Monday, February 26, 2018

Spotlight On - Encantada

Not sure if anyone knows, but I've been writing a restaurant column for the City Walker App Blog. The purpose of the app itself is to give visitors a local's-eye-view of a city, so they are able to experience it in the same way residents do--on foot. (Not that anyone actually walks anywhere anymore.) The blog offers a bit more detail; I have endeavored to take users on a stroll through the city while pointing out restaurants along the way. In addition to the walking posts, I have been writing others that put certain favorite restaurants of mine in a spotlight. I thought I could share those here with you.
Baltimore is not known for its vegan restaurants. That’s not to say it’s not a vegan-friendly city; there are a handful of notable places that serve vegan cuisine. Some are completely vegan. And several of them are even planning a Vegan Restaurant Week from August 18th - 26th (check out for more info). I’m not vegan, or even vegetarian, but have always felt that a well-rounded food scene is beneficial for the city’s residents and visitors alike. Plus I understand that the high level of meat consumption in the US is not doing anybody any favors, physically on an individual level and climate-wise on a global scale.

Encantada, in the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) is a restaurant that pleases both vegans and consumers of animal products alike. But first, let’s talk a little bit about AVAM. If you haven’t been there, you must go. Seriously. It’s the most interesting, fun, mind-boggling, amazing art museum in the city (and we have two pretty fabulous museums in the Walters and the Baltimore Museum of Art). The term “visionary,” when applied to art, refers to works created by persons with no formal art training who are guided solely by their own inner voice. These folks may or may not march to the beat of a different drum in their public lives, but whatever it is that influences their work, it doesn’t follow the constraints of “learned” forms of art like went-to-art-school art or even the traditions of folk art. Think 25-foot-long ship models made entirely of toothpicks, or complex masks created from knitted and crocheted yarn. Amazing stuff. I consider AVAM to be in the top five places to visit in Baltimore (the others being the National Aquarium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Walters Art Museum, and Fells Point).

Now, on to the restaurant. The word “encantada” means “charmed, enchanted, bewitched,” which seems appropriate for a restaurant located in such a delightful museum. Apropos of its setting, the decor at Encantada is, shall we say, eclectic. Furniture and fabrics are purposely mismatched, walls may sport royal blue and black vertical stripes, or black and white diagonal ones. Art from the museum is hung here and there, adding still more color to the elegant cacophony of the restaurant’s interior. The menu is much more focused. The food at Encantada is grounded in the restaurant’s partnerships with local farmers, watermen, and ranchers to provide the freshest seasonal meat and produce. The animal proteins used by the restaurant have been raised humanely without GMOs, and while that still might not please PETA, it makes us carnivores feel a bit less guilty about indulging in meat. Vegetarians and vegans will be happy, however, that vegetables and grains play far more important roles at Encantada than at many other restaurants where they may be relegated to mere “side dishes.”

One can enjoy Encantada’s vegetable-forward menu at brunch, lunch, dinner, and happy hour. Conveniently, brunch is offered both Saturday and Sunday, with $15 bottomless bloody marys, mimosas, and beers from Evolution, a craft brewery based in Salisbury on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Vegan options include a bbq tofu benedict with avocado, crispy kale, and grilled tomato, and a spicy “chicken” sandwich made with seitan. Actual chicken is fried and coated in harissa honey and served with french toast in another dish that’s a riff on the now-popular chicken and waffles, and a burger with a runny egg is available, too.

The dinner menu is divided up into small and large plates, but it’s probably easiest to think of them as apps and entrees. On the current menu, all of the small plates are vegetarian or vegan apart from the “N’awlins BBQ Shrimp,” which of course is not.

One of the more popular vegan small plates, available for brunch, lunch, and dinner, is the Nashville cauliflower, made with Tennessee-style hot sauce and served with vegan ranch dressing and bread-and-butter pickles. It shows that whatever chicken can do, cauliflower can also do (and possibly do it better). The deviled turnips are another popular dish; it’s been on the menu from day one. They’re actually a play on deviled eggs--small white turnips standing in for the egg white, a filling of chickpea mash, and a dusting of smoked paprika. Cute and tasty, but egg-like in appearance only.

