Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Black Sea Bass al Cartoccio

Our Wednesday night dinners are a thing of the past now that I am working that shift again at the restaurant. So, dinner has shifted more to Monday nights and this Monday we were both in the mood for fish. And I just happened to have bought a lot of Black Sea Bass landed in Norfolk. This is a fairly delicate fish that responds well to simple and subtle treatments; it is a fish that I love when poached. But I didn't feel like doing a court bouillon at home just to poach fish for three people, so I did the next best thing, wrapped them in silicone paper and roasted them in the oven al cartoccio or as I learned it in French en papillote.

Making fish this way couldn't be simpler. Lay a full sheet of silicone paper on a half sheet tray; place the fish on the paper; sprinkle with salt, pepper, and fresh herbs (in this case Thai basil); give it a spritz of white wine (I used a little Champagne); fold the paper back over the fish, and fold up the edges to seal the fish in a tidy packet. Place in a hot oven (400F) for just slightly longer than you would if it were not in the packet. In this case, 12 minutes was plenty. Ordinarily, they would have roasted on an open sheet tray about 9 or 10 minutes.

To accompany the bass, we had a lemongrass-flavored quinoa. I made a lemongrass broth by steeping two large stalks of lemongrass in water for a half an hour and then cooked the quinoa in the broth. After draining the quinoa, it got a pinch of salt and the Thai basil chiffonade leftover from roasting the fish. Simple, delicious, and very healthy.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Champagne, Anyone?

The restaurant business is largely one of brutally hard work with only a very few perqs. But every now and again, we do get to taste some cool stuff, and in this case, some really cool Champagne. We had a dinner at the restaurant on Sunday night for a lot of wine types and one of the attendees was Carole Champion of Champagne Roland Champion, and she brought along some of their 1969 Champagne that was just disgorged and bottled before she left France.

Left over was a little bit of the 1969 which you see here beside their standard grand cru bottling, which we sell at the restaurant. So I took it home for Ann to try. Not her cup of tea. It is very golden with a big yeasty nose. On the palate, it tastes much like fino sherry (slightly oxidized) with a huge lemony acid component. Not my favorite, but fun to try. We also tried the 2004 Special Club bottling, which is insanely good.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Mussels Ed's Style

You can infer from the slow trickle of recent posts that things have been busy at the restaurant. And they have been. The week before Valentine's Day was one of intense prep for VDay, followed by the insanity of VDay itself. The Saturday after was my 50th birthday and Ann arranged for dozens of my friends to have dinner with us at the restaurant and so for my birthday, on top of already being exhausted, I cooked my ass off. Thanks honey!

I had a hell of a blast seeing friends again and it was all worth the exhaustion, but in the days after, I have been a zombie. Although I had planned to cook myself a birthday meal (I didn't actually eat on my birthday; there was no time) on Sunday, I was too beat to contemplate cooking and Ann was (what's the polite phrase for hungover?) not in the mood for wine. So, my birthday meal for me was postponed to Monday and no harm in that.

The first order of business was to find a red wine to go with my mussels. High acid, medium to light body, definitely. High acid says Italy. Medium to light body says Nebbiolo or Sangiovese. I'm in a Nebbiolo mood. It's my birthday celebration: no Langhe Rosso or Carema for us; we're going for Barolo! So we cracked a bottle of Vietti's baby Barolo, the Castiglione. I would have loved one of their big boys, but I'm just a poor chef.

Next order of business, appetizers. Good friend and wine merchant Bill McKenney gave me a jar of his home-made melanzane sott'olio for my birthday and we couldn't wait to get into it. This stuff is so delicious that I am salivating waiting for eggplant season so that I can make some myself. Bill had attached the recipe to the jar and I read it while waiting for the rosemary bread to finish baking. Once the bread had cooled enough to slice, we attacked it and the melanzane. Pure bliss! And the best thing about all the olive oil on the eggplant is that we have enough flavored oil for dipping several more loaves of bread.

