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June 2010

Grilled Blue Cheese and Bacon Quesadillas, What a Great Idea

Can you steal an idea if part of it was yours?

If you can, then I've stolen the idea for this post from my friends Sarah and Andy (who you might remember from such posts as Smoking and Freezing). A few weeks ago, Sarah and I were talking about the grilled pizzas she was planning to make for some out-of-town friends. One of her favorite pies is a bacon and apple pizza covered with sharp cheddar cheese.

I told her it sounded fantastic ... and then suggested how to change it. (I do this a lot, which either makes me egotistical, condescending or kind of a dick. Probably all three.) Bacon and apple go great together, but why not pair them with blue cheese instead of cheddar? The tang of a good, creamy blue cheese is the ideal accompaniment to smoky bacon and tart, sweet apples. Cheddar, on the other hand, pairs great with, um, beef.

Giving my advice the consideration it deserves, Sarah went home and whipped up a bacon, apple and cheddar cheese pizza. Her guests loved it.

Still, I'm right. Like basil, tomato and mozzarella, blue cheese, apples and bacon are natural allies. I'm not breaking new ground, mind you. These ingredients have been brought together for years, especially in salads, but also in desserts, sandwiches and main courses.

Although the combination is classic, bringing them together in a quesadilla isn't.

DSCN5428 I've been putting off doing a quesadilla post for a while. As much as I enjoy a warm, crusty quesadilla (it's like a hot taco!), it seemed too easy to bother with. Basically, it's two flour tortillas stuffed with something (including cheese) and heated until the contents melt together and the tortillas become golden brown and firm. Serve it with some guacamole and sour cream and you're good to go.

And then I noticed that Steven Raichlen included quesadilla recipes in a couple of his books. So game on.

Their simplicity is their beauty. You can go traditional and use queso blanco, beans and peppers, or you can play around with the ingredients and use, I don't know, blue cheese, bacon and apple. Instead of sour cream, you could use crème fraiche, which is similar, but has a milder, creamier flavor.

While I'm just talking about cheese, meat and fruit, the blue cheese, bacon and apple have a way of dressing up the quesadilla, or at least breathing some new life into the dish. And crème fraiche just sounds fancy.

More importantly, the ingredients are perfect for a quesadilla. The flour tortillas are unobtrusive and the strong flavors of the ingredients remain distinct even as the blue cheese, warmed by the heat of the grill, envelops the crunchy bacon and crisp pieces of apple.

DSCN5439 To accompany the quesadilla, I picked up Schneider Weisse hefeweizen (Yup, a German wheat beer to go with my Latin quesadilla filled with blue cheese and apples.). Admittedly, the hefeweizen has more to do with the season than the meal, but it works well with the quesadilla. Just as cold winter evenings have me craving dark stouts and wee heavy Scotch ales, the sticky hot days of summer trigger a longing for the smooth, sweet flavors of a good German hefeweizen.

And when it comes to pairing a beer with a dish that has such strong flavors, the hefeweizen is a good match. The mild banana flavors compliment the quesadilla's sweet apple and tart cheese, and the unfiltered beer has enough body to stand up the rich blue cheese and salty bacon.

Besides, it's hot and I want a hefeweizen.

So I don't know if I stole the idea for the quesadilla from Sarah and Andy or a cheese plate I had at some point. Wherever the idea came from, it works. Is it better than a bacon, apple and cheddar cheese pizza? Who can say? (I can, and it is.)

Grilled Quesadilla with Blue Cheese, Bacon and Apple
(Makes four servings)

DSCN5414 8 flour tortillas (two per quesadilla)
4 oz. of blue cheese, crumbled (I like Maytag)
1 package of thick cut bacon, or three strips of bacon per quesadilla, fried and diced into small pieces
1 Granny Smith or similar tart apple, diced into cubes or small pieces (squirt a little lemon juice on the apple pieces to prevent them from browning)
1 small container of crème fraiche
1/2 lb. of queso blanco, shredded

Quesadillas cook very quickly, so you need to have all your ingredients prepared beforehand. And if you're using a gas grill with flavorizor bars, take them off. The tortillas need direct exposure to the flame in order to brown and char properly. If you're using a charcoal grill, you're fine. 

You'll notice I have queso blanco in the ingredient list. It's literally the glue that will hold the quesadilla together. The blue cheese will get nice and gooey, but not enough to bind the tortillas. And because the queso blanco has such a mild flavor, it won't get in the way of the much bolder flavors of the other ingredients.

DSCN5417 When your grill is ready and all your ingredients are assembled next to it, start building the quesadilla by scattering some of the queso blanco on a tortilla, and then add the bacon, apple and blue cheese, and then add a little more queso blanco on top. Carefully slide or place the quesadilla on the grill, directly over the heat, and cover with the other tortilla.

