Thursday, December 1, 2011

Our National Christmas Tree Lighting Calamity

We won the lottery this year - the lottery for tickets to attend the 2011 National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in D.C. Participating in the nationally televised celebration led by President Obama and his family was supposed to be a memorable experience my family would cherish for years to come. It was memorable alright, but for all the wrong reasons.

After dealing with the dual problems of a full parking garage and empty Metro cards, my wife and I collapsed into our seats for the ride into the city. However, excited by their first ride on the subway, my boys were crawling around the seats like ants on candy crumbs.

It was only a short walk from the Farragut West stop to the Ellipse, the oval-shaped park just south of the White House, and the lengthy security lines we'd heard about weren't bad at all - but maybe that was because we arrived a full 90 minutes early. We passed through the metal detectors with nary a beep and found a dry spot on the lawn near some carolers.

Our tickets were standing room only, which meant we were far enough away from the action that we couldn't read the closed captioning on the "big" screens. Closed captioning would've been nice because I swear I've heard louder speakers in college dormitories. But I'm getting ahead of myself; we nearly left before the show even started.

The standing room within the snow fencing wasn't too bad, but my boys don't react well to being penned in. As the flag atop the White House fluttered in the distance, my boys dodged adult legs like traffic pylons and spun themselves dizzy in the warm sunshine. The boys' behavior deteriorated quickly, and no amount of threats on behalf of Santa Claus slowed them down. With the Washington Monument and the cops' mobile observation tower looming above us, my exasperated wife suggested we leave. Giving up and packing it in is normally my overreaction to unbearable public fiascoes, so I was quite pleased to play the calm and reasonable parent as I backed her off the ledge. (I seem to remember cheerleaders with pom-poms showing up out of nowhere and chanting my name.)

As dusk set in, the marble monument glowed orange and pink against the fading, cloudless blue sky. A circling helicopter nearly drowned out the seasonal songs of the carolers, but my boys were too busy fighting over iPhone games to notice. Although I couldn't hear the music and could barely see the screens, I assume the band was good. But the thing that caught the standing crowd's attention was the roar of the police motorcycles leading the Presidential motorcade of black SUVs. Smartphones and cameras were thrust into the air in unison with the hope of capturing an image of Mr. Obama's arrival.

As the gathered guests awaited the beginning of the program, my boys wrestled on the ground. I must say they created a nice perimeter for us, as no one wanted to stand too near. My two young heathens threw handfuls of grass at each other during the national prayer. As everyone reverently bowed their heads, my kids were giggling and rough-housing at their feet.

My wife and I boosted the boys onto our shoulders for a better view of the distant entertainment. Honestly, unless you were seven-foot tall with super vision you couldn't see much from where we stood. However, when the President was introduced the crowd showed respect and grew quiet enough for everyone to hear his address. The silenced crowd permitted a hushed chuckle when my four-year-old repeatedly screamed out, "I love you Obama! I love you!"

After the President and his family threw the switch on the big tree's lights, we threw out any plans of staying for Kermit the Frog or's appearances and made an early exit. As we headed toward Potbelly for some sandwiches and a public restroom, my boys asked every cop about their gun. Our first National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony will be remembered forever, but maybe not for the reasons we had first hoped.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Find Your Christmas Tree at Buttonwood Farm

Buttonwood Farm is the best cut your own Christmas tree farm in Northern Virginia.

It seems like only yesterday we were carving jack-o-lanterns and doling out cavities to costumed children, but twinkling lights and glittering snowflake ornaments have replaced glowing skulls and illuminated ghosts. With the Thanksgiving leftovers eaten or shared with the birds and squirrels, my family has moved onto Christmas preparations. Today we retired the Indian corn, twisted gourds, and other fall decor, and erected a six-foot Norway spruce in our living room.

