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Photograph by Carla Laseter

Photograph by Carla Laseter

Finally. The Cherry Blossoms are almost at peak bloom! My mom, my roommate and I rushed down to the Tidal Basin yesterday evening to get a glimpse and snap a few photos. We brought a picnic dinner with us and enjoyed the view from underneath the outstretching branches of a cherry tree.

Earlier in the day, I had a tough time deciding what to prepare. I wanted to avoid conventional picnic foods such as fried chicken, cole slaw and potato salad. Not to say there is anything wrong with these foods (I’m Southern, so you know I love fried chicken!), but I wanted to try something different.

I scanned Mark Bittman’s excellent piece, 101 20 Minute Dishes for Inspired Picnics, in the New York Times and found the perfect idea. Rice salad. Of course. They’re extremely versatile and pair wonderfully with lighter proteins such as chicken or fish. I crafted my own rice salad based partly on Mark Bittman’s ideas and from a similar recipe on the back of a bag of Lundberg Short Grain Brown Rice.

Right away, I knew I wanted broccoli rabe and Kalamata olives in my rice salad. I love the complex, bitter flavors that broccoli rabe and olives can lend to any dish. In this recipe, they are well-balanced by the sweetness of the bell pepper and acidity of the lemon vinaigrette. With whole grains, nuts and greens, this salad is healthy addition to any picnic (we ate every bit of it!). Feel free to get creative and substitute different ingredients into the recipe as well.

Oh, and for my fellow runners out there: this salad makes a great snack after an intense workout or long run. Enjoy with a glass of chocolate milk, of course.

Photograph by Carla Laseter

Photograph by Carla Laseter

Brown Rice Salad with Broccoli Rabe and Toasted Almonds

Yield: About 6 servings (Note: Not counting the rice, the below measurements are approximations. Feel free to use more or less of any ingredient!)

  • 3 cups cooked short grain brown rice (I used Lundberg)
  • 4 Tbsp. toasted slivered almonds
  • 1 cup cooked broccoli rabe, sliced thin
  • 1 large bell pepper, diced small
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, sliced
  • Fresh mint, chiffonaded
  • Salt and pepper

Simple Lemon Vinaigrette (Yield: about ½ cups)

  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Prep:

  1. Prepare brown rice according to the instructions on the package, making sure to yield 3 cups cooked rice. Set aside and let cool completely.
  2. Lightly coat slivered almonds with olive oil and toast in oven at 350 degrees until light brown. Give the pan a good shake after a few minutes to make sure they toast evenly.
  3. Slice the stems off of the broccoli rabe, reserving the leaves. Take a handful of rabe leaves and roll them up on your cutting board. Slice thin and then rinse the leaves in a colander with water. Pat dry with paper towels.
  4. Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the sliced rabe (it’s okay if it’s not completely dry) and sauté until the stems are tender. Season with salt and pepper. Place rabe on paper towels to drain excess liquid and let cool completely.
  5. Dice pepper into small cubes (They should not be much larger than the grains of cooked rice).
  6. Slice olives in half if they are small or quarters if they are larger.
  7. Pick mint leaves. Wash and dry with paper towels if necessary (sometimes they are clean).
  8. Lastly, make the vinaigrette by whisking olive oil into fresh lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Assembly:

  1. Combine cooked rice, toasted almonds, diced pepper, olives and broccoli rabe in a bowl.
  2.  Chiffonade the mint leaves, or roll them up and slice thin. Add enough mint to the rice mixture so that you can taste it.
  3. Add lemon vinaigrette a little at a time and toss until the rice is well coated, but not drenched (You might not need to use all of the vinaigrette). Season the salad with salt and pepper and enjoy cold or at room temperature.
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You might remember my last baking experiment, where I recreated Ruby Tuesday’s Chocolate Tall Cake. All in all, it was a success, with only a few minor mishaps. (The chocolate mousse cake that I baked  looked like a disfigured burger patty smushed in between two slices of Rye bread, but let’s face it, I’m no pastry master!)

