Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sona and a Wedding

My friend Shiv Kumar, chef and owner of Sona Restaurant here in Winchester, just got back from a month in India where he got married. So Ann and I just had to go visit him to see the wedding photos and while we were there, have a spot of dinner. We are waiting for his wife Sunitha to get her visa to come to the States. No doubt it will be a big party when she gets here!

Channa Chat, What's not to Like?
When I eat Indian food, I most appreciate the non-meat dishes. There is something about Indian vegetarian cooking that makes me happy, probably because it is such a mainstream part of their culture and is never treated as second-class food. And no doubt also in part because it is based largely on dal (beans, legumes, and lentils) some of my very favorite comfort foods. Speaking of legumes, one of Ann's favorite (and mine too) starters is channa chat, a classic Indian street food, and she ordered it for us. I think what I like best about channa chat is the chat masala made with amchur (powdered mango) that gives the dish its sweet and sour component.

Heywards 5000, a Nice Change from Taj
Even though it belongs to the SABMiller portfolio, Haywards 5000 made an appearance on our table, and I was happy to see it. Our local Miller distributor seems to have some difficulties keeping it in the warehouse. At 7.5% though, knocking back a deuce of this can be a bit work. In any case, it's a good change up from Taj Mahal which tastes a bit cheap and vegetal at times.

Saag or Liquified Chile Powder?
After the channa chat, we didn't order dinner; Shiv ordered for us and he knows my predisposition for vegetarian fare, so out came a saag for me. You might note the brownish deviation from its usual deep green color; that's from all the chile powder they added to it trying to hurt me. It didn't work.

Murgh Makhani
For Ann, Shiv sent a dish of murgh makhani, chicken in tomato-cream sauce because he knows she likes it. I really can't do dishes with all that much cream, but I noticed that they held way back on it. Thanks guys!

Makhani Dal
And for me, no Indian dinner is complete without dal and some bread to scoop it up. So I really appreciated this dish of makhani dal along with the basket of regular naan (on the left) and spicy naan on the right in the photo below. Though, Shiv, if you're reading this, I really do like the much less expensive and more plebian dal tadka better. It's less rich and for me, more comforting; I like toor dal and moong dal slightly better than urad dal.

Double the Naan, Double the Pleasure!
After the dinner dishes were cleared away, we looked through the massive photo album from the wedding over beers. If you've never seen or heard tell of an Indian wedding, it puts anything in the western world to shame. It is quite the production! Looking very forward to meeting Sunitha when she is able to get here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dinner with Tom and Ann

On Sunday the 24th, a delightful late winter afternoon, Ann, Carter, and I drove out to Capon Bridge, WV to have dinner with friends Tom and Ann Matthes at their gorgeous new house situated in the Dillon's Run stream valley between two ridge lines just west of Capon Bridge proper. Wow! Do they have a beautiful single-level house on a gorgeous site. We are extremely jealous in that this is very similar to the style of house that we are hoping to build for our next (and hopefully final) home.

Still Life with Wok
Ann and I brought along a couple of bottles of Crémant de Bourgogne to start with. I really like this 100% Chardonnay bottling from Bailly-Lapierre. I keep mentioning it over and over in this blog; maybe it's because it's really nice affordable bubbly. Ann has turned a bit sour on this wine over the last year and I am not sure why. This bottle was delicious.

Carter Drinking Sprite with the Big Dogs
Tom offered Carter, now taller than his mother, a glass of Sprite in a Champagne flute so that he could be one of the gang while he sat on the sofa and surfed subways on the iPad. That's it Tom! Just what we need. Get the kid all sugared up! I do have to say that even if we have our issues at home, Carter is always a gentleman when out in public with us. Good on him! And he's a lucky kid because he gets to feast on (and loves) all this great food. What's he going to do when he gets to college and is faced with that slop?

Cuban Wedding Shrimp
We started at the counter in the kitchen with a dish that Tom called Cuban Wedding Shrimp. Though I have sincere doubts about its Cuban heritage, it is tasty. And I don't have any idea how Tom made it, but if I had to recreate it, I would make a sweet and sour marinade of orange juice, rum, vinegar, and brown sugar. Then I would sweat some peppers and onions (don't forget the garlic) and poach the shrimp and cover the whole thing in the marinade for a while. Then I would strain off the marinade and reduce it for a sauce. These shrimp were monsters too, maybe U-12s.

