The (much needed) rain was unrelenting last Friday, as was my determination to visit my nearby farmers market on the last Friday of the season. Kingstowne Market is for me, a recently discovered gem of a market. It’s home to 20 or so merchants, some like Cibola Farms, Blue Ridge Dairy and Smith Meadows Farm, are familiar to many of you who visit other markets in the area. Merchants come from as near as Vienna, and others from the far reaches of Maryland and Virginia to bring their produce and goods. So, if they could haul their vendibles to the market on Friday, I could drive my vehicle 10 minutes to get there, rain slicker and all.
Frankly, I had been a bit of a market vagabond until this season. I’ve enjoyed the farmers markets in Arlington, Dupont, Del Ray and even Old Town (which is much improved) since my husband Frank and I returned to the area 3 years ago. I didn’t waste any time acquainting myself with Eastern Market either. I remember being compelled by the passion of the local food community when Market Lunch closed down its’ Saturday breakfast service. The groundswell of “oh my gawd, no bluebucks over the weekend!” prompted the owner to reinstate breakfast hours within a few weeks. “Wow”, I thought, “the patrons really matter”. When it comes to spending my time and money, I like to think that the benefit works both ways. I enjoy the markets and I need to support them. It’s nice to know that I can and do directly affect their sustainability. It’s a social investment of sorts and helps maintain the wonderful food culture we enjoy here in the D.C. area.
So, having this concept firm up in my head, this spring I decided that I’d check out Kingstowne Market, which is nearest to me. I’ve known there was a market in the shopping center for a while, but for some reason I assumed it was small and therefore had little to offer. I’m happy to say I was wrong and over the course of this past spring, summer and fall I’ve become acquainted with the market in general, and a handful of merchants in particular.
Among my favorites is Allenberg Orchards from Smithburg, Md. Their produce is lovingly cared for and brought to the market fresh and at peak flavor. As the season progressed, I’ve enjoyed (takes deep breath) Ranier cherries, sour cherries, blueberries, tomatoes, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples, apple cider and squash. Whew!
I also learned to bring a cooler to the market in order to keep Middleburg Country Store and Creamery’s pints of ice cream from defrosting on the way home. The owner’s ice cream truck has been a joyful sight in the 90 plus degree parking lot- heat of the summer. Standing at her window with the smell of nearby kettle corn wafting up my nose, I would get my usual order of mint chocolate chip and whatever special tickled my fancy. Pumpkin was particularly good this fall.
And Saturday mornings with Cenan’s Bakery croissants will be missed. A cup of coffee with either a savory ham and cheese or sweet cherry croissant has been decadent and honestly will be good to forego for a while. Besides, I’ve got braises to make! So, it’s not good-bye, but see you next May to all the hard working folks who brought me their vegetables, fruits, cheeses, meats, breads and ice cream. I’ll be back next year.
So tell me, what are your favorite farmers markets and whom would you like to give a shout out to in appreciation of the wares they bring?
Parrano is a cheese that holds a special place in my heart. It was the first cheese I tasted that represented a step outside the comfort zone of Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan and all of the other usual suspects that can be found in most grocery stores. The truly unique flavor blew me away, and it inspired me to start branching out and trying all kinds of new cheeses: artisanal and mass-produced, creamy and salty, soft and firm, mild and sharp. At the time, my wife and I nicknamed it "God's cheese" - it was just that good. Though I no longer consider it with quite the same reverence, Parrano remains a staple when I am planning a cheese plate or just longing for an old favorite.
Parrano is produced by Uniekaas, the largest cheese producer in the Netherlands. Not content to simply offer Gouda, Edam, and other traditional Dutch cheeses, Uniekaas set out to create something special...something "sort of Italian." They combined the nutty flavor of a Reggiano with the texture and sweetness of a Gouda, and they called the result Parrano after a municipality in Umbria.
It is a pasteurized, cow's milk cheese that is aged for five months. The colorful casings of the twenty pound wheels are decorated with a logo and descriptive information about the cheese (these should not be eaten, but I prefer to leave the casing on Parrano when serving it for visual effect). It is a semi-soft cheese that is easily sliced or grated.
