Monday, December 29, 2014

Cuban Sandwich

Cuban Sandwich
Ann and I have been discussing Cuban sandwiches a lot recently. César used to make great Cubans on bread he would bake daily at Sweet Sunset Bakery, but it's been years ago now that he closed up shop and moved back to California. We have heard about good Cubans at Throx Market, but haven't had the time to get there. So, today, I took matters into my own hands.

It was a hell of a long day at work (especially since it is in theory a day off), getting all my ducks in a row for the upcoming New Year's Eve circus and by the time I got ready to leave, it was late in the day and I was tired. I needed something I could make quickly and I didn't even ask Ann for suggestions. I just grabbed what I would need to make Cubans and got home as quickly as I could.

Easy, delicious, and what a classic sandwich! I made six. Ann and I split three; Carter ate three.

A Clean out the Refrigerator Sunday

Sunday the 28th was mercifully without plans. I wanted to rest; I needed to rest. The mental logistics of bringing off a 7-course tasting menu for the entire restaurant on upcoming New Year's Eve were really sapping my energy. Physically too, I needed to rest for the upcoming marathon that is New Year's Eve dinner service.

Strange as it may seem, resting for me involves cooking. There is something restful and mindless about standing at the cutting board and plowing through mounds of mise-en-place. I know that most people see this as work and something to be minimized; for me, I find it very relaxing.

What makes it even more special is if Annie joins me and we can spend time in the kitchen together, which is what we did on Sunday after sitting around in the sun room having our morning coffee and watching the juncos and other birds on the feeders. She wanted to make a batch of white chili for dinner and after helping her prep that, I threw together a quick pasta for lunch.

Garganelli Mise en Place
I combed through the refrigerator and found all kinds of bits and pieces of things, some of which went into Ann's chili and some of which went into the lunch pasta.

Garganelli with Sage, Tomatoes, and Tapenade
For the pasta, I sweated a lot of slivered garlic with sage in butter and then tossed that with the garganelli, sliced tomatoes, and some leftover tapenade. I also added a half a cup or so of the pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce a touch and topped the pasta with grated pecorino.

Ann's White Chili
As for Ann's chili, while she sautéed chopped onions and ground chicken, and then rinsed the cannellini, I prepped the odds and ends that I found in the fridge and ground spices. A bit of cilantro stems, a mangy half poblano chile, a few shriveled green onions, some unwanted tomato sauce, and so forth: it's in there! After a few hours in the slow cooker, Ann added some pasta to make it chili-mac. And we thoroughly enjoyed it for dinner!

It's always good to plan a clean-out-the-refrigerator day once every couple of weeks and if I can do it with my beloved Annie, that's double joy for me!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Risotto Cakes

I admit it. I put no forethought into what we would eat over Christmas break except to bring home some caviar and sparkling wine for our Christmas Day celebration. So, we get to Christmas Day dinner with nothing planned, not much in the refrigerator, and no stores open. Failure to plan: I will own it.

I'm pretty good at scrounging in the refrigerator and pantry and coming up with dinner like I did the night before when I concocted risotto from nearly nothing. That dinner yielded plenty of leftover risotto for the refrigerator and so risotto cakes were a no-brainer. To top things off, I found a few mangy snow peas that had been in the produce bin in the fridge for nearly way too long. And hey presto! Dinner.

Saffron Risotto Cakes with Snow Peas

Christmas Day Bubbles and Caviar

Caviar and sparkling wine is something of our tradition for Christmas. This year, I scrambled some eggs and made some crostini to use as vehicles for shoveling caviar into our faces. Eggs are a delightful foil to salty caviar.

Virginia Bubbles

Crostini, Eggs. Bubbles, Caviar

Eggs are the Perfect Foil for Caviar

From Virginia to New Mexico

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve Dinner: Risotto Milanese

How unprepared were we? All I can say in my defense is that I was focused on spending my Christmas break with Ann and not worrying about food for once. We ended up on Christmas Eve with no supplies in the house and nothing planned for Christmas dinner. Call it poor planning but I didn't really care.

