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December 2008

New Years Sparklers, Or: Buy the type, not the hype!

Next to wearing funny hats, the midnight kiss, and rampant hangover and regret inducing behavior, drinking Champagne is one of our most beloved New Years Eve traditions. Invented in the 17th Century and popularized by nobles and ne'erdowells over the intervening years, Champagne is now the quintessential party beverage. And why not? Champagne, with its distinctive "pop" and dancing bubbles, is one of the only alcoholic beverages with its own special effects!

Those special effects come at a price, you know; Champagne is expensive, and increased hype and growing interest from the Asian markets have not made it any cheaper. Not that the cost isn't at least partially justified, as the Champagne production process aka "Methode Champenoise" or "Methode Traditionnelle" is extremely labor intensive.

After growing grapes to a very specific low-sugar, high-acid level of ripeness, winemakers ferment them into a base still wine, just like any other. After aging, the wine is transfered to an extra strong, pressure resistant bottle. Following a brief resting period, each bottle is dosed with liqueur de tirage, a precise measure of yeast and nutrients, which, over the next few weeks, will mix and yield a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Whereas in normal fermentation, the resulting CO2 is released into the atmosphere, this time the gas is retained in solution, corked under pressures up to 90 PSI. Though the process is now highly mechanized, the overhead is still much higher than with normal wines.

There are other methods for getting bubbles in the bottle: some wines undergo a similar process in bulk tanks, and others are carbonated by the same methods employed by Coke and Pepsi. In the French region of Champagne, the place where all real Champagne is born, these practices are outlawed, as they yield a less rich, less bubbly product. Thankfully, these restrictions don't go both ways, so the Methode Champenoise is free for anyone to use. While production is costly, about half of Champagne's prohibitive cost comes from prestige pricing and the improbable cost of vineyard land in the Champagne region. Outside the region, in almost all the world's wine producing nations, sparkling wines are made using Methode Champenoise which can be had for a fraction of the price.

Bailly In France, wines made outside the Champagne region, but up to similar standards, attain the honorific "Cremant." There are hundreds out there from all over the country. Some of the best come from the region of Bourgogne, where such wines are made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, two of the noble varietals used in Champagne. One of my favorite producers is Bailly Lapierre, brought in locally by William Harrison Meyland_2 Imports. This great producer of Cremant de Bourgogne is based out of Chablis, a mere 70 miles south of Champagne. The house makes a wide range of dry sparkling wines, including a great Chardonnay for about $18. This wine has rich, yeasty flavors along with surprisingly vibrant apple and pear fruit. The same producer's basic cuvee, the Saint Meyland Brut, is perhaps the best sparkling value in town, widely available for about $12. This wine is made with an ample portion of Gamay, the fruity grape of Beaujolais, and as such has a great red berry quality on the nose, despite its pale yellow color and dry finish. Some restaurants around town have been known to serve this wine for $50; there is a reason that they get away with this, so pick this one up if you want a cheap, versatile sparkler good for both toasting and hangover-assuaging mimosas.

Ferrari Most people know Prosecco, the dry, slightly flowery, well priced Italian sparkler. While these are exclusively made with the aformentioned tank, or "charmat" method, there are some Italian spumantes made in the Champenoise style. Perhaps the best known, and my personal favorite, is the Ferrari Brut from Trentino in northeast Italy. Like most Champagne, this wine is made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and has a great "bottle bouquet;" or, that distinctive yeasty-toasty quality that makes Champagne so appealing. This bottle's naturally high acidity makes it a great match with oysters and other raw bar fare, and gives great Champagne-like flavor for about $20.

Taltarnibruttache Because the Aussies are best known for balls-to-the-wall, hugely extracted reds, I was surprised to find a brilliant little Methode Champanoise sparkler from the giant conglomerate Taltarni. This large firm produces a number of wines, most pretty run of the mill, excepting the Taltarni Brut Tache. This $20 sparkler is made from all three Champagne grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier), to which a tiny amount of Pinot Noir wine is added, to give it a hint of a pink accent. This wine is full bodied for a sparkler, yet balanced, with a dry, slightly citrusy finish. This one is great with a wide number of fish dishes, but also easy to enjoy on its own.