Entrees include more meaty selections, things like NY sirloin and duck breast, some fish options too. But even carnivores will enjoy the pasta with mushroom bolognese, its depth of flavor due to the umami-rich mushrooms. On a recent visit during Restaurant Week, we tried a housemade trofie (a hand-rolled twisted pasta) with pesto, peas, and optional guanciale (cured pork jowl or cheek) that was simply outstanding. You can’t go wrong with ordering a side of heirloom carrots, either; though the preparation is always slightly different, they are usually topped with toasted hazelnuts, which really make the dish.

Finally, don’t pass up on cocktails before, during, or after your meal. The Cheshire Cat is a particularly refreshing gin-and-cucumber beverage with a touch of lemongrass, mint, and lime, with a fun blue ice cube that gradually turns the drink purple as it melts. I also like “It’s About Fig & Thyme” and “Berryland Smash,” both tasty concoctions that are worth trying.

800 Key Highway
Baltimore, MD 21230

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Flashback Friday - Sammiches

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This post originally appeared on on April 16, 2013.
Cajun Kate's softshell crab po boy, image from user philadining
Last Friday they were discussing sandwiches on WYPR's Midday with Dan Rodricks and it got me thinking about sandwiches I have known. I put in my two cents by recommending the po' boys from my friend Don's restaurant Cajun Kate's in the Booth's Corner Farmers' Market in Boothwyn, PA, because it's one of my current favorites (especially the brisket, fried oyster, and soft shell crab versions), but that's not the only sandwich that has struck my fancy over the years.

When I was quite young, my maternal grandmother had a stroke. During her recovery, we ate lunch together every day, and every day it was the same thing - an imported deli ham sandwich with iceberg lettuce and Kraft thousand island dressing on seeded rye bread from Levin's bakery, with a side of Funyuns. I don't know the origin of the sandwich, but I suspect it was my mother's invention, as I have never seen it elsewhere. Occasionally, when I'm feeling particularly nostalgic, I have a ham on rye with lettuce and thousand island for lunch. It never fails to take me back to age 3, when being cute and entertaining came far more easily.

Another sandwich I enjoyed in my youth, but not nearly as often, is the Baltimore classic, pit beef. It seemed that I only ate them in the first weekend of October, when the Fells Point Festival was in full swing. We lived on the 500 block of Ann Street at the time. Dad and I always walked down together in search of a pit beef sandwich, which Dad would order well-done, with burnt ends,  to which we'd add mayonnaise and enough horseradish to make our noses run. Oddly, we always had to share the sandwich (Dad's rule, not mine), so I tend to feel a little greedy that now, as an adult, I get to have my own.

When I like something a lot, I try to eat it often, but not often enough to tire of it. Back in the heyday of Harborplace, there was a little Greek stand on the second floor of the Light Street pavilion. After a morning of desultorily shuffling from shop to shop with my college buddies Leslie and Wanda, we'd occasionally grab lunch there. My personal favorite was a veggie pita, basically a gyro without the meat. If I remember correctly, a warm and fluffy Greek pita was piled high with a combo of lettuce, tomato, raw onion, and cucumber and glopped with tzatziki and feta before being wrapped in aluminum foil to make the messy sandwich easier to handle. So simple, but so good, and something I could eat once a week without getting bored.

I'm also quite fond of a good chicken salad sandwich, and by "good," I mean chicken salad made with a mix of white and dark meat, chopped into fairly small pieces, a generous but not overwhelming amount of mayonnaise, and bits of minced onion. The seasoning can be simple salt and pepper, or something fancier like curry powder and mango chutney. The bread can be rye or a nice artisan loaf. Chicken salad sandwiches I am currently fond of include, believe it or not, the ones found at the University of Maryland Medical Center's Aramark-run cafeteria. The sandwich ladies are not skimpy with the scoops of salad, and they carefully remove the tough part of whole romaine leaves before arranging them carefully on your sandwich. And it's a steal at about $4. Mary Mervis, in the Lexington Market, also makes a fine chicken salad sammie. I like to make it a Chicken Smith by requesting a salty addition of a slice of Smithfield ham. This sometimes confuses the sandwich makers, so tell them to slice and weigh the ham and add the price to the sandwich.

