Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Pommes Anna

Pommes Anna: It's a Classic for a Great Reason
Recently, I think it was Saveur that published a list of 100 classic dishes, 95 or more of which I have already cooked in my life. In talking about them with Ann, I realized there are a lot that she hasn't had. And Pommes Anna is one that she has been asking me to make for a few weeks.

This is one of those classic dishes that is so, so much more than the sum of its three ingredients: potatoes, salt, and butter. In going back and making this classic dish, even my jaded palate recognizes how special this dish is and why it is such a classic. One taste of this dish, that I haven't made at home in 20 years, is enough to make me remember why this is the best potato dish ever invented.

Three Ingredients: Salt, Potatoes, Butter!
For making this dish, there is actually a special and gorgeous copper Pommes Anna cocotte that I have seen for sale in New York and Paris for hundreds and hundreds of dollars. But nothing really beats my old school cast iron frying pan. I have made dozens and dozens of Pommes Anna in my life, always in cast iron, never in copper. And, I'm not shelling out many hundreds of dollars for a specialty pan!

If you want to try this at home, and you should experience the epiphany before you die, Julia Child has the best step-by-step recipe you'll ever find in her "Mastering..." but I forget whether it is volume one or two. I learned from this recipe 30 years ago and have passed the technique on to dozens of cooks since. You should add this classic to your repertoire.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cheese Steak

Cheese Steak Awesomeness
Ann has had a bee in her bonnet all week about having cheese steaks, so last night, I made cheese steaks. These are not crappy knock-off steaks, but they are the real deal made from the absolute best ingredients and they tasted like it: absolutely the best cheese steak I have ever had anywhere. Philly, my cheese steak will rock your world!

I'm a wit kinda guy and a provolone kinda guy. You want peppers and Cheese Whiz on yours, knock yourself out, but just don't expect me to help you with it.

I caramelized thinly sliced yellow onions in butter and then I added very thinly sliced (with a knife, thank you) skirt steak and just tossed it until it was mostly brown. Toasted rolls, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and provolone seal the deal. The thing I have that they don't have in Philly: Martin's Angus beef from The Plains, VA. Their skirt steak is more tender and more marbled than most USDA prime rib-eye. The flavor is outrageous!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Linden Vineyards

Look at This Day!
Ann and I love fall more than any other season: the crisp nights, warm days, and beautiful scenery make it our season. Our first date was in the fall and we got married in the fall. Something about fall speaks to us and it may be the complicated juxtaposition of warm and happy days against the hints of the cold and wet days to come. Or it just may be that it is the season that lets us both sit outside and drink red wine to ward off the chill. Or I could be waxing way too philosophic for a mere blog post.

Sunday the 21st was an archetypal fall day: the trees were nearing peak color, a hint of crispness sneaked into the air while the sunshine was warm and generous, and above all, the sky was the blue that all skies should be and that every landscape painter dreams of, dotted with puffy white clouds. It was against this glorious backdrop that we met Steve Wright at Linden Vineyards, our first visit since the late spring and Steve's first visit ever. We were glad to help Steve in his quest to visit every Virginia winery, especially the winery that we think is the best on the East Coast.


Because Steve had never been to Linden, we decided to do the cellar tasting which is always interesting, comparing two wines side by side. First up was the 2009 Avenius Chard versus the 2008. In all Jim's wines that I have tasted so far, I prefer the 2009 to the 2008, though there is nothing at all amiss with the 2008s. I prefer the greater acidity and more floral notes on the 2009 Avenius Chard to the more tropical and riper 2008.

Then we were on to the 2009 Boisseau Red against the 2007 Hardscrabble Red. This was interesting in comparing the always fruit forward wines of the warm Boisseau site against the really fruit forward 2007 vintage. Even in the hot 2007 vintage, the Hardscrabble's structure shines through in comparison to the Boisseau. But, I prefer the 2006, 2008, and the 2009 vintages of the Hardscrabble to the 2007.