Yes, a spruce - not our normal choice of a
Scotch pine. Unfortunately, our preferred Christmas tree farm is being swallowed up by urban sprawl, so we headed a few miles further west to find a truly rural experience. A quick search on a local pick your own Christmas tree Web site revealed numerous alternatives for us in Northern Virginia. While my wife was drawn to the impressive environmental record of Buttonwood Farm, I was more enticed by the expansive view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Christmas tree field. Also, Buttonwood's location just north and west of Middleburg is easily reached from the D.C. suburbs along Route 50, which is good for families like mine with young children in tow.

Shortly after escaping the frustrating blockade of traffic lights in eastern Loudoun County, Route 50 becomes a two-lane highway. It can be very busy at times, but we were fortunate to ride the rolling hills soaked in Civil War history west without being rushed.

Unlike many of the agri-entertainment farms in Northern Virginia, Buttonwood Farm is unassuming and quaint. If you're looking for a holiday carnival atmosphere, keep looking because you won't find it at Buttonwood. Instead of bearded teenagers in orange parking vests, we were greeted by four curious dogs. Blocking the lane were two old Labs, a pregnant hound, and an exuberant Setter-mix puppy. I
brought the man-van to a complete stop to allow the fearless foursome time to investigate the noisy intrusion to their peaceful home on the hill.

Since our arrival coincided with the farm's opening, we were the only family there. The farm's owners, Tad and Cathy Zimmerman, waved warmly as I parked the man-van near their wooded shelter. The pack of friendly dogs jumped and licked at my boys as we crossed the lane. Having dragged Christmas trees across vast muddy parking lots in the past, I appreciated the opportunity to park close.

A chimney pumped out puffs of sweet white smoke from a wood stove made from an old black barrel. Atop the barrel was a bubbling pot of freshly mulled apple cider. Two picnic tables were draped with traditional white and red checked tablecloths. Cathy told us th
e Norway spruces were ready to harvest, so I grabbed a measuring pole and a super sharp bow saw, and my family made its way to the stand of conifers across the field.

A half-dozen vultures soared above our heads as we and the dogs tramped across the field with the rising Blue Ridge looming in the distance. Cathy had told me that they were able to stop a neighbor from allowing a developer to build over 125 houses on the hill across the valley. Instead, the property was placed in an easement and only one log cabin was built. She bragged
that there was only one paved road between her farm and the mountain, which impressed me.

Unlike our past experiences searching for Christmas trees, we really only had one species from which to choose, but the trees were all healthy and beautiful. After a short survey, the boys quickly settled on one for me to cut down. Due to the unseasonably warm high-60s temps, I didn't bother dragging a blanket out to kneel upon. I accepted the wet knees, lifted some branches, and brought the spruce down in a few minutes. Buttonwood's sharp saw blade made quick work of the often stubborn trunk.

The distance to the shelter and processing area was short. My boys were eating chocolate bells, gingersnap cookies, and candy canes by the stove before Tad had even shaken our tree. Once the excess needles and grass had been vibrated away, he clamped the trunk and the engine pulled our tree through the baler. I placed the tree against the fence and joined my family for snacks, cider, and a heart-warming conversation with Cathy.

Our visit felt more like spending time with family than a commercial venture to buy a tree. It was refreshing.
Sensing my boys were growing restless with my deliberate knot tying as I carefully tied the tree to roof of the van, Tad informed me their pond was stocked with bass, channel catfish, bluegill, and large Koi. Unfortunately, it was lunchtime and we had to go. But I would have loved to spend a few more hours lounging on the farm with the Zimmerman's and their dogs.

If you live in Northern Virginia and you want to cut your own Christmas tree in a rural, family-friendly setting, Buttonwood Farm is an excellent choice. Not to mention the fantastic lunch awaiting you afterward in Middleburg at
Fox's Den Tavern.

