Friday, March 29, 2013

Pasta Carbonara

If you've followed this blog for any time (and that would be zero of you reading this right now), you will recall that this is not the first time that I've done pasta carbonara here. The previous time was just after I made my first batch (of very many) of pancetta.

Last night was just strange. We had almost no business, sadly typical of a Thursday night during the NCAA basketball tournament, so I decided to bail early and spend the evening with Ann. She texted me to bring home something for dinner so I went into the walk-in to see what might pique my interest. I spied a slab of speck, the delicious lightly juniper-smoked cured pork belly from Alto Adige. Unlike any other cured meat in the world, I think of it as a first class lightly smoked ham, mostly because it is made from very lean bellies and is more meat than fat.

Cubed Speck

High Acid Syrah for the Carbonara
This Cochon Syrah (95% with 5% Viognier) comes from mostly cool climate sites in California (Russian River Valley, Mendocino, Dry Creek, though there's some Napa fruit in it too). It has a minty nose that I associate more with Australia than California and it finishes with great acidity, perfect for Pasta Carbonara.

Trofie, Duck Eggs, Speck, Pecorino Romano, Parsley
Although Pasta Carbonara generally features a long pasta, I didn't have any on hand for this impromptu dinner, while I did happen to have a bunch of fresh trofie, the signature pasta of Liguria.


How Beautiful are These Duck Egg Yolks?
The sauce is made by mixing the hot pasta with the rest of the ingredients right in the pasta bowl.

Food of the Gods!
Pasta Carbonara with Speck and Duck Eggs

500 grams pasta
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces speck, diced
3 duck egg yolks
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano
handful of fresh parsley, minced
salt
reserved pasta water

While the pasta is cooking, heat the butter in a skillet and cook the speck for a couple of minutes. Into your pasta bowl put the duck egg yolks, the cheese, and the parsley and mix well. Lightly drain the pasta just as it gets done and unceremoniously dump it on the egg yolk mix. Pour over the butter and speck. Toss it all together, adding more hot pasta water as necessary to make a fluid sauce. Season as necessary. Eat!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Misteak!

While we were in FoodMaxx on Sunday morning trolling through the meat case for chorizo, we spied these super-marbled steaks for an incredibly low price. These elongated rib eyes were labeled "lomo" and are more marbled than most USDA Prime beef that I have seen.

I am just not a steak fan. There, I have said it in public. Let the crucifixion begin. To put it in perspective, I had two steaks in all of 2012 and one was a lamb steak. But Ann loves steak and because these steaks look so nice, I let her talk me into it. Misteak!

Misteak
These steaks look beautiful, but they turned out not to be very good after all. I realize that we are extremely spoiled by getting the best beef ever from Martin's Angus Beef in The Plains. Still, these steaks should have tasted better. They ended up tasting like liquid suet, which is not a good thing.

Potatoes Awaiting Roasting
Even though neither Ann nor I made much headway on our steaks, we didn't starve. We roasted a batch of delicious redskin potatoes; Ann made a fantastic salad; and I caramelized a big pan of onions to go on the steak. So even though the steak was a big misteak, we actually ate very well!


Delicious, if Stemmy, Local Mesclun

Udon with Pork, Shiitake, and Tofu

Udon with Pork, Shiitake, and Tofu
At 4pm on Sunday, it went from hazily overcast to snowing so hard that we couldn't see across the street. Nothing like blizzard conditions to put me in the mood for comfort food and I had gone to FoodMaxx earlier in the morning with this dish in mind, so I was fully prepared. Slurping a big bowl of udon is comforting to me, seriously comforting.

I tossed the udon with a sauce of ground pork, diced spiced and pressed tofu, shiitake mushrooms, pickled mustard stems (zha cai), doenjang (Korean bean paste), Chinkiang black vinegar, ginger, garlic, green onions, and cilantro.

There were zero complaints from the peanut gallery about this dish, just dead silence while we all wolfed the noodles down!