Oh, there are so many more I can mention here: the asparagus and goat cheese wrap from the SouperFreak food truck, any number of tasty grilled cheeses (love the Fresco at Grilled Cheese & Co.), Attman's corned beef! and let's not forget Maryland's potential state sandwich - the soft shell crab. And burgers - but they're a completely different post....

What are your favorite sandwiches?

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Monday, February 19, 2018


Clavel calls itself a mezcaleria, and yes, there are a vast number of mezcals on the drink menu available as single or double shots and in flights, but I'm in it for the tacos and ceviche. I do like a shot of mezcal now and again, don't get me wrong, but I have always found food to be far more interesting than booze, so I'm not even going to get into the alcohol at Clavel. We've tried a few of the cocktails, which are complex and interesting, but I can't really speak about them with any real authority so I'm not going to try.

What I can talk about, however, is the eats.

The food menu at Clavel isn't huge. There are five ceviches, two soups, quesadillas, tortas (sandwiches), and a selection of tacos. All three of the ceviches I've tried--shrimp, tuna, and rockfish--were lovely, with super-fresh seafood "cooked" until firm with lots of lime juice and complementary flavorings (pineapple with the tuna; tomato, cucumber, and avocado with the shrimp; a sweet potato mayo with the rockfish). They were served atop tostadas that had a toastier flavor and crisper texture than those I've eaten in the past. We ordered the small size, which was perfect for three of us to share. More people can try more types of ceviche, or order the larger size, which comes with chips for sharing.

We also tried the flavorful esquites, corn layered with mayo, crema, butter, cheese, lime juice, and chiles. The tender-crisp corn kernels were the main focus of the dish, which was not as insanely fatty as it sounds.

Then we had tacos, all of which were more-ish. My favorites were the cochinita pibil, shredded pork cooked in a tangy mixture of bitter orange and achiote, and the carnitas. Carnitas are chunks of pork cooked in its own lard (so how can that ever be anything less than amazing?), making them super tender. Clavel mixes in bits of crisp chicharrones (pork skin) and tops it with a bit of warm salsa verde. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

We've also tried the huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on corn), the rajas vegetarianas (strips of poblano chile with corn and crema), the lengua (cubed beef tongue in salsa verde), spicy chicken tinga, beef and pork barbacoa, and the coffee-tinged lamb barbacoa, all of which were tender, juicy, and flavorful. There are a trio of spicy sauces on the table, as well as pickled red onion, but I didn't find that any of the tacos needed additional garnishes. You might want more heat, but I didn't.

Three tacos and a small ceviche each made for a pretty filling meal because of all the protein. That doesn't mean we didn't briefly contemplate ordering more tacos, as there are still a few (including seafood) that we haven't yet tried. Next time.

Clavel is quite popular and there was already a line at the door just before they opened at 5pm. On a Tuesday. Thankfully, they've opened another dining room, but the place still got very full very fast. Be prepared to wait if you're not an early bird diner like we are. Totally worth it though.

225 W. 23rd Street
Baltimore, MD 21211

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Friday, February 16, 2018

Flashback Friday - Big Daddy's Hose

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This post originally appeared on on April 21, 2011.

I used to enjoy doing these fumetti, based on video clips I'd find on the Food Network site. The host in this clip, Aaron McCargo, Jr., a winner of the Next Food Network Star, didn't have a very long FN career. I wonder what happened to him?

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Clementine Cake

I love oranges, particularly sweet navals, but so often they have more pith than flesh. What really irritates me is when the orange flesh is dried out. Those babies are expensive, and I hate feeling like I wasted my money. So when those small crates of sweet, easy-to-peel, clementines started appearing in supermarkets, I was happy that I could get my citrus fix consistently and at a somewhat more reasonable price. At least I could back in the 90s and early 00s. Nowadays, the little fruits, while still easy to peel, are often tart and have a few pips. The only routinely sweet ones I've found are the "Cuties" brand, which are more expensive than the rest. I'm guessing that when the demand for these little guys increased, producers started cutting corners or obtaining fruit from countries with less-than-optimal growing conditions or practices. The only consistency now seems to be in my disappointment.

