly chants, wish-speeding runes.”

For my Viking feast, I cooked a simple beef stew with turnips and parsnips, both vegetables Vikings would have eaten, along with some crusty, multigrain bread and some Danish mead.  The recipe is below:

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Viking-Style Stew

1-2 lbs. beef, lamb, goat, deer or chicken, diced into bite-sized pieces

1 small turnip, diced into bite-sized pieces

1 parsnip, diced into bite-sized pieces

2 cups beef broth

1 can ale, preferably dark

2 cups water

1 small onion, diced

2 tbsp. oil, butter or lard

2 tbsp. honey

1 tsp. dill

1 tsp. thyme

In a Dutch oven or other large pot, saute the diced onion in oil, butter or lard over medium heat until it is soft and beginning to brown.  Toss in the diced stew meat and cook, stirring, until all pink is gone.  Drizzle the honey over the meat, add the diced vegetables, then pour in the beef broth, ale and water.  Turn the heat up to high and bring the liquid to a boil, then turn down the heat slightly, to medium-high.  Simmer about thirty minutes, then add the herbs (you can add others if you like) and salt and pepper to taste.  Cook an additional five to ten minutes, until the vegetables have softened and some of the liquid has reduced.  Serve with crusty bread and mead or ale.

To all my fellow “Vikings” fans, Skal!  I can’t wait to see where this season takes Ragnar and his family.

Blog Update

Just wanted to pop on here to explain that no, I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth.  The past few weeks, I’ve had a lot on my plate (more on that later), and haven’t had time to post as often as I would have liked.

What have I been up to?

Well, I had the chance to eat at Saison again.  Blog followers will remember that I enjoyed Saison’s “Day of the Dead” luncheon as a part of Richmond’s Fire, Flour and Fork event last fall.  I was blown away by their food then, and my recent visit did not disappoint.  I had their “Kingslayer” cocktail to start:  blended Scotch, Aquavit, Cocchi Americano and Campari.  The tagline for the drink is that it is “more intricate than the politics in King’s Landing,” which is a true statement.

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To eat, I chose a chicory salad with manchego, red onions, radish, croutons and anchovy dressing, and the carnitas rillettes, served with toasted billy bread, which were both delicious.  After I finished my cocktail, I also got to try an Ardent Dark Rye imperial stout.

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I also made a truckload of Mexican food for the Super Bowl, starting with an old favorite:  Velveeta and Rotel in the crockpot.

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Next, I marinated shrimp and chicken in a baja-style tequila lime marinade with cumin, chile powder and oregano, then sauteed the shrimp by themselves and the chicken with green peppers and onions fajita-style.  I made shrimp tostadas with refried black beans, guacamole, lettuce and the shrimp, and had all the fixin’s for chicken fajita tacos.

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Then I made some guacamole from a recipe on the Rotel can – essentially the same guac recipe I normally make, but substituting the tomatoes and jalapenos for the Rotel.

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The other thing I’ve been doing over the past few weeks is transitioning from a job I’ve had for fourteen years into a new job with Virginia ABC, the state’s liquor control authority.  I’m working in the relatively-new marketing department, and I’ve had a crash course in the alcohol industry and liquor marketing since I started there.  I’m looking forward to learning more, and to being able to use my passion for food, drinks and craft producers in my career there.

Transcribing my Granny’s cookbooks

On New Year’s Day, I took my boys to my Granny and PawPaw’s house for our annual family ritual of eating black-eyed peas for good luck.  My aunt brought some delicious spoonbread, and my kids raided the ever-present candy jar in the windowsill.  When I took our dishes in the kitchen to put them in the sink, my eyes were drawn to the shelf above it, where I found a yellowed, brittle stack of cookbooks that looked ancient.  I picked up the stack and sifted through it.  It was a treasure trove of mid-twentieth-century housewife instruction:  a copy of the “New American Cook Book” by Lily Wallace from 1941, stacks of the little recipe cards you used to pick up off the shelf in the supermarket in the 1970’s and 80’s to help you make something quick and cheap.

The crowing glory of my Granny’s cookbook collection was her very own, handwritten recipe book.  It was in an old composition book with a missing cover, the pages faded, most of them with water or oil damage.  This is the recipe book I could picture my grandmother scribbling in whenever she came across an appealing-sounding recipe in Woman’s Day or Better Homes and Gardens, the book she probably reached for when my mom and aunt and uncles were kids and headed home from school and she had to get dinner on the table after a day spent working at the department store.

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I’ve typed all the recipes it contains – all the ones I could make out, anyway – into my Paprika recipe app so I can keep them.  I’d like to pick some of them, maybe the ones my mom and her siblings remember my Granny making when they were little, and have them made into a nice cookbook or scrapbook with some family photos.  For now, I’ll share a couple of them:

Quick Pocketbook Rolls

I remember having these rolls with our Thanksgiving dinner when I was a kid and we went to my Granny and PawPaw’s house for Thanksgiving.  My Granny was always stirring a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, and my PawPaw was giddy with excitement at the prospect of using the electric knife.  My aunt and cousins cook Thanksgiving dinner now, but I think we may have to add these rolls to the menu.

