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Chef once told me, “If you ever work at an office, you aren’t going to have any problems being efficient and organized – because that’s the most important part of being a line cook. It’s so ingrained into your head here, you never forget it.”

Last Thursday, I packed my knife bag and took off my chef’s coat for the last time. Yes, I’m officially finished with my longer-than-expected (but totally worth it) stint as a line cook. On August 1st, I will be starting a one-year fellowship with the editorial team at Oxmoor House, the book publishing division of Southern Progress. Specifically, I will be helping to write and edit cookbooks from Southern Living, Cooking Light, Weight Watchers and more. I couldn’t be more excited for this new adventure (and I hope Chef’s words will prove to be true!).

For the past year and three months, I have worked as a line cook at Cashion’s Eat Place. During this time, my guiding philosophy was mis en place, or “everything in its place.” This is where Chef’s words about organization and efficiency come into play – you must not only make sure you have enough of every ingredient, you must place it in a location where it’s easy to grab or use during service.

I’ve also learned that mistakes are okay, as long as you don’t make them again. Once, I spilled about five quarts of a sauce that takes several hours to prepare. And yes, it was right in front of chef, about thirty minutes before a busy dinner service. Needless to say, I have not spilled anything since that.

Yes, working in a kitchen is a dirty job that is not all glamorous. Despite this, it can be extremely rewarding. I will miss working the grill on a busy, Saturday night. Oddly, it’s kind of fun to cook five steaks, four skin-on fish filets and three burgers all at once, kind of like an intense aerobic workout, actually.

I will also miss hanging out with the cooks after service – we’d take shots of whiskey, play pool, drink beer, sometimes venture to this crazy Latino karaoke place and have pupusa, a kind of corn flatbread filled with cheese or beans.

In many ways, it’s bittersweet, but it’s time to move forward with my food writing career. Who knows, though, maybe I’ll find myself back in the restaurant kitchen later on.

So, as you have probably gathered, I will not be writing much about the D.C. food scene once I am in Birmingham. When I get settled, I would love to pursue freelancing in Birmingham – I have heard the city has a great food scene.

Thank you to everyone who has read my D.C. blog over the past two years. I’m going to miss living in this incredible city, but it’s time for a new adventure!

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pat

Pat’s, a South Philly landmark.

When I was in college, my boyfriend Paul’s fraternity embarked on an epic quest to Philly each year. Around 10 p.m. on a Saturday, they’d pile into three or four cars and race up I-95 (I don’t even want to know how fast). Their destination? Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philly. The treasure? A cheesesteak “wit” onions and Whiz (Cheez-Whiz).

When you order at Pat’s, you say “wit” to mean “with” and “wit-out” to mean “without.” Onions are fine, but  Cheez-Whiz? Honestly? Thankfully they also have Provolone (although some will argue it’s not a cheesesteak without the Whiz).

Philly meets Las Vegas.

Philly meets Las Vegas.

Travel to the intersection of 9th and Passyunk at around midnight on any given  Saturday night and you will find a lively, if not peculiar scene. Across the street from modest Pat’s is flashier competitor Geno’s Steaks. The wild lights display, reminiscent of something you might see in Las Vegas, feels out of place in the middle-class South Philly neighborhood.

I first visited Pat’s with my mom several years ago. I ordered a Provolone cheesesteak “wit-out.” The shaved ribeye, soft hoagie roll and slightly melted cheese on top was divine at the time, so I devoured the entire monster. Paul, my boyfriend, had asked if I could bring back a cheesesteak for him in Baltimore. I can’t imagine anything is good after sitting in a car covered in Cheez-Whiz for several hours, but I’ve never seen him happier after eating his steak.

My first Philly cheesesteak.

My first Philly cheesesteak.

Last year, Paul and I visited Pat’s late one Saturday night on our way home from a track meet in rural Pennsylvania. We drove 30 miles out of the way just to make a stop at Pat’s. We ate them inside my car because Pat’s only offers outdoor seating (In 30 degree January weather, that’s just not fun). For the rest of the drive back, the odd scent of Cheez-Whiz from Paul’s cheesesteak permeated my car.

He's in heaven.

He’s in heaven.

Most recently, I joined Paul on a road trip up to New Jersey for his summer job. I looked at a map beforehand  and realized we would be passing Philly – obviously, this warranted a stop at Pat’s. Upon later inspection, I realized that Philly was a little out of the way, but of course I waited until afterwards to tell Paul this. Needless to say, he admitted it was probably the best detour he’d ever taken.

Don't take my photo while I'm chewing!

Don’t take my photo while I’m chewing!

