banh mi at Café Au Lait

I’ll put the tl;dr up front here: We got banh mi from Café Au Lait, a nice little eating space tucked into an office building on Ridge Road. The banh mi were tasty, and they’re buy-5-get-1-free. But if we want banh mi again, we’ll call in the order well ahead of time, because it was the longest I’ve ever waited for sandwiches.

So I don’t know if Café Au Lait is usually slammed on Saturdays for lunch hour, but it was certainly slammed this past Saturday. We dropped by to order sandwiches for the family: five banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches). Then the nice young man at the counter told us that banh mi were buy-5-get-1-free; would we like to order one more? We were more than happy to do so.

The young man at the counter told us that the kitchen had a lot of orders to deal with and that it would probably be a half-hour wait; would we like to go away and come back?

We were a bit surprised, as our previous experience with banh mi was with the Lee’s Sandwiches chain in southern California, where the time to get a banh mi was roughly comparable to how long it takes to get a sandwich at Subway. Still, we’d wanted to try the local banh mi for a while; we agreed that we would wait for them.

The place wasn’t that full, so they must do a bustling business in takeout orders. We bought a chocolate croissant to snack on (perfectly decent, though not French-bakery-crusty by any means), went over to Home Depot and ran a leisurely errand, and were back in about 40 minutes.

The sandwiches still weren’t ready. The young man was extremely apologetic and offered to throw in some bags of chips. We waited maybe five or ten more minutes, and then the sandwiches finally came out.

On the bright side, they were pretty delicious. We got five flavors: classic, roast pork, grilled pork, meatball, and lemongrass chicken. (We chose roast pork for our sixth baguette.) We were sharing the sandwiches among five adults, so we cut each one into four pieces. The taste varied dramatically depending on whether or not you got a slice of jalapeno pepper in your bite.

Each sandwich came encased in its own Styrofoam container. (I don’t know why they didn’t just wrap them in paper; it would have taken up less room. Maybe they were afraid the sandwiches would get squished?) They were served on a somewhat softer, doughier bun than I’m used to; classic banh mi is served on a baguette, but this was toasted ciabatta. It’s okay; it was still tasty. All of the meats had great flavor, although the grilled pork was somewhat unexpectedly spicy. The pickled sliced vegetables gave just the right sweet-sour crunch. I liked it a lot, although personally I’d go with less jalapeno.

So yeah, the banh mi was pretty good. It wasn’t the best I’ve had, but it still pretty good, and it’s certainly great to have banh mi right here in Ellicott City. I’m already looking forward to getting a coffee drink or a bubble tea next time I go. I’ll just be sure to call in my order ahead of time.

banh mi from Cafe au Lait
…we waited 45 minutes for this.

Touché Touchet Cookiepalooza; summer CSA week 18

I stopped by Touché Touchet this morning to pick up something for breakfast, and found out that it was the beginning of Cookiepalooza! Sample three bites of brand-new cookie? Don’t mind if I do…


It’s an annual event in which they choose their next case cookie by popular vote. This year’s choices are caramel apple, white chocolate cranberry, and gluten-free peanut butter chocolate chip. I loved the caramel apple, which tasted like fall; the white chocolate cranberry was fruity and sweet, and the gluten-free cookie was unbelievably moist and delicious. They were all incredible. It was unfair to have to make a choice. Stop by and try the free samples of the cookies, and vote for your favorite.

In honor of the cookie event, all of their normal case cookies are on sale too, $1 each (not bad for a cookie half a foot in diameter; I’m not even exaggerating). Don’t worry about them running out of cookies; they’re baking up a storm.

On a healthier note, here is week 18 of Breezy Willow’s summer/fall CSA. We got lettuce, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples, red potatoes, onions, green beans, beets, broccoli, eggs, and bread (Breadery sourdough).

summer/fall CSA, week 18

Red potatoes are perfect for stew. This hot spell isn’t going to last forever; I look forward to turning on the oven and making long-cooking stews and braises in the Dutch oven, and lots of sweet baked goods with apples and pears. Store-bought cookies are great and all, but whenever October rolls around, I start feeling like the girl in this comic.

