Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Childhood Memories

The weather has taken a very crappy turn recently and we are having some definite winter weather before Thanksgiving, something that is very unusual in these parts. Cold, nasty weather coupled with very early sunsets thanks to our recent falling back are driving my desire for simple comfort foods. Ann's too. Our usual Monday morning conversation about dinner ended when Ann said, "I'd love a good grilled cheese and some tomato soup."

Grilled Cheese: Sexy Beast Isn't It?
Say no more! Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup take me back to childhood almost faster than anything else. This meal invokes or conjures memories of snow days off from school and hours of tobogganing in the back yard, frozen noses and wet clothes, snowball fights, and chasing the dogs through the snow, days well before children, mortgage payments, and innocence spoiled.

Awaiting Their Turn in the Pan
While I was out erranding, I bought a nice loaf of crusty bread containing a bit of semolina; I love what semolina does for the crunch of the bread after it has been toasted, or in this case, "grilled." And I also picked up a large double cream bloomed rind cheese, very similar to a Brie or Camembert, but one that is square for easy slicing for sandwiches.

Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese: Instant Comfort
The soup, I put together quickly by sweating a little mirepoix and garlic in butter with a touch of dried basil, then adding canned tomatoes, some heavy cream, and water and letting it all work while we watched a movie. After the movie was off, I blended the soup and adjusted the seasoning with salt, sriracha, fish sauce, white pepper, rice vinegar, and a touch of agave: the chef trick is to get the acid balance just so, so that all you get is bite after bite of creamy tomato goodness without it cloying your palate. Campbell's never did it so good!

An updated childhood memory: just what the doctor ordered for a cold winter day!

Breakfast for Dinner

Don't you just love breakfast for dinner? Isn't there something fun about eating so-called breakfast foods for dinner? I'm not sure why this appeals to us so, maybe it's just a non-conformist kind of thing, or a reversion to childhood thing, but for whatever reason, I just love savory breakfast foods for my evening meal every once and a while.

Devastatingly Awesome Pork Belly and Grits
Sunday morning, I had planned to serve pork and grits, a dish that regularly features as an appetizer on the restaurant menu, but one that merely because it is restaurant food, I never eat, ever. For some reason, I just got a hankering to taste the pork and grits that our customers love so much, so I brought home some pork belly, some grits, and a little maple syrup to make the dish for Sunday breakfast with our coffee before we headed out to Linden to drink some wine.

Long story short, I got a crappy night's sleep (I lay awake and poured the same four wines into glasses every minute or two between 2 and 5am, a sommelier's nightmare) and so I didn't awaken until 9am or slightly after. I have to be up a couple of hours before I tuck into breakfast (I cannot face the thought of eating before then). Had we eaten at 11, we wouldn't have wanted lunch at around 2 when we planned to eat with friends at the winery. So, we punted on the breakfast and pushed it off to dinner.

Doesn't a big old bowl of warm breakfasty food sound awesome after a hard afternoon's drinking? You bet!

As currently incarnated at the restaurant, pork and grits is a bowl of course yellow grits, topped with a slice of crispy pork belly—belly that we cure in house from awesome Berkshire hogs, topped with a poached egg, and ringed with local hickory syrup. I brought all of this home, except I brought maple syrup instead of hickory, for our breakfast. But by dinner time, we were not all that keen on the sweet component, so I rewarmed and poured over some awesome green chile left from last weekend's breakfast-for-dinner debauchery.

This is manna from the food gods. Praise be to them!

Linden Vineyards

We have been remiss in getting to Linden this year; up until now, we've just been running around like crazy. It seems that this happens to us each year. We visit wineries in the late fall, winter, and early spring. Our busy season at the restaurant correlates almost perfectly with the busy season at wineries. And so now that the 2013 vintage is in the cellar and things are slowing down, so they are at the restaurant and in our personal lives as well.

Cellar Tasting Note Sheet

This past weekend, we met our friends Bill and Drew there, and were joined by their friend Michel. We started by doing a cellar tasting, then coming back upstairs for a bite to eat and some Hardscrabble Red 2009, and then Ann and I drove over to Michel's at Mt. Welby just around the corner for a little Avenius Red 2009 and some goat cheese, while Bill and Drew made the trek back to the city.

