D.C. Field Trip: Eden Center

Last Saturday I dragged Mark along for my first—and hopefully not only—workplace field trip. Minus the yellow school bus, grubby hands, patrols, and brown bag lunches, it was almost kind of like those much-anticipated 6th grade trips of old. Sub in infinitely more interesting food and better company, and you have our perfect weekend afternoon.

The sun was shining, and it was the warmest day in weeks in Washington. There were runners and dog-walkers and strollers everywhere, and the snow blinded as it melted, but no one cared. We met a crew of co-workers and guests out in Falls Church, Virginia, home to Eden Center, a strip-mall/supercenter that is a one-stop shop for the Vietnamese community who calls the area home.

Mark and I had been once before, on a whim, but had stayed only long enough to sample a gelatinous pork bun wrapped in leaves. We vowed to come back when we had more time.

For lunch at Hai Duong we devoured Bánh xèo, a savory pancake made out of rice flour, water and turmeric and stuffed with pork, shrimp, and fresh bean sprouts. We were instructed to wrap the crepe in one of various leaves that accompanied it, together with fresh mint leaves and basil, and then dip in a prepared sauce (called nuoc cham) of fish sauce thinned with water and lemon.

I had a Vietnamese iced coffee, or Cà phê sữa đá to wash down the delicious crepe: As a shameless coffee snob/roaster/partner of brew master and coffee geek extraordinaire, I’ll admit my expectations were low. In Vancouver, Malani and I had lived above a Vietnamese cafe, and when I took the first sip on Saturday, I kicked myself repeatedly for never partaking during my time there.

Over at Song Que, Eden Center’s answer to a deli, we split a Bánh mì of pork meat and crispy pork skin. It was nice and crispy, but didn’t quite meet my Anthony Bourdain-inspired expectations.  Damn those television cameras!

Everyone bought little treats to sample:  Bánh bao (a steamed bun dumpling stuffed with pork and a quail egg), Sinh tố (more sweetened condensed milk, crushed ice, fruits and sweet beans), fried bananas wrapped in sticky rice, and preserved grapefruit. Some bought the ingredients and equipment necessary to make the crack-coffee at home while the rest of us sat in awe at the Willy Wonka spectrum of color the little deli boasted:

Thank goodness each packet came with a description, though “deep fried banana,” “flour and Vietnamese ham,” or “rice powder and sugar” weren’t much to convince me to stock up on these whimsical goodies. And speaking of packets … I loved the experience, but my tendency toward minimally packaged and processed foods would be next to impossible here.

That’s why the day was so much fun, however: It was full of taste experiences I don’t get everyday. And that’s the beauty of living here—as inferior to New York cuisine as people like to say it is, in terms of gastronomic exploration, D.C. is leagues ahead of anywhere else I’ve lived.

I came home with seaweed-wrapped rice snacks, tea, lemongrass, and a disc of pure palm sugar to try Alton Brown’s Pad Thai.

As we say back in Manitoba with regard to a much less desirable location, Eden Center is truly “worth the trip!”

yosenabe (Japanese hot pot)

If there’s a life conducive to food blogging, it’s being unemployed in a college town and newly attached. Conversely, if there’s a lifestyle conducive to letting that blog go stale as an opened box of wheat thins, it’s a nine-to-five job in a full-fledged city with your mate 370 miles away.

These things—with all their promise, exhilaration, and loneliness—have wrecked the most havoc here on these pages.

The excuses fly in: I don’t have the time. I’m too tired and too transient. I don’t have a car. I already spend my days thinking about and working on food. With three new housemates, there’s no space in the fridge for leftovers.

But every good excuse has a better antecedent: I have my weekends. I need the energy and the sense of home good meals bring. I have my bike, the metro, and a great co-op nearby. I can never get enough of food. And lastly, when you share life with great people, there are seldom leftovers anyway.

Perhaps without knowing it, my new housemates have helped eased my transition back into domesticity after more than a month spent country, county, and couch hopping. (Shout out to my wonderful sets of parents, June and Raul, and Rebecca and her parents for their respective hosting!)

