Friday, December 28, 2012

A White Christmas

Snow for Christmas? Sure, they sing about it in all the carols, but let's face it: here in Virginia, January and February are our snow months. [So somebody splain to me why it snowed October 27th last year. Global warming?] I can't remember the last White Christmas here in Virginia; that's how rarely it happens.

As a rule, I don't look at the weather forecast very often. As a restaurateur, it just depresses me. Any hint of snow in the forecast and our business is going to hell. So what a crazy surprise on Christmas Eve when Ann and I got out of the theatre mid-afternoon from watching the so-so Hobbit to see it snowing hard, hard, hard with a couple inches already on the ground! Our Christmas Day was bracketed by snow the day before and the day after this year, with more on the way tonight.

The Juncos Love the Thistle Feeder
So what better weather to sit near the fire and indulge in our annual ritual of sparkling wine and caviar? This year I picked a really awesome Virginia sparkler from Thibaut-Janisson down near Charlottesville, the Brut de Chardonnay. I am not sure that if I tasted blind that I could tell this from Champagne. Yes, people, it is that good and it comes from Virginia! We always splurge and get 250 grams of a domestic paddlefish caviar and in the ultimate display of gluttony, eat it directly from the tin! And so we did this year.

T-J and Caviar, our Christmas Ritual
And later in the day, we opened a new cheese. I paid way, way too much money for this cheese for Ann because of the story behind it. Antonio Carpenedo wanted to make a unique and memorable cheese in honor of his marriage to his wife Giuseppina in 1961 to celebrate their 50th in 2011. I bought the cheese because this is a sweet sentiment and I wanted to see what kind of cheese a master cheesemaker would make for such a special and once in a lifetime event.

The result, Blu '61, is a blue cow's milk cheese from Treviso, soaked in Passito di Raboso wine and topped with wine-soaked cranberries. Definitely something different!

According to the sales literature, the cheese was supposed to be:

"Soft and creamy, piquant, fruity, sweet, salty, elegant, harmonious, aromatic, and heady. You will remember where you were the first time you taste this, it is that memorable."

Yeah, not so much. Our cheese doesn't have any blue and the paste is still kind of chalky and underripe. I have never been so disappointed in a cheese in my whole life. You win some and you lose some. I lost some today.

But Antonio and Giuseppina, Felice 50° Anniversario!

Blue '61: Quite the Story!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Feast of the Seven Fishes

I just cooked my first Feast of the Seven Fishes on Sunday the 23rd. Though I have been to several such feasts, I have never cooked said feast myself until this year. Ann and I started thinking about the menu on her birthday at the beginning of October and really, the only trick was in selecting dishes that would work well on a buffet. Originally, we were going to serve seven separate courses over the course of a long afternoon, but when I got to thinking about it, that seemed like way too much work for me on a rare day off and besides/more importantly, I wanted to spend time eating and talking with our guests, rather than cooking. I spend enough time in the kitchen as it is.

I kept the menu fairly Italian-themed, but since it is an American invention anyway, I didn't go too overboard. Ann wanted me to roast branzini for the main fish dish, but I decided to go with rockfish. Rockfish is running plentifully in the Bay right now with another week to go before the season closes. Because it won't be until March that rockfish opens again, and because rockfish holds up so beautifully for buffet service, I had my fish vendor send me a whole 4-pounder.

The lens for my camera is so slow that I have given up trying to shoot people indoors with it (without flash, and I don't use flash), so no people photos: they're just a waste of bits. With us were Kelley and Marco Due, Amanda and Dimitri, Bob and Mary, Mike and Dennis, Ann and Tom, and of course, Ann, me, and Carter for a nice total of 13 people.

Scallop Crudo with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Lemon Zest, Fennel Fronds, and Fleur de Sel
Baccalà and Potato Cakes with Saffron Aïoli
White Clam Pasta with Pancetta and Parsley
Squid, White Bean, and Arugula Salad
Roasted Rockfish on Fennel Lentils
Octopus in Marinara on Polenta
Mussels Steamed in Salsa Puttanesca

Scallop Crudo
This scallop crudo was the star of the day, without a doubt, and one of the greatest dishes that I have ever made. I sliced each of the super fresh scallops into about seven or eight slices and arranged them on the platter as you see. Then I drizzled them with really awesome Greek olive oil, zested a lemon over them, and sprinkled them with both fleur de sel and fennel fronds from the garden. Light, sweet, ethereal and way more than the sum of its parts. Pat the chef on the back!

