Archive for December, 2013

Turning next-to-nothing into something special with simple weeknight meals

December 9, 2013

My favorite meals I make aren’t the complicated ones planned for days and prepped for hours because I’m celebrating something. It’s the simple ones thrown together fast because it’s 8 o’clock on a Monday and I have to eat something.

They’re not always home runs, but when they are, they can turn a dull Monday evening into something special. When they aren’t, what’s learned can be applied on a future Monday night.

In 45 minutes of cooking and prep — less than half of it active, and the timing easy to coordinate — I had a hit today starting out with just the meat and some shallots. The rest, out of necessity, used ingredients likely to be laying around the average kitchen — at least kitchens in the south, or whose cooks spent time in the south.

To be fair, it wasn’t just any meat. Over the weekend, my roommate was making a trip to Whole Foods and invited me to tag along. Mindful of blowing my Whole Paycheck — for day-to-day cooking, I generally stick to farmers markets and basic grocery stores — I limited myself to a few things that jumped out a me. A buffalo rib-eye steak was among those, in part because I had already selected some shallots, which are in a stand-by steak recipe I use.

So, I had my main dish, but, wanting nothing to do with the grocery store on the eve of an impending snowstorm, was limited to what I had in my vegetable bowl and pantry for sides.

The other week I gave in and finally got some supermarket tomatoes, and my last one was pushing even its freakish shelf-life. We can roast that. So, there’s a vegetable.

Starch? No potatoes. No rice, as hard as that is to imagine. There’s quinoa but I just had that yesterday. Bread, but I don’t want just bread. Ah, but I always have grits, which, if, you haven’t discovered, aren’t just for breakfast. Well, I always do, except right now, as tonight I had just enough for one serving, which I devoured.

While I didn’t have all of the ingredients, or, with a grumbling stomach, all of the time, I have a go-to baked grits recipe, too — the steak and tomatoes were destined for the oven anyway, so might as well have something heartier than just stove-cooked — that I modified to be quicker and, because of what I had on hand, slightly lighter.

After popping out to The Wine Source (fortunately I’m just a few blocks way) for red wine for the steak’s reduction sauce, putting it all together, here is roughly what I did:

  • Following directions on the canister, boil water for the grits, stir them in, and let them simmer. Making just one serving, and, with baking to crispin them up, if you’re in a hurry, feel free to leave them a little runnier than normal. I think I had mine simmer a little over 10 minutes.
  • While the grits are simmering, after pre-heating the oven to 380 degrees, a temperature I figured would work for everything, cut the tomato in half, slice it, cut the slices in half, dump the halves in a roasting pan and sprinkle them with olive oil, dried oregano, dried basil, salt and pepper.
  • buffalo-steakWhen the grits are done simmering, remove them from the heat, add a splash of milk, about a quarter stick of butter, and a half teaspoon or so of pepper, then grate in a generous amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano — pretty much any hard cheese with do — and stir until everything is combined.
  • That’s all the active work for the tomatoes and grits. Put them in the oven and set your timer for 30 minutes. The buffalo steak, which gets seared first, goes in at the halfway point.
  • Chopping the shallots for the steak is probably the most involved part of this, in part because your eyes will likely need a few breaks. Before you do that, get out the buffalo steak (feel free to sub in a different meat like beef or lamb and/or cut, as long as it’s not overly thin) and grind salt and pepper onto both sides. You can also get out some dried tarragon, the only other component in the reduction sauce, and reserve a half cup of dry red wine. If you plan to drink any with dinner, put in the fridge to chill after you chop the shallots. Without further ado, now chop the shallots.
  • When the timer hits 20 minutes, heat a skillet on medium-high. After a minute, drizzle in some olive oil, swirl it around, let it heat a little more, and throw in the steak. Sear it about two minutes a side, transfer to a foil-covered pan, and put in the oven. While I based this on a beef recipe, if you use buffalo, be aware that buffalo is leaner than beef, so cooks faster. If you use beef or something else fattier, you’ll likely need to increase the cooking time, unless it’s thin. For medium doneness, my buffalo, which was about 1 and a half inches thick, took 13 minutes. To avoid overcooking, after 10 minutes, check it by cutting into it and eyeing the color.
  • After checking the meat, in the same skillet in which you seared the steak, sautee the shallots over medium heat until soft. You shouldn’t need any extra oil; if you do, just add a little. If the shallots are ready before the meat, just remove from the heat, and put it back on medium when you  take the steak out.
  • When the steak is done, put it on a plate to rest, crank the skillet’s heat up to medium high, pour in the wine, tap in some tarragon and let it reduce, about three minutes. If you don’t have wine wine or cooking wine, balsamic vinegar and sugar is a good alternative.
  • At this point, even if your steak cooked quickly, the grits and tomatoes should be ready as well. Get those out of the oven, plate everything, and spoon the sauce over the steak. If the steak sauce or tomato juices seep into your grits, it’s not a bad thing.

