Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Duck

I’d read a slew of different recipes and preparations, and none of them quite struck me. For some reason, smoking the duck seemed like the way to go. I’d been experimenting with smoking in the Weber for over a year now, and this seemed like yet another good test.

Prep started on Sunday night. I rinsed the duck off and patted it dry. In a bowl large enough to accommodate it, I combined sea salt, cracked pepper, and dry green tea leaves. In the cavity I stuffed three lemon halves. Another full lemon was squirted over the duck, and I rubbed the mixture and lemon juice to coat the skin. The bowl was covered and put in the refrigerator over night. I also began a soak of three cups of hickory chips in water and hard cider.

The next evening I fired up the Weber. When the fire was intense and the hardwood was at a searing heat, I added more charcoal (hardwood, not briquets) and then added the drained hickory chips. On the clear half of the grill, I put the drip pan and poured in a quarter bottle of cider vinegar. I put the grill top in place and closed the lid to bring the fire down a notch. (This is the one step I could have let go a little longer to get the heat down to a slower smoke.) After about ten minutes, the duck went on.

I took the liquid left from the duck’s overnight sojourn as a base for the brush sauce. I added about a cup and a half of good red wine, a splash of dijon mustard, a tablespoon of olive oil, more pepper and a couple pinches of sugar. I whisked it together and let stand. Thirty minutes in and at intervals thereafter, I brushed it on the bird.

The skin turned a perfect reddish-brown fairly quickly. At two hours, I decided to pull the duck off. The cavity had a fair amount of liquid in it from the fat and the lemons so I used tongs to pour this off in the drip pan.

The result? Excellent. The skin was perfectly crisped, but the meat was moist and flavorful. The salt, lemon, and tea had combined to balance out the smokiness nicely. Served with cauliflower mashed potatoes and a market salad of arugula, purple cabbage, and radishes, it was a brilliant meal.

There are a few tweaks I’d like to make, but this is definitely one to try again.

Monday, June 22, 2009

further thoughts on weekends and Father's Day

Another single-dad blogger noted the difficulty of making the transition from full-time dad to soloist for the summer. Such transitions can be full of nuanced emotions — from happy to have some "adult" time to melancholy and downright sad to see the empty bed in the kid's room — and if you're on a schedule like mine, the mini-roller coaster can hit every other week.

It goes without saying that you're always "on duty" when you're a parent. When you're a single parent, that constant sense of duty can be even deeper and thicker. This makes the times when you don't have that responsibility feel like even more of a let-down. The silence of not having the kid there is even louder. The emptiness seems even stranger. The (not) funny part is that it doesn't matter how much I try to pack into those weekends (or weeks for part of the summer); I still end up missing the kid and thinking ahead to what we need to do (or want to do) after she gets back.

This week, I felt melancholy rather than ecstatic when I went to get her. It was Father's Day, and I'd harbored a vague hope that there would be a card or something waiting for me. After all, I'd made a point of helping the kid get a card when Mother's Day was approaching. It didn't seem like too much to expect reciprocation, but I suppose it was. As a friend put it later in the day, there's a reason we aren't still married. And I suppose after all is said and done, if you watch the attention the "holidays" get, Mother's Day is practically sacrosanct, while Father's Day is an excuse for sales on power tools and barbecue.

In any case, Father's Day last year came with the first lost tooth. It came with a picture drawn for me that morning. It came with waffles. It came with the kid really starting to swim. It came with a trip to my Dad's for grilling out. Somehow, it all seemed more auspicious. We certainly had fun this year — playing and grilling at the pool with friends and family — but on balance it felt a little more melancholy.

I'm not really sure what grand point I'm trying to get to here. It could a rant about the way fathers are often seen as secondary parents, while mothers are revered. It could be a rant about the dynamics of divorce and custody. It could be another deep exploration of the ups and downs we go through as single parents — even when the rest of life seems pretty fortunate and good. Or it could be another entry in a blog that is partly an exploration of all of those things. It could also be just another acknowledgement that even great times come with mixed emotions.

Melancholy aside... Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there!

weekend round-up, pt. 1 — the market report

The market trip this weekend needed to be abbreviated to accommodate an errand down to The Weekend Brewer in Chester, particularly since we arrived a little later than had been planned. (Non-Buttercup weekends sometimes slip off schedule.) That said, market trips are increasingly hard to abbreviate since the market has become a complete scene. The evolution is not at all surprising, particularly as it grows. What it means, however, is that it is more difficult to get a survey of all the good stuff.