Pat’s opened about 30 years before Geno’s, but equally long lines of out-of-towners and locals form outside both destinations. It’s a question often asked: “Who has the better cheesesteak? Pat’s or Geno’s?”

Ask Philadelphians this question and they will probably direct you elsewhere in the city, such as John’s Roast Pork or Phillip’s Steaks. Yes, Pat’s and Geno’s can be touristy, but they are classic Philly landmarks. And if you live in D.C. like I do, you should visit them at least once.

Sometimes, it’s more about what the place means to you personally. For Paul, visiting Pat’s reminds him of good times with his fraternity in college. For me, I think of the fun trip my mom and I took to the city years ago. For these reasons, we’ll keep going to Pat’s. And, if we’re feeling extra adventurous, we might even try a cheesesteak at Geno’s.

Photos: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat’s_King_of_Steaks, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geno’s_Steaks

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The grill. I’d feared it since I started as an extern at the restaurant where I currently work. The endless assault of steaks, burgers and other proteins struck every Friday and Saturday. I’d watched cooks fly finished plates off this station and I’d also watched cooks drown in the flood of orders. After working the salad station and the saute station (where I only cooked fish) for months, it was only a matter of time before I’d find myself here.

Not the average backyard grill.

Not the average backyard grill.

About a month ago, it finally happened. I worried about my lack of previous experience. I remember one of the cooks (it might have even been the sous chef) telling me: “If you can cook fish, you can cook anything.” I’m not so sure this is entirely true.

My father was territorial of our grill when I was younger (must be a man thing), so I’d always stayed away. We had touched on grilling briefly in culinary school, too, but we mostly stuck to sautéing, braising and baking. Oh well. I had to dive in at some point.

Once I figured out how the heat was distributed across the grill, everything became easier. No, not all grills are created equal, and it’s important to understand this before you slap a piece of meat onto it. The hottest part of the grill is a perfect spot for quickly getting a dark, heavy sear on meat. The sear from the hot bars adds another depth of flavor and is one of the most important aspects of grilling. Sure, I burned off quite a bit of arm hair figuring this out, but at least my steaks looked nice.

Surprisingly, I found working with a set of piping hot grill bars much preferable to using saute pans on the stove. Some dishes I’d made in the past on the saute station required three or more pans, which could quickly became a nightmare during a busy dinner service. With a limited amount of burners, I’d often run out of space for my pans. Forced to wait until a burner freed up felt like a death sentence at the time – anything that slows you down in the kitchen during a busy service is never, never good.

Working the grill simplified everything. No pans, just bars and flames.

After a solid month of working this station on busy nights, I’ve grilled a number of different meats and vegetables. Last week, it was brocoli rabe. This past week, it’s been grilled asparagus. Char from the grill brings life to the earthy, mild flavor of the asparagus.

The ideal season for asparagus is anytime from February to June, with April being the peak. For seasonality’s sake, this recipe is definitely appropriate. Spring Valley Farm and Orchard, one of my favorite vendors at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market, recently featured some attractive-looking asparagus at their tent.

Read on for a recipe that is simple but loaded with flavor:

Grilled Asparagus

  • 1 bunch medium-thickness asparagus
  • 1 whole lemon, sliced into wedges
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Optional garnishes: breadcrumbs, shaved Parmesan, Maldon sea salt
  1. Preheat grill, according to instructions (Like I said, not all grills are created equal!). Your grill should be very hot before you cook the asparagus.
  2. Snap off tough part of asparagus stems at the bottom. It should break off naturally with little effort.
  3. When grill is ready, brush olive oil over asparagus and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Place asparagus on a hot part of your grill. Use a set of tongs to roll the asparagus over once one side has a good amount of char, but not too much.
  5. Once both sides are nicely charred, move the asparagus to a less hot part of the grill to let them finish cooking.
  6. When cooked, the asparagus should be tender, but still have some crunch (Limp, wilted asparagus are overcooked).
  7. Let the asparagus cool and garnish with breadcrumbs, thinly shaved Parmesan or Maldon if preferred. Serve with a lemon wedge and enjoy! They’re delicious warm or at room temperature.

Image: http://globalequipment.us.com/restaurant-grill-equipment.shtml

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Consider this scenario: You are in Parkville, Maryland, somewhere on East Joppa Road near the interchange of Loch Raven Road and I-695. You’re only 25 minutes north of Baltimore, but it seems farther. In front of you is an expansive asphalt desert, strewn with dotted lines and speeding cars. The area is industrial, with mostly furniture stores and car dealerships.

You are stuck here for three hours without a car. What on Earth are you going to do?

