Thursday, October 24, 2013

An Oregon Pinot Kind of Day

Sunday was just a fantastic day, but then, almost any day tasting Oregon Pinots is, for a pinotphile like me. Donald and Terry invited us to their place for a celebration of sorts and a vertical tasting of Ghost Hill Pinot Noir from 2006, 2007, and 2008 vintages. That we also tasted wines from Maysara, Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Trisaetum just did not suck!

Donald with Maysara Sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé

Our Chef Terry

First Smile in Months! (Angry Teenager Alert)

These Clowns! Drunk and Won't Hold Still for the Photo!
On arriving, Donald poured us each a glass of a new Maysara rosé sparkling wine (100% Pinot Noir) with a few raspberries in each glass. It was hard to get a grip on the wine for the raspberries, but I enjoyed it as an aperitif. The bottle was sealed with a crown cap; commonly used before the dosage and corking, but I've not seen a wine delivered to the customer like this. It makes sense: 750ml bottles of cider and beer come this way. Why not?

We moved quickly on to an appetizer that Ann and I tag-teamed to go with Pinot. I made a mushroom pâté made from local oyster, maitake, and shiitake mushrooms with just a little dollop of black garlic aïoli on top. Ann made a loaf of her fabulous bread, flavored this time with parmesan and black pepper. These are just over-the-top incredible!

Mushroom Pâté with Black Garlic Aïoli
After the appetizers, Terry took over with three courses of fondue, cheese to start, boeuf bourguignon in the middle, and chocolate to finish.

Making the Cheese Fondue

Boeuf Bourguignon Fondue

Sauces for Meats

Peanut Butter Caramel Corn for Chocolate Fondue

Sweets for Chocolate Fondue
I'm just going to say that there were some piggies at the table. I'm not too good with dairy products and so all I did was taste the cheese and chocolate fondues, but suffice it to say that a major hurting was put on the platters of ingredients by the others at the table, Carter first among pigs.

But I  made up for it where wine was concerned. The rogue's gallery:

Ghost Hill "Bayliss-Bower Vineyard" 2006, 2007, and 2008

Trisaetum "Artist Series No. 20" 2012

Willamette Valley Vineyards "Signature Cuveé" 2012
The Ghost Hill wines were very typical of their vintages. 2008 was fairly restrained with bright acidity and red fruit. The hot 2007 vintage gave darker, more plummy fruit, and more body in a softer more plush wine. The 2006, well, typical of 2006, this blew the other wines out of the water and was one of the very best Pinots I have ever tasted. Trisaetum has always been a favorite producer and that's not a surprise given that I love the high-acid, blueberry-core wines that Ribbon Ridge fruit produces. And it sure wasn't fair tasting the WVV 2010 after all this other wine.

Guys, thank you for a delightful Sunday!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Comté and Ham Risotto

It's official now: we had our first frost yesterday on the 21st of October, not particularly early and not particularly late, but certainly signifying the start of the cold weather comfort food season.

The comfort food that I was craving yesterday was risotto. And after thinking about it for a few minutes, I wanted to do my risotto in homage to a great croque monsieur, the awesome French ham and cheese sandwich, so I picked up a nice piece of city ham (as opposed to country ham) and a block of Comté cheese on the way home. Comté is one of the great nutty melting mountain cheeses of France, similar to the equally delicious Gruyère from just across the border in Switzerland.

Comté and Ham Risotto
The risotto is a really simple affair of very few ingredients: butter, olive oil, onion, Arborio rice, dry white wine, ham, chicken broth, and Comté. Because there are so few ingredients, they need to be of the highest quality for the dish to really succeed and this is especially true for the stock that you use. We try to keep chicken broth in the freezer for occasions just like this. Whenever we have a chicken carcass left over, we make chicken broth.

What to Drink? Bordeaux is a Fine Choice!
You should have heard Ann and me scrapping about when the rice was done! You might find it odd that I wanted the rice less done than the full-blooded Italian! She might be Italian but I make risotto just about every day of the year at work! Throw a few glasses of wine into the mix and.... ;)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ashby Inn, Paris VA

We finally made it to Ashby Inn. We have been trying forever, but our schedules will just not cooperate. Seriously, the last time I was there was before John and Roma Sherman sold it and that has been many years ago now. But finally, the torrential rain on Sunday washed out all our other plans and, truth be told, Annie put down her foot. So she booked a table for which we were 5 minutes late because it was raining so hard that visibility was that bad. I figured slower and later was better than faster and really late.