I’ve decided to take on something even closer to my heart: the chocolate chip cookie. After my recent quest to find the best chocolate chip cookie in D.C. for Serious Eats, it only makes sense.

To start, I look to a highly influential article from The New York Times called, “Perfection? Hint: It’s Warm and Has a Secret.”

I remember reading this article when it first ran in 2008. David Leite chronicles his search for the perfect chocolate chip cookie and gives his resulting recipe (adapted from Jacques Torres) at the end. Of course, I gave it a try. At first, the steps seemed tedious. Why couldn’t I just use chocolate chips? Chocolate feves, or disks, were more expensive and difficult to find in the grocery store. Even worse, I had to chill the cookies in the refrigerator for 36 hours before I baked them. How was I going to wait a day and a half until I could finally eat these labor-intensive, high maintenance cookies? Despite my reservations, I followed the recipe exactly. The result? Oh my God. They were, in a word, awesome.

In his article, Leite visits several well-known New York bakeries, including The City Bakery. I stopped here on a recent trip to the city and tried one of their famed chocolate chip cookies. I stand by this statement – it was, and still is, the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had.

So. Good.

So. Good.

In the article, Leite asks The City Bakery’s owner, Maury Rubin, why his cookies are just so damned good. “We bake them in small batches every hour so they’re always fresh…It’s the Warm Rule…Even a bad cookie straight from the oven has its appeal,” said Rubin.

Rubin has another secret. He chills the dough for 36 hours before baking the cookies, a technique that results in a deep, golden brown cookie with a crispy, chewy texture.

There are other qualities for the ideal chocolate chip cookie that Leite discusses, such as using at least 60% cacao chocolate and the importance of salt. Sprinkle a pinch of sea salt (known as Maldon) over your cookies before you bake them to add a new dimension of flavor to your recipe. Leite notes that many bakers consider this interaction of salty and sweet the real secret to the perfect chocolate chip cookie.

I think Leite’s article is an extraordinary piece. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to try his recipe. It will change your perspective on chocolate chip cookies. It certainly did for me.

So, the question remains: Can I make a better chocolate chip cookie than Leite? Maybe not, but it’s worth a try.

Here’s the plan. First, I’ll create my own recipe. Second, I will rest the dough for different amounts of time to see how it impacts the cookies, much like Leite did in his article. The resting times will be one hour (so I don’t have to wait too long to try them!), 12 hours, 24 hours and 36 hours.

Stay tuned for part two: The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie Experiment!

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It’s funny how so many foods you hated as a kid, you end up loving as an adult. My list is endless: broccoli, pizza (if you can believe it!), olives, onions, brussels sprouts, peas, grapes, and grapefruit.

Grapefruit is actually a very recent addition to my favorite foods list. Bitter, sour and sweet all at the same time, the grapefruit’s versatility makes it a great addition to dishes with savory and sweet ingredients.

One of the first salads I plated as an extern at Cashion’s Eat Place was a grapefruit and avocado salad. I had to segment grapefruits ahead of time to make assembling the salad more efficient during service. At first, I was absolutely terrible at this technique, also known as peler a vif. We’d touched on it a few times at L’Academie de Cuisine, but I was never able to master it. I remember eating a lot of botched grapefruit segments (maybe that’s where I learned to love grapefruit!). After segmenting a ridiculous amount of grapefruits, I finally learned how to do it correctly.

It’s a simple technique, but as I said, does require practice. Here’s how I do it.

IMG_4240

You will need:

  • Grapefruit (duh)
  • Cutting board
  • Serrated knife
  • Small bowl
IMG_4242

Slice off both ends of the grapefruit. The cross section should look like this.

IMG_4243

Angle your knife so that a small part of the fruit is exposed.

IMG_4246

Slice off the grapefruit’s skin, so that no white pith is left on the outside. Work your way around the grapefruit until all of the skin is gone. Be careful not to cut out too much of the inner fruit – it helps to make cuts that follow the rounded shape of the grapefruit.