Next came the mussels, Ed's Style. Restaurant customers will recognize Ed's style from Ed's pasta and from the frequent appearance of Rockfish Ed's Style on the menu. It's all about the Ed's sauce, a variation of a puttanesca: caramelized garlic, white wine, capers, red pepper flakes, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, and basil. This sauce is as simple as it is delicious. This is the first time I've ever done mussels with it. I cooked the sauce separately and poured it over the steamed mussels.

A fabulous birthday dinner!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Valentine's Dinner

Like Thanksgiving, Valentine's is a big deal to Ann. Because I am in the restaurant business, we can never celebrate Valentine's Day together, so Ann has taken to hosting Valentine's dinners at our house on the Sunday before Valentine's Day.

Here is the table that Ann set, all festive in red, black, and silver, complete with gift boxes of chocolate dipped pretzels that she made for everyone.

We had a great time this year with friends Kelley and Marco Due who joined us for cocktails and then had to run, Mike and Dennis, and Jen and Dewi. Unfortunately, I failed to get photos of Kelley and Mark. Here are the rest of the characters. Mike, thanks for the photo of us!

I like the shot of Dennis through Ann's glass.

Ann is not one for starting a party without a cocktail, so I reprised the grapefruity St. Germain cocktail that I invented some weeks ago. Naturally, the glasses are rimmed with red, white, and pink sprinkles! This gave me an excuse to get out the big Mexican citrus juicer. I am not a fan of single purpose cookware, but when you have to juice a lot of citrus, these guys are indispensable.

We started with three hors d'oeuvres—the plan was only two, but I brought a surprise terrine that was begging to be tasted. For the first appetizer, Ann stuffed dates with goat cheese, sprinkled them with toasted panko, and warmed them in a moderate oven for about 10 minutes. These guys are deliciously and decadently rich!

Next up, I made crab-stuffed, prosciutto-wrapped shrimp. I meant to make a dipping sauce too, but that seemed to get lost in the shuffle. I butterflied the shrimp, packed a little crab into them (a dozen 16-20 shrimps took about 6 ounces of crab meat) and wrapped them in prosciutto. I broiled them 8 inches from the broiler element for about 10 minutes.

For the main course, we had a cassoulet made not from the traditional Tarbais beans, but from an American heirloom bean called the Steuben Yellow Eye which is famous for holding its shape while becoming deliciously creamy inside. Besides a lot of mirepoix, garlic, and fresh herbs, the other garnishes were duck confit that we put up in early January in anticipation of this cassoulet, local bacon ends, guanciale, and Surry sausage. The guanciale (Berkshire Jowciale) and Surry sausage both come from Edwards Hams (retail/wholesale) in Surry, VA, a company whose products I have eaten all my life and long-time supplier to the restaurant. We moistened the cassoulet with a stock made from the goodness that accumulates in the bottom of the roasting pans when we cook our pork belly.

Dewi brought along a Clos la Coutale Cahors 2008, the traditional Malbec wine from Southwest France that often accompanies cassoulet. We kicked in a SonVida Argentinean Malbec 2008, a very modern style wine. I expect Cahors to be a big, dark, brooding wine, but this one was not. It was educational to taste the lighter, more traditional, and more rustic French import from Kermit Lynch against the juicy, darker, sleeker, and more modern Argentine offering. But great minds think alike: cassoulet = Malbec.

And what better to accompany a cassoulet than a mixed green salad and wonderful rosemary bread?

Finally, dessert queen Jen brought a bittersweet chocolate pie topped with crème fraîche. We opened a bottle of Warre's 1977 Port to go along with this. A fruitier wine would have done the chocolate more justice, but we needed a slim excuse to open the '77!

Kudos to Ann for orchestrating yet another fabulous dinner!


No shock that we like fine wine and we were in the mood the other day for a really nice bottle, so we pulled out this bottle of very highly rated 2008 Stag's Leap Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon. It's not an estate wine, but rather a blend of wines from around Napa. Even so, this is not a wine we can afford to buy for ourselves; it was a very gracious gift from friends.

