NoraWhen I set out to duplicate twelve chefs’ recipes over the course of this year, I knew that there were some chefs whose recipes could be attempted year-round and others whose work would fare best in certain seasons (summer and fall, I’m looking at you).  My birthday dinner at Restaurant Nora last year convinced me that Nora Pouillon, the patron saint of the DC organic dining movement, falls squarely into the second category.

And when I flipped through a copy of Cooking with Nora, her groundbreaking cookbook from 1996, I knew I owed it to Chef Pouillon’s recipes to wait until summer to try my hand at her dishes.  Cooking with Nora is not your average recipe collection; rather than grouping dishes by unifying themes (‘desserts,’ for example, or ‘fish’), the chef has opted to provide her readers with recipes arranged into multi-course meals by the season.  She’s practically giving you the blueprint for your very own organic dinner party, with everything from appetizer to entree and accompaniment through to the dessert spelled out.

She also presents her recipes in a narrative fashion, a style I first encountered in Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food.  I find this to be a very natural and useful way of having the author walk me through a dish from beginning to end, and it certainly helps me prepare my mise en place before I get too far ahead of myself.  When you’re trying to execute two or three recipes simultaneously, that kind of preparation in advance can be a lifesaver.

Roasted Red Peppers and Japanese EggplantFor my fifth attempt at recreating a chef’s dishes, I decided to take three recipes from one of Pouillon’s summer menus.  I started with a Jewell Yam Vichysoisse and then followed it up with Grilled Lemon-Marinated Chicken Breasts served alongside Japanese Eggplant and Roasted Red Peppers. 

Walking the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, I was pleased – if not especially surprised – to see that all of the main ingredients to Chef Pouillon’s recipes were readily available (seasonality aside, Nora Pouillon is a member of FreshFarm Markets’ board).  It looked like I was well on my way to a fresh, local and seasonal jackpot.

Cold soup, grilled grass-kickin’ chicken and fresh veggies after the jump. (more…)

Russian Soup“Some will win, some will lose;
Some were born to sing the blues…”

Sure, “Don’t Stop Believin'” predates our June Cookbook Challenge by roughly 28 years.  Even so, it’s like Steve Perry and Journey were singing just what we were feeling when we tasted botwinia, a cold sorrel soup we found in “The Best of Russian Cooking” by Alexandra Kropotkin.

As we’ve mentioned previously, we took it upon ourselves to cook at least one recipe from each of the cookbooks we’ve been collecting over the years.  Some – like Tom Colicchio’s “Think Like a Chef” – rarely steer us wrong.  Others…not so much.

If you’re thinking “Hey, wait a minute!  Maybe June isn’t the best time of the year to be attempting the best of Russian cooking,” you’re absolutely right.  Most of the dishes I grew up eating with my father’s side of the family are hearty fare: hot soups thick with barley, pierogi still glistening with oil in which they were fried, stuffed cabbage.  The idea of trying to make any of them in a hot kitchen on a humid evening is enough to send us out for ice cream instead.

Sorrel LeavesSo we looked through Kropotkin’s cookbook with an eye toward something simple and light.  A side dish, maybe?  Turning to the chapter on vegetables, we eagerly sought something uniquely Russian.  What we found was a collection of recipes that was heavy on root vegetables (six recipes for potatoes, four for turnips) and cabbage (four recipes including one that also highlights potatoes) but not so good on the fresh and light stuff.  Apparently the Russian palate craves cream and/or butter constantly, as one or both show up in just about every vegetable dish in the book.

Vegetables were clearly out; what about soup?  As luck (ha!) would have it, there were several recipes for cold soups in the book; we had such luck with the tri-color tomato soup we tried earlier, we figured we’d try the soup route again.

And that’s where things went horribly wrong.

Take a second and Google botwinia…I’ll wait.  Not much there, is there?  There’s a reason for that.

Pureed Sorrel and SpinachBotwinia is a cold sorrel soup, not to be confused with the Polish botwina (a cold beet-green soup…clearly VERY different).  While sorrel may be readily available in Russia, the bitter-tasting green is not so common in American grocery stores.  Rather than selling it in bunches, like spinach or watercress, Harris Teeter only carries packaged leaves from Katseri’s, a label supplied by local Shenandoah Growers.  As such, this soup becomes far more expensive to make than it would be were sorrel available in bulk.  So there’s not a lot of call for sorrel recipes.

Additionally, the bitter flavor of the main ingredient is one that we don’t really get a lot of in our day-to-day diets.  Our palates have sweet down cold; salty and sour, too.  Even umami, the ‘savory’ flavor found in parmesan cheese and soy sauce, is familiar – if not readily identifiable.  But we don’t do bitter too often or too well.