Pinot, Oh Me, Oh My!
Pinot fanatic that I am, imagine my surprise to see this line up on the counter when we arrived! We drank from right-to-left: Amalie Robert Pinot Meunier Willamette 2010, Buena Vista Pinot Noir Carneros 2009, Torii Mor Pinot Noir Dundee Hills 2009, and Campion Pinot Noir Carneros 2006.

Ann and I are certainly no strangers to Amalie Robert Pinot Meunier, it having been on the restaurant wine list for a while. We have tasted the 2008 and 2009 vintages of this super cranberry-colored wine, but not the 2010. I was a little disappointed in the 2010 as it seemed a touch flabbier than I recall in 2008 and 2009.

Nor are we strangers to Buena Vista Pinot, it having been on and off the wine list over the years, and we can recall a delightful afternoon sitting at National Harbor sipping this wine after a Cirque de Soleil show some years ago. It is has big and lush dark fruit with touches of cotton candy, tasting a touch more Santa Barbara to me than Carneros in this vintage. My least favorite wine of the day; Ann's favorite.

Now for my style of wine, the Torii Mor Dundee Hills. I just loved this wine and have tasted it on and off over the years. It manages that delicate balancing act that makes Willamette so special: it manages to combine the crisp acidity of Burgundy with the best new world aromatics. Delicious!

This was my first taste of Campion wines, though I know the label and know that this is the new project of Larry Brooks from Acacia. Very well made wine, though not to my taste. Big, lush dark fruit, with loads of spice.

If I had to rank these in my order of preference: Torii Mor, Amalie Robert, Campion, Buena Vista. If I had to guess about Ann's ranking: Buena Vista, Campion, Torii Mor, Amalie Robert. All wines from Charlie Fish at Murphy Beverage in Winchester.

Duck Confit Quesadillas
After the delicious shrimp, Tom made duck confit quesadillas that he served with a mayo-based sauce and a salsa of corn, tomatoes, and yellow and green squash. This makes me long so much for the grilled vegetable salsas that we do at the restaurant in the summer! I love duck confit so much!

Sometimes it's the little things that catch my eye, such as this saucer of jalapeño slices. Maybe it is the contrast of the organic peppers against the industrial stainless steel. [Did you ever wonder where Jalapa is? It just occurred to me to check it out. Due east of La Ciudad and slightly northwest (and almost a suburb) of Veracruz sits Xalapa. Who knew?] Tom knows I like a little heat in my food, though jalapeños barely register on the Ed scale.

Sam I Am
During the intermezzo between the two appetizer courses in the kitchen and dinner proper in the dining room, we chatted in the living room where Sam, the chocolate lab, occupied one of the two sofas. As we were chatting, I happened to spy a couple of turkeys on the hillside across the creek about 75 yards away. We all gathered to watch them strut and shuffle through the underbrush looking for food and as they made their way north along the creek, I counted 22 of them, 20 hens and 2 toms.

Tom Stir Frying Pea and Cashew Fried Rice
After our interlude with the turkeys, Tom got to making fried rice with peas and cashews to go with his Asian pork shoulder. I *love* fried rice of any kind; I may love it better than pasta, which is saying a lot.

Action Shot

Asian Pork Shoulder with Sauce
Tom braised the pork shoulder in an Asian-inspired marinade that tasted predominantly of soy and star anise, never a bad thing! It tastes a lot like the marinade that we use for lamb and venison at the restaurant. Delicious!

Phenomenal Cheeses
And now for the stars of the show, the cheeses and bread for the final course. There is nothing finer in my book than good cheese and bread for dessert and these were excellent examples of each. Tom got the cheeses from Zingerman's in Ann Arbor. Before restaurant, I used to source a lot of things from them. I love the company, the catalog, the products, and the customer service.