Gruet1_2 The unique growing conditions that sparkling wine grapes prefer (hot days, cold nights) mean that you may find them coming from the strangest of places. While touring the American southwest in the early 1980's, former Champagne producer Gilbert Gruet and his family fell in love with the grand vistas and inexpensive land prices. The clan promptly relocated, and started producing high quality, Champagne quality sparklers in 1987. Now, Gruet is a major player, producing over 80,000 cases per year. Thanks to a dedication to quality, low land value and ideal conditions, Gruet wines are cheap (most about $15), widely available, and of notably high quality. Their latest Blanc de Noirs is definitely a crowd pleaser, offering up just the right combination of toast and berries. For those that prefer a bit more strawberry, try their new Rose, which has a beautiful deep pink color and finishes pleasingly dry.

Whatever your holiday bubbly, be careful: Champagne corks kill more people every year than lightning, don'cha know? Okay... I know that isn't really proven, but when you are working with 5 atmospheres of pressure (that's three times the pressure in your car tires!), it doesn't hurt to take precautions, so keep that sucker out of the freezer, and if you have to aim for someone's face, aim for Ryan Seacrest. He is no Dick Clark, dammit, and he never will be!

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce

It took me about a year to master my family's secret tomato sauce -- it took me 45 minutes to fall in love with Marcella Hazan's recipe and feel like I created something really special. And really simple.

If you've never heard of Marcella Hazan, never read her cookbooks or seen her picture, it doesn't mean she hasn't had some impact on your life. In short, Marcella Hazan taught America how to cook Italian. So if you've ever visited an Italian restaurant, slurped spaghetti or soaked up balsamic vinaigrette with Italian bread, you probably have Marcella to thank.

She was born in Italy and moved to New York with her husband, who encouraged her to immerse herself in NY culture, visit local markets, and learn to love cooking. Her hobby became her career, and six cookbooks (and a memoir) later she's one of the best known, best loved chefs in the world. She's known world wide for her attention to detail, focus on fresh ingredients and stubborn character.

Her tomato sauce, which was featured in her fourth book, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, takes a common ingredient out of the Italian equation -- you will find no olive oil in this sauce. In its place you'll use butter, which will leave you wondering why you weren't using butter in your sauce all along. Seriously, this is one simple, beautiful recipe to have in your arsenal.

2 cups tomatoes, with their juices (I used a 28 oz. can of San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes)
5 tablespoons butter
1 onion, peeled and cut in half.

Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter, and the onion halves in a saucepan. Add a pinch or two of salt.

Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, at a slow simmer, for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with your spoon. Add salt as needed.

Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta.

This recipe makes enough sauce for one pound of pasta. It's also fabulous with sautéed vegetables, like zucchini. And this might be obvious, but don't you dare throw away that onion. Cut it up, put it on your plate, devour it.

Grilled Lamb with Neeps and Tatties

Image037This New Year’s Day, let’s pay homage to the man who helps us celebrate the occasion.

Sit down Dick Clark, I’m talking about Robert Burns. The 18th century Scottish poet, who gave us such classics as “Address to a Haggis” and “A Red, Red Rose,” penned “Auld Lang Syne.” Sure, none of us know the words, but that doesn’t stop us from mumbling through it every year.

Now, I imagine ol’ Rabbie Burns wasn’t much of a grilling guy, but he probably would’ve approved of my take on the Scottish staples lamb, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes). Rather than mashing both vegetables -- the traditional method -- I grill the turnips with scallions. The sweet, smoky flavor of the turnips is the perfect contrast to the buttery mashed potatoes and savory lamb. In keepinImage055g with the Scottish theme, I used herbs and seasonings that could be found in Burns' Scotland. 

And what better way to chase away the Champagne hangover than a couple fingers of single malt Scotch (hair of the Scotty dog)? I'm a Macallan fan, myself, but with five distinct Scotch regions and dozens of distilleries to choose from, there are plenty of whiskies out there to like.

Grilled Lamb with Neeps and Tatties

(Makes four servings)

Image0091 2.5 lb. lamb leg, boneless

8 potatoes, (Yukon gold or other mashing potato) quartered

3 turnips, quartered

4 green onions

1 head of garlic, minced

2 tbs. thyme

1 stick of butter

1/4 cup of cream

Salt and cracked black pepper to taste


Before heading out for your New Year’s Eve celebrations, season the lamb with the salt, pepper, thyme and garlic. When you’re up and about the next day, pull the lamb out of the fridge and light the charcoal (if you have a gas grill, hold off lighting it until you’re ready to cook).

Add the turnips and potatoes to dueling pots of boiling salted water. Cook the turnips for about 10 minutes and the potatoes for about 20 minutes, or until both are tender. Pull the pots off the heat and drain the turnips and potatoes separately.

While the potatoes are still hot, add them back to the pot and mash with a wooden spoon or potato masher. Add the butter, salt, pepper and cream. Continue mashing in the pot until the ingredients are fully incorporated. For smoother potatoes, finish the potatoes off in a food processor. When finished, cover with aluminum foil and set them in a warm oven.