Beyond the social explosion and the lines waiting for Nate's tacos and breakfast burritos, the growing season is bringing all sorts of bounty to the market. Asparagus has given way to squash, and broccoli has given way to cucumbers. There are a whole range of beets, radishes and turnips showing up. We even have a lamb producer added to the meat vendors.

This week's roundup included:
  • Arugula

  • French Breakfast Radishes

  • Cucumbers

  • Fennel

  • Purple cabbage

  • Eggplant

  • a duck (!) from Faith Farms

There were a few other random items too, but it's the duck that has me perplexed. I've never cooked one before and plan to smoke it today or tomorrow. Stay tuned...

In coming weeks, I hope to stretch the market report a bit. It will probably take a little more focus and punctuality, however — especially if I want to get there before Blanchard's sells out of whole beans.

Friday, June 19, 2009

they grow up

Despite my mixed feelings about the country of origin of Buttercup's new clothes, I can't help but admit how cute she looks in them. What really strikes me about this picture, though, is how grown up she looks all of a sudden.

Kids go through these jumps from time to time. Five years ago, we were at my mother and stepfather's house in Ohio, and Buttercup went through the first of these jumps I truly recall. She was just shy of two and fully in the midst of toddlerhood. Bopping around playgrounds, slurping down cereal bars, apple juice, and bananas like nobody's business, figuring out new words all the time, stringing together sentences. She didn't stop doing that, but one day her face grew up. She stopped looking like a toddler and started looking like a little girl. It was sudden, and I almost missed it—but for my mother pointing it out.

A similar thing happened a year ago when her end-of-year ballet recital was approaching. The day pictures were taken and costumes went on, I watched her turn from a little girl, a kindergardener, into a kid, a girl heading into the "real" elementary grades. Even though their dance was simple, the control she suddenly showed over her body and the way she stood changed. With her hair pulled back, gone were the goofy bangs and little girl moments — there was a kid, growing up.

The other day, I felt another of these moments approaching. She seemed to have grown six inches in a day, and her sense of self seemed to have leapt into the stratosphere. With the newly pierced ears and evolving fashion sense — each day's outfit is carefully crafted — she's become a whole new person again. Then I looked at the pictures we took of her outfits after the Hanna box arrived the other day, each tried on in different combinations, and in her pose and expression, I could once again see the big kid she's well on her way to becoming.

It's a remarkable journey, this parenting thing.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hanna in China

We just got an order of new Hanna's delivered today. They are, of course, adorable and fit Buttercup well — their European sizing works well on her. Sad to say, they are also all made in China. This is nothing new, and I'm not going to belabor it. I just can't help being sad that even good brands known for quality and attention to "sustainable" materials opt for outsourcing to the factory of cheap.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Crafting another generation of consumers

Thanks to Highlights for Children I’ve finally gotten the perfect opportunity to explain marketing to Buttercup.

See, yesterday, we got the latest round of marketing from them. This particular one is for a series of pubs about the fifty states. Before I even had a chance to intercept the thing, Buttercup had it in her hands, pulling the plastic off. There was a poster showing parts of the series. There was a sheet of stickers for the states — stickers being prime swag for the kid-set. There was a card assuring me about the fun and educational value of the series, and assuring me that I was under no obligation to buy anything. And last but far from least, there was the sweepstakes game.

The sweepstakes game is, of course, the prime driver here. There are six scratch-off spots. Scratch them off and find out if you’ve gotten: (a) the free book with one star, (b) the free bag with two stars, or (c) the free book and bag with three stars. As Buttercup started in on it, I grumbled that she would find three stars, of course. Why, she asked, and with a sigh, I told her that this is what marketing people do — we make the audience think they’ve gotten something special, even when everyone else who got the package also got three stars.

She didn’t care. She scratched them off and applied the three stars to the reply card, absolutely pleased that she’d gotten them. And of course she wanted to know whether we could send them in for the book and the bag.

I tried to explain how the process works, that we would send it in and pretty soon have things arrive that we would be expected to buy. She mentioned that we had gotten them last year, and I realized we were on the slippery slope again. Parental guilt was about to set in — if we got them, she might learn and that would be a good thing, but was the (small) added expense worth it — but it was bed time so I hoped it would pass.

No luck. I found her filling out the response card in the morning with her name and age. (Who knew that the words “Print Name” vs. “Signature” were a learning tool?) Her next question, though, was a good one for the lesson I wanted to teach. “Why are your name and our address already on here,” she asked. “Because they know we might buy it, so they’re selling it directly to us, sweetie. And making it really easy to send back to them.”

