Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Porcine Perfection

This little piggy went to market. This little piggy went home. This little pig had roast beef. This little piggy provided us with a ridiculously tasty dinner at the James Beard House.

A few months ago, the usual schedule e-mail from the James Beard Foundation arrived in my inbox. Scanning through the myriad choices, a dinner leaped from the page at me, "Swine and Wine". Keep the brown paper packages tied up with string, swine and wine are a few of my favorite things. My hand reached for the phone as if it had a mind of its own and I soon had a spot reserved.

I arrived at the James Beard House and made my way to the backyard for the reception. Soon Chef Christopher Rendell from Double Crown was making his way through the crowd with a roasted baby pig, his golden brown skin glistening. Oh yes, this evening was shaping up to be a very special meal.

The quicker the cooking crew made the suckling pig steamed buns, the quicker they were devoured. The pig was perfectly cooked and the sauce on the meat proved to be the perfect foil to the meat. The other hors d'oeuvres soon made their appearance. The hot and sour pig soup and the twice cooked pork belly with chili caramel were standouts from an array of stellar starters. Chef Brad Farmerie and Chef Christopher Rendell were on their game tonight. The Kings Ridge Riesling 2007 from Oregon provided the perfect wine quaff along with all this heavenly hog.

We made our way into the house and found our seats for the dinner proper. I was sitting with esteemed company, the wife of one of the chefs, the man who was in charge of the wine pairings, and the renown hamburger expert George Motz. While I have heard of him, I have never met him or seen a picture of him. His identity was revealed when his wife had us try to guess his occupation. My guess of pickle maker was not that far off.

All the courses ran from really good to out of the ball park great. The one dish that really rocked me back on my heels was the pork liver creme caramel. It was one of those dishes you initially approach with trepidation. Pork liver creme caramel, really? Yes really! It had such a rich, creamy consistency joined with the slightly sweet, luscious flavors that it just rocked. Rocked in a 1970's full on KISS concert with flames, explosions and lasers kind of rocking.

The wines served with all the courses were equally noteworthy. All the wines were from Oregon and they all matched the food perfectly. It's really had to highlight one of the wines here as the star of the evening, but the pinot noir was very interesting. It was a very earthy and complex pinot noir that really piqued my interest. It did serve as an excellent accompaniment with the spiced pork loin.

All to soon, the desert plates were being cleared. The caramelized brioche with wild blueberries that Pastry Chef Ryan Butler created was well received and put the proper exclamation point at the end of this dinner. The chefs and the rest of the cooking crew came upstairs and were given a well deserved round of applause. After a Q & A session, we were sent off with full bellies and the aura of having been in the midst of porcine perfection.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Poor Blighted Tomato

Two aspects of this condo that drove our decision to purchase it were the kitchen and the deck. We have an honest to goodness kitchen, not some area that can probably be used to cook in. The deck offers 80 Edenic square feet. It is so nice to have outdoor space to grill and try my hand at growing some grub.

My plants have been growing like crazy this year. Buckets of rain have been fallen nearly every day this summer spurring on my jungle like window boxes. My cayenne pepper plant is yielding a mad amount of peppers. Surprising given the fact that it's sharing a window box. I had high hopes for my tomato plant. Last year I just planted a cherry tomato plant in a window box and it produced fruit till November! This year I planted a normal size tomato plant in its own container and started fantasizing about all the recipes I will be creating with the fresh sweet products of my labor.

The tomato plant shot up like a weed and soon flowers were starting to form. Slowly the inevitable green fruit started to form. I patiently waited for the tomatoes to ripen on the vine. I finally had one turn a beautiful crimson shade and I plucked it from it perch. My heart sank when I turned
it over and saw that it was
affected by tomato blight. The cool, wet weather provided the perfect conditions for the tomato blight fungus to thrive throughout the northeast. My poor plant was not out of harm's way. The green
tomatoes still on the plant appear to be blight free so far. Only time will tell.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Dude Free Pours

"How do you take your brandy? In a glass." That classic Humphrey Bogart line from "The Big Sleep" was only one of many highlights of the Classic Cocktails, Classic Films class at the Astor Center.

The title of the class immediately piqued my interest. I went on to read the details of the class and was struck by what a great idea it was, watch clips from classic films while having the cocktails you are seeing on the big screen. Straight up brilliance.