Five ideas for buying local holiday gifts in Baltimore

December 7, 2013

I’ve never been big on shopping, but I enjoy holiday shopping. Perhaps it’s because the challenge of buying for others turns it into a quest, instead of just a transaction. Since moving back to Baltimore two years ago and embracing local living, I’ve enjoyed it even more. Getting lost — literally or figuratively — in a neighborhood is a welcome escape from the frenzy we’ve let this season turn into, whereas getting lost at the mall makes it seem like you’re trapped in it. And, if you’re lost about what to buy, with local merchants, you can often get help directly from the person who picked, or even who made, what’s for sale.

Bmore3D Store (Canton)

_baltimore3dAny gift the recipient has to model for is difficult to make a surprise, but the delight anyone will feel upon seeing his or her face on a bobblehead should more than make up for the lack of suspense.

If you’d rather keep the surprise, or appeal to something other than vanity, the Bmore3D Store, a pop-up shop next to Sip & Bite in Canton offering 3D-printed trinkets by local artists and 3D-scanning and 3D-printing services, caters to their modernity, creativity and hometown pride (Baltimore-themed items are among the jewelry, vases, and other items for sale) as well.

While novelties like the bobbleheads may be the first to grab consumers’ attention — the shop offers personalized figurines, pencil toppers and holograms as well — the power to deploy a desktop army of plastic and ceramic mini-mes isn’t what makes 3D printing revolutionary.

That you’re not limited by the store’s inventory — staff will print items from 3D models customers made or found online, where thousands are available for free — hints at the technology’s true potential.

By enabling rapid prototyping as well as building, and by reducing waste from production errors and scrap material, digital fabrication makes development, production and distribution vastly more efficient than traditional methods. Efficiency? With hundreds of millions of children to serve, Santa’s probably already on board.

Even if it’s just a bobblehead, by giving a taste of the industrial future, espcecially for the younger ones on your list (be sure to mention the Santa thing), you’re giving more than just a present.

WHERE: 2150 Boston St.

Open 1 p.m. to 9 p.m daily through the end of the year

WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Hopefully catch a demo, workshop, or even live music. Check the store’s calendar if you want to try to time your visit right.

The Gift Cellar (Lauraville)


Photo courtesy of The Gift Cellar

Anyone who’s ever stayed at their grandparents’ house knows that the cool, if slightly quirky stuff, is in the basement. An original LITE-BRITE and homemade dinner buzzer are among the items I remember fondly. Stepping down off Harford Road into the aptly named The Gift Cellar, you’ll experience a similar sense of anticipation. Once inside, cool, quirky, and Maryland-made is what you’ll find.

If there are ladies on your list who favor funky, over fancy, jewerly, the Cellar is definitely worth a visit. While it’s a relatively small space, you’ll be surprised by all else that’s there. The shop’s more than two dozen vendors also make scarves, bath and beauty products, cards and prints, candles, pottery and sculpture, stuffed animals, T-shirts and decor.

And if you can’t find it, don’t be afraid to ask. Seeking a Bawlmer rat shirt for my uncle, I lamented that they were out of his size, and, straight out of the Smalltimore script, the local — in this case, hyperlocal — vendor behind the design just happened be in the store. He was back with the size I needed faster than I could finish a cup of coffee next door.

WHERE: 4337 Harford Road

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday (through Dec. 22.)

WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Take a coffee break next door at Red Canoe. While you sip, window shop the bookstore-cafe’s shelves.

Canton Games (Canton)

If you get the season’s hot toy, the replay value, in gaming parlance, isn’t likely to be very high. Just ask this mom where last year’s Furbys are now. The offerings at Canton Games, catering to children, adults and families alike, meanwhile, are designed, and tested, to last, not just to sell.

From traditional games like Rummikub, to collectible games like Magic the Gathering, to role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, to party favorites like Cranium, if it’s a game, and you can think of it — heck, even if you can’t — Canton Games is likely to carry it. Did you know there’s an unofficial Cards Against Humanity expansion pack called Crabs Adjust Humidity?

Oh yeah, you can get comic books, graphic novels — excellent for nudging a  young, reluctant reader without bumming him or her out  — and action figures here, too.

WHERE: 2101 Essex St.

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Sticking with the games theme, head down to Bar Arcade on Boston Street. Enjoy the video games you grew up with, but with beer.

Sixteen Tons/Doubledutch Boutique (Hampden)

_16t2The ability to earnestly say — to the help and to yourself — that you’re “just looking,” helps take the pressure out of shopping, holiday or otherwise. It’s harder to say that when you’re obviously looking for a gift, and obviously not going to be tacking on anything for yourself, like the bug-eyed husband wandering the lingerie department on Christmas Eve.

Let’s hope things don’t get that desperate for you this holiday, but, let’s face it, at least from a man’s perspective, browsing a store with wares, especially clothing, exclusively for the opposite gender, can get uncomfortable.