Then we did the 2007 Late Harvest Vidal against the 2008 Petit Manseng. There is just no comparing these grapes. The Petit Manseng is otherworldly while the Vidal is just merely very, very good. I understand the Vidal is getting ripped out, no doubt a tough decision, but one that becomes obvious when you taste these wines side by side. The biggest surprise was in the tiny pairing that was served with the Petit Manseng: a banana chip topped with a bit of Cambazola cheese and a peanut, a little goodie developed by Andrew Napier, who also did our tasting. The banana chip and Cambazola were obvious pairings, but the peanut was counter-intuitive and shocking in how well it paired with the wine. I have learned something new and will be at some point in the future ripping that off. Who knew?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mara Zinfandel

Mara Zinfandel Russian River Old Vines 2007
Yesterday after upgrading our woefully decrepit iPhones (a 3 and a 3GS) to 4S models, we decided not to go out to eat for dinner as we had planned. Instead, we decided to enjoy what will undoubtedly be one of the last opportunities to sit outside on the patio and enjoy a bottle of wine and some salame and cheese.

While Ann pulled together some cheeses (left from our wedding a couple weeks back), salame, and her recently made fig jam, I went in search of a bottle of wine. Given that we were having fig jam with goat cheese, I wanted something that would work with the dried fruit notes in the figs. And one of the first bottles I spied was this Mara Zinfandel from the Russian River Valley in 2007.

As a Redskins fan, I no doubt should despise this wine. But I don't. I have not had this bottle before but I have a couple other Mara wines that have been really good. This wine starts with a ton of dark fruit overlaid by a persistent raisin flavor. I would wish for just slightly less ripe grapes to reduce the raisiny flavors and to produce a less fruity wine in general. The acid and tannins can barely keep the fruit in check. While I like this wine and appreciate that it is very well made, I am greatly spoiled by Bill Easton's Amador County Zins.

It was a great afternoon to sit outside and relax. Sadly our stay outside was short-lived. The late afternoon started off beautifully but as soon as the sun got behind the trees, it was time to head inside. The chilly temps may make it difficult to sit outside, but they put us in the perfect mood for red wine. I am so glad that it is red wine season again!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Huevos con Chorizo

Huevos con Chorizo; Chimichurri
I'm a big walking contradiction (in many ways, and here's one). I love breakfast but I cannot bear the idea of putting food in my face early in my day. Lunch is generally my first meal of the day, though I don't mind a little snack after I have been on my feet for at least two hours. On Sunday morning, we were sitting around (one of the highlights of my life, I assure you) mapping out our day when the inevitable question surfaced. You know, the what's-for-dinner question.

I kicked around a lot of ideas in my mind but they never got vocalized until the point where that glorious Mexican dish popped into my mind. Yes, my favorite breakfast dish in the whole world is huevos con chorizo. When I proposed huevos for dinner, Ann said in her inimitable way, "Breakfast for dinner! What's not to love!!!!!" (Is that enough exclamation points?)

I usually make my own chorizo, but am not averse on a lazy Sunday to picking up some already made at the local tienda, which we did on the way home from the Valerie Hill winery, along with a bunch of cilantro, because I wanted to make a green sauce to top the eggs with.

The sauce I had in mind was a very quick chimichurri-like salsa verde: finely minced red onion, minced garlic, finely chopped cilantro, salt, red pepper flakes, red wine vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil. This pungent acidic sauce is just the counterpoint to the super rich eggs and sausage!

Blind Tasting

Yesterday after we got back from our very brief stay at Valerie Hill winery, my lovely wife had arranged a surprise—a blind tasting. We were outside continuing to eat her marvelous rosemary bread topped with local goat cheese, her fig and grape jam, and prosciutto when she went inside and returned with two brown-bagged bottles of wine and four glasses. Poor, poor, pour, pour me! ;)

Ann's Rosemary Bread with Goat Cheese, Fig and Grape Jam, Prosciutto
I tasted both wines and guessed right off that wine B was Hedges 2009 Red Mountain, but after pondering wine A, I thought it might have been the very wonderful and very local Glen Manor Hodder Hill 2008. It proved to be Hedges 2008 Red Mountain, a wine that I just love. The 2009 is a very good wine. The 2008 is an outstanding wine. What a great surprise!

Battle of the Hedges, 2008 vs. 2009

Valerie Hill Winery

We finally got the time to make a trip to our new local winery, the first to open in Frederick County. Valerie Hill winery is situated in the western part of the county about midway between Winchester and Stephens City, about a 15-minute drive from downtown. It opened this past summer.