The class was given by Nora Maynard. You may know her from her columns in the blog The Kitchn, The Celluloid Pantry and Straight Up. She gave us a quick bio on her path to both film and cocktail geekdom while growing up in Ontario, Canada. Soon we had an ice gold Gibson in our hands and were enjoying an early scene from "The Thin Man". As the photo attached to this blog belies, I am no stranger to either the Thin Man movies or gin. If you have never seen "The Thin Man" and are a fan of humorous detective films and/or cocktails, it is well worth seeking out.

As the night went on, we were drinking Manhattans with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in "Some Like it Hot" and having a Sazerac with James Bond. Up to this point, we were given drinks already made. I was wondering what the array of cocktail implements were for? We got a chance to become a film noir bartender as we mixed up Ramos Gin Fizzes for the femme fatale in "The Big Sleep". This drink has a very unlikely list of ingredients and requires 5 minutes of shaking. That is not a typo, 5 minutes of shaking. The result is a thick, creamy drink with a very pleasant citrus flavor. It was thick enough to stand a straw up, the test of a good Ramos Gin Fizz.

From the world of film noir, we moved to the world of the Coen brothers with "The Big Lebowski". We, or at least I, learned that this film is based on "The Big Sleep". Seeing the films back to back, the similarities became quite apparent. Besides its film noir roots, "The Big Lebowski" had to be included because a cocktail nearly shares top billing with Jeff Bridges in this film, the White Russian. This is a very easy drink to make, one ounce vodka, one ounce coffee liqueur, and a splash of cream. As Nora was explaining the drink, she gave me the title of this blog. She said,"You can pretty much free pour this drink. The Dude free pours". I knew I had to use that line. I hope both The Dude and Nora abide.

Here's a recipe for the Ramos Gin Fizz adapted by Nora Maynard from Gary Regan:

2 ounces gin
1 ounce cream
3 drop orange flower water
1 fresh egg white
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
club soda or seltzer set aside for topping up drinks

Combine all ingredients, except club soda, in a shaker over ice. Wrap the shaker in a towel and shake for 5 minutes. The need for a towel will become apparent, the shaker gets extremely cold! It helps to have a partner to share shaking duties with. Strain into a tall glass and top up with a splash of club soda. Garnish with an orange wheel and a straw. Put on some film noirish music, make a few witty quips and enjoy!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Our last day in Napa dawned blue and a little cooler than the last few days. Our agenda was pretty free this day. We had a 11:00AM tour at Opus One with the rest of the day open for improv.

We strolled though Yountville in the morning and stopped in front on Michael Chiarello's new restaurant Bottega. We stopped to read the menu and was quickly approached by a young guy. He asked us if we've eaten there yet. We told him no and he proceeded to tell us his tale. He and his girlfriend saw Chef Chiarello win on Top Chef Masters last night. That launched a decision to drive about 3 hours to eat at his place. That's dedication. The least we could do was call and make a reservation for a late lunch.

Opus One's winery is hard to miss. Even though it is set off from the highway, its position on top of a hill and unique architecture made it quite noticeable. We checked in with the concierge, their term not ours, and was introduced to our tour guide. The tour guide introduced herself and escorted us into another room to wait for the other members of the tour. The room we were waiting in was not some rustic paean to the agricultural roots of wine. Instead, we were surrounded by art and antiques not usually seen outside of museums. There were Miros and Braques on the wall along with a mirror that belonged to King Lois VIII of France. Wow. No wonder it was so difficult to book a tour here, they probably do background checks.

The tour guide did a wonderful job telling the history of Opus One, a joint project of Robert Mondavi and Baron Phillipe de Rothschild. Opus One only makes one wine, a Bordeaux blend with a California accent. The highlight of the tour for me was the barrel room. There in a totally climate controlled room are aging wines and new barrels stretching out in graceful arcs.

We finally got a chance to try the latest release of Opus One after about a 90 minute tour. It was a pretty spectacular wine that somehow did taste French and Californian at the same time.

Since it was just across the road, we stopped by the Robert Mondavi winery. It was a nice series of buildings, but after the Opus One, the regular Mondavis tasted a bit pedestrian. It could have just been that the wines were past their peak, we opted to taste some of the older Cabernets. One did surprise me with a mouthful of sediment. That was hard to deal with and retain a modicum of decorum.