That morning, while scavenging the pantry, I found a half a kilo of Arborio rice and that's about all I need to make dinner. We had a little grated pecorino in the fridge, some mangy onions in the pantry, a scrap of butter on the counter, and a few shrimp in the freezer.

After watching the third and final part of The Hobbit trilogy at the theatre, we dropped by the restaurant and scored a pinch of saffron, the final ingredient for our risotto milanese. And so for our solo Christmas Eve dinner, we had wonderfully rich, creamy, and decadent risotto.

Risotto Milanese with Shrimp
In deference to the Italian in our family who likes her risotto more cooked than I like mine, I left it to sit for a couple of minutes before serving to soften up just a bit more. It was awesome and who better to share it with than my Annie?

Monday, December 22, 2014


On the way home from lunch, somehow we ended up at the grocery store scavenging ingredients for panini. While Ann headed for the bakery to find a reasonable loaf of bread, I went to the deli counter where I was able to get fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, mortadella, capocollo, prosciutto, and a couple kinds of hard salame. I will never forget the face that the girl behind the deli counter made as she was slicing the prosciutto. "This stinks," she said, while pulling a face. Her partner agreed. I guess if your only frame of reference is pink loaf "ham," then perhaps smelling a real ham is very different. But since when does it stink?

Ready for the Press

Pressed and Grilled
Here you see the sandwich layers: pesto on the bread, salame and capocollo, mortadella, prosciutto, mozzarella, peppers, and more pesto on the top bread.

How I Love Mortadella!
Special emphasis on the mortadella here because I really love it and it has been such a long time since I have had any. And because it is a chance for me to admit publicly that I was wrong and Ann was right. I was convinced that our grocery store wouldn't have mortadella. I was wrong. Ann was right. And no, she didn't make me say that! Sad to say that this would never pass muster in Italy: look how crude the fat is and how uneven the distribution. I really miss the slightly spicy, paper thin, plate-sized slices of true Mortadella di Bologna. But still, if this is all I can get, I will take it.

Mid-Day Cocktails

After enjoying our first lunch out of Christmas break 2014 at Violino, Ann wanted to have a cocktail. That's something we never get to do: go to a nice bar and have a decent drink. And there's something to be said for sitting, talking, and relaxing over a cocktail. So we stopped in at V2 where Ann had her usual, a dirty martini with blue cheese-stuffed olives. Me, I'm not a cocktail guy but I do like whisky, so I ordered an Aberlour malt.

Dirty Martini with Blue Cheese-Stuffed Olives for Ann

Aberlour Straight Up

Barkeep Ann
Back at home, some rocket scientist decided that if a couple of martinis out was good, another monster one at home would be better still. If you see her, ask her how that worked out for her!

Pranzo al Violino

Monday December 22 dawned wet and cold, raining and right at the freezing point. Yet we never let miserable weather deter us from doing what we are going to do, so we jumped in the car and started off for Barboursville Winery, about two hours from the house. We came up to a stop sign about a mile from the house and when I applied the brakes, the car skidded a few feet. Awesome! At that point, Ann decided we needed to stay around Winchester and since it was noon, I was hungry, and I knew that we had to climb up through Chester Gap to get to Barboursville, I didn't argue. We headed downtown to find a place that is open on Mondays. Ann decided we should have a nice lunch and a bottle of wine at Violino, a local high-end Italian restaurant run by our friends, the Stocco family.

When we eat out, we don't go out for Italian. Ann is full-blooded Italian and I cook plenty of Italian at home. For us, it is not a change of pace. But still, it is always good to go visit Violino and say hello to our fellow restaurateurs.

Really, Really Good Calamari
I don't generally go for fried food (not to say that I won't readily wolf down my share), but Ann does. She ordered this calamari and it is probably the best I have ever had.