Image022Image027When the grill is ready, scrape the garlic off the lamb leg (as best you can) and place it over the hottest spot for three to four minutes until a crust forms. Turn the lamb and cook for another three minutes. Move the lamb to a cooler spot of the grill and cook with the cover on for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, uncover the grill, and coat the green onions and boiled turnips with vegetable oil and season with salt and black pepper. Place the vegetables on the grill next to the lamb, turning as necessary to prevent too much charring. When the turnips and onions are ready, the lamb should be ready to come off (if you like your lamb rare, pull it off after 30 minutes).

While the lamb leg rests for seven minutes, dice the onions and turnips and toss together.

When the lamb is ready, carve it up and pass it out with the neeps and turnips.

Happy New Year!

Happy Holidays

We at DC Foodies wish you all Happy Holidays! We hope you all were able to take today off, and if not, we hope you at least get to eat well at some point in the day and spend some time with family and friends.

We'll be back on our regular posting schedule starting next Monday, but in the mean time, we leave you with something that has absolutely nothing to do with food...

Last Minute DC Foodie Gifts

Twas the weekend before Christmas and all through DC, people were rushing around for gifts for their foodie.  Getting a gift card to Williams & Sonoma was out, "We want something local!" was said in a shout.  So out to the local shops they headed in a tizzy, but there were so many choices, it made their head dizzy.  But don't give up hope, don't you dare fret, a list of local store options is your safest bet! 

Co_co_sala_gift_box Co Co. Sala, which opened its doors back in June of this year, has become a favorite chocolate destination in Penn Quarter.  Known for their chocolate experiences and fabulous signature cocktails, Co Co. Sala also sells artisanal chocolates in an assortment of flavors made right on the premises.  For the chocolate lover on your list, Co Co. Sala offers gift boxes in 4, 8, 16 and (for the extreme chocoholic) 48 piece increments.  Mix and match flavors or allow Co Co. Sala to create the perfect gift box for you.  With flavors ranging from  banana ginger to chipotle, there is sure to be something to satisfy even the most adventurous chocolate fan on your list.  Gift box prices start at $10 for a four piece box. 

So chocolate isn't your foodies cup of tea?  How about cheese (who can say no to cheese)?  Cheesetique in Alexandria is one of the premiere local cheese shops in the DC metro area.  The brain child of Jill Erber, Cheesetique has expanded to now include a cheese and wine bar.  Offering a wide variety of cheeses from all over the world, Cheesetique is known for its stock of artisan cheeses.  Instead of a boring gift basket of pre-selected cheeses, Cheesetique offers a unique spin on gift giving:  the gift bucket.  A fire engine red enamel bucket is filled with cheeses, crackers, wines or whatever else tickles your fancy.  The custom gift buckets are priced based on the items you choose to fill it.

Still not finding something for the (obviously picky) foodie in your life?  Do they love to cook up fine Italian meals?  Get thee to A.Litteri in Northeast DC!  Offering everything from fresh Italian pastas to  aged Modena balsamic vinegars, A.Litteri has a huge selection of the finest ingredients from all regions of Italy.  A full deli counter sells choice meats and cheeses, including Mortadella and Parma prosciutto.  Gift certificates to A.Litteri will allow your favorite foodie to choose the truffles, pasta, olive oil or whatever other ingredients inspire them. 

Why are you still looking?  Do you mean to tell me your foodie wouldn't be happy with any of those gifts above?  Seriously?  Well do they at least like coffee?  If so, head over to the Bloomingdale neighborhood of DC for Big Bear Cafe's wonderful selection of holiday gift baskets featuring Counter Culture coffees.  Locally owned, Big Bear Cafe has become a staple in Bloomingdale.  Owners Lana Labermeier and Stuart Davenport opened the cafe after lamenting about the lack of a quality coffee shop in their neighborhood.  Since its opening in the Summer of 2007, Big Bear Cafe has created a loyal following of fellow Bloomingdale residents.  Wrapped in cellophane and tied with festive red bows, the gift baskets also come with an assortment of baked goodies and start at $20. 

Armed with this list and in a jolly good mood, their last minute shopping could all be solved with food!

Rum-Flavored Marshmallows

It's the time of year (combined with my twice-a day-walk by ACKC) that's got me craving hot cocoa. I'd like it in a big mug, accompanied by A Christmas Story or Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. The Swiss Miss variety will do, but a cup made from my neighbor's recipe, topped off with fluffy marshmallows, would certainly be preferred.