From the triangular wedge on the bottom left going clockwise, the cheeses are: Montgomery's farmhouse Cheddar, L'Amuse Gouda, raw milk Stichelton, Fort St. Antoine Comté, and Detroit Street Brick. The Cheddar is smooth and delicious and is a great example of what Cheddar should be. The Gouda as you can see has a little age to it, but nothing like that of the 5-year old hard Gouda we serve at the restaurant. This one still has a smooth paste in the center and is developing caramel flavors out towards the edge: best of young and old Gouda in a single cheese. The Stichelton, while it looks and tastes like very good Stilton, cannot be so named because to be labeled as Stilton, the cheese must be made from pasteurized milk and this is made from raw milk, all the better. The Comté is a wonderful mountain cheese and is one of the finest of its kind that I have ever tasted, sweet, nutty, and complex.

The star of the cheeseboard, I left for last, the place of honor. This Detroit Street Brick, named for the pavers in the street outside Zingerman's deli, is a cheese I have never tasted before in my life, nor have I tasted anything similar. I just don't have enough superlatives in my vocabulary for this creamy goat milk cheese studded with green peppercorns and enrobed in a hint of a bloomed rind. This cheese stands with the very best goat cheeses I have ever eaten.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Tom served Warre's Otima 20-year old Tawny Port with the cheese. Yum! And I would be even more remiss if I didn't mention the outstanding rosemary and roasted garlic loaf that my Ann baked for the cheese course. Wonderful!

Ann's Awesome Rosemary-Roasted Garlic Bread
So after reading this, you might be jealous. You should be!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Happy Birthday to Me!

My birthday has the impeccably bad timing to come right after Valentine's Day. For most people, this isn't any big deal. For restaurant people, this is terrible timing. Valentine's Day week is crushingly busy and so each year on my birthday, I find myself exhausted and not wanting to do anything but sleep through my birthday. Luck usually has it that I am working anyway and unable to celebrate.

This year, it had the good graces to come on a day off, but right after the busiest weekend of our year. I really didn't want to do anything, but on Sunday, Ann had arranged for us to go see my aunt and uncle out near Keyser WV and as it turned out, my cousin Sarah and her two boys were there as well. It's always great to see my family, even if I am exhausted.

Warning: I didn't bring the big camera home. I was too exhausted on Saturday night after dinner service to care. And besides, I might as well learn how to shoot decent photos with the iPhone. Remember the old saying, "It's not the camera...."

My Kind of Cake!
When we arrived out at Marshall and Susan's, we were greeted by their dog and my cousin Sarah's two dogs, so I knew she was there as well. Inside on the counter was this "cake," definitely my kind of cake! I'm not a sweets guy so this definitely was a great idea. After a glass of wine, a couple of noshes, and some chitchat, we got down to lunch, a slow cooker full of chili.

Chili with Pickled Jalapeños and Avocado Salad
On a cold, blustery day with snow squalls blowing in off the ridge line opposite us before slamming into us up on the other ridge, my aunt's chili really hit the spot. It was delicious and not very challenging, just the kind of food I like when I am tired. I really don't care to eat too much chef food on my days off. The avocado salad which she called pico de gallo was just wonderful especially with all the fresh cilantro in it. Other people try to impress me with their food when we end up at their houses for dinner; my aunt always serves tasty comfort food and that impresses me more than any chef food could ever do.

Carter Entertaining Xavier and Patrick
Not only did we get to see photos of Marshall and Susan's recent trip to Dehli, Jaipur, and Kerala with their daughter and my youngest first cousin Melissa, we also got to catch up with cousin Sarah who lives in Reston with her two guys Xavier and Patrick, my first cousins once removed. Carter got the honor of playing video games with them while the adults got a little adult time. Thanks Carter!

On Monday, my actual birthday, I had to work, but it was a short day of only seven hours! For a guy used to working 13-15 hours a day, seven is a real treat. And since it was my birthday and I had to be at Costco to pick up a few things for work, I decided to treat myself to some wine for dinner. Ann and I planned to stay home so that I could rest and I greatly appreciate that.

