Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Art of the Sauce: Pork and Snow Pea Lo Mein

Well, Monday was to be date night but Ann wasn't feeling up to going out and she asked me if I would make lo mein with snow peas, so I grabbed some pork neck bones, snow peas, and lo mein noodles at the market on the way home.

I have never liked the usual casual approach to making Chineses sauces: thickening broth with starch. I don't mind dredging meat in starch, frying it, then adding broth and have it thicken that way, but thickening broth with a starch slurry seems like a cop out to me, a lazy way that says the cook doesn't care enough to make a good sauce. Maybe it's my classical French sauce background coming through that drives me to make my sauces by reduction. Maybe it's the flavor: the results are spectacular.

Pork Neck Bones
Into a screaming hot pot went the meaty neckbones to brown thoroughly on all sides, a process that took about 15 minutes. At various points, I added whole garlic, slabs of ginger, green onion bulbs, a halved shallot with the skin still on, and a bunch of cilantro stems tied in a bouquet, so that each item caramelized along with the pork. In went water to cover and after deglazing the bottom of the pan, I left the pot to simmer while we watched a movie. After the movie was done, I removed the solids, reserving the neck bones, skimmed the fat from the stock, and started reducing it over high heat until I had a cup of liquid.

Meanwhile, I picked the gelatinous neck meat from the bones, Ann pulled the strings from the snow peas, and I slivered garlic and green onions. And I got a jar of young slivered bamboo shoots in spicy chile oil out of the refrigerator.

Pork and Snow Pea Lo Mein
Once the stock reduced to a cup, I added a tablespoon of Chinkiang black rice vinegar, a couple tablespoons of soy sauce, a teaspoon of sambal oelek chile paste, and enough brown sugar to balance the flavors. I brought this down to about 3/4 of a cup and adjusted the seasonings to end up with a deliciously porky, sweet, sour, spicy, and salty sauce.

While the sauce was finishing, I cooked the noodles and stir-fried the other ingredients. It was then just a matter of mixing the noodles, the garnishes, and the sauce and serving. The results were delicious and a fair amount of work for a weeknight, but really worth it in terms of flavor. You just can't duplicate the depth of flavor of a carefully crafted sauce reduction by thickening some broth with starch.

The "We Finally Got it Scheduled!" Wine Dinner

We got out to dinner at somebody else's house this weekend! How often does that happen? It just doesn't.

Way back before Christmas, Mark and Maggie Malick, owners of Maggie Malick Wine Caves, and Jim and Betsy Dolphin, owners of Delaplane Cellars, came to dinner at the restaurant and at least for a few minutes, we got to catch up. If you're not in either the winery or the restaurant business, you might not know how little free time either business affords you. There just isn't much spare time to catch up and our usual catching up means that at least one of us is working. While we were catching up, we kicked around getting together for a group dinner in the near future.

The idea of having a dinner is one thing; actually pulling one off is quite another. Just trying to find the intersection of free time among a group of constantly busy entrepreneurs is tough, hence the name of the wine dinner that Mark and Maggie hosted at their house just south of Harper's Ferry in Loudoun County: "We Finally Got it Scheduled!" The earliest date we could all find was about six weeks in the future, the 27th of January, that happy convergence of slow times in the wine and restaurant businesses with a non-football weekend (Maggie, in her infinite spare time, plays in the Loudoun Symphony and the Redskins band).

Some weeks ago, Mark sent out food assignments and there have been dozens of emails back and forth talking about dishes and wine pairings. I was getting excited just reading some of the ideas going back and forth.

Maggie's Cave (note Abby on the roof!)
The big day arrived and after the awful weather we have been having, it turned out to be a sunny if chilly day and a nice day for a trip to northern Loudoun County via Harper's Ferry, WV. Yeah, that's right. With WV on three sides of us, it is easier to get to parts of our own state by going through WV. With a river and a mountain range between us in the Shenandoah Valley and them in Northern Virginia, there are only limited options for crossing both. How nice to see the sunshine again, especially glinting off the Shenandoah River on our right and the Potomac River on our left as we crossed the Shenandoah in Harper's Ferry. The sun highlighted the rocks in the rapids, rocks still covered in snow from the weekend snows.

We took advantage of the relatively mild weather to get a tour of the new cave from Maggie. Out behind the house, the cave is a quonset hut dug into the ground so that it has a turf roof. This is a precursor to a full winery that will be built up on the hill several hundred yards to the north, overlooking the vineyards. Maggie plans to open to the public this spring. I don't know where she plans to put people, the cave is jammed with barrels!