Making hot cocoa is simple and quick, but making those fluffy marshmallows takes a little more preparation. You can buy marshmallows – a variety of colors, shapes and sizes are available in bags just about anywhere – but homemade marshmallows provide a spongier, creamier texture with a more complex taste. And maybe you're laughing at my description of marshmallow flavor as "complex", but trust me. Homemade marshmallows are nothing to laugh at. Especially when there's rum involved.

NOW I have your attention. You can add any flavor to marshmallows, including chocolate, cinnamon or coconut, but since my marshmallows are going straight into a cup of hot cocoa, I can think of no better flavor than rum to spice up that cup.

Rum-Flavored Marshmallows
Confectioners sugar (for dusting. I used around 1/3 of a box)
1 tablespoon rum extract
1 cup water
3 envelopes gelatin (I found a box of 4 envelopes at Harris Teeter)
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar
¾ cup light corn syrup
¼ tsp salt

You'll also need a candy thermometer and a standing mixer

Marsh_3Fold a piece of parchment paper until it fits snugly into the bottom of the pan you'll be using. I used a 7 by 11 inch pan, but other variations should work (just make sure you have at least 1 1/2 inches in depth). Let the edges of the paper drape over the edges of the pan on 2 sides (see picture).  Generously sieve the bottom of the pan with confectioner's sugar.

Pour the rum extract and 3/4 of the cup of water into a mixer bowl and sprinkle it with the gelatin. Stir with a fork, and let stand while you complete the next step.

Combine the remaining 1/4 cup of water, the granulated sugar, corn syrup and salt in a sauce pan and cook on medium heat until the sugar dissolves.  Raise the heat to high, and let the mixture boil until it reaches 250 degrees.

Remove the syrup from the heat. Begin mixing the bowl of softened gelatin with your stand mixer (on a low speed) and slowly pour the syrup mixture in. Raise the speed of the mixer to medium, and beat for 2 minutes. Then raise the speed of the mixer to high, and beat for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the mixture is solid white in color and very thick in texture.

Spread the mixture into the prepared pan. Sieve a layer of confectioner's sugar on top, and let the mixture stand, uncovered, over night so the marshmallow can set.

Marsh1To remove the marshmallow from the pan, take a knife and slide it along the edges of the pan that are not covered with parchment paper. You can use a little confectioners sugar on the knife if need be. Remove the marshmallow, in a block from the pan and place it on a counter top, covered lightly in confectioner's sugar. Using a pizza slicer (with a round blade), cut strips of marshmallow to your desired thickness. Then cut the strips into blocks. Toss these blocks in a bowl of confectioner's sugar, and then lay them on a piece of parchment paper to dry for 1 1/2 hours.

Store your finished marshmallows in an air tight container in a cool, dry place. They should last up to 3 weeks.

Winter Squash Two Ways

Bounty_of_squash In case you've spent the last few weeks locked inside embroiled in a Guitar Hero marathon jam session, I should point out it's getting cold around here.  With the cold comes a shift in the types of produce available locally.  As I walk through the farmers' markets now, I see a lot more apples, onions, potatoes and turnips.  Don't get me wrong, I love apples (in fact, one of the recipes below feature apples) but nothing is more versatile than Winter squash.  Abundantly available during the infinite season of tubers (also known as Winter), Winter squash comes in over 20 varieties and can be cooked in a surprising number of ways.  From savory (soups, pastas, even pizzas) to sweet (cookies, pies and cakes), Winter squash is the go-to food for the Winter.  Even better, Winter squash is in abundance at local farmers' markets this time of year.

The categorization of squash as Winter and Summer squash is a bit of a misnomer.  Summer squashes are mainly found in the Spring and Summer, but their name is derived from their short storage periods.  Winter squash, on the other hand, can be stored for months after harvested (if kept in a cool, dry place), making them ideal for use during the Winter.  Summer squashes are usually harvested before fully ripe, giving them a softer rind and lighter colored flesh. Winter squashes have a tougher rind, making them more conducive to storing for long periods of time.  And almost as if mimicking the colors of Fall, the flesh of Winter squash come in rich yellows and oranges.  The varieties of Winter squash are broken into five main groups:  Acorn, Delicata, Spaghetti, Butternut and True Winter Squash.  Subtle differences in flavors among the varieties of Winter squash allows cooks to use them in an assortment of recipes.  To illustrate this point, I present to you Winter Squash 2 ways.  For the savory side, a delicious stuffed acorn squash and for the sweet tooth, a roasted butternut squash cheesecake.  All of the ingredients for the stuffed acorn squash were purchased at the Dupont Circle farmers' market (except the sausage, a lovely whiskey fennel I picked up at Eastern Market).

