Monday, October 26, 2009

Reflections of Maremma Workshop at the James Beard House

It was a glorius fall day.  The rake the leaves in a pile and jump in kind of day.  The kind of day when a glass of apple cider tastes just that much better.  So, wracked was with mixed feelings, I headed to my cooking event.  The James Beard House was hosting a cooking workshop with the Apicius School of Hospitality.  Maybe they would have apple cider there.

Each year, the Apicius School of Hospitality makes a pilgramage from their home in Florence, Italy to the James Beard House.  The chefs maximize the the use of their frequent flyer miles by both cooking a dinner and running a workshop.The workshop usually features some of the recipes from the dinner.  During this trip, the cuisine of Tuscany's wild Maremma region was the star.

The kitchen of the Beard House was abuzz with activity as we made our way in for the class.  There were so many chefs crammed into the kitchen, it looked like the 6 train going to a Yankees game.  We found a spot along the counter, eager for the lesson to begin.  A introduction to the school and the chefs served as the preamble to a discussion of the dishes to be prepared.  Groups were formed, sleeves rolled up and the cooking began. 

Well, at least a little participation in the cooking began.  Most of the cooking classes at the James Beard House are demos classes do to the relatively small size of the kitchen.  It's called the James Beard House because well, it really was James Beard's house.  So picture a professional kitchen shoehorned into your house and you pretty much get the picture.  The Apicius people do always have a hands on portion to their workshops, but we never get to prepare the dish from start to finish.

The first dish was Terrina di Melanzane e Pomodoro, a tomato and eggplant terrine.  This dish was a standout taste wise and presentation wise.  The goal was to make it look like a piece of tuna on the plate, which it did.  This was like a Halloween costume for food.  The eggplant looked a lot like fish skin and the tomato was a near dead ringer for raw tuna.  A taste catapulted it beyond something nice to look at to a bonifed taste sensation.  It just burst with an explosion of tomato flavor set off with a spicy spark of eggplant.

Following that, we got our hands dirty making Tortelli Maremmani di Ricotta di Pecora ed Erbette di Campo sul Sugo di Carne e Salsiccia, sheep milk ricotta with a beef and sausage ragu.  We channeled our inner Mario Batali's making pasta dough with the well method.   The wall of the flour well was gently broken down, incorporating into the egg mixture forming a rough dough.  This proto pasta dough needed to be kneaded until it was no longer sticky to the touch.  We allowed the dough to rest while one of the chefs demoed how to make the filling. 

Fresh from its nap, the dough was sent through a pasta maker, making a thin sheet.  This poor, unsuspecting dough was the guinea pig for our inexper tortelli making.  Let's just say that whatever gene Italian grandmothers have for pasta making, was completely absent from our group.  It did give us a new found respect for the pasta makers out there.  That reverance caused everyone to lick their plates clean when this course was served.

As a special treat, the chefs brought along some wild boar strip loin.  This was just browned on all sides in a pan and finished in an oven.  I would like to know what kind of life this wild boar had.  It was melt in the mouth tender.  I guess the forest this boar was from featured massages at the very least.

The event was capped off with a Crostata di Ricotta served with a pistachio creme.  A lovely desert wine, not available in the US, was served  with this course.  The chefs and sommeliers smuggled it in, hidden in their luggage.  Contraband wine always tastes sweeter, so good thing this was a desert wine.

It ended up being a glorius fall day in a different kind of way.  It was a blast trying to make tortelli and relsihing in a really great meal.  I guess it was better than jumping into a pile of leaves after all.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


The wine snob raises the glass of wine, swirls it deftly, as his nose probes for all its secret aromas.  He takes a sip, swishes it around his mouth and spits it out into the waiting bucket.  He proceeds to describe the wine in prose even more purple than the permanent wine stains on his teeth.  Then, as a finale, he declares the exact grape, area, producer and vintage of the wine.  The crowd is stunned with awe in witnessing such an amazing  feat.