Full to the Gills Already!
We got there about three in the afternoon and Mark, in his short-sleeved chef coat, was already hard at work making seafood crêpes. We hung out in the kitchen and yacked with everyone else over a bottle of Albariño. I took a few casual photos, some of which are below.

Chef Mark Making Crêpes

Myret, Beautiful as Ever!

Jim and Karen Hamming

Mark Showing off the Volnay and Beaucastel '88
Sorry to everyone whose photo didn't make the cut. I took dozens, but a lot were just too crappy to publish. Blame the photographer. The photographer blames his too slow lens and camera set up to take food shots.

Fourteen People with Ease at This Table

You Will See These Grape Cluster Napkin Rings Again

Our Menu

Brillat-Savarin, the King of Maggie's Cheese Board

Over the course of the late afternoon, everyone arrived and at some point, Maggie started putting out cheeses while Terry started decanting and tasting the wines for dinner proper. The big platter of cheeses included the excellent Brillat-Savarin that you see above. The traditional pairing for bloomed rind cheeses is Champagne and no complaints about Terry's choice of Clicquot, though I actually liked my cheese better with a sip of a fruity Paso Robles Rhône blend (One Time Spaceman Moon Duck) that Mark had us open.

Now This is a Glass of Champagne!
While we were kibitzing in the kitchen, Terry started pouring around the Veuve Clicquot that he brought along. He was responsible for the wines for the first two courses, Preston for the next two, and Jim Dolphin for the last two.

I would have loved to have had more than a taste of Champagne, but with a long night ahead of us and a 45-minute drive home after dark, a taste was it. Clicquot is always delicious. Terry said he would have rather poured Bruno Paillard, but that he happened to have a case of Clicquot on hand. Poor him. So we "suffered" through the Clicquot, though it has been 20 years since I tasted Bruno Paillard and it was good stuff back then. I would love to revisit Paillard soon.

Mark's Seafood Crêpes with Sauce Mornay
After Mark's crêpes came out of the oven, we all adjourned to the dining room and Terry poured around a couple bottles of Château Montelena Chardonnay Napa 2009. Although it is fairly reserved for a Napa Chard, it is bigger, more buttery, and oakier than I like in a Chardonnay, but it is the style of Chardonnay that I would have chosen to pair with these crêpes filled with crab, shrimp, and bay scallops bathed in sauce Mornay with more browned Mornay and cheese on top. Seafood and cheese is a tough, tough wine pairing.

Porchetta with Bagnat Verd in the Background
After the crêpe course, came my dish and I was the lucky bastard to whom Mark assigned the pork! Lucky because I love cooking pork, any time, any place. I decided to do a porchetta so that I could cook it in advance and not have to worry about finishing any food to order. I was not about to cook on my day off!

A Slice of My Porchetta with Bagnat Verd
To make this porchetta, I cured a Berkshire pork belly with a lot of dried fennel, fresh rosemary, a lot of garlic, black pepper, and Kosher salt for 48 hours. The goal was to impart some flavor without stiffening the belly so much that I couldn't roll it. Contrast this with the pancetta tesa that I cure for at least a week and often two. Inside I put a sausage that I made from all our pork trimmings from last week. It is traditional to put a pork loin in the middle, but I find that it can get dry, so I often put a forcemeat inside my porchetta. After the roll firmed up in the cooler overnight, I cooked it low and slow for about four hours and then blasted it in the convection oven until it got crispy all over.

To go with the porchetta, I made a traditional salsa verde called bagnat verd (green bath) in Piemontese. To make it, I soaked crustless white bread in red wine vinegar, boiled a couple of eggs to get hardboiled yolks, and then pounded the bread, egg yolks, garlic, anchovy, capers with a lot of fresh parsley in the mortar. To this, I added red pepper flakes, salt, and olive oil to taste. I had no idea that we were doing a formal plated dinner (being a wine dinner "virgin" with this crew), or I might have given some thought to plate presentation rather than just a stripe of salsa. Who knew?

Pres brought a 2007 Louis Boillot Volnay 1er Cru "Carelle sous la Chapelle," carelle referring to the square parcel of vineyard downslope from the famous old chapel. Just for grins, I brought a wine that I wanted to pair with the porchetta, a 2007 Thomas Mayr Lagrein Riserva Alto Adige, a sturdy high acid wine that I thought would fight through the fat of the pork belly. I love Burgundy and I loved every sip of the Volnay, but I liked it better on its own than with the belly. The porchetta was a bit too assertive for the delicate wine. I thank Pres for bringing it because he knows that I love Burgundy above all else and on my chef's budget, cannot afford to drink it very often.

