Posted at 12:22 PM ET, 09/21/2006

Rosh Hashanah Sweets and Savories

Tomorrow at sundown marks the beginning of year 5767 in the Jewish calendar and the beginning of the High Holidays (Yom Kippur follows 10 days later on Oct. 1). As is the case with several other Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah is rich with food symbolism.

Challah, the egg-based dough that's typically braided for weekly Sabbath dinners, "is coiled into rounds of a higher symbolic order" for the auspicious occasion, explains Post Food section's Bonnie Benwick.

Apples and honey also play a central role, representing hopes for a sweet and joyous year ahead. Variations on the theme include an apple cake with honey sauce, a cozy apple coffee cake or, if you're in need of something gluten free, an apple cake made with almond meal, a Passover classic equally good at this time of year.

In his cookbook "Olive Trees and Honey," Gil Marks includes several savory ideas using winter squash, which has made its debut at local markets. He's thinking pumpkin soup, accented with aromatic warmers such as ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. I like his idea of adding chickpeas for heft.

Marks extends the pumpkin theme to include turnovers, which have me excited to revisit one of fall's new crops.

The filling (called Gomo de Calabaza) goes something like this:
2 pounds winter squash (about 4 cups), peeled, seeded and diced gets steamed, drained and then mashed. To that, add 1 cup crumbled feta, ½ cup parmigiano, 1 beaten egg and ½ teaspoon salt.

For the turnovers, Marks offers a simple recipe for "Sephardic Oil Pastry Dough," which includes the following:

½ cup lukewarm water, ½ cup vegetable oil and 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, which go into a mixing bowl.

Add 1 cup of all-pourpose flour, then gradually add another 1 ½ cups of flour until a soft dough ball forms.

Wrap in plastic and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.

When ready to bake, form dough into 1 ½ inch balls and flatten into 4-inch round. Spoon 1 tablespoon of pumpkin filling in the center of each round and fold in half, in half-moon shape. Seal edge with the tines of a fork.

Bake at 375 degrees on a parchment-lined baking sheet, for about 20 minutes, until golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Do you have a tried-and-true Rosh Hashanah favorite to share? Please add to the mix in the comments area below.

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Posted at 12:05 PM ET, 09/20/2006

A Smokin' Baba Ghanouj

In her cookbook, "A Well-Seasoned Appetite," food writer Molly O'Neill poignantly describes this time of year as "summer's last stand." In her introductory notes to a chapter entitled "Almost Autumn," O'Neill writes: "Summer's end seems to ask for deep, huskier flavors, the kinds born of roasting, simmering and baking. Romancing summer and reveling in the new gives way to a relationship. It's time to tend."

eggplant"
Chinese eggplant is great on the grill. (Kim O'Donnel)

In my own kitchen, I see this shift, looking at the new (apples and pears) but also finding ways to bridge the romance of summer with the "impulse to insulate against cooler winds."

This week, as I pay my respects to summer's end, I am giving eggplant one last dance. And like O'Neill, I look for more intense flavors that stand up to earlier sunsets and transitional breezes.

For these reasons, I turn to the smoky notes of baba ghanouj, an eggplant puree of Middle Eastern origins. Roasted for about an hour, the flesh practically melts and feels like a hushed whisper on the tongue.

A few tablespoons of tahini paste, made from ground sesame seeds, brings a layer of nutty richness to the mix. The juice of a lemon brings the puree out of a lazy languor, with tart brightness that keeps the equation balanced.

At this time of year, eggplants of all shapes and sizes emerge for their last hurrah. Although all are worth exploration, the most baba ghanouj-friendly are of the larger, dark purple varieties - either "globe" or "Italian" - which have a higher flesh-skin ratio.

Share your favorite way to savor the last bit of eggplant (or baba ghanouj variation) in the comments area below.

Baba Ghanouj
Adapted from "Lebanese Cuisine" by Madelain Farah

Ingredients:
1 large eggplant (Western, "globe" variety or Italian works here)
Olive oil to taste
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
3-4 tablespoons tahini paste
1/4cup water
1/4-1/2 cup lemon juice, to taste
optional garnish: chopped parsley, pomegranate seeds

Method:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Slice eggplant in half, lengthwise, and place on a baking sheet. Roast until flesh is extremely tender and thoroughly cooked, about 1 hour. Brush olive oil on top of eggplant halves if flesh appears to drying out. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Drain off any resulting liquid.

