Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Jook

Monday night I was kind of hoping to go out, but Ann still isn't feeling well. I grabbed a couple of chicken thighs at the store on the way home to make some stock and ultimately a pot of jook, one of China's great contributions to the world. Jook is a rice porridge that hits the spot when you are not feeling well, such as when you have the flu, Irish or otherwise. Often served as a breakfast food, jook is used comparably in China to the way we use grits, porridge, oatmeal, or cream of wheat.

Jook with Zha Cai and Sesame Oil
Jook doesn't really need a recipe as it is merely rice overcooked in a lot of liquid and seasoned any way that you want. I use short-grained rice and a chicken stock-to-rice ratio of about 4:1. I'm not super good about measuring things.

2 quarts of chicken stock
8-10 slabs fresh ginger
2 cups of short-grained sushi rice
salt to taste

How you come by your chicken stock is up to you. I always poach chicken thighs or legs in water with a lot of slabs of ginger to get my stock, ginger being good for you especially when you are ill. Bring your strained chicken stock to a rolling boil and add the rice, stirring well. The rice will start to swell after a couple of minutes and I turn the pot way down low and walk away. Perhaps I will stir it every 20 minutes. 90 minutes seems to be about the appropriate cook time for the rice I use: the rice should no longer have any real texture. Add more liquid if necessary to yield a porridge in which a spoon will not stand. Season to taste.

You can garnish your jook anyway that you see fit. If I'm sick, I don't want anything in it. Otherwise, I like to garnish with some of the chicken meat used in making the stock, some sautéed shiitakes or some rehydrated black mushrooms, pickled mustard stems (zha cai), cilantro, and often, a drizzle of sesame oil.

Last night, I just went for a pile of zha cai, a bit of cilantro, and a drizzle of sesame oil. I think Ann just had hers with a pat of butter and some salt. Jook is a classic comfort/invalid food that should be in your repertoire.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Glen Manor Vineyards

And as for hike number 2 of our 52-hike challenge this year: Sunday afternoon saw a temperature of 15 degrees with windchill well below zero and Ann is coming off a really bad cold. She felt better temporarily on Tuesday and pitched me an 11-mile hike out in West Virginia, but I reminded her that with her cold and the weather, it wasn't a great idea. She started feeling worse later in the week and the hike got shelved pretty quickly.

I knew Ann needed to get out of the house after being tied to the sofa for a week, but for nothing too strenuous. On Saturday when it seemed she was getting better, I suggested Glen Manor so she and Kelly could catch up, and she was mainly agreeable, but Sunday morning, I could tell she was having second thoughts. I packed us a picnic lunch on Saturday so we could grab it and go on Sunday. We finally made it out of the house closer to 1pm than to noon and arrived to find our car the only one in the parking lot about 45 minutes later.

I had expected it to be slow, but not that slow. As we were catching up with Kelly two other couples and a threesome showed up, but that was it for the duration of the time we were there. I was hoping to catch up with Jeff, but he was hiking from the top of the vineyard to Skyline Drive and back. I was a bit jealous!

The Vineyard is Beautiful with Dusting of Snow

The Big PV Tasted Best to Ann

Terrine, Salame, and Cheese for Lunch

Putting on the Brave Face

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Harper's Ferry WV/Maryland Heights MD

New Year's Day and finally back to hiking. It's been just about a month, what with Christmas and all, since we have been on a hike. We only had time for a short one in the afternoon of New Year's Day because we had no dog sitter this weekend. Ann decided she wanted to go hike Maryland Heights again because it is close to home and because it's just a beautiful place.

About 11:30 after we got motivated, we headed out for Harper's Ferry and we arrived about noon. Because it was a federal holiday, the park Visitor's Center was closed and the buses weren't running into town. We usually park and ride into town to avoid the congestion in downtown Harper's Ferry, but New Year's Day we continued past the park entrance to Shenandoah Street only to find the parking lot next to the river and under the railroad trestle closed as well.

We continued on to the Amtrak station where everybody else was trying to park. After about 10 minutes, a car left and we were finally able to get a spot. The congestion in the parking lot would be a good indicator of how crowded the trails were: there was no solitude at all. I kind of expected there to be fewer people, but the weather was supremely gorgeous. Everyone on the trail was pleasant and wished us a Happy New Year, but still, I relish my quiet on hikes.

On the way to Harper's Ferry, Ann told me about a hiking challenge that asks people to get out and make 52 hikes in a year, an average rate of one per week. That sounds easy enough, but with my work schedule leaving me about 48 days off a year (not to mention all the other things we have planned for this year), it's going to be a hell of a challenge for us. But why not try? Here then is the saga of hike number one for 2017.