Maggie's Citrus and Ginger Sorbet with Limoncello Drizzle
You know that you are at a fancy dinner when an intermezzo is served, in this case, a four-citrus and ginger sorbet that Maggie made! Maybe I shouldn't have worn blue jeans? To gild the lily, the sorbet was topped with a splash of homemade limoncello. I loved it.

During the intermezzo while Austin was outside grilling his lamb racks over charcoal, Ann had the distinction of getting to decorate the busty statue named Arenalla Bella, after the Arenal volcano in Costa Rica whence came this curvaceous sculpture. This is apparently a distinction of dubious nature, born of long tradition, and afforded to wine dinner virgins at the Malick household. Using only a scarf and a feather boa, the hapless victim must decorate the sculpture to amusement of the table. I would say that with the strategic placement of the grape cluster napkin rings appropriated from the dinner table that Ann carried off the mission with nothing short of aplomb, much to the amusement of all!

Decorating the Sculpture

Austin's Lamb Chop with Cannellini and Watercress
While we were carousing at the table, Austin was outside in the freezing cold grilling his racks of Marsala-marinated lamb on charcoal. He served each of us a chop on a purée of cannellini beans on top of a purée of watercress. The lamb was delicious and paired quite well with the cherry fruit of the 2001 La Rioja Alta "Viña Ardanza" Reserva Especial that Pres brought. I really enjoyed this terrific Tempranillo-Garnacha blend and thought the lamb was a great foil for it. This is as good a Rioja as I have ever had.

Between courses, Mark pulled out a bottle of 1988 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape and sommelier Terry obligingly poured it around. I thought it had aged quite well and the Brett that I thought might have overtaken the fruit had not. It reminded me that I should probably get to opening the remaining 1988 CdPs in my cellar. I better find out if Brett has got the better of them.

Chucks' Beef Tenderloin
Chuck Cardamon took on the biggest plate of food art of the evening, a beef tenderloin for the final savory course of the night. In his own words "Beef Tenderloin Relleno (stuffed with caramelized onions, carrots and peas) topped with mushrooms. Beet Risotto topped with Gorgonzola on creamed peas. Roasted tomatoes (garlic EVOO and Maldon salt) on sweet pea greens and carrot purée (cayenne added)...and a painted strip of homemade demiglace. Paired with a fabulous Delaplane Cellars Syrah 2010." It was quite the reminder of being at work to see Chuck, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy, and his wife Ana plating this intricately garnished dish!

My palate was really tired by the time we got to this course, so Jim's Syrah was kind of lost on me. Fortunately, I had tasted it first thing in the afternoon when Terry was decanting it so I got a good handle on it. It has big tannins for a Syrah along with abundant dark fruit. While I wouldn't usually think of pairing Syrah with beef, this is a big meat wine and the pairing was great. Jim should be proud of his new Syrah!

Betsy's Meringues with Crème Anglaise
We finished the night with some delightful baked meringues from Betsy paired with her 2011 Delaplane Cellars Late Harvest Petit Manseng. I just loved the lightness of the meringues and the idea of floating them on creme anglaise à la îles flottantes. As I wrote in a post earlier this year, the Petit Manseng is excellent now as an infant and I think it has potential to be spectacular in five to ten years.

Thanks to Mark and Maggie Malick for hosting us and inviting us to one of their infamous wine dinners. Thanks to Terry and Karen Sewell, Jim and Betsy Dolphin, and Preston and Myret Tyson for bringing fabulous wines. And kudos for Mark and Maggie as well as Austin and Faythe Rippeon and Chuck and Ana Cardamon for great eats. We had a spectacular evening!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Every Day is Special

I bought some of the first baby arugula of the winter at the farmers market on Saturday and started to build a Sunday dinner around those beautiful salad greens. But Sunday afternoon after we had a huge and unanticipated steak lunch, we decided to forgo dinner in favor of local goat cheese and Ann's delicious roasted garlic bread. Her bread is so good—and this loaf in particular was so good—that we always gorge on it, leaving no room for anything else. I just want to say here that I have no need to bake bread any longer; my girl does an outstanding job! And so we left the arugula for Monday night.

I got home early on Monday: I worked on year-end closing paperwork until I was fed up and I fled the restaurant to spend some quality time with Ann. Early evening after we wrestled with insurance policies and other family stuff that we just couldn't put off to another day, Ann went down to basement to get a bottle of wine. She wanted to surprise me with her choice, but the cork broke as she was opening the bottle and I hopped up to help her get it out and filter the wine. Broken and crumbling corks are a fact of life with older wines.