CSA week 9 and Buy Local, Buy Maryland

It’s gorgeous in Maryland right now. July slammed us with heat, humidity, and tons of rain (I feel like the lawn just keeps getting taller no matter how often it’s mowed). It seemed like summer was going to be nasty, but so far August has been quite gentle with us. I hope the mild weather continues.

Week 9 at the CSA: onions, green beans, cantaloupe, green peppers, nectarines, peaches, tomatoes, corn, eggs, and bread (Great Harvest challah).

summer CSA, week 9

The cantaloupe felt ripe, smelled sweet, and was terrifically juicy when I cut into it. However, the flavor was just bland. It was disappointing because I had the same problem with another CSA cantaloupe from an earlier week. I think the rainy season has plumped up the cantaloupes but left them a little lacking in the flavor aspect. Or maybe I’ve just been unlucky with cantaloupes. I love a good fresh cantaloupe, but if they keep going like this I’ll have to consider making them into agua frescas or something. If we hadn’t just bought a third of a cow (more on that later), I’d think about making cantaloupe popsicles.

In other news, I was excited to see this stack of cards when I dropped by Touché Touchet:

Buy Local Buy Maryland cards by the register

I’m all for buying local! Apparently this card gets you discounts at local vendors (10% off your Touché Touchet purchase, for starters). However, when I visited the website, I was disappointed that there were only two Howard County “Food and Dining” participants, namely Touché Touchet and Chen Hibachi. Come on, Howard County, you’re crammed with food and dining options; get with the program.

Also, the website is annoying and clunky to navigate; you can view participating vendors by category, but can’t search by location. It gets difficult to “buy local” when you can’t even define your locality. I think this little card I picked up is going to be pretty useless to me until a) more Howard County vendors participate, and b) the website gets a facelift.

I cannot keep silent any longer.

Listen, restaurants. I really, really need you to recognize the city of Brussels. It’s the capital of Belgium. It’s got a capital B, because it’s a name. It ends with an “s”. It’s famous for, among other things, the humble Brussels sprout. Yes, the sprout and the city have the same name.

I can’t emphasize this enough: there is no such thing as a “brussel sprout.”

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, from the menu of Cacao Lane:

Cacao Lane needs an 's'

Look, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve seen this mistake. I’ll forgive an error here or there from food bloggers. They’re just home cooks. They can’t be expected to do research into how things are spelled. But you, you’re professionals. Food is your career. You should at least spell food-related words correctly.

Even Bryan Voltaggio, celebrated chef on TV, couldn’t get it right on his menu at Family Meal:

Family Meal needs an 's'

Oh, Bryan. Your menu features far more complicated words, like sorghum, bolognese, bearnaise. You don’t capitalize anything else, so I’ll forgive you for the lowercase “b.” But just do me a favor: stick an “s” at the end of your brussel.

(By the way, I was wowed by everything we ate at Family Meal except for the Brussels sprouts, which is weird because I’m generally a huge Brussels sprout fan. It might just be me, though; others at the table loved them. I’m just not a big fan of nasal pungency (I don’t like wasabi or horseradish either), and the mustard or whatever it was in the sauce coating the sprouts was a bit strong for me. It’s okay. Everthing else was fantastic — incredibly moist fried chicken, really flavorful rockfish, and oh, absolutely extraordinary chicken pot pie fritters, crunchy outside with molten pot pie filling in the middle (how does that even happen?). They were tiny and cost $1 apiece, but they were totally worth it. Just be careful not to burn your mouth.)

Family Meal's brilliant chicken pot pie fritters

And while I’m at it, let me pick the scab off another pet peeve. After a great dinner with the in-laws at Family Meal, we went to Kloby’s for carryout the next day. They made me wait half an hour, even though they told me the wait would only be 15 minutes, but it’s okay, I forgive them for that. Their barbecue is totally worth the wait.