Ashby has a new chef, David Dunlap, formerly executive sous of the Inn at Little Washington and we got to spend a few minutes chatting with him. He's just finishing his first month at the Ashby and I have no doubt that the transition from the vast number of employees at the Inn to the minimal staffing at the Ashby is going to take a lot of getting used to, not to mention the huge number of shifts that David is working. He does have the fact that he is only 31 on his side. At his age, I could work those hours too, but not any more. Best wishes to him!
Host extraordinaire Neal Wavra greeted us at the side door and showed us right to a booth. We run into each other every now and again at business functions, but because we work essentially the same days, we rarely get to visit and catch up. It was great to have a few minutes to chat with him even though he was working.

Sparkling Cabernet Franc from Michael Shaps
A few minutes after seating us, Neal returned with two glasses of sparkling wine and a sly little grin on his face. I could see that we were going to be playing the guessing game. The first thing I noticed was the color: a deep golden that might have been a touch copper-colored, maybe just slightly cloudy. The initial nose was slightly beery or cidery, in a good sense, and the wine was elegant on the palate, rich and round in the mid-palate, with great lemony acidity to finish. I ruled out a lot of wines including both my initial guesses from the rusticity of color and nose: Asprinio and Mauzac.

In the end, when Neal came back around to the table with his hand covering the label, I had to admit that I had no reference point for this wine. "It's from right here," he said, showing me the label of the 2008 Shaps/Stafford Méthode, a blanc de noirs sparkling Cabernet Franc. I have tasted plenty of other sparkling blanc de noirs including 100% Pinot Noir and 100% Pinot Meunier, but never have I had any kind of sparkling Cabernet Franc before. No wonder I had no frame of reference!
I was just not in the mood to order anything at all. I told Neal that we wanted to start with a half bottle of sparkling and a big red of his choosing. He asked "Something unique?" and "Blind?" to which we responded affirmatively. Yes please, unique and blind. We started with a half bottle of François Diligent Champagne Rosé Brut and there was no point in doing this blind as there are only a very few sparklers on the half bottle list.

Check the Color on this François Diligent Champagne
And now on to lunch. Ann ordered off the menu and I asked the server to order for me, something different from what Ann ordered, so that we could taste more of the menu. We enjoyed the very fruity and very colored rosé sparkler with our first courses, octopus carpaccio for Ann and cauliflower soup for me.

Octopus Carpaccio
We love octopus, so we were really looking forward to seeing what the carpaccio concept would translate to on the plate and we were not disappointed. Being in the business, I appreciate all the labor that went into fabricating this beautiful plate. The flavors were disappointing, though. I had a distinct flavor of fish sauce crossed with lavender and I found this off-putting. Next time, just braise my octopus with some chorizo, slop it on some polenta, and call it a day! I felt bad for the servers having to lug around the 3-pound glass plates that this is served on.

The cauliflower soup was a white soup in a white bowl, poured tableside, so there wasn't anything to photograph. The warm cauliflower purée with curried pistachios and tea-soaked raisins was delicious, though I couldn't taste the curry on the pistachios or the tea on the raisins. I could have done with a bit more than the 3-4 ounce portion served, but it was well done. Ed 1; Ann 0.

Just before our second course, Neal brought two glasses of red to the table and I took a second to contemplate mine before tasting it. Just from the color alone, I was already thinking Syrah but I briefly considered Petit Verdot. Two sips and I was convinced that I was drinking Syrah, but Syrah from where? The wine displays a nice blueberry core, firmish tannins, and decent acidity. Notably lacking was the jammy fruit such as you might find in Paso Robles. The decidedly New World style ruled out Northern Rhone. Moreover, it displayed none of the vivid aromatics that scream Australia. Hmm.

Our second courses arrived just after this. Ann ordered the pink snapper with potato leek broth and I found set in front of me a plate of steak and eggs.

Pink Snapper with Leek and Potato Broth
The pink snapper was cooked well enough, but the dish wasn't exciting. If I am served a fish with the skin on, I want the skin crispy. This wasn't. Also, the broth might have been a good idea on paper, but it didn't really translate to the plate. Rather than the ethereally light take on warm vichyssoise that it could have been, it was a gluey mess that I would not have allowed to be served at my restaurant. I'm not sure where the leeks were; I didn't taste them in the broth. So, good ideas and a nice enough presentation, but the details were missing.

