Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A night out in Georgetown

This past Saturday my husband and I went out for a much-needed dinner-and-movie night out. Both of us were craving a departure from the general rhythms of suburban life. So we went to the city, or more precisely, to Georgetown , an eclectic neighborhood made up of restaurants, used and rare bookstores, and Georgetown University. The beauty of this area of town is the plethora of restaurants up and down the main drags of M street and beyond. We could walk around and pick a place willy-nilly. As we were to find out, this has its benefits and drawbacks.
Our pedestrian wanderings took us into some wonderful bookstores, fun shops, and finally, to a strip of 3 restaurants altogether: One French, one Mexican, and one Indian. We stopped in at the French restaurant first, but sadly, they only took reservations. So we decided, Ok, it's been a while since we have had Indian. We decided on Taj of India, a restaurant of Northern Indian cuisine which we had been to a few times over the past decade, including one dramatic summer evening in 2003, during a wild lightning storm. I recalled the restaurant being a pleasant experience with reasonable good food. I was hoping for a similarly good experience.
Fortunately, this restaurant seated us fairly quickly. It was around 7pm, just before the crowds arrive in the DC area on Saturday nights. The waiter seated us in a corner table close to the bar. We shared one order each of naan bread, the soft, thick yogurt-and-flour-based bread basic to Indian cuisine in the USA; and vegetable samosas. Also chaat papri, an appetizer of crisp bread, yogurt, chick peas and spices. Both of us went for our old standby, chicken tikka masala. This dish is really not traditional Indian, I found out a few years ago, but a later invention made up for Western palates with tastes for milder, creamier versions of Indian food. In England it is more commonly known as butter chicken.
The vegetable samosas were very mildly spiced, almost not at all. However we enjoyed their take on the breaded outer layer: Rather than the oily, crispy layer that it usually is, this samosa bread was soft, thick, fluffy. The chaat papri was adequate, hugely dosed in yogurt and a barely detectable amount of curry. The naan bread held the telltale standard, softly triangular shape of a chain-produced item, ie, not made on site. I cannot be sure of this, but I just had a feeling.
Then came the main dish. Now, while I realize tikka masala is already a pseudo-Indian dish, I was surprised to see the sauce look almost entirely creamy, slightly saffron-colored, with very little if any tomato-and-curry/chili spice. This is my pet peeve with many Indian eateries, be they formal or casual: they pare the taste down too much, presumably because they assume Westerners cannot, or wish not, to handle the hot factor or "different" ingredients in their spices. I adore Indian spices of curry, cumin, chili powder, and the richness of turmeric and saffron, and I like my dishes much hotter. Some conscientious places will inquire first before providing us with the milquetoast version of their dishes, but I have seen this practice dwindle over the past decade, as Indian food is consumed on a larger scale in the United States. The current recession may also be driving this practice, as restaurants attempt to save on costs. However, the chicken itself was very tender, the rice just so. The quality of the ingredients used, in other words, was good, but a "Westerner's version" seemed to pervade its preparation.
Now a word about the service: from start to finish, our waiter stood around long enough to take our orders, but his mind was obviously on other things. He kept swiveling his head to look at the table next to us, the kitchen, the door. Often we had to repeat our orders to him. I was tempted to ask him if he was expecting something, and sorry we were such an interruption. When he and a helper brought the dishes, they were plopped on the table indifferently. For dessert, my husband and I ordered mango kulfi (Indian ice cream) and rice pudding, respectively. The rice pudding was predictable yummy, but regrettably devoid of pistachios, cardamom, or any of the other flavors that make Indian desserts so distinctive and memorable. And when it was brought out, the waiter plopped my small dish of rice pudding on my side of the table and informed my husband that they were out of kulfi. In my experience, it is good etiquette for waiters to inform their patrons of what is available before bringing their companions food, so no one is left out. My husband declined dessert and we asked for the check.
Soon the restaurant began filling just a bit more, and indeed, I could see the source of our waiter's attention. He swiveled his head once more, looked to the next table, and perked up as it began filling up with a large group. The manager or owner eventually stopped by our table and graciously apologized for the lack of kulfi and tried to persuade my husband to order something else. We thanked him very much for his courtesy, but hubby declined. The attentiveness of the manager would have made a vast difference in our experience, had our waiter expressed some level of interest beyond plate-plopping. But sadly, it was too little, too late. The sense I get from this restaurant is that it is banking on the general public's interest in Indian food, plus the fact that it has location, location, location. It has good potential, but it either had a weak night, or it has lost touch with consumers who want a more memorable experience of Indian food. On the other hand, the dinner was reasonably good, filling, and we reliably had a table and a meal in Georgetown without a loud crowd -- an undeniable plus.
So overall, this restaurant was a satisfying dining-out experience, if a bit disappointing in "fine Indian cuisine".