Huevos de Pato con Chorizo

Sunday morning we awoke to see that a large spring snowstorm had just trashed the Midwest and had us dead center in its sights. There seemed no doubt that we were going to get dumped on once again. It also seemed like getting to work on Monday would be problematic and closing of school seemed a foregone conclusion. So I suggested to Ann to head to FoodMaxx and stock up on some food for a long snowy weekend. We hunkered down this weekend and did what we always do when the weather turns against us: we cooked and drank wine and had a great old time sitting in front of the fire!

It is never a really good idea to go shopping for food when you're really hungry and by the time we got to the store, we were really hungry. After grabbing a bunch of stuff for dinner, we started thinking about what to eat for breakfast/lunch. Ann said, "We have duck eggs!" and we were off to grab some chorizos to make one of my most beloved foods ever, huevos con chorizo.

Duck Eggs and Salvadoran Chorizos
That's an Extra Large Rhode Island Red Egg on the Right!
If you've never worked with duck eggs, you have absolutely no clue what you're missing. You can see the huge size difference between a duck egg and an extremely large chicken egg in the photo above. But what you can't see in the photo is how rich and creamy duck eggs are compared to chicken eggs. Once you eat a duck egg, you will never want another chicken egg, I assure you.

Good news for us is that the ducks have been laying for about three weeks now and after a long winter without, we are now back in duck eggs again. And customers at the restaurant are also the beneficiaries of these avian gifts: we make all our pastries with duck eggs during the season.

¡Que Delicioso!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Arni Yiouvetsi

So Friday night at 9:15 as dinner service is starting to wind down, I have a chance to look at my cell phone, the first chance I've had since we started cranking at 5:30. And what do I see but these back-to-back texts from my wife? Seriously, I've been cooking and sending food to the dining room as fast I can for nearly four hours and I'm supposed to be thinking about dinner on Sunday?!?

It was a good idea and (Oh, by the way!) I was on the hook for blog material for a vendor who sent me some lamb samples to write about for his blog and just happened to have nice lamb in the cooler. But I wasn't going to let on to Ann that I would make yiouvetsi: I would surprise her. So I didn't say anything about yiouvetsi in my reply and merely let her know about what time I thought I would be home that evening.

Yiouvetsi Ingredients
Saturday night, I arrived long after Ann had gone to bed and stashed all my ingredients in our second refrigerator in the garage so that she wouldn't see them. Sunday noon, we were just on our way out the door to Delaplane Cellars to talk to Jim and Betsy about some upcoming catering that we are doing for them, when I asked Ann to grab a couple bottles of water out of the fridge for our trip. She looked a little perplexed at first to see all these things (I think the big green and white tin of Bulgarian sheep's milk feta threw her for a second) and then it dawned on her: "You're making yiouvetsi!"

Just out of the Oven
Over the years, I have arrived at a very simple yiouvetsi that really appeals to me. I cube and sear lamb and remove it from the pan. Then I add onions and brown them just a bit. Back into the pan goes the lamb along with tomatoes and their juice, oregano, lemon juice, and everything gets covered with water. After the lamb braises to tenderness, I add orzo and put it back in the oven until the orzo is plumped. Then I like to strew some feta about the top and lightly brown it.

The feta is my own touch and I do it because it pleases me: most yiouvetsi is served with a hard grating cheese that is sprinkled on the dish at the table. Sometimes I sprinkle a little ground cinnamon on the meat before browning it: I did this time; sometimes I add (a lot of) garlic: I did not this time. I deglazed the pan with a little white wine this time too, not something I always do. To me, this is not a dish to be cooked with red wine, though many do, but it is clearly a dish to be served with a big red wine.

Deliciousness

Friday, March 15, 2013

Kids and Quesadillas

This week is Spring Break at UVa and my daughter Lillie is in town, so she and sister Ellie came over to join Ann, Carter, and me for an early lunch on Sunday. As a chef, it saddens me to say that both my daughters are picky eaters and it is terribly challenging to find anything that they will eat, so when they come over, we keep it really simple.

I decided to do quesadillas this time and let everyone fill a quesadilla that I would then cook. With this crew, it's just simpler to set everything up and let them go at it. That way, I don't have to remember that Lillie won't eat onions, neither girl will eat cilantro, Carter only wants a little cilantro, and Ellie pretty much won't touch chorizo. Sigh. Ed and Ann, of course, want it all.