Steak and Eggs
On the other hand, I would have never ordered steak and eggs, but I am glad that someone ordered it for me. As you can see, the steak and eggs were super well done; props for that. The sauce is styled a sauce Choron, but I learned Choron differently, as a sauce pink with tomato purée. I'd be happier calling this a Béarnaise with diced tomato, but nomenclature aside, the sauce was really well executed and delicious. Ed 2; Ann 0.
While we were chatting and slowly working our way through our dishes, Neal brought the bottle of red to the table and asked what it was. I offered up Syrah from Washington State and was very surprised when he uncovered the label: Massena 2010 Shiraz Barossa "The Eleventh Hour." This was a wonderful bottle that shows just how far some Australian producers have come in producing delicious modern wines. Examples like this will go far in helping the Aussies capture some of the market that they lost during the decades of making soft, jammy, overripe wines.

Before dessert, our server brought out two complimentary plates of pancakes for us to try (and they were delicious):

Buttermilk Pancakes, Sassafras Whipped Cream, Hickory Syrup
For her final course, Ann ordered a torched Grayson cheese. That would have been my preference too because we are both nuts for this awesome Virginia cheese. Note to self, time to reorder a block for the restaurant.

Brûléed Grayson Cheese with Pickled Plums and Citron Blend
I must say that even in the stupor of a brutal 90-hour week, I could never come up with a plate presentation this staid and uninspired. We love the idea of brûléed cheese and it is one we have done over and over at the restaurant, but the presentation doesn't fit the dish. Do you see the pickled plums? It's a speck of sauce up under the citron blend (the microgreens).

Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake; Honey Ice Cream
Not being a dessert person, I sure would never have ordered chocolate for myself, but I was happy to taste this. As good as the mousse was, the honey ice cream was better. I would have made the cook replate this if I saw it coming out of my kitchen though, with all the elements at different angles to each other and the spacing all off. Still, the ice cream was as good as any that we make in our kitchen (and we make it every day) and that makes it Ed 3; Ann 0.

Just as our desserts were hitting the table, Neal arrived with two half glasses of another red wine, this one lighter red and a touch bricked. I had no idea what to think at this point in our meal, but the very rustic nose and light color reminded me of Pinotage. The flavor did not; however, with really high levels of acidity. Clearly a rustic red wine from Italy, but I had no idea what. I was leaning in the wrong direction though thinking perhaps a Langhe Rosso when Neal showed me the word Aglianico on the label.

On balance, our meal was very good and we had a fabulous time—actually it was the best restaurant meal we've had in a while—and I'd recommend the Ashby to anyone, but in the best of all worlds, I'd like a bit more precision from the kitchen and hopefully that comes as things settle down. Neal, thank you for your incredible hospitality and letting us a spend a rare afternoon together in your care.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tacos de Chorizo

Sometimes, I just get cravings and that makes it really easy to decide what to eat. It's those times when I have nothing specific in mind that makes it hard to decide what to make, because I love just about everything. Yesterday was not one of those indecisive days: I woke up craving tacos de chorizo.

And not just tacos de chorizo, but tacos of nicely spicy sausage topped with a sweet-tangy mango salsa and plenty of raw onions and cilantro. And that is precisely what I made.

I prepped the fruit and vegetables all at once over the course of about 15 minutes while talking with Carter about his homework: mango, white onions, green onions, cilantro, jalapeño, poblano, and garlic. The mango went in a bowl with a bunch of green onions, one quarter of a white onion, half a bunch of cilantro, half the (admittedly huge) jalapeño, and 5-6 gloves of minced garlic. This I mixed with a bit of salt, juice of a big lime, and just a touch of agave nectar to balance it out. Notice the color of the salsa. I wanted a fresh, bright green relish to top off the tacos.

Mango Salsa: Sweet, Tangy, Spicy, and Very, Very Fresh

I bought some locally made chorizos, labeled "del Perron" (big dog), which were touted as super-picante. Really? I didn't notice. Setting aside one quarter of the white onion and the other half of the bunch of cilantro for garnishing the tacos, the remainder of the ingredients went into the pan: 5-6 cloves of garlic, half a white onion, the remaining half jalapeño, and a whole poblano. Once these started to work a bit, in went the chorizos and in seconds, we were eating.