But clementines aren't completely useless. They make a pretty great little cake, one that is super moist, keeps fairly well, and is absolutely gluten-free, though you would never know that from the flavor and texture.

I've made this cake many times over the years, using a recipe from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat. The recipe below has the same proportions as the one in her book, but the photos are from a cake half the size. Why? Because I only had 3 eggs available to me, and the recipe calls for 6. I also was pretty sure that while I seemed to have quite a lot of almond flour, it was surely not 2 1/3 cups. It was entirely reasonable to me to cut the recipe in half, or half-ish. And you know what? Four small clementines, 3 eggs, 1 cup almond flour, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1 heaping teaspoon of baking powder made a fine cake in a 7" round springform pan.

Nigella's Clementine Cake

4 to 5 clementines (about 1 lb total)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 eggs
2 1/3 cups ground almonds
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

Put clementines in a pot with enough water to cover and bring to a boil. Turn temperature down so the water is at a hearty simmer and cook for 2 hours, adding more water if the pot looks like it's running dry. Drain and allow fruit to cool. Once the fruit is cool, tear them open, remove the stem bit from the end and any seeds.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Place the clementines--skin, pith, and all--into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade. Add the sugar and puree. Add the eggs and pulse to combine. Add the almonds and baking powder and pulse until completely incorporated.

Line an 8-inch springform pan with a circle of parchment and coat bottom and sides of pan with butter or release spray. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Bake for 40-45 minutes then check doneness with a toothpick. If the pick comes out with moist crumbs, it's done. If it comes out with batter on it, add more time. At this point, the cake will start to get very brown, so cover the top with a piece of foil for any remaining time in the oven.

Remove the pan from the oven and cool completely on a rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar or not. I used Trader Joe's dried and sugared lemon slices as a garnish.

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Friday, February 09, 2018

Flashback Friday - Dinner: An Improvisation

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This post originally appeared on on July 1, 2011.

It's fairly unusual that I don't cook something from scratch on the weekend, but every once in a rare while, I take a break. One recent Saturday, Mr Minx whipped up some spaghetti and meatballs, and on the following day I heated up some leftovers. And when I say "heated up some leftovers," I really mean "created a whole new dish with some pre-cooked items." I like to play with my food, and rather than eating leftover baby back ribs as is, I thought I'd gussy them up a bit.

What I really wanted to make was a banh mi sandwich, but I was too lazy and it was too hot to take a stroll to the grocery store for a baguette. Once I had that stuck in my head though, it was hard to shake. In addition to the pork, I had a bulb of fennel in the fridge, which I thought might make an adequate stand-in for the pickled daikon or radishes I would ordinarily put in a banh mi. Particularly if I used some of the plethora of licorice-y tasting Thai basil that was currently growing on our back porch as garnish. It was starting to sound like a plan.

There was just that bread issue to tackle.

In lieu of bread, I decided to make rice flour crepes. I should have just gone with the flour tortillas we had and called the dish "tacos," because the crepes were a disaster. It took about half the batter before a small crepe was successfully produced, and by that time, I was thoroughly discouraged.

Our dinner was supposed to look like this:

Instead, it looked like this:

I ended up slicing all of the crepes into ribbons and stir frying them with the pork, adding fish sauce, sugar, garlic, lemongrass, Sriracha, and ginger to the pan. The "noodles" were then topped with a handful of pickled fennel, some pickled carrots, plus cilantro, mint, and Thai basil. It was good, but not what I wanted.

If you want to try making rice crepes - or rice crepe noodles, here's a recipe:

1 cup rice flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon oil

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Scoop out 1/4 cup at a time onto a hot, greased non-stick skillet over high heat, swirling the pan so the batter forms about a 6" circle. Cook about 30 seconds, then loosen the crepe with the edge of a spatula, flip, and cook the other side for 30 seconds longer. That's easier than it sounds! Warning: make sure not to slip the spatula under the crepe more than half an inch or so, because when you remove the spatula, the crepe will tear. Just ease it around the outermost edge until the crepe is loosened, then work the spatula under the whole thing and flip it.

Stack crepes on a plate as you make them. Cursing optional. Roll around fillings, or if broken, use like noodles. Serves 4.

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