The concept for the winery is fairly unique in my experience; the closest I can think of is the Winery at La Grange where the vineyards have been planted around a historic property. The 1807 brick farmhouse has been lovingly restored and must have been very sumptuous in its day. The wines are being made at Veramar in Clarke County from grapes sourced from wherever they can be found. The first vines, Norton, have been planted on a small, low-lying plot behind the house.

The Stone Chimney; Norton behind
I have to wonder at the choice to plant Norton, never one of my favorites, and I especially wonder about planting the vines in a low-lying bowl that is sure to be one of the coldest sites on the property. But if any grape can tolerate cold weather, surely it is the fairly bulletproof Norton.

We tasted through the lineup and the star was the 2010 Chardonnay which was very well done indeed. The two reds are, unfortunately, from the 2011 vintage, the 2010 having sold through in the last couple of weeks. 2011 was unkind to everyone in Virginia and without long-standing grape contracts, Valerie Hill was not in line to get good fruit in 2011. I do have to say that despite being very light-bodied and missing a lot of stuffing, the 2011 Cabernet Franc has quite a beguiling red fruit nose. The signature Stone Chimney Red was just another 2011 red, another victim of the horrible rain in September 2011.

We chose the Cabernet Franc to take out back to enjoy with our little picnic. Our friend Boo Snider was playing guitar and singing out on the patio; we sat in the shade of a black walnut tree overlooking the baby Norton vines. Ann made an incredible loaf of rosemary-lemon bread to go with goat cheese, prosciutto, and a jar of fig and grape jam that she made just recently. I kicked in a mini-terrine of Berkshire pork, bacon, pistachios, Port, porcini mushrooms, and green peppercorns.

2011 Cabernet Franc: Great Nose!

Ann Digging in to her Fig Jam
Pork, Porcini, Port, and Pistachio Terrine
We wish Frederick County's first and so far only winery all the best!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Palio, Leesburg

Woot! Ann's birthday finally coincided with a day off for me and we planned to go out to dinner, not just a casual dinner, but a really nice celebratory dinner. My day off is Monday and that is a terrible night to go out as many restaurants, like mine, are closed on a very slow night. Winchester on a Monday night is slim pickings for a birthday dinner and so we started to look farther afield. We finally decided on Palio in Leesburg because we had not been there and they have a reasonable reputation, a reasonable wine list, and some friends have said that it was good.

Before making the drive over, I had a peek at their wine list on line. Wine is a big deal for us, if you hadn't already guessed that. After looking at the list, I started to get a bit nervous about the choice. There were so many typos in the names of the wines that I wondered if they might show that lack of focus and detail orientation in their food. The meal would tell.

We arrived not too long after they opened on a dark, dreary, cold, drizzling evening looking for warmth and a good meal. The downstairs room in which we were seated was really well decorated and a beautiful space, but it was frigid and I could see when the server approached the table, she was cold too. On her own initiative, she got something done about the temperature without us having to ask, always a plus.

She seemed to be well trained and spoke at least reasonably knowledgeably about the long list of dinner specials, almost as many secondi specials as there were secondi on the menu. Six or seven specials is just too many for most diners to get their arms around.

I didn't see anyone who might have had any familiarity with the wine list and I didn't feel like our server was the one to help me pick the right bottle, something a little off the beaten track. Certainly, anyone can go in and order a Barolo, Brunello, Super Tuscan, or Amarone on price and get a pretty good wine. Me, I'm always looking for something different, that obscure bottle that somebody fell in love with enough to give it a (long) shot on the list. I never got the feeling from looking at the bare bones wine list (no descriptions at all) that anybody fell in love with anything. It just seemed to be an impersonal list of wines. And the markups were pretty aggressive. Several of the wines are also on my list, so I know what they paid for them. I'm not knocking the markups, but if you're going to do it, the money ought in part to be going to pay for someone to manage the list, correct the typos, and be available to assist customers in choosing a wine. And it ought to go to purchasing good stemware, more about which later.