It was now time for our lunch at Bottega. We entered and were seated at our table. The server approached and we had a moment of deja vu. Then it hit both us and the server, she waited on us at Auberge du Soleil! Well, it is kind of a small valley. Lunch was very good and boasted probably the best dish of the entire trip. The dish was an appetizer called bacon and eggs. This was a piece of crispy pork belly served with a breaded soft boiled egg, some preserved peppers and a slice of heirloom tomato. Every part of this dish was wonderful on its own and the sum was greater than the parts. The rest of the meal was a standout as well. At least it will be worth the drive for the young Top Chef fan!

Our last stop in Napa was Domaine Carneros. Domaine Carneros is the American cousin of Taittinger Champagne ensconced in its very own chateau. Even if their sparkling wine and piont noirs were not great, having a glass of wine on the veranda overlooking the vineyards would be worth the stop.

With the last sip of bubbly, our Napa trip was over. We turned the rent-a-car towards Danville and E's parent's house with not a little sadness. We had some really wonderful wines and some truly memorable meals. Time to get some pork belly to see if I can recreate bacon and eggs at home.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Leaping Stags and Honking Ducks

Up until now we have been hitting new wineries. Today, we wanted to revisit some of our favorite wineries Napa. Our old friend Trefethen was worth the stop as usual. And as usual, I spent way too much time taking photos of their vineyards and grounds. Their wine was spectacular as usual. I don't know how they make so many standout wines.
We went to the fabulous Stag's Leap. Stags Leap leapt to noterity when their Cabernet won the 1976 Paris wine tasting. Their wines are indeed awesome and may inspire your own leaping. The pourer was very knowledgable about the wines and we had a very good time tasting of some of their single vineyard Cabernets. It's amazing how you can test the effect of different soils on in the final wines.

We were driving right by Robert Sinskey, so we swung into their drive and headed in. They do have a nice tasting area, complete with a koi pond. I'm a sucker for koi ponds, don't know why. The fun thing about Sinskey is that they give you a little plate of food to pair with the wines you are drinking.

The next stop on our Napa express was Duckhorn. Duckhorn provides a very classy and relaxing tasting experience. They sit you down at a table and bring the wine to you. The server gives you a spiel about the wine and leaves you a card with information about the wine as well. It also helps that their wines are world class. Their tasting room and grounds are workd class as well. We had a plesant and relaxing to stroll around the grounds before heading to the next destination.

Our next destination was a bit of the beaten path The Hess Collection is not in the Valley itself, but instead is located on one of the nearby mountains. The interesting thing about Hess is that it is not only a winery, but it is a pretty significant collection of modern art. My favorite is a typewriter that has flames shooting from it. We're taking an real typewriter and real flames. It's perfect for writing recipes and testing them at the same time. The gardens outside are a work of art onto themselves.

Dinner brought us to Brix in Yountville. We sat outside with a view of their wonderful garden. This garden is the source of many of the components of the dishes served here. The standout part of our meal was the corn and candied bacon pizza. They say that everything tastes better with pizza, and this course proved it correct.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Waiter, What Wine Goes with Heat Stroke?

In normal times, Napa Valley is a little warm during the day, the evenings are cool. This is what makes the wines from the area so special. When we were there, the days were tending to blast furnace, the evenings spent huddled around the air conditioner.

Our first stop was Flora Springs on a recommendation of E's brother. It was a very modern and hip tasting room. There were very few other people in there, so we were enjoying the wines camped out in our zebra striped chairs and getting the undivided attention of one of the pourers. We were having a very good time until a literal bus full of people descended on the bar like locusts. We nearly had to jump up and down to pay for the tasting and get a bottle of their excellent Holy Smoke cabernet.

We then stopped at Charles Krug. This is the oldest winery in the valley. Its main claim to fame is that it launched the Mondavi brother's careers, and the huge fight that split the family for decades. The wines were good, but they did not get us really excited.

As a break from wine tasting, we headed to the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus for a demonstration class. We enjoyed a fun class showing us a really good crab cake recipe along with a summer succotash. At least we were ensconced in an air conditioned room for two hours.

Dinner saw us driving uphill to the beautiful Auberge du Soleil. This provided us with a dilemma, eat inside in the nice cool AC, or enjoy the view and roast outside. We opted for outside and the occasional dip into the wine's ice bucket made it bearable. The view was absolutely spectacular. The food was wonderful and we soon forgot how warm it was outside.

As the sun set, temperatures dropped to a more
humane level. We drove back to our hotel with content with a great day and a wonderful meal, ready for the next day in Napa.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wine, It's Whats For Breakfast

There are few, if any, places that come to mind where it is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to start drinking wine at 10 in the morning. But, when in Napa, do as Napa does.