Kirkland? Yeah, Not Bad!
I picked up a bottle of this Kirkland Champagne for two reasons. The first is that I am professionally curious about what Costco is selling under their Kirkland label and this is the first Kirkland wine that our Costco is carrying. Yeah, out here in Nowhere, Virginia, we're slow on the uptake. The second is that I saw on the back label that Manuel Janisson is responsible for the wine and I know that he always does a great job, both in France and here in Virginia with Thibaut-Janisson. It really was a surprisingly nice bottle and a very good value for the price. It isn't earth shattering, but at the price, I didn't expect it to be. It does taste like very good non-vintage Champagne and that is all I expected. The price is a bonus.

2006 Brunello, Soft Like a Châteauneuf-du-Pape
I knew we were pulling a bag of my pork ragù out of the freezer and serving it with orecchiette for dinner, so I decided to get a bottle of Brunello as well. I haven't had much from 2006 yet as we are still drinking older vintages, but I know that 2006 is well regarded. This wine from Tenuta Col d'Orcia was extremely ripe with slightly jammy fruit backed with some spice and very mellow tannins and much lower acidity than I was expecting. This wine reminded me a lot of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and that is not a bad thing. I like a softer, riper, lower acid wine to go with my braised meat dishes.

A New Oil, Garda DOP, A Little Grassy
We also tried a new-to-us olive oil, a Garda DOP from way up north in Italy near Verona. It is a replacement for a very good Greek olive oil that we got back in the summer. Neither of us liked it as well; it's good oil but just a touch grassier than we were hoping for.

Not a Bad Way to Start off an Afternoon
And finally, the pièce de résistance of our meal, the pork ragù with orecchiette. On a cold day, I can't think of a better or more fitting dinner. Happy Birthday to me!

Orecchiette with Meat Sauce

Friday, February 15, 2013

Third Annual Valentine's Dinner

It Doesn't Really, Does it?
For the third year running, we've had our Valentine's Dinner for friends on the Sunday before Valentine's Day so that we can celebrate. In the restaurant business, Valentine's Day and the days of intense preparation leading up to it constitute one of the busiest times of our year. And because I am always working, celebrating on Valentine's Day itself is never possible.

Last year, we did a more elaborate dinner with cocktails and appetizers and it was just too much for me on top of my insanely busy workload at the restaurant. I really like the simplicity of this year's menu and the fact that with some advanced planning, Ann and I putzed around in the kitchen for only about 90 minutes pulling everything together. And that wasn't 90 minutes of solid work either; we might have opened the Prosecco before the other guests arrived and had a little whistle-wetter while putzing about the kitchen.

Ann Always Sets a Beautiful Table

We Started with Virginia Sewansecott Oysters
Ann had wanted Wellfleet oysters to start off the dinner, but with the blizzard in New England, that wasn't happening. We "settled" for Sewansecotts from H. M. Terry over on the Eastern Shore opposite the mouth of the Rappahannock River. I love the briny flavor of Eastern Shore oysters, but the shells are so soft that they are a pain to shuck cleanly.

The First of Many Bottles
We opened a lot of bottles of wine with our dinner, our friends not lacking in thirst! For sparkling wines with our oysters, we had Prosecco, a Loire rosé, Roederer Champagne, and a couple of other bottles that I didn't really get a look at because I was busy shucking oysters. With dinner, we had a delicious Rioja that Dimitri brought along, a California Syrah and a Washington State Bordeaux blend from our cellar, and Mike and Dennis brought along two local wines: Jim Dolphin's Cab Franc and this Otium Dornfelder from nearby Loudoun County. I don't know Otium Cellars and Dornfelder is not a grape that I have tasted before and as much as I like to support our own Virginia wine industry, this was not a good wine. To quote Ann, "This tastes like ass!" Indeed. I'd be lying if I said anything flattering about this wine.

Mike Forgot his Camera; I Gave him Mine!

Dennis and Dimitri. Where is Mark? He Seems to be Camera Shy.

Dennis and the Girls

After the oysters, we had dinner proper: braised duck, truffled mac and cheese, braised turnips, and sautéed brussels sprouts. It worked out well (and created a lot fewer dishes) to have everyone serve himself from the cooking vessels arrayed on the counter in the kitchen, rather than to platter everything up and take it to the dining room. Thanks to Ann for coming up with the menu so that all I had to do was execute it. And it was fun working with her in the kitchen finishing it up. We make a good team in the kitchen!