This is what I couldn’t forgive (and was stuck staring at for an extra 15 minutes):

Kloby's does y'all a disservice

It’s a contraction of “you all,” right? The letters that are elided are the “o” and “u”; since those letters are taken out, the apostrophe is inserted in their place. The proper rendition is therefore “y’all.”

(My college roommate, from North Carolina, informed me that when addressing larger groups, one may even use the delightful phrase “all y’all.” But that’s for advanced users only. Me, I’ll be happy if you just stick the apostrophe where it’s supposed to be.)

I know it’s a minor nitpick. But I have to stand up for what’s right.

Granola bars! and this Sunday’s shopping

I think I snapped sometime last week, when I dug yet another tasteless supermarket granola bar out of my work drawer. It tasted like cardboard and chemicals, a mockery of the big chunks of chocolate and round red cherries on the plastic wrapper. I grumpily ate it anyway (I was hungry, after all), but promised myself I would find a better way.

The internet (specifically, Smitten Kitchen) came to the rescue! I won’t copy her recipe over because I barely changed it, but if you want to click through, I recommend doing so. The recipe takes almost zero time to come together, it’s easy as anything, and you’ll never eat a supermarket granola bar again. (Well, you might. But you’ll resent it.)

On top of the oat base, the recipe calls for 2 to 3 cups of dried fruits and nuts. All we had in the house were Craisins and chocolate chips, so I used 1.5 cups of Craisins, 1/3 cup of chocolate chips, and 1 cup of Rice Krispies cereal to pad things out.

granola bars

They turned out amazing. Yes, even though I messed up and forgot to add the melted butter until the very end (and, in my haste, tried to melt said butter in the microwave and it exploded, leaving greasy streaks everywhere). Anyway, they’re dreamy creations, peanut buttery and oat-y and sparkling with fruits and chocolate. It’s like eating an oatmeal craisin cookie in bar form.

I made them this past Sunday, and we’re already practically halfway through the batch. I used a 9×9 Pyrex dish, but I think next time I’ll use a 9×13 to make an even thinner granola bar (closer to supermarket size). And I’m looking forward to using dried cherries and cashews for the next batch. (Oh, Ann’s House of Nuts, how I miss you.)

We also went to the farmer’s market in Oakland Mills on Sunday. I went for strawberries and bread, and came away with thyme and radishes as well.

Sunday market haul

That’s Popeye bread from Great Harvest (spinach in bread = no guilt about breakfast sandwiches), and both French and English thyme. I’m horrible with plants, but I think if I plant the thyme outside, Mother Nature will take better care of it than I can. And I love thyme on chicken in the summers.

The strawberries lived up to my expectations, by the way; they were wonderfully sweet, juicy, and dark red all the way through. Every year, I’m amazed anew by the taste of ripe strawberries. There’s really no comparison to supermarket ones.

(And if you send your kid to daycare with strawberries to snack on, he’ll smell deliciously sweet when you pick him up in the afternoon. He might even have sticky red streaks on his cheeks, perfect for kissing. It’s adorable.)

Ahem. Anyway. We also made a stop at Linda’s Bakery for assorted cupcakes, since we were going to see family later that day. The people manning the counters are always so patient with me while I dither around figuring out what flavors to get. (Really, I’m just trying to convince myself that I don’t really need to order one of everything.)

Linda's Bakery purchases

Since I hadn’t tried the passionfruit macarons before, we got a couple to sample. (Verdict: very sweet, not terribly passionfruity.) And as a bonus, next time I go in there, I’ll get a free cupcake! They have a frequent buyer card with which you can get a free cupcake after every 10 cupcake purchases. I’ve somehow miraculously managed to hang onto the same one since I started. On the other hand, I must have five or six frequent buyer cards from Great Harvest floating around the house. Someday I’ll find them all and have a bread party.

Anyway, it’s great to live in a place where such good food is so easy to find.

spring CSA, week 8

The people at Breezy Willow have been working on an addition to their CSA shed for months, and this week it finally got its grand opening. It’s screened on three sides, so the beautiful fresh air flows in, and it’s big and airy, so there’s plenty of room to circle around and collect veggies, without having to wait outside while the people inside finish up. I love it. It’ll be beautiful in the summer. Maybe a little chilly in late autumn, but we’ll all be bundled up in coats and scarves anyway.