1997 Linden Red Reserve
And so I saw the wine label before she poured me a glass of this beautiful 1997 Linden Red Reserve (which we tasted last weekend at the Linden Library Tasting). Jim Law gave us this bottle as a wedding present and we had been saving it for a special occasion. I was a little surprised that Ann chose this bottle, but I always tell her that any time you open a special bottle, it is a special occasion. And she was so happy that I got home early yesterday that she wanted to celebrate.

I spent 90 minutes over two glasses of wine, enjoying each tiny sip like it might be my last. And it probably will be my last of this delicious wine. This bottle tasted even better than the bottle that Jim opened at the library tasting and that was my favorite wine of the day. Really delicious.

Arugula, Tomatoes, Goat Cheese, Almonds and Tomato Vinaigrette
On to dinner, we tossed the baby arugula with halved grape tomatoes, toasted almonds, local fresh goat cheese, and tomato vinaigrette. The salad was so fabulous (it's been months since we last had amazing salad greens) that I am still thinking about how much I enjoyed it today. I love a good salad and good salads seem to be few and far between.

Strozzapreti with Porcini, Pancetta, and Broccoli
And for our main course, Ann and I made a porcini sauce by cooking up some of the pancetta that I cure with minced garlic and rosemary from the garden. To this, we added rehydrated porcini mushrooms and a splash of heavy cream. The tiny broccoli florets (side shoots that grow after the main crown has been cut) from a local farm went into the water with the strozzapreti for the final minute and then everything was tossed with some grated pecorino. The local winter broccoli is so sweet and delicious this year!

Sitting down to a rare meal at the table with Ann and Carter and enjoying delicious local food with a very wonderful and rare bottle of wine made me remember that days like this are more special and worthy of celebration than almost any other!

Zee Restaurant, Woodstock, VA

We had a free day on Sunday, one of those rare Sundays that we reserve for ourselves, and we took advantage of that to make the 45-minute drive to Woodstock, county seat of Shenandoah County, our neighbor to the south. A customer had told me of a couple that had just started a small restaurant there in the summer and that the chef is Croatian and that there were some interesting dishes on the menu.

In the week before our lunch at Zee, I started up a conversation with chef/owner Zlatko "Zee" Saravanja via Facebook, so he and his wife Lorianne were expecting us. I had hoped to explore a little bit more about Croatian food and how it differs from that of its neighbors.

Chilean Cab
We were seated and then proceeded to find a bottle of wine for lunch; I noticed that of the four other tables in the restaurant, we were the only ones having wine with our lunch. I guess that is to be expected. And hence the very limited wine list. Of the five or six reds, there was a sweet wine, an Agiorgitiko, an Argentine Malbec, a Spanish Monastrell, and a Chilean Cab. I wasn't going to tackle the Agiorgitiko; my experience with the St. George grape is that very few wineries make a decent one. I like Monastrell/Mourvèdre for a Sunday afternoon sipping wine, but that one was sold out. So we ended up with the Chilean Cab, which far exceeded my expectations.

Flatbread and Dips
We started with a trio of dips: hummus, tzatziki, and a roasted red pepper spread ("capsicum dip"), the last something similar to the Greek htipiti, I suppose. The bread is a focaccia-like flatbread sprinkled with sesame and caraway.

Lamb "Steak"
We had asked Zee to cook us whatever he wanted and although we were looking for something Croatian, he cooked us lamb steaks, nicely sized steaks from a leg of lamb. I guess this is his Aussie side showing through: although he was born in Croatia, Zee moved to Australia when very young and grew up there, just having moved to the US. The steaks were delicious and very well cooked, crusty on the outside and perfectly done on the inside. I really don't eat steak, especially at lunch, but I did enjoy mine very much. Ann and I never order the same thing so that we can share, so it was a bit of a bummer to both get steaks. The iceberg salad did nothing for me.

So we went away with mixed feelings. The wine and the steak were both very good. But we never did satisfy our itch for Croatian food. Next time, we order off the menu. And bless this really nice couple for trying to do something different in Woodstock, VA!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

You Say Pizza, I Say Focaccia

Monday night = date night at our house. But we've busted the budget recently and so decided to stay in and have dinner and a movie. I left Ann to puzzle over what to eat for dinner while I was at work in the morning. Late morning, she decided she was in the mood for pizza.

What do you do in a town where there is zero pizza worth eating and you want pizza at the last minute with no time to make dough and let it ferment for the requisite 24 hours that it takes to develop great flavor?

You make do. Following the shopping list that Ann sent me, I picked up some olive and oregano flatbreads from Costco, along with some prosciutto, and a tub of mozzarella di bufala. She said that we had some grape tomatoes at home on the counter that were in dire need of roasting.