And it is ubiquitous. Parrano can be found in supermarkets, cheese shops, and specialty grocers alike. The only place I was unable to find it this week was Cowgirl Creamery, where I was told that they do not carry it because it is not an artisanal cheese (they were quick to suggest an artisanal alternative that I intend to try soon for comparison's sake). Depending on the retailer, you will either find it in tall, thin wedges that show rind on three sides, or shorter, thicker wedges cut from half a wheel that will only have rind at the end and on the bottom.
I was surprised to learn that prices for Parrano can vary WIDELY depending on where you buy. And I was shocked to learn that the best prices could be found at Whole Foods! Despite their reputation for premium foods at premium prices, they sell Parrano for only $8.99 a pound - the same price, by the way, as I found at Trader Joe's. The highest price I found was at Harris Teeter, where the same cheese was selling for more than twice as much - $17.99. Local cheese shops quoted prices ranging from $9.99 to $15.50 per pound.
The salty, nutty flavors in Parrano pair well with bolder Italian red wines like Chiantis and other Sangioveses, while the sweeter undertones make it a great candidate to pair with beer as well. I like to serve it with sliced prosciutto, olives and the marinated vegetables typical to an Italian antipasto, as I find its flavor a little overwhelming for fruits and nuts.
My taste in cheese may have matured since my first introduction to Parrano, but I continue to enjoy it. No matter how many artisanal rarities and raw-milk marvels I sample, Parrano remains a "gateway cheese" - one of the first cheeses I recommend to someone who is looking to try something new.
There's nothing I dislike more in a restaurant than expensive dishes that I can easily duplicate at home (and probably make better myself). That's why I really like Willow Restaurant in Arlington, VA! Their menu is constantly changing with interesting variations on some classic dishes, but they're not your run-of-the-mill dishes -- the kind that a quick search on the internet turns up a similar recipe in just a few secones.
Take for instance, the homemade sausage-wrapped rack of pork. The pork is cooked just a little pink in the middle, juicy and tender. The homemade sausage packed around the pork is moist, and adds just enough spicy flavor to the dish that it doesn't overpower the pork. Add to each bite a little slice of the caramelized cipollini onions on the side, and you've got a very good fall dish. Yes, if I had enough time, I could probably duplicate this dish on my own, but only after preparing all of the ingredients for a whole day.
I haven't really had anything I dislike at Willow yet. So far, between Amy and I, we've tried a good variety of dishes at Willow. Our favorite appetizer by far is the Fritto Misto platter, which is a bunch of little fried appetizers including cheesy prosciutto fritters, chorizo-stuffed olives (by far the best thing in the dish), and blue cheese-stuffed dates. These were so good the first time we tried them, that we ordered them again on our second trip.
One thing I noticed on the menu, the chef sure likes to wrap meat. Half of the dishes were some kind of meat that was wrapped in something, or a meat wrapped in another meat, or some other combination like that. Luckily I like meats wrapped in stuff, like the pastrami-wrapped albacore tuna, which reminds me a lot of the old speck-wrapped white tuna at Komi that I miss so much, or a potato-wrapped salmon. The salmon came with these amazing little ricotta cheese pancakes, that added a nice tang to the dish. The wrapping is mainly a presentation thing, I believe, for which the Willow chefs get top grades.
I don't usually care much about atmosphere, but I have to say that Willow has done a good job creating a nice dining environment. The dining room is quiet, but not so quiet that you can hear the conversations going on next to you, and the tables are also nicely spaced so you don't feel cramped. The bar area is fairly large and seems to always have space to sit. Last Saturday night, I couldn't get a reservation for a table, so instead, any and I just went and dined at the bar.
Service goes above and beyond as well, and the servers have a lot of information about the food and wine being served. Out waiter for our first visit was particularly knowledgeable about the wine, suggesting a buttery Pinot Blanc to go with our seafood dishes while telling us about the vineyard, how the wine is produced, as well as hints on serving temperatures.