They’ve been there with cookies at midnight after long days exploring the city. They’ve offered liver and onions before a treacherous bike ride through D.C.’s morning traffic. They’ve shared roast chicken and salad after a long day at the office, and left notes on perfectly-ripe avocados to spread on my evening slice of supper toast. And they’ve introduced me to Japanese hot pot: a first, and a delight to come home to one chilly Monday night.

As the chef herself put it, nabe is a “true communist meal”: each diner gives and takes according to their ability and need. There’s one big pot in the middle, steaming and stewing away with fresh cabbage, spinach, and seafood. Rather than tending your own little morsel, as is the case with fondue, you simply toss things into the pot at will and fish them out as you so desire.

In the end, everyone is amply fed.

I’m slowly relaxing into life here: exploring the smooth corners and rough edges of the communities around me, giving my hours to this new world and taking from its pool when I need to. There will be times, I know, when take-out will triumph and I will succumb to canned soup. But because I believe in and love good food, my fully-stocked (and darling) kitchen will call me back to a place I hope to never unlearn.

Until then, I owe it to my housemates.

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kabocha-udon noodle bowl

As I mentioned in my recent buttercup soup post, I’ve been trying to sample all the squash varieties I can get my hands on this fall. I never thought of squash as an ethnic food, but I recently discovered the Japanese pumpkin, or kabocha:  a nutty-sweet, smooth-fleshed variety that often sneaks its way onto tempura vegetable platters.

Squash is usually paired with heavy dishes like risotto or creamy pastas. This brothy soup however, showcases the richness of the kabocha against a much lighter backdrop.

Kabocha’s seaweed co-star enlivens the soup with minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium, iodine, iron, and zinc) and is touted by some of the gurus as being essential to detoxifying and overall health. (One of them being Lance Armstrong. As an aspiring triathlete, I’m inclined to believe him.)

If you don’t prepare a lot of Japanese food, this dish will require a special trip. I was short of only two ingredients, but thankfully there’s an Asian market half a mile down the road. Plus, I’ll take any excuse to shop somewhere where most of what I buy will be new taste sensations. I biked there for udon noodles and kelp, and was back in time to have the whole thing simmering away in under an hour.

Udon noodles are thick and chewy Japanese wheat flour noodles often found packaged fresh in the refrigerator section. If you can’t find them, you can substitute almost any type of Asian noodle. These give the stew a certain heft we’re all craving this time of year, and it’s worthy seeking them out.

As for the other obscure ingredients, I promise that you’ll enjoy having some of them on hand. Shoyu and mirin are great marinades, dressing ingredients, and deli-tofu staples. The original recipe called for kelp, which is a brownish color and comes in sheets you then remove. I used a thinner seaweed (hijiki? arame?) which I liked enough to leave in the soup.

Japanese food always leaves me with a clean, fresh feeling. This delicate yet chunky soup, thanks again to the geniuses at Veganomicon, is no exception.

Kabocha photo courtesy of The Kitchn.

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cool food for warm days

Through the winter months, I dream of warm food. There are afternoon lattes, tea, and hot chocolate, greedily assembled as my cheeks thaw out from the wind-whipped walk home. There are soups and stews simmering away on the stove. There are filling one-pot meals, spicy burritos, and steamy risottos.

And then suddenly, out comes the sun and up go the windows. Mac n’ cheese gives way to crispy wraps and salads of all stripes — the last thing you want to do in a hot apartment is turn on the oven.

But best of all, the outdoors once again becomes your dining room. From cookout to picnic, patio to porch, good food is more about portability than presentation. In the summer, I can say that about myself, too.

This past weekend I indulged. The last exam I quite possibly might ever write was over by 5 p.m., and half an hour later I was settled on my couch with Mark Bittman. His book at least.

I had an eggplant in the fridge and a dinner guest on his way. I needed inspiration. Seeing me paw through my cookbooks again, after an insane semester, must have been a rare sight: Mark (the other Mark, my Mark) pointed out how sexy it was to see me dreaming of cooking again.