I chose a Rosso Piceno from the Santa Barbara winery (in the Marche), the "Maschio da Monte" from 2007. I had no way of knowing from the wine list that this wine was awarded Tre Bicchieri by Gambero Rosso magazine, their highest award. I tend to trust this magazine a lot more than most American wine rags. I was expecting more Sangiovese and less Montepulciano but this bottling was deep purple and 100% Montepulciano. I didn't realize that DOC Rosso Piceno could be all Montepulciano. I liked the funky nose followed by a very intensely plummy wine with some acidity and pleasant tannins. I made a great choice!

While I was plowing through the wine list, we had a glass of so-so house-pour Prosecco which Ann noted right off is not the quality of what we are used to drinking. In all fairness, it was only $8 a glass and wasn't offensive. What was offensive was drinking our Rosso from clunkers of glasses, quoting Ann, "I feel like I'm drinking out of a tankard." Details matter and if you're charging top dollar for your wine and I'm drinking a good bottle, I want a good glass. It doesn't have to be expensive, just good. Good glasses start at $3.50 each wholesale. Show me a restaurant that cannot make the $100 investment in a case of good glasses. It says to me that details don't matter.

Starving, Ann ordered two antipasti while I was deciding between the Rosso Piceno and a Langhe Rosso. She ordered a bowl of mussels (with a couple of clams) and speck-wrapped scallops on parsnip purée. Underwhelming is pretty much the word on the appetizers. The mussels, styled Cozze e Vongole alla Napolitana, were tiny and the broth was OK but nothing memorable. Tiny mussels are not the restaurant's fault, but serving them is. I'm having problems right now with mussel quality at my own restaurant. My choice is not to serve them. Palio chose differently.

On the other hand, the scallops were memorable for being pretty much terrible; we ate one of them and let the busser take the other away. The whole scallop dish was a wreck. The parsnip purée was so gritty and crudely executed as to be off-putting. The scallops were way overdone and my sense is that they were cooked before service and held hot. The garnish was a lemon slice and a sprinkling of paprika. Really? Thank you for bringing back terrible memories from the '60s of frozen fish cutlets topped with lemon slices and paprika. Barf! How about some micro-mustard greens for a sharp contrast? Or a couple of sautéed chanterelles for an earthy contrast to the sweet parsnips and sweet scallops?

Let's talk about details. A runner brought us bread long after our antipasti were on the table. I'm OK with the timing miscue; I don't expect the A-Team to be working on Monday night. But the bread was cold. That's not what I expect of a top-level restaurant. And the grissini were tough as though they were overworked. Not sure if the grissini were made in house or bought in; in either case, the quality isn't there. It's the details such as this that separate the good from the great.

After the antipasti debacle, we tried a couple of pasta primi, mainly because the secondi just did not sound worth ordering. I couldn't feel any creativity in the standard secondi at all and hearing the server's spiel of four different secondi specials served with roasted potatoes didn't speak to me of a creative kitchen. Ann wanted to try the lobster ravioli special, but I resisted and she relented without me having to say out loud that after the kitchen butchered the two seafood antipasti, I wasn't going to tempt fate yet again.

We ordered tagliatelle and cavatelli and I have got to say that our pasta was really well made and well cooked. Bravo! I especially loved the cavatelli, a labor-intensive cut that is not to be found on very many menus. The Cavatelli alla Pugliese was listed on the menu as ricotta cavatelli, lightly spicy lamb sausage, rapini, and shaved Parmesan cheese. While the pasta itself was remarkably good, I wasn't expecting a mild red meat sauce and given the ingredient list, I was expecting more excitement from this sauce. It was good and workmanlike and I enjoyed it, but I wasn't thrilled by it.

The Bolognese sauce on the tagliatelle caused me pause though: it was just a glorified ground meat and tomato sauce that any red sauce Italian joint could have done. As Ann said a bit dispiritedly, "It isn't your pork ragù." Bolognese sauce is one of the great culinary contributions of northern Italy: shredded meat with a touch of cream cooked so long that the sauce caramelizes and becomes something so much larger than the sum of its ingredients. There was nothing wrong with the sauce really; it was tasty, but my objection is to calling it a Bolognese. My expectations were set by the name and those expectations were not met.

The pasta portions were very large, much more generous than I expected and slightly oversauced to my taste. I would have preferred a smaller portion with less sauce as a primo to leave me room for another primo or a secondo or even dessert.

Without any heart for dessert, we decided to pack it in and head home for a nightcap.