This week’s pickup: sweet potatoes, onions, oranges, zucchini, radishes, spring mix, spinach, green beans, garlic, and bread (Great Harvest whole wheat). This was a “bonus item” week, so we could pick from preserves or cheese (or ask for eggs if we really wanted them). I was tempted by the cherry amaretto jam but I went with “strawberry fields”. It’s spring and I’m really looking forward to strawberry picking.

spring CSA, week 8

The oranges are a real treat, since citrus has been kind of scant this spring. In past years we used to get huge bags of citrus every week, but now the occasional orange or grapefruit is a nice surprise. It seems there was unpredictable weather in Florida and the citrus crop suffered as a result. Thank goodness Breezy Willow CSA is a co-op and other farms could step in to pick up the slack.

I also picked up some sheep’s cheese to try. This is from Shepherd’s Manor Creamery (though now I’m unsure as to whether their name should be “Shepard”, or whether the label is mispelled). RJ’s been talking up the cheese in the weekly email bulletins, so I figured I’d try it. It looks spreadable, like cream cheese. I’ll let you know what I think.

strawberry jam and sheep's milk cheese

Though for $8.50 per small tub, let’s hope I don’t get addicted.

There’s a lot going on this weekend; my alma mater is hosting Maryland Day on Saturday, promising fun and learning for all ages. I’m interested in the research greenhouse and a lot of the engineering displays, and if the kid is feeling perky, we might take him to see some of the livestock. (I usually also love going to the free concerts, but that sort of thing is dicier with a one-year-old.)

Also this coming weekend, Savage Mill (always one of my favorite places to hang out) is hosting their Cherrybration and sidewalk sale. Hopefully the weather stays nice!

cupcake cake-off: Linda’s Bakery vs. Oh What a Cake!

K and I had a cupcake tree at our wedding reception (featuring Cakelove cupcakes), and ever since then, we’ve marked our anniversary by eating cupcakes. We got together with some friends at the dim sum happy hour at Red Pearl, and I decided to surprise people with cupcakes from Linda’s Bakery. One of our friends also surprised us… with cupcakes from Oh What a Cake! on Dobbin. After saving two for later, that still came to twelve cupcakes for five people. We were undeterred. The cupcake cake-off was on!

overhead view of cupcakes

Our selection actually overlapped beautifully, which made us very excited for the cupcake cake-off. From Linda’s Bakery (on the left), we have carrot, red velvet, chocolate with chocolate buttercream, coconut, lemon with raspberry buttercream, and chocolate with raspberry buttercream. There’s also a little box with another red velvet cupcake and an almond cupcake. (We saved a red velvet and the chocolate/raspberry for later.)

From Oh What a Cake!, we have lemon, coconut, almond, carrot, chocolate, and red velvet.

We painstakingly divided each cupcake into five equal slices (I was getting really good at it by the end) and did a flavor-to-flavor comparison. The cupcakes from Oh What a Cake! were unanimously deemed more fluffy and moist, whereas the crumb of Linda’s cupcakes was more on the dry side. (The exception was the carrot cupcakes, which were closer in texture.) More tasters preferred the buttercream of Linda’s cupcakes to the flavored icing on the Oh What a Cake! cupcakes, although this was not unanimous. We joked that in an ideal world, most of us would order nude cupcakes from Oh What a Cake!, and then take them over to Linda’s to get decorated with buttercream frosting.

