Counter Intelligence

Good Pecans Grow on Very Old Trees

Posted in District of Columbia by melissamccart on December 29, 2006

img_1419.jpgI hadn’t given much thought to pecans aside from when I’ve made sweet potato casserole from The Lee Bros. cookbook and banana pecan pancakes. 

That is, until this past week, while down south, I was led to a zillion pecans littering the ground that surrounded what was once a pecan grove.  The trees, some of them over 100 years old, produced a couple varieties of pecans in very hard shells.  These aren’t the paper thins, that’s for sure.  One day, they’re not a thought in my mind and the next, I’m considering pecan tree terroir and comparing them to grapes and wine. 

In any event, I have about seven or eight pounds and I’m not sure what to do with them.  They’re really quite rich and delicious.  The difference is similar to store bought giant flavorless strawberries versus farm-grown small sweet ones.  If you have any recipe suggestions, I’d love to hear it.  Right now I’m thinking of making candied pecans, but I’m sure there’s something I can use them for that’s more inspired than that.


Absinthe, Sazaracs, a Hay Ride, and Other Guilty Pleasures.

Posted in District of Columbia, General Interest, New York City, Other Places by melissamccart on December 29, 2006

artofthebar_absinthe_800.jpgEven though I’m reluctant to admit it, I loved Toby Cecchini’s Cosmopolitan, since he’s from that bastion of quirkiness, the University of Wisconsin– home of The Onion and Bucky Badger.  More important, he started one of the more fun bars in what used to be a low-key neighborhood– the Passerby.  His book is about his early exploits there, including his “invention” of the Cosmopolitan, a dubious accolade to be sure, though it wasn’t in the early ’90s.  Still, it’s a fun bar read, particularly if you have a schedule like I’ve had, which limits evening bar time and trips back to New York. I guess I’m living vicariously through drink lit rather than actually drinking as of late.

img_1423_edited.jpgAnother bar book that I love is Ear Inn Virons, a little sliver of a compilation on the history of way west Spring Street, the James Brown House, and the bar that has graced 326 Spring Street since around 1817, known affectionately as The Ear.  Allegedly the oldest bar in Manhattan (Take that, McSorley’s!), the building had been in pretty bad shape before the Philip Johnson-designed condos broke ground, which is part of what made it so charming.  Though I haven’t been there in a couple of years, I have a soft spot for the place. 

A new book just arrived in my mail since I’d been gone for the break– The Art of the Bar: Cocktails Inspired by the Classics, written by the bartenders at Absinthe Brasserie and Bar.  Even though I’ve only had time for a quick perusal, I like several things about it– the first chapter’s nod to the spirit of Absinthe, for example, with sections on the Martini, the Sazerac, the Old Fashioned, the Bronx Bomber, bitters, etc.  I also liked that book’s authors showcase what makes bars both illicit and romantic: favorite bartenders, barstools reserved for regulars, and memories of old timey drinks, legal and otherwise. Perhaps its no coincidence that drinks from the Prohibition Era are becoming stylish again, with government paternalism nipping at our heels.

And, about that hay ride?  It’s listed as a cure for the hangover, among “hair of the dog,” “greasy eats,” “sleep,” and “hydration.” 

“This is a favorite cure that came up more often than we expected.  Taking a roll in the sack with your favorite partner is a great way to forget the pains of a hangover.  Maybe it’s the exercise, like going surfing or taking a therapeutic bike ride, but we think it’s something else entirely.”

Happy New Year and have a fun, safe weekend. 

Five on Food: Articles from the Wednesday Dining Pages

Posted in General Interest by melissamccart on December 20, 2006

snow_bucket.jpg1) Cheap Eats:  12 Meals for Under a Grand!  Chicago Tribune.  The Trib finds good grub for under $200 a couple that’s worth a detour in Vegas. 

2) Get Happy– Bambuza’s Happy Hour is Just That: Happy and an Hour Long  Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  A quirky Vietnamese bistro offers super cheap cocktails and beers for one very happy hour.

3) Fresh from Vermont’s Maples, a Taste of Terroir.  New York Times.  C’mon, terroir is the word of the week!  For maple syrups no less?  This is bordering on parody.

4) Fanfare for the City Ham, a Country Cousin.  New York Times.  The Lee Brothers confess to liking regular old baked ham and test out some city versions.

5) When Deciding on a Knife, Look Sharp.  Boston Globe.  “A knife is very, very personal,” says a chef. “You train it as an extension of your arm.”

