Better Selection

Loudoun County has grown, A LOT, over the past twenty-five years. That is hardly a surprise to anyone who has lived in the area for any length of time. But for me, coming back to the area after we sold our home in Fairfax County, it has been a bit of a shock.

In 1995, the population was 116,140; in 2021 the estimated population is 429,570. The 2020 census data won’t be released for sometime but I’m sure it won’t shock county residents that we continue to grow. While Loudoun County is neither the fastest growing county in the US, it is the fastest in Virginia. According to Loudoun County Business Development, “Nationally, over that span (since 2010) Loudoun ranks 20th in growth of 3,142 counties and seventh among counties with a population of 100,000 or more. With Washington-Dulles International Airport providing access to more than 50 world capitals, nearly one in four Loudouners were born outside the U.S.” See their article for more here.

What I find interesting in all of this talk about growth is the growth in our culinary selections. Restaurant reviews and magazine or newspaper “best of” and “top ten” lists are published periodically. I have found many to be helpful guides in my ongoing search of culinary adventure. Over on The Burn website for instance, they have written over 35 stories on restaurants which have either opened since January of this year, or have plans to open soon.

Many of the new selections fall into recognizable categories: eight new restaurants featuring chicken, for instance. Five new Asian restaurants (Korean BBQ, Chinese-style hot pot, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants; four coffee shops and a couple of cookie or milk shake dessert places; even a new winery which looks like it will be fun (Old Farm Winery at Hartland).

Saigon Outcast is a recently-opened fast casual style restaurant that we tried Saturday night with friends. A band was playing indoors to an enthusiastic crowd; we sat outdoors on the patio. Gas heaters provided plenty of warmth during the cool spring evening and allowed us to enjoy the conversation without needing to wear a mask. Saigon Outcast is an Vietnamese twist on the popular “world of beers” eatery. Rather than traditional pub food (pretzels, hamburgers, smothered tater tots), their menu has features such as lemongrass beef, green papaya salad with shrimp, and wok-charred shishito peppers. Indoors, the wall of customer-poured beers was an experience I look forward to trying again. I needed a little help with the whole process (chilled glasses on the left side of the cooler, tip your glass a little more to get under the spigot) but what an adventure! With over 30 beers, wines and ciders to choose from, fun decor and the Vietnamese inspired menu, this is a place I hope to return to soon.

A few selections from the menu at Saigon Outcast

La Prensa Tacos and Tapas opened last December in Sterling and has been growing in popularity since. Deb and I stopped in after church one Sunday hoping to avoid the afternoon and evening crowd I had seen on a recent drive by pick up at Nothing Bundt Cakes next door. What a treat! We tried several of the tapas and a birria quesadilla, all delicious. They offer two types of sangria so we ordered a glass of each to go with our tasting meal. The grilled octopus with Salsa Basquaise was amazing and had me thinking about our visit to Barcelona. The menu is Mexican influenced according to chef Santosh Tiptur, owner of The Conche in Leesburg, with half of the menu featuring tacos, enchiladas and quesadillas, the other half featuring small-plated tapas. There are three items on the dessert menu (save room!) and the churros drizzled in chocolate served with ice cream was my favorite. The flan was nice, but really no competition with the churros. I’m giving them two thumbs up. Try them soon for an upbeat modern version of a Spanish tapas bar.

Pulpo con Salsa Basquaise

La Prensa

21305 Windmill Parc Drive, Suite 140
Sterling VA 20166

Saigon Outcast

44921 George Washington Blvd, Suite 155
Ashburn, VA 20147

The Qui

This weekend we tried the Qui Korean Grille, a new Korean Barbeque restaurant in the NOVA area. Located in Chantilly, Virginia, it is off the Annandale—Centreville axis of Korean restaurants we usually visit and closer to our new home in Eastern Loudoun County. Korean KBBQ is often served “all you can eat” style with a seemingly endless supply of new sliced meats to grill at your table. The Qui has been open for just three months so I was excited to try them out.