Gnocchi ai Funghi
We are pasta fiends the both of us and so pasta was a natural selection for lunch. We ordered gnocchi with mushrooms and ravioli stuffed with ricotta and Swiss chard, styled Ravioli alla Nonna.

Ravioli alla Nonna, Filled with Ricotta and Swiss Chard
It was so great just to sit for a couple hours at a window table on a miserable day and just talk with Ann and relax over a nice bottle of wine and a great lunch. Many people probably take this for granted, but for me in particular it is a special treat. The restaurant business rarely affords us the time to do so.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Favorite Dinner

Looking back through the years of posts here, I see lots of pictures of salame, charcuterie, cheese, and bread. And no wonder: that might just constitute one of our favorite meals. For my part, these are simply foods that I love and now that I cook for a living, the appeal of a no-cook, ready-to-eat dinner is extraordinary.

Saturday while I was at work, Ann told me she had a surprise for me and in the midst of Saturday dinner rush, I promptly forgot about it. It was only after we returned from Fireworks Pizza in Leesburg on Sunday that she reminded me she had a surprise: a batch of bread dough rising, hidden in the oven so I wouldn't see it.

Ann's Pecorino Romano Bread
Ann wasn't too pleased with the loaf of bread, but it had an extraordinary crumb and great flavor. We demolished it over the next couple of days.

Delights, Largely Thanks to Friends
Although we keep a drawer full of cheese and salame at home (doesn't everyone?), it had been getting a little low until just this week when Bill, Tom, and Steven came over to attend Carter's winter concert. Bill came bearing the Robiola a Tre Latti the you see in the center and the jar of chicken liver spread next to it. I made the galantine behind the chicken livers. I don't know where the big chorizo came from, but I know I contributed the 5-year old Gouda. Tom brought the big chunk of farmhouse Cheddar, the green peppercorn-studded goat cheese, and the nduja in the foreground. A wonderful meal and thank you friends!

Ann asked me to make tapenade for the bread, so I spent a while pitting and chopping olives. And then she ended up not liking it ("too fishy"). Bummer. More for me.

And so we spent the evening noshing with a bottle of Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon while watching back episodes of Game of Thrones. A great evening!

Fireworks Pizza, Leesburg VA

The calendar was such this year that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day fell on Wednesday and Thursday. I didn't see much sense in being closed Sunday and Monday, our normal dark days, open on Tuesday, closed Wednesday and Thursday, and then open Friday and Saturday. So, we closed on Tuesday as well and had a long 5-day break to get some rest. Ann and I took advantage of that break to just unwind and spend some time together, doing what we wanted, and ticking a few things off our lists. And Fireworks Pizza was on that list. We made the 45-minute drive in to Leesburg to sample Loudoun County's best pizza.

Fireworks Pizza, Leesburg VA
There is no pizza worth eating in Winchester save those I make for myself. It's sad, but true: nobody here values good pizza enough to attract and support a first-rate pizza place. Here, the emphasis is on size and price. The bigger the pizza and the lower the price, the better it will sell. It doesn't matter if the crust resembles wet cardboard. And so the necessity to drive two counties over to try to find a good pie.

Taps: Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA Rocks
I forewarned Ann that Fireworks is a beer place so that she wouldn't get her heart set on wine. They have wine, but what they have is a token; they sell almost exclusively beer. Our bartender, Mike, when he wasn't studying thermodynamics, was staying on top of our drinks. The best of my beers was the Fresh Squeezed IPA from Deschutes, which is one of the best beers I have had in years. Of course, you have to be aligned with my predilection for hops to appreciate this or any of the beers I had at Fireworks. I am a big fan of over-the-top hopped American IPAs. Ann doesn't share my enthusiasm, shall we say.

Barcelona Pizza
We're pretty classic pizza people: that is, it is very hard in our book to top a Margherita, but that only goes for the summer when we have plenty of basil and tomatoes. It being Christmas, we decided to look at other pizzas. Really, only a couple of pizzas struck our fancy, the first being The Barcelona that you see above topped with tapenade, Mahon cheese, chorizo, tomatoes, and roasted red peppers. I would say that we were underwhelmed by this pizza. I couldn't find the chorizo and the roasted red peppers dominated all.