IMG_4248

Now, use your knife to detach the segments from the grapefruit’s core. Position your knife on the left side of the white line that runs down the grapefruit. Make a cut inwards (not too far) and then angle your knife slightly to the right. You should be able to easily peel the segment off the grapefruit with your knife.

I like to have a small bowl to catch the segments. I also save the grapefruit juice and use it to make vinaigrette – add a little Dijon mustard and whisk in extra virgin olive oil.

You can use this technique for other citrus fruits such as oranges. The grapefruit is a good fruit to practice on because of its larger size. Try it out! I love to pair it with tomatoes, sliced avocados and greens like spinach or mesclun.

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Yesterday, I bought a pound of mussels at Giant for $5.99. Wow. That’s cheap, considering how much food costs these days. It’s more than enough to feed two people, too.

The mild, buttery flavor of mussels makes them extremely versatile. They can be paired with a myriad of ingredients, many of which you probably already have in your kitchen. Canned tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, white wine, beer, chicken stock, lemon juice are just a few of the items you can use.

It takes a little effort to clean mussels, but it’s really not that bad. Here’s how I do it: dump them into a colander/strainer  and rinse thoroughly in cold water. Then, check each mussel carefully, discarding any with broken or open shells (they could be spoiled). This next step is important: make sure to remove any thread-like fibers, or the beard. The beard peeks out from the shell and is rough to the touch.  In the wild, mussels use the beard to anchor themselves to rocks underwater, protecting themselves from crashing waves. That’s great, but you don’t want to eat that. Remove the beard by gripping the fibers with your fingers and pulling them until they release from the shell. Keep in mind, you may have to put some “mussel” into it (That was painfully punny wasn’t it?).

Cooking mussels is almost fail proof. Covering the mussels with a lid creates steam inside the pan, helping them to cook. The shells will open and you should see the mussels detach themselves a little, but not completely. Lift up the lid while they’re cooking and take a peek. When cooked, the mussels should be firm, but still a little chewy.

Try my recipe below. The spiciness of Old Bay combined with the acidity of tomatoes is a winner here. You’ve also got subtle sweet and bitter flavors contributed by the white wine and olive oil. I like to serve mine with crostini, or toasted, thinly sliced baguette. It’s a gourmet, simple meal that’s pretty easy on the wallet, too!

IMG_4061

Eat me.


Old Bay Mussels with White Wine, Olive Oil, Fresh Tomatoes and Parsley

• 1 pound mussels (store them on ice in your refrigerator)
• 6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
• 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1-2 cups white wine
• 2 vine ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
• 2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning
• Salt and pepper
• Chopped or chiffinaded parsley, to garnish

Prep:

1. Clean mussels thoroughly.
2. Peel and smash garlic cloves, using the flat side of your knife or the palm of your hand.
3. Core and chop tomatoes roughly.
4. Pick parsley leaves and chop or chiffonade (roll up a small pile and slice thinly with your knife).

Cooking:

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add crushed garlic cloves and sauté over medium-high until browned.
2. Add chopped tomatoes, Old Bay and a pinch of salt and pepper. Toss to combine the ingredients.
3. Add the mussels and white wine. Cover with a good lid and let the mussels cook. Pour the other tablespoon of olive oil over the mussels after about a minute and cover again.
4. Remove from heat when the shells open and the mussels have detached themselves a little from inside the shells.
5. Serve with crostini (thinly sliced baguette rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper and toasted at 400 degrees until golden) and enjoy. Make sure to scoop up some of the broth, either with a spoon or piece of crostini!

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Lamb Stew with Moroccan Spices

Every time I  walk into a Whole Foods grocery store, I transform into a hyperactive eight year old during recess. I race up and down the aisles, imagining all the dishes I could possibly make. I love the fresh produce, the whole fish on ice and that magnificent salad bar. My excitement comes to an abrupt halt when I see Wild Alaskan King Salmon for $32. Ouch.

Yes, I know. I really shouldn’t be shopping at a grocery store where toilet paper costs $5.00 a roll. But hey, we all have our weaknesses.