The “all you can eat” menu features either a pork or a beef selection. For $24 a person, that sounded fine but I thought it would really be too much to eat for the two of us (ten meat selections!) So, for a few dollars more, we selected the Beef Combination set, better quality meat and only five selections. Beginning with thinly-sliced brisket, we tried their bulgogi and three other meats. It still ended up being far more meat than we usually have for a meal. But after I saw it on the menu, our server was kind and brought us a sample of the orange bulgogi to try. Winner!

Our meal came with rice and a small assortment of banchan, side dishes such as kimchi, broccoli, and pickled daikon radish meant to be shared. Curiously missing was the plate of large-leaved lettuce used to wrap the bite sized portions of meat. It really was a meat lovers experience. My favorite turned out to be the orange bulgogi. I’ve often brought home marinated beef and pork bulgogi from our local HMart grocery store and grilled my own meats; I’m definitely trying it with the orange flavor soon.

The Qui appears to fit more closely with the look and feel of Iron Age Korean Steak Restaurant in Centreville. Both share the same dark painted walls and low-lit aesthetic. With its slab concrete tables and black pendant lighting, the Qui doesn’t have the warm and bright environment that I’m used to seeing at most of our restaurants. Not sure how I feel about that yet. With restaurant indoor capacity still at 50 percent, the tables are separated with plexiglass dividers. There are hand sanitizer stations at the door and a contactless temperature check in the waiting area before entering the main dining room.

The Qui is located next door to Chateau de Chantilly Cafe, a large cafe and bakery with plenty of seating indoors as well as an outdoor patio area in the front. A great place to stop and get a coffee and pastry after your meal at the Qui. Give them both a try and let me know what you think.

THE QUI Korean Grill
13972 Metrotech Dr, Chantilly, VA 20151 | 703.817.2505

Plenty of parking at the side and back of the building.

Encourage One Another

Everyone is under encouraged. Everyone. 

I’m quoting from a former pastor who in truth probably quoted his favorite teacher. But it’s a truth whose veracity we don’t need to go far to ascertain. Whether from personal history or from our studies, we know how much a word of encouragement can mean to people. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament says, “Encourage one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” He may have had a more significant day in view, but tomorrow approaches, well, every day. 

But why the admonishment? What is it about our lives that would make a biblical command necessary? And if we are asked, directed or commanded as it were to encourage others, then how are we to go about it? 

Earlier in the book (Hebrews 3:13) the author gives us a little more insight. “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

In today’s vernacular we might put it like this, “encourage one another because life is hard and it just gets harder.” 

Before our move to our townhome, we had lived in the same house for 22 years. In that time I learned the first name of only ten neighbors. Only ten from a neighborhood of over 200 homes. I resolved to do better in our new location. 

At first I would wave to our new neighbors whenever I passed them on my walk to get the mail. Nothing. While the weather was still warm I would sit out on our porch and drink my morning coffee; again I would wave to the neighbors as they left for a walk or their commute to work. We might exchange a quick hello, other than that, nothing.

And then for Thanksgiving my wife had a great idea. Remembering the small Whitman’s sampler chocolates we used to get in our Christmas stockings, we decided to get a few and put them in small bags to hang on the doors of our neighbors. Nothing extravagant, just a note letting them know we were thankful for them this year.

The response was a bit overwhelming. From handmade thank you cards to gifts in kind (who doesn’t like to receive chocolate?), our neighbors began to stop by and leave small gift bags on our doorstep, always signed with their house number. Earlier in the year I had let our own small group Bible study know that one of my goals for 2020 had been to learn the names of my neighbors, and how poorly that was going. Now the names seemed to be pouring in!

From small gift giving, to conversations on the sidewalk, we have been getting to know our neighbors. We haven’t had to wait for another Snowmageddon to bring the community together in a massive one-time shoveling event. Even now we are considering how we might continue to encourage one another. I’m hoping for something along the lines of a 4th of July children’s parade and hotdogs, only perhaps a little sooner than July.

