Twitter: @jstrelitz

4 holiday tips for food freak (new) parents

I am on maternity leave this holiday season so I have more free time than a typical parent. But I am also a new mom, so everything takes me 5x as long as more seasoned parents -- which probably balances things out. With weekly holiday events during the next 7 weeks, I need help to remain gracious (and engaged) with nearly-zero sleep and a newborn in tow. Four ideas that have helped me so far:

Exploring Union Market -- donuts from GBDLoad up locally: Instead of spreading gourmet gift purchases out over a number of stops, think ahead. If you include a food-focused retail destination on your errand list, grab several unique items. You'll be happy you had a few little things stocked up when Saturday (suddenly) rolls around and you have three parties to drop into and no time to grab wine or flowers. And support locations that are family-friendly -- I was amazed and excited by the amount of strollers and ErgoBaby carriers during my first trip to Union Market in D.C. I picked up a number of stocking stuffers and fun treats for around $10, including barrel-aged syrup, charcuterie and savory crackers laced with Old Bay. A stop at a neighborhood wine shop yielded (in about 5 minutes) pumpkin chevre and cranberry brie discoveries and a sparkling wine from Texas, and I was encouraged to set my car seat carrier on the bar and enjoy a glass of spicy cranberry sangria.

Cooking? Simplify: A few of my favorite appetizer contributions with five ingredients or less and ready in less than 30 minutes.

  • Baked brie (use refrigerated pie crusts and your favorite jam)

  • Hot mushroom-crab dip (stir in sherry for a kicky finish)

  • Crisp artichoke cakes (you can sub out a number of vegetables)

  • Baked coconut shrimp (shrimp is also an easy app on its own)

  • Goat-cheese stuffed fresh figs if you can find them, dates if you cant (balsamic drizzle either way)

Pop-up exploring: Plenty of places around DC that spotlight unique food and wine gifts also welcome children. There are a growing number of wineries within a 45-minute drive of DC, many of which offer holiday discounts and treats from local artisan purveyors. Organizations across the region hold holiday bazaars and festivals in November and December, including the Swedish Christmas Bazaar at the House of Sweden and the National Harbor Holiday Festival. Work downtown? The Downtown Holiday Market, F Street between 7th and 8th Streets, opens Nov. 30 and this year features food from Luke's Lobster, Shake Shack and Ris, as well as fair-trade coffee, mini donuts and empanadas.

Delicious gifts for each other: Dates exploring restaurants -- including sitter arrangements -- make a great gift for any food freak and gives each of you something to look forward to throughout the year. Couple a gift card to a new eatery you want to explore with scheduling suggestions (once a month?) and don't forget child card arrangements. The more you plan, the more likely you are to actually go -- and enjoy it. And take the time to pick up the gift certificate if the restaurant tries to charge you to "ship" it -- or better yet, contact another spot that doesn't charge extra for gift card orders. Can't get out? Use the cards for take out, or gather specialty groceries to cook at home together.


Specialty Food Report Card: What are you buying … and why?

Specialty Food Magazine released its annual consumer report, revealing a growing interest in the marketplace (66% of U.S. consumers report having purchased specialty foods, up from 59% in 2011) with chocolate (62%), olive oil (59%) and cheese (56%) products leading the way. Have you sipped luxurious hot chocolate from Jacques Torres in NYC, sampled sea salt caramels from Fran’s in Seattle or explored sweets from your local chocolatier? (One of my favorites in NoVa is Artisan Confections) Beautiful, unique treats like these are worth their (relatively) small cost. No one re-gifts chocolate.

NASFT research indicates specialty food consumers are more inclined to shop at farmer’s markets, experiment with new recipes and buy food with a dual purpose, such as a charitible tie-in. A key note for the socmedia set: Facebook leads the way for discussing specialty food items and influencing buying decisions (77%), followed by YouTube (27%) and Twitter (19%). As a Twitter user whose feed is mostly populated with news + insight from chefs, brewers, winemakers and other F&B pros, I think the industry will see significant growth on that platform as well as the visual-heavy Pinterest -- especially among younger buyers – during the coming year.

As we head into the holiday season, what are you buying? Are you devoted to gourmet tea, fresh pasta or 20-year balsamic? And what most influences your purchases – word of mouth, social media, grocery browsing, impulse buys or traditional advertising?