I also grabbed a bottle of Brunello while I was there just to splurge a bit. What to drink with pizza? Sangiovese in my book. And what better Sangiovese is there in this world than Brunello? You might argue that pizza is best known from Napoli/Campania and that maybe a wine from Campania might be a more natural choice, but how are you going to find Greco di Tufo or Piedirosso on short notice, especially in Funchester, Middle of Nowhere? Besides, I'd rather drink Brunello!

What to Drink for Pizza and a Movie Night? Brunello!
In the photo above, you see the prosciutto torn into pieces and the mozzarella di bufala sliced and ready to go. If you have never had buffalo milk mozzarella, you owe it to yourself to try it. Buffalo milk mozzarella is to cow's milk mozzarella as a Ferrari is to a Fiat, but unless you get behind the wheel of the Ferrari, you will never truly understand. Even this silly analogy does not convey how truly amazing your first bite of mozzarella di bufala is. It doesn't convey the idea that until that very moment, you had no idea how good cheese could be.

Oven-Dried Tomatoes, Awesome!
Ann had the fabulous idea of oven-roasting the tomatoes, but I don't think that she expected me to turn the somewhat raisined tomatoes on the counter into caramelized bites of oven-dried awesomeness. I put the oven on 450F with the fan on, which is as hot as it will go with the fan on, and put the halved tomatoes tossed with extra virgin olive oil and salt in. I opened the door every three or four minutes to let the steam escape and after about 20-25 minutes, we had the deliciously caramelized dried tomatoes that you see above. You must vent the steam frequently to dry the tomatoes. Trust me, it is so worth the effort. And really, how much effort is it to get up from the kitchen counter and vent the steam between sips of wine?

Prosciutto, Oven-Dried Tomatoes, Mozzarella di Bufala: Divine!
Oh my gosh, did I gorge myself! I was silly stuffed after this meal. But who wouldn't have gorged on this? I didn't do anything to the focaccia that I bought at Costco. It came prebrushed with oil and sprinkled lavishly with green olives, oregano, salt, and a wonderful bit of crushed red pepper.

Pizza? I'm not sure that this qualifies for that moniker, but I do know that it was better than any pizza I have had in years and it came from stuff that I hauled home from not-some-exotic store, but rather, Costco. Go figure!

Great meal, great company, great wine, great movie, and a great date night with my sweetie that I won't forget anytime soon!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Linden Library Tasting

We signed up back in early December for the Linden Library Tasting yesterday. I was excited to go back and revisit some old friends that I hadn't tasted in years and some wines that I have never tasted. As we made our way south to Linden on an unusually warm (upper 60s) day for January, I couldn't help but notice the blanket of clouds draped over the mountains to our east, looking like a giant had placed a layer of cotton batting right on top of the mountains. It was a cloud formation that I have never seen before, a very thin layer of clouds to the east of the mountains and just a little bit spilling over to the western side of the ridgeline.

Fog Bound at Linden Vineyards
Wisteria in the Fog
I wondered a little bit about the clouds as we were driving south on a sunny day, but not too much. As soon as we turned east and starting climbing up to get to the east side of the ridge where Linden is situated, I noticed the sunshine starting to fade. As we climbed, it became a gray and foggy day and when we got to the winery itself, it was socked in and despite the moderate temperatures, too damp and misty to sit outside. But the fog did lend itself to some interesting photo opportunities.

My Beautiful Wife!
We arrived at 2pm in advance of our 3pm tasting with the idea that we would have a glass of wine and lunch beforehand. We started with a glass of the library wine that Linden pours in the winter time. On offer this weekend was the 1999 Glen Manor red, a great opportunity to taste what Jeff's Hodder Hill might taste like in 10-15 years. The wine has gone from purple to red with a slight clear ring around it. The fruit is very much where it should be now with wisps of dried blackberry leaves and tea wrapping around a core of cherry fruit. The finish is starting to disintegrate now though with the layers of oak starting to separate from the fruit. Ten minutes in the glass helped the wine bloom and a little food helped bring the finish back into line. I told Ann that I could drink this wine every day and be very happy: it is a feminine and nuanced wine.

Bloomsbury from Caromont Farm: Outstanding
For lunch, Ann and I were both excited to see that Caromont Farm's Bloomsbury, a Chaource-like bloomed rind cow's milk cheese, is back on the cheese list at Linden. We both love this cheese! To go with the remainder of our cheese, summer sausage, and bread, we also ordered a glass of the 2009 Hardscrabble Red. I was surprised to see it on offer; didn't think it was going to be released this soon. Although it is young and tight, at this stage, I believe that this is the best wine that Jim has ever made. I'm going to tuck some away in the cellar: I believe this wine is going to be phenomenal in 15 years.