Baccalà and Potato Cakes with Saffron Aïoli
Ann wasn't a big fan of these baccalà cakes that I made from fresh cod that I salted and local Yukon Gold potatoes.  I was; I just loved these cakes. My homemade salt cod is so, so much better than anything made commercially. I did notice that Ann wallowed in the gorgeous golden saffron aïoli, so full of garlic she said, that it "stung my lips." This is one of my favorite fish condiments, and so easy to make by pounding garlic, salt, and saffron in the big granite mortar, then making a mayonnaise on top of that.

White Clam Pasta with Pancetta and Parsley
White clam pasta was next up and although I like to use long pasta for this dish, long pasta does not hold up under buffet service, so I went to a short cut, gemelli, whose thickness can withstand sitting warm on the buffet better. Shallots and a good bit of my own Berkshire pork pancetta got rendered and finished with clams, clam broth, white wine, butter, and copious amounts of grated pecorino romano.

Squid, White Bean, and Arugula Salad
Almost as good as the crudo was this phenomenal squid and white bean salad. I made the white bean salad the day before, dressing cooked cannellini with lots of olive oil, lemon juice, minced red onions, and oregano. I also cleaned several squid the day before, sliced them, and poached them for about 5 to 7 seconds. That's it folks. Either you just barely cook squid or you braise it all day. Your pick. I marinated the poached squid overnight in olive oil with a touch of salt, garlic, and oregano. All that was left at service was to toss everything with baby arugula and plate. Truth in advertising: I ripped this dish off from a great restaurant in Richmond and although it is not unique to that restaurant, I learned the seasoning from one of my former sous chefs who used to work there. This is one of my all time favorite dishes.

Chesapeake Bay Rockfish
I have cooked a ton of seafood in my chef career and it may be the thing that I am most known for, so I have learned what fish can and what fish cannot survive buffet and banquet service. And we are most fortunate that this is prime season for rockfish (striped bass elsewhere) locally. Besides being the king of American eating fish, rock also holds up extremely well during restaurant service. I asked my fish vendor for a 4-pounder and this little guy arrived bearing a Maryland tag. Maryland fish from the Potomac have a PRFC tag rather than a Maryland tag. Trivia you need to know. I scaled and gutted it, and removed the pectoral fins so that they wouldn't burn and placed it on a bed of parsley stems and fennel fronds from the garden. You might note that I rubbed it in olive oil and sprinkled it with salt, pepper, and garlic.

Roasted Rockfish on Fennel Lentils
And here is our guy, all roasted and plated on a bed of lentils that I cooked with onion, pancetta, and lots of fennel. Did I mention there's a big shot of Pernod in there too? Ann and her mother Mary got the two pieces of honor, the cheeks. The leftover lentils ended up in soup the next day and they were and continue to be delicious. Am I the only person that loves fish and lentils together??

Octopus in Marinara on Polenta
And here is my least favorite dish of the day, though there was nothing wrong with it. I couldn't get a big octopus, so I settled for a dozen little guys, which after cleaning and cutting up, I braised in marinara for a couple of hours and then served over a big pile of creamy polenta. Nothing spectacular here and nothing wrong with it either; it's just that the octopus got overtaken by the tomatoes. Octopus is at its best grilled or smoked, but neither of those were options given the December weather.

Mussels in Salsa Puttanesca
Finally, I steamed a big bowl of mussels in a puttanesca sauce that I made the day before from tomatoes, garlic, red pepper flakes, fish sauce, capers, and lots of pitted olives.

Everybody brought a lot of different wine, so much that I couldn't keep track of it especially given that I was busy cooking just as everyone was arriving. I know we started with Prosecco as a cocktail with cranberry juice and with the scallop crudo, but after that things get a little fuzzy. Two of the standouts were wines that Dmitri brought, a deliciously fruity Xinomavro from Alpha Estate and a crisp, ripe, and minerally Assyrtiko that played beautifully with the scallop crudo. Had I not known that I was drinking Assyrtiko, I might have guessed Gavi di Gavi. For the Xinomavro, I might have guessed Dolcetto.

All in all, it was a great celebration with friends and family, but I am not sure that I will do it again next year. I fell asleep at 6:15pm and slept for the next 14 hours: too much work on top of a busy restaurant schedule.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ginger Chicken Noodle Soup

Monday, I just wasn't feeling up to par, very run down with a queasy stomach. Not my best of days. Ann wanted to go out for sushi, but I just couldn't face going out. I needed what I always need when I am feeling low: soup, nice chicken noodle soup. And I craved lots of ginger for my ailing stomach.

