Sunday, September 30, 2007

Relatively Quick Breads 1: Sally Lunn

sally lunn fig. a: sliced Sally Lunn

Suddenly, I awoke from my slumber. After years and years where I baked virtually no bread, aside from the occasional batch of corn bread, I've baked two--count 'em, two--loaves in under a week. I'm sure Michelle thought it would never happen. For years she's been listening to me tell tales of my days as a "professional bread baker" in London, days when I manned the ovens of a take-out & bakery on Portobello Road, but, no, nothing ever came of it. Not one single, solitary loaf. "Mmm-hmm. Yeah, I know, honey," she'd say. "You were famous for your rice bread..." The curse is now broken, though, and all it took was a little help from Sally Lunn, and a little patience.

I'm something of an amateur of Southern culture, but before reading The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook I had absolutely no idea Sally Lunn was a Southern thing, "the South's challah," as they put it. I'd encountered my fair share of spoonbread in my crisscrossing of the South, but never Sally Lunn. My only previous experience with Sally Lunn was in its birthplace, Bath, where the local tourist board makes sure that even if you arrive knowing nothing of Sally Lunn, you leave knowing every apocryphal and vaguely saucy detail of her life--her French heritage, her development of a "rich, round, and generous" bread which is now known as "the Sally Lunn Bun," her peddling of her "hot buns through the streets of Bath" and her rise to fame because of them, etc.--preferably having paid a visit to "Sally Lunn's house" along the way. But the Lee Bros. cookbook not only includes a recipe for Sally Lunn, it features it prominently throughout the text, mentioning it in connection to at least half a dozen other recipes, including everything from their Grilled Pimento Cheese Sandwich to their She-Crab Soup, and when I looked it up I found out they were right: it is a Southern thing.

sally lunn map fig. b: United States of Sally Lunn

It's not as easy to make as corn bread (and it's not nearly as contentious, corn bread being a serious affair in the South), and therefore it's in no position to unseat corn bread's dominance in their repertoire of breads (corn bread is mentioned in connection to at least ten other recipes), but it's versatile and they're clearly very fond of it.

But even all that wasn't enough to inspire me to actually bake a loaf of Sally Lunn. Strangely, what it took was word that there were problems with the Lee Bros. recipe. For some reason, hearing that the recipe might be flawed was what got me back into the bread-making business. If there was something wrong with Sally, I wanted to know just what, and whether anything could be done help the old gal along.

The word was that the problems with the Lees' Lunn had largely to do with faulty proofing times, and, sure enough, when we took a look there were things amiss. You see, there's no question that when someone tells you that a bread's second proofing stage, a stage which is supposed to result in the dough doubling in size, will take place in "about 12 minutes" that there's something ambitious about that claim. The power of yeast is something of a miracle, as we all know, but there's no need to get overexcited. Then again, it does get awfully hot down in Charleston, but "12 minutes"? The recipe had specified that the dough needed to double in size during this proofing stage, though, so we decided to give the dough all the time it needed to reach that point. And the same thing held for the first proofing: the Lees had rather optimistically suggested that this stage would take "about 35 minutes," but again what was crucial was that the dough double in size. Pretty much everything else about the recipe seemed kosher. We could tell because we checked it against a couple of other Sally Lunn recipes we just happed to have kicking around (who knew?), such as the one out of Marie Nightingale's Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens (!--Sally Lunn may be a Southern thing, but it's also apparently a Maritimes thing),*

good old Nova Scotia fig. c: Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens--mmm!

and for the most part the recipes were identical. The only potentially major flaw we could see with the Lee Bros. recipe had to do with the final baking time. Now, I guess it's also possible that a 350º oven in Charleston runs hotter than a 350º oven in Montreal, but when we compared it with our other recipes the Lees' recipe was off by about 15-25 minutes when it came to baking time and that was a discrepancy we just couldn't account for. You never know, though, right? Maybe those wily Lees had found a way to streamline the process. The only way to know for sure was to roll up my sleeves and get to work, so that's what I did.

Sally Lunn

1 cup whole milk
1 package (1/4 ounce, or 2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast, at room temperature
8 tbsp butter (1 stick), softened
1/3 cup sorghum molasses, cane syrup, or honey
3 large eggs, at room temperature
4 cups (16 ounces) sifted unbleached all-purpose flour, at room temperature
1 tsp salt

Heat the milk over medium heat in a small saucepan, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reads 105 degrees on a candy thermometer. Turn off the heat. Pour the yeast into the milk, whisk gently with a fork to dissolve, and let stand until tiny bubbles form on the surface of the milk, 5 to 10 minutes.

With an electric mixer, cream 7 tbsp butter with the molasses, syrup, or honey [we used honey] in a large bowl until smooth, glossy, and slightly fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time and beat until the mix takes on a café-au-lait-like color (if you use honey [like we did], it will be more of a creamy light yellow color).

In a medium bowl, sift the flour with the salt. Add the flour mixture and the milk and yeast mixture to the egg mixture alternately, one fourth at a time, mixing well with a wooden spoon after each addition, until all the flour has been incorporated and the dough comes together. Stir for a few minutes to ensure a smooth consistency.

Mark the level of the top of the dough on the outside of the bowl with a dab of butter or flour. Cover the dough with a clean dish towel or a piece of plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place. When the dough has doubled in size, about 35 minutes if you live in Charleston and more like 1 1/2 hours if you live in Montreal, transfer it to a clean, flat surface and punch it down. Beat it with your fist 30 times.

Butter an 8 1/2-x-4 1/2-inch loaf pan with the remaining butter (1 tbsp). Transfer the dough to the loaf pan and pat it evenly into place. Mark the level of the top of the dough on the outside of the pan with another dab of butter or flour. Set in a warm place to rest.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. When the dough has doubled in size again (about 12 minutes in Charleston, about 1 hour in Montreal), bake on the middle rack for 35 minutes if you live in Charleston or 50-60 minutes in Montreal, or until the top is a deep golden brown and the loaf is cooked through. Cool the bread in its pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert the pan and remove the loaf. Allow the loaf to cool at least a little bit longer (say, 10 minutes). Slice with a serrated bread knife while warm, or let cool completely on the rack.

Makes 1 loaf; enough for 6 sandwiches and a healthy amount of toast.

[recipe based largely on the one found in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, with a little help from Marie Nightingale]

So, yes, we too found some stumbling blocks in the Lees' otherwise classic recipe, but a few adjustments and the recipe turned out perfectly. The only major adjustment, really, was the baking time, but, like every other recipe, the bottom line is, "if it ain't done, it ain't done." We took our loaf out after 35 minutes and it looked golden on top, but the loaf was clearly still structurally unsound: it was wobbly and needed to bake some more. 20 minutes later, though, it had firmed up nicely and the crust was now a gorgeous deep golden brown.

I sliced off a couple of pieces while the loaf was still warm and slathered them with butter (yes, that's right, more butter) and some of Michelle's strawberry jam

god bless sally lunn, strawberry jam, and butter fig. d: god bless Sally Lunn, strawberry jam, and butter

and the ensemble was like cake, maybe better. Later, that Sally Lunn made for great toast and, as the Lees had promised, a wickedly good grilled cheese sandwich.

Q: a) When I bake my own loaf will my slices of Sally Lunn come out looking like a map of France like yours did, and b) is that the final, incontrovertible proof that Sally actually did hail from France?

A: Uh: a) Not necessarily, and b) No.

All I know is that many of the best things in life take time, and relatively quick breads appear to be no exception.


* Incidentally, this is a book Michelle's particularly fond of (which is why I've reproduced its cover). She often imagines herself being Marie Nightingale, sitting in front of her Old Nova Scotia fireplace with her cat and her knitting, gently rocking Junior to sleep, a cauldron of Scotch Barley Broth simmering over the fire. Why? You'd have to ask her.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Hungarian Kick

Hungarian peppers fig. a: Hungarian sweet and hot peppers

Did the idea to make Hungarian goulash this past week come from a recent re-viewing of R.W. Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun? Yes, the film integrates the utter hysteria that surrounded Germany's 3-2 victory over Hungary in the 1954 World Cup final seamlessly into its explosive finale, and, yes, I have been on a real Hungarian kick suddenly, making three Hungarian meals since watching Fassbinder's masterpiece of melodrama, but, c'mon... Truth is, the inspiration behind that goulash had a lot more to do with the current availability of peppers--fresh sweet and hot peppers from Jean-Talon Market, and dried peppers from Olives et Épices, also at the market. The dried peppers--whole Hungarian smoked hot peppers--we'd gotten a while back, and as soon as we gave them a whiff, we turned to each other, gave each other a couple of knowing looks, and uttered the word "goulash" in unison. The fresh peppers in question were Hungarian banana peppers and Hungarian sweet peppers from Birri. As soon as they came into season, I started thinking about all those pepper-heavy Eastern European dishes that I love, like Paprika Chicken, Slovak eggs, Bab Leves, and, yes, Hungarian goulash.

I turned to a recipe for gulyás from Saveur, where, unlike the dish that's come to be known as "Hungarian goulash" in North America, the consistency is more along the lines of a "soup that eats like a meal." The recipe seemed authentic and all--though it does include tomatoes, which some gulyás devotees strictly avoid--so I used it as a blueprint, but I made a few significant changes. First off, I was more in the mood for a stew than a soup (even one "that eats like a meal"), so I cut back on the broth and aimed for a thicker, more stew-like consistency, a somewhat authentic take on the bastardized North American version I grew up with (the kind that tends to get served in the presence of strolling violins). Secondly, inspired by the idea of those Hungarian cowpokes making their gulyás over an open fire, I decided to make an iittala casserole-bound version that could be cooked over an open fire, if you're the kind of ranch hand who takes Finnish designer cookware out on the range, or in our fireplace, if only we had one. Lastly, I left the potatoes out. And then I put them back in (you'll see what I'm talking about momentarily). But mostly I balked when it came to the potatoes. And I'm not 100% sure why. I told myself it was because I knew there was going to be enough to freeze, and sometimes potatoes don't freeze so well, but I never really found that line all that convincing.

So, this particular goulash might not win prizes for authenticity, but, as we all know, authenticity has its limits. The bottom line was that it was delicious--the cubed beef had turned to candy, and it had a deep, rich broth that was utterly irresistible (you know: the kind of dish that you just can't stop yourself from having one more bowl of, even when you're officially "full"). I was downright enthusiastic about my bowl. "This might just be the best goulash I've ever had," I remember thinking.* Then I went back and had three or four more helpings just to be sure. Michelle didn't have her bowl of goulash until she got off from work later that night and I assembled her late-night snack. Now, granted, she hadn't eaten in 12 hours, she'd just come back from a tough shift, and she was maybe just a little delirious, but she wasn't two or three heaping spoonfuls in before she turned to me, earnestly, and exclaimed, "This is my favorite meal ever." Like I said: she was a little delirious. But I knew what she was talking about. That pseudo-Hungarian goulash absolutely hit the spot. It's certainly well worth tracking down smoked hot Hungarian peppers and fresh Hungarian sweet and hot peppers for.

Hungarian goulash fig. b: Goulash à la AEB

Goulash à la AEB

2 strips of thick-cut bacon
1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 yellow onions, peeled and chopped
2 1/2 lbs beef chuck, cut into 1" cubes
1 carrot, peeled, and coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
3 cloves garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp sweet high-quality Hungarian paprika
1 rounded teaspoon ground smoked Hungarian hot peppers (optional, although you could use a high-quality smoked Mexican chile in its place if those are more readily available--either way, this touch really gives the goulash depth, it also gives it an unexpected, well, kick)
4 cups beef stock, warm
1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped (optional if you're one of those that believes that tomatoes have about as much place in a gulyás as they do in a chili)
3-4 fresh Hungarian sweet peppers
1-2 fresh Hungarian hot peppers

2 strips thick-cut bacon
1 tbsp vegetable oil (if necessary)
1 lb. boiling potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 scallions, chopped
1 generous pinch paprika
1 small pinch smoked Hungarian hot pepper
salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot, fry the bacon strips, rendering their fat. Remove the bacon, and dice the strips. Reserve. Add 1-2 tbsp vegetable oil, bringing your total amount of fat in your pot to 2 tbsp (or just over), and heat over low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 20 minutes. Add the cubed beef, the carrots, the fresh peppers (both sweet and hot), and the reserved bacon, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until beef is no longer pink, 10-15 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 300º F.

Meanwhile, toast the caraway seeds in a small skillet over low heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Crush the toasted caraway seeds in a mortar, add the garlic and the salt and crush some more until you have a paste [everyone knows about goulash and paprika, but this combination of garlic, caraway, and salt is just as essential]. Remove the pot from the heat, add the garlic/caraway paste, the paprika, and the smoked Hungarian hot pepper to the beef mixture and mix well.

Add the stock to the beef mixture, stir, and transfer to an oven-ready casserole. Add the tomatoes, stir, and cover. Put the casserole in the oven. Bake for 1/2 hour at 300º F, then lower the heat to 250º and bake for another 2-3 hours.**

While the goulash is simmering to perfection in the oven, giving off the most other-worldly aroma, make the potatoes. Boil your cubed potatoes in salted water until just tender. Meanwhile, fry the bacon until just crispy in a good-size skillet, remove them from the heat, and chop them into thin strips. If necessary, add 1 tbsp of oil to the bacon fat and bring to temperature over medium heat. Add the potatoes and fry until they begin to turn golden on all sides, about 5-10 minutes. Add the paprika and the hot pepper and stir for another 2 minutes. Add the scallions and stir for another minute. Add salt and pepper to taste and set them aside, leaving them at room temperature. The potatoes should have "character," but be careful not to over-season them, because you're going to be adding them to your perfectly seasoned goulash momentarily.

When the goulash has finished simmering to perfection, season to even greater perfection with the salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place a spoonful of the potatoes in each of your bowls and ladle the goulash overtop. Serve with crusty bread (real rye makes for a particularly good combo). This is a no-no in some camps, but I like my goulash with a small dollop of sour cream.

Serves 6-8 hungry souls.

NOTE: Goulash often tastes even better on Day 2. I wouldn't necessarily recommend making it a day in advance, because, personally, I wouldn't be able to restrain myself, but, if at all possible, try and keep some as leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day. You'll be happy you did.

[adapted from a recipe in Saveur's "Food for the Holidays" Winter 2004 special issue]

If you have anything you'd like to add (or subtract) or if you've got a family recipe for goulash you'd like to pass along, please drop us a line, either via the comments function or via the miracle of electronic mail.


* I spent a good week in Budapest, Eger, and northern Hungary more generally many years ago now, but I was a vegetarian at the time, so the only goulash I experienced was served to me by Hungarian hippies, not the mustachioed gents you see tending their cauldrons in this photo.

** If you would rather make a stovetop version, keep the proto-goulash in your large pot and simmer it as gently as possible for a good 2-3 hours. This slow, gentle simmering is what turns lowly chuck to "candy."

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Subterranean Dish Pit Blues

sidemart theatrical grocery

The brains and talent behind Sidemart Theatrical Grocery (pictured above in the bright surroundings of their fully above-ground "grocery") have teamed up with our friends at BU to create what may just be a first: truly underground dinner theater. Believe me, this here is no Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding. The play in question is Morris Panych's The Dishwashers,

the dishwashers

and although it premiered at Vancouver's Arts Club back in 2005, and had a run at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre not long afterwards, this is the very first time the play has been staged as a site-specific work in an actual subterranean dish pit, in an actual restaurant. Now, BU's real dish pit is located somewhere else in the building, but underneath the front end of the restaurant sits a large room that usually acts as the restaurant staff's lounge/rec room. At the invitation of Étienne Guérin of BU, Sidemart Theatrical Grocery annexed this space for a few weeks, installed a real dishwashing set-up, complete with industrial sink, industrial hose, and an industrial dishwasher, and turned it into the dank setting of Panych's black, existential comedy on the lost generations who stand on the "front lines" of the restaurant world. This mise-en-scène is stunning. For someone like Michelle, who spends 40 hours a week in the confines of subterranean restaurant kitchen, quite literally so. (Somehow she'd found herself in the bizarre atmosphere of yet another underground kitchen on her day off, and she wasn't quite sure how. Not only that--she was paying to be there!) Impressive as it might be in this case, setting isn't everything. Thankfully, Sidemart Theatrical Grocery fully capitalizes on the location with some inventive direction (a musical interlude sequence and a resurrection scene are worth the price of admission alone) and some inspired acting (particularly Alain Goulem as the overbearing Dressler and Chip Chuipka as the decrepit Moss). In fact, the whole combination is so good, if it were allowed to mature in BU's cave, taking on some local flavor, it could almost become this generation's Broue, the Québécois sensation about life inside a blue-collar taverne that's been going strong for almost 30 years now (so strong, in fact, that it entered the Guinness Book of World Records last year for longest-running play with the same cast). Quite coincidentally, Broue's premiere was staged on March 21, 1979 just one block from BU, at 5145 St-Laurent. There's even a plaque there to commemorate the event:

Broue plaque

One last note: the atmosphere in The Dishwashers' dish pit, while not uncomfortable and certainly not dangerous, is suitably infernal. The humidity, the temperature, and the odor all lend the play plenty of verisimilitude. This means that when you do emerge into BU's dining room after the final curtainless curtain call, the effect is nothing if not bracing. The room bustles with life and air has rarely tasted so sweet. For some of you, that high might be enough. For others, though, there'll be a table for 25 sitting there waiting for you to relax, unwind, enjoy an après-theater meal, and kibitz with the Sidemart Theatrical Grocery ensemble.

The Dishwashers continues from Sunday through Wednesday until October 3 (4 more dates! Look out, Broue!). Tickets are limited. For reservations: For more information follow this link.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

AEB Classics #47: Pickled Hot Peppers, or How to pickle a peck of freshly picked peppers

chop suey? fig. a: three bushels of tomatoes from Jean-Talon

The days around Labour Day are pretty much the peak of our canning season. They're the days when our Tomato Canning Division in particular is in overdrive, producing the next year's supply of tomato sauce. Of course, those of you who've been reading us for a while know all about this, but we can't emphasize it enough: homemade tomato sauce made with summer's ripest tomatoes and a healthy does of the freshest local hardneck garlic is always something to behold. In Montreal, come January-February, it's an absolute godsend. Forget about your flu shots and your supplements and all that other malarkey, homemade tomato sauce is all you really need.

This year our Jean-Talon tomatoes came in chop suey boxes (?), but with days and days of straight sunshine leading up to the time we bought them, they were among the sweetest we'd gotten from the market over the last few years. Obviously this means that they result in a better tasting sauce, but it also means that they're easier to process, which is always a good thing. Not that it would have mattered much this year because a) we were very eager the produce our 2007 batch and b), just as we were about to roll up our sleeves to start cranking our trusty, rusty spremipomodori velocissima (hence the newsprint-covered table you see in the photo below), our doorbell rang and we received a care package

aussie care package fig. b: mysterious Australian care package

(?) all the way from Australia (?!?) that really gave us a lift. [More on the contents of this fantastic parcel from Down Under later. TY, Z.!]

Anyway, in addition to canning tomatoes, we've also been taking advantage of Jean-Talon Market's absurd variety of peppers to do a little pepper pickling this year. You can use any one of a number of peppers (from sweet to hot) for this recipe, but the classics are cherry peppers and Hungarian banana peppers (I'm particularly fond of the latter, both yellow and red).

pickled peppers fig. c: pickled Hungarian banana peppers

Here's the method we followed:

Pickled Peppers

1 1/2 lbs banana peppers or cherry peppers
3 cups white vinegar
1 cup water
3 cloves garlic, crushed
6 scallions, white parts only, cut into 1 1/2 - 2" lengths

Wash the peppers. If you're using cherry peppers, leave them whole; if you're using banana peppers, chop them in half. Pierce the peppers 2-3 times with a fork.

Combine the vinegar, water, and garlic in a large stainless steel saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Can as you would normally (you can find some basic instructions here), using either the dry or wet method, packing each jar full of peppers/pepper pieces and making sure to add a few pieces of the scallions too, then adding the hot pickling liquid + garlic pieces.

Yield: about 4 x 500 ml jars

[adapted from the Bernardin Guide to Home Preserving]


Saturday, September 08, 2007

I spy

Bert Jansch

We're happy to announce that our good friends at Backroom Records & Pastries are back in business at long last. Welcome back, guys--we've missed you.

Backroom Records & Pastries
5912 St. Urbain
*Back Alley Entrance Only!*
Thursday - Sunday
12:00 noon - 6 p.m.


p.s.--CWI's got a brand-spanking-new blog too. With Backroom Bakeshoppe recipes (well, recipe, for the moment), and everything! Check it!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Got crab?

crab guédille, Reservoir

Our recent crab post having stirred up some pretty strong emotions with some of you out there in cyberland, we thought we'd let our Montreal readers (and all those about to visit Montreal in the immediate future) in on this little tidbit of information. Those of you looking to get your hands on some crab from Gaspé here in Montreal before the end of season need look no further than Reservoir, where, earlier today, we found the lovely crab guédille* (complete with greens, cherry tomatoes, and a lemony mayo) you see in the picture above on the brunch menu. And, yes, those are fresh, beer-battered onion rings sitting alongside.

Reservoir's menu changes daily, so we can't guarantee the guédille on the menu when you visit, but apparently that crab from Gaspé will remain on the menu in one form or another while supplies last.

Reservoir, 9 Duluth E., 849-7779


* Think "lobster roll," but with crab.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

When in NoVA 2...

Biggs Farm 1 fig. a: Biggs Family Farm, Camp Springs, MD

You never know. You may find yourself in another part of the world. You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile with a few blessed hours to yourself to do a little exploring. And you may find just yourself completely overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Afterwards, you may find that your day made little sense, taking you from the southern comfort of the George Washington Parkway between Alexandria and Mount Vernon, to the secondary roads of Prince George's County, MD, from Arlington's Spout Run and Lee Hwy., to Washington's C & O Canal and MacArthur Blvd. And you may remember that on more than one occasion you asked yourself, "How did I get here?"

Village Thrift

Back in the day, my friend C. and I were devotees of a Village Thrift on Kenilworth Ave. For a while, we used to scour the racks there for clothes, records, and other discarded booty on an almost weekly basis, before continuing on along a constellation of other thrift stores scattered between Riverdale and Laurel, MD. We had no idea there was another Village Thrift in nearby Temple Hills. Too bad. [Of course, it's also too bad that Michelle and I didn't go to try and find that Kenilworth Avenue Village Thrift, because according to the Washington Post, that exact area is now home to "the highest concentration of Mexican restaurants, markets and bakeries in the Washington area." Damn.] We took a cursory look at the clothes, but both of us went pretty much straight for the books and there we found some good cookbooks along with a copy of Ex Libris, an official, licensed, 1991 version of "The Favourite Game" put out by The British Library and The Bodleian Libary (!). The best of the cookbooks that we found was a handsome edition that looked something like this:

St. Luke's Catholic Church cookbook 1 fig. b: Culinary Skills & Tips of St. Luke's Catholic Church, Mercersburg, Pa.

We'd always wondered what culinary skills & tips Mercersburg, PA might have to offer. We found out that a lot of them were Czech and Slovak in origin, which was an added bonus for us, given our roots. Michelle was particularly attracted to the homestyle sweets section, of course, where she found recipes like the following (one of which she's already tried--guess which one):

St. Luke's Catholic Church cookbook 2 fig. c: excerpt, Culinary Skills & Tips of St. Luke's Catholic Church, Mercersburg, Pa.

