Best of Washington: Eating In

We tasted, tested, and sipped for this year's favorite things: the ultimate brownie, the most delectable roast chicken, and much more

By: Ann Limpert, sara levine

Best Birds

Rotisserie chicken has become a staple of the midweek rush when there's no time to cook. The roasted birds are on sale from supermarkets to ethnic specialty-chicken shops. To taste-test some of the many chickens around town, we recruited three Washingtonians with no conflicts of interest when it comes to poultry: Karen Batra, director of public affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association; Richard Gutting, former president of the National Fisheries Institute; and Audrey Adamson, director of government relations for the National Pork Producers Council. Here's how they rated the birds. 

 
The chicken from Chesapeake Chicken & Rockin' Ribs, purchased at this Eastern Shore import (7007 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 301-656-7634; closed until December 15; $13.95 whole, $7.35 half), was the unanimous favorite. Tasters called it tender, flavorful, and buttery. "A bit greasy but in a good way," noted Adamson. Rating: **** (four stars) 

 
Peruvian chicken spot El Pollo Rico (2917 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington, 703-522-3220; 2541 Ennalls Ave., Wheaton, 301-942-4419; $12.50 whole, $6.98 half) impressed with its "nicely spiced, nontraditional flavor," as did local chain Chicken Out (several area locations; $10.99 whole, $8.99 half) for its "juicy, basic American chicken."
Rating: ***1/2 (three and a half stars) 

 
All tasters liked the full-flavored kosher chicken from Wegmans (11620 Monument Dr., Fairfax, 703-653-1600; 45131 Columbia Pl., Sterling, 703-421-2400; $7.99 whole). Rating: *** (three stars) 

 
Whole Foods Market (various locations) and Wagshal's Delicatessen in DC's Spring Valley (4855 Massachusetts Ave., NW; 202-363-5698). Rating: **1/2 (two and a half stars) 

 
Chicken on the Run
(4933 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-9004), Giant, and Safeway. Rating: ** (two stars) 

 
Tasters didn't like the smoked flavor of the chicken from Magruder's and were underwhelmed by the bird from Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown (3276 M St., NW; 202-342-2500). Rating: * (1 star) 

In this Skipjacks snack, a spice blend and peanuts are as perfect a match as football and Sunday.

Good Snack for TV-Watching

Put down the Baked Lays. Lose the Cheetos. If you're looking for something to keep those idle hands busy during football season, open a canister of Skipjacks. The addictive snack, created by the Blue Crab Bay Company (800-221-2722; bluecrabbay.com) on the Chesapeake coast of Virginia, marries plump local peanuts with butter, honey, and Old Bay-like seasoning. A handful might taste sweet at first, but don't underestimate these bad boys--the spicy kick creeps up on you. A 12-ounce tin is $5.99. For a crowd, the $16.99 40-ouncer is a better bet.


The Arlington farmers market is a good spot for weekend chef-spotting. Photograph by Steve Barrett.

Extras at the Local Farmers Markets

Many farmers markets offer lots more than fruits and veggies. Here are our favorites for:Chef spottings: Arlington Farmers Market (N. Courthouse Rd. and N. 14th St.) every Saturday, when Eric Ziebold (CityZen), RJ Cooper (Vidalia), and Ris Lacoste (formerly of 1789) are usually shopping in T-shirts and sweats, or Penn Quarter FreshFarm market (north end of Eighth St., near E St., NW), which hosts a Chef at Market series featuring recipe demos by such local chefs as José Andrés of Jaleo, Café Atlántico, and Oyamel.

Community spirit: A trio of markets (14th and U; Mount Pleasant at 17th and Lamont sts., NW; and Bloomingdale at First and R sts., NW), all run by Robin Shuster. She saw a need for locally grown produce in these expanding DC neighborhoods and brought together a group of farmers selling free-range eggs, lamb, apples, potted herbs, and seasonal produce.

Cheese: The Dupont Circle FreshFarm (1500 block of 20th St., NW) and Arlington markets for fresh mozzarella (regular or applewood-smoked), ricotta (99 percent fat-free), mascarpone, and Yo-Fresh (a tangy yogurtlike product) from the Blue Ridge Dairy of Leesburg.

Breads: Atwater breads, from a Baltimore bakery selling hearth-baked breads with crispy crusts and soft insides, available at Arlington, Silver Spring (Ellsworth Dr. between Fenton and Cedar sts.), and H Street (624 H St., NE) markets on Saturday; Dupont Circle and Takoma Park (Laurel Ave. between Eastern and Carroll aves.) on Sundays. Try the sunflower-flaxseed, raisin-walnut, or Parisian baguette.