Finished_dishStuffed Acorn Squash
2 large acorn squash
2 large shallots, diced
1 large granny smith (or another tart variety) apple, cored and diced
1 pound of sausage
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Carefully cut each squash in half (the rind is tough, so use a good, sharp knife and be prepared to flex some muscle) and place them face down in a nonstick roasting pan.  Roast for at least one hour or until the flesh has softened.  Set the squashes aside and allow them to cool.  During the squash cooling period, heat the olive oil over medium high heat and saute the shallots and apples until softened.  Remove the shallots and apples from the pan and squeeze the sausages out of their casings and into the pan.  Cook the sausage fully and then add in the apple/shallot mixture.  Add the thyme, salt and pepper and cook for another five minutes.

When the acorn squashes have cooled, carefully scoop out their flesh while preserving their “casing”.  Add the squash flesh to the sausage mixture, stirring to incorporate it evenly.  Spoon the sausage mixture back into each acorn squash casing (there will be more than enough of the sausage mixture to evenly stuff all the acorns) and serve!

Finished_cheesecake Roasted Butternut Squash Cheesecake
For the filling:
4 eight ounce packages of cream cheese, softened
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 eggs
½ cup whipping cream
1 ½ cups roasted butternut squash flesh, whipped

For the roasted butternut squash flesh:
1 butternut squash, halved with the seeds removed
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 tablespoon pumpkin spice
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar

For the crust:
8 tablespoons butter, melted
25 to 35 Vanilla Wafers

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Place the Vanilla Wafers in a food processor and pulse until pulverized.  Combine the melted butter and Vanilla Wafers in a bowl.  Press the mixture into a greased 9 inch springform pan.  Bake for 10 minutes, checking to make sure the crust does not burn.  Set the crust aside while you make the filling.

Cut the squash in half and place in a roasting pan.  Brush the halves with melted butter and sprinkle with the pumpkin spice and brown sugar.  Roast the squashes for approximately 45 minutes or until the flesh is tender.  Allow the squash to cool before scooping out the flesh.  Whip the flesh until no longer lumpy with a whisk and set aside.

Combine the cream cheese, sugar and cornstarch in a stand mixer and cream together on low until the mixture is smooth.  Increase the speed to medium and add in the vanilla, eggs, squash flesh and the cream.  Continue beating until the batter is smooth and creamy.  Pour the batter into the springform pan.  Place the pan in a water bath (a large shallow pan filled partially with hot water) and bake the cake for an hour.  After an hour, gently shake the springform pan to see if the center jiggles.  If the center does jiggle, continue baking for another ten minutes.  Check again to see if the center jiggles and if it does, continue baking for another ten minutes.  Repeat this procedure until the cheesecake no longer jiggles in the center.  Be careful not to burn the top of the cheesecake by rotating the pan in the oven each time you check the center.  Once finished baking, remove the springform pan from the water bath and allow the cheesecake to cool completely.  Refrigerate the cake for at least 6 hours (preferably overnight) before serving. 

Giving the gift of grilling

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that a new grill, or smoker or steaks! would be there.

Yes, it’s Christmas once again. But more importantly, it’s bowl season and the NFL playoffs. What better time to get that special someone in your life what he/she needs most: a grill and stuff to help him/her grill?

Well, I’m here to help. From first-time grill owners to gifts for the veteran griller in your life, we’ll cover them all. So when we all huddle around our television sets to watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers march through the playoffs, we can enjoy football – and Christmas – the way it was meant to be enjoyed: with grilled meat.

Gas grills verses charcoal is one of the biggest debates in the grilling world. Charcoal enthusiasts argue that gas fails to impart the essential flavors of grilling. Gas enthusiasts claim that propane burns clean, is efficient and grills every bit as good as charcoal.


To me, the gas vs. charcoal debate comes down to convenience.

Charcoal grills are considerably cheaper than gas grills. The typical charcoal grill is also smaller than most gas grills, an important consideration for folks like me who live in small D.C. apartments and condos. However, charcoal grills are much less convenient than gas grills. Before you cook, you need to light the coals and let them get hot, usually a 30 minute process. After you cook, you need to let the coals cool before cleaning out the grill and brushing down the grates. If you don’t clean out the coals after every usage, the grill will cook less and less efficiently. If you don’t brush down the grates to remove bits of excess food, you’re gross.