Close the lid and let cook for two minutes. Open the lid and check the bottom tortilla. If it's starting to brown and char a bit, carefully flip the quesadilla. Grill for another two mintues or until the bottom tortilla browns and then remove from the heat.

Halve or quarter the quesadilla (or not, whatever), add a dollop of crème fraiche and enjoy.

Must Haves: Cafe Atlantico's Medio Dia Ain't a Cuban, but It's an Afternoon Delight

Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

There may be no more perfect culinary creation than the sandwich. At its best, it's simple: meat, condiment, maybe some cheese and greens. Less is more because more is more. More clutters. More gets in the way. More misses the point. Less does, too. Less is meat and bread, or worse, condiment and bread -- the wish sandwich.

At its best, a sandwich is a harmony of few notes. It sings.

The Cuban sandwich, el Cubano, is a perfect sandwich. Ham, roast pork, Swiss, mustard, and pickles all pressed between crusty pieces (sometimes buttered, sometimes not) of Cuban bread. It doesn't get much simpler.

I grew up on the Cuban, so ubiquitous in Tampa it gets taken for granted. It's not hard to find a good Cubano in Tampa. Sure you could hit the lunch counter at La Teresita, just off Himes, or El Gallo de Oro, where Cuban men still play dominos out front and a short walk will take you to the small shop where my wife bought her wedding dress.

Hell, you could get a mean pressed Cuban at the gas station down the street from 98 Rock where I interned in college. Nearly every day after my shift at the morning show ended at 10:30, I'd drive down to fill up the car or just me. My sandwich was often the first of the day. I don't know if it was the sleep deprivation, the gas fumes or the virgin grill top, but I never got a bad Cuban from that place.

So if I can get a great Cubano at a gas station, why can't I get one in D.C.? Sure, I've had some decent ones at places like Cuba De Ayer in Burtonsville, but the bread never seems quite right or they skip the ham or pork. Whatever the case is, it's never a proper Cubano.

The thing is, though, the sandwiches are usually pretty good. They're just not good Cubanos. If they'd just call them something else I'd be able to enjoy the sandwich. It may be just a name, but the name carries expectations, which too often go unmet.

Now, call that sandwich a Medio Dia and you're on to something.

DSCN5331 Just look at that thing: confit pork, ham, and warm, melted cheese between two pieces of crispy, crusty bread. It's beautiful. Monikers aside, Cafe Atlantico's midday version of the Cubano is a damn good sandwich. They even remembered the pickles and mustard, and knew enough not to call it a Cuban.

You see, people, this is why Jose Andres is such a well regarded chef. For all the complexity of Minibar and variety of Jaleo and Zaytinya, Andres recognizes the perfect simplicity of the Cuban sandwich and doesn't screw with it too much.

Sure, the bread's not right, but few people north of the 813 seem capable of making a decent loaf of Cuban bread (it's very similar to French bread, but the interior is much more soft). On the other hand, using confit pork instead of roast pork is genius. I might go so far to say that it's better than the roast pork. No, I will say that it's better than the roast pork. It's pork slow cooked in fat. How can rich, unctuous pork not be great? It can't. It just can't.

And always a nice touch is the strangely thick, bright orange hot sauce you can request at Café Atlantico. It's not traditional, but I put hot sauce on nearly everything, including Cubans. Trust me, it works.

As much as I like this sandwich, it's not a Cuban. Maybe that's a good thing (and not just because I like to complain about such things). So long as I can't get a proper Cubano here, it will always be a special treat when I'm back in Tampa. But when I can't head south, at least I can head to Café Atlantico for lunch.

Potomac Point Winery of Stafford, VA

POTOMACOUTSIDE1 As I am sure you are all aware, I-95 is a horrid, horrid bitch of a road. Traveling back up from visiting my brother in Richmond last Sunday (welcome to Virginia, James and Christine!), we'd hit a couple nasty backups, but it was pretty much smooth sailing until Exit 148, when we saw a nasty bit of business looming. On a whim, I took a hard right off the highway in pursuit of Potomac Point Winery, whose sign I'd seen a couple clicks back, rightfully thinking that a couple glasses of wine beat the hell out of sitting in traffic for a half hour.