Cold SoupThat was really the best part of our botwinia experience.  The soup had a deep, complex flavor.  Unfortunately, most of the components had distinctly bitter notes.  Pureed sorrel and spinach, white wine, horseradish, vinegar, lemon juice and sparkling water all make an appearance.  Diced scallions and cucumber gave texture and a refreshingly clean taste that shone through from time to time, and smoked salmon added salt and fattiness to the mix.

Elizabeth hit the nail on the head when she first tried it: “I can taste a lot of different flavors…but I’m not sure if I like any of them.”

It’s possible we just chose poorly when it came to picking our representative recipe.  But it wasn’t just the taste that gave us problems.  The recipe was poorly written, too.  Directions like “Cook the leaves without water for 12 minutes” lack clear guidance.  What temperature?  What kind of vessel?  What should they look like when they’re ready?  And although the ingredient list calls for 2 cups of consomme, the directions never really get around to telling you what to do with it.

If you want to try this epic fail yourself, the recipe follows in its entirety.  For us, though, this was the first cookbook we both agreed deserved a special place atop the “give away” pile.

1 lb. sorrel
1/2 lb. spinach
3 small cucumbers, diced
3 Tbsp minced scallions
1 tsp prepared horseradish or mustard
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp vinegar from pickled beets (we used pickled ramp vinegar)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
2 cups dry white wine
1/2 cup ice water
1 cup cold cooked salmon or 6 slices smoked sturgeon
2 cups consomme (white or canned)
1/4 cup sparkling water
1 cup diced cold meat (optional and oh-s0-appealing sounding)

Wash the sorrel and spinach till entirely free from sand.  Cut off the stems.  Coke the leaves without water for 12 minutes, then rub through a sieve.  Set aside to cool.

Peel and dice the cucumbers, which should have very small seeds.  If the seeds are large, discard them.  Mince the scallions very fine and add to the sorrel-spinach puree.  Also add the horseradish (or mustard), the lemon juice, vinegar from the pickled beets, salt, pepper, wine and ice water.

Have the salmon flaked in large flakes, free from bones and skin.  Or if you use smoked sturgeon, cut it in 1-inch squares.  The fish must be well-chilled.  Add it to the soup together with the sparkling water, just before serving.  Allow 1 ice cube per plate – 6 cubes in all.

Use beef or veal if you want to add cold meat, and put it in at the same time with the fish.


soba-packageWhen it comes to comfort food, I’m still a Jersey boy at heart – give me a plate of pasta any day.  Although the long corkscrews known as fusili lunghi are my favorite, I’m an equal opportunity eater when it comes to shapes.  I’m not even particularly picky when it comes to toppings.  I enjoy a good garlicky pesto; a simple toss with olive oil, parmesan and black pepper; and a nice tomato gravy (we don’t call it sauce where I come from) from time to time.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I was struck by a feature in one of our foodie magazines (Everyday Food) highlighting soba.  These buckwheat noodles are prevalent in Japanese cooking, whether served in soups, salads or on their own with a dipping sauce.  Soba (and buckwheat in general) contain high quantities of cholesterol-lowering B-vitamins and rutin, an antioxidant.  So we decided to give it a try.

soba-soupWe found one recipe within the feature that caught our eye, a soba soup with shiitake and spinach.  Looking through our cookbooks, we also found a recipe in John Ash’s “From the Earth to the Table” for Japanese-style grilled salmon with a cold soba noodle salad.  We decided to check out both to experience soba in two very different ways.

One of the recipes was a home run; the other, not so much.

Which one was which (and the secret behind the soba that’s “No. 1 in Japan”) after the jump. (more…)

art_of_simple_food_book_jacketAs part of our ongoing effort to try new (and non-cream-based) soups this winter, we once again turned to Alice Waters’ Art of Simple Food this week.  Big surprise, right?  The book has quickly become our go-to source for recipes that are straightforward, tasty and loaded with unprocessed ingredients.

In response to the increasingly chilly weather, we found ourselves drawn to a recipe for Butternut Squash and White Bean Soup – a combination that sounded hearty and warming, to be sure.  The connection between cooler temperatures and butternut squash gets us every time (as evidenced by those amazing turnovers Elizabeth made for our Fakesgiving dinner), and the addition of white beans promised to thicken the soup while making it that much better for us.

Of course, we couldn’t allow ourselves to be TOO healthy.  A dinner party hosted by our friend Nell resulted in a windfall of spiral-sliced ham that was just begging us to put it to good use – who were we to refuse?  Frankly, we were more than a little surprised that Waters hadn’t thought to suggest the addition of ham, bacon, or some other salty meat product as one of her handy-dandy “variations” that accompany most of her basic recipes.