Gas grills, on the other hand, is incredibly easy to use. Just punch the ignition and go, baby. Once the propane tank is hooked up, a gas grill is like your stove top, only with more fire. I grill a lot. If I owned a gas grill, I’d grill even more. Gas grills are also easier to clean than charcoal grills. Once every few uses, you need to clean out the drip tray underneath the burners – lest it will catch fire – but otherwise a simple brushing of grates once you’re done grilling is all you need to do. However, a decent gas grill will run you a couple hundred dollars. A nice one with a side burner, an oven and rear infrared burners for rotisserie cooking will cost you a few hundred more. A charcoal grill that will meet most of your grilling needs will cost less than $100.

Charcoal grills: When it comes to buying a charcoal grill, you don’t need many bells and whistles. I own a standard issue black Weber 22.5 inch One-Touch Silver charcoal grill. It was cheap and it meets 90 percent of my needs. The rest of my needs are met by my bullet smoker (more on that later). The 22.5 inch grill is an ideal size for most grillers. You can go bigger (the gargantuan 1104 sq. inch Weber Ranch Kettle charcoal grill) or smaller (the 14.5 inch Smokey Joe), but the 22.5 inch grill is the Goldilocks of the bunch. One more thing, you may come across the Weber One-Touch Gold. This grill is identical to the One-Touch Silver except it has an aluminum ash catch that makes it easier to remove ash after use. It also costs $50 more. Keep your $50, the ash pan the One-Touch Silver comes with works just fine.

Gas grills: It’s easy to blow a bunch of money on a gas grill. To keep costs down, focus on what’s important: cooking surface and useful accoutrements (the warming rack). I’ve used a bunch of gas grills and find that nine times out of 10, all I need is space to grill and a rack above the grates to warm buns, melt cheese on burgers and give me a place to put things I pull off the cooking surface but not from the grill. All other features are nice, but nonessential. Want to rotisserie a lamb leg? Get the rotisserie attachment. Want to bake cornbread outdoors? Get a grill with an oven. These features are great, but they’ll cost you. So figure out what you really want before buying. A good gas grill to consider is the Brinkmann 4 Burner. For about $200, you’ll get 550 sq. inches of cooking area, a warming rack and a side burner. Not too shabby.

Every griller, new and old, needs two tools: a pair of tongs and a spatula. I like tongs without locking handles, which annoy me to no end. Now, every grilling tool kit also comes with a two-prong fork. Throw it away. Never, ever, ever pierce a piece of meat that’s cooking on the grill. Every bit of flavor will drain out with the juices. Forks shouldn’t come out until the meat is on the plate.

Gifts for the griller

So he already has a grill, huh? No problem. Here are four gift ideas to make a great experience even better.

  1. Barbecue! Bible by Steven Raichlen. I own a half dozen or so books on grilling, but find myself coming back to Raichlen’s Barbecue! Bible whenever I need tips or new ideas. This is arguably the best book on grilling from the guru of grilling.
  2. A smoker. Once I got the hang of grilling, I was curious to tryout barbecuing. One of the best ways to do that is to invest in a smoker. A simple one, like the Brinkmann Smoke N’ Grill, are cheap and easy to use. If you have a more experienced griller, consider a larger smoker that can double as a grill.
  3. La Caja China. This might just be the Holy Grail of gifts for a grilling enthusiast. This simple aluminum lined wooden box is a testament to the genius of simplicity. It can roast lambs, goats, pork butts and whole pigs in half the time (or less) than traditional pits. And when you’re done, it’s small enough to store in your garage, shed or bedroom (mine will double as a nightstand).
  4. Meat. What good is a grill if you don't have meat to cook? Rather than sign your special someone up for Omaha Steaks (Meat by mail? Great!), give him the gift of fresh cuts from local butchers. Although you could toss a couple chops under the tree, I’m not sure how well the pork will keep. Luckily, a number of area butchers offer gift cards and gift certificates.
    a. Canales Quality Meats (202-547-0542) and Union Meat Company (202-547-2626), Eastern Market, 7th St. S.E., Washington, D.C.
    b. Wagshal’s Market, (202-363-0777), 4845 Massachusetts Ave. N.W. Washington, D.C.
    c. The Organic Butcher, (703-790-8300), 6712 Old Dominion Dr., McLean, Va.
    d. Wegmans, 45131 Columbia Pl., Sterling, Va. (703-421-2400), 14801 Dining Way, Woodbridge, Va. (703-763-5500), and 11620 Monument Dr., Fairfax, Va. (703-653-1600)
    e. Dean & Deluca, (202-342-2500) 3276 M St. N.W., Washington, D.C.
    f. Let’s Meat on the Avenue, (703-836-6328) 2403 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va.