The above is the cliched version of blind tasting.  To actually get such an amazing amount of detail correct is more the exception than the rule, but if you pay attention to what's in your glass, it's amazing on how close you can get to the above scene.  Hopefully, sans stained teeth.

Last night, Fred Dexheimer, a Master Sommelier, gave a class in blind tasting at the Astor Center.  To get the Master Sommelier certification, one must pass a grueling test consisting of general wine knowledge, wine service and a blind tasting of six wines.  Only about 100 people in the US have this designation and most people who have it took the exams several time to pass it.  So, I was ready to absorb whatever knowledge he had to impart.

Fred started off with a brief description of how wine is made.  He had a great slide using Pacman to demonstrate how yeast eats sugar to make alcohol.  Right then, I knew this was going to be a great class.

As he moved through the steps of tasting a wine, he was framing the lessons in the context of discerning more about the mystery in your glass.  How the color of the wine changes with age so you can at least place the vintage of the wine into newer or older.  He talked about how climate affected the alcohol level and viscosity of wine.  You could then use this information to place the wine into a warm growing region or a cool growing region.  Is the nose of the wine more fruity or more earthy?  This gives you important clues into whether it is a wine from the Old World or a New World upstart.

We finally got to put our new wine tasting acumen to the test by blind tasting seven wines.  I know, I know, it was a tough assignment, but you have to do what you have to do.  The wines were all from standard grapes and regions so they be great wines to cut our blind tasting teeth(taste buds?) on.  We worked our way through the wines starting with three white wines.  Fred led us through the FEW TAL tasting steps.  That is Fruit, Earth, Wood, Tannin, Acid, and Length.  The class no problem of identifying the first wine as a New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

We soon started sipping and zipping our way through the wines, throwing around adjectives like barnyard and pencil lead like the most jaded wine critic.  We did great in identifying the wines.  Only the last one had the class a little confused, about half thought it was a Zinfandel, the other half a Syrah.  I was in the Zin camp myself and was a little disappointed to see it was indeed the Syrah.

This was a really fun and informative class. Fred Dexheimer proved to be a great instructor, making the material really fun to learn.  Now please excuse me, I have blind wine tasting to practice.  

Friday, October 16, 2009

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, LIVE!

Wednesday was whirlwind of activity.  I had to attend a meet and greet with the CEO, had to present the findings of the project that was driving me to distraction for the past couple of weeks, speed off to a James Beard Foundation event, then rush downtown to a class. I did not plan a day like this, but when the Lords of Chaos have you in their sights, these things happen.

The Astor Center has launched a new series of events entitled "Great Cooks and Their Books".  It combines getting to know some of the icons of cooking better by cooking recipes from their seminal cookbooks.  The series started off with what may be the most seminal of them all, Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking".  Curious, I signed up for the event.  Then my calander got stuffed like a sausage.

The Lords of Chaos took pity on me after I presented my findings and everything just fell into place.  At 6:00PM I was rolling up my sleaves and donning an apron, ready to get down with huge quantities of butter.  Entering the kitchen, I knew we were in for an evening of fun.  Old episodes of  "The French Chef" were playing on flat panel TVs to set the mood.  The instructor, Carl Raymond, was very friendly and engaging.  He got the dough kneading by asking each of us about our cooking experience and our relationship with Julia.  There were some experienced cooks, some novices, some who have had a long relationship with Julia, others have never heard of her until the movie "Julia and Julie", and one who spoke very little English.  We would not have enough time to cook all of the classes recipes, so we broke into teams to tackle a few recipes each.  I found myself on Team Salad Nicoise with two very fun Japanese women.  Other teams were tackling boeuf bourguignon and tarte aux pommes.