Question: Can folks recommend some delicious Indian fare in the DC Metro area? Or any other part of the country, the world? What Indian dishes do you like, and why?

Star rating: **

Taj of India
2809 M Street, NW, Georgetown
Washington, DC 20007
(202) 965-4266
Fax: (202) 965-3305

Friday, January 22, 2010

A food court diamond in the rough

Do you ever have one of those days when you are going about your business, and you stumble upon something new and unexpectedly wonderful? Especially wonderful, because had you not been in that particular place and time, you never would have found the unusual little gem that you did?

Well, I had such a day today. Food-wise, that is.

I had spent the entire morning at the Honda dealership in Alexandria, Virginia, having my car serviced. By the time my car was ready, it was 2 1/2 hours later, and I was rather peckish. I did not feel like driving right back home -- after 2 weeks of being cooped up nursing first myself, then my family back to health from a yucky cold/bronchial infection, I had way too much cabin fever to simply head home. So I decided to head to Landmark Mall about 1 mile up Duke Street, for lunch and some retail therapy. Not too much retail therapy, mind you -- after a car maintenance bill and other similar expenses, I was going to mostly window-shop. But hey, I figured I deserved to get out of the house.

After about 20 minutes of looking for a coat on sale for my younger son, I was quite ravenous. It's never ever a good idea to make a decision on an empty stomach, so I dropped everything and headed for the food court. Once there, I could see the signs of a recession economy: half of the food court stations were closed down, boarded up. Only about 4 stations were open. Most were run-of-the-mill standard food-court options, like Chick-filet. Not bad. But not great, either. Certainly not what I had hoped for by taking myself to lunch.

Then at the far end of the food court, I saw something that looked unusual. First off, the sign: "Asanka Delight". Hmmm, not something I had ever seen before. Then I looked at the display photos hanging overhead: bits of meat in brick-red sauces. Round breads. Intriguing starchy dishes. Was it Indian food? "I could go for that", I thought. I wanted some rich spicy dish to perk up my winter-weary tongue. I walked over to get a closer look. Very few people were milling around, but I saw someone tasting from a small plastic bowl in orgiastic delight. No, this wasn't Indian food. What was it? The dishes had foreign-sounding names: Banku with grilled tilapia. Kokonkey with Peanut. Um, sort of African-sounding, maybe?
"Is this West African food?" I asked the main vendor.
"Ghanian", she answered, smiling.
"Excuse me," I asked, turning to the woman sampling. She was now having a styrofoam carton piled up with a variety of foods from the hot metal serving trays. "Can I ask what that is? It looks good."
"Oh I don't even know!" she said, laughing. "I just asked for a sample of everything, because it looks so good.
"Oh OK!" I turned to the vendor again, and said, "I'll have what she's having!" (Is this like a movie scene?)

