Archive for November, 2012

I first tasted a Philly Soft Pretzel from an Amish vendor at Reading Terminal Market a few months ago. Warm and buttery with a golden brown crust and doughy center, this was nothing like the Auntie Anne’s pretzels I had as a kid. I haven’t forgotten it since, so when I discovered a recent little spot in D.C. called The Pretzel Bakery, I jumped out of my seat.

Philly native and D.C. resident Sean Haney started baking his variation on the classic pretzel for family and friends a few years ago. Wanting to share his recipe with Washingtonians, Haney opened The Pretzel Bakery in Hill East near Eastern Market a few months ago. On its first day, the bakery completely sold out of pretzels.

Haney has found his niche in the “we only serve one kind of food but we do it really, really well” trend that is quickly spreading throughout the District. Specialty shops that only sell one food of superior quality, or restaurants with one concept such as Toki Underground’s ramen noodles, or New Orleans Po’ Boy Shop’s sandwiches are big right now. I find that more and more people are willing to go out of their way like I did (I live across town in Adams Morgan) and spend a few extra dollars on one delicious product.

Sandwiched between red and tan painted row houses, The Pretzel Bakery’s location in a residential neighborhood is a bit odd. The red awning and large umbrella on the front patio stand out from the street, while a chalkboard sign on the ground outlines the bakery’s simple, but smart concept – Pretzels, coffee, soda and water.

To accompany your pretzel, the bakery also offers Gulden’s spicy brown mustard (from Milton, Pa., north of Philly), caramel mustard, Nutella and Philly cream cheese.

Haney hand rolls, twists and bakes his pretzels from scratch daily. They are $2 each, $5 for three or $18 for a dozen. After ordering your pretzel at the front door (it’s more like a half door-half window), you pay, and then wait a short time. You can enjoy your pretzels on the front patio underneath the umbrella or take them to go.

I opted for three pretzels with sides of Nutella and Gulden’s mustard. Not mixed together of course, but one pretzel dipped in mustard and then the other dipped in Nutella.

Haney’s pretzel has a golden brown color on top and is speckled with sea salt. The pretzel appears small, but it is much thicker than ones I’ve had in the past. The shape varies slightly from a stereotypical soft pretzel, giving it a personal, handmade feel. Because this pretzel is so thick, I expected it to be too doughy. To my surprise, the center was light and airy.

I matched my first pretzel with mustard and the second with Nutella. The third I saved for later. Each condiment shined in a different way – the acidity of the mustard and the sweetness of Nutella both worked to balance out the saltiness of the pretzel. This was good stuff.

Haney’s pretzels are not an exact copy of the Philly staple, but why should they be? (If you want to have a real Philly pretzel, then go to Philly!) Like popular D.C. sandwich shop Taylor Gourmet puts a spin on the classic Philly Hoagie, Haney crafts a unique personality for the Philly soft pretzel.

If only The Pretzel Bakery wasn’t so far away from my apartment. Haney should consider the Adams Morgan/Dupont Circle late night food scene – I can most definitely bet there is a market for a soft pretzel with Nutella at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night. I know I’d be in line.



The Pretzel Bakery on Urbanspoon


Read Full Post »

Life on the line is neither easy nor glamorous, but if you stick to a few guidelines, it can be incredibly rewarding. Since working in a restaurant over the past eight months, I can say I’ve learned a few things.

Mind-blowing to me is just how different culinary school is from a restaurant. Working on a line requires you to know and understand every dish you are preparing, whereas in culinary school, there is room for error.

At Cashion’s, I’ve made just about every mistake that there is to make. I’ve been criticized and I’ve felt bad about myself many times. Despite everything, I have to thank Chef for inspiring me to try my best every day and night. So, here we go – below, I’ve listed five key lessons I’ve learned from working in a restaurant kitchen.

 1. Keep a sharp knife at all times.

I can’t even begin to say how important this is. If you have a long list of ingredients to prepare before the restaurant opens, a sharp knife is key. When your knife can slice through red peppers or onions with little effort, this will increase your prep speed significantly. And when it’s going to be a busy night, speed and efficiency is everything. Even during service, when you have to chop or chiffonade herbs to order, you need to be fast and precise. I sharpen my knife with a stone at least every other day.

2. Don’t leave the line on a Friday or Saturday night (unless you absolutely have to!).

In culinary school, the instructor told us exactly how much of each ingredient to prep for the day’s meal. In a restaurant, you are more or less on your own. The chef is far too busy to give you specifics – It is up to you to decide how much you will need for the night, based on how busy the restaurant will be. Your goal should be to prep enough so that you will never run out of anything. Leaving the line during service to grab more of an ingredient can let down the rest of the kitchen, especially the chef. Think of it like a basketball game. Say that your point guard just decided to leave the court during the middle of the game. Can your team play as well with one less man?