Sixteen Tons and Doubledutch Boutique on The Avenue help take some of the edge off by housing men’s and women’s clothing stores, respectively (Oh, could you guess from the names?), under the same roof, guys downstairs and gals upstairs.

What also helps are that both shops favor vintage-inspired looks. Sixteen Tons stocks “Classic And Contemporary Men’s Apparel & Accoutrements,” Doubledutch “Modern lines and indie designs.” With the sales staffs’ counsel — “Oh I was just looking downstairs/upstairs, but since I’m here…” — if it seems like a hit, it probably will be, and it still will be this time next year.

If you’re still unsure, or on a budget, soaps for her or shaving products for him are always a safe, and less expensive bet.

WHERE: 1021 W. 36th St.

WHEN: Sixteen Tons is open noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Doubledutch Boutique is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Venture into some of the many antique shops along The Avenue. Finding a full gift can be hit or miss, but be on the lookout for fun stocking stuffers. The other year, for a few dollars, I picked up vintage postcards for members of my family whose scenes carried special meaning.

Food experiences (Fells Point, Hampden, various neighborhoods)

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user gfhdickinson


The shortest route to a gift recipient’s heart is through their stomach, right? Perhaps. If you want to give something especially memorable, though, you might want to enter through the brain. For that, try these high-minded food experiences.

“So, that’s how to cut an onion!” they’ll cry out, possibly in tears, after a cooking class at Pierpoint or Waterfront Kitchen. “So, that’s what kangaroo tastes like!” they’ll shout after sanpling exotic foods as a member of Corner BYOB‘s Gastronaut Society. “I never knew this neighborhood had a place like this!” they’ll exclaim after a Dishcrawl restaurant tour.


Many of these fill up fast, so don’t delay. Fortunately, I asked for them in time to receive two of Pierpoint’s more popular classes as gifts last year. The French cuts taught in the knife skills class and seafood safety tips from the fish cooking class are things I’ll use the rest of my life. How many gifts can you say that for?

Pierpoint cooking classes by chef Nancy Longo, $75* each, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays or Sundays, 1822 Aliceanna St. (Fells Point)

Classes still available as of this writing included Low-Fat Cooking, International BBQ, Knife Skills, Fish Cooking, Essentials of Indian Cooking, Modern Italian, and Essentials of Gluten-Free Cooking.

*$10 early-bird discounts available

Waterfront Kitchen cooking classes by chef Jerry Pellegrino [pdf], $59 each, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays, 1417 Thames St. (Fells Point) 

Classes still available of this writing included The Art of Making Sauces; The Art of Baking Bread; Aphrodisiacs; Bacon, Sausage, and other Pork Products; Molecular Gastronomy; The Art of Making Sushi; and A Tribute to Julia Child.


It’s like a bar crawl, but a restaurant crawl. Dishcrawl‘s monthly walking tours, offered in dozens of other cities in addition to Baltimore, stop at four restaurants in one evening. At each stop, diners sample a few dishes (the last stop is always dessert), hear from an owner, manager or chef, and socialize with fellow crawlers.

If the restaurant serves it, alcohol is available for purchase, and the host will give a warning before moving to the next destination so drinkers can settle their checks. Since I and fellow attendees were wondering going in: Know that the sample plates are far from just a few nibbles. When the night was through at the crawl in Mount Vernon in August, I was filled! (If you saw my Thanksgiving plate, er, plates, that’s saying a lot.)

To purchase a Dischcrawl gift certificate — each Baltimore tour is $35 per person — call Nancy Judy Miel, the national Dishcrawl employee in charge of gift certificates, at 415-523-0477.


When going on a food exploration, as Corner BYOB calls it, it’s best not to go alone — even the bravest diner at least needs witnesses to attest, “Yes, she really ate that.” At Gastronaut Society meals, that can mean things like rattlesnake, muskrat, duck tongue, scorpion and crickets. That cousin who was looking up recipes the last time the cicadas surfaced? Yeah, this might be for him.

A $50 Gastronaut Society annual membership gets the recipient discounts — typically around 25 percent off the over $100 regular price — on three prix fixe dinners throughout the year and 10% discounts on “special adventurous fare” featured on the restaurant’s regular menu.

Corner BYOB is located, yup, on the corner, of 36th and Elm streets in Hampden.

WHILE YOU’RE THERE: At Pierpoint, Waterfront Kitchen, or Corner BYOB, give yourself something to look forward to by making reservations for a Saturday in the spring, just because. You earned it. You were good this year, right?

Get more gift tips

This is but a sampling of how to go local with your gift giving in and around Baltimore. For more inspiration, in addition to my post last year, I recommend Bmore Art’s roundup of holiday bazaars, The Baltimore Chop’s “Where To Do Your Christmas Shopping in Baltimore,” and HowChow’s Gift Week series.