Tasting for two

Cashel Blue cheese course. Two of the best things about being pregnant during the hottest summer in 100 years are the look on people's faces when I order wine (usually folks who don't know I write about it) and how happy I make my dining companions (especially fellow writers) when I share/give my glass with/to them after a taste or two. 

No one should be deprived of luscious, beautiful wine when it's 104 degrees out. Or, ever, really. And I don't need more than a few sips these days, especially when there are nine outstanding wines on the table to try, as was the case at a media dinner in the tasting room at Restaurant Eve last week.

A few of the highlights:

  • Always happy to see Thibaut Jannisson Brut on a menu; the Armstrongs are big fans of the Virginia bubbly which was showcased along a quintet of appetizers including pork belly rillette with fried green tomatoes and a kicky harissa aioli, the restaurant's signature "OOO" dish -- puff pastry holding oyster, onions "OOO" at Eve. and osetra -- which has been on the menu since it opened 8 years ago, and tiny porcini agnolotti with fava bean pesto.
  • A delicate, grapefruit-inflected 2010 Stolpman Sauvignon Blanc, my favorite bottling of the varietal that I've tasted in a year, accompanied the pan-roasted char with watercress vinaigrette, cashew cream and chili threads that looked like $1,000 worth of saffron as it came across the table. I think my quote was "Is that a shitload of saffron?" Not a shitload of saffron.
  • 2006 Segla Bordeaux Blend, served with Shenandoah lamb, smoked bacon, jewel box tomoatoes and a pickle puree, cut the extreme gaminess of the meat with black currant and light tannins. Great for a summer night. Armano chocolate and pistachio gateau
  • 2005 Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega "Casta Diva" Monastrell. Those of you not into dessert wines, or not familiar with Spanish wines beyond Sherry, need to explore what is being done with other lovely reds like the Mourvèdre in this sweet stunner.  Chocolate is the way to go: it was poured alongside an Armano chocolate and pistachio gateau with homemade lemon verbena ice cream and pistachio streusel crafted by new pastry chef Joshua Jarvis.  I'd make an aria comment here, but it seems too obvious....




You too can eat all of this Korean food

If you live in the DMV area, you are a short drive away from the best Korean food in the country -- much of which is available around the clock in Annandale, VA. Many head to Honey Pig for BBQ, but we recently introduced my brother to the cuisine at Yechon. The banchan included seaweed salad, fresh, creamy tofu, bean sprouts with sesame oil, buseot bokkeum (mushroom deliciousness), lots of pickled things and of course, two types of fermented cabbage goodness -- which I have been regularly craving.

A cadre of traditionally-clad female servers made sure the bulgogi and glabi were expertly cooked on our grill, then rested on greens until we were ready for seconds. And my brother Michel tried to smuggle out his nearly-finished bottle of Soju but they stopped him at the door.  Apparently this is frowned upon. Who knew?

Korean bakeries are another delight. I'm partial to Shilla, but If you aren't stuffed beyond needing a quick nap in the car before driving home from yechon, stop at Breeze Bakery next door (open until 2) for some bingsoo (a classic warm-weather-pregnant-food-writer craving, apparently), cream puffs and pineapple pound cake. Skip the Oreo cake.


49 million bubbles per bottle

Last week I was invited to attend the Champagne & Everything Bubbly event, part of the Kennedy Center's Roof Terrace Restaurant's Wine and Cultural Series. Sommelier John Coco said he wanted the collection of sparkling wines, which ranged from the Champagne houses Laurent-Perrier and Charles Heidsieck to domestics such as Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer, to represent the major sparkling regions of the world to give guests an opportunity to taste the differences in bubbles by terrior, method, grape and dosage. 

My favorites of the bunch included selections from Bellavista, which has more than 500 acres of vines in Franciacorta and produces lovely small-barrel sparklers, including a Gran Cuvée Saten made of single-vintage Chardonnay. This is not Prosecco. It glows golden and is filled with honeyed, peachy notes and a creamy mousse. 

Schramsberg released the first American Blanc de Noirs and has clearly spent the last 45 years perfecting this toasty sipper. Pretty bubbles, a little acid and a super fruity nose (more peach! who knew I loved peach in my sparkling?!). Plus, it went great with the savory pepperoni and cheese straws -- while they lasted.