 3. The chef is always right.

The chef tells you to plate a salad one way, but you think that your way is better. While he may appreciate your feedback, ultimately, it is his opinion that matters the most. If you’re working in the chef’s kitchen, you should show respect to him. If you do disagree with the chef, try to understand his philosophy behind how he wants the food prepared and presented. I will often ask the chef why he prefers ingredients to be cut or cooked a certain way. He is always excited to share his thoughts and reasons behind the dish.

4. Smile, even when you don’t feel like smiling.

If you’re having a bad day, leave it outside the kitchen and focus on your work. Secondly, even when you are given the grittiest, most mundane tasks, smile and agree to do them (even if you’re cursing everyone in your head). If you’re starting at the bottom like I did, no task is below you. I have spent hours peeling garlic and shucking beans. I have scrubbed grime off of walls, floors and ceiling. You do what’s asked of you and you don’t complain. I believe that it will pay off in the future.

5. Be flexible.

Restaurant schedules are notorious for operating the opposite of the way the rest of the world does. When everyone is finishing work for the day, you’re just beginning. On the bright side, you don’t have to be up early, unless you’re working breakfast. You will probably work Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, too. Seeing your family and friends can be difficult, but if you are truly dedicated to working in this industry, then you’ll accept it.

I have one final point – Try, try, try not to make the same mistake twice. I think I avoided putting this one on the list. Whenever I run out of a key ingredient during service or burn the skin on my salmon for the third time, I feel pretty awful.

Honestly, though, it’s just cooking. It’s not life or death. And at eleven o’clock, when the last order comes in, you’re done. You clean up, have a drink, go home and relax. Unless you’ve done something horribly offensive, like insult the chef or poison a customer, you’re not going to be fired. There’s always tomorrow night to improve.

Read Full Post »

On a Friday afternoon at Cashion’s Eat Place, I noticed something leafy and green simmering away in a large, shallow skillet. The scent of caramelized onions, butter and cream made me salivate.

“What on Earth smells so good?” I asked chef, pointing to the pan.

“Oh, that? That’s kale,” he said nonchalantly, like kale was supposed to always smell that good.

No way. Kale? While I love nearly all greens, I’ve always hated kale.

“How do you make it, Chef?”

“Cook the sh*t out of it.”

Chef smiled, sensing my reaction, and shifted his attention to something else on the stove. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard.

After every tireless attempt I’d made to cook kale, the result was always the same – bitter, chewy and difficult to eat.

Even my most fool-proof recipe for sauteeing greens – olive oil, garlic, salt and crushed red pepper – failed.

I even tried blanching the kale first to mute its bitterness and soften its tough, crunchy stems. Although its chewiness was somewhat gone, it was still, well, barely edible.

I really wanted to like kale. I really did. It’s high in nearly every essential vitamin and low in calories, making it one of the best “super foods” in existence. I often forced myself to eat my disgusting plate of kale, reminding myself – just think about all of those health benefits!

I’ve been to culinary school. I know how to cook. What was I doing wrong?

Chef’s kale was unlike any kale I’d seen before. Its flavor was earthy, even slightly sweet.

To translate Chef’s words, “cooking the sh*t” out of kale means to braise it.

The key is to simmer the kale for an extended time in a small amount of liquid such as stock or wine, and then add ingredients such as caramelized onions or shallots. This way, the kale infuses the flavors and aromatics of these ingredients.

I hadn’t cooked my kale for long enough nor in anything flavorful enough for it to lose its bitterness.

My experience with Chef was the first “ah-ha!” moment I had about kale. My second moment occurred at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market just a week ago.

One of my favorite vegetable vendors, Spring Valley Farm and Orchard, was offering a variety of kale I’d previously never seen. Lacinato Kale (pictured, above), as I later discovered it was, is distinguished by its flat, wide leaves. The texture of the leaves is bumpy like scales, earning its nickname as “dinosaur” kale.

Its rich, dark green color attracted my eye. In a trance, I put down the rainbow swiss chard I was about to buy. This kale was too gorgeous to pass up.

Curly kale (pictured, left), the variety I always bought from the grocery store, was the kale with which I’d failed. Call me kale-naive (for lack of a better term), but I’d never known there to be another variety.