With our erratic weather we could still be in for a big snow storm in the new year. But at least when it arrives, I can call my neighbors by name. And that might just be the encouragement we need during these difficult times.

Holidays on Zoom

Really? Are we actually thinking of doing our upcoming holidays on Zoom? 

For years, like many families I’m sure, we have spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with extended family. Whether potluck buffet-style or sit down dinner for a few, we have enjoyed Thanksgiving in a group setting, too many people around a small table. 

Small or large, Thanksgiving means turkey, except when it doesn’t.
What do you serve for the holiday?

Though one year’s Thanksgiving main course ended up with an oven fire, and an overzealous use of the fire  extinguisher (sheepishly raises hand), we all have memories of holiday meals that didn’t go quite as planned. Our Hallmark-movie-Martha-Stewart-Instagram-perfect table setting might not have made the cover of Southern Living Magazine. Our signature dessert might have suffered irreparable harm on its way to the table or an excitable dog might have crashed the side table. Every family has a holiday memory that, years later has grown with the telling.

My brother shocked me one year with the confession that his wife had cooked two turkeys. And a ham. Along with the usual panoply of side dishes. And rice and kimchi. As a Korean-American, cooking an American-style Thanksgiving dinner had been a new experience for her. But like everything else she sets her hand to, she excelled at it. Why so much food? Dave said that he never knows how many have been invited, or who all eventually shows up. But it’s always a crowd.

Which brings us back to this year’s holiday preparations. We just finished celebrating my Mother’s 92nd birthday over Zoom with the family last month. We’ve attended church online for months now and attended countless Zoom meetings, studies, and social events. We’ve even become somewhat proficient at hosting live Bible study with members participating in person and online.

But I’m not sure if I’m ready to wave a turkey leg at family members sitting across from us at a table, toasting with a glass of wine, sharing that second slice of pie…on Zoom. I know the CDC has offered guidelines for attending and hosting holiday events (see here). But I do know, like those early Americans celebrating their first holiday of Thanksgiving, that we will be thankful for our many blessings, regardless of who shows up. And for the record, I have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Just for emergencies. You do want to be prepared.

Mandarin Orange Marmalade

A couple of weeks ago, my granddaughter and I made a batch of grape jelly and a batch of strawberry jam. The jam turned out wonderful and I plan on making more soon. The grape jelly, not such a great success: it’s delicious but did not set up as firm as I had expected. Over time it’s likely to get a little more firm, but as it’s not my favorite jelly, that’s not really an issue for me.

A bag of juicy Mandarin oranges.

What I really like, however, is orange marmalade. The best that I’ve had is made from Seville oranges, tangy and bitter sweet. But I haven’t seen any Seville oranges in our local markets. Mandarin oranges, however, were on sale this week at our local Giant. So I picked up a couple of bags (6 pounds worth) and shopped the internet for a good marmalade recipe.

There are a lot of recipes available online, I’m surprised anyone buys cookbooks these days, and it was easy to find a recipe that suited my low-fuss cooking style. There aren’t a lot of ingredients involved as one can imagine (fruit, water, added sugar and possibly pectin); however I threw in a cinnamon stick to give it a little extra kick, and three lemons (juice and peels) to help recover some of the acidity that the mandarin oranges were missing.

Oranges cooking on the stove, jars and lids sterilizing in their water bath.

Homemade marmalade is a much slower process than I had expected. Just squeezing the juice from two bags of oranges, then scraping and slicing the peels to add to the mixture, took more than an hour. The recipe I used suggested starting the day before with this step and I’m glad I did. The kitchen was soon filled with the pleasant aroma of fresh-squeezed oranges and reminded us of our first taste of Florida orange juice on our honeymoon years ago. Really, it was that memorable.

Mandarin orange marmalade, canned and ready for the pantry.

The recipe indicated that 4 1/2 pounds of oranges, with the added quart of water and sugar, would yield 5 1/2 cups of jam after cooking down to about half the volume. I used 6 pounds of oranges, three lemons, and less sugar than called for but more pectin, and ended up with 5 1/2 cups. It could be that I have more juice to water ratio than the recipe, but the taste test was delicious!