I opened it and poured two glasses. On the way to hand Ann her glass, I smelled mine and some little warning bell flashed in my mind. Ann exclaimed, "This wine smells funky!" It didn't smell corked to me but it also didn't smell exactly like what I would expect of a Napa Cab. On tasting it, my initial thought was that it was not corked because the attack was all sweet blue fruit, typical of valley floor Napa Cab. But then halfway through the sip, the fruit just stopped and my mouth was overcome by gripping acidity. I've never known a wine to taste just so.

I cannot say that it was corked—I smelled no TCA—but I can say that we poured it down the drain. And what a shame!

Monday, February 6, 2012

"Super Bowl" Supper

On Super Bowl Sunday, during the day, we went to visit friends Jeff and Kelly White at Glen Manor Vineyards and taste some of their delicious wine along with a picnic lunch that we cobbled together from whatever we had laying around. That meant we would not be home to cook for dinner and naturally we wouldn't be cooking during the game either. What to do?

Slow cooker to the rescue! I just love slow cookers—plug them in and forget them! What to make? After our mystery basket dinner the previous Sunday, we had some quail, rabbit sausages, and andouille in the fridge, unused during that dinner. It's not a big leap from these ingredients to gumbo, a dish that with a little advance planning could cook itself while we were away.

On Monday, I browned the rabbit sausages, the quail, and some leftover ground pork which together with mirepoix and a ham hock became stock after simmering for a couple hours. I removed the sausages after about 20 minutes because I wanted to slice them into coins to go into the gumbo at the last minute. The rest of the meat, I picked after it cooled and returned it to the stock, which went into the fridge for the coming weekend.

During a lull on Friday afternoon, I prepped a big batch of trinity—onions, celery, and poblano peppers—and cooked it down with garlic, thyme, and my Cajun spice mix that we refer to as "magic dust." At the same time, I cooked a batch of dark brown roux.

With all this prep ahead of time, on Sunday all I needed to do was put trinity, roux, and stock in the slow cooker and walk out the door. On arriving home from the winery, I put on a pot of rice, added the andouille and rabbit sausages to the gumbo and corrected the seasoning. I thought it was a fitting "super bowl" of gumbo to go with the Super Bowl.

And what to drink? Preston gave us this bottle of 1983 Grand-Puy Ducasse, a Pauillac that was one of the original fifth growths in the 1855 classification. Although 1983 wasn't a super vintage, it wasn't a bad one either and was certainly a much better value than the preceding blockbuster 1982 vintage. The wine as you can see is holding its color well and the tannins are softening. The black currant and the dried blackberry leaf flavors are forward now. I don't imagine this wine getting any better now that the fruit is fading, but I imagine it will hold on for a few more years. It paired just fine with the not too spicy gumbo. Not the ultimate pairing, but not bad either.

Glen Manor Vineyards

Sunday morning was just beautiful with an inch of new snow covering all the tree branches, a gorgeous start to a wonderful day of going to see friends south of Front Royal. Time away from Winchester and time out of the house is always special and Sunday more so than ever because Ann has been housebound for weeks. She was as radiant as I have ever seen her.

For this weekend, we planned an outing to see friends Jeff and Kelly White at Glen Manor Vineyards. They were supposed to come up last weekend, but things got too busy at the tasting room, so we went to see them. I was looking forward to seeing the farm around the winery all blanketed in snow, but the snow was all gone by 10 minutes south of Winchester, save for a small band on the ridgetops up above the Skyline Drive.

We stopped first in Bentonville to see Jen and Dewi and meet their new Dobie Austin, a huge puppy at 80+ pounds. And they surprised us by pouring Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay Brut. With its nose of pear and apple and an overlay of toasted nuts, caramel, and toffee on a lemon backbone, it was a great way to start the day. And it was a fine example of the great wine that can be made here in Virginia.

At the winery, we tasted the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, just bottled three weeks ago and a touch unsettled, more herbaceous than the highly tropical 2010; the 2008 Vin Rouge, drinking just fine now; and the 2009 Petit Verdot, tasting of black fruit and dried blackberry leaves. While we were enjoying a bottle of the Petit Verdot, friends Jorge and Randall showed up. We caught up with them while playing with Kelly's dog Huck.