Crab cakes: Chris Hoge's four-ounce cakes--which also come in crawfish, bluefish, and smoked salmon--at the indoor Montgomery Farm Women's Cooperative Market (7155 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda) on Wednesday and Saturday; Penn Quarter FreshFarm on Thursday, crab only; Falls Church (300 Park Ave.) on Saturday; and Dupont Circle FreshFarm on Sunday, crab only.

-Erin Zimmer 

 

Cornucopia's lasagnas from Superior Pasta top our from-freezer-to-oven list. Photograph by David Hicks.

Frozen Lasagna Can Be Very Good

The holiday turkey carcass has been picked clean, and you still have houseguests. Think lasagna--the kind you buy and stick in the oven. With a romaine salad and loaf of garlic bread, you've got dinner for a crowd. We tasted more than 20 frozen and store-made lasagnas from area markets in search of the best.

Excellent: Superior Pasta frozen ground-beef and spinach lasagnas from Philadelphia, available at Cornucopia (8102 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-1625). The pasta was delicate and pleasantly al dente, the ricotta flecked with parsley, and the meat and spinach fillings perfectly seasoned. $12.99; about two servings.

Very good: Meat and vegetable lasagnas from the Italian Store (3123 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-528-6266). These hearty family-style lasagnas with homespun sauce are generous with the meat and, in the case of the vegetable lasagna, full of spinach and mushrooms. Order 24 hours ahead; $50 for about ten servings.

Store-made meat and egg­plant lasagnas from the catering department at Wegmans (11620 Monument Dr., Fairfax, 703-653-1609; 45131 Columbia Pl., Sterling, 703-421-2409). Meat lasagna was not as meaty as the Italian Store lasagna but still flavorful. Breaded rounds of eggplant make for an interesting variation on the veggie-lasagna theme. Order by noon the day before pickup; meat $59.99, cheese-and-eggplant $49.99, 9 to 12 servings.

Spinach lasagna from Vace (3315 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202-363-1999; 4705 Miller Ave., Bethesda, 301-654-6367). A nice, earthy spinach flavor and the perfect spinach-to-cheese ratio. $12, about four servings.

Acceptable: Whole Foods in-house meat and vegetable lasagnas; Balducci's (Northwest, 202-363-5800; Bethesda, 301-564-3100; Alexandria, 703-549-6611; McLean, 703-448-3828) in-house meat and spinach lasagnas; Wegmans packaged frozen meat lasagna; Vace frozen meat lasagna; Manoli Canoli (8540 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase; 301-951-1818) meat lasagnas; the commercial frozen brand Marie Callender meat lasagna (at local supermarkets).

--Cynthia Hacinli

 

Waiting to inhale: At Penzey's you can sniff--and buy--exotic spices from around the world. Photograph by Julia Ewan.

How to Really Spice Up Your Life

If you care about the differences between, say, cinnamon from Vietnam and cinnamon from China, chances are you know about Penzey's, the catalog spice company based in Wisconsin. While the catalog is a good resource, nothing beats getting to smell the spices up close. The company has just opened two area stores--in Rockville and Falls Church--stocked with internationally sourced spices (you'll find everything from ajwain seed, a Pakinstani aromatic, to three strengths of wasabi), dried herbs, and chilies. There are sniffable glass jars next to every display, and the smart sales staff is full of tips: Who knew Chinese five-spice powder, commonly used for stir-fries, could do double duty in shortbread cookies? Then again, you could always go with one of the five cinnamons.

Penzey's, 1048 Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-738-8707; 513 W. Broad St., Falls Church, 703-534-7770.


Hummus to Hanker For

What French onion dip was to the '70s and spinach-and-artichoke spread was to the '90s, hummus is today. After trying versions in grocery stores, gourmet shops, and Middle Eastern markets, we settled on one from a surprising place: the Whole Foods in DC's Logan Circle neighborhood (1440 P St., NW; 202-332-4300); other stores carry the same product, but we found this store the most consistent. The smooth house-brand spread ($4.99 a pint) isn't too pasty and tastes more of lemon than biting garlic. Dress it up with some assertive olive oil and a hit of paprika, and you're good to go for a dinner party. But it's just as good on its own with toasted pita.

Perfect for the Brownie Purist

There are many kinds of brownie lovers out there. Some like them cakey, others chewy. Some prefer accessories such as walnuts, maybe a peanut-butter ribbon. Still others are purists, hankering for a plain square made with good-quality dark chocolate. Pastry chef Josh Short's Farmhouse Brownie, $2 at Buzz Bakery (901 Slaters La., Alexandria; 703-600-2899) might satisfy everyone. It's soft and fudgy without being cloying (espresso adds a shade of depth), has just enough toasted walnuts and a hint of salt, and isn't over-the-top rich.