If you are interested in taking a look at the original recipe, you can find it on the A Family Feast website. Do you have a favorite family recipe for jams and jellies? Share in the comments section below. See you in the kitchen!

Toast with marmalade, eggplant caponata, and smoky Gouda.

Home Made

John Landis Mason invented the Mason Jar on November 30, 1858. In 1884, Ball Corporation began manufacturing glass home-canning jars, the product that established Ball as a household name and licensed Mason’s design.

I didn’t grow up in a household where we canned fruits and vegetables. Living in the suburbs, our garden only had a few tomato plants, a few green vegetables and the occasional zucchini plant. It was our small version of a Victory Garden but it never produced much more than we could eat that summer.

However, my Dad’s sister and her family always had a huge garden and they canned as much as possible. Back during the late 50’s and on into the 60s, I remember visiting the cousins “on the ranch”  and helping pick blackberries, cherries, apples, and a variety of smaller vegetables that they would preserve. I have great memories of helping cook apples for apple butter, making watermelon pickles, and helping prepare the jars and lids for canning. It was a lot of work and the large country kitchen was full of small helpers, my cousins and I each with an assigned task.

I think it was that sense of sharing in a generations-old activity that encouraged me to try canning with my granddaughter. 

What is America’s favorite flavor? According to data based on the U.S. Census data and Simmons National Consumer Survey (NHCS), 163.97 million Americans consumed strawberry jams, jellies and preserves in 2019. So strawberry jam was on our list to try.

Nearly 128 million consumed grape jams or jellies. Raspberry, blackberry, and apricot round out the top five flavors, though considerably farther behind (50; 38; and 33 million). So we bought fresh strawberries from the market and a gallon jug of Welch’s grape juice to make strawberry jam and grape jelly. 

If you haven’t tried your hand at home made preserves, it’s surprising how much time is involved in preparing utensils, boiling water, sterilizing bottles and lids, cutting up fruit, measuring sugar and many other little tasks. While I got our little production underway, Cadence cut up the strawberries we had purchased.

Our assembly line worked pretty smoothly, the kitchen was filled with the smell of ripe strawberries, and the introduction to an element of frontier living went better than I could have hoped. We’ve got enough bottled preserves to last us through the winter, and though we never did make the pickles I had promised her, there is still time to try this summer.

While searching online for recipes and where to purchase mason jars, I was really surprised to see the many creative uses for mason jars that people have been inspired to share. The website freshpreserving in particular, had a lot of fun DIY projects for jars. The locking ring and lid are particular features of the mason jar. However, the website masonjars marketplace has an array of accessories to replace the traditional lid with pour spout lids, dispensor pumps, or spray tops to make reusable glass storage ware.

The wedding industry doesn’t seem to have slowed down in their love of rustic, DIY presentation and the mason jar has a proud position at the table as well as in lighting and other creative uses. And whatever your style, Etsy has it covered with over 51,000 entries alone for “mason jar decor.” That’s a pretty good heritage for John Mason and his glass container patent for the “Improvement In Screw-Neck Bottles.” It was the first hermetically re-sealable glass jar (US 22186A). His improvements, coupled with a rubber washer, transformed the capabilities of the home canning industry and solidified Mason’s place in history. (

Mason jar wine glasses, a little bit country.
Wedding decor with firefly lighting and themed drink ware.
Rustic mason jar bird feeder.

Zucchini, Really?

Like many people, the quarantine, stay-at-home, shelter in doors orders we have been living under for these past many weeks have caused disruptions we had never expected. Our work schedules have been disrupted, whether you have been furloughed or have adjusted to working online. Our recreation, family time, or even shopping for necessities have changed dramatically. In our own lives, one of the things that has changed, hopefully for the better, has been our meals.

