Sunday, December 3, 2006

Food for Thought

"As an adult, I know that how we entertain is a combination of who we are and how we live, of all the dinners we've had and all the dreams we still embrace."
Ann Hood, Party Like It's 1959, Food & Wine Magazine, Nov. 2006

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Home Cooking Uruguayan Style

A couple months ago a friend invited us to a backyard barbecue in Arlington that was a post-mortem for a FIFA World Cup game. I thought, sure, I'll get the brooding Frenchman out of the house and have a chicken wing and a beer. For me barbecue's are usually a bunch of people standing around an outdoor Weber with a cold Corona, waiting for the barbecued-sauce-smothered chicken or ribs to cook, stuffing their face with chips and sides. Not this barbecue. This was Marco's Uruguayan Barbecue Theatre. What you eat is prepared with love, experience, pride and passion. Where the barbecue itself has been hand constructed, brick by literal brick. Where the coals are not Kingston coals with a gallon of lighter fluid, or fake gas coals. No. The source of heat is hot wood chips from a burning set of 8-10 logs piled on top of each other, and are retrieved by Marco hitting on the iron grate with a shovel so they fall off the burning logs. He then shovels the fallen, red hot wood chips underneath a grill rack. Everything was extremely delicious and we were fortunate enough to be asked to come over last Saturday. This time I was prepared. I took my camera and a bigger appetite.

Marco served us freshly made salsa, that he cooked for a few minutes to soften Safeway's best unripened tomatoes and marry the cilantro, onions and lime juice. Our hostess, 
Fernanda, heldthe chips and salsa long enough so I could take a picture and then it disappeared. (Notice the hand in the photo). There were almost six of us by then, but by the time the meat was ready, the guest count had risen to almost 15. Everyone from frien
ds and cousins to colleagues and neighbors were there. People were dropping in on their way to clubs to grab some dinner, give Marco a hug and leave.

For dinner, Marco served Picanha-cut sirloin steak, sweet breads, white sausages, blood sausages, rosemary potatoes with marinated red peppers, big bread rolls and plenty of Zinfandel.

American butchers don't sell the Picanha cut. It's a large roast with a thin layer of marbling in the meat that seasons as it cooks over the open flame. Sebastian, on the right, simply rubbed Kosher salt all over the Picanha and slapped them on the grill. Marco then turned to me and said, "in one hour we eat."  During that time we snacked on blood sausage sandwiches, the rosemary potatoes (when he wasn't looking), and again, plenty of Zinfandel. That's the beauty of home cooking: timing means nothing. It's all about the food, and the company.

The rosemary potatoes were easy to make. Marco covered potatoes, peeled and cut in quarters, in olive oil and let them fry on the grill until soft and brown. He added lots of Kosher salt and fresh Rosemary. Then he heated marinated red peppers in the leftover oil, and mixed it in with the potatoes.

The sweet breads were simply grilled. The flavor of the wood, which was just cut firewood logs, was the only seasoning, making them rich and delicious.

Marco is wanted all over town by some of the area's biggest restaurant chains. Javier Angeles-Baron, the executive chef for a Latin Concepts, who own Guarapo's in Arlington, joined us for dinner. He and I both agreed that Marco would be great as a chef, but it would be a waste to confine him to the kitchen. What Marco needs is a continuous pile of wood and a large audience. Thank you Marco and Fernanda!

If you want a real Uruguyan outdoor grill built on your patio, Marco does that too. He can be reached at bokajian (at)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Home Cooking Is A Habit

If a working mother leaves the office at 5:30pm, traveling 35mph through 30 minutes of traffic, fetches her kid from daycare and gets home 15 minutes later, how much time will she have to prepare a meal, cook or bake it, feed it, eat it and get the kid into the bath by 7:45pm for an 8pm bedtime?

Most of the time my husband and I eat after my daughter has eaten and gone to bed. But home cooking is about family meal time, right? So, recently I've been forcing myself to cook dinner for the three of us every night. It's exhausting. It's like starting a workout program. When you first start going to the gym all you want to do is not be at the gym, then your body, mind and schedule go on workout autopilot and you only notice when you don't go.

Cooking at home on a regular basis seems like a hefty task to undertake, but it's not mission impossible. You just have to be ridiculously dedicated to cooking something other than omelets and spaghetti, which means planning the meals in advance, having the ingredients in the icebox and getting home on time.

It's a habit. Just a habit.

A cookbook that has been helping me through the pain of planning and cooking after work is aptly entitled The Busy Mom's Make It Quick Cookbook: 300 Tasty Recipes Using Convenience Foods, by Jyl Steinback.

