Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Faux Pho Bo

Faux Pho Bo
Yesterday, after working all day catering a dinner at Delaplane Cellars on Sunday, I moved heaven and earth at work to get my deskwork done and to get home as early as possible to spend some time with Ann. My last stop on the way home is FoodMaxx and it was there that I got a text from Ann asking if we could go out for Thai food for lunch. Knowing that it was already about 1pm and by the time I got home and got the groceries unpacked and we got back into town to the Thai restaurant, it would be every bit of 2pm, I decided that since we generally order a rice noodle soup very similar to pho, that I would just throw together a quick version at home so that we could spend more of our afternoon being with each other and less of our time scurrying about trying to get somewhere.

So I grabbed two bowls of instant pho bo, cilantro, a lime, and a pack of snow peas (because I know how much Ann loves snow peas). At home, I got a red pepper and Thai basil out of the garden and sriracha and hoisin sauce out of the cabinet. I made the soup in the microwave following the directions printed on the sides of the disposable bowls and while they were cooking, I squirted hoisin and sriracha in the bottom of big soup bowls and strung the snow peas.

Here you see the result fully garnished with cilantro, Thai basil, sweet red pepper, sriracha, hoisin, lime, and snow peas. And you know, it wasn't half bad, all doctored up like this. An OK bowl of soup in under 10 minutes: now that's my kind of lunch!

We sat outside under the umbrella and had soup along with a bottle of Taittinger Brut Française Champagne. What else to have with pho? ;)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pig and Pinot

Sometimes the unrelenting nature of the restaurant business gets to us and so it has done the past couple of weeks, October being among the very busiest of times at the restaurant. It is incredibly difficult to have a meaningful relationship when the other woman is a restaurant. And so Ann and I just needed some us-time before I get started on another very busy month that will see us catering two large dinners at Delaplane Cellars.

In my copious spare time at the restaurant, which is to say none, I managed to find time to put together a plan for Sunday, thinking all the while that Carter would be off at Tom's house working to make some cash. I decided to make a frittata for brunch with a Bloody Mary for each of us and then I thought that we could walk around the State Arboretum of Virginia in the afternoon to take advantage of what I thought would be beautiful fall weather. While we were walking, I would have a pork shoulder in the oven going low and slow and that would be awaiting our return. Or so went the plan. Most of it happened, but that's not the important part. The important part is that Ann and I got to spend a great day together without having to be anywhere or do anything.

Brunch: Bloody Marys and Frittata
We ate brunch rather earlier than I wanted because I needed the oven free to roast the pork. For the frittata, I sweated a bit of onion with Surry sausage, then added the eggs, ricotta, chives, and grated pecorino. In no time at all in a very hot oven, it had gone golden brown around the edges and puffed beautifully in the middle. It turned out that Carter would not be leaving so Ann woke him in time to join us for a late breakfast. While the frittata was in the oven, I mixed up a Bloody Mary for each of us and garnished them with skewered lime and olives and a branch of lovage from the back porch. Lovage has delicious but unique celery flavor, stronger than regular celery, and we love it.

The Bloody Mary is something of an art form at our house and our efforts are far from the watery tomato juice cocktails that most bars serve. I made the mix on Saturday afternoon and like many things that need time to come together, it was better for having sat in the refrigerator overnight. I started with tomatoes, celery, and a little poblano chile which I pureed in the big blender. To this I added four elements of heat: chipotle for a little smoky back of the throat stealth heat; red Thai curry paste for a slow burn with vegetable notes of galangal and cilantro root; a small boatload of horseradish for its nasal cavity gymnastics; and for all purpose heat, about a tablespoon of Calabrese chile paste with its smoky lip-stinging goodness. The other ingredients were salt, olive brine, lemon juice, and lime juice.