On a recent trip to a Whole Foods in Friendship Heights, I discovered lamb shanks in the meat section. For about a pound, they were just under five dollars. Next to the shanks were lamb necks, which were only $2.50 for a pound. Lamb and cheap don’t belong in the same sentence, right? Unable to pass this deal up, I bought two shanks and four neck bones.

What to do with six, relatively obscure cuts of meat? Because lamb shanks and neck bones are rather tough and fatty, they must be braised or stewed until the meat easily falls off the bone. Oh yes. More fat means more FLAVOR!

I finally decided on my take on a popular Moroccan stew dish called tagine. Originating from North Africa, the meaning of the tagine varies by country. Moroccans prepare a tagine by braising tougher cuts of meat and vegetables in an aromatic sauce until tender. It is almost always served with couscous. 

The traditional cooking vessel, called a tagine pot, resembles a cone-shaped clay or ceramic cooking vessel that requires very little water to use. The tagine’s cone-shape locks moisture inside during cooking, ensuring a flavorful stew. In this recipe, I used an enameled cast iron Dutch oven. Like the tagine, the Dutch oven can maintain a gentle simmer at low, even heat for a long time, making it a great choice for stews, soups or braises.

If you don’t own a Dutch oven, you can also use a deep pot with a good lid. Here’s the recipe below:

 Lamb Stew with Moroccan Spices

Adapted from The Midnight Feast

  • Blended oil (You can find this at your grocery store – it’s a combination of canola and olive oil. I use this because it has a higher smoke point, but still has flavor.)
  • 4 lamb neck bones (about 1 lb.)
  • 2 lamb shanks (about 1 ½ lb.)
  • 4 medium carrots
  • 1 large onionIMG_4034
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 ½ teaspoon cumin
  • 1 ½ teaspoon coriander
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 large can whole tomatoes
  • ½ quart chicken stock
  • Chickpeas (I prefer dried, but you can use canned)

Prep:

  1. If using dried chickpeas, make sure to soak them in plenty of water the night before.
  2. Peel and slice carrots. I sliced them a medium thickness and on a bias, but feel free to do it however you prefer.
  3. Chop onion, medium dice (if it’s too small, the pieces will burn). Peel garlic and smash the clove using the flat side of your knife.IMG_4031
  4. Combine carrots, onions and garlic in a bowl and set aside.
  5. Combine all spices in a bowl and set aside.

Cooking:

  1. Heat oil in a large pan. Season lamb neck bones and shank with salt and pepper. Over high heat, brown the meat.IMG_4037
  2. Remove the meat from the pan and place it in the Dutch oven. Pour out excess grease and add the carrots, onions and garlic. Season with salt and pepper, stirring or tossing to combine.
  3. Cook vegetables for 3-4 minutes and then pour over the browned meat in the Dutch oven.
  4. Add spices to meat and vegetables, stirring to make sure everything is coated evenly.IMG_4039
  5. Add chicken stock and the canned tomatoes and turn on heat to high. Bring to a boil and lower heat. While stew is heating up, use your spoon to mash up the whole tomatoes a bit.
  6. Cover and simmer over low heat for at least 2 hours. The meat should easily pull away from the bones when it is ready.

    Now there's a healthy simmer!

    Now there’s a healthy simmer!

  7. Add the chickpeas to the stew. If you are using dried chickpeas, continue to simmer for another 15-20 minutes to make sure they are cooked. They should be a little crunchy, but not hard.
  8. Using tongs, remove shanks and neck bones from stew onto a plate. Use a fork to gently pull the meat away from the bones (scrape any excess fat off of the meat). Add the meat back to the stew and stir to combine.
  9. Add golden raisins to stew. Season the stew with salt and pepper and add juice from 1 lemon.
  10. Garnish the stew with chopped parsley and serve over couscous. Enjoy!

    IMG_4046

    Yum.

I loved the combination of spices in this stew. Because I haven’t worked with ground coriander very much in the past, I was excited to get to know it a little better in this recipe. Ground coriander’s subtle tones of citrus worked with the cayenne and crushed red pepper to brighten up the stew’s flavor. The sweetness of the golden raisins was a nice touch, too.