POTOMACBAR Beyond the one on the highway, signage is a bit sparse on the six-mile journey to the three year-old winery, and we promptly lost ourselves on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere; if you plan to visit, make sure you actually, like, know the address. After a bit of GPSing, we arrived at the tasting room, a large, pretty, white stone and brick structure set high on a hill, amongst some small vineyards and well manicured shrubberies. The inside is open and comfortable, with very high ceilings, the usual array of knick-knacks adorning the walls and alcoves, and a large, island-style, marble-topped tasting bar in the center. Amenities include an olive oil tasting bar, courtesy of Stella Cadente, a dim, dark wood accented lounge, a patio bistro, and even a children's playroom (a brilliant idea, left un-photographed cuz I'm too pretty for jail). Overall, very pleasant in that slightly cheesy, faux-continental sort of way that tasting rooms have.

  Potomac Point offerPOTOMACOILs three tasting options, ranging from $5 to $10 per person, each including a souvenir glass and free access to the bread and infused oil's at the olive oil bar; not too shabby! At the host's suggestion, we opted for the whole shebang, and made our way to the bar.

After the fact, I read a few reviews online that gave PP less than stellar points in the service department, which I can totally corroborate. For all the six or seven employees wandering around the place, there was only one attending to the 10 or so customers at the bar. Several staffers were screwing around just next to us, and the two women at the cashier's stand were comPOTOMACPAINTINGpletely unoccupied, while the poor girl serving us and all the other tasters did double-duty, also being the service bartender for the bistro. She eventually got a little relief, but in any case it took us nearly an hour to taste through, and we got little attention or info. Bad show, there.

  The wines were... dry. "Dryness" in a wine is a reflection of it's residual sugar; that is, the amount of sugar that is not convertePOTOMACVINEYARDd into alcohol by the yeast during fermentation. The actual experience of dryness is relative; a heavy Chardonnay could have a good amount of sugar in it, but have enough in the alcohol, acid, and flavor department to still taste "dry." Potomac Point lists the residual sugar content of each of it's wines on the tasting sheet -- most are categorized simply as "Dry." This is a bit of an understatement: the "Dry" wines seemed to have no  residual sugar whatsoever, which worked to their detriment.

POTOMACPORCH1The La Belle Vie Rose 2009 ($18.99), made from Syrah (a rather rare find in VA), was lightly fruity and drinkable, and the Reserve Chardonnay 2008 ($21.99) was a good bet if you like 'em oaky. The rest of the whites were harsh and bland -- the 2008 Chardonnay ($16.99) overly lemony, the Virginia favorite Viognier 2008 ($21.99) was downright sour, and the usually light and flowery Traminette 2008 ($18.99) was flat and oily. 

As for thPOTOMACPORCH2e reds, the "Chianti-style" 2009 Abbinato ($16.99) was pleasant and far more balanced than most of the offerings, and the 2007 Heritage ($26.99) Bordeaux blend had pretty good fruit and acid, but the 2008 Merlot, Cab Franc, and Norton each left a lot to be desired. The winery offered a couple sweet wines that hit the spot, but most of the others were very disappointing. All of the really poor performers were from the 2008 vintage, so I'll give PP the benefit of the doubt and assume that was a rough year for growers, and they purchased some real under-ripe grapes -- I certainly can't imagine them surviving these past three years if that level of quality as the standard.

POTOMACGLASS Afterward, we retired to the patio for the obligatory glass of pink wine. The bistro was serving, and the food looked pretty good, but we'd filled up on bread and olive oil, and took a pass. Looking out over the grounds through the patio's wrought iron fencing was lovely, and the rose made a nice compliment to the late afternoon sun. Being a unique, convenient rest stop off of Satan's own highway, I could definitely see myself visiting Potomac Point again -- but with Pearmund, La Grange and Paradise Springs closer in to the west, I am pretty sure I wouldn't make it a destination.

Potomac Point Winery
275 Decatur Road
Stafford, VA‎ 22554
(540) 446-2266‎
Directions and Hours

SAVOR 2010: The Good, the Bad, and the... Foodly?

SAVOROUTSIDE Early June means just one thing to the DC area beerophile: SAVOR! The third incarnation of DC's premier beer and food extravaganza rolled into town last week, and I was fortunate enough to score a free ticket (thanks, BA!). Held at the gorgeous and appropriately decadent National Building Museum, this year's event featured 68 brewers pouring 136 of their finest beers, accompanied by 35 delectable bites, paired by the experts for optimal enjoyment, along with a series of informative educational salons.

So how did this year's event turn out? Shit, I don't remember! God, I used to be able to handle four hours of hardcore drinking without batting an eye; what happened to me? Fortunately, I do have dozens of pictures and pages of nearly illegible notes from which to draw, so let's see what I dredge from my hop-addled memory.


As always, SAVOR had a great selection of breweries whose wares were up for sampling. The Brewer's Association (the event's benefactor) holds an annual lottery each year, taking in hundreds of applications from the eight geographic corners of the US; eight from each region are selected to participate. Thus, there were a lot of new faces at this year's shenanigans, along with some notable returning favorites.