It's not perfect. She uses a lot of ingredients I think are a little too convenient, like canned soups, and everything is non-fat or low-fat. But overall I think it's a great tool. The cookbook is well-organized. There's a shopping list divided by food and product categories, and nutrition information.

At the very least the cookbook gets you to eat more vegetables because almost every dinner entree contains pepper stir-fry or broccoli, and most recipes use the same ingredients with a few variations, so you can shop for the week without having to buy a bunch of one-time use marinades and condiments. Another plus is that you can tailor these recipes to suit your tastes by adding spices and other ingredients to make them more interesting.

Have you made any recipes from this book? What do you think? Any other favorite cookbooks that help you get dinner on the table in a pinch? Share in the comments section.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006


The Avgolemino soup was a success, and because I knew it tasted very close to my grandmother's soup I decided (at the last minute) to invite family and friends over for a birthday dinner for my Dad. 
To do something so last minute was logistically insane. I really didn't have the time to cook or the energy to shop, cook, host and clean, all while juggling a toddler. And what's worse I promised my husband we'd play nine holes of golf on Monday (our day off).

So, the morning started with a Red Bull. Our daughter went to pl
ay with her grandmother, JP and I shot nine holes of golf at Rock Creek Park, then hit Harris Teeter on the way back, picked up the toddler, ran through the house with a dust cloth and a vacuum cleaner, set a pretty cute table, and started to cook around 5pm. Guests were told to come at 5:30pm. Needless to say, dinner was served late--7pm or thereabouts. In my family, good scotch will save the hapless cook. I served plenty.

I practically stood over them while they ate the soup, making sure I got the right looks and comments. I was begging for it I admit it, but to me this
 was my grandmother's soup. My Aunt and Dad said it was "delicious." Trust me that is real praise. Full recipe (with secrets) below. The rest of the menu was simple: beef tenderloin, cauliflower au gratin, pomme frittes and Harris Teeter's double chocolate cake.

Full Avgolemino Soup:

Chicken Stock:
1 package (1lb) chicken drumsticks (thawed or fresh)
1 package (1lb) chicken backs and necks (thawed or fresh)
1 package (1lb) chicken hearts and gizzards (fresh)
4-5 Quarts of water (an inch over the top of the ingredients)
5 Stalks celery, halved or chopped
4 Medium carrots, skinned and chopped
1/4 Onion, quartered
5 Sprigs of fresh flat leaf parsley
3 Tsp salt
3 Tsp pepper

Bring to a boil all ingredients, reduce heat to the lowest setting, simmer for 7-9 hours. Simmer with the top ajar to let the steam out. Make sure you watch the heat or your stock will reduce to chicken soup concentrate.

Bechemel Sauce:
2 Tsp butter (Presidential or Irish)
2 Tbs flour
4 Cups scalding hot milk

Whisk the first two ingredients until blended.
Pour milk slowly into butter and flour mixture, whisking constantly in the same direction. Bring to boil, reduce heat to medium, constantly stirring for about 20 minutes. Sauce will thicken.
(Secret: If it gets lumpy, simply strain it after it's cooked, put it back in the pot, and put Saran Wrap directly on the sauce so it doesn't form a skin when it cools.)

Egg & Lemon:
(Secret: The more egg yolks the richer the soup).
5 Eggs
1/4 cup lemon juice (This is a taste preference. You can do less or more.)

In a bowl, separate eggs, keeping the yolks. While whisking, add a little lemon juice at a time to the eggs. Keep stiring in the same direction.

Assembling the soup:
Heat up the stock if you've let it cool. Some people make it the day before and store it in the refrigerator. If it's cold and gelatinous, heat it slowly, constantly stirring.

Add the bechemel in teaspoonfuls while constantly stirring the soup. Take your time with this step. You might not want to use all of the bechemel as your soup can get heavy. I used about 4 Tbsps of bechemel for 3 quarts of stock.

After you have blended the eggs and the lemon juice in a separate bowl, slowly add the hot chicken soup to the egg and lemon, one cup at a time, constantly stirring. This is the phase where the lemon and butter meet and might separate, or curdle. To keep this from happening always stir slowly and in the same direction.

Then you now have to transfer the egg, lemon, chicken stock with bechemel to the larger pot of soup. Again, do it slowly and stir in the same direction.

That's it.

By the way, omit the bechemel and this is the best home remedy for a cold.

