Washington Cooks: A dad who revels in the process

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 6:16 PM

Stirring chocolate into spaghetti sauce. Baking cheesecake for a white-water kayaking trip. Mixing Southern with Southwestern. These are kitchen tactics of David Stoesz, self-proclaimed radical pragmatist.

Standing at the granite-topped hub of his Alexandria home, Stoesz (rhymes with race) can survey things that keep him busy and happy. He fashioned the inlaid furniture in the family room from alder wood. In the living room, the taut beginnings of his latest woven rug are stretched on a grand loom he built decades ago. The casserole poised by the stove top has components that took more than a day and a half to prepare; it is waiting for Stoesz's shortening crust to be tucked in on top before it goes into the oven.

He is a man who likes to use his hands to create. "I think about food as a craft," says the lanky, wry academic.

Yet Stoesz, 63, is no culinary hobbyist. He cooks four days a week or more, for himself and his 14-year-old son, Julio, whom he adopted when the boy was 2. Stoesz also likes to feed his friends, and he has just cooked up a plan to promote the work of the nonprofit social-policy think tank he founded in 2002, PolicyAmerica, by inviting the public to eat at a monthly open house.

"My other friends' parents don't seem to cook as much as my dad does," Julio says. "I'm lucky."

Nice of him to say so, even though early on, Stoesz laid down a house law that restricted fast food. Father and son figure they've eaten at McDonald's maybe three times in a dozen years. Julio says he misses pizza, but the upside is a rotation of homemade favorites that includes Hawaiian-inspired chicken "nuggets," weekly chocolate chip cookies and that cheesecake. "It's the cake I get for my birthday. I get to eat it all," he says with a grin.

Originally from the Midwest, Stoesz says he grew up with "godawful" boring food. "Boring" is something he has tried to avoid all of his adult life, in fact. It propelled him outdoors, to become a runner and mountain climber. It led him to try white-water kayaking, which he has done for 25 years.

"It is liberating, exciting and terrifying," Stoesz says. "Rivers are extraordinarily poetic experiences, and a kayak affords maximum flexibility for that." The first time he handled his own rig was at Little Falls on the Potomac. The water was at seven feet, although he says he doesn't "recommend beginning that way."

His first edible epiphany happened just after he was first married. His Italian father-in-law took him to an Italian market outside Hartford, Conn. "He pointed toward an aged provolone," Stoesz says. "I locked my jaw around some, and that was it. It was to die for."

His palate was further educated on conference trips to New Orleans, where he fell in love with the city's cuisine. He admires the work of the late James Beard, but rather than look to cookbooks for inspiration, he prefers to re-create flavors of memorable restaurant dishes. A stroganoff he once had in Prague, he says, became "imprinted" in his brain.

The imprinting allows Stoesz to rattle off the list of ingredients, in exact amounts, for his cheesecake. One summer, he made it for the group he goes kayaking with, and they have demanded it ever since. Stoesz freezes the cheesecake and packs it in dry ice for the long road trips. He says he saw the recipe in a Gourmet magazine more than 20 years ago. Unlike many cheesecakes, his version does not get baked in a bain-marie, or water bath, so the top and sides get quite browned.

The casserole, also a requested dish by the group and something he makes every other month or so, is based on a rich game pie he had at the King's Arms Tavern in Williamsburg. "Mine is better," he says. "It's supposed to have duck and rabbit, but I figured if you make it with turkey you get about the same thing." He adds chopped portobello mushrooms and nestles small boiling onions among the chunks of white meat.

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