With the food so good and portions as large as they are, it's hard to save much room in your stomach for dessert, and therefore, I haven't had as much experience with them. But do yourself a favor and try the sticky toffee pudding cake, a small moist cake topped with ice cream and covered in caramel sauce. My only complaint is that Willow doesn't have any cheese to go with their very excellent wine list. I was really craving cheese one night rather than a sweet dessert, but they don't appear to have any.
As I said before, portions are very large and the prices are very reasonable because of that. The most expensive entree, the pastrami-wrapped tuna, is $27. Wines can range in value. Looking at the prices of Willow's wine list from their web site, I see some wines are only $10 over retail, but others have a much higher markup. With a bottle of wine (and sometimes more), a single dessert, apps, and entrees for two, our average check was about $140 -- well worth the price in my opinion. There's nothing worse than getting a check at the end of the night and thinking that the meal wasn't worth nearly as much as you're paying, but at Willow, that thought has never crossed my mind.
4301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22203
Dress Code: Business/Dress Casual
Parking: There is a parking lot around the corner on Taylor St. Parking is free with validation from the restaurant.
Closest Metro: Ballston
Reservations: Taken and recommended. Although there's usually space at the bar if you can't get a reservation.
Baby-Child friendly rating: 1 diaper.
Amy's Bathroom Rating: Very nice and kept clean.
"Cheese from All Parts of the World"
That's what they're promising at Bowers Fancy Dairy Products since 1964, and they deliver: their straightforward website lists seventeen countries from which they carry cheeses. I stopped by Bowers Fancy Dairy Products this week because I wanted to make this DC landmark the first cheese shop I featured. To many D.C. Foodies, the phrase "cheese shop" conjures images of relative newcomers Cheesetique and Cowgirl Creamery -- in no particular order. Bowers has been around 10 times as long as both of them put together.
Despite their relatively small size, Bowers has been the best source for imported cheeses on Capitol Hill for 43 years. Their cheese counter in the South Hall of Eastern Market has always welcomed regular customers and newcomers alike with a sample of something colorful and unique like Sage Derby or a perennial favorite like Parrano. On weekends, the crowds are often two and three people deep to taste freshly-sliced cheeses and to pick up favorites from around the world.
But the fire that gutted most of the South Hall on April 30th dislocated Bowers along with the rest of the markets' permanent residents. Thankfully, community support for the market's vendors kept them in business through the summer, and on August 25th the temporary East Hall opened with new (and in many cases, improved) facilities for all of the merchants who were displaced.
On a weekday morning, the Saturday and Sunday crowds are gone and you can actually carry on a conversation with the person offering you samples from behind the counter. In some cases, that someone is Ray Bowers or his son, Mike. If you happen to catch one of the Bowers behind the counter, be sure to talk to them about the history of the place. If not, you may find your server less chatty...but no less knowledgeable about the cheeses they have to offer.
Prices at Bowers Fancy Dairy Products are comparable to those at other cheese shops in and around the District - assuming they carry what Bowers is selling in the first place! I purchased a small piece of Saint Agur blue cheese from Bowers, where they were selling it for $18.99/lb, and decided to call around to comparison shop. Calls to several other cheese shops in DC, Arlington and Alexandria confirmed that this was the best price for Saint Agur to be found, and one of the larger shops I called didn't even carry it.
A visit to Eastern Market is a must for anyone who is looking for local produce, quality meats, fresh seafood, and tasty baked goods in one convenient (Metro-accessible) location. In the heart of Eastern Market, Bowers Fancy Dairy Products is a largely unsung gem for cheese-lovers on Capitol Hill and throughout the District. If you haven't checked it out yet, you definitely should!
Bowers Fancy Dairy Products
Eastern Market - East Hall (temporary structure across 7th Street from Historic South Hall)
7th & C Streets, SE
Tuesday through Saturday, 7AM - 6PM
Sunday, 9AM - 4PM
Remember the days when you ate candy or caramel apples? Those sticky softball size treats which promised to suck a molar right out of your head? Yeah, those. Well, with this time of year being apple season and all, it got me to thinking about apples and candy and...frying. Here's a recipe for puffy apple fritters, dusted with powdered sugar and garnished with glass-like caramel.