Siciliana Pizza
The second pizza to catch our eye was the vegetarian Siciliana pizza, topped with caponata, grana padano, grilled artichokes, spinach, olives, and roasted garlic, all things that we love. This set of toppings worked much better than those on the Barcelona.

The crust though, not the toppings, is what we are after and this crust was good, better than average, but not amazing. If we lived closer, we would probably eat here a few times a year, but because it is a 45-minute drive for us, I don't think the quality of the pizza is quite high enough to merit the drive.
Uinta's Hop Nosh, Also Delicious

And a Localish Beer, The Great Return, from Hardywood in Richmond

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Meatball Subs

When I make meatballs as I did on Sunday, I always make too many because I want leftovers to use in meatball subs. My hat is off to whomever invented the meatball sub. That person was a boss sandwich maker!
Awesome Meatball Sub
There is no place around here to get a good sandwich. Period. So I have to roll my own. If you have a good deli or sandwich shop near you, be thankful you do.

A good meatball sub is a thing of beauty. Because it is so simple, there is no place to hide. Bread, marinara, meatballs, cheese. That's it, so each ingredient has to be awesome. No green stuff. No green stuff ever.

Dinner last night was awesome!

Getting our Christmas on

Ann and I had a pretty great day Sunday, getting ready for Christmas. We planned to stay in, put up the tree, and cook, cook, cook. Aside from the few minutes I needed to run to the restaurant to pick up some meatball supplies, we stayed at home and got into the holiday spirit. Of course, a few mimosas to kick off the morning didn't hurt our spirits any.

The Christmas Cookie Elf

Mimosas to Get the Spirit Rolling
While Ann started getting her cookie things together in the morning, I mixed up some mimosas for us. We had a bottle of Conde de Subirats Cava in the fridge and while it wasn't all that awesome on its own, it made a great mimosa, the wine's abundant acidity cutting through the sweetness of the orange juice.

Smoked Sausage, Onion, Tomato, and Pesto Frittata
After I got back from erranding and while Ann was working on her cookies, I baked a smoked sausage, onion, tomato, and pesto frittata for our breakfast around 1pm. It was just the thing for a self-indulgent stay home meal, though neither Carter nor Ann liked the tomatoes in it. Note to self.

Making Chocolate Bark

Ricotta Christmas Cookies

Chocolate Covered Popcorn
Making cookies and putting up the fir tree consumed the afternoon. Along towards dark, I made meatballs. First thing in the morning, Ann decided she wanted spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread. Well, at least it made deciding what to make for dinner easy, but it did require a trip into town to collect supplies. She knows I don't really care for spaghetti as a pasta cut: it is too thin for my liking. Fortunately, I have a small cache (now depleted) of perciatelli at the restaurant for emergencies like this.

Pork Meatballs Braised in Marinara
These meatballs are 100% ground pork shoulder with red wine, cream, pesto, parsley, panko, grated pecorino romano cheese, garlic, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. I like to make them about 3 ounces apiece because I want a meatball, not a scrawny little thing. The marinara is tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil, salt, and pepper, all blitzed up in the blender and poured over the meatballs. I cover the meatballs in marinara, wrap the whole thing in foil, and braise in a moderate oven for a couple hours. I am not a fan of browning meatballs before braising. Whatever it adds in flavor, I think it takes away in texture. My meatballs always have a soft, silky texture.