If I made this stew again, I might try a boneless lamb shoulder, cubed and trimmed of all of its fat. If you’d rather use a different budget-friendly protein, look into eye of round steak (it’s very lean) or chicken thighs (not quite as lean, but still cheap!).

Sources:

http://fescooking.com/come-cook-with-us/the-art-of-moroccan-cuisine

http://books.google.com/books?id=RfFttBIADlEC&dq=moroccan+tagine&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s

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When I started my freshman year at Hopkins, my upperclassmen friends urged me to do one thing in Baltimore – try the crabs. So, I visited the now-closed Obrycki’s in Fells and naively ordered a crab cake. It was good, but nothing special (this was obviously before I knew about Faidley’s). When I told my friends that I’d finally tried crabs, they shook their heads. No, not crab cakes.

Oh. I felt a little silly. They meant whole crabs: shell, claws, legs, everything. The kind that required a tiny wooden mallet, a picnic table covered with a large sheet of brown paper and a roll of paper towels.

The next time, I did it right: I ventured to L.P. Steamers, a crab house in Locust Point. My dining companion and I ordered a dozen large crabs steamed and seasoned with Old Bay.

Being from the South, I knew this popular seafood seasoning quite well. My mom always kept a container of Old Bay in her kitchen cabinet, and we’d use it mostly for shrimp boils.

Back at L.P. Steamers, our crabs arrived with their shells coated in that familiar dark red seasoning. I broke apart one of the claws and had my first taste of real Baltimore crab meat: mildly sweet, complemented by the addictively salty, spicy flavor of Old Bay. I found myself creating mounds of Old Bay on the table, and then rolling the crab meat in it. Yes, it was just that good.

I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner, but I recently bought a container of Old Bay, planning to sprinkle it over fried potatoes. Since culinary school, I always like to know the ingredients I’m using, so I did a little research. Interestingly, Old Bay is the result of an unlikely smorgasbord of spices: black pepper, celery seed, mustard seed, paprika, bay leaf, red pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom and ginger.

I took a whiff and immediately picked up on paprika, cloves and cinnamon. Actually, it took several “whiffs” to come to this conclusion, after which I began to feel a bit lightheaded. I remembered my mom’s shrimp boil and L.P. Steamer’s crabs and smiled.

Here’s a little history: German immigrant Gustav Brunn first developed Old Bay in Baltimore in the late 1930s. Originally, the seasoning mix was named “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning.” As you might guess, the name did not fare so well with the public.

photo (11)

Talk about design ingenuity!

In a wise marketing move, the seasoning was renamed “Old Bay” after a steamship that frequented the Chesapeake between Maryland and Virginia. Today, the signature yellow, red and blue Old Bay container has an almost iconic presence on the shelves of many Americans. According to Old Bay’s website, nearly 50 million ounces were sold last year.

Although it is mainly advertised as a seasoning for crab, shrimp and chicken, Old Bay’s possibilities are endless. After living in Old Bay “Mecca,” I’ve seen it in just about every application. I’ve sprinkled Old Bay on potatoes, eggs and popcorn. I’ve even used it as a spice rub for steak. Last week, I seasoned mayo with Old Bay and mixed it with canned tuna for lunch. If I’d had the time, I would have made Old Bay Mayo from scratch.

Old Bay’s versatility makes it a great go-to seasoning. I’ve included two recipes below, but don’t be afraid to use your imagination and experiment. This post from The Washington Post’s former food blog might be a good starting point.  Or, if you’re really feeling ambitious, you can be Bobby Flay and make your Old Bay from scratch: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/bobby-flay/old-bay-grilled-steak-fries-recipe/index.html.

The Original Old Bay Shrimp Boil

Adapted from the back of the Old Bay container – the one my mom used to make! 

  • 2 tablespoon Old Bay
  • 1/2 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 lb. shrimp, in shells
  1. In saucepan, combine Old Bay, vinegar and water and bring to a boil.
  2. Add shrimp, stir gently.
  3. Cover and steam until shrimp are tender, about 3-5 minutes.
  4. Drain liquid and enjoy.