The vendor-- I assume she is Asanka, but I didn't ask, being too intent on lunching -- generously allowed me to sample a variety of the dishes before I loaded up my main lunch vittles. She named the dishes: rice with beans. Spicy rice. Spinach and Egusi stew. Baked plantains. Beef stew. I avoided the fish, just because I did not feel like fish today. And this fish was fried with the bone-in, and frankly, I did feel up to the task. As I tried each dish, I exclaimed, "Oh!" (It has been awhile since food has given me that startlingly pleasing a reaction.) Especially, the beef stew sauce. That had some real...shall I say it? Zest. Vim. Vigor. Tacky words, but they fit. No, no, I mean something else. Moxie! A deep, burnt-umbre-colored sauce, with the deep chili-spice kick of many Indian dishes, but somehow more full-bodied. This was not watered-down food meant for mainstream unadventurous palates. If food court meals are typically a walk in the park, this food was a trek in a wild Ghanian forest. (Do they have forests in Ghana? I must look into that.) This food was homemade. I felt I had stumbled onto a great secret find...like when your close friend says, "here, I am going to share a secret!" And maybe that was part of the appeal. So I made my food choices:

I chose the beef stew (of course!), the spicy rice, spinach with black-eyed peas, the plantains, and then "Asanka" threw in a container of sauce. "Just so you know, make sure it is OK, it is shrimp sauce," she cautioned.
"Good that you mention it, in case of allergies", I remarked.
"Oh yes, I know about allergies. I was a nanny before", she said. A plus, in my opinion.
My food carton was completely loaded, like an overzealous grandma had piled it that high. For that, plus a bottled water, the price was $10.68 -- not bad for such a wild experience!

So I made my way to a table and plopped down with my find. And began eating. The raves, I had already mentioned. The food was such a delicious combinations of textures, flavors, and I was so hungry, that I began eating with real gusto.
After I was about one-third of the way through, I began to slow down, and notice that my gosh, this food was very heavy, too. The meat was cooked very tender, but a bit fatty. The spicy rice, a bit too greasy. But delicious still! I took a bite of the beef stew, and felt something small, loose and hard. I fished it out: a small bone. Yikes! This is not food to gulp. I instantly understood why Americans eat the way we do: our dishes are very ground down and processed. This food, frankly, would be unsafe to eat that way. Then I ate some of the spinach dish, and I wonder if that somewhat fibrous, leafy sensation when I swallowed wasn't a piece of bay leaf? Which, I had read, should always be cooked whole, then removed upon serving, because people can get it stuck in the throat. Needless to say, I slowed down. I continued savoring my food, but with more selectiveness, the way an Alaskan bear begins eating only the choicest bits of salmon once they have filled up on countless whole fish and get full.

I sat back at a little over the half-way mark -- only a huge man could've finished everything in that generous portion, anyway -- and observed the dish. A layer of oil was now slicking the top of the stew and spicey rice. I was reminded of my husband's stories of his own nanny, an affectionate, wiry Russian woman, who for years, made soup with huge amounts of oil and proudly served it to the family. They all found it wonderful, but very heavy, and yet they did not have the heart to tell her this critique amidst the intense pride she took in her travails making it. So his mother would instead awaken late at night and sneak into the kitchen, take the soup out of the refrigerator, and quietly, painstakingly, remove much of the top layer of oil. But not too much, because then Russian Nanny would know and be upset. It sounded like an artform, perfecting this dance of oil removal. Thus I felt about this dish.

Yes, honestly, it was too greasy for my taste. I certainly couldn't eat it every day. And I would recommend that the cook herself warn folks of the bits of inedible parts lying amidst the savory stews. And yet, she was so generous in her time, the portions, and dang, it was really unique and delectable! It truly felt like I had eaten home-cooked food, sampled a labor of love. I didn't have the heart, when asked how I liked it, to say it the way I am saying it here. I told the truth:
"It is really delicious, but a bit heavy because I am not used to oil", I said.
"Oh, ok", she replied.
"I loved it though" I quickly added.
She smiled again. I asked, "what is that dish up there?" and I pointed to a dish with a pleasingly caramel-colored stew with what looked like dumplings.
"Peanut butter chicken. I make that one on Saturdays!" she said proudly.