Perciatelli, Meatballs, Marinara, Garlic Bread
And here is our dinner complete with Ann's kick-ass garlic bread. She's a full-blooded Italian, so garlic is a basic vegetable at our house. No vampires need apply. I love her garlic bread! And, yes, yes, we know that meatballs and garlic bread are not appropriate garnishes for perciatelli with marinara. Did I mention that Ann is full-blooded Italian? You go ahead, taking your life into your own hands, and tell her how they eat pasta in the old country. Go ahead, I dare you!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Pinot Noir Food: Pasta Fagioli

A former employee gave me a really nice bottle of Pinot Noir, 2004 Giaconda from Victoria, Oz, and so we decided we wanted some food to go with it. On Sunday evening, Ann was talking about roast chicken with roasted potatoes and a green veg. But when I mentioned picking up a chicken on Monday morning, she changed her mind. She insisted that pasta fagioli was perfectly good Pinot food! I believe that it was just Sunday that she was reminding me that I hadn't made pasta fagioli in all of 2014 or the winter of 2013.

Pasta Fagioli
And so without too much argument, I assented to make pasta fagioli though I still think a roast chicken would have been a better Pinot complement. But after my battery died at Costco and I stood around in the AutoZone parking lot, snow flurrying about on the stiff breeze, changing out a most recalcitrant battery with borrowed tools, I was mightily glad of the comfort food.

If the picture looks all wrong for pasta fagioli, that's because it is all wrong. Ann had to go by the regular grocery store so she said she would get some ditalini, but when she got there, she found that they had stopped stocking it, so she grabbed Barilla orecchiette instead. Barilla orecchiette is not the DeCecco orecchiette that we are used to, but still some orecchiette is better than none. Moreover, the beans are wrong as well. While at FoodMaxx I reached for the cans of alubias blancas (FoodMaxx's clientele being largely Latino, everything is labeled in Spanish) but instead grabbed the habichuelas blancas right next to them. So instead of cannellini, I ended up with navy beans! Derp!

In any case, a little mirepoix, a few ounces of my house-cured pancetta, some herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme), a lot of garlic, a touch of tomato paste, and some white wine quickly became the sauce while the pasta was cooking. Some cheese and olive oil over the top finished each of our bowls of deliciousness. And it sure was good with our Pinot Noir!

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Day with Tom and Ann

Sunday afternoon was a beautiful if chilly day, a great day for the easy drive over to Tom and Ann's in Capon Bridge. Carter protested going over and over to the point where we had to threaten him with losing every privilege he has to get him to shut up. He sulked all the way over, but that silence was golden!

After we were effusively and hyperenthusiastially greeted by Levi, we spied that Tom had already opened four bottles of wine: a 2011 Sokol Blosser Pinot, a 2012 Owen Roe "The Kilmore" Pinot, a 2011 Hartford Court Old Vine Zin, and the star of the day, a 2010 Insignia. Insignia isn't generally my style of wine, but this one was delicious.

Wine Star of the Day
Neither of the Pinots really floated my boat, but the Owen Roe really bloomed when tasted with these bison meatballs with a gochujang-apricot glaze. Not only were the meatballs delicious in their own right, but the spice in the glaze and the ginger in the meatballs really made the Pinot sing. I have got to remember this for my own pairing dinners.

Bison Meatballs with Gochujang-Apricot Glaze: Culinary Star of the Day

Cornbread with Bacon

Cold Day, Hot Stew!
For dinner, Tom made a big pot of venison stew which he served with cornbread. That's a pretty good choice for a cold December day!

Venison Stew on Cornbread
After lunch, we adults watched "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" with a whole cast of our favorite actors, while the boys snoozed away the afternoon on the couch.

Levi and His Buddy Carter
Once again, thanks to Tom and Ann for their hospitality and kudos to Tom for another wonderful meal.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Vegetables with Spiced Tofu

I admit that I wasn't too jazzed when I read in an email from Ann yesterday "Let's do a vegetable stir fry with tofu." But, I was in a hurry to get home and really didn't want to try to think of something different, so I just replied "OK" and grabbed a few things at FoodMaxx on the way home.

Vegetables with Spiced Tofu
I also have to admit that it really did taste very good and that my body was craving vegetables, after a week of heavy Thanksgiving eating.

Peppers, Snow Peas, Shiitakes, Green Onions, Carrots
Not shown here is a small crown of broccoli that I prepped into florets and steamed in the microwave for about four minutes before adding them to the pan to caramelize.