CaliforSAVORLOSTABBEYnia's Lost Abbey made a triumphant return this year with two new offerings, the Devotion blond ale, and the Carnevale saison. These beers are almost never available in bars or at retail, so these treats are exactly what make this event worthwhile to the burgeoning beer geeks like myself. Likewise, it was great to see Alaskan Brewing Company, whose rare Smoked Porter is almost never found outside of the frozen land of Palin. The rarely seen left-coast favorite The Bruery also made a great showing with their Coton Old Ale; you'd think a beer that is simultaneously salty, citrusy, spicy, sweet and sour would have a hard time hanging together, but this beer pulls it off gorgeously.

SAVORSTSOME Beerwise, the highlight of the evening for me was Saint Somewhere, a craft brewer based out of Tarpon Springs, Florida, which specializes in Belgian-style ales. The Pays du Soleil Belgian dubbel and the Saison Athene are both rich, fully realized offerings, the former funky and stewy, the latter herbaceous and citrusy. The labels are gorgeous; I just wish they had a different name, as I told everyone I met to check out "St. Elsewhere," which is actually the early 80's hospital drama that launched the career of one Denzel Washington... Anyhow, their beers are low production, but do have representation in the area, so keep  your eyes peeled.

Getting theseSAVORINSIDE2 great beers was easier than ever before, as lines seemed much shorter than in previous years -- even at the most vaunted breweries' tables, I never found myself waiting more than a couple minutes. As far as I can tell, the BA sold the same number of tickets as they did for SAVOR 2, so I'm not sure how to account for the difference, but they deserve big props. Also nice was SAVOR's commitment to going "Zero Waste" this year, forgoing the more convenient disposable plastic cutlery and plates for biodegradable bamboo. Rubbish bins seemed in short supply, and all of them were labeled for general use, so I just have to assume they followed through on the back end, and let the kudos stand.


Not everything was sunshine and unicorns at SAVOR. Though there were lots of new brewers, and many returning breweries had great new offerings, not everyone brought their 'A game.' The Boston Beer Company made a lackluster showing with their Sam Adams Lager (yes, the one you can get at 7-11), and their nearly undrinkable Imperial White, which tastes like vodka and bananas blended with bread yeast. Magic Hat, which actually makes some really cool beers, saw fit to bring the ubiquitous #9 and Blind Faith IPA. Local fav Dogfish Head brought some rarer offerings, but ran out of beer fairly early in the night, which is unforgivable, as they were one of the event's major sponsors.

Word of mouth tells me that the salons -- one of the event's major draws, which purport to offer attendees access to fascinating speakers, and some of the rarest beers around -- were a mixed bag. I attended Anchor Brewing's "A Very Rare Beer Tasting," which was marketed as follows:

SAVORSALON1  John Dannerbeck of Anchor Brewing will taste and de-construct O.B.A. (Our Barrel Ale). Plan to taste the OBA, the rye whiskey that had aged in the barrel previous and the various beers that made up the final blend. This will be a real treat.

Sounds cool, no? Yeah, well what isn't made clear is that those "various beers" are just the basic Anchor beers you'd find at any decent liquor store (which I would have known, to be fair, had I done a bit of research). The O.B.A. was fine, but nothing special, and though Mr. Dannerbeck certainly tried to be engaging, he didn't seem to know what was expected of him at the event, and went to Q & A within minutes.

SAVORINSIDE1  I heard a horror story from Drew about the "Rare Barrel Aged Beers" salon, with Doug Odell of Odell Brewing Company and Patrick Rue of The Bruery. He said the beers were great, and the speakers were interesting, but when he tried to excuse himself to use the restroom, he was denied. This salon, mind you, occurred at 9:45, a good two-hours into the event; is it any wonder one would need to excuse himself after 120 minutes of hardcore drinking sampling? And what if the person in question was not a strapping young man like Drew, but someone with a medical condition? The BA issued him an apology, and chalked it up to a misunderstanding on the part of a volunteer, but it's something they might want to work on for next year.

So all in all, I guess there are two lessons that need be learned: do a bit more research than my lazy ass before you pick your pony, but either way, expect to be cross-legged and sweatin'.