Before breaking into our individual teams to tackle Julia's dishes, Chef Carl demoed several techniques.  Chef Carl shares my cooking philosophy, learn techniques not recipes.  Once you understand a technique and how food reacts to it, you can pretty much just scoop up some ingredients at the market and make dinner.  Carl made a mayo, demoed how to saute, and made a Hollandaise sauce.  He did this ala Julia, no bain marie(double boiler) and whole butter.  I might have heard the faint whirring sound of Escoffier spinning in his grave, but the Hollandaise sauce came out great.  We then broke down into our groups and had at it.

Salad Nicoise is a classic French composed salad.  By composed, it is not all mixed together, but rather the ingredients are arranged artfully on a plate.  It consists of cooked potatoes, cooked green beans, tuna, olives, tomatoes, and greens.  We had lots of prep to do and we got at it.  Despite my Japanese team mates unfamiliarlarity with French cooking and Julia Child, they were quite adept and we soon became a Salad Nicoise machine.  We soon had all the components of the salad ready and the vinaigrette prepared.

I was pulled into Hollandaise making and left my two teammates to plate the salad.  No one informed them about the nature of composed salads, so they preceded to mix everything together.  I looked up from my whisking to see two giant piles of Salad Nicoise.  The plating looked good though as they were artfully placing ingredients on top of the dish.

I was so caught up in my own team's cooking that I did not catch much of  the rest of class in action.  I can tell you that the end results were all delicious.  Every team earned kudos for their work as the serving platters quickly emptied.  As I exited the kitchen into the surprisingly chilly evening, I could have sworn I heard a ghostly "Bon Appetit" carried on the autumn wind.

Hollandaise Sauce, Hybrid Julia Child/Carl Raymond Recipe

  • 3 egg yolks

  • 1 tablespoon of water

  • 1 tablesppon of lemon juice

  • 1 1/2- 2 sticks of room temperature butter, cut into pieces

  1. Beat egg yolks in sauce pan

  2. Add water, lemon juice, and salt and beat until the egg yolks thicken slightly

  3. Place saucepan over very low heat and beat eggs until they reach a thick, creamy consistency.  Be sure not to scramble the egg yolks or you will have to start over!

  4. Remove pan from heat and start beating in the butter, one piece at a time.

  5. Continue to add the butter until the mixture gets to a consistency of a thick cream.  Use of the minimum amount of butter to reach this stage is recommended to prevent the sauce from breaking.

  6. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

  7. Keep sauce warm(not hot!), serve as soon as possible,

Monday, October 12, 2009

NY Wine and Food Festival

For the second year in a roll, throngs of foodies flooded the streets of NYC making their way to a cooking demo, a wine tasting, the ever popular Burger Bash, or the ultimate thrill of meeting their favorite Food Network star.  Even in a totally food obssessed town as NYC, a certain buzz was in the air, competing with the buzz from the bourbon tasting, but I digress.

I made it to three events this year, a Martha Stewart cooking demo, a wine tasting and a whiskey tasting.  Three very different, but interesting events.

Friday evening I made it to the New School's Tisch Auditorium for the Martha Stewart cooking demo.  I arrived about 20 minutes before the start and already the line was half a block long.  The line moved swiftly and I was able to snag a front row seat.  There, up on stage honing her knives, was the Doyenne of Domesticity herself, Martha Stewart.  It was interesting to see how a large part of the audience was completly besides themselves in the presence of their hero.  A group of foodies from the Phillapines asked her when she was going to pay them a visit back home.  That is dedication.

Martha was going to demo a dinner from her soon to be released cook book, "Martha Stewart's Dinner at Home".  It is a collection of seasonal dinners that will take about an hour on average to prepare.  When I say Martha demoed, I mean she mostly talked while one of her food editors mostly demoed.  The meal itself was very tasty looking:  duck breast with fig sauce, a potato dish based on pommes daphin, braised red cabbage and hazelnut brittle sundae.  After the demo there was a lively Q & A session that had a few very interesting moments.  A gentleman asked Martha what types of pots and pans he needed.  Martha replied, "Be sure they have a triple ply bottom.  It's very easy, go to Macy's, they come in a big, white box that says Martha Stewart on it."  The audience howled.