I so want to love this beautiful place and the deft touch on the pasta gives me hope. But the devil is in the details and the details are currently tripping up this restaurant. Lest you think we spent our whole evening nit-picking the restaurant, we did not. We had a wonderful time celebrating Ann's birthday, enjoying an adult evening out, and spent the majority of our time talking about our Christmas menu when we are going to do the Seven Fishes.

Pros: beautiful place, professional and unobtrusive service, excellent hand-made pasta.

Cons: lack of focus on details, horrid stemware, middle of the road food.

Note: I am being much harder on Palio than I might be on other restaurants that we have visited. If they want to play at a price point that is higher than that of my restaurant, they have to play by the tough standards that I hold for my own restaurant.

Breakfast Treat

It is very rare that other people cook for me. I can see that my being a professional chef could be intimidating, but I am sure that people don't really understand that chefs love it when others cook and that we are not at all picky eaters and we don't rate food. We just eat it and enjoy ourselves, wallowing in the luxury of not having to cook for once. One thing that I love about my Annie (among the myriad reasons) is that she will cook for me. It doesn't happen often, but I love it when it does. I take that back. She does cook during the week so that there will be leftovers in the fridge when I come home at night, but I'm talking about cooking a planned, sit-down meal, a real rarity given my schedule.

This past Sunday, she planned to make breakfast for us. I was getting more and more intrigued as the week went on as she asked me to score both goat cheese and shiitakes for her. I mean, goat cheese and shiitakes is just a fantastic combo, so I was getting to wondering what deliciousness she had in mind for them.

On Sunday morning, as I was reading the news and doing my sudoku, she was in the kitchen working away making an awesome goat cheese and shiitake bread pudding and bacon candied with sriracha and brown sugar. After the bread pudding baked and while the bacon was in the oven, I made mimosas for us. Does it get better than that?

Shiitake-Goat Cheese Bread Pudding Strata

Bacon Candied with Sriracha and Brown Sugar!!!!

Ann called this concoction a strata, but I am not about to go all chef on her and tell her that to be a strata, it has to have strata (layers), otherwise, it's just a savory bread pudding. Thank you baby for a fantastic breakfast!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

P4: Perciatelli con Porcini, Pancetta, e Pollo

Monday October 1st became grayer and grayer as the day wore on and by cocktail hour, it was cool, overcast, and misting. Not the ideal weather for sitting out on the patio and basking in the glow of just having been married the day before, a nice glass of red wine in hand. But not ones to let the weather slow us down too much, Ann and I went down in the cellar and poked through the haul of unopened wine that people brought to the house on Sunday, looking for something that we really wanted to drink. Despite all the choices, we went back to the tried and true: Glen Manor Vineyards Hodder Hill 2008. The only downside to this wine is that it made me think that it's a shame that our wedding was smack in the middle of harvest and Jeff and Kelly couldn't attend on Sunday.

But gray weather was just perfect for an earthy fall pasta with mushrooms and herbs. I had a tremendous jones all day for a mushroom and rosemary pasta with a splash of cream. As the day wore on, I added and subtracted ingredients in my head until I arrived at exactly what I wanted.

Mise en Place: Porcini, Pancetta, Pollo, Herbs and Garlic
Mushroom broth is the key to any good mushroom pasta and so I rehydrated a handful of porcini in some warm water and then strained the broth into a saucepan. I reduced the porcini stock to a couple tablespoons of syrup while I was prepping the other ingredients: shredded dark meat from a roasted chicken, diced porcini, some pancetta, garlic, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. You can see in the picture that the rosemary is the smallest pile of herbs: a little goes a long way.

P4: Perciatelli con Porcini, Pancetta, e Pollo
The assembly is very straightforward. Start by rendering the pancetta to about half crispy then add the garlic, rosemary, sage, and thyme and let the herbs sweat along with the pancetta. Next add the mushrooms, porcini reduction, and a splash of cream along with a touch of salt and pepper. Reduce just slightly. Finish by adding the roasted chicken and parsley and tossing with hot pasta. The roasted chicken is certainly optional, but for some reason, it makes me happy!

Linguini with Clam Sauce

It felt good to get back in the kitchen yesterday, if only for a few minutes to make a late afternoon lunch of linguini with white clam sauc...