By the end of my kitchen dalliance, I’d made a selection of tapas to share: caponata (eggplant salad), sushi-style spinach rolls, and this tangy, refreshing soba-noodle salad. A few slices of crusty sourdough bread, some spreadable feta and black olives made the little spread into a veritable feast.

We wanted to stay in all evening and let the rain patter outside the open windows as we digested. And so linger we did.

The next day, I added some julienned carrots to the leftovers to cart to a birthday barbeque in the park down the street. Beer, ultimate frisbee, and pinatas carried us into the twilight, smudged in charcoal’s magic scent.

It couldn’t have been better preparation for my 10-mile “Mountain Goat” race the next morning. Good food in the belly restores the body. This weekend, I traded in my law text book for a long Saturday morning tea on my friend’s porch, my computer screen for a cutting board, and the gym for a game of Ultimate frisbee.

Productive? Not so much. But perfect in every other way.

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the chi of kimchi

If only there was something yummy and exotic that made itself. Something you could just quickly cut up, stir, and plop in a container, only to turn out 5 days later in a delicious new guise.

Wait! There is! It’s called kimchi, and for its tart and tangy goodness we can thank the Koreans.

I’m seeing Korean food turn up everywhere. On the pages of Bon Appetit, on food blogs, and even in the New York Times. It’s even gone fusion, with a Twittering taco truck that brings mobile eats to its loyal followers. Kimchi is so important that the Korea Aerospace Research Institute even developed space kimch. Why? To accompany the first Korean astronaut to the Russian space ship, Soyuz, of course.

I can’t remember when I first tasted kimchi, but it wasn’t too long ago. I then started buying some locally-made stuff, available at the Central New York Regional Farmer’s Market, in all sorts of shades and styles. Being the fermentation freak that I am, my next thought was  “OK, my turn.”  Anyone who’s been to my apartment has seen the various fermenting things lying around my house. And before you run away scared, know that each one of them is darn delicious.

Food that is fast, easy, healthy and given to leftovers is manna for me right now. Finishing up my masters leaves little time for poring over new recipes (sad face #1), therapeutic vegetable chopping (sad face #2), and Zen-like-stove-top stirring (sad face #3). To this sorry state came my new friend kimchi.

The fabulous ferment did not only arrive to a dire, time-crunched situation, but to a household with a brand-new mandolin. Picked up for a steal of a deal on Amazon with Christmas money, this Japanese slider-knife is a miracle in a drawer. With this little beauty and a far superior recipe, my second batch of kimchi turned out much better than my clunky, over-garlicked first batch.

What, you may ask, is kimchi? It’s a Korean side dish with an inimitable taste, yet a Korean proverb reads, “if you have rice and kimchi, you have a meal.” To me, it’s crunchy ribbons of daikon and carrot folding over each other between layers of ruffled Napa cabbage. It’s chilies melding with garlic and ginger, and crisp veggies fermented to perfection. Served at room temperate over fried rice or a plate of egg rolls, or just eaten out of a jar, kimchi is a great snack full of healthy probiotics.

Best of all, the do-it-yourself kind pretty much does it itself. Just make sure you don’t spill it all over your gym bag.

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ramen makeover for one

Tonight is Masters Eve. With two orientations behind me and a year of work ahead, I thought I’d mark the occasion with an “ode to the student life” post. I bring you the quintessential Ramen noodle–with better hair and make-up, or at least nutritional profile.

I ate a lot of meals alone during the month of June. In order to help pad the marital pockets, my hubby and I embraced a mutual separation over the course of last month to go off and make some money. My journey took me to a rural area of New York State where I house and pet sat for three weeks. Having a nicely stocked kitchen and a 24-hour farm stand five minutes up the road helped combat any lurking loneliness.

When it got really bad I snuggled up beside the ice-cream maker. Oh Cuisinart, I’m afraid that you don’t love me as I love you! Yup, it made for some good company.

The problem with eating upwards of thirty meals alone in the span of three weeks is that you can’t possibly savor each and every morsel. Sometimes you’ve just gotta get the job done: food from fridge to bowl to mouth: Hello, Ramen. It’s been awhile.