Buttonwood Farm is open weekends 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. between Thanksgiving and Christmas and weekdays by appointment.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Beach Lovers Embrace Bike Sharing

If you follow this space, you know I'm a big fan of bike sharing programs. An old friend just emailed me from South Beach, Florida, where he stumbled across the City of Miami Beach's Decobikes. I'm sure he won't mind if I share his enthusiasm for their rental bikes.

"We are in South Beach, and they have the bike rentals like B-Cycle in Denver that you wrote about. This is freakin' awesome! We just cruise around, hit the beach, stop and get some beers at a sidewalk cafe, and do it all over again. They have a pretty sweet app for my phone, too."

That might be the most convincing testimonial for trying a bikeshare program that I've ever read. Thanks for sharing, Dirt-E Steve!

Decobike has an informative site. Check out the video. (The model is not a fat white guy in a floral print and flip-flops.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

La Tasca Does Vegetarian Tapas Right

The American Dietetic Association is celebrating National Nutrition Month in March. The theme for 2011 is Eating Right With Color.

I recently published some suggestions to chefs on ways to provide more interesting vegetarian options on their menus. Although I don't claim to be a vegetarian, I am eating far less meat as part of a new low-cholesterol diet. My wife went vegetarian over a decade ago, and meals out are a lot more satisfying for both of us when she's able to eat more than just pasta, salad, and side dishes.

On Saturday night my wife and I hit the the streets of Arlington, Va., in search of a good meal. A Moroccan joint looked promising, but the lighting was too bright. The Thai place was empty and we were already familiar with the Indian restaurant. Then we stumbled across La Tasca, a local franchise that serves a sprawling menu of Spanish tapas (small plates of food to share). There are more options for meat eaters than vegetarians, but the menu does include a section dedicated to vegetarian dishes, and it didn't disappoint.

Our first experience with La Tasca in Alexandria, Va., was just average. The food was tasty, but sharing food between a vegetarian and a meat eater didn't work. In contrast, our affair in Arlington was fun and flavorful. We started with rustic bread and three olive oils for dipping. Then came the battered and fried eggplant slices and the delectable Cabrales cheese sauce.

We hadn't finished our appetizers when the multiple plates of tapas arrived. Everyone has had onion rings, but our plate of onion and red and green pepper rocked. The breading was light, flaky, and oh, so tasty.

If you like homefries, La Tasca's version is complemented by both a mild hot sauce and a garlic aioli. Crispy taters, spicy, creamy dips - how can you go wrong?

The wild mushrooms were fantastic. I've really grown to become a fanatic of funky fungi. The shrooms were nice and firm and the olive oil didn't drown out the earthy flavors.

I wasn't blown away by the paella, but my date loved it. Both of us were impressed by the spinach and pine nut croquettes. The balls were crispy on the outside and creamy and wonderful on the inside. Imagine a savory piece of Lindt chocolate. If you were driving, you'd have to pull over to enjoy the taste rush.

Our meal climaxed with a plate of Canelones de Berenjenas, one of the best vegetarian creations I've ever sampled. The La Tasca menu description says, "Eggplant rolls stuffed with herb-roasted roma tomatoes, grilled, sweet piquillo peppers, and a mild goat cheese." That just doesn't capture the volume of saliva generated by the scent and flavor of these magical rolls. Presented on the plate, they looked like they needed a drizzle of some sauce, but after a bite it was obvious that the flavors had their own legs. (Seriously one of the best things I've ever eaten.) We spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how La Tasca softened the eggplant to make it roll without being soggy, and still couldn't solve the mystery of this masterpiece menu item. Eggplants are pretty easy and fun to grow, so we'll be trying this ourselves this summer.

So if you're in the D.C. or Baltimore area, look for La Tasca for an awesome menu of Spanish tapas. Their selection of sangria is on full display in big vats and wine lovers will not be disappointed by the depth of the list. For me, the bottle of Alhambra Negro was the perfect beer to keep my taste buds moist.