The Library Tasting Set Up
At 3pm, we headed into the tasting room with Jim and Barb who took seats at either end of the table, with four guests on either side of the table. Four whites and four reds were already poured. We started with the whites: Louis Jadot Chassagne-Montrachet 2006 as a reference point and the Hardscrabble Chardonnay Reserve 1997, the 2002, and the 2006. Jim introduced each of the wines in turn and we all discussed whatever came to mind and peppered Jim with questions.

I didn't take any notes at all; this being my day off, I simply wanted to enjoy the experience. But some quick notes from memory. Chassagne: oxidized nose and palate characteristic of Bourgogne Blanc, well balanced with plenty of acid, not fruit-driven; very typical. Reserve '97: tropical Botrytized nose of pineapple with a hint of mango, deep golden, very ripe and weighty; bigger fruit that I am used to from Linden, my least favorite. HSC '02: very pale, mineral nose reminding me of cement-fermented Chablis, very crisp seafood wine much in the Chablis mold with a touch more fruit. HSC '06: one of my all-time favorite friends, tropical nose and superb balance between fruit and acid. I would love to taste this wine in another couple or three years. Delightful!

For the reds, we were served a small charcuterie plate (pâté de campagne, lomo, and bresaola) to serve as a foil for the tannins. This excellent charcuterie comes from Derek at the Whole Ox in The Plains. At Jim's insistence, we all kept a bit of the pâté back to taste with the dessert wine.

Charcuterie from The Whole Ox
The red line up was: Château La Tour Carnet 2000, Red Reserve 1997, Red Reserve 2001, and Hardscrabble Red 2002. La Tour Carnet is not a wine with which I am familiar and it presented with a funky Bretty nose. The Brett didn't extend to the palate and I quite liked the focused berry fruit with a strong acid core. The '97 is a wine that I had asked Jim about earlier in the afternoon, because he gave us a bottle for our wedding and I was wondering how it has developed and when to drink it. Awesome to get to taste it in advance of opening our bottle! It is a beautiful wine and my favorite of the day and I don't think it is going to get any better. It leads with a Cab Franc profile and is a bit herbaceous with a touch of bell pepper. The 2001, largely Cabernet Sauvignon, is a bit more angular but also drinking nicely, though I don't think it is as complex as the 1997. The 2002 is still hanging in and would be a crowed-pleaser if crowds could taste it. At 100% Merlot, it is soft and supple, but simple.

We finished the day with a taste of 2002 Late Harvest Vidal that is just brilliant. I've tasted this wine several times over the last 10 years and it is really coming into its own with caramel and crème brûlée notes weaving in and out of the tropical fruit. The color is a darker shade now than I remember it on last tasting. I imagine this beauty will still improve for some time and will drink well long after I am gone.

Posole Verde de Pollo

I'm not sure why I decided, on a January day that was supposed to be headed to nearly 70F, to make posole, a hearty Mexican soup, for dinner. But I'm glad I did. The day didn't turn out to be all that anyway: up on top of the hill at Linden where we spent the day, it was cool, damp, and fogged in. Good soup weather. And a good day to have dinner waiting in the slow cooker when we got back home.

I make all kinds of posole, from thick and heavy chile-laced fiery pork stews, to light and almost ethereal soups of amazing flavor. It was this latter I was aiming for in making a green posole with chicken.

Roasting Poblanos
The day before, I charred my poblanos, peeled, seeded, and chopped them. It is not necessary to roast poblanos or even skin them beforehand, but I like them better that way. I am always careful with poblanos for their heat is unpredictable. Some are totally mild; some will hurt you. I've found that in winter when our poblanos come from very far south, they can be extremely spicy.

Roasting Tomatillos and Garlic
Also the day before, I made a green tomatillo sauce by roasting tomatillos and garlic on a sheet tray until the tops of the tomatillos were nicely blackened. Then into the blender with the lot.

Posole Ingredients
I was going to start my posole with dried hominy, but oddly enough, I couldn't find any at the market, so I grabbed a can of hominy. From the hominy clockwise: oregano, avocado leaves, tomatillo-roasted garlic sauce, green onion, cilantro, lime, roasted and diced poblanos, and an onion. What you don't see: 4 big chicken leg quarters and a bottle of cheap Mexican beer that was leftover from some party last summer. What else can you do with flavorless lager but cook with it?