While I have always enjoyed cooking and trying new recipes, I’ve never been much of a meal planner. We’ve always had ready access to a local grocery and farmers markets. I would shop every two or three days and plan meals based on what looked good, what was on sale, or even what I had seen browsing a magazine while sitting in my dentist’s waiting room. But plan and shop for a week or two in advance? Never happen.

So the first time my wife came back from our local Giant grocery and reported what she had found—empty shelves, bread aisles picked clean, meat coolers cleaned out— well I was shocked. And worried. What if this lasted for more than two or three days? Like many of us, I found that it was too late to stock up the pantry and freezer. If you hadn’t already been putting away that extra pound of hamburger or loaf of bread, well good luck friend. But we lived thru snowmageddon and blizzards before, power outages and hurricanes. Surely after a week, all would return to normal. We are still waiting for that to happen.

Which brings me to zucchini. Last week I stopped at our local international foods grocery, Lotte. One of the things I love about shopping there is the amazing selection of fruits and vegetables. So wandering the aisles, trying to keep my face mask on and pick up veggies using a plastic bag so as not to touch anything else, I filled my cart. Like a man liberated from a low calorie diet, I just grabbed stuff. When I got home, I had baby bok choy, plantains, Thai eggplant, scallions, garlic. And zucchini. 

But no plan how to use any of these foods. No menus, no recipes, just plastic bags full of my winnings. 

The bok choy and scallions ended up in a Korean meal with bulgogi (thank you Suki). Plantains became Puerto Rican pastelon. And the eggplant ended up in a casserole. But a week later the zucchini still lay in the bottom of my crisper. So two of them went into zucchini bread. That was easy. But the rest? What to do, what to do.

When I can, I reach back to my Dad’s cooking for inspiration. Nothing fancy, meat and potatoes kind of cooking, but he always had zucchini in the garden. And he always prepared it the same way, fried up with onion and green peppers. Which I had. So that’s what we had, though I’ve added seasonings that my Dad had never seen (and truthfully would never have used). And I like garlic more than he did. And I don’t think he ever bought olive oil. But still the same, here’s Dad’s fried zucchini with onions and peppers. Dressed up with pimientos and seasoned with Sazon.

Bueno provecho! Thanks Dad.

More Coffee, Please

I’m not really sure when I first starting drinking coffee as a beverage choice and not milk, or soda, or even water. “I’ll have coffee, please, cream and sugar if you have it.”  It probably coincided with late night trips to Denny’s or some other local stop that served breakfast at all hours, after a night of partying with the boys. It could have been when I would pour a cup from Dad’s percolator after it had just finished, before it had a chance to turn dark and bitter from sitting on the counter on a Saturday morning. 

I do know I was an avid coffee drinker in high school and would sit up evenings with my sister-in-law’s Mom and friends, talking about life and what it was like to work in Reno’s casinos before Reno became—bigger. There were small cafe’s and coffee shops in town back then but this was long before Starbucks invented four dollar lattes and drizzled caramel on everything. Coffee came in a cup—one size only, though occasionally you could get it in a mug. 

One of my life goals has always been to work as a barrista. I don’t know why: I have a terrible memory and couldn’t possibly manage more than one order at a time. So it was with a pride verging on envy that I learned one of our family friends had started a coffee shop out in the Portland, Oregon area. Deb and I had an opportunity to visit soon after they opened and it was everything I could imagine a neighborhood coffee shop might offer. Comfortable seating, warm sunlight pouring in, an eclectic mix of furnishings and really nice staff, people who talked to you with more than a “got it” when you placed your order.

Insomnia Coffee Company, July 2007

Thirteen years later and Tyler, Evan and the crew now have five shops in the Hillsboro—Beaverton area. I’ve been to all of them, I make it a point to stop by at least one when we travel to Oregon, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. I’m partial to their shop in Cannon Beach but it could just be that the view makes the coffee taste even better. The times we are in now have been hard on everyone, especially small business owners. But knowing these guys and their commitment to the community, and coffee, I think they are going to come out of this even stronger. When they do, I’m ordering a coffee, make that a latte. A large one. 

