Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

BBQ lasagna

I’ve found myself neglecting this blog, believing that each post must be epic and detailed, loaded with carefully cropped photographs, the recipes triple-checked.

And while my favorite food blog excels at that level of output, I miss out sharing with you the little discoveries in my daily food life.

Like BBQ lasagna.

bbq lasagna

BBQ lasagna at Beer Run

Beer Run, a beer store and restaurant in Charlottesville, stocks an unbelievable array of brews (and wine). It’s not one of those sprawling alcohol warehouses, but more of a carefully curated  collection of beers from around the United States and the world. The beers on tap are always an interesting assortment. The staff is friendly and more than willing to share their encyclopedic knowledge of breweries. We recently found a mini keg of Munich Hofbrau Oktoberfest beer for $22, the sweet, freshly brewed fest beer we love, delivered all the way from Germany.

Beer Run also offers a delicious brunch, lunch, and dinner – fresh, creative fare with an organic and local bent. Think scallion cheddar biscuits, or local Polyface sausage links for breakfast. Or a Madison County burger on a pretzel bun with house-made chipotle ranch.

The menu also features a lasagna of the day.  On the weekend we stopped by, lucky us, that was BBQ lasagna. I did a split-second double-take and then immediately knew what I would order.

The dish comes pipping hot, creamy and dreamy – soft pasta layered with pulled pork, tangy barbecue sauce, and luscious threads of cheese. The marriage of lasagna noodles and barbecue sauce is brilliant. Heavy and rich, the combination is pure comfort food.

The meal reminded me that so many familiar dishes can be viewed as templates more than fixed recipes, vehicles for new or beloved flavors and quirky ingredients. Pizza, with its endless array of toppings. Muffins, with so many potential fillings. Quiche, enchiladas, grilled cheese, rice, beans, noodles – they all cry out for new formulations. They all want their own version du jour.

Advertisements

Heirloom tomatoes: a taste test

rows of tomatoes

A stand at the Charlottesville farmers market on a recent Saturday – where does a tomato lover even begin?

The Charlottesville farmers markets are a rainbow of tomatoes right now, stripes laid out on benches of soft red, sunset yellow-pink, peach orange, neon green, purple-red.

I usually stare, googly-eyed, at the exotic mix, and then pick up anything basic red that’s $2 a pound and smells like a tomato – that tell-tale burst of nose-tickling aroma you never find in a grocery store stack.

While this amateur method has never steered me wrong, come a recent Saturday, we decided it was time. Time to try heirloom tomatoes.

First, what are heirloom tomatoes? A detective with only visual clues might think: any tomato with (1) a color other than classic red and (2) especially those bulbous oddities, shaped more like a squat mini pumpkin than a baseball and (3) priced above $2 a pound, into the $3 or $4 realm.

I would also add, which is just short of giving this entire taste-test experiment away, (4) an exquisite taste and color far more vivid than any supermarket variety.

Which is more like diagnosing an illness by its symptoms than understanding its essence. Not entirely helpful.

In actuality, heirloom is a fuzzy term for varieties that are open-pollinated (without human help) and have not been crossbred for more than 40 years. They can be family creations passed down through the generations, for example. And unlike supermarket hybrids, which are breed for portability, shelf longevity, and consistent shape and color, heirlooms spoil much quicker. All the more incentive to devour them immediately!

Plate of tomatoes

Our first round of tomato tasting. From the purple one, going clockwise: Carbon (purple), Golden Queen (yellow), Virginia Sweet (peach-yellow with rose tints), an unidentified pretty orange variety  (any ideas?), Brandywine (blush red), and a sad specimen that snuck in there and tasted like freezer-burned foam. We thought of it as the control group.

For our taste test, we bought a selection of heirloom tomatoes home and invited our friends Erin and Dave – wonderful gardeners themselves – to help us sample them. Here are thoughts on a few of our favorites:

Golden Queen

This lemonade-colored tomato, sliced below, has reportedly been around since the 1880s. We thought it was light, creamy, “like a summer day.” And possibly, we ventured, a nice pairing with goat cheese.

A Carbon tomato and a slice of the beautiful yellow Golden Queen

A Carbon tomato and a slice of the beautiful yellow Golden Queen

Carbon

This gorgeous purple-green variety, above, looks like nothing I’ve ever seen in a store. The inside glistens with more of the deep bruised maroon and an outline of kelly green. It tasted a bit acidic, rich, robust. This was the red-wine tomato of the samplings.

Brandywine

This is the most quintessential tomato of the set, the one I imagine is used as a model in creating children’s plastic toy food or the slice on a Burger King Whooper image in  larger-than-life ads.

The Brandywine, below, is exactly what you envision a tomato should be. It’s a love tomato, our taste-test friends pointed out, a tomato that begs for mayo and lettuce and a burger.

The stunning Brandywine

The stunning Brandywine

And our absolute favorite:

Virginia Sweet

A slice of Virginia Sweet

A slice of Virginia Sweet

The huge, squat beauties are a deep yellow with a rosy glow, especially pink on the bottom. As one seed supply company notes, ” This heirloom variety is simply one of the best tasting, best producing gold-red bicolors we have ever grown. On top of that, the tomatoes are stunningly beautiful and enormous, weighing at least 1 pound each.”

The flavor is luscious, nearly peach-like, with a vividness unsurpassed. A bite is so fresh and light, it feels like dipping in a swimming hole. Thick, meaty slices are made for sandwiches. And Virginia Sweets are simply exquisite – you can’t help but marvel at their prettiness.