Bring on the Holiday Break

Posted in District of Columbia by melissamccart on December 20, 2006

Seven students recommendations for college, high school kids climbing the walls for vacation, four articles due in two days (luckily they’re short), an unexpected $500 car servicing bill, last-minute holiday to-do list, and today’s vet diagnosis that Charlie the puppy has severe hip dysplasia.  Time for Mom’s bowtie pasta and a couple of beers.


Onions, garlic, white wine, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, bay leaf, spicy Italian sausage, broth, crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, bowties.  Not complicated, but comforting.

charlie.jpgPoor Gimpy.

The ideal cup of coffee: How does flavor vary between beans?

Posted in Niche by melissamccart on December 15, 2006

favgreekmug.jpgWithin the next couple of weeks I’d guess, The Washington Post Food Section will do a spread on coffee similar to the coffee editions in the LA and New York Times. And while in the past, the subject would have been too esoteric– remember the days of the Greek coffee cup, “It’s our pleasure to serve you”?– I’m sure when it comes out, it will be met with enthusiasm.

Its no surprise that, 25 years after Starbucks went nationwide, customers have been groomed into more discerning drinkers.  How could they not, at $3 to $5 a cup? Whether it’s Starbuck’s, Peet’s, Caribou, or others, specialty coffee shops have encouraged drinkers to focus on flavors, harvests, roasts, and of course, the rising price for a cup of java.

What makes for great coffee? As part of the country’s embrace of  heritage-organic-fair trade movements, coffee that’s been farmed in an ecologically responsible way by local farmers on small farms is more sought after than ever. 

They’re sourcing their own beans at “origin,” finding local growers (in some cases, they are the local growers), making estate blends, often championing sustainable farming methods and roasting in small batches that highlight the intrinsic flavors — the “terroir” of the coffee beans — instead of over-roasting them into charcoal oblivion. (LA Times).

Coffee connoisseurs have been seeking out coffee from specific regions as well.  In the Times, the head of Taylor Maid Farms Organic coffee, one of the first Fair Trade sellers, “‘We are ready for consumers who come into the store and order single-origin coffees from a particular region of Panama,’ said Mark Inman, 37, a founder and principal of the Taylor Maid Farms organic coffee roastery in Sebastopol, Calif. ”

As of late, the origin and harvesting of the beans has been more of a focus than methods of roasting.  Nick Cho of Murky Coffee, emphasizes the beans over the roasts, as reported in the New York Times, “Mr. Cho of Murky Coffee says roasting would distract him from the retail end of things.”

But really, what’s the difference in terms of taste?  Sure, milk versus cream, freshness of the brew, and other factors make a difference in terms of flavor. But if we’re talking about black coffee after its brewed, how do the farming methods and the terroir affect the flavor?  And, to what degree does roast affect flavor?  In each of these articles, these are the words I found on flavor:

1) In LA Times’ “Artisans of the Roast”:   sweetness and a long finish, nice fruitiness and blueberry tones.

2) In LA Times’ “A Passion for Quality Gathered Steam”: less bitter, concentrated flavor, thin, mild, milky.

3) In NY Times’ “For the Refined Palate, Too Refined for a Certain Large Chain”: lemon, flowers, sweet herbs and ”perhaps a cedar toned semisweet chocolate.”

4) In NY Times’ “Espresso’s New Wave Hits Home”:  ruddy, jasmine, flowers, dense, think and heavy. . mouth-feel, weak.

Hello?  If we’re going to sink a ton of money into these single-origin, fair-trade artisanal coffees, can we come up with more lively descriptions that show the variations between beans and roasts? God knows there are hundreds of ways to describe the differentiated flavor of Pinot Noir, or Burgundy, or Reisling.  If coffee is going in that direction, shouldn’t the vocabulary evolve as well?  Perhaps we can consult a flavor wheel to help in differentiating between beans.

Or is all this making too much of a humble cup o’joe?

Restaurant Envy

Posted in General Interest, South by melissamccart on December 13, 2006

dsc01597.jpgI’ve been having restaurant envy for about a year and I haven’t decided what to do about it.  I’m not romanticizing it; I waited tables for a byob trattoria for years and at other places in grad school in the late ’90s. I realize it’s tough work.  At the time, I was just doing it to earn money at to learn a little something, rather than waiting tables as a springboard for something else in the business.

Now, I’d love to go back to learn more and to satiate this craving for a kitchen, the buzz of the night’s rush, late hours (as opposed to my 5:30am wakeup call), people watching, and learning about food and wine every day.  As much as I enjoy home cooking, reading and interviewing people about food and restaurants, I sometimes feel the equivalent of attempting to learn to ski from reading books and by watching people do it on tv.  I need more experience. 