1889 Victorian-Style Amtrak Station, Harper's Ferry

Pilgrim Ganders in HFNHP
From the train station lot, we walked down to the point and crossed the railroad bridge from West Virginia into Maryland and then turned north up the C&O Canal Towpath upriver along the Potomac. Across the river, it is quite an experience standing under the cliffs of Maryland Heights, where the rock climbers were doing their thing and on top of which we would look down on Harper's Ferry towards the end of our hike. Although I took dozens of pictures, because the camera flattens out the perspective, they just don't convey how cool it is to be looking straight up the cliff faces.

Crossing the Potomac, Bridge Plaque

Descending to the C&O Canal Towpath

Tunnel under Maryland Heights

Maryland Heights Cliffs, Lock House, Canal

Bird's Nest in a Sycamore, C&O Canal Towpath

The Abandoned Hilltop House Hotel
This wasn't our first trip to Harper's Ferry and Maryland Heights. Back in the spring, we made the hike from Harpers Ferry to Weverton Cliffs and back. Before that, Ann and I have gone to the Maryland Heights cliff tops and I had also done that hike several times before we met, but never have either of us gone to the top of the hill (technically called Elk Ridge) and the Civil War fortifications looking southeast down the Potomac. I keep returning to this place because it is one of my favorite places on the East Coast. I am not sure I could ever tire of this place where the Shenandoah and the Potomac merge and cross the Blue Ridge Mountains.

It was a truly gorgeous day especially for the first of January, but in spite of that, Ann and I clearly had very different takes on the nearly 50-degree sunny day. She started off in many layers of clothes with hat and gloves, while I wore shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. Ann quickly found herself shedding layers once we started climbing. And climb we did.

Across the Potomac in Maryland, the mountain goes up very quickly and there are a couple really steep sections. As we were climbing one section of very steep terrain on an old wagon road and Annie was finding it hard to get her breath, I mentioned to her that it must have taken some herculean effort to drag cannons up this road during the Civil War. And in crazy coincidence, we saw the sign below beside the trail not 50 yards from where I made my remarks. It reads "Tired and Breathless? ... Try ascending this road hauling a 9700 pound gun..." Take a moment to read it, especially the last part about President Lincoln calling it quits going up to review the troops because it was too steep. Not much of a hiker, I guess.

Ann Was Huffing and Puffing As She Read This.
After the couple of steep ascents, we reached the top of the mountain which is relatively flat and the going became a lot easier as we marched east towards the ruins of the old Stone Fort, the walls of a Union blockhouse that was never completed. The fort commands a view down the Potomac towards Washington.

At the Ridgetop, Stone Fort Plans

The Potomac From Stone Fort

Sitting on Stone Fort Ruins

Brunswick MD and Sugarloaf Mountain
From the ruined fort, we returned west along the crest of the hill past several gun emplacements back to the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac, over which hang the cliffs that we could see from down below. The views on top of the cliffs are northwest up the Potomac towards Shepherdstown, west up the Shenandoah towards Charles Town, and directly below onto the town of Harper's Ferry.

Hilltop House Hotel from Above the Cliffs

Northwest Towards Shepherdstown
Despite shooting directly into the setting sun, I was able to get a few decent shots (thanks Photoshop!) of Harper's Ferry, which is one of the most photogenic little towns that I know. In the photo below, you can see Harper Cemetery along the ridge of the hill, the 4-acre open grass space above town. This might be my favorite place to go and sit and look down at the Shenandoah and Potomac merging and heading off towards the Chesapeake. Alas, our day didn't allow for any time in town this trip.

Harper's Ferry, Always Photogenic

1/1/2017: What's Wrong with This Picture?
Are those trees on the abandoned bridge pillar naturally grown, fake, planted, or maybe Christmas trees for the season? No matter what those trees are or why they are there, I found the high contrast scene compelling enough to want to remember.

Cool, Huh?

Big Kettle of Vultures at the Cliffs

Eye Level Fly By

One of the Brand New CSX ET44s
It was late in the afternoon, with less than an hour of sunlight left in the day, as we returned to Harper's Ferry and the Amtrak station where we left the Jeep. I really couldn't fathom the vast number of people still leaving to make the climb up Maryland Heights. Nowhere did I see a flashlight and most of the people were wearing inappropriate clothes and shoes. I bet sunset atop the cliffs is wonderful, but still it made me shake my head in wonder.