Questions? Leave it in the comments!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

My Cooking Challenge

My aunt, Margot Kopsidas Siegel has not only written a cookbook on Greek cooking (and currently writing a book on etiquette), but her son Christopher Phillips is a pastry chef in the White House. This is more than just name dropping, they're really great at what they do, which is cook and bake (and offer insight to the usefulness of the small spoon with two tongs). Most importantly, these are two more family members whose love of food and passion for cooking has always left me wondering if somehow the cooking gene skipped me completely. My husband will tell you I'm wrong, that I'm a good cook (which coming from a French-National is a huge compliment) but Jean-Pascal has the same fervor for Domino's Pizza.

So, to sharpen my skills I've decided I am going to work my way through my grandmother's Greek recipes, sharing them along the way and letting you know the outcome (and the secrets). I'll start with Avgolemino soup this weekend (see the stock tips in the previous post) and move on to Baklava, which I'll give to a Greek friend who just received his US Citizenship. I want to bring tears to his eyes. Make him think of the old country. Or not. We'll see.

Wish me luck. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It's All in the Family

I'm often asked what inspired me to open a store like Cookology. I'm not a trained chef. I've never opened a dining establishment before. But, as many of you well know, growing up in the family kitchen is almost like living out your early days in a busy and bustling restaurant. I was lucky enough to be born into family of talented cooks, so my love for food and cooking has always been home grown. With a tasty soup always bubbling on the stove or a fresh batch of baklava on the table, I think I was almost destined to become 
a foodie. Here's a little about the 'celebrity chef' in my life--my Yiayia. 


When my grandmother passed away last year, her obituary in The Washington Post was three columns long, complete with recipe.

She was known around DC for her generous spirit, immovable political convictions, love of God and Church, and her grace, style, and food. She was a great woman and a great cook--self-taught from one very large cookbook given to her by the Greek-National she married.

My grandmother used food as a way to raise money for her favorite charities, often luring Washington wives and their dignitary husbands to embassy garden parties, book signings at her home in Van Ness, luncheons to celebrate a successful fundraiser, museum openings, or something having to do with her beloved political party, the GOP (you can't see it but my head is shaking).

One of things I miss the most besides our long political conversations (read: fights) is her food! I ate dinner with her pretty much twice a month from age 18 to 27, and I spent every major holiday in DC with the ole' fam just to rekindle my taste buds for what I knew was the best food around. We had the holiday staples for Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving: chestnut stuffing (I want to cry), Avgolemino soup, green beans with tomatoes, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes. She'd throw in the occassional tyropita triangles or taramousalata as hor d'oeurves, and if it was Thanksgiving there would never be less than six pies. At Christmas, there would be pies along with baklava, along with everything you see in the photo above.

I long for her Avgolemino soup with it's rich chicken broth and bechemel, egg, lemon and rice. She had this way of making sure the chicken was the primary flavor, while the bechemel, egg and lemon simply brushed your tastebuds like velvet. I know that sounds odd, because chicken broth is the base, but sometimes you can get or make Avgolemino with too much lemon, or worse, it can taste like chicken with flour sauce (uncooked bechemel) or chicken flavored water. She truly made velvet chicken soup. The Greeks should rename it. Ah, but they couldn't. Like most of her recipes, my grandmother perfected this one on her own. You can't buy this in any of the best restaurants in Greece, nor does anyone else's Yiayia know how to make it like this. Do I sound partial? I say this based on years of searching for good Greek food outside of my grandmother's kitchen. 

Right after my grandmother was married, her mother told her the first thing she should think about when she wakes up in the morning is, "what is my husband going to have for dinner tonight?" She took it to heart. Asked how she learned to cook, she'd simply say anyone can cook as long as they know how to read a recipe. And I guess that's why I started something like Cookology. I hope to use my store (and this blog) to share family recipes, kitchen successes and failures, and all the little things about everyday home cooking that make food and family such a joy.

Avgolemino Chicken Stock Soup Tips:
  • When making stock, don't use a pot larger than a 6 or 7 qts.
  • Buy chicken back and necks only. Forget using a whole chicken when trying to make a stock, you can't get enough flavor out of it. And don't even think about buying canned stock. The makers throw in onion powder, garlic and other spices, which throws off the entire recipe.
  • Fill the pot with water only an inch over the chicken.
  • Toss in lots of fresh celery (mostly the outer stalks where all the flavor is).
  • Add a few carrots.
  • Add a little salt and pepper (add most of the salt at the table before eating)
  • Cook on low for the entire day and most of the night until the bones have practically disappeared (seriously).