SAVORFOOD1 The Foodly:

I'll keep this short: The food sucked at the first SAVOR, continued to suck last year at SAVOR 2, and, finally, sucked some more for SAVOR 2010. Like last year, another huge selection of delicious treats were advertised. Pecan Crusted Chicken With Garlic Mashed Potatoes; Potato Gnocchi With Pork & Wild Mushroom Ragu; Baked Goat Cheese in Tomato Sauce With Pita Crisps; these are just a sampling of the several-dozen delectable morsels that I didn't manage to find, as they were out of stock on every pass. From the very start, those apps that I did manage to sample were cold, which made them unappetizing at best, and in the case of the Mac & Very Cheddar Cheese and Cajun Seafood Gumbo, gag-inducing.

SAVOROYSTERS The oysters from Choptank Oyster Company were a nice touch, as always, but they ran out by 10:00, as did the highly touted artisanal chocolates.

The SAVOR event is subtitled "An American Craft Beer & Food Experience." The very reason for the event's existence is supposedly to offer a sublime food and beer tasting experience; to teach and show that beer, like it's more "sophisticated" cousin wine, may be paired with cuisine to create a whole beyond it's parts, a gestalt of gastronomic bliss. To date, they have failed miserably in this.

Last year, SAVOR tickets sold out eight weeks before showtime; this year, they sold out within 10 minutes. The BA has made SAVOR into a hell of an event, such that it is now the axis on which the DC beer community turns. This status is well deserved, as SAVOR continues to be far and away the most exciting and entertaining beer event in town. "Beer" has been and continues to be SAVOR's central focus, and at this point, the top-billing it shares with "Food" has become laughable, and a disservice to the patrons and promoters. As I have suggested in the past, SAVOR is a must-attend for beer lovers -- geek and novice alike -- who wish to experience new and interesting brews they might otherwise never see. The food has been an obvious afterthought from the very start, and curious foodies without a full-on passion for beer should stay far, far away.

Must Haves: Julia's Empanadas, or el Turkey es Bueno!

Must Haves focuses on some of DC's great dishes.

A few weeks ago, Food Wars rolled into town to settle our city's big food conflict: who serves the best jumbo slice of shitty pizza in Adams Morgan.

Who won? Who cares?

The good folks over at the City Paper did a fine job panning this steaming pile of crap. However, the show did resurrect the issue of D.C.'s lack of a signature dish. A poll conducted by the City Paper back in December found (unsurprisingly) that most folks think the half-smoke at Ben's Chili Bowl is the District's Philly cheesesteak.

It's not, not for me anyway. When I think of D.C., I think of Julia's Empanadas.

In 2004, the missus and I moved down to Chapel Hill, N.C., so she could attend grad school and the University of North Carolina. For the three years we were in Carolina, I never thought about half-smokes, Peruvian chicken, or thin pizzas with fancy toppings. I thought about savory pastries filled with meat and egg. I thought about their weight and their egg wash. Trips back to D.C. often meant trips back to Julia's.

(The great thing about Julia's empanadas is that they're always good, whether you're eating one at 11 a.m. or 2 a.m. -- and I've eaten them at 11 a.m. and 2 a.m.)

DSCN5285 Now, the empanadas being a Spanish-cum-South American dish, you'd think the Chilean style beef or the chicken filled Saltenas, with their boiled eggs, olives and onions would be the way to go. Or maybe the spicy chorizo empanada with black beans. Oh no, my friends, they may be delicious pockets of meaty joy, but the best one on the menu is the turkey empanada with spring onion.

The sweet savory ingredients of turkey, onions, jalapeno and cilantro mingle together in a rich filling tinted dark yellow by turmeric. It's Latin Thanksgiving inside a warm golden shell. Without a doubt, it is the best $3.41 this city has to offer (which is why I always end up spending $6.82).

So as the immigration debate rages on, consider that the signature dish of our nation's capital might be a South American pastry born in Spain. I like apple pie, but I love Julia's empanadas.

Planet Barbecue: Raichlen offers up one more great guide for the grill

Planet BBQ Steven Raichlen's business card says "Writer."

That was the first thing I noticed when the grilling authority, instructor, television personality and all around barbecue guru handed me his card. 


It turns out that for all the notoriety that Raichlen has amassed for mastering a world's worth of grilling and barbecuing techniques, he's basically a writer. Always has been, in fact.

"I'm not a chef or a pit master. I'm not qualified to be. But I am a writer," he told me after a recent talk he gave at the Smithsonian. Thumbing through his latest barbecue book, that makes sense.

Like its author, Planet Barbecue is a work of many things. First and foremost, it's a cook book. But it's also a history text, with sections dedicated to the origins of barbecue and country profiles that show how this popular American cuisine is common around the world. Between the recipes for bacon-grilled enotake mushrooms and hanger steak with Marchand de Vin sauce, are interviews with pit masters, Spanish chefs, and Laotian women who probably know more about grilling fish than Barton Seaver.