I'd love to hear your comments and suggestions on eating vegetarian.
I'm Blogging National Nutrition Month

Super Glue Saves the Universe

Thanks to a bottle of Loctite Super Glue Ultra Gel by Henkel, a handful of broken Marvel heroes and villains will live to fight another day.

Over the past year, Venom and Red Skull lost their heads, Gambit was severed at the waist, Doctor Doom lost an arm, and the Spider-Man bubble wand snapped at his wrist. Since their repair, the action figures have withstood ferocious fighting and brutal battles at the hands of my young sons. The glue is holding up well.

It's been a long time since I purchased Super Glue. I remember the liquid adhesive running all over the place, bonding things together for eternity. Those days are over. The Loctite gel is more viscous, and the side-squeeze bottle allowed me to apply just the right amount of glue. It was nice to finish a repair project with my digits free and loose instead of stuck together like mutant penguin flippers.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

March is National Nutrition Month

In recognition of National Nutrition Month, I’d like to share some quick thoughts on eating healthy, low-fat meals, and staying fit. My wife, Angie, recently compiled this information for a family member, and I thought it was worth sharing. She’s been a vegetarian for over a decade, and, lately, I find myself eating less and less meat. Although I feel better when I don’t eat meat, I still love a juicy burger, a tender chicken breast, or a medium-rare steak. So without sounding preachy, here are some dietary and lifestyle choices that are working for us.

Size Matters

Pay attention to portion sizes. What does an average portion looks like? See what you’re eating by clicking here. Click on the food and it will show you a visual for one serving size. Cheese is the size of a die? NOOOOOOO! (It’s true.) When eating out, try splitting an entrĂ© with someone. Most restaurants serve way more food than you need.

Count Calories

Paying attention to portion sizes and your daily calorie intake becomes second nature once you start. If you decide to go big at breakfast, be sure to eat a light lunch and a reasonable dinner. You can’t go big at every meal. To see what it really takes to burn off calories, hop on a treadmill or a stationary bike. Even if you hate exercising in a gym, the experience will make you think twice about snacking on chips, candy, and soda.

Your body can only burn so many calories. Be aware of what you ingest. Here is a free calorie counter. Not only does this site track total calories, but the analysis section tells you your stats for the day: fat, carbs, Vitamin A, iron, etc. This site is pretty helpful.

What to Eat?

Avoid processed foods. If it’s easy, it’s probably not healthy. Don’t eat ingredients you can’t pronounce.

Spice it Up

Eat more grains, more veggies, and less cheese. Make average meals great by incorporating herbs and spices. We’ve been using lots of ginger and light coconut milk. When a recipe calls for water, we use homemade vegetable broth, which we make by boiling down vegetable scraps. (Avoid including asparagus stems, broccoli, and potato peels in your stock. Everything else is fair game – including apples and pears!)

Healthier Ingredients

When cooking, try including skim milk, low-fat sour cream, and low fat cheese. Try Cabot cheese. Their low-fat cheddar tastes almost as rich as the real thing.

Start with Soup

A great place to start is soup. Choose broth or tomato-based soups instead of cream. A big pot of soup can be portioned out and eaten all week long. Find some good soup recipes. Trust me; there are more soups out there than just chicken noodle, tomato, and clam chowder. Once again, try using your own stock. Spice it up with veggie tortilla soup. Try some new flavors and make a pot of curried butternut squash soup. If veggie chili sounds like bean soup to you, add ground turkey instead of beef.

Where’s the Beef?

A veggie stir-fry can be very filling. Who needs meat when the wok is overflowing with cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, green beans, peas, onions, mushrooms, peppers, corn, zucchini, summer squash, and carrots? Add more flavor by using dried spices, or try a jar of stir-fry sauce. (Avoid sauces with high-fructose corn syrup) Try brown rice instead of white.