OK, I actually know that dish. A friend of mine from Ghana prepared it for my roommate and I almost 2 decades ago. I remember it as very delicious, filling, mildly sweet. So now I definitely have to come back on one of these Saturdays! Plus I'll try the boiled rice balls and bread dough then, too.

Star rating: **1/2

Asanka Delight, Restaurant and Catering Services
5801 Duke Street #G340
Alexandria, VA 22304
(Landmark Mall Food Court)
tel: 703-300-9249

Friday, January 15, 2010

Harvest Hash

Winter is a magical season, yet harsh. It's cold outside and gets dark early. Our bodies crave carbs and warm comfort foods. In theory, sure, I want to stay healthy and savor fresh simple foods, especially fruits and vegetables. In practice, though, I really don't feel like coming in from the cold and eating a salad. Ech.

So what to do? Well for starters, find recipes for warm vegetable dishes. That means cooked, but not over-processed. Here are two of them.

Harvest Hash
The inspiration for this recipe came from an article in The Washington Post Food section by Bonnie Benwick, entitled, "Her Italian Accent" (November 11, 2009). (The Washington Post site has this and other archived articles available for purchase). Featured was a Georgetown woman who had lived in Italy for years and accumulated the Italian way of cooking, using what is fresh and in season. Use what you have on hand, keep it simple, and improvise, she advised. With this in mind, I came up with Harvest Hash, a cold-weather dish of turkey bacon, broccoli, and butternut squash.

5 slices Turkey Bacon (Louis Rich or similar brand)*
1/2 pound peeled butternut squash, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 crown of fresh broccoli, sliced into small pieces
1 teaspoon sage powder or 4 leaves crushed fresh sage
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 tsp. vegetable oil

Heat up large skillet on medium-high. Add 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil, spread around, and place turkey bacon on skillet. Cook 2 minutes to a side; set aside.

Add the remaining teaspoon of oil, butternut squash, and broccoli. Sautee lightly, then add 1/3rd of the chicken broth. Bring heat down to medium and continue to sautee the mixture. Add sage and gradually add the white wine and the rest of the chicken broth. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes or till vegetables begin to soften. Put turkey bacon slices back into the pan and mix everything together for another 2 minutes. Cover, turn off heat and let pan sit for a few minutes. Serves 2 people as a main dish, 4 as appetizer or side.

Serve with hot pita or naan bread, or by itself.

* Substitute ham if needed, cubed or deli-sliced.
The beauty of this dish is that you use many subsitutions: Zucchini for the broccoli. Any yellow or orange squash/pumpkin for the butternut.

Cheesy Zucchini Pockets
This dish is super-fast and easy.

2-4 medium or large zucchini, sliced lengthwise into thin slices, tips removed.
shredded mozzarella cheese
grated parmesan (optional)
cooking oil spray (ex: Pam)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray it with cooking spray. Place zucchini slices onto the foil, about 1 inch apart. Carefully sprinkle mozzarella cheese shreds onto the zucchini till just covered (more if you like it really cheesy). Sprinkle a bit of parmesan on top of each slice. Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until cheese is golden brown on top. Serves 4-6 as appetizer, 2-3 as a side dish.

I wish you all a comfort-filled winter! As you sit at your table, no matter what is on your plate, take it in and enjoy. I also want to remember my fortunes and send the help that I can for the Haiti Earthquake victims from earlier this week. We might be far way, but we are all connected.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Post-Holiday Food Phase

Ironic, isn't it, that I haven't posted a thing since just before Thanksgiving? The holidays are that busy time of year for food and drink. This is precisely why I have not posted, because I've been so preoccupied with organizing my family, preparing the home, hosting, traveling, etc. With the holidays ending and into this New Year of 2010, I feel I can finally reflect on that positive yet hectic cluster of weeks.