Moulard Duck Legs Starting Their Three-Hour Braise

The Finished Product
The day before the party, I braised the duck legs with white wine, veal stock, parsley stems, and thyme. And twenty minutes before taking the duck off the heat, I added peeled and quartered turnips. I let everything chill out together in the rondeau overnight in the cooler. On Sunday, I reheated the congealed mass to the point where I could separate the liquids from the solid duck and turnips. The duck went onto a sheet tray to reheat in the oven at the same time as the mac and cheese was baking and the liquids went into the big blender, first to be defatted and then to be whirred into a smooth sauce that was further reduced on a tiny flame on the stove.

Orecchiette with Four Cheeses and Black Truffles
Next up was the truffled mac and cheese. Ann and I apparently have different ideas of what mac and cheese is. I make classic American (see Fannie Farmer) mac and cheese, slightly overcooked pasta bathed in Sauce Mornay and baked. What Ann describes is more like pasta mixed with straight cheese, something I've never seen before. Good no doubt, but I know it not. My Mornay contains a mixture of young Manchego, Goot Essa Alpenkäse, Carr Valley Marisa, and commercial mozzarella in roughly equal parts. And a good healthy dose of black truffles. I generally would use a hollow pasta such as cavatappi (corkscrews) but Ann seemed to want a more substantial pasta, so I used that Pugliese specialty, orecchiette (little ears). Needless to say, there were no leftovers.

Speaking of cheese, Goot Essa has no web site but if you chance upon some of John Esh's cheese, by all means, give it a try. John is a plain dairy farmer, some would say Amish, from Pennsylvania and he makes great cheese. He popped into the restaurant some years ago with samples and I have been hooked on his Alpenkäse every since.

Artful Shot of Shallots for the Brussels Sprouts

Sprouts, One of the Few Late Winter Green Vegetables

Turnips, Braised along with the Duck

Ann's Red Wine Chocolate Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Ann made this delicious not-too-sweet red wine chocolate cake for dessert. We passed a decanter of Warre's 1977 Port along with dessert.

Who Needs Plates?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Haddock, Sichuan Style

When I spoke to Ann early yesterday morning, she wanted something for dinner last night but just couldn't put her finger on it. So she went back to this blog and looked at what we were doing at this time last year. When she came across the Sichuan-style catfish from February of last year, she knew what she was in the mood for.

At the market, I couldn't find a catfish, but I did find some reasonable looking haddock filets. Haddock is mild and white and pretty forgettable: it would be a fine foil for the super tasty Sichuan sauce I was about to put on it. I wouldn't dare put this complex and spicy sauce on a really good piece of fish.

Mise en Place
Each time I make this dish, I do it differently, based on how I am feeling and what I have available. Isn't that how most people cook? Once you learn the theme of a recipe, each time you make a dish after that it is all about subtle variation. Where I would typically use dried black and tree-ear mushrooms, this time I had fresh shiitake on hand. And I happened to want five spice-flavored and pressed tofu instead of plain tofu. The recipe theme is the same, but the slight variations make the particular instance of the dish.

The ingredients clockwise from the little red bowl of ground Sichuan peppercorns: five spice-flavored pressed tofu, bamboo shoots in chile oil, dobanjang (more about which in a minute), garlic, cilantro, green onions, shiitake, zha cai mustard stems, doenjang bean paste, and ginger.

The market I shop at is run by Koreans and so their selection of Korean foods is really good; their Chinese less so. But fortunately, there are a lot of ingredients in common. Take the dobanjang for example, the bright red fermented fava bean and chile paste in the small jar to the extreme left of the photo. It is also known in China as doubanjiang and is the heart and soul of Sichuan sauces. The same sauce made with soybeans instead of favas is known as gochujang and it is very different to tell the two apart. I mention this because the tiny jar of dobanjang you see above cost an exhorbitant $8. You can make your own gochujang facsimile by mixing chile paste with doenjang, the bean paste that you see on the right of the photo, for next to nothing. Although the flavor isn't quite the same, with all the chile spice going on, it is very difficult to tell them apart in a finished dish.