Old Bay Mayo (Yield = 1 cup)

My own, adapted from Mark Bittman’s Homemade Mayonnaise

  • 1 yolk
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons Old Bay (You might need more)
  • 1 cup neutral oil, such as canola
  1. Combine the yolk, Dijon, salt, pepper, Old Bay and lemon juice in a food processor.
  2. Turn on the machine and while it is running, add the oil very slowly in a steady stream (adding it too fast will cause the mayo to break).
  3. Watch for the mayo to thicken. If you like thicker mayo, add more oil, but 1 cup should do it.
  4. Taste your mayo, checking for seasoning. If the Old Bay flavor isn’t strong enough, add another teaspoon and pulse to combine. Keep adding Old Bay in teaspoon increments until desired flavor is reached.
  5. Enjoy as a dipping sauce, spread on sandwiches, in a salad or however you prefer.

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IMG_4006One million people packed together like sardines on the National Mall yesterday to witness the start of Obama’s second term in office. I was lucky enough to be one of those sardines.

It was a bit unnerving at first. I could neither move left nor right. Pressed up against the back of some random guy’s puffy jacket gave me an entirely new outlook on the concept of, “personal space.”

However, despite feelings of claustrophobia, I was there, experiencing history. Hearing Obama give his Inaugural address with the Capitol building in sight was stunning. The diverse crowd around me was reverent and silent, everyone focused on the words that Obama spoke. Afterwards, we raised our flags high and cheered.IMG_4001

It’s unifying moments such as this that make me appreciate being an American. Where else in the world could this kind of peaceful, “quadrennial renewal of democracy” happen? (This article from the Washington Post takes a closer look at my point).

The only part of the day I wished I could have experienced was the Inauguration Luncheon, which took place after the ceremony. I posted the menu in a previous post, but here it is again:

First Course: Steamed lobster with New England clam chowder sauce, served on sauteed spinach with sweet potato hay.

Second Course: Hickory grilled bison with wild huckleberry reduction, strawberry preserve and red cabbage, red potato horseradish cake, baby golden beets and green beans and butternut squash purée.

Third Course: Hudson Valley apple pie with sour cream ice cream and maple caramel sauce. Aged cheeses and honey.

Design Cuisine, the catering company behind the meal, created the menu using ingredients that reflect America’s agricultural history. According to an article from Today.com, South Dakota farmed the bison, Maine caught the lobster and Virginia provided all of the vegetables. I wished I could have been there to taste every dish that was served (although I heard Obama spent more time talking to guests than eating!).

Inspired by the day’s events, I decided to create my own Inauguration-inspired menu:

Bison burger with cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms

Luckily, I had bison burgers in my freezer (a little more in my price range than steaks!). As for the toppings, I’m not sure how “American” cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms are, but they sure do taste good.

Oven-roasted sweet potatoes

The sweet potato “hay” on this year’s menu caught my eye. Native Americans relied on the sweet potato as a staple crop, making it an important part of our country’s agricultural past. I sliced sweet potatoes thinly and tossed them with olive oil, salt and pepper. I laid the sweet potatoes flat on a sheet tray and roasted them at 400 degrees until cooked through. The higher temperature helps them crisp and get a little color, too.

Green beans, toasted almonds, chopped tomatoes

Using what I had in my apartment, I created my own version of the green bean dish on this year’s menu. I blanched the beans first and then sautéed them with chopped tomatoes to add some acid and toasted almonds to add texture. 

And, there you go – a simple, but delicious meal to conclude a memorable day. The only thing missing? A pint of Obama’s White House Honey Ale.

Sources:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/attending-an-inaugural-is-part-of-being-an-american/2013/01/21/0becfd9c-6411-11e2-85f5-a8a9228e55e7_story.html

http://bites.today.com/_news/2013/01/19/16588932-not-invited-to-the-inaugural-luncheon-weve-got-the-menu?lite

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