For every holiday, my mother has a signature dish. At Thanksgiving it’s her sinful mashed potatoes; Rosh Hashanah has to include honey-infused challah. And the Passover meal isn’t complete without matzo candy, brittle-like shards of the unleavened cracker covered in chocolate, caramel, and walnuts. Her best guess as to the origin of the recipe: A friend passed it along 20 years ago. I just think of it as my mom’s. (Recipe after the jump.)
There is, however, one element of the royal wedding of which I thoroughly approve, and that’s the groom’s choice of cake. In addition to having a traditional English fruitcake at the reception, Prince William has requested a chocolate biscuit cake, which is apparently a favorite of his from childhood. Bear in mind that “biscuit” is British English for “cookie,” which I hope will make this sound a lot more appealing than a floury cake made from fried-chicken side orders. Chocolate biscuit cake is a nursery favorite, combining cookies, chocolate, syrup, butter, and raisins in a refrigerated slab of sugary goodness; the final product is dark and fudgy, with crunch from the cookies and chewiness from the fruit. You can also add brandy if desired, but because it’s uncooked, be careful whom you serve it to. (There’s nothing tackier than drunk toddlers at a formal event, and this isn’t the Olive Garden.)
My mummy is coming to stay next month, meaning I’m already making preparations: purchasing Earl Grey tea and marmalade, cleaning, and preparing an invisible, Teflon-esque coat of armor, which I’ll use to repel any maternal criticism. (On a recent visit she complimented me on my weight gain and told me I was getting bunions.) I’m joking, mostly. My mummy is lovely, and her visits are usually complicated by only one thing: she’s lactose-intolerant. This is a giant problem in our house, where a quarter of our grocery budget is routinely spent on cheese, and my loyalty to dairy is matched only by my loyalty to my husband, who’s much nicer and more patient with my family than I am.
For more than two years area chefs graciously accepted our Frugal Foodie challenge: cook a meal—steak dinner for four, a tailgate for ten—on a tight budget.
As we shopped and cooked, I peppered the chefs with questions about how often and what they cooked at home. As they sliced, diced, boiled, and sautéed, I noticed who worked fastidiously and neatly and who whirled through my small kitchen like the Tasmanian Devil, leaving grease in unreachable places. I wondered how each chef was in his or her own home and worried about the quality of my equipment or the size of my kitchen.
So we’ve decided to turn the tables and see what chefs, bartenders, and restaurant staff are like in their own homes. No budget. No parameters on the number of diners or style of meal. When unleashed from the restaurant, what do they make?
John Critchley, the new chef at Urbana in DC’s Dupont Circle, agreed to let me hover in his kitchen while he cooked on one of his Mondays off. When I arrive, a bone-in leg of lamb—rubbed with a mix of grains of paradise, rosemary, cinnamon, dried ginger, and salt—is slow-roasting on his charcoal grill. A mix of squash, onion, and peppers are neatly sliced, waiting to be added to the grill, and cheese, crackers, olives, and hummus are on the counter for noshing.
I vaguely remember eating “macaroni cheese” as a child along with all the other bland, casserole-type things we were fed—tuna bake, fish pie, cottage pie—but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to appreciate it. When I was out in London’s Soho one night about five years ago, I stumbled into the Boheme Kitchen & Bar, where I drunkenly scarfed the better part of an entire plate of mac and cheese and discovered that it was really, really good. Admittedly, almost anything is really, really good when you’re drunk, which is pretty much the only reason that Jumbo Slice in Adams Morgan is still in business. But this particular macaroni-and-cheese combination had an interesting addition: spinach. And because it gave a nice texture to the dish, as well as the illusion of healthfulness, I’ve been adding it to my own rendition ever since.
Sounds easy, no? Here are my credentials in terms of cooking: I have none. I’ve never taken so much as a basic knife-skills class, and I ate a radish for the first time in 2008. But I’m British, so that takes care of at least a part of the equation. And I grew up in a very food-oriented house—my stepmom, a former caterer, was trained at Cordon Bleu; my mom and stepfather are organic beef farmers; and my dad was a hardcore gastronome, who once gave me a glass of Château Margaux when I was doing my French homework at age 13 (I like to think it distinctly improved my work). So I grew up cooking and eating a lot, in London, which contrary to popular opinion has some of the best restaurants in the world and where it isn’t always raining.
I also worked as a waitress for six years, which gave me three important skills: (1) I can fan out an avocado prettily on a plate, (2) I know how to unblock a toilet, and (3) I can open a bottle of wine in less than five seconds. Curiously enough, it wasn’t until I gave up being a waitress and became a journalist that I started cooking properly.
Chef David Guas’s Bayou Bakery in Courthouse opened recently, bringing beignets, po’ boys, and other New Orleans classics to Arlington. In our video below, the Big Easy native shows how to make a simple dessert that’s always a hit for the holidays: caramel popcorn with nuts. Wrapped in cellophane bags, it makes an easy—and easy-on-the-wallet—stocking stuffer.
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Tea takes a back seat at many restaurants, and considering the way most places regard tea service, it’s little wonder. Who wants a cup of bagged Constant Comment you can have at home? But Ris, chef Ris Lacoste’s new West End restaurant, has made tea a point of pride by investing in handmade blends from Laurie Bell and her excellent Great Falls Tea Garden.
Morou Ouattara hopes to reopen his African-inspired Old Town restaurant, Farrah Olivia—which closed last April—in DC by the end of this year. But diners don’t have to wait to get a taste of his deconstructed dishes: Once a month at Kora, his Italian trattoria in Crystal City, Ouattara is creating what he calls an “ethnic dining experience.” Translation: cooking that’s a lot closer to the Kobe-beef tartare with berbere oil from his old menu than to spaghetti and meatballs.
A good chef is known for consistency. That’s why so many—including Citronelle’s Michel Richard—are using sous-vide, a method of cooking that involves poaching vacuum-sealed ingredients in heated water. (See “Hi, I’ll Be Your Server Tonight” in the March Washingtonian.) Beef cooked sous-vide at 134 degrees—the temperature at the center of a medium-rare steak—will emerge from its water bath a rosy pink from edge to edge.
Until recently, there was no way for the home cook to use the technique. Then SousVide Supreme hit the market. Is the appliance worth the $449 price? We tested it on a variety of foods.