Haddock, Sichuan Style

To pull this dish off, I first rubbed one side of the fish in a touch of sesame oil and then sprinkled the filets with finely minced garlic, finely minced cilantro stems, freshly ground Sichuan peppercorns, and a little corn starch. After they were browned on the corn starch side, I flipped them and removed them to the casserole dish. Then I built the sauce by cooking the mushrooms, tofu, ginger, garlic, bamboo shoots, and mustard stems over high heat. To this I added a bit of dobanjang and a lot of doenjang bean paste along with enough water to just make a sauce. After this cooked for a minute, I poured it over the fish and put the whole thing in the oven for about 4 minutes, until the fish just cooked through. Just before serving it got a topping of green onions and cilantro leaves.

Just delicious served with plain rice!

Olympic Provisions

Salame from Olympic Provisions
It's not much of a secret that Ann and I are headed to Portland, OR the first week in May when the restaurant takes its annual holiday. And already on our radar screen is Olympic Provisions, the much touted charcutier with two locations in Portland. For me as a charcuterie addict, this seems like a very necessary and worthwhile must-see while we are out on the left coast.

How much of a coincidence is it that after whetting our appetites looking at the Olympic Provisions web site and FB pages in anticipation of our trip that my specialty goods supplier told me on Thursday that they had just started stocking fantastic new salame from OP?

Ann and I had planned to spend Super Bowl Sunday at home just relaxing before the big Valentine's crush. We have forced ourselves to reserve at least one Sunday every once in a while just for us; when we get to running here and yon each Sunday, there just isn't any time for us to decompress and have some downtime. And downtime for me means downtime from cooking as well. As much as I like to cook, it sure is nice to have a day when I just don't have to worry about it.

So that was this past Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday, a day in pajamas, relaxing, sipping wine, and noshing here and there as we felt the urge. We felt the urge early on in the morning while Ann's loaf of bread was doing its final rise and while we were watching a movie, to pop the cork on a bottle of sparkling wine for mimosas.

And how convenient that we had planned a down weekend that corresponded with the arrival of the box of mixed salume from OP? We collected some other things over the course of a couple of days and set them aside for Sunday to accompany the salume and Ann threw together one of her fabulous roasted garlic and rosemary loaves on Saturday afternoon, to bake on Sunday.

Ann's Bread on the Rise

Our Feast sans the Bread
The Olympic Provisions salume from lower left: salchichón, finocchiona, salame di cioccolato, nola, and loukanika. I didn't expect to be able to choose a favorite from among these sausages, but our overwhelming choice was the salchichón. Its nutmeg and clove seasoning was sublime. The finocchiona tasted of black pepper and fennel, though I wish it were just a little heavier on the fennel. The nola tasted of allspice and spicy peppers, similar to the salchichón but just different enough. The Greek-style loukanika was heavy on cumin. The amazing thing about all these sausages, as Ann kept repeating, is the "quality of the fat." The fat in these sausages in unlike any that I have ever tasted and it just melted away in our mouths. Bravo!

The remaining "salame" is made from chocolate, nuts, and dried fruits and is an amusing novelty item that didn't really belong here, but was fun to try anyway.

The other salame on the lower right is an Olli calabrese. The cheeses are a fresh goat cheese, a 5-year old Gouda, and a young Manchego. The yellow sauce next to the cornichons is my incredibly addictive and garlicky saffron aïoli. Just below that is a little dish of potted salmon that I made from scraps and brought home, not thinking about how poorly it would go with our red wine. The red wine and the salmon collided in a head-on trainwreck. Note to self.


Lagrein, a Perfect Choice
While playing backgammon at which I am very much the novice and Ann pretty much the expert (the likelihood of me getting my ass handed to me is high!), we decide to open a bottle of wine and enjoy our feast. I decided to open this Thomas Mayr Lagrein. It was pretty much the perfect choice for our cheese, salume, bread and aïoli, but it and the potted salmon were quite the match from hell!

Ann's bread was awesome and the perfect vehicle for the ridiculous aïoli. I had also got a bottle of Garda DOP olive oil for us to try, but such are the seductive ways of the aïoli that we never got around to it! Next loaf of bread.

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...