With more than 300 recipes and pages of color-photo instructions, Planet Barbecue is very much a cook book. It just also happens to be a work of non-fiction the size of a phone book.

Planet Barbecue is Raichlen's twelfth book and his last on barbecue. The genre has been very good to him, but he's ready to move on. His next book will be a novel -- a novel with somewhat of a food theme, but a novel all the same.

So if Planet Barbecue is the barbecue and grilling cook book he's going out on, at least he's doing so on a high note.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, Raicheln's earlier cook book, BARBECUE! Bible, is a must-have for anyone who enjoys barbecue and grilling and wants to improve. It was also the book that put Raichlen on the map.

Like Planet Barbecue, the BARBECUE! Bible featured an international assortment of barbecue recipes. More importantly though, it came with tips and illustrated techniques.

BARBECUE! Bible taught me how to properly butterfly pork, grill lobster and rotisserie a leg of lamb. It also covered the origins of the barbacoa, profiled a restaurant in Mumbai and dedicated 500 words to Indonesian grilling. Turns out, Raichlen has been writing about more than grilled chicken and baby back ribs for some time.

As good as BARBECUE! Bible is, I like the selection of recipes in Planet Barbecue better. Raichlen hits all the necessary American recipes, including brisket, smoked pork shoulder, burgers, whole hog and ribs; and his selection of recipes from other countries is eclectic enough to be interesting, but not so much so to pass up. So while there are tips on how to grill onion and coriander brined lamb chops like they do in Uzbekistan, there's also a world's worth of steak and pork recipes. They may have come from other countries, but many of the dishes feel familiar even if their origins aren't.

When it came out in 1998, the BARBECUE! Bible became one of the authoritative texts on barbecue. The problem was, the book's focus on American and international barbecue recipes meant that the attention given to any one of those cuisines was a little thin. And as interesting as other countries' barbecue recipes are, they were a bit too obscure and I wanted more recipes from my own back yard. Planet Barbecue picks up where the BARBECUE! Bible left off. Add to that the detailed photo illustrations (a step up from the hand-drawn illustrations in BARBECUE! Bible) and additional techniques, and Planet Barbecue becomes the new must-have for barbecue enthusiasts.

Raichlen said he wanted Planet Barbecue to be an authoritative work, a bookend to the BARBECUE! Bible and How to Grill. With the combination of recipes, techniques and profiles, Raichlen expects this book to be used differently by different people: some will read it cover to cover, while others will only crack it for the recipes.

On the other hand, Planet Barbecue benefits from the BARBECUE! Bible. Like the earlier work, Planet Barbecue is a great cook book and an interesting read. However, I'm glad I have both books and the battery of recipes and techniques they provide. Each book is good, but both books are great.

Speaking of those barbecue recipes, in Planet Barbecue they are once again a best-of from around the globe. Raichlen covers grilled bread with DC's own Jose Andres, Balkan grilled veal and pork "burgers," and Singapore-style skate grilled in banana leaves. Each recipe includes a bit of info on where it comes from, what the ingredient is and a little info on the region or dish.

That's all well and good, but what's important is Raichlen has a recipe for Allen & Son's pulled pork, sauce and all.

Some of you just said, "Oh shit." I did, too.

I love Eastern Carolina barbecue, and Chapel Hill's Allen & Son is the epicenter of all things tangy, porky and right. Proprietor Keith Allen has finessed this beautifully simple combination of slow smoked pork shoulder and vinegar sauce into an unctuous nirvana. Given how protective pit masters and barbecue enthusiasts are about their recipes, I was stunned to see that Raichlen got Allen's recipe for that moist, tart pork. I'm also suspicious.

I mean, this might rank up there with the Colonel's 11 spices or the recipe for Coca-Cola.

I promise you, I'll be putting that recipe to good use this summer. I also promise that it'll never be as good as Keith Allen's.

Even as Raichlen traveled from country to country working on Planet Barbecue, he was already working on the novel. He will continue is popular PBS series Primal Grill, but is quick to admit that his delivery and style are better suited for writing than TV.

As middle-aged men stood in line for pictures and autographs, it's hard to think of Raichlen as anything but a barbecue authority. But Raichlen is writer and he's moving on. Fortunately for those fans, he's left them with a great body of work.

Grilled Veal Chops with Sweet-and-Sour Onions
(Where: Florence, Italy)

Excerpted from Planet Barbecue, copyright 2010 by Steven Raichlen. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc. New York. All Rights Reserved.