I discovered two keys to Martha's popularity during this demo.  The first key is that she has a very good rapport with her audience.  She seem genuinely engaged when talking to her fans.  Her second and probably her biggest key is she talks very authoritatively.  She makes statements with such confidence that you just believe her.  Well, most of the time.  I did not believe her when she said she makes her own puff pastry from scratch.

The next day was a completley differnet type of event.  I made my way downtown to the Astor Center to a tasting of Quintessa wines.  The tasting was structured to demonstrate how the area a grape was grown in affects the taste of the wine made from it.  This is what wine afficinados call terroir.  The tasting was led by Augustin Francisco Huneeus from Quintessa wines.  He told the story of how his family obtained the land and how it was planted.  The rolling hills on the property, along with differnet soil types create many different growing environments for their grape vines.  We went on to taste three differnet barrel sample wines made from the same cabernet sauvingnon clone.  The grapes were grown in different parts of the estate.  The grapes did indeed very different wines.  Some of these grapes were grown only a few hundred feet apart, yet the wines they produced were miles apart in terms of taste.  Well, miles apart from a wine geek's point of view at least.  We finally tasted the finished Quintessa wines from three different vintages, 2003, 2005 and 2006.  All three wines were wonderful, but the 2006 needs a few more years to really reach its peak.

A free event was running all weekend at the Astor Center known as "Le French Lounge".  Sponsored by the French government, this was a nice little event showcasing French food and drink.  Wines from the Alsace and Chateneuf de Pape were featured along with Perrier and French beer.  Of course, there was a full selection of French cheese and bread.  Chefs from Le Cordon Bleu were doing various demos.  Doing demos using foie gras.  Free event, free foie gras, free wine.  Winner for my favorite event.

Sunday afternoon, I met up with my friend GT for a whiskey tasting.  The event was held at the trendy steak house STK in the trendy Meat Packing District.  Even the damn pigeons in this area are trendy.  As soon as we entered, a drink was shoved into our paws.  "This is going to be some event.", I thought sipping my "Not Your Father's Manhattan".  We found a table and sat down.  Array in front of us were six glasses of whiskey.  Waiters flitted through the room carrying food as we waited for the drinking to begin in earnest.  A nice spicy shrimp was offered along with a killer maple glazed bacon.  I nearly had to physically restrain GT from taking a whole tray of the bacony bits of heaven.  The tasting began with a tasting of Maker's Mark bourbon.  The brand ambassador gave us the story of how Maker's Mark came to be and what to look for when we taste it.  Again, another brand ambassador(See Dewars DO post).  How do I get that gig?   We switched to the Jim Beam uinverse of booze and yet another brand ambassador.  Our first whiskey here was the bourbon Basil Hayden.  This was markedly different than the Maker's Mark, more spicy and less sweet.  Our next bourbon was Knob Creek.  This pretty much tasted as you expect bourbon to taste.  You get the vanilla and caramel from the barrel aging, along with some citrus and spiciness.  This has been one of my favorite bourbons for quite some time.  We took a quick detour to the land of rye, with Jim Bean's R(i).  This was a very flavorful and spicy whiskey that will probably not be to everyone's taste.

As we were progessing through the tasting, the decibel level in the room was also progessing.  Upward progression.  We were also being treated to another progression, the proof of the whiskies.  While Basil Hayden was a 80 proof beverage, Knob Creek was 105.  We made our way to Baker's 125 proof.  Luckily there were no open flames when we hit Booker's at over 130 proof.  At least all those glasses will be sterile!  Even at those high proofs, these whiskies had plenty of taste and character.

The emptying fo the last glass brought the event to an end.  GT and I made our out into a cool fall evening.  Not that we noticed the cold, but just saying.    