Lillie Strikes a Pose

Cheese, Chorizo, Green Onions, Cilantro, Sriracha

Cheese and Chorizo for Lillie

All the Way and Extra Crispy for Ed

The "Face" on Ann's Garlic Bread


Friday, March 8, 2013

Snow Day

The snowstorm of Wednesday March 6, 2013 will go down as pretty much of a dud, but I didn't know that when I walked the dogs at 7am with fresh snow well above my boot tops, howling wind, and swirling snow that had visibility at a couple hundred yards. From everything that I could see and feel and the forecast predicting hard snow through midafternoon with more snow lingering into the dinner hours, it was obvious that none of our vendors would be sending out their trucks and it seemed a no-brainer to close the restaurant for the day. Who knew? Who knew that by 2pm the roads would all be clear and the sun would be out and everyone would be asking derisively of the weather gods, "Is that all you got?"

So what do two foodies do on the rarest of rare days, a snow day? We eat and drink! Duh!

The Star of our Day
It just so happened that Tom Leonard of Leonard's Truffière in Tennessee was in town meeting with friends of mine and had stopped by the restaurant with a present worth a small fortune, this beautiful black truffle. And it just so happened that it was sitting on my counter at home on this wonderful day off from work.

My Mandoline is Perfect for Shaving Truffles
For maximum effect, truffles are generally best when thinly shaved over warm food so that the warmth of the food liberates the haunting smell. Though they make a specialized truffle shaver, which is essentially a razor blade in a handle, I prefer my more general purpose mandoline that I can use for many other things (pommes Anna!) besides truffles.

Eggs, Perhaps the Perfect Vehicle for Truffles
The French really do know a thing or two about cooking and not only did my mandoline come from France, but so did my black steel pans. These are the pans that we use at the restaurant not only to get that awesome crust on fish and scallops, but also for cooking eggs. Does this look like a non-stick pan? It most definitely is not. But once a black steel pan is broken in, almost nothing sticks to it, if you care for it properly. The cooks at the restaurant and I love these pans. They're cheap, nearly indestructible workhorses but they do require a bit of loving care and regular oiling to keep them from rusting. After wiping it clean, I always rub mine all over with oil before putting it away.


Can You Smell This?
Our breakfast was a big pile of what I call scrambled eggs but what the French would likely call an omelette. No matter the name, it is decorated with ultrathin truffle shavings that perfumed the kitchen gloriously. There is no substitute for fresh eggs and these came from a local farmer from her Rhode Island Reds. Once every couple of years when the egg production goes way down at the depths of winter, I will have to buy some commercial eggs to augment the supply at the restaurant. You should hear the cursing and muttering from the cooks when they have to use those thin-shelled, watery, tasteless things that they sell at the grocery store.

Ann Makes Spicy Dragon Noodles
Speaking of eggs, Ann scrambled a couple more of them for lunch along with a copious amount of crushed red peppers flakes, the beginnings of the dish that she calls Spicy Dragon Noodles. To these eggs, she added large wheat noodles, soy sauce, sriracha, and brown sugar. She finished the dish with some Thai basil, though in the past she has used green onions or cilantro, neither one of which we had on hand.


Spicy Dragon Noodles

Orecchiette with Garlic and Black Truffles
Dinner was quite the simple affair. We wanted pasta (yes, our second pasta dish of the day, thank you!) and simple pasta at that. I wanted to use the remainder of the truffle and with the addition of some slivered garlic and butter, that's about all you need for awesome pasta. Truffles shine best when they don't have to compete with other flavors. This is why you so often find them paired with very mild ingredients such as eggs and potatoes, or in this case, pasta.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Greek Taverna, McLean VA

Good Xinomavro from Boutari
Ann and I traveled to a food service show at FedEx Field in Prince George's County on Monday night and on the way over, stopped in McLean to have dinner with her parents Bob and Mary at The Greek Taverna. Ann used to eat here frequently when she lived in Northern Virginia.

Never having eaten there, I wasn't sure what style of food they serve. Once I took a look at the menu though, I could see that it is basically the canonical list of Greek standards that I have come to expect, very simple and very traditional dishes. This is not the place for creative food. Given their longevity in business, they are clearly serving a product year in and year out that their customers want.