But I could not respect my body and eat it from the packetquickly reconstituted and slathered with oily seasoning–at the same time. And so I proceeded to try adding vim and vigor to the Old Faithful of undergrad meal supplements. Ramen, meet your new friends vitamins A through D, iron, magnesium and calcium. I know they’re strangers, just give them a chance, ok?

And then, in the great realm of coincidences that is the Internet, days after discovering the possibilities in that shiny crunched up packet of dinner-for-one, Mark Bittman posted this story on how to cut food costs when you’re feeling crunched. There it was, first in a long list of great tips, instructions for revved-up Ramen. Common knowledge by now I suppose.

As one commenter notes on Bittman’s blog, Ramen noodles aren’t very good for you no matter how you slurp ’em. I must agree; there are countless other great noodles out there — refrigerated Udon, rice vermicelli, Chinese noodles, Japanese soba noodles — which are just as fast. Ramen is in fact kind of a rip-off if you think about it, excessively packaged to boot. But we had a cupboard full of it (which I will maintain that I did NOT bring to this marriage!) and I had fun transforming it into something new that I might never eat again.

Yet again, classes start tomorrow…

So if you find yourself lonely, hungry, uninspired and without a Cuisinart to cuddle, bring a pot of water or broth to a boil. Throw in some chopped vegetables (I had carrot, purple cabbage and kale) and cook until tender. Then add a package of miso paste (available at Japanese grocers and much better for you than the conventional seasoning), some chopped green onions, a splash of soy sauce, and a final drizzle of toasted sesame oil.

I was surprised at how satisfying my concoction ended up being. As I dined in a candle lit house all alone, the soup comforted me with plainness interrupted by vibrancy. I even managed to page through Saveur and Gourmet’s sophisticated temptations while I ate, emerging at the other end nourished by simplicity in the face of the refined.

sushi for the scattered

Sometimes you just don’t have time for a sushi party. Sometimes, when you’re surprised with July in the guise of April cool food is what you crave. Add to the mix an apartment that manages to keep itself 8 degrees hotter than the day’s high, and no one’s getting this good looker anywhere near her cooker. (All this was reported before Darling Husband brought home a portable air conditioner. No more boiled Jenny for dinner! And forgive me for calling myself good looking; I just couldn’t resist the saying.)

When the conditions are so, it is time for scattered sushi:

The other day a brief but precious rainfall interrupted some steady summer temperatures with a (I didn’t actually say this in April, did I?!?) refreshing cool. I seized the opportunity to turn on my stove – something I don’t dare when it’s over 25 (77 for the Yanks) – to make some sushi rice. I have a foolproof recipe that I swear takes half the time it does in any fancy-pants rice cooker.

At dinner time all we had to do was slice up a third of a pound of fresh salmon Mark darted out to grab, a half avocado, some scallions, a red pepper, and a bit of cucumber and our dining room morphed into our very own sushi bar. A funky paper lantern recently purchased from the Ottawa IKEA, and a bottle of French Chenin Blanc from an empyreal friend rounded out the meal nicely.

You don’t have to know how to make sushi for this meal. All you need are the ingredients for sushi, and you’re set. However, once mastering this meal, it’s just baby steps to the real thing. But when you MUST HAVE SUSHI NOW and aren’t feeling picky about appearances, this is a noble substitution — not to mention aesthetically pleasing in its own right, the ingredients in your bowl distinct in their raw purity.

Instructions follow, but for those of you interested in making the rolls and all, check out my collection of how-to videos:

  • over the pond these women win for the best accents, best rice making info, and great rolling advice.
  • In this one the chef does it a little differently than we do, using a half sheet of nori instead of a full. But he has some great tips I can’t wait to apply, like spreading the rice and cutting techniques.
  • this one is haphazard but cute, reflecting how I usually roll it.
  • this one provides incredibly thorough steps on how to make nigiri.
  • You want to learn fast? this one will teach you, in true Japanese rapid-fire form!

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