With a teaspoon, scoop out flesh and place into the bowl of a food processor. Add garlic and salt, and puree gradually, using pulse setting. Add tahini and pulse. Finally add water and lemon juice, and pulse-puree. Taste for salt and tartness, and adjust accordingly.

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Posted at 1:27 PM ET, 09/19/2006

Solving the Spinach Scare

In the midst of the media frenzy over E. coli-contaminated spinach, there's a fact that few people are talking about: the supermarket isn't the only place to get the stuff.

It's hard to believe, given that our constantly replenished supermarket shelves are constantly replenished with pre-washed and pristine greens, as if packaged by elves. With gift-wrapped spinach always for the taking, who would want to bother looking anywhere else for salad fixins?

But sustainable agriculture advocates beg to differ.

"If there ever was a reason to shop local, this is it," says Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, a home gardener and food blogger from Syracuse, N.Y. The latest contamination scare makes it "more critical than ever to eat closer to the source," adds Baskerville-Burrows. "If we patronize smaller, local farms and something goes wrong, we can trace it back directly to the producer."

What's more, the coverage of the E. coli scare has been a bit like watching a new CSI spinoff where the good guys of "CSI: Food Safety" are tracking the source of the contamination and tackling the bad guys.

Of course, in all seriousnness, the FDA wants to solve the mystery and get to the source of the E.coli contamination, as it's become a public health situation involving 21 states. Its diligence, however, is being met with the enormous, complicated web that is American industrial agriculture. To wit, 31 brands of bagged spinach, all packaged under the corporate umbrella of Natural Selection Foods, the non-organic operation of Earthbound Farms, of San Juan Bautista, Calif., (and the largest organic grower in the country), have been recalled. Still with me?

In spite of the scare, there's perfectly good spinach to be had -- and it's not canned, frozen or pirated. You just have to wait for the high sign from Mother Nature.

...continue >>

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Posted at 12:08 PM ET, 09/18/2006

Chile Pepper Parade

There's a changing of the guard at Season's gate later this week, with autumn officially kicking off the evening of Friday, Sept. 23.

Like it or not, it's the home stretch of summer, the last opportunity to savor warm-weather crops that soon will be a winterized memory. Get'em while they last -- tomatoes, eggplant, corn, melon, peaches and peppers. Throughout this week, I'll pay tribute to a few summer produce hangers-on; today is all about chile peppers. Below, a chile sampler found at a few area farm markets over the weekend:

...continue >>

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Posted at 11:56 AM ET, 09/15/2006

Foodway to Our Hearts

It's a known fact that on a practical level, food is fuel for the body. It keeps the human engine and all of its interconnected parts running. However, if physiological maintenance and growth were the only roles food had to play, what would happen to our long lists of food preferences?


shrimp

Chile shrimp and rice. (Kim O'Donnel)

The emotional pull of food is complicated, personal and undeniable. When we humans come in contact with food, the switches to our five physical senses are activated, which sets the stage for an experience of emotion. These experiences are duly noted in the memory bank, and more often than not we share them with others.
I know this may seem elementary, but think about it. Everything you eat today likely rings some kind of emotional bell for you. Even more interesting to this cook is the noise of one's emotional food bells clanging with that of another.

I'd argue that we relate to each other -- as friends, lovers, spouses, family, strangers -- more through food than we realize, and because food serves this vital role to staying alive, our relationships with food and with each other are ultimately intertwined.

To wit, below are a few quotes that speak to food and its power on our emotions and our relationships with others:

"There is one thing more exasperating than a wife who can cook and won't, and that's the wife who can't cook and will." -- Robert Frost

"S is for Sad...and for the mysterious appetite that often surges in us when our hearts seem about to break and our lives seem too bleakly empty...The truth is that most bereaved souls crave nourishment more tangible than prayers: they want a steak. What is more, they need a steak." - from "An Alphabet for Gourmets" by M.F.K. Fisher

"Cake holds a family together. I really believed it did. My father was a different man when there was cake in the house. Warm. The sort of man I wanted to hug rather than shy away from." -- from "Toast" by Nigel Slater.

Everyone has one of these quips or food-relationship stories. Just last night, I was having one of my own. It was an ordinary day, meaning nothing particularly eventful or emotionally sparked. But it was rainy and dreary, and I knew the mood at home, by day's end, would probably need a lift.