The Armory

St. Peters Rises Above Town at Sunset

Back Where We Started
This hike was my first trail time with my new boots which I got in early December. I've been up to five miles in them on sidewalks around home, but sidewalks are very different from trails. Given my experience breaking in boots in the 1970s, I was very leery of taking boots out for a 5-mile hike with less than 10 miles on them. But these new Oboz boots are supremely comfortable. The steep hills gave them a workout and although my heels were a little tender at the end of the day, no blisters. I still think I am going to need to work up to all-day hikes in them, but what amazing performance right out of the box!

It was without a doubt a really spectacular day to visit one of the most spectacular sites on the East Coast and not a bad hike for getting back into the swing of things after several weekends without getting out. And now for the next 51 hikes this year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas Dinner

Our plan for Christmas Dinner did not go nearly as planned. I closed the restaurant for lack of business on Christmas Eve and Ann and I were going to get in the kitchen together and make osso buco while relaxing with a bottle of wine. And then we were going to take a hike on Christmas Day and finish off the day with a nice pasta, as a reward for good behavior this past year. We haven't eaten any pasta in months and our waistlines show it.

Osso Buco, Risotto Milanese, Oregon Black Truffles
That was the plan, but the reality was much different. Ann spent a few days at her mother's and ended up following the ambulance to the ER on Christmas Eve because her mom was having more heart problems. Late afternoon on Christmas Eve after they admitted her mom for observation, Ann was able to get away and come home about dark. So much for getting in the kitchen and cooking. And as frazzled as she was, I just opened a bottle of wine and after some by-the-glass therapy, we cooked some pasta, and watched Love Actually for the umpteenth time. This was definitely not how we scripted Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day, we hung around the house without taking a hike, waiting for the call to come get Ann's mother and take her home. About 11:30 in the morning, it was clear that the hospital was taking its time in cutting her loose, so we decided to hurry up the osso buco into the crockpot so that it would be waiting for us when we got home.

Osso Buco Bubbling Away

We got the call about 2pm to come into Fairfax and as luck would have it, Mary had just got to the front door as we pulled up, so we didn't have to wait on her. After visiting her mom and me making a quick pot of stracciatella for her to eat, we headed west on the drive across the mountains to Winchester. Once again, it was about dark when we got home, but this time we arrived to the awesome smells of osso buco.

We collected our wits for a few minutes and then Ann went on an explore in the cellar for wine (because we drank our osso buco Barolo the night before) while I pulled together the mise for risotto milanese. I also happened to grab a few truffles from work for our risotto, an indulgence that we partake of only once a year.

Risotto Mise: Leeks, Shallots, Oregon Black Truffles

Just Starting the Risotto: Adding the Saffron

Risotto Milanese Ready for Service
Ann surprised me with two bottles from the cellar that I was supposed to guess blind. Unknown to me, she pulled a couple of 2011s from our friend Maggie Malick. I couldn't place the first wine, the Cabernet Franc. It was bricking from age, the color was fading, but the fruit was bright sappy raspberry with a darker cherry undertone and some bottle funk. I couldn't place the wine at all and was shocked when she showed me the bottle: Virginia Cabernet Franc.

Outstanding Aged Virginia Cab Franc
The second bottle, I could place. It was a dead ringer for 2009 vintage Pinot Noir from Ribbon Ridge AVA in Oregon. Only one problem: we don't have any in our cellar. I was dumbfounded to find that it was Virginia Merlot. Merlot makes sense in that it has this juicy blueberry streak that you also find in Ribbon Ridge Pinot. Damned delicious and better than the Cabernet Franc. Age has a way of making certain wines really graceful. Time was excellent to these two and I know they taste far better now than when they were bottled.

Even More Outstanding Virginia Merlot


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Special Linden Tasting

For the month of December, until they closed for their annual holiday break, Jim, Shari, and the crew at Linden were doing a special tasting, rather than their usual cellar and counter tastings. I believe that Jim guinea-pigged this tasting on us when we were in a few weeks ago. I had thought that perhaps we were going to have a short hike in the morning before going to the winery in the afternoon, but in retrospect, it seems that was never in Ann's playbook. Good thing it was pouring all morning making the whole idea moot.

Each weekend in December would see a different tasting. You can see ours in the photo below.

Tasting Menu at Linden
The star of the whites was the Avenius Chardonnay 2008 which is displaying some gorgeous oxidized notes. I could drink a lot of this wine and it certainly shows why you should lay down your Chardonnay for a few years. The Viognier, I can report, is not terrible! I just really don't care much at all for Viognier and I have had hundreds of them including Condrieu and Château-Grillet. Winemaker Jonathan Weber poured our whites for us. I remember when he was just an intern and would schlepp wines to us up at the restaurant. Now he's all grown up and is the winemaker. It's good to see.