Now that you’ve given the gift of grilling, cook something. I can think of no better way to break in a new grill than to let fire kiss beef. When is comes to steak, there are quite a few cuts to choose from, but few are as fine as the porterhouse. Twenty-four ounces of beef and bone is about as good as it gets in the world of steak. So don’t screw it up with a bunch of sauces or spices. Salt, pepper, fire and butter are all you need.

For this recipe, I bought the porterhouse from Canales, which always has quality meat. But you can find quality cuts at any of the butchers listed above.

Steak8The Porterhouse

(Makes 2 servings)

2 24 oz. porterhouse steaks

2 tbs. salted butter, warmed to room temperature

2 tbs. fresh cracked black pepper corns

1 tbs. of sea salt

1 tbs. of oil (olive or canola)

Steak1Whenever I do this recipe, I grind up the black pepper corns by hand in a mortar. This way I get bigger chucks of pepper. If you own a spice grinder (I don’t) feel free to use it instead. Otherwise just use whatever black pepper you have on hand.

If you’re using a charcoal grill, pull the steaks out of the refrigerator when you’re ready to light the coals. This will allow the steak to loose some of the chill before going on the grill. If you’re using a gas grill, pull the steaks out of the refrigerator 30 minutes ahead.

Rub both sides of the steaks with the salt and black pepper. Drizzle the oil over top the steaks, saving back some to rub on the grill grates. This will prevent the meat from sticking.

When the coals have ashed over and the grill is hot, place the steaks on the hottest part of the grill.Steak7_2   Cook for four minutes or until a dark brown crust forms on the meat. Flip and cook in the same place for about two minutes before moving the steaks to a cooler part of the grill. Cover the grill and cook for another two minutes for rare to medium. If you like medium rare to medium, cook for an extra two minutes or eight minutes total. If you like it well done, stop reading.

As the steak is cooking, warm a couple plates in the oven. Once the steaks are done, pull them off the grill and let them rest for five minutes. In the meantime, take the plates out of the oven and spread a tablespoon of butter in the middle of each one Peter Luger style. When the steaks are ready, place the steaks on top of the butter – which will melt and mingle with the steak’s juices and seasonings – and dig in.

Spirited egg nog

Image009 Stick me on your Christmas card list, folks, because I'm giving you a present.

A couple years ago, my buddy Columbo gave me the recipe for the greatest egg nog ever.


Mind you, I like the store bought stuff. I grew up on it and looked forward to it every year. And then Columbo, who grew up not 30 miles from me in central Florida, assured me that if I followed the recipe I'd never go back to the commercial stuff. He was right.

Not only is the egg nog incredibly rich, wonderfully sweet and perfectly noggy (it's a word ... now), but it's as boozy as Andy Capp. I ain't kidding, this stuff is not for kids. The recipe makes a half gallon of egg nog; a cup and a half of it is straight booze.

Man, I love this nog.

The original recipe calls for equal amounts of bourbon, brandy and light rum. This mixture makes a fine nog, but I've altered (improved) it. Growing up, my mom always added spiced rum to her egg nog. Consequently, that's the flavor I like and expect, although I prefer dark rum. I also like using Wild Turkey 101 proof bourbon, which is strong stuff (my chest is as hairy as Santa's beard). To incorporate the additional rum and compensate for the higher strength bourbon, I add three quarters of a cup of rum, a quarter cup of bourbon and a half cup of brandy.

Basically, if you keep the mixture of spirits to a cup and a half, you're going to be fine.

So without further ado, here's the recipe.

You're welcome.

Egg Nog
6 eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups whipping cream
1 cup milk
1/2 cup bourbon
1/2 cup brandy
1/2 cup light rum
Nutmeg for garnish

Separate the eggs and beat the egg yolks with sugar until thick. Slowly add the cream, milk and spirits.

Whip the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the mixture. Chill for a few hours in the refrigerator.

Sprinkle with nutmeg before serving.

Chocolate Beer: Temptation Incarnate

Alcohol, as a vice, is pretty damned tempting. Even those who don't count themselves in the ranks of the alcoholic will admit that the pleasant buzz born of a few beers is a welcome respite from the day's woes. For some, chocolate is as ideal a diversion; with its powerful pituitary pleasing properties, chocolate churns up a good number of endorphins, particularly vital for this time of year. When these two scintillating substances join forces, woe unto thee, puny mortals! Your willpower is nothing — give in and bow before the mighty deliciousness!