1 pound small torpedo onions, cipollinis, pearl onions, or shallots (see Note)
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup balsamic vinegar, or more for taste
1 cup honey, or more to taste
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
4 thick loin or veal chops (each 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick and 12 to 14 ounces)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)

Peel the onions, leaving most of the stem end intact; this helps hold the onions together as they cook. Place the onions in a large, deep saucepan, add the red wine, balsamic vinegar, honey, and 3 tablespoons of the butter and bring to a boil over high heat.

Reduce the heat to medium and cook the onions until tender - they'll be easy to pierce with a skewer - 12 to 15 minutes. If all goes well, the wine, vinegar, and honey will cook down to a syrupy glaze at precisely the same moment the onions are tender. If not, using a slotted spoon, transfer the onions to a plate and continue boiling the sauce until it is thick and syrupy. Return the onions to the pan, if necessary, and taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste and more vinegar and/or honey as necessary; the onions should be a little sweet, a little sour, and very flavorful. If you add more vinegar and/or honey, return the pan to the heat to let the liquid cook down. You should wind up with about 1 1/4 cups. The onions can be cooked several hours, or even a day, ahead and reheated just before serving.

Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat one zone to high.

When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Generously season the chops on both sides with salt and pepper. (OK, I know they add the sale after the grilling in Tuscany and they don't bother with pepper. But I still maintain you get a better crust when you season the meat just prior to grilling.) Arrange the veal chops on the hot grate at a diagonal to the bars. Grill the chops until nicely browned on the outside and cooked through, 5 to 6 minutes per side for medium. Use the poke test to test for doneness. Give each chop a quarter turn after 2 1/2 minutes on each side to create a handsome crosshatch of grill marks.

Transfer the chops to a platter or plates and let them rest while you reheat the onion mixture. Just before serving, stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Spoon the onions over the chops and sprinkle the parsley, if using, on top. Serve the chops at once.

NOTE: Baby torpedo onions (elongated red onions), cipollinis (small, flat, round onions), pearl onions - or any small whole onions or shallots are available from Melissa's ( Although it's not strictly traditional, a few years ago I took to grilling the onions before simmering them in the wine and balsamic vinegar. This takes a little more time (although you can grill the onions at a previous grill session), but it gives the sauce an incredible depth of flavor. Brush the onions with oil, season with salt and pepper, and grill over a hot fire until browned on the outside, but still firm inside, 4 to 6 minutes per side.

Celebrate Food & Friends' 20th Anniversary at the Chef's Best Dinner & Auction,


For 20 years now, Food & Friends has supported thousands of our neighbors living with cancer, AIDS, and other life-threatening illnesses, providing them with groceries, hot meals and nutritional counseling. Through the diligent work of some 6,500 staff and volunteers, Food & Friends prepares and delivers over 3,000 nutritious meals a days, disseminating them to 2,800 clients in DC and surrounding counties. To celebrate their good works and raise money to keep them up, on Monday, June 14th, ING will present Food & Friends' 20th Anniversary Chef's Best Dinner & Auction at the Washington Hilton Ballroom.

Guests will enjoy delicious appetizers and small plates prepared by some of the region's brightest culinary stars, including Jamie Leeds of Hank's Oyster Bar and Commonwealth, Ris Lacoste of Ris, PS7's Peter Smith, Dean Gold of Dino, Eventide's Miles Vaden, Anthony Chittum of Vermilion, and dozens more. Take a peek here for a full list of the charitable chefs whose food you will sample.

Amidst the mingling and snacking, attendees will have opportunity to bid on an array of items at the silent & live auctions. There are some really cool prizes up for grabs, including a private cooking class with The Inn at Little Washington's Patrick O’Connell, a week's stay at the Ritz-Carlton in County Wicklow, Ireland, a $1,700 puppy(!), and, be still my heart, an opportunity to view the taping of NPR's The Politics Hour, and meet it's host, Kojo Nnamdi!

Tickets to the 20th Anniversary of Chef's Best Dinner & Auction are $250 apiece. If you roll with a big crowd, consider becoming a table host, where you and nine friends can dine in style for $2,250. If you are feeling particularly generous, F&F is still accepting sponsors, who will receive access to a special reception before the main event. The ticket is tax-deductible, and 100% of proceeds go towards funding Food & Friends, a four-star charity on Charity Navigator, with a 20 year history of bringing relief and comfort to DC area residents in need. However you plan to give or attend, you can get your tickets here.

Doors open for the main silent auction and tasting event at 6:30 PM, with bidding for live auction lots starting around 8:15. Dress code is business casual, though if you want to get dolled up, I'm sure you won't be alone. Go on! Treat yourself to some world-class cuisine, and wrack up some points in the karma column while your at it.

The Tomato is Dead. Long Live the Tomato

Ripe I have never eaten a tomato. Well, not a real one, evidently.