On a Monday night, there really wasn't much of a crowd and so we had the service team mostly to ourselves and they certainly took great care of us. I tipped them well for their attentiveness.

The first order of business was to find a bottle of wine and with a tiny list, half red and half white, it took no time at all. When I eat at a Greek restaurant, I want a Greek wine, but not only Greek in origin, but made from indigenous grapes. There were only two (of about 8) reds from indigenous grapes: an Agiorgitiko (St. George) and a Xinomavro. The particular Xinomavro was from Naoussa and I have had good luck with that appellation, so I ordered the wine. Clearly the Boutari Naoussa has seen a lot of time in oak, but the oak harmonizes well with the abundant, but fine tannins. I got notes of blackberry, leather, and spice on the nose. It was a fine example of modern Greek red.

Halloumi: Who Doesn't Love it?

Spreads for our Pita
Ann ordered halloumi and spreads (skordalia, tzatziki, taramosalata, and melitzanosalata) as appetizers for the table. She also ordered a plate of grilled cuttlefish for us. This was either an off-menu thing or a special; I was never clear on that. The cuttlefish was tasty and well cooked; of the spreads, the skordalia was the best of the bunch. Some of the other spreads were lacking oomph to my taste: more oregano and garlic for the tzatziki, more tarama for the taramosalata, and salt for the melitzanosalata. The pita were perfunctory and the olive flatbread that appeared on the table was cold. I have a thing for warm bread; maybe they don't.

Mary ordered broiled trout and Bob ordered stuffed salmon. I was in a fish mood, but Mondays and fish in restaurants are a no-no in my book and they didn't have any other fish. Sorry, but I'm not going out to eat rainbow trout or salmon at a Greek restaurant. Branzino, orata, octopus, squid, or mullet, sure. But trout or salmon, no thanks. So, meat it was.

Arni Yiouvetsi
Ann apparently knew that they do lamb yiouvetsi as a regular off-menu dish, so she ordered it. This is one of my all-time go-to comfort foods in winter. We sometimes put lamb yiouvetsi on the menu at the restaurant, but most recently, I have been doing seafood yiouvetsi, especially with octopus. The yiouvetsi is the earthenware casserole that you see above; the cooked dish has taken its name from the dish that it is cooked in, just like casserole, cazuela, and terrine. Her yiouvetsi was good but I wanted more lemon juice, more garlic, and more oregano. I didn't get a good hit of lamb flavor in the orzo: they may have been cooked separately. Of course, the kitchen may have been scrambling to fill an order for something they weren't really prepared to make.

Arni Lemonato
I ordered the lamb special, the lemonato, a dish that I haven't made in years. I have got to say that my lamb shoulder was falling apart tender and was the best dish of the night. I wanted more garlic, oregano, and lemon, but still, falling apart braised lamb can hardly be beat!

After dinner, we chatted with one of the owners about the restaurant business, something restaurant owners can never seem to avoid. She very kindly sent out a couple of individually wrapped galaktoboureko to the table for dessert. I love galaktoboureko, but it doesn't love me, so I only had a taste. I appreciated the gesture nonetheless.

I liked the experience and certainly the service was excellent, but the food was a touch soulless to me, however. It just didn't have that spark: nothing stood out as being terrific. It pains me to say that it feels like the kitchen is on autopilot, turning out decent product but not putting their hearts in it. Ann may disagree.

Delaplane Cellars/Pasta Fagiole

I'm working on way too many things at work right now, so many that my head is constantly spinning and I am unable to get any badly needed downtime even when I am not at work. So, Ann has purposely not scheduled anything for us to do on Sundays in March so that I can just chill on my day off. Even though we didn't have anything planned on Sunday, it did seem to be a good idea towards late morning just to get away from the house and have a little lunch/wine and try to unwind.

We needed to get to Delaplane to pick up some wines (we are members of their club) and since it is the closest of the upper tier wineries to us, we often end up there when we don't have any other plans and so we did on Sunday. The change of context worked for me. I was able to relax with the help of a half bottle of really good wine, my best girl, and a total change of scenery!