If you have not been to Napa, then you are missing out. It is basically a
30 mile long Disney world for the wine and food crowd. You can taste wine to your heart, and wallets, content. Big mass producer wineries will gladly pour you their wares, as will small bouti
que makers. Wine not your thing? Check out the sake producer. Really more into food? How about three Thomas Keller restaurants in about 4 blocks.

Our trip this year started with the wonderful Cakebread Cellars. Really
great wines and a great tasting experience. Instead of bellying up to a bar and having the wines in rapid sucession, a guide takes you around the property with stops along the way to taste. It was a wonderful way to start this years wineathon.

We next made our way to Castello di Amarossa. The owner spent 14 years and who know
s how many million dollars to create an authentic Italian castle in Napa Valley. He even had a blacksmith make the nails by hand! The wines were not that memorable, but the tour of the castle was a must do.

Our next stop brought us to the great sparkling wine producer Schramsberg. You have to call ahead to for reservations for the tour and tasting, but it is well worth it. A quick history lesson of the property and the products lead into a tour through the cellars. If you are a wine geek, then this is pretty damn close to Nirvana! They still riddle most of
their wines by hand. Riddling is the quick turning of sparkling wine bottles to get the sediment to rest in the neck of the bottle so it can be removed. Watching the guide do a few bottles knowing that someone does thousands of bottles a day certainly makes one appreciate their bubbly more.

The day ended with a wonderful meal at Tre Vingne. We had the fresh mozzerella for an appetizer and it was superb. Coated in olive oil and herbs it tasted so good on the garlic toast. The risotto and pastas we had as mains were equally worthy of praise.

More about this trip will follow in future posts. Cheers!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Back to Basics

I was staring at a huge bag of carrots, wondering what the heck to do with them. I have to use them before I jet off to California or it's off to the compost heap with them. It occurred to me to put some of that fancy culinary schoolin' to use and cook them en glace.
As I discussed in an earlier post, using the French culinary terms always makes a cooking tecnhique sound more involved than it is. We learned three basic ways to cook vegatables at the French Culinary Institute, l'Americane, l'etuve, and en glace. L'Americaine is the basic put the vegtables in salted, boiling water then shock in an ice bath. L'etuve you put the veg in a pan then partially cover with water, add salt and butter, cover with a parchment paper cover and cook until the water is evaporated. Au glace is similar to l'etuve, but sugar is added to create a sweet coating on the vegtables.

I quickly diced up a few carrots, did my kitchen origami partchment paper lid, chucked the carrots in a sauteuse with some water, butter, salt and sugar and cranked up the heat. Once the water was boling I lowered the heat to a simmer and waited for the water to evaporate. Once the water was gone, I removed the lid and let the remaining butter and sugar form a glaze on the carrots.

The final dish was a winner. The carrots were cooked through with a nice sweet coating on them. A little vanilla or some orange liqueur would have been welcome additions to this. Maybe next time, as in tonight. I still have a lot of carrots left.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Mixed Metaphor Corn

As E is already in California and I'm headed there myself on Sunday I've been trying to cook using what's lying around. Today's protein was a no-brainer, I just defrosted a ribeye steak. To use up some of the produce I had lying around, I created what I call mixed metaphor corn.

Putting together corn and red bell peppers is totally Americana. Depending on how you season the dish, you can create something Northern, Southern or even Southwestern. When you start throwing shallots into the equation, things get a little muddled.

I diced the red bell pepper we had sitting around into a corn kernel sized dice. I finely diced a shallot and sauted it along with the red bell pepper in some butter until the vegetable were nearly done. I warmed up the half bag of frozen of sweet corn, then chucked it into the pan with the bell pepper and shallot.

This proved to be a surprisingly tasty combination. The shallot added a sweet, oniony undertone to the dish. The taste wasn't completely American, nor was it overtly European. The grilled steak and onion proved to be worthy additions to this dish of many colors. When choosing to cook with a fixed set of ingredients, some interesting combinations are bound to happen. Sometimes, these are very happy occasions.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On, Wisconsin

My image of Wisconsin was shattered this weekend when I saw that cheese did not run in rivers throughout the state and brats did not grow on trees. The Wisconsin wine did live up to its reputation. What reputation you say? Exactly. A restaurant bending over backwards to serve us and the best frozen custard on Earth will leave a fond spot for WI in my heart.