“Oh,” she said. “So can we still get it?”

I sighed, asked her to put it away for now, and eat her breakfast. Will guilt push me over into sending the card in? Probably. Do I feel like I got sucker-punched by classic, tried-and-true direct marketing techniques? Absolutely.

Friday, June 12, 2009

the struggle to find character in consultant-driven Generica

So L and I headed off for another wine trip. This time we opted for the northern part of the state, Loudoun County. Not far from DC, this area is bristling with wineries. We started off with a vague plan to hit a couple around Middleburg and move on from there. A combination of late night and early start scuttled coffee-making at home, however, so we made a hasty stop at Ellwood Thompson's on the way out of town.

ET's is our local, organic grocer. They've been around for a number of years, and do their best to seem like a little hippie co-op. The thing is they are decidedly not a little hippie co-op. They work off of business models and goals like regional stores. This might be all well and good except that their newly-expanded market and coffee shop feels straight out of a consultant's playbook. The feeling isn't helped by pre-made sandwiches lurking in deli cases and decor that could have come from any similar market/café in Generica.

It's sad, though, because the potential is there for it to be much better, much more. Sadly, though, the prices are high and the quality is often no better than local and chain competitors around. My argument as L and I talked about the place — she is a great fan — was that a truly successful operation would follow the Zingerman's model of obsessive quality and customer service rather than the Starbuck's model of satellite development.

In any case, that stop set the tone for the rest of the day as evidenced by our first winery stop — Chrysalis Vineyards. Our first greeting was by signs warning us that children were not permitted around the property, only in the "family areas." These areas were fenced areas with no trees and a couple picnic tables, kennels for kids. It was a good thing Buttercup wasn't with us. The next strike came with the port-a-potties. First, the fact that there were portable toilets was odd, but worse was the fact that there wasn't running water or sanitizer available to wash our hands. The next strike came as we were told that tastings were scheduled — because they simply had too many people otherwise. We nearly walked, but I insisted that we stick around.

What followed changed our opinion. The wines were very good, even if the service was not. The director of hospitality ran our tasting, and he knew his stuff — both about the wines and the business. This is clearly a case where they are aggressively pursuing a business plan, one built on exclusivity. Between their plans for VIP tasting rooms and anti-family tactics, it was hard to see where the fun of the experience was.

What's unfortunate about this is that there were some quite nice wines. They produced some very nice varieties of Norton, and a really nice Petit Verdot. The rosé had a fruity nose and a dry finish. And their Chardonnay was well-balanced without an overwhelming butter taste.

After our tasting, we moved on to their neighbor down the road — Swedenburg. This is a winery my father has enjoyed for years, and I wanted to give it a shot. While more pleasant and mellow — mostly because we scraped out of there as the Keg Bus was unloading — the wines at Swedenburg were somewhat undistinguished. They were good enough, but nothing really stood out. We almost considered a bottle, but at the mid- to high-teens, it's hard to justify buying something that's just decent.

After Swedenburg, we moved on to a nice lunch at Market Salamander in Middleburg. L had a grilled veggie and goat cheese sandwich with what appeared to be mostly local produce and cheese. I opted for the chef's special BBQ which came with large hunks of tender pork. It could have been spicier, but overall the flavor was just right. With a couple of fruit sides, we were ready to go for the next round.

At this point, opted to cut north to Purcellville and start at Hillsborough. The winery is owned by a Turkish family and produces mostly Bordeaux styles — at least according to their write-up in the wine guide. While a couple of the reds and one of the drier whites struck me as Bordeaux-like, the wines seemed to tend more toward Portugese and Spanish styles, using heavy doses of Tannat and Touriga to land thick, strong reds. They were quite good, but at close to thirty a bottle, the purchase was again hard to justify.

One thing that can be said for Hillsborough, however, is that they have one of the most beautiful locations I've seen in a while. Perfect views and an organic feel to the trestles and barn made it a worthwhile destination on future trips.

Our next stop took us back up the road to Corcoran Winery. Run by Lori Corcoran and her husband, Corcoran is a small-production shop and only open on the weekends. I'd poured next to them while pouring for Villa Appalaccia at a recent festival and had wanted to check out the winery. After a long drive into a backroad development we got Reilly out of the car to enjoy some shade while we went into the renovated 1750s farmhouse used as the tasting room.