I will start with an observation. My husband and I are huge fans of the TV show Heroes, and I watched amused as Noah (Jack Coleman) met up with his former covert-op colleague in a grocery store. They discussed Thanksgiving preparations, and she advised him not to buy a frozen bird "unless you want to wait till Christmas (for it to thaw)"...then she guided him through the myriad traditional Thanksgiving recipes and preparations. This struck me as implausible, that a career spy such as this woman, who is young and consumed by her job, is such an expert on large-scale, from-scratch food preparations! OK, perhaps she has a 'hidden' past...the older sister who had to help parent several siblings, or she threw herself into domesticity after high-school/college before deciding on a career in espionage. But really, this is unlikely. And if that is NOT the case, how did she gain such know-how about Thanksgiving meals? Wow. Speaking for myself, it took me years -- YEARS!-- of cooking for myself, then my family, of consulting recipes, developing techniques, and hours in the kitchen and grocery store, to develop any knack for roasting a bird and preparing stuffing from scratch. I don't say that to tout my own horn, but to ask, where and how did she find the time?! If anything, her friend Noah, a married family man for years, would possibly know more than her on that count. At least he would have heard his wife grousing about defrosting the turkey on time, right? Hmmm...or maybe since she is a woman she learned through gender osmosis? I know, it's just a TV show, and a minor point, but I couldn't help find it funny.

Having said all this, I should bring up a point that negates that very assertion: plenty of world leaders, politicians, etc. love to cook. Even more of them love to eat. But the chefs among them often grew up in a family of cooks, and that is where they picked it up. More food for thought, no pun intended. Ok enough on that. Now that I got that out of my system, I'd like to hear your own thoughts on this. And move on to another subject.

Speaking of food preparation, I have discovered that cooking for myself or my family is one thing: entertaining for a larger crowd with diverse tastes, ages, and appetites is another. So this year, I did the American thing and outsourced most of the Thanksgiving meal. I focused mainly on preparing the turkey, and bought most other dishes ready-made. This allowed me to have one centerpiece dish in which to pour my passions, and focus the rest of my energy on serving and presenting the food. Way easier on my body.

Thanksgiving Turkey
My method for turkey has evolved over time, but it works for my family. At least it must, because they ask for it yearly. Generally I buy a 15-18-pound bird, organic and free-range. I prepare it on the Wednesday/day before Thanksgiving. I place 2 4-foot sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil in a large roasting pan, letting about 2 1/2 feet hang out (so I can later fold it over the bird for cooking). I fold the wings back into "sunbathing" position, then manually separate the breast and leg skin from the flesh. Don't forget to open the giblet package, rinse and place in the pan too! Then, pack a mixture of crushed and chopped fresh rosemary, fresh sage, fresh thyme, oil, garlic powder, worcestershire sauce inside that skinflap and rub it around. Add sliced raw yellow onions to the skinflap and cavity. Douse 1/3 of a bottle of good-quality cognac in that flap, in the cavity, and around the outside of the bird. Cover with the foil, place in a fridge or cold garage shelf, and marinate for 24 hours. Then, at about 12noon on Thanksgiving Day, I put the bird into the oven and add about 2 cups of water to the pan. Bake on a convection current at 350 degrees (Fahrenheit). Baste every 20 minutes or so, for the next 4-5 hours. During the last hour, I uncover the bird so it can brown nicely. The bird will be very tender.

While the bird cooks, I do make a low-fat stuffing with pepperidge-farm cubed stuffing and low-sodium chicken broth. And a fresh green salad, and cranberry sauce, because it is very simple to make. The rest of the side dishes and desserts, such as sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, peas, I buy ready-made from a store of my choice. I prefer the sides from Whole Foods, but the apple and pumpkin-pies from a local bakery. Outsourcing works for setting the table! Have a family member do it, and thank them profusely. No need to be a martyr -- accept help. That's my philosophy right now. Voila, a dinner is made, and I have not fallen from exhaustion.