And so while I was out running errands, I picked up a pre-cooked chicken, a head of nappa cabbage, and a pound of fresh rice noodles (bánh phở). Once home, I put the chicken into a pot of water with about a pound of sliced ginger and let that steep on low flame for about 30 minutes. After removing and picking the chicken and removing all the ginger, I brought the stock to a rolling boil and put the noodles, cabbage, and chicken back in and turned off the flame. A good bit of salt for seasoning and I tucked in to a delicious bowl of noodles. Ann put a brave but disappointed face on it. She wanted to go out and eat sushi and was not thrilled by soup for date night. Sorry honey and thanks for being a good sport.

Ginger Chicken Noodle Soup with Nappa Cabbage

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Yeah, OK, spaghetti and meatballs is trite and not very Italian, and who the bleep cares? Ann was in the mood for this classic American comfort food this Sunday, so after we got up, we headed over to FoodMaxx to pick up some tomatoes, garlic, pasta, and ground pork. I prefer pork meatballs to all other kinds: pork is silkier and tastier and well, porkier! And porkier is always better; you know the old maxim, "You can never have too much pork!" Because FoodMaxx has the best ground pork in town (other than what I grind for the restaurant), we went there rather than a more traditional American grocery.

Spaghetti is such a lame cut in my book (and in Ann's too); it's too thin and lacks the bite that I want in my pasta. I was looking for perciatelli (aka bucatini depending on the manufacturer), but FoodMaxx, catering to the Latino and Asian crowd, is not the place with dozens of pasta options. Good pork yes, good pasta, not so much. So we ended up with fettucine which is the wrong cut entirely, but at least it has more heft than spaghetti.

Garlic Anyone?
With the exception of the garlic in the photo above, these are very alien packages of food. Working in a restaurant, I am used to gigantic quantities of everything. The cashier at the store was very cute when she said, "You guys must really love garlic!" We really do, but even for us, this is a lot. This is only a week's supply at the restaurant, however.

Meatball Seasoning: Sage, Parsley, Fennel, and Garlic

I don't have a meatball recipe, surprise, surprise. Just a general idea. And it starts with really nicely ground pork, a splash of heavy cream, a bit of panko just to keep things loose, a dose of garlic, and whatever herbs happen to be growing in the garden. Salt, I generally do to the ratio of a teaspoon per pound of meat. If you're ever unsure about how your meatball mix is going to taste, cook a little bit and taste it and re-season as necessary.

If you look very closely at the photo below, you will see that the meatballs are just barely pressed together. For best texture, that's all you want to do, just bring them together as gently as possible. The proteins will bind the meatballs as they cook. If you cram them together, you risk a tough meatball and a tough meatball is a rookie mistake. You're not a rookie are you?

Ready for Sauce
For sauce, I generally do a blender marinara: put tomatoes, garlic, salt, pepper, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and basil in a blender and whir it for a couple of seconds. Et voilà! In this case, when I opened the cans of tomatoes, they had already been blitzed so I just dumped everything on top of the meatballs, covered the whole in aluminum foil, and put it in a 300 degree oven for a long while. With meatballs, as in cooking all forcemeats and charcuterie, lower and slower is better. You will end up with a much more tender and succulent product.

I have no idea how long the meatballs were in the oven for mid-afternoon, Jen and Dewi called quite unexpectedly and said they were on their way back with the Dobies from a dog show in Pennsylvania and asked if they could stop in. Of course they could stop in; we hadn't seen them in months! They arrived about an hour later and we took all four of the dogs to the basement and let them romp. It was funny to see Grace, our "big" dog, and usually the aggressor, having the tables turned on her by the big Dobies, Austin and Pepper. And then it was hilarious to see our little guy Charlie giving both the Dobies what for when they tried to mess with him.

Anyway, after a long while of watching the dogs romp and trying to keep them from knocking over our glasses of red wine, we went upstairs to the delightful smells of meatballs slowly braising in marinara, whereupon I put on a pot of water, cooked the fettucine, and we all sat down to an impromptu dinner.