The flavors were very good. Both bakers seemed to use real carrot for the carrot cakes, but when it came to the almond and coconut cupcakes, the cupcakes from Linda’s had more genuine almond and coconut flavors, whereas the ones from Oh What a Cake! tasted of artificial syrups. Linda’s cupcakes were also much more lavishly decorated, whereas Oh What a Cake! went for a very plain look, sometimes adding a single colored candy on top.

closeup view of cupcakes

In general, the cupcakes were pretty fantastic all around, and we were all very full afterward. It’s great to live in a place where fancy, delicious cupcakes are available at a moment’s notice.

snakehead dining

In case you haven’t heard of the snakehead fish, it’s an invasive Asian species that’s gotten into Maryland and Virginia waters. It’s scary, a voracious predator with no natural enemies in these parts, and it takes very good care of its young, ensuring that large numbers of them survive to reproduce. It’s freakishly hardy, able to breathe air and survive for days out of water. US Fish and Wildlife have been trying to contain the population explosion, but the snakeheads are flourishing.

Enter Whackfactor Outdoors and the Potomac Snakehead Tournament. They set up a tournament with cash prizes for whoever could bring in the heaviest snakehead catch within a set amount of time. As a bonus (and this is what caught K’s attention), local chefs would prepare delicacies with snakehead.

K has long been saying that the cure for invasive species is for humans to eat them. Humans, after all, have hunted species to the brink of extinction time and time again. If anyone can take out a species, it’s us.

We showed up at the tournament near the end, for the Invasive Species Tasting (open to the public). I was delighted by the quality of the free snakehead delicacies.

snakehead bites

On my plate: snakehead ceviche on a tortilla (courtesy the chef from Alewife), a snakehead crostini with microgreens (courtesy the staff of Dino DC), and fried blue catfish (apparently also an invasive species).

It was fabulous food; everything was delicious. I didn’t take notes on the flavors, but I would cheerfully go out to the restaurants if they put those dishes on the menu. People, if you see snakehead on the menu, snap it up! I’m sure we can eat these invaders right out of the Potomac, if we put our minds to it.

By the way, the tournament ended up removing over half a ton of snakeheads from the area. Kudos to the hardworking tournament contestants!

spring CSA week 2, and hot dogs

Week 2 of the spring CSA is not accurately reflected in the picture; I traded three kohlrabi for four grapefruit, and completely forgot to pick up the head of garlic. Oh well.

(I’ve tried kohlrabi every time it’s come up, and I have yet to be convinced that any good can come of it. So I availed myself of the trade table.)

So my personal version of week 2: eight! grapefruit, six oranges, eight apples (four red delicious, four golden delicious), onions, sweet potatoes, spinach, and green beans; also the usual eggs and bread (Great Harvest parmesan sourdough).

spring CSA, week 2

In other news, a hot dog stand called “Lala’s” has taken up residence by the play area at Lake Elkhorn. The guy working the stand when we showed up said that they were affiliated with an ice cream place moving in down by the Phoenix in historic Ellicott City. We tried a Chicago dog. It was missing the bright green relish and the roll was not poppyseed, but for $2, it was pretty darn good.

wheeled shopping basket: awesome.

When I go to the grocery store, I disdain the shopping carts. I’ve never liked the darn things, with their giant baskets and sticky wheels. I’m part of a two-person household, I tell myself; we don’t need that much food anyway. I usually have a couple of reusable bags, so I just put my groceries in the bag and tote the bag around on my shoulder. I like to think of it as good exercise.

90% of the time, however, after I’ve picked up a ten-pound bag of cat food, a gallon of milk, and a half-gallon of orange juice, and the bag straps are cutting into my shoulder, it occurs to me that I’ve been an idiot once again and I should have just gotten a cart. But the carts are always outside and who wants to go outside to get a cart after assembling a haul of groceries?

Anyway, that was the situation I found myself in at Giant the other day — I was wandering the isles, populating my reusable bag, and my shoulder was aching from the cans of pineapple and the two(!) bags of flour that I’d somehow decided I needed… when a stack of shopping baskets caught my eye. Shopping baskets with wheels. And tall pull handles.

I immediately took a load off my aching shoulder.

a basket cart!

It’s such a piece of brilliance. A shopping basket with wheels! Perfect for those of us who don’t feel like maneuvering a huge shopping cart around the store. I was so happy. I tugged the basket along behind me, like a helpful little puppy, and picked up a gallon of milk on my way back to the registers. Just becase I could.