I asked my sweetheart if he'd like Chile Shrimp (link includes recipe details) for dinner, a recipe I discovered nearly a year ago that makes him do a jig. The response was not "yes, please, " but "MMMMMMMM." Message received.

Hardly fancy or complicated, this southeast Asian-tinged dish is hearty, spicy and comforting over a bowl of rice. There was no salad or side veg, but an elaborate three-course meal was beside the point.

And then at some point, as we're lapping up the last of the sauce, the food is no longer pretty objects in a bowl. It's a metaphor. It's an experience. The tangible physicality has melded into experiential dust.

What remained, however, was a smile, wide at both ends, and two dancing feet, as he washed the dishes in thanks.

What's the food of your emotional triggers and relationships? Share in the comments area below.

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Posted at 12:48 PM ET, 09/14/2006

Trader Joe's Comes to Washington

Trader Joe's, the off-beat , California-based grocery chain that's been spreading like wildfire on this side of the country, has come to DC. Not on the perimeters, but right smack in the middle of town, at the corner of 25th and L Streets NW. The residents of West End and Foggy Bottom must be dancing in the aisles, as the only other walking-distance supermarket option for years has been the Safeway in the tucked away complex of the Watergate (at 25th Street and Virginia Avenue NW).

Doors opened on Sept. 1, in the ground floor of The Columbia Residences of Washington, D.C., the swanky yet-to-opened condos, in the space formerly occupied by Columbia Hospital for Women.

I arrived on Day 5, around 6 p.m. The place was crawling with urban dwellers, just out of work, foraging the shelves, which seemed to deplete by the minute. Without a shopping list, I felt free to roam and observe this new store in action.

In addition to its popular private label of food (wine, jam, milk, to name just a few ), TJ is known for its extensive array of frozen food, and this store proved no exception. Customers were practically lined up, shuffling patiently in single file along the frozen food aisle, exploring the offerings of flash-frozen fish by the piece, organic veggies and Chinese dumplings. (I was looking for their frozen naan, but alas, came up short.)

Next time, when the line isn't 20-deep, I'll pick up a bag of the TJ brand of Pappadums (tandoori masala flavor), the ice-cube-esque packages of frozen basil, cilantro and parsley and the lavender-scented laundry softeners that look like giant tea bags.

If you live in Washington, have you been to the new Trader Joe's? If so, what was your experience? Or maybe you've got a TJ favorite to share. Do so in the comments area below.

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Posted at 11:21 AM ET, 09/14/2006

Nutritional 411 on Lulu's Cookies

The flurry of comments this week over Lulu's cookies has been fun to watch, and I'm delighted by all the reader enthusiasm. Since many of you expressed further interest in the nutritional value of the cookies, I asked Post Food section assistant editor Bonnie Benwick for an expert hand.

With the whizbang help of Nutritionist Pro, the software used by the Food section for all of its published recipes, Benwick input the specs for Lulu's cookies.

Below, the nutritional low-down, per cookie, approximating a heaping teaspoon before going into the oven:

125 calories
2 grams protein
1 gram dietary fiber
14 grams carbohydrates
7 grams total fat; 1 gram saturated fat
33 milligrams sodium
0 grams cholesterol

Not exactly a low-cal item, but on the plus side, it's cholesterol free, low in saturated fat and considering its size, comes with a decent dose of fiber, which makes you feel full.

And remember, everything in moderation -- even when it feels and tastes this nutri-virtuous.

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Posted at 12:22 PM ET, 09/13/2006

Do Your Wash Your Rice?

Soft Diet Salves and Assorted Kitchen Notes

Despite my speedy typing, there's never enough time to answer all of the questions submitted in my weekly chat. Here's one left in the queue that needs immediate assistance.

Washington, DC writes: I am on a "soft diet" after having oral surgery, and I am going to scream if I have to eat another bowl of soup, plate of mashed potatoes, or smoothie/milkshake. Any recipes/suggestions?

Screaming is probably not a good idea after oral surgery, so let's nip that idea in the bud pronto. There are lots of options for food that goes down the hatch without the use of those recovering choppers.