Until recently, I didn’t even know there was a difference. And depending on your views about plant breeding and agribusiness, you might not see or even care about the difference. I do.

How could I not? I grew up in rural central Florida. I used to live next to a tomato farm. Over the course of 34 years, I’ve devoured hundreds if not thousands of tomatoes. Each and everyone of those lovely love apples, I assumed, was as nature intended. That's where I was wrong.

With little exception, every tomato you and I have ever eaten was manipulated by man. From seed to picked fruit, the tomato is worked over at every stage of its development. That’s not to say there was anything wrong with the tomatoes that have accompanied my salads and made sauce for my pizzas. It’s just a little unnerving to think that I have never eaten a perfectly natural tomato.

For all I know, the tomato -- the true tomato -- doesn’t exist any more. And if it did, I doubt that I’d know it if I saw it.

Arthur Allen, author of Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato, said in all likelihood the wild tomato would be a weird and ugly thing, a far cry from the pretty red orb we know and love.

His new book tells the story of how that ugly South American jungle fruit grew into a hundred million dollar business, an Italian icon and a project for the Chinese military.

Meeting over lunch at Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle, Arthur said that for years he’s had an interest an in agribusiness and the things that we eat, which led him to research and write Ripe.

His story of the tomato is a story of industry. The majority of tomatoes, as we know them today, were bred to be harvested by machine, capable of a long shelf-life and to a lesser extent, palatable to the consumer -- in that order (which helps explain the common lament about the modern tomato's lack of flavor). However in Florida, taste falls even farther by the wayside, as growers focus on producing large, firm tomatoes for their fast food clients, who are looking for tomatoes that can be sliced uniformly, over and over again. Despite the hardiness of the Florida tomatoes, most of them are still picked by hand; a back-breaking task most often carried out by immigrants.

As Arthur notes in the book, “Tomatoes, a wholesome food with clear nutritional benefits, have been bred to taste plain, while food chemists and the companies they work for have gussied up their corn-syrup-based snacks with savory essences culled from nature.”

Rather than serving as a totem of modern agribusiness, Arthur said the tomato has been changing since the first genetic accident occurred centuries ago. In fact, the tomato’s ability to be so easily manipulated has resulted in the wide variety of tomatoes available today. It’s also kept the cost down and allowed us to have this seasonal fruit all year long.

Tomato breeders have bred the tomato to have a firmer skin to make it more resistant to bruising and rot. The color, flavor, seed content, density and shelf-life are all the result of breeding. The Brandywines, Green Zebras and Sun Golds are all a product of breeding. As truffle hunters still use dogs and pigs to find fists of fungus in the French countryside, which are sold at premium prices, tomato breeders have built a fruit they can harvest by the ton and sell to consumers cheaply and still clear a profit (and an even greater profit if they can add an organic sticker).

“Today’s tomato -- whether the strangely crunchy specimens on your fast-food burger, sliced from a tomato picked green in southern Florida, the yellowish purple heirloom sold at the farmer’s market, or the paste on the slice at the corner pizza shop -- is the product of countless human hands,” Arthur wrote in Ripe.

But for all that effort, the vast majority of tomatoes grown here and elsewhere end up crushed and cooked down into paste for salsa, ketchup and the very pizza sauce Arthur and I were likely enjoying on our lunch.

In the book, Arthur also explores the spiritual home of the tomato, Italy (again, the actual home was probably a Peruvian jungle). Although the tomato is a cultural icon and a staple of the nation’s cuisine, its place in the Italian kitchen dates back only to the mid-nineteenth century. To be sure, the tomato is a major crop and export for Italy, but the country also imports quite a bit of Chinese tomato paste.

Oh, and the cans of pricey San Marzano tomatoes you’re buying at the grocery store? They’re probably a Roma or similar plum-type tomato. Disease likely wiped out Italy’s San Marzanos 40 years ago.

So the San Marzanos are fake and most of the tomatoes at the grocery store weren’t grown to taste great, just easily harvested. What do we do with this information?

Enjoy your tomatoes. If nothing else, Ripe can help you make better decisions about the tomatoes and tomato products you buy and consume. Why spend the money on cans of  San Marzanos when Hunt’s or Heinz will do? If you long for the flavorful tomatoes of your youth, buy or grow smaller tomatoes, like cherry and grape varieties.

Arthur is even an advocate of year-round tomatoes, though he prefers the greenhouse variety over tomatoes that are picked green and then sprayed with ethylene to ripen. And aside from your home garden, the best quality tomatoes you can find tomatoes are at the farmer’s market.

Not because they’re the real thing, it just more likely that they were picked in season and fairly recently. And a fresh ripe tomato is about as good as you're going to get.