I’m in Washington, DC for an impromptu visit with my parents and the chance to meet my divine little nephew, Gabriel over the Fourth of July long weekend. What a relief to escape the low grey sky of London and revel in temperatures above 70 degrees and bright skies. And while I’ve never considered DC much of a foodie town, I’ve been reading a lot lately about the burgeoning food scene in the city. Food trucks, markets, new concept restaurants are all reeling in the policy wonks and lobbyists and journalists that make Washington home. Torn out magazine articles in hand, I arrived ready to explore what all the buzz was about, and yesterday we drove into town for a little culinary excursion.
Union Market is Washington’s answer to San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Housed in a large warehouse that’s been a food market for over 200 years, they’ve spiffed up the vast space and installed about 25 permanent artisan vendors along with various pop-up events and one very shiny airstream caravan out front offering sno cones and beer. This area of Washington has long been home to wholesalers and markets and many are obviously still active on the perimeter, but the feeling is that this giant cornerstone will revitalize the food-selling scene here in the NOMA (North of Massachusetts Avenue) district. Inside there are butchers, tea shops, bakers, spice sellers, green grocers, a knife sharpener, oyster shucker. The sellers are friendly and helpful, eager to offer tastes of their wares and talk about their provenance.
Upon seeing the creative variety of sausages that Red Apron Butcher had on display, my dad suggested cooking bratwurst for dinner. The menu quickly evolved: bratwurst on the grill with sautéed peppers and onions, German potato salad, a lovely mix of greens for a salad. Simple, perfect summer food. We also picked up a slab of pork belly (I take advantage of the time I have to cook for my pork-loving father), chicken livers, bacon, figs, smokey blue cheese, spicy radishes. At the green grocer Almaala Farms, I met the Jordanian owner who couldn’t believe I was married to one of his countrymen. He’s from a large tribe North of Amman, he told me as he piled my fingerling potatoes into a bag. The man at Eastern Shores Certified Organic Products gave us a taste of his garlic scapes and purple and white turnips that were lovely and sweet and spicy. We chose a bag of his mixed greens that included some of the most delicious arugula (rocket to those of you back across the pond) and a variety of Russian kale that was so tender and sweet that you’d never know it was related to the much maligned kale you might know. I could have bought just about everything in Salt & Sundry (a return visit is in order for a cake stand or two), a wonderful collection of home goods and kitchenware, condiments and whimsical stationary.
While the oysters at Rappahannock Oyster Co. were tempting, it was a little early in the day (and it wasn’t cheap!). Instead we chose to take our promising ingredients and drove around this quickly changing neighborhood to oogle the refurbished brownstones and little businesses popping up all over. Because moderation is not really in the Hurst vocabulary, my dad suggested we hit Ben’s Chili Bowl for lunch and make it a two meals of sausages kind of day. Bill Cosby and Barak Obama have made this place famous, and now there is a second floor gift shop where you can get your “half smoke” hot dogs to go or a gallon of chili or a t-shirt. Me, I just wanted to sit at the counter and watch the hot dogs sizzle away on the grill and the intricate dance of the staff as they served basket after basket of goodness. Most flashed huge smiles and were eager to help, the chili on top of my half smoke was divine and spicy and messy. The hot dog itself was on the verge of bursting out of its grill-crisp casing. The sweet tea was appropriately almost mouth-puckeringly sweet. All was right with the world.
So, for dinner last night, my mom and I cooked together in the kitchen while my dad finished up his yard work (he made a path with rocks from his garden). It’s so lovely to cook when you’ve taken the care to choose your ingredients and know that a similar care and attention to detail went into growing or making them. The bacon from Harvey’s Market crisped up beautifully and the smell was unlike what you get from Oscar Meyer. I washed the lettuce greens and made a simple red wine vinaigrette. Mom sliced the bright peppers and onion from our new Jordanian friend and my dad toasted buns on the grill while our delicious bratwurst from Red Apron Butchers sizzled on the grill. I’m going to share the recipe we use for Hot German Potato Salad as it brings back so many memories of my childhood. It’s from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, New Dinner for Two, their “Frankly Thrifty” chapter that my grandmother gave her when my parents were first married in the late 60s. I’ve given it a 21st century spin by using fingerling potatoes, which hold their shape better than chopped Idahos. Give this a try, instead of your bog standard creamy potato salad on the Fourth. You’ll find yourself making it again and again!
1 pound fingerling potatoes
8 slices of bacon, cut in 1/4 inch strips and browned
1 yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 tablespoons caster sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon black pepper
2/3 cup water
6 tablespoons cider vinegar
Boil the potatoes in their skins until easily pierced by a paring knife (about 10 minutes). Allow them to cool slightly after you drain them and then cut the potatoes lengthwise. Fry the bacon in a large saute pan until crispy. Drain on paper towels. Saute the onion in the bacon fat (yes, all of it) until brown and soft and then add the flour, sugar, salt, celery seeds and pepper. Stir and cook for another minute or two. Now add the water and vinegar and allow the whole sauce to thicken over low heat, boiling for about a minute. Remove from the heat and carefully stir in the potatoes and bacon. The longer this sits the better it will taste (I’m having the leftovers now for lunch)!