Friday, October 9, 2009

Magic, Martinis and Mario: Having a Cocktail for the Kids

The hoarde of zombies was getting closer and their numbers were increasing at an alarming rate.  Where can we find an escape from our impending doom?  Look, there's Mario Batali in the door of Del Posto with a fist full of salamis beconning us to come to safety.  We run inside and he locks the door.

I wake with a start and immediately begin to laugh.  Work has been a little stressful as of late and my subconscious is telling me that I picked out the right person for some relief.

I received an e-mail about a month ago detailing an evening of Magic, Martinis and Mario as a benefit for the Mario Batali Foundation.  It was a bit exspensive, but it was for charity, so out came the Amex and I was in.  The evening arrived just in the nick of time.  A very nice cocktail, containing more ingredients than I can recall, was in my hand.  It went far in assuaging the days ills, as did the parade of appetizers that was streaming from the kitchen.  All of the little bites were quite tasty, but the polpette and the prosciutto wrapped scallops were standouts.

Since this was a benefit event and not just some foodie round up, it did have a bit of a different vibe than what I am used to.  Outside of the silent auction articles, the large number of very tall, very thin women lent a "I'm not in Kansas anymore" athmosphere to the happening.

Soon Mario appeared, working the crowd with ease and enthusiasm.  I only had a chance to exchange a few words with him before he flitted off to the next group of attendees.  I had time for another cocktail before the evenings main event got started.

Cocktail meister extrodinarie, Tony Abou-Ganim, took the stage demonstrating how to make the drink that would accompany the first course, "The Happy Mario".  Mario then took the stage and demoed how to prepare the first course, shrimp with soft polenta.  His years of TV experience was evident with the ease and confidence he showed while cooking, teaching and bantering with the audience.

In between cooking demos, the evenings mc, magician Bill Harris, entertained the audience.  He did promote a festive athmosphere while trying to loosen the attendees purse strings.  Mario retook the stage to demo the second course, merguez sausage with orecchitte.  This was my favorite dish of the evening, the spicness of the sausage was the perfect foil for the sweetness of the pureed carrots.

After a few more tricks and a lot more schtick, Mario was up again making pork chops with cardoons.  This was a very good demo and a very good dish.  This was the "foodiest" demo as Mario got into a discussion of heritage pork breeds and having to cook the cardoons au blanc(with flour in the water).

When these plates were cleard away, the real money making began, the live auction.  I was tempted to make a bid on the 5 magnums of wine when the opening bid was $500.  I would not have made the final winning bid, $6000, however!  The item that generated the most buzz was a Tiger Woods golf event called Tiger Jam.  Two people traded bids until it finall went for well over $20,000!

I wearily made my way back to Hoboken,  laden with a very heavy gift bag.  I was not believing any of the clocks I passed showing midnight.  Alas, they were correct and I did not get to bed till nearly 1:00AM.  The alarm went off in what seemed like minutes, but I was feeling pretty good as I got up to face another day of chaos.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nuts for Butternut Squash

Fall has settled in here in Hoboken.  A cool breeze is rustling the leaves that are slowly donning their autumn finery.  You need something a warm to stay off the chill and soup fits the bill perfectly.

Last weekend E flew back to California to watch her beloved Cal Bears take on the USC Trojans.  Knowing she will probably need something to lift her spirits after the game(She did, the game was not pretty) I made a batch of her favorite soup, butternut squash.  She likes the soup more on the sweet than savory side, so I added some apples to take accomplish that.  Roasting the squash and some onion in the oven first also tends to bring out a little sweetness.  Here's the play by play.