Thankfully, my recollection of their wine was borne out by the tasting. Lori was producing an excellent Chambourcin, one of the better Francs we've tasted, and a very nice Malbec. Her meritage blend was a revelation too — nicely balanced and worth putting up or drinking now. With prices in the high teens to low twenties, her wines seemed better priced than the others, and we took a few bottles with us.

On a side note, Mr. Reilly seemed to be enjoying his part of the roadtrip too.

After Corcoran, we aimed for Sunset Hills. Lori recommended a couple of their reds, and they were a quick shot across Route 9 from Corcoran's enclave. What we found there was another business model. They'd redone an Amish barn beautifully, and the focus seemed to be on events and employees in logo-embroidered polo shirts. From the cashier who greeted us to the woman who stuck to her script while pouring, the experience was night and day from Corcoran.

The five wines we tried were good, but unsurprising. There were a Viognier, two Chardonnays, a Franc, and a Merlot. Unfortunately, the reds we'd been told about were only available for tasting by members of the VIP club. In it's own ironic way, this was the perfect bookend to the tastings.

After an unsuccessful attempt to find one more small, interesting winery tucked away in the woods, we shot into Leesburg for a light dinner and beer tasting at a brewpub I'd read about — Vintage 50.

We started with a sampler of their Pale Ale, Kolsch, Amber Ale, and cask-poured IPA, skipping the strong ales and the stout in deference to the heat and the need to moderate. All four were nicely done, and L surprised me by going for a pint of the kolsch. I opted for the pale, and we ordered a run of food — hummus, a cheese sampler from an interesting list of small-dairy U.S. cheeses (specific cheeses to come in another post), and a sausage sampler. While the portions seemed relatively small at first, we enjoyed all of it and ended up nicely sated for the drive back.

Our only quibble — and the perfect end to this story? This fine little joint was in an office building on the edge of urban sprawl and strip malls. In other words, in a historic, colonial town, our great little find was shoved into another piece of contemporary Generica. Please move, Vintage 50. Please move.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


There's a point at which everything crowds in to life. That seems to be happening again, punctuated by some rather surprising demands at work. It's all fun stuff, right? All manageable, right? Most of the time, sure. The problem is when the stress blocks out other things and begins to spill over into my parenting. Was it really Buttercup's defiance yesterday that made me yell at her and threaten unnecessary consequences? Probably not. It was typical behavior of a tired, hungry almost-seven-year-old. No. I think the slips in my parenting style and my ability to keep the dishes washed and all the rest of it should really be credited to stress. The trick, however, is figuring out how to manage the stress while keeping all the balls in the air.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

sad trombone

I'm sad to report that the 2M Mediterranean Market on Staples Mill seems to have gone drastically downhill in recent months. The business seems lackluster at best, and I've had two very weak lunches there recently.

The latest travesty involves a mediocre gyro sandwich on which I asked for hot sauce. They've had excellent chili sauce in the past. What the guy dumped on today more closely resembles mildly spicy ketchup. Between that and a guava nectar that tastes well past its prime, I'd say business and quality are flagging a bit at 2M.

It's a pity because a year ago these guys served some of the best Mediterranean dishes I've had outside of New York.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Brilliant PSAs

Picked this up from Gawker and AdRants... It's a brilliant PSA for NOT getting drunk.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

two hours

It takes two hours for us to get up and out of the door in the morning. Whether Buttercup takes a shower or whether I end up having to tackle the tail end of some leftover chore, we will leave the house in two hours. Whether we wake up on time between 6:00 and 6:10 or somewhere closer to 6:30, it will take us almost exactly two hours to get out the door. If I think we're beating the clock, somehow we still end up leaving almost exactly two hours after we get up and moving. Strangely, we still usually make it out the door at the two hour mark even on the mornings when Buttercup sleeps in until almost 7:00. The comic and sad part is that I still get frustrated when we're running late.

Like many other things in life, I suspect things would be easier if I just accepted this as a truism and built my routine and schedule around it. Logically, this would make far more sense than trying to fight it.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

from the random finds department

I've traveled a lot of places and eaten a lot of interesting cuisine — Camel's Paw in China, for example — but I've generally steered clear of the more unusual preserved foods one can find. Well, now someone has catalogued some of the fascinating variations on preserved meat. From whole canned chickens to potted haggis to various bug larvae, it's all here. Enjoy!

Picked up via Neatorama.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Summer's here, ballet's done.

We just finished ballet season. What this means in practical terms is no more rush to get the kid to practice on Thursdays — or pick her up from practice — and no more mornings spent scrambling to make sure that one of the pairs of tights and one of the pink leotards is clean. For the past few weeks, this has also meant a great deal of time spent at the ballet studio.