Spiced Tofu, Cilantro, Garlic, "Pickled Radish"
The prep took about 15 minutes of chopping and slicing during the afternoon and then it only took about 10 minutes to bring the dish to the table when Ann decided she was hungry. I seared the ingredients in three different batches to keep my pan smoking hot. This is where I miss a carbon steel wok and a smoking wok burner. ;) The heat and the smoke I don't miss.

The green onions and cilantro went in raw. And then when all was done, I put the so-called "pickled radish" into the pan and deglazed with a touch of water. In went a little bean paste, some hoisin, a little soy sauce and it all cooked for another 90 seconds at which point, I poured the sauce over the veg and tossed well.

As for the "pickled radish," that's the name on the shelf tag at the store. The packages themselves are not marked in any way in English, except for a use-by date. So, I don't really know what these sweet and spicy pickled vegetables are, other than addictively good. They are my new favorite find!

Linden Vineyards

2014 has been a tough year financially for the restaurant and that has really put a damper on our ability to get out and visit wineries like we had been accustomed to in the past. I knew it had been a while since we visited Linden, but it really struck home when we pulled up out front to see that they have undergone a renovation of the winery since our last visit back in April: new windows, some new siding, new doors, a new tasting counter, and one doorway closed off. The upstairs is also now open and looks much different with large, arched windows filling each of the gable ends.

Beautiful in all Seasons
I had figured that the weekend after Thanksgiving would be a great weekend to visit, the snow and the holiday keeping traffic low. And it was: traffic was minimal. Not good for the winery, but not unexpected, but very good for us. When I visit, I like to take my time and taste the wines and compare and contrast them with vintages past and that is nearly impossible to do when people are lined up three deep at the tasting counter behind me.

We tasted through the current line up very unhurriedly. Most of the wines I had not tasted before (well, I am sure I have tasted a bunch of them in barrel) as they are mainly from the 2012 vintage. It's pretty obvious that the lack of wine in 2011 is forcing Jim to release wines more quickly than I am sure that he would like. New to me were 2012 Chardonnay, 2012 Claret, 2012 Petit Verdot, and 2010 Hardscrabble Red. They are all delicious but the Petit Verdot needs a good bit more time before it is ready.

Lunch Outside on the Deck
Despite the snow on the ground, it was a very pleasant 60 degrees outside and we took advantage of the beautiful weather to have lunch out on the deck, the only people to do so. The venison summer sausage and the Meadowcreek Appalachian cheese are old stand bys. The smoked duck from the Marshall IGA is new and is a bit too heavily smoked for my liking. Delicious, but too much smoke. The Merry Goat Round goat brie from Firefly Creamery is new to Linden in my experience, but it is a regular on our cheese plates at the restaurant.

2013 Hardscrabble Red Barrel Sample
Unbeknownst to us, Jim was doing library tastings this weekend (a 30-year retrospective of Hardscrabble: had we known, we would have signed up). While we were out on the deck and between tastings, he came out to say hi bearing a small carafe of 2013 Hardscrabble Red from the barrel. It's a young, fiery beast with good minerality and structure. I am looking forward to tasting it in a few years when it calms down.

Tasting in the Cellar
We also did a cellar tasting where we tasted Boisseau 2012 Chardonnay against Hardscrabble 2012, Boisseau 2010 Red versus 2012, and Late Harvest Vidal 2007 with Late Harvest Petit Manseng 2009. The Boisseau 2012 Chardonnay is probably the finest Chard from that site that I have yet tasted; clearly it has been picked earlier than in years past and has more acid to help it balance. The 2012 Hardscrabble Chard is to me the finest Chard that Jim has ever made, very nicely balanced and very Burgundian. I'm very familiar with both dessert wines: we pour both of them at the restaurant. The Petit Manseng is always over the top.

It was a great day with Ann to be able to sit and savor delicious wine.

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...