1 cup milk

1 tbsp. sugar

butter

3 1/2 cups sifted flour

2 tbsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1 egg

In saucepan, combine milk, sugar, 2 tbsp. butter and egg.  Heat slowly until butter is barely melted.  Remove from heat and stir in flour sifted with baking powder and salt.  Turn out onto floured board and knead until smooth  Then roll to 1/4 inch in thickness and cut in rounds with 3 inch cookie cutter.  Brush with melted butter.  Grease center with back of knife, fold over and press edges together.  Put on greased cookie sheet.  Bake in hot oven 20 minutes or until brown.

Fudge Bars

My mom tells me that when she was little, my Granny used to make the best fudge.

1/3 cup shortening

1 cup chocolate chips

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup flour

1 cup nuts

1/2 tsp. vanilla

2 eggs

1/4 tsp. salt

Mix shortening and chocolate together, then mix rest of ingredients and bake.

Farewell 2014 – Hello 2015!

What better way to close out the year than with a family road trip?  My mom, my boys and I piled into the car on the last day of 2014 and headed to James Madison’s Montpelier, the home of America’s 4th President, who is considered to be both the father of the Constitution and the architect of the Bill of Rights.

We stopped for lunch in the Town of Orange, where we ate Italian buffet specialties at Mario’s Pizzeria.  I have to admit, I was expecting something similar to the Pizza Hut lunch buffet, but man was I pleasantly surprised.  The buffet had a seafood section, with mussels and clams steamed with garlic, fried shrimp and fish, shrimp in homemade marinara and a seafood medley.  Other Italian entrees on the menu were chicken parmigiana, chicken lasagna, steak pizziola and the best pizza and stromboli I’ve tasted outside of New York City.

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From downtown Orange, it’s only a ten minute drive to Montpelier.  The house, originally owned by President Madison’s father, ultimately was bought by the DuPont family, who left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation upon the death of the last owner.  Since 2000, the Trust, along with the Montpelier Foundation, has been renovating and restoring the home and grounds back to their footprint at the time of Madison’s retirement from Washington in 1817.

The home is laid out as a duplex, as Madison’s aging mother lived with him until her death in 1829 at the age of 98.  She had her own wing of the house, while James Madison, his wife Dolley and their children lived in the other half of the house.  The Madisons entertained many of the important figures of the day, including Thomas Jefferson, who lived right up the road at Monticello, outside Charlottesville, and Andrew Jackson.

Especially touching was the story of Madison’s slave, Paul Jennings, who served Mr. Madison until his death in 1836.  Jennings, who was with Madison the day he died, and who later published his “Reminiscences,” including an account of Madison’s last day, was sold by Dolley Madison to Daniel Webster in 1846.  Webster allowed Jennings to work off the cost of his purchase, and freed him in 1847.  In 1848, Jennings helped to organize the largest attempted slave escape in U.S. history, which failed.  Thinking of Jennings’ days at Montpelier, serving James and Dolley Madison as they entertained the greatest political thinkers of the time, it is not difficult to understand Jennings’ desire to put the principles of liberty into practice on behalf of enslaved African-Americans.

The tour of the house and grounds was informative and interesting.  The exterior renovation is complete, but the interior work continues.  The downstairs is filled with period accents and furnishings, some authentic to the time, and others that were actually present in the house at the time Madison lived there.  The Montpelier Foundation is involved in researching and tracking other furnishings and artifacts from the home through the various sales and auctions since Dolley was forced to sell the estate in 1844.  Consequently, the upstairs of the house is sparsely furnished, with most of the attention having gone to Madison’s famous library, where he researched the political systems of the past two thousand years in order to formulate the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

On the grounds of Montpelier, the buildings of the slave quarters are undergoing excavation.  Several homes, a smokehouse and a kitchen have been placed in their historical setting, and interpretive panels explain how the enslaved peoples of Montpelier would have lived during Madison’s time.  Unfortunately, the location of Paul Jennings’ grave is not known, but in 2009, his descendants held a reunion at Montpelier to honor their ancestor’s life and service to one of the greatest of our nation’s founding fathers.

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After a fun, relaxing New Year’s Eve celebration at home, my whole family gathered, as they do each year, at my Granny and PawPaw’s house to chow down on black-eyed peas with stewed tomatoes and my aunt’s delicious spoonbread.  You know the old tradition:  If you eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, you’ll have good luck all year.  From Food History Crossroads to you – have a wonderful 2015!

Vivian Howard’s Grits Changed My Life

By now, the festivities of the holiday season are behind us, and the new year is ahead.  The kids are out of school, I’m off work and we’re all enjoying our Christmas presents.

This year, my husband took my advice and went to Southern Season to find a gift for me.  I knew as soon as I saw the logo on the side of the rustic wooden crate – “Vivian Howard for Southern Season” – that I was going to love whatever was inside.  I’ve been a fan of Chef Howard’s since becoming addicted to her PBS show, “A Chef’s Life” earlier this year.  In the crate were a jar of Boat Street Pickled Figs and a bag of Old School Brand grits, along with a recipe card explaining how to “Pimp My Grits.”

