beer the Stone way

I took Mark out for his birthday four days early this year. No, I wasn’t rushing his advancement in age and wisdom. I simply wanted to treat him to one of his favorite things: excellent beer.

We managed to survive two weeks here without treating ourselves to one of this country’s finest breweries, and couldn’t hold out any longer.

So on an otherwise nondescript Monday evening, we tromped out to Stone Brewery, where gargoyles, chirping frogs, and every variety of ales and lagers waited. I felt immediately transported into some kind of Trappist monastery-meets-Midsummer-Night’s-Dream haze: in their extensive gardens, water trickled into ponds and fire bounced off slabs of stone. Revelry and tranquility cohabited the grounds as the evening rolled out one taste experience after another.

First order of business was dinner in what is properly called Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens. Mark ordered Stone’s own Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale, and I chose the O’Briens IPA from California’s Alpine Beer Company.

Next came dinner. Once our server informed us that we realized were weren’t in fact limited to the “Meatless Monday” menu that was placed before us, Mark proceeded to order the Artisan Sausage Platter: Two locally-made sausages braised in Stone’s Smoked Porter, and served with herb roasted potatoes, braised cabbage and a side of stone ground mustard. I tasted his meal (twice!), and it was delicious. Something about it reminded me of the way the Forks Market in Winnipeg smells. Strange, but we can’t always control our taste associations, can we?

Despite the offerings of meat, I went with one of the Meatless Monday options: Tofu Yakisoba. It wasn’t life-changing, but it had a nice crunch of cashews mixed with chewy tofu, bright vegetables, and perfectly-chewy noodles.

And then there was dessert—one that made up for anything my (perfectly suitable) meal had lacked. I’d decided to take half my dinner home with me, and so had plenty of room for one of the BEST after-dinner indulgences I’ve ever had: Blueberry Blue Cheese Jalepeño Cheesecake. Yes, you heard that right.

I’ve loved cheesecake ever since I was little kid, and I was grateful to Mark for sacrificing his love of chocolate for this experiment (and on his birthday, too!) And it was a successful experiment, indeed: The small round of incredibly rich, soft, disappear-on-your-tongue cheesecake was accented with tiny flecks of green jalepeños and tasted ever so subtly of blue cheese. On top was a compote of blueberries and jalepeños preserved in syrup. The dessert had all of the flavor of the peppers formerly known as hot, and none of the heat. Each mouthful reminded me never to be afraid of unusual pairings.

After dinner we joined the brewery’s “DR.” Bill Sysak upstairs for one of his “Beer U” events. This one was subtitled “Sensory Evaluation,” and with his guidance we learned to properly taste about eight different beers. While the experience was far from being foreign to us, it was great fun to try such a varied line-up (including one that tasted like railway ties … in a good way!) We learned a bunch of interesting facts spanning everything from history to hops, and left pleasantly enlightened. I had no idea that San Diego was so well-known for its style of IPAs … one of our favorite styles!

The brewery offers an impressive list of weekly events including movie nights and beer pairings. Next time you’re in the area (if we don’t succeed in taking you there first!) be sure to check it out. If you love beer, don’t worry: There are no Millers or Budweisers in sight.

Stone Brewing Company/ World Bistro & Gardens
1999 Citracado Parkway
Escondido, CA 92029

eating my way west, part I

“Whirlwind.” “Roller coaster.” “Bittersweet.” None of the moving clichés are right. Each time, packing feels like something vaguely familiar—something I should be good at by now but for some reason am not.

For all the times I’ve moved, I really should be a pro: At 20, loading up two decades into a U-Haul in my parents’ driveway; at 23 to the apartment where I’d live alone for the first—and only—time; at 24 to a mountain lodge and back; at 25 from a ex-boyfriend’s house to a friend’s sun-room and then to Vancouver; at 26 to Upstate New York with my new husband; at 29 to D.C. for yet another solo jaunt.

Orange-zest sticky bun heaven (Pannikin, Leucadia, CA)

That pile of boxes—life squirreled away in cardboard—brings as many puffs of nostalgia as it does dust. Piles of papers and coins, clothes to give away, friends to see—so many lasts. It’s not fun being so well-versed in goodbyes.

Not that I’m unhappy: As many of you know, I’ve just landed what I can fairly call a dream job at a triathlon magazine in San Diego. It all happened so fast: an email, a telephone call, and a fly-out interview. Back in D.C. I wrapped things up, re-connected with my similarly jet-setting husband, and packed the Jetta for Syracuse.

How does one keep a food blog at a time like this? Not well, I’m afraid. But bear with me: Southern Californian delicacies are on the menu for the next season of freshcrackedpepper.

Curry mussels (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

For now then, the story of how one food-loving wanderer eats her way west.

While in San Diego for my interview, the coast established itself as a mecca of bee pollen/hippie cuisine, flirt-worthy sushi, and orange-zest sticky buns on the ocean (pictured above).

Back in D.C., I had to choose a place for my “last supper” in the city that had been so good to me (bike accident battle scars aside!) I thought back fondly on all the cupcakes, ethnic morsels, and new experiences (like brewing beer for the first time) D.C. had offered. Indeed, it was more than just a six-month stopover between Syracuse’s ports and San Diego’s harbor: it was a satisfying sojourn in and of itself.

Spinach Salad with Cocoa-Balsamic Vinaigrette (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

I settled on Café St. Ex in the U Street neighborhood, for their cute street patio and the great food I’d had at their sister business, Bar Pilar. Our meal of mussels, salad, and a Fried Green Tomato B.L.T. was summery and simple, a good memory to part on. In the very near future, I’ll be experimenting with how to incorporate cocoa into my balsamic vinaigrette.

And their sweet potato fries with just a touch of sweet-salty cinnamon? For those I might be willing to endure a humid D.C. summer. Although I’m sure the West Coast will have a suitable contender.

Fried Green Tomato B.L.T. (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

Back in Syracuse, eating quickly became a mindless task in a long list of to-do’s. Canned baked beans and back-0f-the-freezer discoveries were supplemented with the summer’s first corn (decent, though no sweet ears of late July) and the generous grills of good friends. I think beer might have supplied a higher percentage of my daily calories than is advisable, but my triathlon friends (not to mention all those boxes) helped me keep the negative effects to a minimum.

We set sail yesterday for our cross-country adventure, flung back into the arms of McDonald’s (recommended for their free wireless only), Starbucks (for the only suitable road coffee), Chipotle (yum), and friends along the way (rhubarb ice cream—thanks, Kristen!) After tonight’s quick stopover in Springfield for our dear friends’ wedding, we’ll join up with old Route 66, John Steinbeck’s “Mother Road,” and be on our way to the Texas panhandle.

More to come.