Don’t worry, there is a story behind all of this randomness. Last week, Paul needed car repairs at a Pep Boys in Parkville and we had to wait four hours until they finished. We made the best of a potentially irritating situation and explored the area. The verdict? There’s not much to look at around here, but you will find some killer good deals and prices. Would I ever come back here? Most likely no. 

So, without further ado, here are my highlights of East Joppa Road in Parkville, Maryland. If you ever find yourself in this area, you’ll be glad you read this.

Bel-Loc Diner64311_4909431538936_1405366172_n

First opened in 1964, this blast-from-the-past diner is a rare find. Is it good? Well, no, not really. But for the authentic, diner experience, it’s worth a trip if you’re nearby. We ordered a Western Omelet, which was gigantic, and a two eggs any-style dish with bacon and breakfast potatoes. Our server was warm and friendly, and encouraged us to stay as long as we wanted while we sipped our coffee.

Goodwill

You know what Goodwills are: a smorgasbord of random items at bargain prices. This is definitely one of the better ones I’ve visited. Similar to Bel-Loc, I felt like I’d stepped back 15 years in time. We found Disney VHS tapes, old records, books and retro gaming consoles. Paul found a cheap DVD he could resell on Amazon for a higher price and I picked up a milk frother for $10. (Now I can make lattes at home!) I looked up the actual retail price, and it was somewhere around $50. On Tuesdays, there is a 10% student discount. Oh, the things you do when you’re bored.

Baynesville Electronics (Warning: this website causes extreme motion sickness!)

I encountered all sorts of complicated-looking computer parts, but I also found odd items such as do-it-yourself potato clock. I wasn’t really sure what was going on here. It was mildly entertaining for about three minutes, and then I really, really wanted to leave. At least Paul, the computer genius, understood what was here. If you are in of need computer parts, then this is your spot.

Lakeshore Learning Store

We had high hopes for this store. We imagined challenging games that required serious brain power. What we found instead was a children’s store with items like Play-Doh and multiplication flashcards. In fact, the entire store kind of smelled like Play-Doh. If you’re a teacher or a small child, then you’ll probably love this place. We spent 30 seconds here and bolted towards the crisp,  fresh air.

Dollar Tree

Once I saw how cheap everything was, I decided to knock out some grocery shopping. I bought three packs of Dentine Ice gum, a big-pack of fun size M&M’s, a pack of Rubbermaid tupperware containers, Palmolive soap, all for $1 each. You can’t even get these deals at Target! Obviously, there were some obscure brands that I might be skeptical to purchase, but overall there was a great selection of everyday stuff.

Beltway Fine Wine and Spirits 

This is definitely one of the best bang for your buck beer, wine and liquor stores in the area. When I went to Hopkins, we used to drive all the way out here to stock up before parties.

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IMG_4260

It’s just that good.

I’m not kidding. This is probably the best chocolate milk I’ve ever had. As a longtime Horizon Organic chocolate milk drinker, I was at first hesitant to put this in my shopping cart at the P Street Whole Foods last week.

A rich chocolate flavor with a smooth, velvety finish make this milk shine. It’s a perfect match for chocolate chip cookies and just about anything, honestly.

Trickling Springs Creamery, located in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, buys their milk from small, local farmers who raise their cows with humane methods. This doesn’t necessarily mean organic, but the cows are pasture raised and grass fed. The creamery also uses a process called HTST (High Temperature Short Time) Pasteurization, which requires heating the milk to at least 160 F for at least 15 seconds to kill harmful bacteria. Typically, most of the milk you see on grocery store shelves is pasteurized using the UHT (Ultra High Temperature) method, with temperatures over 275 F. Trickling Spring’s low temperature pasteurization technique retains some of the milk’s original flavor and nutrients.

Fascinating stuff, no?

Use this map to find Trickling Spring’s products near you. There’s a stand at Union Market that’s definitely worth a visit.

Source:

Maurice Shils, Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, GoogleBooks, http://books.google.com/books?id=S5oCjZZZ1ggC&pg=PA1782&dq=htst+vs+uht&hl=en&sa=X&ei=s0JTUdf0J4_F4APNroDIBw&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=htst%20vs%20uht&f=false

http://www.tricklingspringscreamery.com/

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In my last post, I set a high goal for myself: Can I top The New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe?