I always like to do the pay-to-play cellar tasting at Linden; I think it is one of the best tastings anywhere, from an educational point of view. In tastings past, one of the Linden employees has described the sites, the oak regimens, and so forth in explaining how the two side-by-side wines differ. The new cellar tasting format offers the same side-by-side tasting, but is much more interactive than formerly. In this tasting, the tasters offered up comments about the fruit, flavors, nose, weight and so forth and then we got into a discussion of those aspects that contributed to what we were tasting and smelling.

We tasted Avenius Chardonnay 2011 versus Boisseau from the same vintage, then Avenius Red 2009 versus Hardscrabble Red 2009, and finally Late Harvest Vidal 2007.

Tasting notes:

Avenius Chardonnay 2011: closed nose eventually giving up some pineapple with a backing of lemon as it warmed in my hands, the nose to me is that of a classic stainless steel/neutral oak Chard, with a lemony citrus mid-palate, finishing in a big rush of lime acidity. Underlying everything is a pervasive minerality.

Boisseau Chardonnay 2011: the nose is much warmer with hints of baked apple, ripe pears, and a few baking spices hinting at some new oak, pear crème brûlée and applesauce on the palate with exceedingly good acidity for this very warm site. I believe they are picking earlier to preserve acidity, a great move for this wine.

Avenius Red 2009: red plum, raspberry, blackberry on the nose and palate, palate backed by minerality and very nice acidity, framed by fine tannins. While this is a very good wine, I could wish for a touch more length as the acid dominates the finish. It very well may come together in a few years and certainly has the structure to age very gracefully.

Hardscrabble Red 2009: dark and blue fruit typical of Cabernet Sauvignon with hints of chocolate and a bit of herbaceousness lurking in the background, a slight green/herbal character appears with aggressive aeration, youthful, exuberant, great extraction, super fine tannins, excellent acidity all well in balance, long, long persistent finish. Finest Hardscrabble yet made.

Late Harvest Vidal 2007: not a lot of experience with this wine, just finishing off the 2006 vintage at the restaurant, but coming into its own with a honeyed dried peach and fresh apricot nose and an apricot crème brûlée palate with a very surprising amount of acidity for such a very warm year.

Lunch of Champions: Wine, Cheese, Salame, and Bread!

It was a freezing cold day, sunny, wind gusts to 30 knots, and a high below freezing: what a great day to be with friends sharing wine! Thanks to Bill, Drew, and Michel for a great day!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Red or Green?

Chile is so important to New Mexican cuisine that New Mexico has an official state question: "Red or Green?" I spent a bunch of time in that beautiful state back in my teens and early 20's and I came to love dishes smothered in chile. My answer to the question: Green! I don't dislike red chile in any way, but I love the nuance that I am able to impart to green chile and we often have chile verde and salsa verde on the menu at the restaurant because of that.

Fried Tortillas with Beans, Poached Eggs, and Chile Verde
Yesterday was an early day for me (home by 2pm) and that let me tackle a more complex dinner than I would have with less time. My ladies at the grocery store perked up a little when they saw what I was buying, probably because they recognized all the ingredients in my basket. I usually have all kinds of Asian ingredients that they can't relate to, but yesterday's haul of pork neck bones, pinto beans, corn tortillas, tomatillos, and cilantro prompted the inevitable questions about what I was making for dinner.

And I told them that I was making a version of huevos rancheros with salsa verde instead of salsa ranchera and poached eggs instead of fried. It was Ann who got me thinking along these lines and I am glad she did because last night's dinner was AWESOME!

Broiling Poblanos, Tomatillos, and Garlic
When I first got home, I wanted to get the stock for the chile verde going so that it could simmer and do its thing while Ann and I went out on the patio and enjoyed the unseasonably warm temperatures. The first step was to put poblano chiles, tomatillos, and whole peeled cloves of garlic on a sheet tray under the broiler on high. I turned the poblanos once when they had blistered on the first side and then removed the sheet tray from the oven once the second side had blistered. Into a plastic bag with the poblanos so that they could steam a bit and into the stock with the garlic and tomatillos.