...continue >>

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Posted at 10:19 AM ET, 09/12/2006

Join the Lunchbox Revolution

Freeze! Yeah, that's right, I'm talking to You, with the Ho Ho hanging out of your mouth. That means you too, Mister cheese doodler.


cookies

Lulu's cookies and coffee. (Kim O'Donnel)

Come on, hand it over. I promise, it won't hurt. Just this once, I want you to trade in some of that processed lunchbox loot for something a little bit different.

In fact, this snack/dessert/breakfast-on-the-run is so scrumptious I am confident you won't want your bag o' doodles back. I've got a secret weapon cookie that will have your friends lining up in the cafeteria begging for seconds. Best of all (don't tell anyone), this cookie is good for your heart.

In addition to the much-touted cholesterol-lowering oats, this little zinger is loaded with sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, which contain cholesterol-lowering, hearty-healthy compounds called phytosterols. Flax seeds, with their highly publicized and sought-after Omega-3 fatty acids, also appear, doubleteaming as a binder for this egg and dairy-free batter.

Imagine that -- a cookie that's good for your heart.

...continue >>

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Posted at 10:29 AM ET, 09/11/2006

Wok-Fried Chicken

With my new wok properly seasoned, I needed an inaugural dish, something to continue the newly christened wok on its patina-ed journey to non-stick bliss.


wok chicken

Fried chicken in the wok. (Kim O'Donnel)

For ideas and some preliminary wok dos and don'ts, I called my friend and wok guru Grace Young, whose "The Breath of a Wok" is a must-have for anyone considering a wok.

DON'T "make a dish with sweet and sour sauce. The acid is going to strip the seasoning off the wok, and that's exactly what you don't want to do." That means no tomatoes, vinegar, wine, citrus of any kind - anything acidic.

Young further explains that "a new pan is dying to drink oil. Deep fry something or cook bacon."

Hmm...I had never thought about using a wok as a deep-fryer, but the idea makes sense. A wok gets really hot very quickly, and that's exactly what you want when making tempura or French fries...or fried chicken (which includes recipe details).

...continue >>

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Posted at 12:04 PM ET, 09/ 8/2006

The School of Curds and Whey

Earlier this summer, Washington got a dose of serious cheese, when California-based Cowgirl Creamery set up shop in Penn Quarter.

wok
The "coursework" at Cowgirl Creamery's cheese class this week. (Kim O'Donnel)


With a few months underfoot, the Cowgirls are expanding their in-store offerings, including sandwiches, wine and cheese-tasting classes.

Last night was the first in a series of Thursday evening classes focused cheese tastings, led by cheesemaker and CG co-founder/owner Sue Conley.

Our small group gathered in a back food prep area, cheerfully set up with all the tasting trimmings -- cheese, bread and wine glasses. Yesterday's focus was the basics of cheesemaking, with an overview on simple, fresh varieties such as fromage blanc, chevre, ricotta and mozzarella, with tasting notes on the milk of four different animals (cow, goat, sheep and water buffalo) and what happens along the way, from farm to cheese board.

Conley steered the conversation towards seasonality of cheese, pointing out that goats, sheep and buffalo don't produce milk during winter, which inevitably affects supply as well as cheese texture.

To that end, CG makes two seasonal cheeses - St. Pat., a dome of soft cow's milk, wrapped in a rind of stinging nettles, available from March 17 (ergo, the name) until late September - and Pierce Point, (released this week), the same cheese, but yielding a very different experience simply by changing the rind. In this case, it's muscato wine and an herb blend that includes chamomile, calendula and fennel.

The third round of cheese included more rinds -- washed (brushed with a brine solution), natural (from a cave) and bloomy (vegetable ash) -- which although designed to protect the cheese, impart unique flavors and depth, like wine.

The oft-asked question of whether or not to eat the rind was addressed, and the verdict is: Try it, you might like it. If not, remove, and don't worry about it. It's a matter of personal taste, according to Conley.

Over the course of 90 minutes, we tasted a total of nine cheeses, including an opportunity to sip two of CG's new wine offerings (I loved how the Liberty School 2004 Syrah danced with the St. Pat and the Mt. Tam). Conley's passion for the subject is infectious, making me hungry for more cheese school.

Fortunately, there are more classes in the works to satisfy my cheesy curiosity. Next week's session features cheesemaker Pablo Solanet from Firefly Farms, of Bittinger, Md., (Thursday, Sept. 14, 4-5:30 p.m. and 6-7:30 p.m., $12), followed by four tastings in October, details of which soon to be posted on the CG Web site, promises Conley.

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