We found ourselves in Kewaunee, WI this past weekend to attend a family wedding. The parents of the bride have a farm in this lovely community where they raise cows, chickens, and future bratwursts, I mean pigs. They do this as a side line as they both work in health care. They have an amazing house with one feature that had me green with envy, two kitchens! One upstairs for the normal everyday cooking, one downstairs for making beer and turning those pigs into tasty sausages. They put both of these kitchens into great use because the food and the beer they served was phenomenal.

Outside of the wedding we did do some exploring. There were billboards everywhere advertising wineries in the area. We stopped in two of them to check them out. The first one was right in the middle of the town of Algoma. The wine was OK, but the building it was in was fun to visit. The second one we stopped in was a total tourist trap, the beverages we tasted had very little in common with wine. They did have homemade fudge there which really helped clean the palate and rescue the stop from being a total waste.

We made our way back to Kewaunee and stopped for a frozen custard. This was the real deal, it was so smooth, rich and creamy it defied description. Of course, this was a non-descript road side joint serving up dairy nirvana. We didn't head out for a bite to eat until late that evening. This being a smallish town, they did not stay open late. We popped into the Port O'Call restaurant after they stopped serving most of their menu. They pulled out all they stops to make something for E and I to eat. This would have been enough except that the food was really good! I wish we got there a little earlier to try out more of their offerings.

While we were a little disappointed that this trip did not drip with gooey, tasty cheese, we were not disappointed with the little gems we found and the great people running those places. Just don't drink the local wine.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Beer Can Chicken

Beer can chicken is one of those quintessential grilling recipes. It's certainly easy and flavorful. Just season a chicken, open up a can of beer and reduce by one third(oral consumption is recommended), jam the 1/3 empty can into the chickens nether regions and grill over indirect heat for about one hour. The grill gets the skin crispy and delicious, while the beer keep the meat moist. What's not to love?

Removing the can filled with scalding hot liquid from a scalding hot chicken is what is not to love. All the recipes fail to mention that the can welds itself to the inside of the chicken. It takes some doing to extract the can from the chicken's can and not put yourself in a burn ward.

You can gauge for yourself how popular this recipe is by the number of gadgets created to cook beer can chicken without giving yourself second degree burns. Most consist of some type of cylinder to fill with your liquid of choice. This cylinder is surrounded by a drip pan in many cases. The cylinder itself my even be coated with a non-stick surface. Memories of being locked in mortal combat with a red hot can had me opt for a non-stick model.

Last night I gave my new beer can chicken contraption a test run. I gave the chicken a good rub down with Bone Suckin' Sauce Seasoning and Rub. Yes, I know I could easily whip this up myself, but even I need a short cut every now and then. I cracked open a beer and filled up the container in the beer can chicken rig. Covered the container and plopped the chicken down on it. I must say the chicken looked kind of regal sitting on its beer filled throne as it grilled away on the Weber.

After about an hour, the chicken was done cooking and the moment of truth has come. Will this chicken freely rise from its container or did I just spend $20 for more frustration. I grabbed the chicken with a pair of tongs and gave a tug. The bird came freely away from the contraption, a chorus of angels began to sing and all was right in the world. OK, so I exaggerate. The chicken did come free without any hitch what so ever. Free from the nightmare of being sprayed with lava hot beer, the old beer can chicken will be making more appearances on the grill.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sometimes You Just Have to Open that Wine

How many of us have these bottles of wine stashed away somewhere, just waiting for the right occasion to open it? That fancy California cab aging quietly in the sock drawer, waiting, waiting.... OK, what ARE you waiting for? Sometimes you just have to open that bottle of wine.

Last night I was throwing together what was basically clean out the fridge tacos, just trying to use up the current stocks before vacation. E called over from the living room, 'Hon, let's open a nice bottle of wine tonight." I peek in the wine fridge and there staring me right in the eye is the Domaine Carneros Famous Gate Pinot Noir. Sure, it cost north of $50, but why not.

The wine did deliver the good, plenty of cherry, black berry and spice flavors. Nice plush and smooth mouth feel, a really well crafted wine. It turned a forgettable meal into something worth writing about. A mediocre Tuesday was transformed into a celebration.

My advice to you is to go find where you hid that special wine. Turn some normal weekday night into a mini holiday. Toast to just being able to toast. Celebrate old friends or knock on a neighbor's door and make a new one. Life is too short to wait for some day.