Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Zhajiangmian with Snow Peas
Zhajiangmian ("fried sauce noodles") is one of my all-time favorite comfort dishes: there is something about noodles with a rich earthy pork and bean paste sauce that makes me tremendously happy. I first encountered it twenty or so years ago in a little hole in the wall Chinese restaurant where I ordered (it and lots of other delicious and unusual dishes) blindly from the Chinese-language only menu by pointing. I raised some eyebrows playing palette roulette this way, but I got to try a lot of great dishes and I finally trained the staff so that they would suggest dishes that I should try. It took a long time for them to figure out that they weren't going to scare me by serving pig's ears or dried jellyfish. Of all the dishes that I tried though, fried sauce noodles was one of my favorites and one of those that I have learned to make. And beyond making it, I now feel comfortable in making my own versions.

It is one of those dishes that varies each time I make it depending on what I have on hand in the refrigerator and pantry. The theme is thick wheat noodles and a sauce of bean paste and ground pork. The variations are endless.

Yesterday's variation involved two kinds of bean paste, regular Korean soy bean paste (doenjang) and spicy Korean fava bean and chile paste (dobanjang), along with soy sauce, Chinkiang black vinegar, and dark sesame oil. Garnishes always vary, but I almost always insist on pickled mustard stems (zha cai), five spice-pressed tofu, and a green vegetable, in this case, some beautiful fall snow peas. The sauce was flavored with copious amounts of both ginger and garlic and I tossed raw green onions and cilantro leaves into the noodles while tossing them with the sauce. The noodles themselves: udon.

I no longer worry about the cultural mash-up that is my zhajiangmian, for this is a dish that has been adopted all over Japan, Korea, and China and is made with whatever suitable local ingredients are available. The best noodles I can get happen to be udon and the best bean pastes I can get happen to be Korean. And who cares? The results are spectacular!

Cultural Mash-Up: Japanese, Chinese, and Korean

Disappointment and Butterbeans

We had a wonderful Sunday mapped out. After breakfast with my daughters, the elder of which was back in town for a couple of days on a break from college, Ann and I planned to visit both a restaurant and a winery that we had never visited before, then come back home late afternoon for a light dinner.

Although we had a great day together, the reality of the restaurant and the winery were a whole lot less than we had expected. We had lunch at the Rail Stop in The Plains, VA, where the service was friendly but really bumbling (it just seemed the crew couldn't get it together on Sunday; they probably got hammered the night before) and the food was so-so. So-so is very subpar for a place with the aspirations of the Rail Stop. There are no pictures here because nothing merited a picture.

Best Thing at the Rail Stop
We ordered a burger and chorizo hash with poached eggs. The burger, ordered rare, came between medium and medium well. The bun was a tiny, soggy mess. The toppings were decent including a nice ripe tomato and well-grilled red onions. The eggs on top of the chorizo hash were poached about 6-7 minutes, to the soft-boiled stage. And that is a travesty.

The wine list is nothing to speak of, with only a handful of wines from which to choose. I'm sad to say that there isn't a bottle of local wine anywhere on the list. We ordered a bottle of Clifton Pinot Noir Sonoma 2011. It's not a great wine, but it's not bad either and it seems to be reliable across vintages, always being a light-bodied wine with a good bright red fruit streak, a touch of smoke, and decent enough acidity (especially for California).

As for nearby Philip Carter winery, we had never been there before either and so didn't know what to expect. We do have a couple of their better wines on our list at the restaurant. The first and second things we saw upon arriving pretty much set the tone for our visit: a stretch limo and a bunch of children shrieking about. We tasted a lot of really mediocre mass market wines and we skipped out of the tasting before the home-grown sangria could be poured for us.

Our plan to buy a decent bottle and chat the afternoon away quickly morphed into "let's beat a hasty exit, go home, open a good bottle, and watch a movie." Which we did.

When we got home, I grabbed a nice bottle of Ayres Pinot Noir from Ribbon Ridge in the Willamette and a big bag of butterbeans and headed for the patio, where Ann and I shelled out our dinner.

Beautiful Day to Sit and Shell
Good butterbeans don't need a lot. I covered them in water with a pinch of salt and let them simmer until done, about 45 minutes. Then I served us each a big heaping bowl with a pat of butter and a touch of salt and pepper. Good, so good! Finally, a wonderful ending to a disappointing day.

I Love Butterbeans!!!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Wine and Eagles

Yesterday, Sunday the 15th of September (in spite of being the despised nominal due date for tax deposits for all us self-employed individuals) was a prototypically glorious fall day, the model day for how all such days should be, cool in the morning, gently warm in the afternoon's full sun, all blue sky with low humidity and a soft breeze. There was no way that I was staying at home or inside, especially coming off a couple-week wrangle with a fall cold.

Ann is still fighting her own cold but is on the upward swing after bottoming out a couple days ago and decided she wanted to go out to lunch, largely, I think, in an effort to convince herself that she is feeling better. I get that. And so I suggested we go to Delaplane Cellars and bask in the sun with a bottle of wine.

Notice These Mountains...

...on This Label
Not a bad lunch: a bottle of Jim's best (2010 Williams Gap Red), goat cheese, finocchiona, goat cheese, baguette, and chutney.

My Kind of Lunch!

My Kind of Girl!
And as an added bonus, while we were sitting on the patio enjoying our lunch, I was watching the turkey vultures surfing the hillsides around us, I spied another very large bird coming into my field of view from the left. The bird ID part of my brain was working faster than other parts and as I was watching the vultures play, there was a subconscious "eagle coming in from the left" in my head a couple full seconds before the "Eagle?!?! Out here in the hills, away from the river?!?" realization kicked in.



Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Salad Riff on Shrimp Bánh Mì

Last night for dinner, I had shrimp bánh mì on the brain, but I just wanted everything in the sandwich without the bread, without any mayo, so I came up with a quick salad.

Salad with Fish Sauce-Garlic Shrimp and Lop Cheung
The salad itself is torn butter lettuce, cilantro, and Thai basil from our garden all tossed with a dressing of caramelized sugar, rice vinegar, lime juice, sambal oelek, and fish sauce. This is topped with raw vegetables: julienne of carrot, julienne of sweet peppers, thinly sliced red onion, Mexican Midget and Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and green onions. And then this is topped with a quick sauté of fish sauce-garlic shrimp and lop cheung and the whole is sprinkled with deep-fried shallots. Lime wedges finish the salad.

Ten minutes of prep work after we got home let us have a glass of wine and relax for ninety minutes before three minutes of assembly.

Shrimp in the Marinade
For the two of us, I put six ounces of shrimp in a bowl with lots of chopped garlic, a splash of sambal oelek, and a healthy dose of fish sauce. These guys hung out in the refrigerator until they were ready to go in the pan. I lifted the shrimp and garlic out of the marinade and then put them into a hot pan. Once the shrimp were cooked on one side and flipped, I added the three ounces of sliced lop cheung, and poured the marinade over. Total cooking time, three minutes, if that.

The best part of the whole dinner was cuddling in a chair with Ann and both of us eating the salad right out of the salad bowl while watching a movie! Great dinner!

Note to self: Ann said she wants peanuts in the salad for crunch next time. Can do.

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...