Ingredients, preparation and delicious results after the jump. (more…)

turkey-detailSometimes it all comes together just a little too neatly.  You’re trying to eat healthier, focusing primarily on foods as they exist in nature.  You’ve just smoked a turkey and you wish there were something more you could do with the bones.  And you KNOW that kale is really good for you, but you just can’t seem to find a recipe that makes it, well, edible.

Enter Alice Water’s The Art of Simple Food.  Time and again, this cookbook/kitchen lifestyle guide has provided us with inspiration as we’ve tried to figure out ways to eat better without sacrificing flavor or having to seek out hard-to-find ingredients.  When it comes to that most unwieldy of Thanksgiving leftovers, the turkey carcass, Waters comes through in a big way.

turkey-stock“Big deal,” you may say, “My family has been making turkey soup (or skeleton juice, as it’s known in Elizabeth’s family) for decades!  We don’t need Alice Waters to tell us that.”

I don’t care if your family’s recipe for turkey soup came from Squanto himself at the first Thanksgiving, you’ll want to check out Waters’ recipe.  The addition of hearty kale and sauteed mushrooms elevates this from leftover disposal system to a cravable meal in and of itself.  And in our case, the brining and smoking that we put the turkey through resulted in an even more complex and flavorful broth.

The recipe and what we learned from our second attempt to smoke a turkey after the jump. (more…)

tom-yum-goongSo…how ’bout that weather we’re having?  After an October that had us wondering if global warming is such a bad thing after all (it still is, apparently), we’re definitely feeling the chill now.  Here at Capital Spice headquarters, that means we start craving hot comfort foods.

But our (okay…my) days of Chunky Soup and Hot Pockets are mostly behind us, and as much as we love to make risotto we try to eat healthier even in the colder months.  That’s where homemade soups come in, especially soups that are made without any kind of cream base.

On a whim a few weeks ago, I suggested to Elizabeth that we try a homemade version of Tom Yum, the spicy Thai soup that mixes a protein (usually shrimp or chicken), lemongrass, and other traditional thai veggies in a chili-spiked broth.  We’re no strangers to soups that feature shrimp, so we searched out a good-looking recipe and got to work.

They say that great minds think alike, so it was reassuring to see DCist’s post last Friday describing Jamie Liu’s go-to home remedy for fighting off a cold: her version of Tom Yum.

Details on our version – including a few substitions for the hardest-to-find ingredients – after the jump. (more…)

We are bruised and battered. Adventures this weekend included a 5-alarm fire and trip to the ER but it was all in the name of a good Fakesgiving dinner. We’ll post more on that in the coming week. In the meantime, here are some foodie stories to peruse with your Sunday morning coffee: 

Ever wonder how “local” your locally grown produce is? I know I wonder that when I see pineapples at the farmer’s line at Eastern market.

The weather is cooling down but we’re ready to cozy up with this warm potato salad with goat cheese.  

I’m wondering which of my cousins I can convince to marry into this French family of oyster farmers

The DC Food Bank is expanding

New Michelin guides are out (yay!) but there is no guide for DC (boo!). You’ll have to go to New York for your nearest Michelin-starred restaurant. We recommend The Spotted Pig, but that’s because it’s the only one we’ve ever been to. 

After the jump: Fatties and marketing dollars, Top Chef and booze! (more…)

“It’s a walk-off.”

When the Who Cooked It Better? gauntlet was thrown down after Endless Simmer’s Spice Master contest, I couldn’t help but smile. As anyone who knows me can tell you, most of my kitchen improvisations involve cumin, paprika, chili powder, or a combination of the three. Working three of the spices from the Tunisian fun-pack wouldn’t be the problem – editing would. I needed to find a dish that highlighted the spices without going overboard.  I wanted to avoid doing a typical lamb-and-cous cous arrangement, so I figured I’d try to work with some kind of fish or shellfish.

In the end, I turned to John Ash’s “From the Earth to the Table,” a cookbook we picked up after seeing it in a winery in Temecula, California. We’ve found some real winners in this book before, and Elizabeth reminded me that one of them is a delicious tomato-curry soup served with riso (a rice-like pasta, similar to orzo only smaller and easier to overcook).  The soup base already had me using one of the required spices, so it seemed like a great place to start.

Full disclosure – I’m not really a recipe person. I like to use them more as inspirations than blueprints, adding ingredients that make sense (or that I happen to have on hand). In this case, however, I tried to stay relatively close to the original recipe and then supplement or replace with the Tunisian spices we had to work with.

Recipe after the jump.