I think Tyler was surprised to see us!

If you are in the Hillsboro area, stop by and support this local business. And you can always order their coffee online.

Cooking by Color

One of my favorite local restaurants has a dish that I just love: Hong Kong-style sea bass served over spinach with rice. But it isn’t a plate that will travel well as take out; and besides, a great part of eating out is enjoying the restaurant ambiance. What can I create at home that might be similar?

I found fresh salmon steaks at our local market. In the produce department they had a Swiss chard that I’ve never tried before, ruby red and absolutely gorgeous. Would it be possible to create a variation on their dish? Why not try? Salmon is quite a bit more affordable than sea bass and I love how easy it is to cook.

Incredible color, so crisp the stalks nearly snap off. After washing, into the pot with a bit of sesame oil, garlic powder, and ginger powder. High heat, then cover and set on low heat until the leaves cook down.

It always surprises me how much volume these leafy vegetables lose on cooking. Two bunches were plenty for four people. The sesame oil and ginger give a light Asian feel to the dish that I find appealing and a change-up from my usual “cook it with bacon” approach.

Two salmon steaks marinated in teriyaki sauce for 30 minutes. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes at 350. I’m a big fan of garlic so these got an extra sprinkle.

Teriyaki salmon served with ruby red chard and rice. And to keep the color theme going, strawberry shortcake for dessert. Enjoy!

Discovering Family Recipes

Lately I’ve been on a sort-of comfort food quest. I suppose it has a lot to do with all of us being quarantined, our typical schedules disrupted and travel restricted. Usually when I’ve got an urge to try something new for dinner, we just get on Yelp and see what’s near us, what looks good and go.

These are different times and I really do prefer to try and make it at home rather than ordering curbside pick up or delivery. With that thought in mind, I’ve been in search of recipes from my wife’s Puerto Rican heritage, either foods her Mother used to make, or dishes we have enjoyed on our visits to the Island. This week I tried my hand at another family favorite, Pastelon. It’s  essentially a layered dish similar to a lasagne, though made with plantains, accompanied by red beans and rice.

I’ve acquired several cookbooks of Puerto Rican cuisine thru the years, the one I turn to most often is Puerto Rican Cookery. But like many guys with only rudimentary kitchen skills, I prefer a cookbook with more pictures, and definitely fewer steps to success. So I’ve turned to the internet, especially YouTube videos for a little help in the kitchen. From making mofongo with shrimp, to pasteles and now pastelon, these often-home-made videos are just the thing for a guy with a short attention span.

Another quality I’ve appreciated about this online cooking resource: I like recipes that feature process over precision. Too many measured ingredients, finessed or tricky processes aren’t for me. “Salt to taste” or “cook for about 45 minutes” are my strengths.

So, for your consideration, my picture-book recipe guide to pastelon. With a few brief explanations as needed. Let me know how you like it in the comments below.

For the picadillo, simmer bell peppers and onions, then add ground meat (I prefer ground pork) and plenty of Adobe, sofrito, oregano for aromatics. This dish is all about the contrast between the sweet plantains and the savory meat layers. Red beans and rice are a great accompaniment. For this size of dish (9″x 9″ baking pan) I used four ripe plantains.

Slice the plantains and fry until golden, drain on paper towels, then start your first layer. An egg wash will help bind the ingredients. Similar to a lasagne, I layered grated mozzarella cheese over the meat layer.

A layer of plantain, egg wash, a layer of meat, and then a layer of cheese. Repeat for a second layer. I topped off with mozzarella and grated cheddar cheese to provide a little color. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.

The final dish, served with the red beans and rice, is incredibly satisfying. It was more work than I had expected, which might explain why Yolanda only prepared it on special occasions. The aroma of sweet plantains and I’m longing for another visit to Puerto Rico. Enjoy!

If you enjoy YouTube cooking videos, here is the link to the one I watched.

An excellent cookbook, I highly recommend Puerto Rican Cookery, by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli