destination: Clifton, VA

With a new car in the driveway, a beautiful Saturday, and nothing to do, a drive out in the country makes perfect sense. I was already familiar with this quaint Virginia town, as I’d been to Trummer’s on Main a couple of times before. This beautiful restaurant out in Clifton, VA is definitely a destination restaurant for any of us in the city who want to get out into some peace and quiet. The dining room itself is a spectacle – bright with high ceilings and full of windows. The kitchen is sending out some really nice food that’s mostly seasonal and slightly risky. And you can’t beat the deal on Sunday where you help them drain their open wine bottles from the weekend for $5 glass and eat off the reasonably priced 3-course prix fixe menu.

But it was the promise of chili dogs and ice cream (two of my most favorite things) at Peterson’s Ice Cream Depot that sealed the deal.

Peterson's Ice Cream Depot

Peterson's Ice Cream Depot

I’ll be honest right up front – neither the chili dogs nor ice cream were that amazing (though they do lay claim to the Best Ice Cream award in Northern VA,) but much like what they say about pizza – there are no bad chili dogs or ice cream. They were totally satisfying, and pretty much dirt cheap. But this place isn’t really about the food. What makes this place so special is everything else.

The Big Dog

The Big Dog

First, it’s set back from Main St Clifton and shielded by trees and shrubs just enough that it feels like you’re in someone’s backyard. And pretty much you are. The set up is basically an old house. When you walk into the patio, you’re met with large chalkboards touting the menus – hot dogs of all sizes and toppings, ice cream, sundaes, shakes, pretty much any delivery mechanism possible for ice cream. And while their ice cream menu isn’t that deep – softserve chocolate, vanilla, and one flavor of the day, the options are still seemingly endless. Order at one window, pick up at another, and then take a seat either at the outdoor bar around back or at any of the various benches, adirondack, or lawn chairs scattered throughout the property.

The hot dog menu

The hot dog menu

On a Saturday, the action is non-stop. City slickers from out east, families and their soccer playing kids loading up on calories after the game, local teenagers. And even though it’s pretty busy, the lines move fast and the atmosphere is that of a neighborhood block party.

So, if you’re looking for a reason to get out of the city for a couple of hours, set the GPS for Clifton, VA. The drive’ll take you through some nice rolling backroads, and at the end of the drive you’ll find the promise of chili dogs and ice cream. What could be better?

Throw in a stop at the Paradise Springs Winery a vineyard with an expansive lodge at the end of a deadend street not far from DT Clifton and you’ve made a day of it.

a $2 bunch of mint yields at least 3 different applications (and then some)

While gathering ingredients for some homemade summer rolls (another story unto itself, I suppose,) I procured the most seemingly innocent bunch of fresh mint at my local market. When I got it home, I unpacked the bunch for washing and discovered this tiny looking bunch ended up being about 10 cups worth.

As I really only needed about 2-3 sprigs for the summer rolls we were making for the next few nights, that means I had the rest of the bunch to use up. My first thought was for a basic mint pesto (throw in some walnuts, a little oil, some citrus and whizz it up) but then my mind immediately went to a more obvious pairing (and one which I already had everything I needed in the pantry) – pea and mint dip. Dip chips, vegetables, a spoon. This stuff is way tasty and will go fast.

Pea & Mint Dip

makes about 2 cups

  • 10 oz. frozen peas
  • 1/2 c. packed mint leaves
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • splash or two of water
  1. microwave the peas or about 60-90 seconds till they’re just barely warm and thawed
  2. add everything in a blender (or use a hand-blender) and salt to season and blend. Add just enough water to help with blending and to get the right consistency. The resulting dip should be smooth and of hummus consistency.
The next application was probably the most satisfying in its results. Again, my mind started in one direction, then immediately went in another. When I think of fresh mint, I mostly think of it steeped in milk for 10 minutes or so and then used as a basis for ice cream. But, honestly, I didn’t feel prepared to make any ice cream, so instead, I packed up a small food processor with as many mint leaves as it would hold, then covered with sugar, and processed for 60-90 seconds. Wowee! The sugar tastes undeniably of mint and will end up infusing all sorts of true mint flavor in a number of applications, but probably a whole mess of ice cream.

Mint Sugar

  • fresh mint leaves
  • sugar
  1. pack a food processor with fresh mint, top off with sugar and process till mint is well distributed in the sugar.
From here it was another obvious leap to create another flavor infuser, namely some mint extract. Most flavoring extracts are alcohol based, so another real simple “recipe” here. Your average 2 oz. bottle of mint extract costs at least $5. I’ll end up with about 8 oz. and it’ll cost me about 50¢. Take some mint, through it in jar, cover with alcohol, and let it steep for a few weeks. Up to you whether you want to leave the mint in after the few weeks or not. I ended up emptying a bunch of old bottles of rum and vodka I had laying around. Again, this is all about getting some fresh mint flavor injected in all sorts of things. But, probably a whole mess of ice cream.

Mint Extract

  • 1/2 c. packed fresh mint leaves
  • 1 c. vodka (or any other alcohol you’ve got laying around)
  1. pack the mint leaves into a clean glass jar.
  2. cover with the alcohol and let it steep for a few weeks.
And, while mint is sure to be amply available throughout the current months (even in our backyard garden,) my pantry is well stocked with memories of that magical $2 bunch of mint. (And soon, my freezer with mint ice cream.)

… with ice creamy ice cream

Chocolate and Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Chocolate & Salted Caramel Ice Creams

If you know me, you know there are few things I like more than ice cream. I have a saying that, “there’s always room for ice cream.” And it’s pretty much true. Over the last 10 years of so, I’ve owned a couple of different ice cream makers — an old school wooden bucket model with a motor on top, requiring constant supervision and rock salt and ice that could make a gallon; and a newer, simpler Krups cannister model that requires only a little bit of planning and makes a generous quart. Since getting the new fangled machine (and reluctantly donating the old one to Goodwill on a recent move,) I’ve been honing my recipes. The past few years have almost exclusively been dedicated to chocolate with a few variations.

I opt to go with the simplest and fewest ingredients as necessary. My habit had been to buy a quart of half and half, and end up using only 3 c. of it, and then figure out what to do with the extra cup. Recently, I had the revelation that I could just buy another pint for not much more and make 2 batches, resulting in a freezer that is almost constantly stocked with homemade ice cream. I tend to make a chocolate, and then go with some sort of wild card. In summer, when herbs, particularly mint, are abundant, I like to make a vanilla and fresh mint that would change the way you think about vanilla. This time around, though, my wild card was revisiting a Gourmet magazine recipe for Salted Caramel Ice Cream, one I made last summer that was real good. And this time around, it’s easily one of the best non-chocolate ice creams I’ve made.

I have found the trick to getting a great ice cream is attaining a smooth, creamy texture. And the trick to that is achieving the shortest freezing time possible. My method involves stashing your mixture in the freezer for 1-3 hours until it’s real good and cold, and then freezing in the ice maker, trying to target the 15-25 minute range for freezing time in the ice cream maker. For those that have never made ice cream in an ice cream maker, the machine should tell you when your ice cream is frozen. The motor will whir to a halt, go in reverse, or turn off completely when the texture has reached the optimal level. It’ll be obvious. Just read your manual.

Another technique I’ve been working on in regards to texture is to approximate something closer to gelato. A little lighter, a little less fat, but still creamy and delicious. In addition, in keeping with my simplicity tenet, I’m trying to keep the number of ingredients down. So, I’ve mostly eliminated eggs or egg yolks from my recipes. Likewise, I’ve eliminated the need to combine milk and cream in varying amounts. I just buy half-and-half and call it done. But how can I still get a great creamy texture? The secret ingredient is corn starch. I typically use 1-2 tablespoons, though have used more when appropriate (like when using something like fruit puree that might make the mixture thinner.) When mixing this into your boiling milk, the result is pudding-like, that is to say, smooth, thick and creamy.

A few more secrets —

  • When making chocolate ice cream, use some good high-end eating bars. They’re cheaper than baking bars, and already have sugar in them. You can experiment with different ones to find the ones you like best (my favorites are Dagoba New Moon, Green and Blacks 70%, and Endangered Species.) And stick with dark, high cacao content bars, usually around 70-75%. And use your microwave to melt it. Much easier and quicker than a double boiler.
  • For subtly flavored ice creams or sorbets (i.e. not chocolate or coffee) use vanilla sugar. If you’ve used a vanilla bean for ice cream or anything else, wash it off, let it dry, and then just stick it in a container or bag of granulated sugar. The result is an aromatic delight. Just keep feeding this container more vanilla beans and sugar, and you have a never-ending supply.
  • Alcohol can keep your ice cream from freezing solid. I often have an issue with my ice cream freezing pretty solidly. Alcohol doesn’t freeze, so it should keep your ice cream from freezing solid. Add it to your mixture before freezing. Around a couple of tablespoons should do the trick, but I’m still trying to hone in on the right amount, myself. Obviously use something that compliments your ice cream. Rum, Amaretto, or Kahlua are good choices. I’ve lately been using cherry-infused vodka I made over the summer.

Without much further ado, I give you my tried-and-true chocolate recipe and the salted caramel recipe. I’ve been working on the chocolate one for a couple of years and think this is just about as good as I can get. There is plenty of room for variations like when choosing chocolate bars, pick some flavored ones; add some other extracts like mint; or better still infuse your milk with fresh mint or other herbs; puree some fruit and strain out the seeds; add some instant coffee or espresso powder.

Chocolate Ice Cream

Ice Creamy Chocolate Ice Cream

Ice Creamy Chocolate Ice Cream

  • 6-7 oz. of good quality chocolate bars (I suggest Dagoba or Green & Black’s)
  • 3 c. half and half
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. corn starch
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1-2 tbsp. complimentary- or neutral-flavored alcohol
  • pinch of salt
  1. Break apart your chocolate bars into a microwaveable bowl and melt in the microwave. Work in 30 second intervals. You don’t have to melt it completely, as the residual heat from the bowl, chocolate, and the half-and-half you’ll pour over it will melt it the rest of the way. Set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the corn starch and 1/4 c. of the half-and- half and stir still smooth. Set aside.
  3. Heat half of the half-and-half with the sugar on the stove slowly, stirring often, to the boiling point.
  4. When the half-and-half has reached the boiling point, stir in the corn starch mixture and gently boil for another 2 minutes or so, while stirring. The mixture has to boil in order for the corn starch to thicken effectively.
  5. Pour the heated half-and-half over the melted chocolate and stir until thoroughly combined. (* If you want some chips in your ice cream, don’t stir until thoroughly combined. Stir until it’s mostly combined, but leave some stray streaks of unincorporated chocolate.)
  6. Stir in the rest of the half-and-half, the vanilla extract, alcohol, and pinch of salt.
  7. Let the mixture cool on the counter and place in refrigerator overnight. Place in freezer for 1-3 hours.
  8. Freeze mixture according to your ice maker’s instructions.
Chocolate ice cream mixture ready for a chill

Chocolate ice cream mixture ready for a chill

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

  • 1 1/4 c. sugar
  • 3 c. half and half
  • 1/2 tsp. Maldon flaky sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp. corn starch
Caramel

Caramel

  1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 cup of the sugar while stirring fairly constantly
  2. Once the sugar is melted, stop stirring, and cook until it becomes amber in color
  3. Add about 1 1/4 cups of half and half to the pot and stir until the caramel is dissolved.
  4. Pour the caramel and half-and-half mixture into a bowl and add the vanilla and sea salt
  5. In a small bowl, combine the corn starch and 1/4 c. of the half-and- half and stir still smooth. Set aside.
  6. In the same pot, bring about another 1 1/4 cups of the half and half and the rest of the sugar to a boil. When the half-and-half has reached the boiling point, stir in the corn starch mixture and gently boil for another 2 minutes or so, while stirring. The mixture has to boil in order for the corn starch to thicken effectively.
  7. Salted Caramel ice cream mixture ready for overnight chill

    Salted Caramel ice cream mixture ready for overnight chill

  8. Pour the half-and-half and corn starch mixture into the bowl with the caramel mixture.
  9. Pour in the remaining half-and-half and stir to combine.
  10. Let the mixture cool on the counter and place in refrigerator overnight. Place in freezer for 1-3 hours.
  11. Freeze mixture according to your ice maker’s instructions.