We are looking forward to the Glen Manor barrel tasting in just a few weeks as well as the release of some of the newer wines.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Zha Jiang Mian with Steamed Yu Choy

The latest in our Wednesday night dinners continues the recent Sichuan trend; actually, the mapo dofu that I made Monday reminded me that I love zha jiang mian and haven't had it since I left Fairfax County in 2002, when I used to eat it weekly. Ann's never had it and I knew she would love it. What could be nearer and dearer to our salsa bolognese-loving hearts than Chinese noodles with pork sauce? If I had to wager, I would say that the Chinese zha jiang mian was the prototype for pappardelle bolognese, centuries ago.

This northern Chinese dish of noodles topped with ground or minced pork cooked with bean paste is so popular in the Asian world that both the Japanese and the Koreans have appropriated it for themselves. The Koreans call it jajangmyeon and serve it over the same large wheat noodles you see here. The Japanese serve jajamen over udon; their bean paste is miso. By whatever name, it's a great dish and is served in its most elemental form (such as you see here) to highly garnished elaborate preparations. For me, it's about the noodles bathing in a rich porky bean paste goodness; you can keep the fancy garnishes.

Here you see my mise for this dinner, save a tiny bit of chile paste. From the bean paste in the center working clockwise, you see firm tofu, yu choy, preserved vegetable, wheat noodles, green onions, garlic, and ground pork. My favorite restaurant always put finely diced tofu in their noodles; I like it and do the same. The sauce is trivial to make: brown the pork with the garlic, add the bean paste and some water, stir well and add the remaining ingredients except for the green onions which are garnish. Simmer and reduce while you steam the yu choy and boil the noodles. Dress the yu choy with a little sesame oil and serve.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I Love Sichuan Food

A few days back, Ann emailed me a photo of a Chinese fish dish along with a recipe and said she wanted me to make it. Just quickly glancing at it, it was obviously just the classic mapo dofu over fish instead of rice. Easy enough and a dish I haven't cooked in more than 20 years when I was teaching myself Chinese fundamentals.

Here you see my mise en place. Ann accuses me of doing this just for photographic reasons, but after years of seeing me operate in the restaurant kitchen, she ought to know better. I always have and I always will get all my ingredients together ready to cook before lighting any flame (and you should too!) From the top left dish: Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce, fermented black beans and broad bean paste, black mushrooms, cornstarch slurry, and tree ear mushrooms. On the righthand plate: tofu (I prefer mine firm; eat what you like) and green onions. And clockwise from the red chile paste on the other plate: preserved vegetable, ginger, garlic, and bamboo shoots in chile oil. You don't see the ground pork or the catfish, which are still in the fridge at this point.

A word about ingredients. Sichuan cooking is famous for use of preserved ingredients that are often spicy. You will almost always find dried, pickled, or salted ingredients in Sichuan food, and these are huge flavors that appeal to my palate. I am in love with the inelegantly named preserved vegetable, a salted mustard green, more about which on the restaurant blog. This was Ann's first encounter with this spicy, salty bit of goodness, which now comes conveniently packaged in single serving foil packets, and she loves it as well.

So, here's an awful photo of a scrumptious dish. I started by dredging the catfish lightly in cornstarch and then searing it on both sides. This gives the fish a nice crust and then it helps thicken the sauce when the fish goes back in. After removing the fish, I built the sauce by cooking the ground pork with garlic and ginger over very high flame, then added the other flavorings except the tofu and green onions. A couple of ladles of chicken stock went in next and then the fish. Once the fish had cooked through, off to a warm plate it went while I added the tofu and half the green onions, then thickened the sauce with a little cornstarch slurry. The sauce went over the fish and the rest of the green onions on top. Yum!

A typical Sichuan sauce would most likely also contain Sichuan peppercorns, but I couldn't find mine. Bummer. I like their little electric numbing touch that the Chinese call la.

Linguini with Clam Sauce

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