  • 2 butternut squash
  • 1 large onion, preferably a sweet variety
  • 1-2 tablespoons of neutral flavored oil such as canola
  • 2 apples, preferably macintosh or golden delicious
  • 8 cups of chicken stock or vegetable stock
  • 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg, preferably freshly ground
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • creme fraiche for garnish (optional)
  1. Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Cut off 1/4 inch from top and bottom of butternut squash.  Peel with vegetable peeler until the orange flesh is visible.  Cut squash in half.  Requires sharp knife, some force, and much care!  Remove seeds and fibrous material.   Cut into roughly equal sized pieces.  Place in large bowl.
  3. Rough chop onion, place in bowl with squash.
  4. Add oil and stir to coat ingredients.  This will aid in the browning of the vegetables.
  5. Place in single layer on sheet pan and roast for approximately 45 minutes or until slightly browned.
  6. Remove from oven
  7. Add stock to large pan
  8. Core, peel and chop apples.  Add to stock.
  9. Add butternut squash and onions to stock.
  10. Add nutmeg and season with salt and pepper.
  11. Bring to boil and reduce to simmer.  Let soup cook for 20 minutes.
  12. Puree soup with an immersion blender or in batches in regular blender.  Do not overfill blender as hot soup will expand! 
  13. Check for seasoning
  14. Ladle into bowl and garnish with a dab of creme fraiche if desired.
  15. Spoon into mouth until desired level of comfort is reached.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dewars Do

It's pretty funny that I'm writing about a Scotch function with the melancholy sound of bagpipes drifting through the air.  Why someone is playing the bagpipes on a Saturday afternoon in Hoboken is anyone's guess, but that's why I love this town.

My friend GT is on every e-mail list there is.  He gets invited to a plethora of events every week.  Granted, most of these events are basically live action infomercials, but they generally feature free food and booze.  There is never anything wrong with free food and booze.  Last Wednesday, Dewars was hosting an event at the new chi-chi W Hotel right here in Hoboken.  I got to tag along with GT to check it out.

The new W is a great looking hotel.  I guess it has to be since it costs north of $200 a night to stay there.  We queued up on the second floor waiting for the event to start.  They had to check everyone's id to make sure they were of legal age.  A quick look at me and you know that I passed that threshold a long time ago, but I guess they have to follow the rules.  Once we were allowed in, we were given the choice of three drinks: Dewars on the rocks, Dewars with ginger ale or a Dewars mojito.  We both opted for the Dewars with ginger ale and availed ourselves to the food.  I must say, for a free event the food was pretty good.  The had tuna tartare, crab cakes, risotto balls and meatball sliders.  Soon it was time for the cheese, I mean the presentation to start.

A Dewars brand ambassador started giving us the history of Dewars along with an overview of Scotch in general.  My only question is "How do I get this gig?  Travel the world and drink?  He gets paid to do this?  Wow!".  His presentation was actually quite interesting.  He then moved into the interactive portion of the evening.  In front of us were an array of test tubes.  Some of these contained the components of the aroma of Scotch: vanilla, orange peel, floral elements, honey and peat.  Along with these were test tubes filled with single malt Scotch whiskeys that exhibited these aromas strongly.  After smelling the elements and Scotches, we got to try our hands at being master blenders.  These guys have a really hard job.  They have to blend 40 different Scotches so that the result always smells like Dewars.  Yes, they do this all by smell.  But just think of the interesting blends they would make if they tasted the 40 different Scotches!  My blend was a disappointment.  I thought I only added a little of the really peaty whiskey, but I must have added too much.

After our amateur attempts, we got to taste the results of the pros.  Dewars uses a process called double aging.  They basically age the Scotch, blend it, then age it some more.  The first taste we had was the blend before the second aging.  It was a nice Scotch, smooth and complex.  We then tasted the finished product and it was an improvement over the first.  Of course, they wouldn't have done things this way if there wasn't an easily discerned difference.  A few other demos were done such as showing how adding some water to the Scotch improves the taste and aroma by taming the alcoholic heat.

Soon the infomercial, I mean event was over.  The Scotch wasn't bad, the food was pretty good and we got a flask as a parting gift.  All three of these things kept me warm on a chilly autumn night walk home.