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup milk
1 cup finely chopped apple (I used Jonagold apples for their firm and tart nature)
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted
While making batter, heat vegetable oil in a heavy bottom pot to 370 degrees.
Combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Add egg, milk, apple and cinnamon. Stir to combine batter. Drop a teaspoon full of batter into oil and fry until golden on each side.Fry in batches to avoid dropping the oil temperature. Remove and allow to drain on paper towels. Arrange on plate and dust liberally with powdered sugar.
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
pinch cream of tartar
In a heavy bottom pan, heat sugar, water and cream of tartar to 340 degrees*. It will be amber in color. Remove from heat and using a spoon to dip, drizzle over an aluminum foil lined pan which has been sprayed with Pam or any other non-stick spray. Allow to cool and break up caramel. Garnish apple fritters with caramel bits.
*Be careful to avoid heating the caramel over 340 degrees. It will turn brown and taste a bit bitter.
For my first review of a single cheese, I thought it would be appropriate to look at something local. And what better way to find a great local cheese than to visit one of the weekly farmers' markets throughout the city?
On Thursday, I paid a visit to the weekly FreshFarm Market that takes place on 8th Street between D and E, a short walk from Gallery Place and the Verizon Center. Toward the northern end of the block, I came across a stand with a large banner that proudly proclaimed "CHEESE."
Chapel's Country Creamery, a family-run farm in Easton, Maryland, prides themselves on making raw milk cheeses from their own grass-fed cows. They control the entire cheese making process, from start to finish. At the market, they were offering samples of six different cheeses, with the majority of them being variations on cheddar. I tasted several of them and found them all to taste pretty much as advertised. The 'Crab Spice Cheddar' had a distinct flavor of Old Bay seasoning, and the 'Garlic and Chive Cheddar' reminded me of Cotswold cheese - though with a little bit of a buttery flavor as a result of the cheddar base.
What really caught my eye was their 'Cave Aged Cheddar,' a block of which was plated and displayed front and center. I asked about the caves they used and learned that they bring the cheese from their farm to a small group of caves just over the Pennsylvania border. The cheddar is aged in these caves for up to a year - roughly two or three times as long as their basic cheddars. While in the cave, the cheese develops a thin but attractive rind and a deeper, nuttier taste.
I purchased a quarter of a pound for $4.25 and watched it sliced from the block in front of my eyes. Taking it home, I let it sit to soften a bit and then plated it with some cracked pepper crackers, a dark wheat baguette and some fall raspberries which I also purchased at the market. The sweetness of the raspberries and the molasses in the bread both served to highlight the sharper cheddar notes, and the black pepper in the crackers provided a nice contrast to the more buttery and nutty flavors that the aging process had imparted to the cheese.
This is not a melting cheddar; it holds up well on the plate and softens only slightly as it warms up. I would definitely recommend it as a worthy addition to a cheese plate that also includes a soft cheese like a Brie and a saltier cheese like a Gorgonzola. If you're looking to pair it with wines, you're in luck. Almost any wine will drink well with a smooth cheddar like this, from a crisp Pinot Grigio to a full-bodied red like a Cabernet. For best results, however, I would recommend trying it with a peppery Syrah/Shiraz.
Chapel's Country Creamery Cave-Aged Cheddar
Penn Quarter Freshfarm Market
8th Street between D and E
Market is open Thursdays from 3 to 7 PM until the week before Thanksgiving.
Six types of cheese with an emphasis on cheddar
Cave-Aged Cheddar sells for $17/lb.
Description: Smooth and buttery with a nutty finish, this firm, raw milk cow's cheese is aged for up to a year in caves in southern Pennsylvania. A thin, edible rind encloses this slightly salty but very mellow cheddar.
Pairing recommendations: Sweet fruits, peppery/spicy crackers, Syrah/Shiraz wines (though most wines will match up well).
It's fall and that means soups, sweet potatoes and pecans. Locally, sweet potatoes are abundant at the farmers markets and further south pecan trees are yielding their nuts.