Now let me just take a minute to explain that I am a Richmond, Virginia born and raised, Southern, grits-loving girl.  I’ve been eating grits my whole life, so I know a thing or two about good grits.  I remember my mom making pots of grits on the stove when I was little – delicious, thick and savory with a couple of pats of butter or some sausage and cheese thrown in.  I’ve been known to routinely eat instant grits for breakfast at work, and I’ve extolled the virtues of good ‘ol Southern grits to my Northerner friends and acquaintances.  I’ve eaten grits in some amazing restaurants, and I love my favorite Richmond grits:  Croaker’s Spot’s cheddar ranch grits (absolutely divine served with their fried fish).

With all that being said, Vivian Howard’s “pimped” grits quite literally changed my life.

It starts with the quality of the grits themselves, and there’s a huge difference between even my favorite store brand, House Autry, and the stone-ground Old School grits.  Then I discovered that Chef Howard uses milk (though she mentioned that you can use other liquids – water, or stock for savory grits).  I don’t know why, but I’ve never thought to use milk in my grits.  Lesson learned.

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Next, forget the old adage about a watched pot never boiling.  If you’re making grits, you’re watching your pot, though Chef Howard does offer the advice of using a double boiler if you don’t want to constantly stand and whisk – with the downside being that that method could take up to two hours (ain’t nobody got time for that!).  In went the grits and milk, on went the heat.

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Next is the labor-intensive part.  You want the grits to heat up almost to a boil, then stay on a simmer while they thicken.  This means near-constant whisking to keep the milk from scalding and the grits from burning to the bottom of the pot.  You want a nice, thick texture before you pull them off the heat, then Chef Howard instructs to add cream.

At this point, you can pour them into a bowl and “pimp” them.  I took Vivian’s suggestion and topped mine with a couple of pats of butter, crumbled oven-baked bacon, pickled figs and freshly-grated Parmesan.

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And there you have it – Vivian Howard’s pimped grits!  The combination of the salty, crispy bacon and Parmesan with the sweet and sour taste of the figs was the perfect match for the creamy grits.  I don’t know that I will ever make grits the same old way again.

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Happy holidays, and best wishes to all for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2015!

Pennsylvania Dutch Food Culture in Lancaster, PA

Ever since I was little, my parents have taken me and my brother and sister to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country of Lancaster, Pennsylvania regularly.  As a kid, our summer vacation was often spent staying at a campground or a cabin for a week and visiting all the antique shops, farmer’s markets and Amish and Mennonite farms and stands.  Last Spring, my mom, my sister and I took my two boys back to Lancaster for a weekend trip, and my dad and brother felt left out, so the weekend after Thanksgiving this year, we took the whole family!  The weekend was perfect.  We stayed in a cabin with a woodstove and there was snow on the ground.  We got to see the downtown Lancaster Christmas tree lighting and watch Santa arrive on a fire truck.  We went to Dutch Wonderland, the tiny amusement park on the “main drag” of Route 30 that I adored when I was a kid.  And we ate… lots…

For anyone who’s never been to Lancaster, the main thing you need to remember is that the “Pennsylvania Dutch” aren’t really Dutch.  The German immigrants who sought religious freedom in America would tell people they were “deutsch” – the German word for a German person.  The miscommunication stuck, and the Amish were labeled the Pennsylvania Dutch, although most of them came from Germany, bringing their food culture with them.

One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to Lancaster’s Central Market.  This historic building just off the town square was originally opened in 1730, and features market stalls from local meat and cheese vendors, bakeries, produce stands and coffee shops.

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Oasis at Bird-in-Hand‘s meat and dairy products

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Checking out the chocolate

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Historic Lancaster Central Market

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Desserts from Shady Maple

We visited one of my favorite farmer’s markets in Bird-in-Hand on Saturday.  I had to re-stock my German spicy mustard from S. Clyde Weaver and I bought some amazing homemade fudge from Sweet Legacy Gourmet.  I love that the Bird-in-Hand farmer’s market vendors offer lots of samples, especially of the specialty meats and cheeses.  There were whoopie pies and shoofly pies in abundance!

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Bulk products like different types of flours and meals

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Mmm… desserts

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Shoofly pies!

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Sweet Legacy Gourmet

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Pickled everything!

After our farmer’s market visit, we drove just down the road to the Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant and Smorgasbord.  Smorgasbord is a German word for what is essentially a buffet, with more dishes and desserts than you can shake a stick at.

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Buffet items

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Desserts (more shoofly pie!)

If you ever get the chance to visit Lancaster, you will fall in love with it.  There is a thriving downtown restaurant scene and plenty of opportunities to try Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.  The Amish and Mennonite style of cooking is steeped in German, Austrian and Swiss food traditions with a focus on simplicity and excellent-quality, fresh, local ingredients.  Once you’ve tried a shoofly pie, pickled vegetables or a pretzel in Pennsylvania Dutch country, nothing else will ever measure up.