Here is the final list of ingredients I created:

  • 1 ⅓ – 1 ½ cups AP flour
  • ½ t. baking soda
  • ¾ t. baking powder
  • 1 stick butter, softened and cut into small pieces
  • 1 ¼ cups brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 10 oz. chocolate chips – I used half a bag of Ghiradelli, 60% cacao and half  a bag of semi-sweet
  •  Sea salt (optional)

I started with the Times’ recipe and modified it using with another recipe that mimics The City Bakery’s cookie. I made a few more tweaks, including using only AP flour and brown sugar. After doing a little research, I found out some useful information on chocolate chip cookie ingredients. Using mostly granulated sugar results in a thin, extremely crispy cookie. Using mostly brown sugar will make the cookie moist and chewy (That’s what I wanted!).

Although using cake flour and bread flour in the dough can result in a softer, more delicate texture of the cookie, there’s nothing wrong with AP flour. It’s called all-purpose for a reason, isn’t it? Not only that, it’s also more likely to be in your kitchen cabinet.

So, with my limited baking chemistry knowledge, the above recipe is my best effort. Here are the directions:

  1. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl and set aside.
  2. Cream butter and sugar with a stand or hand mixer until smooth and no more lumps are present.
  3. Add the egg and the vanilla and beat until combined (don’t overbeat).
  4. Add the flour mixture a little at a time and beat until fully incorporated.IMG_4266
  5. Roughly chop the chocolate chips (see above) and add them to the dough, using a wooden spoon.
  6. Chill dough for at least one hour. 
  7. When ready to bake, set oven to 375 degrees. Using an ice cream scooper, place cookie dough on a sheet tray lined with parchment.
  8. If you have sea salt on hand (I didn’t at the time), sprinkle a small amount over each cookie.
  9. Bake for 10-15 minutes. The time will vary, but the cookies are done when they are golden brown around the edges.
  10. Remove the cookies from the parchment onto a cooling rack. I like to eat them right away, but ideally you should wait at least five minutes for them to set and crisp.
  11. Eat, preferably with a glass of milk nearby.

Let’s go back to step six. Here’s where things become interesting. I wanted to find out if chilling the dough longer makes a noticeable difference on the outcome of the cookie. I rested the dough for one hour, 12 hours, 24 hours and 36 hours and then compare my results. Here’s what happened:

1 Hour:

ChocolateCHipCOokies#1

I was pleasant surprised by the cookies after chilling for one hour. I expected them to be completely flat, but they actually rose a little in the oven. The cookies browned beautifully, too. Texture wise, the cookies were extremely chewy but not very crisp. The combination of 60% cacao and semi-sweet chocolate was also a winner.

12 Hours:

ChocolateChipcookies#2

This batch was a bit odd. They had the crispness that the first batch lacked, but they did not rise as much as I expected. I might have left them in the oven for too long, actually, but I’m not really sure what was going on here. Oh well, they were still delicious.

24 Hours:

Chocolatechipcookies#3This is what I’m talking about! This batch was thicker  and its flavors were bolder and richer than previous ones. I think I also nailed the baking time. I pulled them out of the oven when the center was still a little undercooked, but the outsides were browned and crisp. As the cookie cooled, the center solidified better. Overall, this batch was a huge success.

36 Hours:

chocolatechipcookie#4

Damn it! I over baked this batch, but just by a little. How do I keep doing this!? Well, anyway, I didn’t notice a huge difference between this batch and the 24-hour batch.

The conclusion? 

Chill your dough! If you’re in a rush or an impatient cookie eater like I am, one hour is the bare minimum. For the optimum texture, color and rise on your cookies, chill them for at least 24 hours.

So, how does my recipe stack up? While I was extremely pleased with these cookies, I think they could have been even better. There are several things I’d like to try, including putting granulated sugar back into the recipe. It’s definitely a good recipe and in my opinion, just as good as The New York Times’.

One last thing – make sure you don’t continuously over bake your cookies like I did. I blame it on my culinary training. I was taught to take something out of the oven “when it’s done.” That is definitely NOT a good mantra for baking!

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The Feb./Mar. issue of RunWashington.

I don’t mention it too often on this blog, but in addition to writing about food and cooking, I’m a competitive runner. I’m currently training for mile/5k/10k races in the D.C. area. I ran Division III cross country and track at Johns Hopkins, and after I graduated, I just couldn’t stop running.

This month, I’m featured in  RunWashington, a magazine chronicling D.C.’s running scene. Mollie Zapata wrote a great article called, “Cookin’: On the Track and in the Kitchen,” profiling how I balance working as a cook and staying in racing shape. Included in the article is my recipe for Sweet Potato, Carrot and Leek Soup, which you might remember from a post I wrote several months ago.

Pick up a copy of the magazine at local running stores such as Pacers or Georgetown Running Company. I did my best to scan the article below –  I apologize for the poor quality (I blame it on my scanner!). Enjoy!

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