This soup is evocative of the cooler weather and shorter days of fall. It combines the sweet creaminess of the potato, with the saltiness of rendered pancetta and the crunch of the spiced pecans to give lots of flavors and textures in each spoonful. This recipe and its' presentation is inspired by a pumpkin soup I had about a year ago, at Majestic (then The Majestic Cafe) in Old Town Alexandria. The bowl came with pulled pork and the soup was ceremoniously poured in the middle. Toasted pumpkin seeds were then placed atop as a garnish. I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I do.
2-2 1/2 cups pecans
1 stick butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 t. pumpkin spice
4-5 "shots" of sriracha or other hot sauce
1 T. olive oil
1/2 medium onion, cubed
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 lb. sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 cups chicken stock or broth
1 t. cumin
1 t. curry
3/4 cup half and half
salt to taste
1/4 t. white pepper
1/4 pound pancetta, sliced into cubes or sticks
Heat olive oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add sweet potatoes and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine. Add chicken stock and bring up to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cover. Allow potatoes to cook for 20-30 minutes, until they are soft and yield easily to a fork.
Transfer the contents of the saucepan to a blender. Blend in batches if needed. Place a thickly folded dish towel over the blender's top opening to allow for steam to escape. Pulse the mixture a few times until you're sure the soup isn't coming out of the top of the blender. Turn blender on high for 2-3 minutes, until mixture is liquefied.
In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the sugar, pumpkin spice and sriracha. Stir frequently until the butter and sugar incorporate, about 5 minutes. In a mixing bowl, combine the pecans and butter mixture to coat thoroughly. Transfer pecans to a baking sheet (use a silicon mat or non-stick spray) and spread out evenly. Place the pecans in a pre-heated 350 degree oven. Bake for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and toss the pecans lightly. Bake an additional 5 minutes. Allow the pecans to cool completely, approximately 1/2 hour.
Place pancetta in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Cook until fat is rendered and pancetta is crispy. Transfer to a paper towel to drain.
Place a few pieces of pancetta in a bowl. Pour soup over pancetta and garnish with chopped spiced pecans.
I recently had a little episode involving a mandoline. Given that experience, I thought I would give everyone some assvice on how NOT to use a mandoline, since I obviously, don't know how to use one.
And yes, I'm talking about one of these:
and not one of these:
When using a mandoline:
1) Do not act like a know-it-all when your wife cuts her finger trying to remove a piece of leftover vegetable that got wedged in the blade.
2) Do not take over and insist on slicing fast...very fast.
3) When the vegetable is too big for the guide, do not use the mandoline without the guide.
4) When using the mandoline without the guide, do not slice just as fast as when you were using the mandoline with the guide.
5) When you cut off the tip of your finger, do not stand there like an idiot looking at it as blood runs down your arm.
6) Do not try to stop the bleeding with a bunch of wet paper towels.
7) 30 minutes later when your finger is still bleeding and you go to the emergency room, do not try to hide the fact that you did this to yourself with a mandoline from the hospital staff. They can tell, trust me. In fact, I think they have bets on how many people will actually come in on any given day with an injury like this. I hear there's an over-under pool that's run by the emergency room janitor.
(Disclaimer: this information is for entertainment purposes only. I take no responsibility for how you decide to use a mandoline.)
A week ago, my wife and I attended our first cheese class at Del Ray's Cheesetique, which just celebrated its third anniversary with the announcement that they will be moving to an even bigger location on Mount Vernon Avenue in the next few months.
"Best Blues" was an introduction to blue cheeses, for everyone who's ever wondered how they get that 'good mold' into some of the most distinctive (and fragrant) varieties of cheese. We entered the shop after it had closed to the public and it was just starting to get dark outside -- anyone who has ever dreamed of sneaking into their favorite store after-hours would be right at home. A long table took up most of the floor space, with chairs all around it. At each place was a plate featuring ten unique looking slices of blue cheese around a small rectangle of what appeared to be raspberry Jell-O. Bottles of sparkling water and small baskets of crackers stood at intervals along the table. We took our seats and tried not to drool.
Proprietor Jill Erber began the hour-long class with a discussion of the history of blue cheeses and the process through which they are manufactured today. I won't recreate the lecture here, but I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest to simply ask Jill the next time you're in the store -- I'm sure she'd be glad to tell you about it, as she loves to share her vast knowledge of cheese with customers.