Posole Verde de Pollo
Everything went into the slow cooker, then I poured the Sol beer over and added water to cover. I added maybe a teaspoon of salt at this point and set it to cooking. Six or seven hours later when we got back home, I fished out the chicken thighs, deboned them, added the meat back to the posole, and adjusted the salt. I served it with a lime wedge, fresh cilantro leaves, and sliced green onions. I would have topped each bowl with slices of avocado except that the avocado I thought was on the counter ended up in Ann's egg salad earlier in the week.

If I want a thicker stew rather than a thinner stew, I will sometimes stick the immersion blender into the soup and blitz up some of the hominy. Other times, I will add a little masa to the cooking soup. This time, I just wanted a thin soup. Delicious and easy to make with almost no clean up, because I had the foresight to roast the poblanos and make the salsa verde the day before.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Berryville Grille, Berryville

Living as we do east of Winchester right on the border with neighboring Clarke County, it is often easier to get into downtown Berryville, the county seat of Clarke County, than it is to battle the traffic to get into Winchester. We'd go there more often if there were any places to eat of note, but if you think that Winchester is a culinary wasteland, visit Berryville to put things in perspective.

I have heard over the last couple years that Berryville Grille is a decent place to eat, so we decided to run over on Monday night for an early dinner. The place is a small storefront café right on Main St.; I've driven by it a zillion times before. We were seated in the window looking out on Main St. and presented with menus, double-sided laminated legal sheets that are very well laid out and well organized. The menu is clean and simple. I like that. The prices are very reasonable.

Tempura Tuna Skewers
We decided to order two appetizers, an entrée salad, and a hot entrée. For appetizers, we ordered Tempura Tuna Skewers and Chicken Empanadas. When Ann ordered the tuna, the server asked her how she wanted it cooked. I hate it that we live in a place where this is even a question.

The tuna came to the table as you see here, a small steak bias-cut, skewered, and battered. It was sitting on a bed of seaweed salad and drizzled with (too much, in my opinion: though I am well known for disliking sauces) wasabi mayo and hoisin sauce. I didn't find that the cup of sweet chili sauce added anything to the plate. The tuna was fine and cooked rare as ordered.

The chicken empanadas came with chips and a green sauce called chimichurri. I don't understand the chips on the plate: the empanadas are fine and stand all on their own.

Chicken Empanadas
The pastry on the empanadas is great, maybe better than mine, though that's comparing apples and oranges as mine is a wholly different style of pastry. But, it was deep-fried and tasted like whatever was in the fryer before it. I wanted more flavor in the chicken.

As for the chimichurri, I really liked it a lot. But in my experience chimichurri is a loose sauce that readily separates. This sauce is emulsified and in my experience, it would be called a salsa verde.

The salad Ann chose was Heidi’s Mighty Buffalo Chicken Salad, nice lettuces with fried chicken breast bits tossed in wing sauce, blue cheese,  canned sliced American-style black olives, tomatoes, and shredded cheese. I found the two kinds of cheese to clash, but the salad wasn't bad. The lettuces were very nice.

I ordered the brined pork chop with jalapeño mash, BBQ gravy, and sautéed vegetables.We were disappointed in this dish. The pork was boneless, not something I ever imagined a chop to be, and the marinade dominated the flavor. The mash was OK if just a little on the pasty side (more milk would have helped). I didn't care for the gravy. The frozen vegetables on the plate were not good. We left ours as a gift to the trashcan. For all my nitpicking though, it was a reasonable plate of food for the price charged.

Bottom line: dinner was worth what we paid for it and we will go back. The food was good, the prices were reasonable, and we love to support local independent restaurateurs.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Goat Cheese, Once Again

Back in December, I mentioned a new goat cheese maker and while I was extremely excited to have local high quality goat cheese, the cheese itself, a Valençay-clone, needed to ripen to achieve its full potential. Well, lo and behold, Suzanne from Shepherd's Whey Creamery came up to me at the market on Saturday, the first post-Christmas market, and said she had a cheese for me. Another couple of weeks and this would have been primo! When she figures this cheese out, it is going to be awesome! Ann made a fabulous loaf of her bread to go along with this cheese.

Melting, Gooey Deliciousness: Goat's Cheese with Ann's Bread

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Guilty Indulgence

My Guilty Indulgence: Perciatelli Aglio e Olio

Some people crave chocolate, some people ice cream. Me, I crave pasta and garlic. Call me weird; I don't really care. If I am down, a plate of pasta aglio e olio will do the trick in elevating my spirits.

I wasn't down last night, but I was hungry and not in the mood to cook. Ann was feeling off her game and didn't want dinner. Lucky me, I had a bit of par-cooked perciatelli in the fridge.