A Special Treat 
We arrived in the tasting room shortly after noon and were among the first to arrive for the afternoon, which turned out to be fairly slow but not atypical for this time of year. Although I don't wish slow times on anyone, it is so much easier for me to relax without tons of people around. As a restaurant guy, I love the buzz and the people, but I'm on all week and when I'm not at work, I don't necessarily want to be on. I need a little off time to recharge my batteries.

Upstairs on the mezzanine level, Jim was conducting a class on wine and food pairing called Sunday Sipping, with food supplied by Tarver King and crew at the nearby Ashby Inn. Betsy spied Ann and me while we were tasting through the line up and brought us each a sample of the final pairing along with a taste of their Petit Manseng. Tarver made what he calls potted cheese (basically a gelatin-stabilized cheese mousse) of Challerhocker cheese and milk topped with a bit of honey and accompanied by a biscotto.

Cheese geek that I am, I freely admit that I don't know much about Swiss cheeses other than the usual suspects and Challerhocker is a new cheese to me. It's a washed rind cheese that melts well. The salty cheese mousse with the sweet floral honey was a great contrast to the sweet Petit Manseng. This highly savory contrast is always my approach to a pairing with a great sweet wine. In my current frame of mind, I probably would have gone with an unctuous pork liver terrine, but this pairing and the presentation were excellent.

The wines being tasted at the counter are all reds now, the whites being sold out and the new 2012 vintage not yet ready for prime time. I am particularly surprised at the 2011 reds; they are very drinkable, especially for the worst vintage that I can remember.

Our Favorite: 2010 Williams Gap Bordeaux Blend
Ann and I gravitated to our favorite of the current wines, the 2010 Williams Gap red blend of four traditional Bordeaux varietals, basically equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc with the balance Petit Verdot.

Cheeses and the Fennel Sausage from Croftburn Market
We always seem to get the sampler plate of whatever cheeses and sausage they have on offer and this time the cheeses were uninspiring, but the fennel sausage from Croftburn Market in Culpeper was delicious. We like the charcuterie from Croftburn a lot, but recently we have been spoiled by the amazing salame from Olympic Provisions in Portland. Nothing against the home team, but those guys on the left coast have got it figured out. I've even learned some tricks for my own charcuterie by tasting theirs.

Mousse Truffée
Ann has never seen a piece of truffled liver mousse that she could pass up, so we ordered a slice to go with our bread. There is something luxuriously comforting about a piece of hot crusty bread slathered with silky liver mousse!

Baguettes, Good and Crusty
After Jim finished his tasting upstairs, he wandered over and sat and chewed the fat with us until he and Betsy left for brunch up the street at the Ashby. He was kind enough to grab a bottle of the 2012 Springlot Sauvignon Blanc and pour a glass for each of us. It has a really tropical nose and decent enough acidity, though a person could want more acid. 2012 was a bit too warm at times for that though. Springlot is across the valley directly west of the winery and up at a pretty good elevation; Jim pointed it out to us from the winery. With only 18 cases made, the general public will never see this wine and we were delighted and surprised to be able to taste it.

Midafternoon, we headed back to the house where I started prepping for dinner and then went to fetch Carter while Ann was baking another awesome loaf of bread for dinner.

Root Veg and Pancetta
I had promised to make pasta e fagiole for dinner this winter because Carter likes it so much, but I hadn't yet got around to it. It kept getting bumped by other equally delicious dishes. So I made it a point to make some this weekend and I gathered some celery root, carrots, onions, pancetta, garlic, sage, and rosemary and went to town on it after we got back from the winery.

Pancetta Loves Rosemary, Sage, and Garlic
Ann also made some bread dough on Saturday so that we could have a loaf with our beans. I'm giving away her secret here: she bakes it in the big cast iron cocotte. Not only does it give the loaf shape, but when covered for the first part of the baking, it traps in the steam necessary to give the bread great oven spring.

Sadly, this loaf didn't turn out too well. Our primary oven appears to be malfunctioning and we ended up moving it to the secondary oven. The loaf suffered for want of a decent oven, but not enough to keep us from gorging on the bread to the point where we were too stuffed to want the pasta and beans!

Ann's Bread Secret: Cast Iron

Pasta e Fagiole

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