After the history lesson, the discussion turned to pairings with wine and other foods. Everyone present seemed to grow just a bit more attentive at this point...or maybe that was just us. There were a few pairings that would not surprise anyone who has ever eaten at a steak house -- red meat for one, apples and bitter greens for another (house salad with crumbled Gorgonzola, anyone?). But there were others that did not come to us as easily, such as figs, honey, dried apricots, and quince.
That's right - quince. One of those "Foods that Start with the Letter Q" that Rosie Perez made semi-famous in White Men Can't Jump. As it turns out, the raspberry Jell-O looking thing in the middle of our plates was a quince paste called membrillo. And it tasted every bit as amazing with the blues we had before us as had been promised.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Jill also provided us with a few choice wine pairings, should we want to wash the cheeses down with something stronger than water. Try a salty Gorgonzola with a sweet muscat or a similar dessert wine. Sip on a full-bodied red with a piece of tangy Stilton (but be careful not to pair it with an overly tannic red or you'll end up with a bitter, metallic aftertaste). For best results, try a full-bodied Roquefort with a glass of your favorite port -- a truly decadent and delicious pairing.
When we could stand it no longer, Jill unleashed us on the samples that sat before us. I've recreated the list of cheeses we tasted below, with a few of my own notes in place of the descriptions provided.
All in all, the class provided a wonderful overview of one of our favorite types of cheese in just under an hour. It made for a terrific foodie "date night," and it has definitely provided us with some new cheeses to look for next time.
1. Mountain Top Bleu
Origin: Firefly Farms, MD
Sold in pyramid(mountain)-shaped molds, Mountain Top has that tangy flavor common to most goat cheeses, but its rind is similar to that of brie. The blue veins weren't all that pronounced, so it tasted much more of goat than of blue.
This has been one of my favorite cheeses for a while now -- a double-cream cheese with healthy veins of blue-green running throughout. I like to describe it as the perfect marriage of stinky and creamy cheeses, and I would encourage you to check it out for yourself.
3. Cashel Blue
Cashel is a mild blue cheese that was described as being young and less salty, but most of us at the tasting felt like this was actually a rather salty cheese. It had a nice texture, but it wasn't especially flavorful.
4. St. Agur
Out of all the new cheeses I tried, this was my favorite. Creamy and rich, but not quite as soft as the cambozola. This cheese seemed like it would melt over a burger or steak perfectly, and the flavor was sweet and salty at the same time.
5. Ba Ba Blue
The only sheep's milk blue we tasted, Ba Ba Blue was overwhelmingly salty, but the blue veining gave it a great appearance. Definitely not one of our favorites.
6. Aged Stilton
Aged four months (instead of the usual two), this Stilton had a mellow flavor that was reminiscent of some aged cheddars I've tasted while featuring the drier, tangy character that makes Stilton so popular.
7. Mountain Gorgonzola (Gorgonzola Piccante)
Sharp, tangy, and crumbly, this cheese is full-bodied and flavorful. This is one of the blues you'll see most often in steak houses. We were encouraged to try it drizzled with honey (apparently an Italian tradition). Haven't had a chance to try that yet, but it sounds wonderful!
Milk: Cow, Sheep and Goat (Raw Milk)
This was the cheese that Jill recommended as best paired with the membrillo on the plate, and it didn't disappoint. The sweet and salty combination was great. And the cheese comes wrapped in sycamore leaves, which makes it attractive as well as tasty.
9. Whiskey Blue
Milk: Cow (Raw Milk)
I'm a bourbon drinker, so you'd think this cheese would have been right up my alley. But the alcoholic sweetness was too much, overpowering the taste of the raw milk cheese and even the tang of the blue veins. It's definitely smoky, but I think it may be an acquired taste.
10. Smokey Blue
Milk: Cow (Raw Milk)
Cold-smoked over hazelnut shells, this cheese's rich flavor is somewhat reminiscent of barbecued pork, but it has the sweet creaminess of a raw-milk cheese and nice blue tanginess. A much more enjoyable variation on blue cheese than the Whiskey Blue.