Tacos de Chorizo Fully Garnished with Mango Salsa, Onions, Cilantro
Fresh, simple, and craving oh-so satisfied!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Arroz con Cosas

Donald Made a Diva Cake
The big 50!

We celebrated Ann's 50th with a lot of friends and family on Sunday and I was so wrapped up in having a good time that I forgot to shoot many pictures. I did get a picture of the awesome diva cake that Donald made for Ann, chocolate cake under the pink skirt and raspberry and white chocolate for the base.

For a fall day, it sure was unseasonably warm outside, especially when coupled with a roaring fire. Because of the 90-plus degree heat, Ann stayed inside in the air conditioning and so missed the making of the paella. So this post is for her and hopefully answers her question, "How did you make the paella?"

Speaking of paella, I may as well go ahead and call my concoction by the somewhat derogatory term arroz con cosas as a pre-emptive strike against those Valencians who insist that true paella can only be made in a single way. The paella snobs sniff almost sotto voce, "That's not paella, it's arroz con cosas (rice with things)." Sorry guys, this is my yard, my party, and my freaking paella. Thanks for the idea, but like The Chairman said, "I did it my way!"

Chicken Wings and Salvadoran Chorizos
This was my first attempt at making paella outdoors over a fire. Sure, I have made paellas aplenty in hotel pans at the restaurant, but there is something really awesome about heating up a really beautiful paellera over a wood fire. And this super-thick Pata Negra paellera from La Tienda in Williamsburg is a thing of beauty. I love this mild steel pan in the same way that I love our black steel sauté pans at the restaurant. It takes a lot of maintenance to keep it from rusting, but it is so responsive and a joy to cook in.

While it was my first attempt at paella over a fire, I am no stranger to cooking over a fire, having done it quite a lot in the days of my misspent youth. Armed with a big stack of dogwood and cherry wood from the field behind us, it took almost no time to get a nice blaze going, especially after the last couple of months without rain.

Then Onions, Red Peppers, and Hard Spanish Chorizo
Because the cooking action is so quick in making a paella, you need to have everything prepped in advance. In the days before the party, I made a couple gallons of pretty saffron-yellow stock from pork necks, pig's feet, chicken feet, vegetables, saffron, and mussels. I like to add the saffron to the stock to get even distribution in the rice. And after straining the stock, I salted it to taste. When cooking a paella, it is sometimes hard to get the right amount of salt: salting the stock helps with that. Not too much salt, mind you, because the stock does evaporate in cooking and will concentrate the salt.

I also diced red peppers, yellow onions, green onions, and a small hard chorizo on Saturday and had them waiting in containers, ready to go in the pan to make my sofrito. In the photo above, you see that I have moved the meat to the outside of the pan and am frying the sofrito in the center. Once the vegetables started to soften, I added two huge scoops of minced garlic and Italian parsley and let it cook with a couple tablespoons of pimentón before adding heated stock to the pan.

Stock is Boiling Gently; Rice Always in Sign of the Cross
How much stock, I'm not sure, though I started with a couple of gallons. You see in the photo above that I filled the pan to the bottom of the handle rivet. And the rice, now I know for sure that my 55cm (more than half a meter! that's a good-sized pan!) paella pan takes a kilo and a half of rice. Tony and I just eyeballed it and judged it just right at one-and-a-half kilo bricks of rice.

Once the rice was in the pan, everything was pretty much on autopilot and all I had to do was mind the flame and rotate the pan now and again to place a different part of the pan over the hot spot. There was no way to avoid a hot spot: a constant gusty breeze kept the leeward side of the pan much warmer than the windward, and that's nothing if not normal when cooking over a fire.

Almost Done! Listening to the Crackle of the Soccarat!
As the rice started to plump, I added artichoke hearts and soon the rice got thick enough to embed the mussels and to support the shrimp on top. At this point, it was just a matter of letting the soccarat—the coveted crisp rice crust that is the sure sign of a well-cooked paella—form on the bottom of the pan as the seafood finished steaming on top of the rice that was in the final stages of just becoming tender.