Biggs Family Farm

Not far from Village Thrift we had the good fortune to run across the Biggs Family Farm. It looked so promising we just had to turn around and take a closer look. The impressive selection of watermelons in their barn was the first thing to grab our eye (you can see them in the photograph up top), but in their small shop we found some gorgeous yellow corn, tomatoes, beautiful okra, homemade preserves, and a selection of hardwoods that had us wishing we had a barbecue rig in tow:

Biggs Farm 2 fig. d: hardwood, Biggs Family Farm

The woman working the counter was pretty reserved and maybe just the slightest bit suspicious of our enthusiasm for the Biggs Family Farm, but she opened up a little when we asked her about their cherry tomatoes. "They're sweet," she said. "I eat 'em just like grapes." That was good enough for us. We bought a pint of cherry tomatoes, eight ears of corn, some pickled beets (Amish-style), a big, round watermelon, and started to make our way back towards Northern Virginia.

The Italian Store

Maybe 40 minutes later, we were in the process of heading up from the G.W. Parkway along Spout Run in order to make a loop back towards Washington, D.C. We had plans to stop off in Georgetown and pick up a picnic before heading out along Canal Rd. to the C & O Canal, but suddenly I realized that continuing another 1/4 mile along Spout Run would get us the Lyon Village Center strip mall, and there we'd be able to pick up a truly extraordinary lunch at The Italian Store. I'd been an Italian Store regular back in the 1990s, and Michelle had heard all the tantalizing details. She knew the sandwiches were legendary. She knew they made an awfully respectable thin-crust pizza, too. It didn't take much to convince her.

The Italian Store is nothing if not a very popular and very busy neighborhood deli, so we had to be patient to get our order, but 15 minutes later we had one of their classic Philadelphia-style subs and one New Orleans-via-Philly-style muffuletta (both custom-made), a slice of pizza, and a couple of drinks, and we were ready to go. Destination: Fletcher's Cove.

c & o scene 3 fig. e: boats, Fletcher's Cove

Fletcher's Cove

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which stretches from Georgetown about 185 miles west to Cumberland, West Virginia, is one of the D.C. area's greatest treasures. I'd taken Michelle for two walks along two different stretches of the canal last fall, and when it came time to deciding how to spend our afternoon, we considered trying to take advantage of some of D.C.'s vast cultural resources, but all we really wanted was a picnic and a nice, long walk. If we could be next to the Potomac, under the shade of some big trees, and amid the droning of the cicadas, all the better. Fletcher's Cove had everything we were looking for: boat rentals (in case we up and decided we needed a rowboat), picnic tables, and easy access to the canal and its towpath.

We found a spot next to a massive pile of driftwood,

c & o scene 1 fig. f: driftwood, Fletcher's Cove

and unpacked our picnic.

c & o picnic 1 fig. g: picnic, Fletcher's Cove

The drinks were thirst-quenching, the pizza was the best slice of pepperoni I'd had in a while, the cherry tomatoes were sweet and refreshing and almost grape-like, but the real pièces de résistance were those two sandwiches. I'm not sure if you can properly get the scale from this photograph,

c & o picnic 2 fig. h: muffuletta sandwich from The Italian Store

but that muffuletta was enormous, and completely overstuffed with The Italian Store's excellent green olive relish and about a pound of cold cuts. Both of us couldn't have been happier, and both of us somehow managed to put those sandwiches away.

Then we relaxed by the river and wished we could trade places with the couple who were sunbathing in a rowboat on the Potomac (you can see them there, in the middle of the photograph, if you look real hard):

potomac river fig. i: rowboat, Potomac, Fletcher's Cove

We stretched out under a big, ole tree tree for a while to listen to the cicadas some more,

c & o scene 2 fig. j: trees, cicadas, Fletcher's Cove

and then we went for our walk.

Village Thrift, 6307 Allentown Rd., Temple Hills, MD

Biggs Family Farm, corner of Brinkley Rd. and Allentown Rd., Camp Springs, MD

The Italian Store, 3123 Lee Hwy., Arlington, VA (in the Lyon Village Shopping Center), (703) 528-6266