Fettucine, Meatball Marinara, Pecorino Romano

Yeah, They Were Delicious!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Prosecco and Goat Cheese

Sunday was a lazy, take it easy around the house kind of day: we didn't even get out of bed until 11am. I had picked up some local goat cheese at the farmers market on Saturday and after we got up and going,we decided to get into it. I bought several Valençay-clone cheeses from Shepherd's Whey Creamery for the restaurant cheese plates and brought one home to sample.

Ann made us Prosecco cocktails with a splash of cranberry juice, which turned out to be really good. I'm not generally into that sort of thing, but these were really good.

Prosecco and Cranberry

Valençay-Clone from Shepherd's Whey, Martinsburg WV

Very Good Cheese, but Needs to Ripen

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chow Mein

Monday a week ago (I'm getting behind in posting) Ann really wanted "those noodles you make." Those noodles I make are classic chow mein, fried noodles. First you fry a pound of fresh wheat noodles on both sides:

Fry Noodles on Both Sides, Tossing to Flip
and then you top them with something delicious. In this case, a stir fry of snow peas, lop cheung, pressed tofu, dried daylily buds, tree ear mushrooms, preserved vegetable (pickled mustard stems, zha cai), garlic chives, and lots of ginger and garlic.

Chow Mein: a Thing of Beauty
If you've seen a lot of chow mein on this blog, it's because we love it, it's easy to do, and there's never a problem getting Carter to eat it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas is A-Coming!

Christmas is getting here fast! It seems like it gets faster each year. I got the tree from Beth at the farmers market on Saturday: she and Gene had picked out a beautiful white fir (concolor) for us. I've never seen one of these trees before, but the large needles are striking!

Carter Actually Wanted to Help This Year

Ta Da!
Ann thought I was hamming it up for this picture, but what I was really doing was getting my evidence documented. She has this thing for gigantic trees and even though she hasn't said anything about this tree, I can tell that she's feeling a little underwhelmed by it. She asked Beth for a 9-foot tree and that is what we got, maybe even a bit more. Exhibit A: with my arm extended, I can touch 8 feet easily.

You Call THAT a Hammer?
I thought my idea of smashing the bag of candy canes against the granite was a splendid, no-fuss way of getting the job done. Too chef-like apparently, for we had to get out the world's most ridiculously small hammer to gently tap the candy canes. Love you, baby!

Carter and the Ricotta Cookies

Always Good, and Sunday, Needed
What's the Christmas season without a little Champagne to get things going? While we were decorating the tree and making cookies, we opened this bottle of Veuve Clicquot. The old widow, she's always predictably good and I do love the yeasty Clicquot house style. Later in the afternoon, we opened a bottle of Perrier-Jouët and it is nowhere near the wine that the Clicquot is. I am still spoiled by our Roland Champion grower Champagne, but Ann is not so much the fan.

The Champagne was well deserved and as it turns out, well needed, witness the next photo:

Caption Contest: How Would You Label This??
Yeah, OK, so teenagers are wont to turn teenage at any moment, no matter how nice and cooperative little adults they seem to be at any given instant. I'm going to let you pick a caption for the photo above. My suggestion: "I brought your ass into this world and I'll take it right out!" Thank God for Champagne!

The Inevitable Mess: Champagne Helps with This Too

Ricotta and Lemon Cookies

And Without the Lemon

Peppermint Bark
P.S. I forgot to say that Ann did all the work for these cookies. Didn't mean to take credit for her work.

Putting By

I might as well face it: I don't know how to cook for less than an army. I think it's the curse of chefs the world around. We're so used to cooking in gigantic batches that huge is our average. It's so bad sometimes that I get to chuckling at all the "cute" little containers of condiments in our cabinets at home. Doesn't everyone buy vinegar in 5-litre containers? ;)

So I might as well channel this curse into something useful: making large batches of food that we can freeze against the future day when we just don't feel like or don't have time to cook. This weekend, at Ann's urging, I made a vast pot of pork ragù and our supersized crockpot full of split pea soup. We now have, for very little effort, many meals of both tucked away for future use.

Yes, This is an Entire Hotel Pan Full of Pork Shoulder
Basic meat sauce procedure: Cube the meat; brown it; remove from pan. Add mirepoix, garlic, and bouquet garni of herbs; cook until onions are translucent. Deglaze with white wine (I used leftover going flat Crémant de Bourgogne). Add tomato purée and a bit of heavy cream. Cook (for hours on low flame) until meat starts to fall apart; stir to shred meat. Cook until desired thickness.