We partially cook our pasta at the restaurant and then finish it to order; it helps get orders to the table faster. If we had the luxury of having someone to cook pasta exclusively, then we could do it to order. But we don't, so we par cook it. And that means that we sometimes have leftover pasta that didn't get served. And so it was on New Year's Eve. Lucky me, as I said earlier.

There is nothing simpler than warming garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil, adding a little salt and water, and finishing some long pasta in it. And my special bonus to myself: topping it with a touch of grated pecorino romano and some panko and dried basil that I toasted in olive oil.

And that's my guilty indulgence. Pasta and garlic: perciatelli aglio e olio. Late night bar hopping drunk food!

As I was eating my bowl of noodles, Ann said, "Our house should always smell like this." Amen!

New Year's Brunch

Damn the dogs! Just damn the dogs!

@#^$&! the bleeping dogs!

Are you kidding? It's 9am on New Year's Day; we got pounded at the restaurant last night; and now, the dogs are racing around the bedroom, bouncing off the bed and the walls, wanting to go pee and eat? Seriously? Weren't they up late with us?

But what are you going to do? We knew the drill when we signed up for dogs. And when you disappear for a minute to go to the bathroom, they greet you like you've been away for years, all waggy and wiggly and so, so damned happy to see you! What are you going to do?

Drag your exhausted ass out of bed and take them out and feed them is what you're going to do. Dog people will get this.

So we were up bright and early, long before we wanted to be, and by late morning, even after a midnight supper the night before, we found ourselves hungry and wanting something brunchy for breakfast.

Sausage, Jalapeño, and Cheese Frittata
I decided on a clean-out-the-refrigerator frittata. Frittatas, baked egg omelettes, are perfect receptacles for whatever needs using in the refrigerator. I found eggs, a couple links of sausage (lop cheung, though I would have preferred chorizo), a jalapeno, garlic, some grated cheese, a little mangy cilantro, and that, my friends, is enough for a feast.

And while I was putting it together, I might have accidentally slipped those pesky dogs a little cheese. Dog people will get this.

New Year's Eve

Veal Osso Buco on Risotto Milanese
A few weeks ago, I was wrestling with whether or not to open the restaurant for New Year's Eve. You wouldn't think that there would be anything to think about: of course, a restaurant should be open on New Year's Eve. But in recent years, business on New Year's Eve has been slim and this year, it was on a Monday night, normally a glacially slow evening and a night on which we are normally closed.

To make matters worse, we didn't even have an inkling of an inquiry about New Year's Eve from customers until the week before Christmas. It wasn't like the phone was ringing off the hook for reservations. And so I waffled for a few weeks and this waffling caused Ann to hope that I might be able to celebrate the new year with her. But after talking with other restaurant owners, sticking my finger in the air to test the winds, uttering a few incantations, and finally, listening to my gut, I decided to open.

Ann was extremely disappointed in this. I think the 'we might be able to celebrate together' morphed into 'we are going to celebrate together' in her mind. Such is the restaurant business that we don't get to spend these occasions together. She knows it; I know it. But it doesn't make it any easier. At least I am at work and my mind is fully occupied. She is at home being a restaurant widow.

By way of compromise, however, I promised her that we would have a late dinner and ring in the new year together. I have noted in years past that in our town, people dine at my restaurant before heading to wherever they are going to ring in the new year. While in many big cities and towns, customers are fighting for the 9 and 10pm tables, here in Funchester, they all want to dine from 6:30 to 7:30pm. And so I took advantage of that by closing reservations at 8:30, which let me get out by 10:30, though my poor staff were there much later. Guys, sorry about that, but rank has its privileges. I'm not all about pulling rank, but sometimes it has just got to be done.

Well, holy crap! New Year's Eve was the busiest night of 2012! I came staggering in the door closer to 11 than to 10:30 and all I wanted to do was collapse. But when I saw the table was set, candles were lit, and New Year's streamers were hanging from the balcony above the living room, I couldn't collapse. What a great suprise that was! A glass of Prosecco and a fifteen-minute sit in a chair and I was ready to put dinner on the table.

Ann had mentioned the day before that she would like osso buco on risotto milanese for our dinner and unbeknownst to her, we had both osso buco and lobster on risotto milanese on our New Year's menu at the restaurant. Score! So I brought home two pieces of osso buco and some risotto base. All I had to do was nuke the veal to reheat it and give the risotto its final five minutes of cooking.

We had a great dinner with another glass of wine, tidied up, went upstairs, watched the ball drop, kissed and wished each other Happy New Year, and I promptly passed out in what Ann terms "1.3 seconds." Such is the restaurant life!

But how lucky am I to have had New Year's dinner with my wife on New Year's Eve? That never happens in my business! What a great start to 2013!

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...