Aside from eating out, reading blogs like Charleston’s McCrady’s from the people behind the scenes definitely fuels my restaurant envy.  Though there are some entries I’m not crazy about — the reconstructed butternut squash and the lack of romance that is the sous vide machine–I love so many of the photos— the barrels of liquor, truffles, bacon delivery, kobe beef (first shipment of the real thing?), big fish, and of course, drumstick girl.

I have a soft spot for McCrady’s since it reminds me of sitting at the bar for a drink with my parents in high school when we’d go down to visit.  Once, when I was there with an acquaintence, we were making our way through the narrow brick alley walk and were stopped behind a wedding reception receiving line.  Someone grabbed us, shoved rice in our hands, and swept us up for the rest of the night. Considering that we were underdressed and didn’t know anyone, we had a great time partying with a bunch of people who literally pulled us off the street. But really, half the fun was the food and McCrady’s.

Five on Food: Articles from the Wednesday Dining Pages

Posted in General Interest by melissamccart on December 13, 2006

200px-latkes_frying.jpg1) At Hanukkah, It’s All About the Oil.  Fried Savories– They’re Fair Game on Hannukkah  San Francisco Chronicle.  I didn’t realize that frying in oil had any greater significance for the holiday, but according to this writer, it does:

Now, we eat latkes fried in oil as a symbolic gesture of this miracle. But just as we simplify our explanations, we also get stuck in our simple traditions.

The oil is what actually denotes the holiday — not the latkes. That means anything fried is fair game, whether it’s sweet sufganiyot — the little jelly doughnuts associated with Hanukkah — or other fried savories, like today’s recipes for sweet potato and leek fritters, crispy cod cakes, and latkes that venture beyond the traditional potato.

2) One, Two, Three, Reveal!   Los Angeles Times. Platter service awkwardness and timing issues at Wolfgang Puck’s new restaurant, Cut. 

3) Book of the Year: Soul of a New Cuisine.  Chicago Tribune. Marcus Samuelsson’s cookbook explores the nuances of African cooking, from his homeland of Ethiopia and beyond.

4) For Nothing but Bones, Go Early.  New York Times.  Eating crunchy bones for snacks at Yakitori Tory’s.

5) They See Tapas in your Future.  Washington Post.  a new Gastropub, courtesy of the people behind Sonoma and Mendocino.


Posted in District of Columbia by melissamccart on December 12, 2006

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece for Express on GoldCrust Bakery in Del Ray. Half the fun in researching it was seeing all the loaves as they cooled. . . . The day I went, the bakery owners had just installed new machinery– a new room, even– that gives them the capacity to make buns for every single Five Guys location.  Every one.  So if you remark as to how good the bun is next time you’re there, remember it’s from Gold Crust, what started as a family-owned bakery.img_1217.jpg




Nostalgia at the Counter: Florida Avenue Grill

Posted in District of Columbia by melissamccart on December 12, 2006

 111154934_fdcd8c4be2_m1.jpgThe first time I went to Florida Avenue Grill was, embarassingly enough, last year. I loved that Michael Brown was there, glad handing and stumping for mayor.  And that everyone working there treated customers as if they were regulars. Even though it was relatively early–11am Sunday morning– a steady stream of neighborhood folks came in for take-out fried chicken or catfish brunch.  Or that when you order it, fried chicken really does come with a bunch of sides.  The ones that looked especially good were the mac and cheese,of course, yams, and collards, bacon fat included. 

The old booths and the grease-caked photographs add character rather than faded dinginess, or so I tell myself.  I especially liked the signed photo of Bill Clinton, since, say what you want about him– he knew how to eat.  I saw him at Junior’s Cheesecake in Brooklyn a couple years after he signed the Florida Avenue photo, but that’s for a different post and besides the point. I know. I’m romanticizing him for lots of reasons, just like NPR’s The Intersection does with this vignette on Florida Avenue Grill.

Last post for Pizza Weekend: Dave’s Three Cheese Pizza and Franny’s Clam Pie

Posted in General Interest by melissamccart on December 10, 2006

My friend Dave’s pizzas are the best I’ve ever had– better than Lombardi’s, Otto, Pete and Elda’s, 2 Amys, you name it.  While I’m becoming a better pizza maker, I have a long way to go, so I find myself consulting him often.

He says he played with the crust for hundreds of versions– riffing on img_1303_edited.jpgCooks’ Illustrated recipes and many he found online.  While he doesn’t have a coal burning or brick oven for that matter, they’re still so good.  Although he’s only a 35 year old, half-Italian computer guy from New Jersey, he’s 70 year old Italian pizzeria owner from Brooklyn at heart.