Split Pea Soup with Ham
Basic split pea soup procedure: dump mirepoix, minced garlic, bouquet garni, ham scraps, and split peas into a crockpot. Add water. Turn it on and forget it. Come back some hours later. Season to taste. Nothing could be simpler!

Ann's Gorgeous Olive Loaf
Annie was back at it this weekend, tempting me with more of her awesome bread! This is an olive loaf that she made to accompany the meat sauce and pasta that you see below. Everyone should eat this damn well! Sadly, few people see the investment in time in the kitchen as worth it.

Worth the Wait!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Red-Cooked Duck

Back in July (the first of July to be exact), Yael and Dan had us over to their farm for a splendid dinner feast and we have been trying to return the favor forever. Such is the nature of the restaurant life and the resulting 2-3 days off per month that it was the first of December before we could actually all get together for dinner at our house.

I have had duck on the brain for a month, red-cooked duck specifically, so I built a (non-traditional) Chinese menu around that.

Turkey and Black Truffle Rillettes
We had an extra jar of truffled turkey rillettes in the refrigerator from Thanksgiving that we started with. The flavor is now better than ever and it would probably get even better still except that now all three jars are gone, gone, gone.

Jook, Fully Garnished

Jook Garnishes: Cilantro, Spicy Cowpeas, Green Onions, Mustard Stems
Now that the weather is cold, my brain is about all things braised/slow-cooked and I have been on a jook tear recently. Jook, also known as congee, is quintessential Chinese comfort food: rice cooked in broth until it disintegrates and becomes a thick porridge.

For mine, I cooked down several chicken hind quarters and a bunch of chicken feet with about a pound of fresh ginger and a bunch of cilantro stems to make the stock. I picked the chicken meat and reserved it. Into the stock went some Carolina Gold heirloom rice and after simmering for about four hours, it had turned to a silky soup. Just before serving, I mixed the chicken back in and prepped a plate of garnishes: cilantro, spicy salted cowpeas, green onions, and preserved mustard stems (zha cai).

I know that jook is traditionally breakfast food, invalid food, and/or a meal by itself, but I like it as an appetizer in a western format meal.

Mise en Place for Pan-Fried Noodles
Because we had rice as a first course, I didn't want to serve it again with the main meal, so I decided to go with pan-fried noodles topped with a variety of vegetables and fungi: shiitakes, tree ear mushrooms, dried daylily blossoms, spiced and pressed tofu, snow peas, garlic chives, green onions, shallot rings, ginger and garlic. I finished the vegetables with a splash of soy sauce and sugar.

Red-Cooked Duck and Bok Choy with Pan-Fried Noodles in Background
Red-cooking is one of my all time favorite braising methods. I cut the duck into serving pieces and browned them. Then cut up the carcass and browned it very deeply in the oven. From this I made a rich duck stock. The duck slowly braised in the duck stock, soy sauce, brown sugar, and a really nutty Sherry with lots of green onions, a dried clementine peel, crushed garlic, and loads of sliced ginger. For spices, I added a sachet containing a few star anise pods, a cinnamon stick, and a handful of Sichuan peppercorns. The duck braised on Saturday for about three hours after which I removed the duck, defatted the stock, and reduced it to the point where I was happy with the flavor. Highly reduced soy-based liquids can get way too salty in a hurry.

Sunday, I put the stock back with the duck in a very slow oven and let it rewarm gently. Then at service, I pulled the duck and lightly thickened the sauce by adding a touch of hoisin sauce. I plattered the duck with some bok choy and poured the sauce over. Really, really good.

Binyamina's Farmer Series, Cab-Shiraz 2009
And speaking of really good, Dan and Yael brought this Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah blend from Binyamina Winery, one of the largest wineries in Israel. The soft fruit went beautifully with the duck!


Bacon and Eggs on Garlic Bagel
Every now and again, don't you find yourself really hungry with a specific, identifiable craving for that one food that you just have to have to assuage the hunger? That happened to Ann and me this weekend in kind of a jinx moment as we were driving to pick up Carter in Berryville: we both said that we were craving bagels at nearly the same instant.

On the way back home we detoured into Winchester and picked up bagels at City Bagels owned by longtime friend Frank d'Alessio. [Frank, the bagels have lost a little chew in the last year. What's up? Did you change to softer flour?] Back at home, I fried up some bacon, scrambled a couple of eggs, and toasted the bagels in the frying pan.

What you see here was crushed and devoured!

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...