Avenius Chardonnay 2008
The Avenius Red 2008 in half bottle was a revelation. I've had a lot of this wine over the years, but in half bottle, it was really advanced showing great mint, cedar, and eucalyptus notes. Spectacular.

Avenius Red 2008
After the tasting, I asked Jim what we should be drinking. Pondering it for a second, he said, "I have just the thing" and went off to the back to fetch us a delicious bottle of Avenius Red 2013. He knows my predilection for high acid reds and my fondness for the wines from Shari's vineyard with their mineral core. He came and sat with us and we shot the breeze for a half an hour or so. This is why we visit in the off-season. It's my off-season too and we can all relax a bit, the pressures of work being so much less than in the fall.

Avenius Red 2013

I Love This Woman!
What was I supposed to do? Put a "no cell phones" sign on the wall and I'm going to whip out my cell phone and take a picture of it. The point is moot anyway: there's no signal at Linden.

I Couldn't Resist
Back home, Annie got to baking another couple batches of Christmas cookies and we brought home a bottle of the Hardscrabble Red 2013 to drink with dinner. At this point, the Avenius Red 2013 is drinking better.

Cookie Monster

Finishing Out the Night

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Chicken Cacciatore

We decided to take a weekend off from hiking to get set for Christmas and this involved putting up the tree and making something yummy for dinner. During the week before, I threw together a list of easy braised comfort food dishes as ideas for Sunday dinner and the very first item on that list was chicken cacciatore. On Friday, I asked Ann what she was thinking about for dinner. The very first thing out of her mouth was chicken cacciatore! We hadn't discussed dinner at all prior to this and I cannot imagine how it is possible that we were thinking of the very same dish, but I took it as a sign from the culinary gods. Chicken cacciatore it was.

Chicken hunter-style is probably a northern Italian dish, but then I suspect that many, many cultures roast chicken with herbs and mushrooms. That dish is not what we, Ann and I, think of when we think of hunter's style. Ours has onions, bacon, porcini mushrooms, roasted red peppers, herbs, and tomatoes (not sauce). Call it what you will and make it however you want, slow-roasted chicken of any sort is fantastic.

Browned Chicken and Herbs

Ready for the Oven
After cooking the bacon, veg, and mushrooms for the sauce, I poured it over the chicken. Then I wet the whole thing with a little white wine from a leftover bottle in the fridge, covered the pan in aluminum foil, and put it in a slow oven to roast-braise for a couple of hours until everything was soft and co-mingled. Absolutely delicious.

Annie Trying on Her Light Dress!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Gunther, I Hate You

Compton Peak Panorama
"Fuck my life!" I exclaimed while sitting on the back bumper of the Jeep putting on my hiking shoes Sunday at the Gravel Springs Gap parking lot on Skyline Drive just minutes after 10am. A vast white tour bus with its noisy diesel engine pulled up, stopped in the middle of Skyline Drive, and vomited 30 or 40 seniors dressed in hiking gear. "Are you kidding me?" I asked myself as I wandered over to the herd and asked where they were headed; the reply "To Big Devil Stairs, looping back to Jenkins Gap."

I blame it on the piebald deer we saw earlier. Is a piebald deer good luck or bad luck? I'm going with the latter. What else explains on a random cold December Sunday with zero traffic on Skyline Drive that we decide to hike the one damned place, a place that is one of the lesser visited hikes in the park, that a bus full of seniors is also hiking at the same time? "We're going elsewhere," I grumped at their general direction. Nothing against them, really; I just don't hike in crowds. Ann and I are out to get away.

Now, this bus, a huge white coach with "Gunther" emblazoned on the side in huge red letters, and I, we already have history. Earlier, coming south down Skyline Drive, we came upon a bus stopped in the road just before a curve making it damn near impossible to see around it, to see if it is safe to pass. "Pull off the road!" I shout at the driver as I creep around the bus, knowing full well that he cannot hear me, and more than likely, doesn't give a crap what I think. Passengers are milling about the 15-yard wide margin on the side of road where you could have parked a fleet of busses. As we pass by, I am thankful they are not near us. I am so wrong.

Flashing back to a happier part of the day, we got up and going about 8 am. I had promised Ann the day before to take her to a funky little coffee bar in downtown called Steamy's for coffee and a bagel before the hike. Although I like to get up and hiking in the mornings, with a planned hike of less than six miles, there was no particular pressure to hurry, more so now that it is winter and we are actually waiting for the sun to get up as opposed to trying to get our hike completed before the sun comes up.