First, there were the pictures. While they happened on Buttercup Mére's weekend, I made a point of running down to the studio to catch the kid in her costume for the first time. There's nothing quite like the pride on her face when she gets to put the costume on and show it off. The fact that we got to keep the costume this year was an added bonus. I envision many moments of costume-wearing, and would not be at all surprised to see her make it the choice for Halloween this year. In fact, saving the money wouldn't be a bad thing at all...

Then, there were two Saturday rehearsals.The first locked up two hours, the second four hours. Having done theater for years in high school and college, these extra rehearsals didn't surprise me. We worked around them, and I used them as time to run errands. One even provided a rare opportunity for lunch at Can Can — the roast chicken salad with asparagus and Meyer lemons is phenomenal.

All of this was — in theory — a lead-up to the final weekend of performances. Said weekend began with dress rehearsal. Dress rehearsal was originally scheduled to begin at 3:00, school schedules be damned, but the theater bumped the time to 4:00 the day before. The kids converged, got made up, and all the rest. In the interest of juggling life matters, I stopped at the theater briefly after work to check on Buttercup's status and then left for a little over an hour. When I got back, they were just wrapping up, and Buttercup got changed. They'd been there for almost four hours, and all of the kids older than seven were heading for the dress rehearsal black hole. We went home — it was one of my rare times to put my foot down in spite of Buttercup's begging to stay and watch. Our neighbors were having a porch party, and I knew the next day would be long.

The next day began with the run to farmers market mentioned below. After a brief stop at home to chill out and get changed, we were back at the theater by 11:10, a few minutes ahead of the call so one of the moms could help Buttercup with her makeup and hair. (This is one of Mr. Mom's failings.) After lingering until I realized that a dad's presence was no longer acceptable in the dressing room, I decided to run home and bring back food for her. She'd need the extra strength for two performances that afternoon — or so I thought.

I picked up my ticket and touched base with Buttercup Mére who'd decided to come to the first of the two shows. Then I settled in to capture the magic. Now, kids' ballet performances are an even mix of cute and painful, and this one was no exception. There were plenty of cute and awkward moments. There were pauses at odd moments. The usual thing. They had ballet and tap and hip-hop and song-and-dance routines. They even had a little dance party scene to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and an adorable moment of a five-year old singing along to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." And then there was Buttercup's class, out for their adorable performance as dancing toys. All two and a half minutes of it. That's it. That and a walk-through as part of a later bit of stage business, and some adorable bouncing around as everyone sang the name song during the curtain call. But in the end... it was two-and-a-half minutes, and I will not deny feeling like two years of these classes should have gotten Buttercup and her classmates a second appearance, a real dance, anything. In fact, I was half-embarrassed to sit through the second show next to my father as he kept waiting for them to have another shot at the lights so he could get a better picture.

Ultimately, I know there will be more opportunities next year. The six and seven year-olds will be seven and eight year-olds, with more coordination and better abilities. There might be a tap routine since her teacher made a point of telling me how quickly she was picking up on the steps. Hell, if I let Buttercup add a hip-hop class, she might even get to do one of the "really cool" routines. And that's all well-and-good, but I can't help feeling like I just paid $100 per half-minute of performance.

That said, I guess you could say it all paled when you saw her face wearing that costume, and her eyes when she carried the two bouquets of flowers. I guess you could say when her eyes twinkled that every cent and every second was worth it.

market round-up

When we got to the market this weekend, the air was still cool. In the course of an hour, however, the temps shot up. This made poor Buttercup a little wilty since she'd decided the purple velvet dress was proper market garb. It also nailed me a bit since we'd enjoyed a neighbors gathering late into the evening.

As a result, we hit Victory Farms for a nice smattering of lettuce, cucumbers and squash. Asparagus was on tap from one of the other farms — and thankfully we were there early enough to get the nice small shoots. There was a new pound of Yrgacheffe beans from Blanchard's Coffee. There was a chorizo taco from Nate, who makes his own chorizo and so much more. And then that was the point at which the heat and the rest got to me. The cup of coffee I'd bought disappeared and was in none of the places it should have been. Buttercup lost steam — not a good omen on the day of her ballet recitals.

More's the pity since the pickings around the market are really picking up steam. Lettuces are giving way to squashes. More fruit should be coming in soon, and tomatoes and peppers can't be far off. Hopefully, the next market trip will have a little more vigor and a little less yawn behind it.