Ethnic Foods

After living on the East Coast for more than a decade, Angie and I have been exposed to foods from every corner of the globe. Grow your menu by expanding your menu beyond meat, potatoes, and casseroles. If you love Italian food, choose pasta primavera instead of a cream sauce. You can’t go wrong with veggies, olive oil, and a little Parmesan sprinkled on top. Try wheat pasta.

Most Indian and Thai dishes are healthy, and you can’t beat the aromas and flavors.

I picked up an amazing recipe for a Latin bean dish from a former coworker in Queens. It tastes great in a tortilla or in a taco salad. Contact me if you’re interested. It’s not just beans and rice. Also, cut out the cheese and sour cream from time to time and add guacamole instead. My guacamole recipe includes avocados, minced onions, garlic, paprika, cumin, diced tomatoes, cilantro, salt, red pepper flakes, and apple cider vinegar.

We Eat a Lot of Pizza (Pita Pizzas)

Pita Pizzas taste better than most chain pizzas. Simply spread pizza sauce on a whole wheat pita, add toppings, cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, and bake at 410 F for about 15 minutes. We like green/red peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, feta cheese, mozzarella, spinach, and grape tomatoes.

What's in Our Cupboards and Fridge?

Low-fat tortilla chips and salsa instead of chips and dip
Veggies and hummus dip
Happy Cow cheese - spread on crackers, it melts in your mouth.
Fruits such as apples, pears, pineapple, tangerines, and bananas
Homemade bread
Pitas and tortillas
Breakfast bars or granola (make sure they are under 150 calories each)
Pistachios and almonds
sparkling juice instead of soda

Meat is OK! Choose Wisely

When buying meat, choose organic, antibiotic-free beef and free-range chicken. It may cost slightly more, but you can taste the difference.

Change the Culture

If your family and coworkers enjoy celebrating everything with cakes and pies, insist yogurt or fruit is provided. You’ll be surprised by how many people forgo the sweets for the healthier options.

Simple Ways to Stay Fit

Skip the elevator and take the stairs.
Park far away and walk.
Take a walk at lunch.

A Note for Chefs

Try offering a vegetarian option other than steamed vegetables over rice or pasta. Salads and raw vegetables just don’t cut it anymore. As a cooking enthusiast, I find making quality vegetarian dishes challenging and fulfilling. There are literally thousands of recipes out there for amazing vegetarian dishes. Why alienate part of your customer base? Experiment with some new menu options and you’ll probably grow your clientele. Vegetarians are very vocal, and word spreads quickly about restaurants that cater to their dietary choices.

Educate Yourself

More information about National Nutrition Month and all things related to food and nutrition can be found on the American Dietetic Association's website.

I'm Blogging National Nutrition Month

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Taste of the Mediterranean in West Virginia

We didn't know what we'd find on a recent day trip to historic Charles town, WV, but we definitely didn't expect to discover delicious Mediterranean cuisine.

Unassuming and easy to miss,
The Mediterranean Cafe offers one of the more unique menus you'll ever see. The cozy restaurant on Washington Street features food from countries around the region including Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Lebanon, and Morocco. For fans of fresh tomato salads swimming in olive oil, feta cheese, and pine nuts, this is the place for you.

The list of appetizers and salads was deep and varied. But I may have skipped them had I known how generous the complimentary plate of feta, hummus, pita, and salads would be.

The service was warm and inviting. Would you expect any less from the owner? He certainly made us feel welcome, and he even told us where he purchases their pita bread. Hint: not in West Virginia.

I chose a simple vegetable kabob for my entree. Perfectly grilled tomatoes, red onions, green peppers, and zucchini were wrapped in a massive pita. The wrap was served with a side of mast o khiar, which is yogurt sauce flavored with mint. Mint isn't my favorite herb, but the sauce was a nice break from dill and cucumber based tzatziki.

I'm not sure what type of tea they brewed, but my iced-tea definitely wasn't Lipton. It was more aromatic than black tea. It was yet another nice surprise.