We love tapas, sliders and sitting around a table sharing food with family and friends. In Northern Virginia, our palates lean toward the smoky and spicy and what better way to cool the heat than with a flight of wines or a sampler of beers.
Tapas, defined as small plates, fits the familiar recommendation of “All things in moderation.” It’s a fun way to try a variety of dishes to share and compare with your dining companions. Spanish restaurants don’t have the small plate market cornered, think dim sum or empanadas and pupusas. Or create a table of treats by ordering from the appetizer side of the menu only. Choose chicken wings, nachos and mozzarella sticks and you’ve got tapas ala Applebee’s.
Communal dining is gaining popularity at two local family-style restaurants, That’s Amore and The Melting Pot. Even teenagers are getting into the act, booking sweet sixteen or pre-prom parties with a group of friends. Fondue parties are hip again!
You may have been to a wedding recently and snatched a mini cheeseburger from a tray of passed hors d’oeuvres. What you downed is known as a slider. Sliders are mini bun sandwiches or burgers. They are a one hand treat and portion controlled as long as you limit yourself to no more than three.
Three is the popular number for presentation at restaurants. You can order duck three ways or put back triple shot glasses of soup shooters and end your meal with a trio of miniature doughnuts. For the diner it’s an opportunity to experience a variety of non-competing flavors in a single dish.
And what about our need in Northern Virginia for a taste of smoke and spice? We love smoked meats, fish, cheese and even vegetables. Order a burger topped with smoked onions or ask for a slice of smoked Gouda on a sandwich. Chipotles (smoked jalapeños) flavor everything from condiments to beer. Even McDonald’s offers a pleasing chipotle barbeque sauce on their chicken snack wrap.
In the global food world, spices lend smokiness without fire. There’s smoked paprika from Spain, cumin in Southwest dishes or mixed into baba ganoush, and Chinese five-spice powder to flavor both savory and sweet dishes.
To quench our thirst, we don’t have to settle for a single libation. Flights of wine, three or four 2-ounce glasses, are available to order in many restaurants. It’s a great way to compare how a cabernet complements a dish versus a pinot noir. Think of it as self-guided wine tasting.
Beer is stepping up the culinary ladder and tempting to equal wine when it comes to pairings with food. The Brewers Association at beertown.org has composed a chart pairing 28 beer styles with main dishes, cheese and dessert. You’ll know just what to drink with your gorgonzola or key lime pie.
Sweet Water Taverns, part of Virginia-based Great American Restaurants, lists over 36 varieties of handcrafted beer on their menu. They offer a five beer sampler that changes daily. After savoring the contents of the mini pilsners, you can decide if you’re a porter, ale or lager fan. Take your favorite home in a reusable two-liter glass growler, and bring your growler back at any time for a $6-$7 refill.
Are you hungry yet? You can do your own sampling at the Third Annual Taste of Falls Church. Chef Juan Carlos of Ireland’s Four Provinces will be busy cooking traditional lamb stew with mashed potatoes and ladling up his creamy leek and potato soup. They’ll be Irish Soda and brown bread to sop up every last drop. An offering of penne pasta with spicy Italian sausage enhanced with pancetta, garlic and olive oil will come from Argia’s kitchen, prepared by Chef Aimee Suyehiro. For a palate cleanser, Robecks will be blending up strawnana berry and mahalo mango smoothies.
We are not for want when it comes to the diversity of dishes available in Falls Church and the surrounding Northern Virginia communities. Around every corner we have the opportunity to expand our palate. Gather up family and friends, find a table at a local eatery and pass around the plates.
Three Cooking Trends to Assist the Home Chef
Efficient and Fun: Move over Rachael Ray! What do you say to preparing eight to twelve dinners in two hours? It’s possible now that “easy meal preparation” franchises have landed in Northern Virginia. They go by names like City Zen, Let’s Dish and Entrée Vous. You can take along a friend, share the cost, split the meals and you’ve turned making diner into a social outing.
Prices start at around $100 for four meals (serve 4-6) and tops off at $250 for 12 meals. How does it work? You assemble your meals from a diverse collection of monthly recipes; pop them into your home freezer and heat and eat when there’s no time to cook. You can have miso glazed salmon on Monday and grilled chicken prosciutto pasta on Wednesday. You’ve just become your own personal chef without the shopping, chopping and cleanup.
A Welcome Addition to Your Inbox: Some of us enjoy going to the grocery store and even find it relaxing to cook after a workday. A weekly e-mail may be the answer to “What’s for dinner?” Two websites, thescramble.com and menuplanningcentral.com, offer newsletters that deliver family friendly weekly menus, shopping lists and recipes. Perfect for cooks who want to know on Saturday what they’ll be serving for dinner during the hectic workweek.
iCooking: For the foodie who’s on the go and needs to be in the know, Epicurious.com recently launched Epi Bytes and Epi to Go. Sign up for Epi Bytes and you’ll receive weekly updates on food prep tips, recipes and menus directly to your mobile device. Epi to Go allows you to search a 25,000 recipe database complied from Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines. When you retrieve your favorite recipe right in the grocery aisle, you’ll never have run back to the store because you forgot an ingredient.