We both had bacon, egg, and cheese bagels with our coffee. I think that this is the first time that we have started a hike with a belly full of a real breakfast rather than just a couple of granola bars. It was enough to keep me going through 1:00 in the afternoon; Ann lasted even longer. I'm not a fan of breakfast, but I kind of like the energy it gave me.

Bagel and Coffee at Steamy's in Winchester
Back to the Gravel Springs Gap parking lot, I was having zero luck getting enough signal on my phone to try to determine an alternate hike when I had a "Doh!" moment. Whenever we are hiking the AT or nearby, I always carry the NatGeo guide for the section in my pack. We chose Big Devil Stairs because of our plans later in the day. Jeff had invited us by the winery for a prerelease cellar tasting, so we wanted to have a quick hike near the winery before going to join that particular party.

In looking at the map, two hikes stuck out at me as short hikes nearby, both of which we have hiked before: Compton Peak and Overall Run Falls. Compton Peak, being closer to the winery, won, but the climb up from Compton Gap is very, very short, albeit a short hike that really kicked our butts a couple of summers ago when we were really out of shape and not hiking regularly. We also wanted to go climb that hill again and laugh at how sadly out of shape we were.

We decided to tack on some AT mileage to get a short 6-7 mile hike and approach Compton Peak from the south rather than the north and Compton Gap, so we found a suitable place where the AT crossed Skyline Drive between Browntown Overlook and Hogwallow Flats Overlook.

The Start of our Hike
One of the downsides to hiking the AT in Shenandoah National Park is that you are rarely more than a few yards from Skyline Drive and in winter not only do you hear the traffic as it goes by, but with no leaves on the trees, you can often see the traffic as well. As we had started our walk north towards Jenkins Gap and Compton Peak, the big bus came roaring back past us. And by the time we had got within a half a mile of Jenkins Gap, we could hear the bus idling in the parking lot there. We had to listen to that engine idling for a good twenty minutes of both the out- and back-legs of the hike. Gunther, I hate you.

Gunther, our Nemesis
The walk along the AT went through quite varied areas. We started in what was clearly old farm land with no really old trees, only black locusts reaching maturity, undergrown with large stands of greenbrier, raspberries, and pokeweed. And then we moved on to quite sandy soil with mountain laurel encroaching on the path. Then we moved to a stand of very young maples and then to a burned over part of the forest.

Sandy Soil; Mountain Laurels

Raspberries, Beautiful in Winter

Long Fern-Clad North-Facing Slopes

Bird's Nest in Young Maple

Random Trail Marker

Lots of Brilliant White Shelf Fungi

Lunch: Cream Cheese and Olive Wraps
Up top, we had Compton Peak to ourselves. Although we passed a threesome going north up the AT, they clearly did not take the side trail to the peak. The last time we were up top, we had to share the rocks with several others. The weather was pleasant enough, just above freezing, but it was extremely overcast and hazy: the views were not as good as the last time we were here.

Shenandoah River in the Haze

Annie Takes in the View

Happy Girl

Shot of a Boot Shot in Progress

The Sun Tried to no Avail
After the hike, as we drove back north along Skyline Drive, I kept joking with Ann that if we just turned left off the roadway, we could be at Jeff and Kelly's in just a couple minutes. The farm is nestled in the hollow just below the Gooney Run and Gooney Manor overlooks. Twenty-five minutes later, we pulled up to a busy tasting room and after catching up with Kelly for a couple of minutes, headed down into the cellar to see Jeff. The last I saw him was mid-August just before harvest. I won't bother him during harvest.

Kelly Orchestrating the Tasting Counter

The Tasting Line Up

Tonnato and Bread
In the cellar, we tasted a wonderful 2016 Sauvignon Blanc barrel sample, the newly bottled 2014 Petit Verdot, and 2014 Hodder Hill Bordeaux blend. Ann decided that upstairs, we should get a bottle of the 2014 Hodder Hill, which leads with acid rather than fruit. While I got that, she managed to get us some space at a table with Bob and Carol to whom we introduced ourselves and with whom we chatted away the rest of the afternoon. Ann also managed to get a little bit of bread and some tonnato from Kelly, which combined with the rest of our leftover lunch, helped kill off a little of our hunger.

We were getting ready to leave when Jeff came up from the cellar and opened the bottle of 2012 Albariño that I brought for them to add to their next blind tasting. I wasn't expecting the bottle to be opened same day, but it was, so we hung around and tasted it. I brought it to show everyone that Albariño really can benefit from some bottle age.

By the time we wound our way back home on the long drive in the dark, it was a long day and in spite of dear friend Gunther, a good one.