Yes, chocolate beer is a real thing, and has been around for some 3000 years, dating back to the ancient Mayans practice of fermenting cacao seeds with maize and grain to make a ritual beverage used to commune with the gods. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it a religious experience, chocolate flavored beer can be just as tasty as you might expect. However, there are myriad examples, and each has its own style and characteristics. Since these beers are rather pricey, I thought I would try a few and give you guys my impressions.

Brooklynchocolate Brooklyn Brewery's Black Chocolate Stout
10.6% Abv
About $10 / six pack.

Appearance: Opaque, slightly reddish black with thick, long lasting dark brown head.

Aroma: Intense cocoa and fermented fig. Very sharp, almost boozy.

Flavor: Powerful flavor of sweet milk chocolate and a noticible chalky sensation of the front. Very full bodied, with some caustic chemical flavors and malt on the midpalate, followed by a surprisingly bitter finish.

Before looking at the alcohol content, I found this beer ham-fisted and out of balance, but given its abv is over 10%, the Brooklyn Chocolate holds itself together very well. Despite the unusual chemical elements (thanks to the Brooklyn, NY water, perhaps?), this beer has a lot to offer the beer lover who loves a drink with some power. I feel like this one might benefit from a year of aging, so if you have a cellar, consider putting a sixer down there till next Christmas.

Chocarrubica Grado Plato Chocarrubica Oatmeal Stout
7.0% Abv
About $20 / 750ml bottle

Appearance: Extremely dark, full, long lasting head (the beer overflowed its flip-top bottle for like five minutes after I opened it!). Dark burnt umber, almost black in color.

Aroma: Slightly yeasty, with notes of fermenting red apples. Definitely winey, along with some aromas of sweet rotting fruit.

Flavor: Slightly chocolately on the front, with more fermenting fruit flavors taking over in the middle. Creamy textured throughout, with a slightly sweet, chalky finish.

This Italian microbrew is definitely the most esoteric on this list, and one of the more unusual stouts I've enjoyed in a long time. The winey and rotting flavors may not sound appealing in text, but they actually work very well, and would make this beer a great compliment to a wide array of your tangier aged cheeses. Though definitely not for the neophyte, this is a great beer if you are looking to be adventerous, or if you are looking for a chocolate beer where the eponymous ingredient doesn't dominate the drink.

Roguechocolate Rogue Chocolate Stout
6.0% Abv
About $6.50 / 650ml bottle

Appearance: Dark brown to black. Full, short lived dark brown head.

Aroma: Green, woody notes. Hint of milk chocolate and malted milk balls.

Flavor: Subtle milk chocolate and buttery flavors on the front. Fairly neutral on the midpalate, with a finish like unsweetened chocolate milk.

Though not as complicated or decadent as some of the beers on this list, the Rogue chocolate is one of the more drinkable chocolate beers out there. If you are a fan of mild stouts like Guinness Draught and Beamish, this one may have just the flavor and texture you are looking for, with just a bit of dessert about it.

Samadamschocolate Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock
5.6% Abv
About $16 / 750ml bottle

Appearance: Dark brown with copper highlights; thick, long lasting foamy brown head.

Aroma: Roasted nuts, mild dark cocoa, with a slightly sweet, maple sugar quality.

Flavor: Kinda sugary sweet on the attack. Medium dry, with rich, buttery cocoa flavors on the mid-palate, along with malt and distinct caramel flavors. A lot like chocolate ice cream. Mouth filling and silky smooth with a creamy, long lasting finish.

Though rather expensive at $17 a bottle, this beer offers a surprising amount of elegance and balance. The intense sweetness on the front of the palate would make this an ideal pair with a wide range of desserts, including Black Forest cake, Tiramisu, or even just a bowl of chocolate ice cream.

Southerntierchoklat Southern Tier Choklat Imperial Stout
11.0% Abv
About $8.50 / 650ml bottle

Appearance: Dark brown with short lasting, dark brown head.

Aroma: Very intense aromas of fudge and baking chocolate chip cookies.

Flavor: Sharply sweet on the front, with more flavors of fudgey chocolate and malt. Medium full and creamy throughout, with a pleasant bitter element commingling with the sweetness on the finish.

This one is almost too much — it is seriously like drinking melted fudge. Though delicious in its way, this beer is obscenely decadent, and even if that sounds like your kind of thing, I suggest you split it with several friends in lieu of dessert. I only managed to drink about a third of the bottle, and will be baking the rest into beer bread this afternoon — I have high hopes!

Most of these beers are pretty easily found at your fancier beer stores, but be aware, these are low-production seasonals, and will not be around too much longer. Cheers!