I had hope for this beautiful Dino kale. I would not fail to make this kale the tastiest kale I’d ever experienced.

I used Chef’s kale recipe as a guide, but made my own tweaks.

First, I separated the leaves from the stems. I wrapped the leaves up tightly and roughly chiffonaded them. You don’t have to do this, but it does look nice if you’re concerned about aesthetics. It is important, however, to separate the leaves and stems, as they cook at different rates.

Next, I lined up the stems on my cutting board and sliced them thinly.

Before I did anything else, I tried a piece of raw kale, curious about its flavor. Wow. Earthy and mild, with a hint of both sweetness and bitterness. This would be incredible in a salad, maybe with some toasted, slivered almonds, a creamy dressing of some sort…Okay, that’s another blog post.

After prepping the kale, I sauteed thinly sliced onions in olive oil over low heat. After cooking the onions down a little with salt, I started adding small amounts of chicken stock. As soon as the onions absorbed the stock, I added more. This is the same technique I learned on my first day of culinary school when we prepared French Onion Soup. (Oh, what a day that was. Slicing an onion seemed so daunting back then!)

The onions cook by absorbing the flavor of the stock. Eventually, they will begin to caramelize by turning a light brown and emitting a sweet aroma.

At this point, I added the sliced stems to the onions and let them cook briefly. I added the leaves, a good pour of chicken stock, some crushed red pepper, and then let everything simmer away.

Thirty or so minutes later, I added a touch of heavy cream. Not too much – I wanted to keep this reasonably healthy, after all. Thankfully, a little goes a long way. The cream added a richness that also tied together the flavor of the onions and the flavor of the kale.

I never thought I’d ever be this excited about kale. This was good. Really, really freaking good.

For Thanksgiving, I think this would be a perfect side dish. It’s different, and I like that. How many families can say they’re serving braised, Dino kale alongside that creepy cranberry sauce from a can? If this dish was at my Thanksgiving, I’d be going back for seconds, thirds, fourths, possibly fifths. Thank God for Turkey Trots.

(By the way, that creepy cranberry sauce is actually not half bad.)

Braised Kale with Caramelized Onions

  • 1 bunch Kale, preferably the Lacinato variety
  • 1 large onion
  • Chicken stock
  • Heavy cream
  • Crushed red pepper
  • Salt, pepper (the usual suspects)
  1.  Prep kale and onions, as I mention in my post above or however you prefer.
  2. Over medium heat, start onions in olive oil or butter. Add a little salt and cook the onions until they soften. Add a little chicken stock and turn down heat slightly. Add more stock when the pan is dry, continuing to do so until the onions have caramelized to a light brown.
  3. Add kale stems, cook for a few minutes, and then add the leaves and crushed red pepper. Toss together, then add a good splash of stock. Simmer over low heat, adding more stock if needed.
  4. Check after 20 minutes or so. The kale should be extremely tender, but not mushy. If it needs longer, let it go longer.
  5. Add a splash of cream and stir to combine. Check for seasoning, and that’s it!


Georgeanne Brennan. Great Greens: Fresh Flavorful and Innovative Recipes. http://books.google.com/books?id=fRBbX-G3XW4C&pg=PA30#v=onepage&q&f=false


http://forum.thefreedictionary.com/postst27946_cook-up-a-storm.aspx, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kale

Read Full Post »

On a Saturday night, customers arrive as early as 4:45 p.m. to secure a table at one of D.C.’s hottest (literally) restaurants. From the perspective of passersby, it must be a peculiar site – a line of fifty or so people, lined up nearly all the way to the CVS on the corner of 17th and P Street (here’s a blogger who snagged a photo – http://czdyer.blogspot.com/2012/03/little-serow.html).

When you finally make it to the front of the line,  you will see a set of steps leading down to an unmarked door. Inside is Little Serow. The restaurant takes no reservations, but the long wait for a table in the tiny, 28-seat dining room is more than worth it.

Johnny Monis opened Little Serow nearly a year ago just a few doors down from his highly acclaimed restaurant, Komi. Little Serow describes its cuisine as “Family style…northern and northeastern Thai.”

Little Serow offers diners the chance to try Monis’ food at a price that is far more affordable than Komi. For $45 a person, customers can enjoy seven courses of varying spiciness. The menu is pre-selected and changes periodically.

Before dining at Little Serow last weekend, I had read warnings of the restaurant’s spicy reputation. I figured it couldn’t be that bad.

Oh, how wrong I was.