Putting a Hard Sear on Pork Neck Bones, Onion, and Cilantro Stems
I got a shallow stock pot really hot on the stove and put in the pork neck bones to get a good, hard sear. To this I added half a large yellow onion, cut into chunks, with the skin still on, and all the stems from a bunch of cilantro. After turning the neck bones until they were well caramelized on all sides, I added water to cover and brought it to a simmer. In went the roasted garlic and tomatillos, along with an avocado leaf, and all bubbled away for a couple hours.

The Secret to Awesome Frijoles Refritos: Bacon, Onion, and Garlic
Just before dinner, I made some refried beans. Well, I cheated. I decided that on a non-weekend night with limited time and limited patience for dirty dishes that I just wasn't up to cooking beans from scratch, so I bought a big can of already cooked and roughly mashed pinto beans, knowing that I could doctor them and make them awesome. When buying pre-prepared ingredients such as this, something I almost never do, I always check the ingredients to know exactly what I am buying. In this case: pinto beans, lard, and salt. Perfect.

You can see in the photo above that I finely chopped some bacon, the other half of the onion that I used in the stock, and some garlic and slowly sweated it down. To this I added the beans and water and seasoned with salt as necessary.

The Green Pork Stock Before Thickening
To make the chile verde, I removed the neck bones to a plate to cool, and fished out the avocado leaf, the onion skins (which float), and any tough tomatillo skins that I could grab with my tongs. In went the immersion blender and I blended it smooth as you see above. At this point, I picked what meat I could off the neck bones and peeled, seeded, and chopped the four roasted poblanos. Into the pan went the poblanos and pork and I turned up the flame to get a low boil. I then whisked in a scant quarter of a cup of masa harina and let it cook another five minutes to slightly thicken the sauce. The chile verde wanted a good bit of salt at this point, not having been seasoned at all during cooking (and this is always a good idea with highly reduced sauces: season after the reduction, not before!).

Ann joined me in the kitchen and helped fry the tortillas and slice an avocado while I poached us two eggs apiece. And from there, it was just a tiny bit of assembly: frijoles refritos down on the plate, two tortillas over, two poached eggs over that, chile verde over all, and a scattering of green onions and cilantro on top. OMG, so awesome!!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dim Sum: Golden King, Sterling, VA

Before my chef days, I used to eat dim sum regularly when I was living in Fairfax County and when I was on the road on the West Coast. I have eaten dim sum more times than I can count in tiny little places without cart service to huge airplane hangers with hundreds of diners, in New York, in Seattle, in Portland, in San Francisco, and of course, in DC and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. My dim sum experiences span the gamut from rigidly traditional to more innovative and downright avant garde. And as a chef, I have made many of these dishes you'll see below with my own hands. Kudos to all the cooks in the back turning out these delicacies: I know what hard work it is.

Since becoming a chef more than a dozen years ago, though, there hasn't been much opportunity to eat dim sum, except for what I have made myself. It was time to break the drought and Ann has been asking to eat dim sum a lot recently, so when we found ourselves heading into Landsdowne on Sunday to see some friends, we decided to go early into Sterling and get dim sum at Golden King beforehand. I have been reading some good vibe on the Internet about Golden King and since it is a lot closer to us than any other place, I was eager to give it a try.

A Cart of Various Dim Sum at Golden King, Sterling VA
On the scale of traditional to avant garde, Golden King is strictly traditional. I saw nothing out of the ordinary dim sum canon on offer and that is just fine by me. I'm not looking for a novel experience when I go for dim sum; I'm looking for comfort food. Typical of most dim sum places, there just isn't any décor: it's a big open room full of huge round-tops in the middle and small tables around the edges. But you're not going into the cacophonous dim sum hall for the ambiance, are you? If you are, maybe you're looking for a different experience elsewhere?

The always hustling staff in this apparently family-run business were friendly and hospitable in my experience, treating both the mainly Chinese crowd (and it was crowded) and the scattering of non-Chinese equally. As a round-eye who has made the dim sum rounds, I can tell you stories about the receptions that I have had, from indifferent to downright hostile. Once we selected a table, our server swooped in and dropped a dim sum check on our table and I asked him for tea before he could ask me. I'm glad he dropped the dim sum check: many places will ask non-Chinese if they want dim sum or the standard menu, the unspoken assumption being that the table has no clue what dim sum is. I only saw it happen to one table at Golden King (and I might have asked them too, for they seemed very much fish out of water).