The only drawback: You must eat them very quickly. Given a week to hang around, Virginia Sweets will descend into mushiness and their sublime sweetness will pass you by.

Guy Friddell, columnist and tomato lover, will be missed

tomatoes

When I started at The Virginian-Pilot as an intern, Guy Friddell was a faithful figure in the night newsroom cast. He was legendary for his thoughtful columns and his decades covering Virginia politics. I can still see him, frail by then, in his 80s, walking slowly through the newsroom on a quiet evening, framed by his oversized glasses and kindly smile.

By the time I arrived, his column focused more on tomatoes and Boomer the dog than Richmond politics. It was a highlight of my night to rim a Guy column, though I knew it might come with the challenge of writing a fresh 1-column headline on another vegetable laudation. I loved his gentle prose, poetic in a way rare to reporters.

Guy was generous to all, and the copy desk was no exception. He would tell his editor, even an uncertain intern young enough to be his granddaughter, how much she improved his column with the tiniest suggestion. He was humble, sweet, sincere. He gathered devoted followers and fans like no other columnist I know.

Guy was a Tidewater icon, an old-school newspaper writer, and a Southern gentleman.

Earl Swift has written a wonderful tribute to Guy, who passed away this past Sunday at 92.

Of course, it includes a section on tomatoes. No one loved the tomato like Guy.

Earl writes:

His attention often lingered on nature’s contributions to his diet. Columns celebrated the taste and texture of buttered corn on the cob, decried the indifference accorded to okra, referred to black-eyed peas as if old friends. Apples, peaches and plums, squash and strawberries, pumpkins, onions, leeks – if it grew, Friddell ate it, loved it, and wrote about it.

Two fruits held special rank in his heart and stomach. Scores of his columns enumerated the merits of the watermelon, instructed the reader on how to pick a good one, or featured one as a central player in the narrative.

His feelings for the tomato, however, bordered on exaltation.

“With spring coming and summer close behind, thoughts of tomatoes tend to occupy my mind,” he wrote in March 1998, a year in which his byline appeared over 10 columns praising his favorite fruit – a tally he matched in 1990 and 1991, and topped with 12 in 1995. “Improve the tomato?” he wrote another day. “How can one perfect perfection?”

Left to his own devices, Friddell might have lived on tomato sandwiches: “Has it crossed your mind,” he wrote in August 1994, “that to eat a tomato sandwich, as well as build it, is a work of art?

On Michelin-starred meals

"Duroc" pork belly marinated red cabbage from Fischers Fritz in Berlin

“Duroc” pork belly marinated red cabbage from Fischers Fritz in Berlin

Once a year since we moved to Europe, my sweetheart and I dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Pre-Europe, the Michelin-star system meant nothing to me. It fell into the same bowl as the Zagat system, or the Mobil ratings, or the AAA stars, or Tripadvisor circles.

I still couldn’t tell you much about those other rating methods. But what we’ve learned is that in Europe, the Michelin system seems to pluck out a very fancy sort of place with exquisite, creative, unusual food.

And we do love our food.

Michelin is excellent about covering restaurants in Europe, even in tiny German towns. But in America, Michelin only surveys three areas: New York City, Chicago, and California. Any amazing restaurant elsewhere is left off.

(The business side of me understands this. America is a huge country. But the foodie in me mourns the little undiscovered gems in Virginia, New Jersey, D.C., etc.)

I feel a little sheepish about this little once-a-year luxury. The prices can be a bit insane, and the waiters are either wonderfully precise or anal, depending on how you view it. They often wear white gloves and act with flourishes, like setting down your plates in synchronous fashion. The utensils are silver. The dining room is hushed, just the way we quiet people like it. It feels like church for chefs. Pretentious? Maybe. Maybe yes.

But then I think, well, concerts or sports events or plays can cost $100 a seat before food, beverage, and souvenir.

Instead, we go to a performance of food.

It’s an experience we talk about for months afterwards. And like an unusual art exhibit, a well-crafted, innovative meal leaves me full with ideas.

I think about the flavor combinations: olives and chocolate.  I consider the artful plates: four-leaf clovers laid out so prettily. I contemplate new flavor vehicles: lacy, savory lollipops.

And I marvel at how sweet it is to be married to a fellow foodie, who enjoys the evening of fancy plates as much as a symphony, who looks as giddy across the table as I feel when a bite of the sea explodes in my mouth.

Special meals like these remind me that we create our own world by our experiences, many of which we choose to have. We have to seek out the life we want. And for us, one Michelin star a year adds a lot of sparkle.

Dessert at Onyx, Budapest

Dessert at Onyx, Budapest

The first year, we went to Onyx in Budapest, one of two Michelin-starred restaurants in all of Hungary. Elegant dining room, artful plates, meticulous wait staff.

(Tip: The three-course lunch runs 5,990 Hungarian Forint, which is about $26. It was like catching a first-rate Broadway play for half-price.)

I was captivated.

Cabbage at Fischers Fritz, Berlin

Cabbage at Fischers Fritz, Berlin

The second year, we went to Fischers Fritz in Berlin. The food was beautiful and unusual, but my tastebuds didn’t swoon. I wasn’t so starry-eyed after that lunch.

This year, we went to Olivo in Stuttgart, Germany.

Olive lollipops at Olivo

Olive lollipops at Olivo

It was marvelous.

Four courses over four hours. A myriad surprise courses courtesy of the chef. Bites that made my sweetheart roll his eyes back in delight. Plated creations worthy of Miro. A treasure box of house-made chocolates at the end.

It deserves a post on its own. Coming soon.