I started with a big fire when cooking the chicken and vegetables and then let it die down to a simmer while the rice cooked. At the end, I threw more wood to the fire to get it really hot again and spent the last few minutes listening carefully to the pan, listening for the stock to boil off and the soccarat to crackle. This pan rewarded us with the most amazing soccarat ever!

Dig in!
Happy Birthday, Annie! I hope you enjoyed it! And thank you Valencia for one of the greatest party foods ever! Even if it is just rice with things.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bánh Mì Thịt Nướng

Monday was our anniversary and we spent the evening at Carter's football game. Most people would go out on their anniversary and we might have too, because Monday night is usually date night. But during football season on Monday nights, well, we are obliged to go cheer on Carter and his mates (who, incidentally, were crushed 35-0, ouch!) instead of going out or (given the lack of decent restaurants in our area) staying in and fixing a nice dinner.

After a long, hard slog at the restaurant on Monday, I needed an easy dinner and, for obvious reasons, a somewhat special one. And it seemed pretty clear that rather than trying to bolt something down before rushing out the door for the almost hour-long drive to the game, that I would pack a dinner for us to take to the game. So I got to thinking about portable, easy-to-eat food and naturally, sandwiches fit that bill really well. I don't eat many sandwiches, so when I do, I want them to be spectacular, especially for my anniversary dinner.

When I think sandwich now, I think bánh mì if for no other reason than we just launched a very successful pork belly bánh mì on our new fall lunch menu at the restaurant. I wanted to change it up because pork belly is more successful when it is hot and hot food and football games just don't mix. So, on my way home, I stopped at the market and picked up some lemongrass and a package of very thinly sliced pork, labeled both bistek de cerdo and pork cushion meat. Grilled marinated pork is common in Vietnam and is known as thịt nướng, grilled meat, and the meat is understood to be pork.

Now I don't know about you, but I understand bistek de cerdo a lot more than I understand pork cushion meat, and I am a professional chef who butchers whole hogs from time to time. Because I butcher hogs, I recognized that the meat came from the shoulder, which is what I wanted. But the whole cushion thing is still a mystery to me even after looking it up. [I looked it up in the IMPS where USDA specs it as a real cut, 405B, that we never use at the restaurant.]

Pork Shoulder in Marinade, Ready for Grilling
Anyway, thank you to the butcher that put this boneless piece of Boston butt on the slicer and converted it to thin steaks for me. I marinated the steaks in a rub of lemongrass, garlic, black pepper, palm sugar, and fish sauce. They probably sat in the fridge for 90 minutes before grilling.

Pork Steaks Grilled; Baguettes Toasted
The steaks were on the super hot grill about 60 seconds on each side. I brought them and the toasted baguettes into the kitchen where I built them into sandwiches. I have come up with a spicy mayonnaise that I love on my bánh mì, rather than the traditional, yet boring plain mayo. I mix equal parts of sriracha, hoisin, and finely minced garlic and cilantro stems with two parts of mayo. This goes on both sides of the bread.

I made a quick slaw of julienned carrots and daikon mixed with nước chấm, which I make from time to time and keep in the refrigerator as needed. My nuoc cham is a heavy syrup of rice vinegar and white sugar thinned out with fish sauce, lime juice, crushed red chiles, and minced garlic. Yours might be different.

On the spicy mayo-slathered baguette went a layer of sliced cucumbers, a layer of carrot-daikon slaw, grilled lemongrass pork, tons of fresh cilantro, and a good sprinkling of crispy fried shallots. A lot of people add a layer of bird chiles or other chiles, but I just build the spice into the mayo. I like an even distribution of heat and am not very happy when the fresh chiles squirt out of the side of the sandwich when I bite into it!

Mango and Red Pepper Salad
To accompany our sandwiches, I made a savory mango and red pepper salad by roughly dicing the two fruits, and dressing them with lime juice, fish sauce, the merest hint of agave nectar, and a lot of Thai basil, fresh from our garden. I love the salty, citrusy nature of this salad, primarily because it is so unexpected. Your brain expects mango to be sweet, yet this salad is anything but sweet.

And that is the saga of our anniversary dinner. It was probably the best food that I have ever had at a football game anywhere. I know the people in the stands around us were jealous! Sorry for no pictures: they weren't going to come out in the dark anyway. You'll have to use your imagination.

Linguini with Clam Sauce

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