 Siu Aap : Roast Duck: Ice Cold
Our roast duck was refrigerator temperature. That strikes me as very odd and was the only thing I might have complained about.

Fung Zao: Chicken Feet: Among the Best I've Had Anywhere
The chicken feet were really good, some of the best I have ever eaten. Ann was brave and tried two of them. She was a bit hung up that they look like what they are, but she tried them anyway! Me, I can't imagine dim sum without chicken feet.

Lo Baak Gu: Turnip Cake: Tasty, but Crudely Executed
Turnip cakes are my favorite dim sum and this one was probably the crudest in execution that I have ever seen. Generally the radish is grated: in the photo you can see the big strip of radish on the plate. Somebody whacked away at this one rather than grating it and as a result, the texture of the cake was a little off. Also, I like my turnip cake infused with lop cheung flavor; there wasn't much meat at all flavoring these cakes. In any case, I still enjoyed it.

Siu Mai and Har Gau: Run of the Mill
Really nothing much to say about the siu mai (pork dumplings in the foreground) and the har gau (shrimp dumplings in the back steamer tin) other than the wrappers were torn in places. They were fine, but nothing to rave about.

Wu Gok: Taro Balls: So-So
The taro balls were a little greasy as you can see in the paper wrapper in the photo and the pork filling was not memorable. I have had some really, really good taro balls in the past and these were not them. Again, they were fine, but I won't remember them in another week.

Cheong Fun: Steamed Rice Noodles: Sauce Could Have Been Better
Cheong fun, large sheets of rice noodle stuffed with various items, is always one of my favorites. The server cut them into pieces with a scissors for us and everyone, which is a nice touch that I haven't seen before. Otherwise, it gets a bit tricky to cut them with chop sticks. We had two orders, one stuffed with shrimp and another with fried tofu. I like the sauce that they pour over the noodles to be a bit thicker so that it clings a bit more, but other than this, just what you'd expect.

Jiu Cai Bau: Leek Dumplings: Awesome
Towards the end of the meal, a server came from the kitchen bearing a small tray of leek dumplings, maybe three orders. We snapped one up and they were awesome, everything you want a dumpling to be. When we tried to get seconds, we found they were all sold out.

Chow Mai Fun: Rice Noodles: Waste of Money
Ann wanted some mai fun so we got an order and it was miserable. And that it such a shame because one of my all-time comfort foods is Singapore-style chow mai fun. Slathered in chile oil, they were still stiff, dried out, and flavorless. Bummer to finish our meal with such a low light.

I'd go back. Everybody was friendly and the food was decent. The prices were very reasonable. And at an hour from our house in Winchester, it is by far the closest place to get dim sum. I definitely prefer other places (Oriental East in Silver Spring and Mark's Duck House in Falls Church), but the much shorter drive is a huge bonus.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Pasta and Red Wine

I'm at day 16 of a 21-day stretch without a day off and I am exhausted. Despite all this work, I am determined that we are going to have some family time, if only a few minutes during dinner, before I pass out. About all I was up to making (and truth be told, all I wanted to eat) was a nice plate of pasta.

Paccheri with Pork Ragù
So Sunday night, we reheated a bag of pork ragù from the freezer and tossed it with some beautiful artisanal paccheri, called ondulati or wavy after the big ridges in the pasta. Topped with a sprinkle of pecorino romano, hot pepper flakes, and a bit of kosher salt, this is a hard meal to beat. We paired it with a pretty decent Malbec.

OK Malbec from Moët et Chandon
And Monday night, I quickly cooked some perciatelli while Ann reheated some marinara in the microwave. I made the marinara at the restaurant on Sunday during some down time while getting our catering job together. Your nonna would love this sauce, but she would roll in her grave if she knew I used Peruvian rocoto chile paste and Vietnamese fish sauce to season it! She has her pepperoncini and acciughe and I have mine. This we paired with a Sardinian wine made from the Monica grape, a grape that I have never experienced before. I found it medium-bodied, ruby-colored, and displaying decent tannins and acidity, a good pasta wine.

Perciatelli Marinara

Monica from Sardinia

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...