The dough recipe is his from last year; the clam pie recipe is from the New York Times’ article on Andrew Feinberg, the guy who owns Franny’s.  If you’re in New York, Franny’s is worth the trip.  And, it’s refreshingly local, as local as Manhattan transplants who live in Park Slope can get.

Before you begin, you may want to take Dave’s advice and throw a head of garlic in the oven with the top cut off, doused with a tablespoon of olive oil and sea salt at 500 degrees. After 35 minutes or so, you can take it out of the oven to cool and to use in the red and the clam sauces.


1 1/4 c warm water–2 tb yeast–2tb honey–2 c King Arthur’s flour–1/2 tsp sea salt

Three Cheeses and Red sauce.

 1  28 oz. can diced tomatoes, drained–red pepper flakes–salt–pepper–bay leaf–chopped fresh oregano–thinly sliced fontina, parmesan, and mozzarella cheese–chiffonaded basil

Clam Reduction.

 12-18 clams–1 Spanish onion, diced–bay leaf–1 1/4c white wine–salt–pepper–1 c Half and Half–chiffonaded basil or chopped parsley

The Rest.

Combine water, honey, and yeast.  Stir gently and let sit for five or so minutes, until yeast begins to froth.  In the meantime, combine flour and salt in the Cuisinart.  When yeast concoction is ready, add gradually to flour mixture, until dough forms a ball around the blade.

Once it’s done, flour a working surface and knead dough with the heel of your hand for ten to fifteen minutes or longer.

Pour a tablespoon of olive oil in the bottom of two mixing bowls.  After you’re finished kneading, cut the dough in two and transfer each to a bowl.  Roll in olive oil and cover with a clean dish towel.  Set aside for about an hour.

img_1306_edited.jpgIn the meantime, take out the roasted garlic, and prepare your pizza toppings. 

In a sauce pan, add tomatoes, red pepper, oregano, salt, pepper, and three mashed cloves of garlic.  Let simmer on low for 30 minutes.  Lay cheeses in mixing bowl and drizzle with olive oil.

In a new pan, saute diced onion and garlic until limp, about five minutes.  Add garlic, bay leaf, and pinch of red pepper.  Saute for seven minutes.  Add wine, bring to a simmer.  Add clams, cover pot and cook until they open, about ten minutes.  When they’re open, remove from pan, and let them cool. 

Simmer liquid in pan until it’s reduces to a thick glaze– about 20 minutes.  Add Half and Half and continue simmering until it’s reduced by a quarter, about 30 minutes. 

In the meantime, remove clams from shells and chop by hand or in food processor.  Though many restaurants serve clam pie in the shells, I don’t like it because it’s more work for the person eating it, and it doesn’t taste as good to know that you only have four or five clams on your pie, as opposed to a clam in every bite.  Once they’re chopped, add them to the simmering glaze.  img_1319_edited.jpg

Remove dough from mixing bowl and press from center into a larger circle.  People who are good at this can widen the disk with their fingertips, but I just end up weakening the center of the pie.  I’m generally bad at this part, as you can see by my non-circular pies.  At some point I take out the rolling-pin crutch to ensure the pizza will be as thin and crispy as possible, though I’m resigned to the fact that it will not blister since I don’t have a coal oven in my 1000 square foot apartment.  When I make it, it’s crisp like a cracker at the edges yet pliant enough so that when I do the foldover, it doesn’t crack.  Any tips on blistering for the home cook?  I’d love to hear it.

Once your dough is ready, transfer it to a pizza paddle that’s dusted in corn meal.  Paint tomato sauce onto crust, layer with cheese, and drizzle any remaining olive oil from the mixing bowls onto pie and slip it in the oven.


Since I only have one pizza paddle, I usually wait until the three cheese pizza is done before I set up the clam pie.  Once it’s finished — when the edges char and the cheese is melted, about ten minutes– I roll out the second dough, transfer it to the paddle, and paint the clam concoction onto it.  Then I layer a few slices of parmesan and mozzarella on top and bake for 1o minutes. Here’s the result. 

The next one shows ideally, how thin I’d like a slice. So when I hear people go crazy over spongy Vace slices, though I’m all for the indie Italian store in Cleveland Park, I don’t share any enthusiasm for the pie.  It’s just not quite right. 

If you have any suggestions or comments as to how I can make better pizza, I’d love to hear from you.  In the meantime, if you have some time during the holidays, grab yourself a slice.  img_1325_edited.jpg