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.
The dish's rich, classic brown sauce is key, and it appeals to his philosophy of being resourceful. He likes making it from scratch, starting with a broth. He figures the meals he makes cost no more than $15. When he buys a whole chicken, he breaks it down and uses all parts in a variety of ways.
Linda Voss of Arlington and her 15-year-old daughter, Krystina, who is a friend of Julio's, are occasional weeknight dinner guests. Voss, a technical writer for NASA, says Stoesz's food is the kind of comforting home cooking that a single mom really appreciates. "It's a little like sanctuary for me. There's a relaxed richness to his food," Voss says. "My daughter hates my food but likes what he makes."
Stoesz is relaxed in the kitchen. His movements are slow and deliberate, perhaps a bit hampered by his recent hip-replacement surgery. He accepts the fact that when he makes nuggets, the house will smell like fried oil for a while. He always keeps good chocolate around; it's mostly for eating out of hand, but he has been known to toss it into a savory sauce. Stoesz is so keen on chipotle-flavored Tabasco that he has tried it with non-Mexican dishes, he says - and doesn't recommend that.
The neighbors in his Fort Hunt cul-de-sac have Stoesz's community spirit in common; in addition to monthly meals, they share a lawn mower, a chain saw and, in nice weather, time spent in a gazebo built for a friendly crowd. They invite folks from beyond their immediate street to the barbecue they host on Labor Day.
"He is the best brownie maker I know," says Margaret Dhillon, a child welfare supervisor for the City of Alexandria. "And David makes great salads," with a mixture of spinach leaves, nuts and fruits.
For the past 15 years, Stoesz has taught public policy at a Virginia Commonwealth University satellite here. Now that the job is ending, he says he will devote more time to the think tank, and maybe even to writing a "fantasy" cookbook about white-water cuisine. It would feature a week's worth of breakfast, lunch and dinner ideas, he says. It would offer strategies for improvisation, like the time he stuffed pork chops with crab - and left them in the freezer at home.
It will call for being creative, and working with his hands. Right up his alley.
The PolicyAmerica dinner/open house takes place the first Saturday of each month at 4 p.m. RSVP to email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org.