After arriving at Little Serow around 5:10 p.m., Paul and I made it to the front by 5:30 p.m. Inside, the hostess informed us that we would be able to be seated at 8:30 p.m. Paul looked at me and whispered, “Um, can we talk about this first?”

You know you have a good boyfriend when he agrees to wait three hours for a table.

I gave the hostess my phone number, and was promised a text when our table was ready. We could go anywhere we wanted in the meantime. We could have run errands, even gone home and taken a nap. I hope this catches on elsewhere. It makes way more sense than those stupid pagers that don’t let you go more than 10 feet from the restaurant.

We found a nearby bar with unbelievably cheap happy hour specials and set up camp. At 8:14 p.m., I received a very exciting text message. (I hope they appreciated my enthused response!)

You’d never think that Little Serow’s dining room is a basement. According to an article in Bon Appetit magazine, this space once belonged to a Dunkin’ Donuts.

The painted seafoam green brick walls and the solid, concrete floor come alive with low, dramatic lighting. A bar runs along the right side, while tables line the wall on the left. The open kitchen in the back of the dining room invites the diner to watch as their meals are prepared.

Silverware and a paper napkin arranged on top of what looked like a paper plate decorated the tabletop. I realized that this plate was actually ceramic, a subtle reminder of Little Serow’s unpretentious ambience.

A single candle on our table illuminated the night’s menu. Each course was written in Thai, with ingredients listed in English below.

Throughout the meal, our table would be fully stocked with two items: sticky white rice and a basket of vegetables and greens such as cucumbers, radishes and lettuce. Our server encouraged us to experiment with these accompaniments, using them as utensils or as remedies for our soon to be fiery palates.

Jeow mak len, or crispy pork rinds (which seem to be all the rage these days at fine-dining establishments), started our meal off with a crunch. These salty, light and airy little treats set a strong tone for the rest of the meal.

In the photo on the left, notice the two plates. One is the “paper” plate I mentioned earlier, and the other has a Thai-inspired floral decoration around the rim. Attention to detail is impressive here – everything at Little Serow, down to each and every plate, is chosen for a reason.

The next two courses, yam makeua and tom kha pla duk, arrived at the same time. The first, a salad of eggplant and salted duck egg quickly picked up the heat. The second, a soup of galangal, a close relative of ginger, chilies and catfish was a substantial notch above mild as well.

The sliced thick cucumbers and stunning watermelon radishes arranged in the basket next to me were starting to look very appealing.

Courses four and five marked the meal’s spicy climax. Laap chiang mai, or finely chopped pork combined with lemongrass and sawtooth (an herb likened to cilantro) was so flavorful that I forgot for a moment just how incredibly hot it was.

Fifth course Khao todd, described on the menu as “crispy rice, mint, peanuts,” sounds tame, but it is a fiery beast. My conclusion here is that anything, even mint leaves and peanuts, can be made dangerously spicy with the addition of hot chilies.

Before we knew it, Paul and I scarfed our way through three containers of rice and two vegetable baskets. Despite the heat, I had to finish each and every bite of these two courses. They were simply too delicious.

Our server must have sensed our quiet suffering. In the middle of course five, she said to us, “Are you hanging in there? Don’t worry, I know exactly what you need.” She soon reappeared  holding a glass of white wine and an IPA, both of which she described as “perfect combatants to the heat.”

The next two courses were designed to extinguish the flames caused by the previous ones. Phat het fuk thong, thick juliennes of pumpkin mixed with basil had a subtle sweetness that was a welcomed relief from the spiciness.

Pictured above is the final course. Sii krong mu, pork ribs marinated with Mekhong (a Thai whiskey that tastes more like rum), amplified the sweetness introduced in the previous course. These little ribs were incredibly tender and best of all at this point, without a single hint of spice. Where the first course was mild and salty, this course was mild and sweet.

From start to finish, my experience at Little Serow had the makings of an exciting theatrical performance. Or even an action-packed film. In high school English class, I remember learning about Freitag’s Plot Pyramid (don’t ask me why it’s this that I remember). According to Freitag, a successful story follows this form.

Think about each course and where it fits into the pyramid. It works, right? The meal attracts the diner by starting off mild, but then the spice spreads like a wildfire across your palate. The last two dishes bring diners back to mild, but unlike the first dish, the diner has experienced the entire meal. The diner ends the meal with a feeling of completeness.

Who knows – maybe Johnny Monis paid attention in English class, too.

Photos: http://blogs.houstonpress.com/eating/2012/09/eating_dc_dining_dispatches_fr.php?page=2, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plotmountain.jpg

Little Serow on Urbanspoon

Read Full Post »