Pork Shoulder Before Roasting
Just before we sat down to brunch, I put the pork shoulder in the oven for dinner. This is half a shoulder from a Red Wattle x Duroc hog from a farm in nearby Shepherdstown WV. I decided to cook it very simply so that we could taste all its delicious porkiness unmasked, so I rubbed it with my standard pork shoulder rub and put it on a layer of onions on a sheet tray. [Those onions would prove to be the best part of the dish, having been caramelized in pork fat for hours!] I put the shoulder skin side up so that as the inch of subcutaneous fat melted, it would baste the meat. After sealing the whole thing in aluminum foil, I put it into a slow oven (275F) for the next 8 hours. Can you imagine what the house smelled like on Sunday? Pork Heaven for those of you without imagination.

My pork rub is salt, brown sugar, pimentón, cayenne, white pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder and is very similar to rubs used by all competition BBQ teams. Sometimes I add a little ground thyme, but my spice mill died, the restaurant being hell on small appliances. Although you can buy lots of commercial rubs, if you have access to a lot of spices, making your own is trivial.

My Infamous Farmers Market Slaw
What better, I ask you, with pulled pork than some really fresh cole slaw? I make a batch at the restaurant each day from hand-sliced vegetables from the market. Naturally, each day's slaw varies. I kept it simple at home. Our version was red and green cabbage, carrots, and a touch of celery. The dressing is nothing but plain granulated sugar and rice vinegar plus a sprinkle of Kosher salt. Right after brunch, I chopped and mixed the slaw and left it on the counter to work and soften until dinner.

We took our drinks out to the patio to enjoy the fall sunshine, but that lasted only about ten minutes before we threw in the towel and came back inside to watch movies. The temperature was really nice, 50ish, but the wind was screaming out of the northwest at 10-15 miles per hour, simply no fun at all. The wind put an end to my plan to go walk around the arboretum and enjoy the day outside. So we enjoyed ourselves inside instead.

Looks Like the Vultures Got This Pork Shoulder
I had no sooner taken the pork out of the oven than Ann had attacked it! We stood around the counter and rolled little burritos of pork and cole slaw. I also made a little dipping sauce for the pork: rice vinegar, salt, and a squirt of sriracha. This is a sauce typical of parts of Virginia and the Carolinas: no tomato, no sweet, and very thin. It's my kind of sauce, this so-called mopping sauce used for basting pig while it cooks, made without sugar to keep it from burning.

Chief Vulture in Charge
The wine star of our day was this bottle of Sonoma Coast Pinot from William Knuttel. It was just the right bottle at the right time and for us, had a perfect balance of fruit and acid with enough restraint and finesse to satisfy us both.

A Delightful Bottle
A great weekend, all in all. Starting with brunch and bloodies and finishing with pig and Pinot. What more could a person want?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works and Charleston WV

This past weekend, I took advantage of an invitation from Nancy Bruns of  J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, the restaurant's new salt supplier, to visit their facility and have dinner with them. They are situated in Malden WV, a suburb of Charleston, the WV state capital, a bit under a 5-hour drive from Winchester. To visit would require clearing my schedule on Monday and spending Sunday night in Charleston. But Ann and I needed some time away, just the two of us and even if it was not ideal spending 10 hours in a car, at least it was us-time with no dogs, kids, employees, or work to worry us.

About a month ago, I got a hotel room on the river in Charleston and asked Ann to clear her schedule, but never let her know where we were going or what we were doing. She was a good sport about it, mostly, though deep down some surprises make her a little uncomfortable: "What if I don't have the right clothes?"

Finishing Salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works
Before leaving at about 10:45 on Sunday morning, I made some sandwiches for the road because I just can't stand fast food and eating while driving saves a lot of time. And because where are we going to find food better than I can make?

Building Sandwiches for our Road Trip to Charleston
Toasted focaccia topped with pesto, goat cheese, roasted red pepper, fresh tomatoes, and a Chianti-flavored salame from Volpi in St. Louis made wonderful sandwiches for our trip out. I made four sandwiches, two for each of us, out of half a loaf and Carter made a single sandwich out of the other half loaf and consumed it on the spot without so much as breaking a sweat. Teenagers!

Focaccia, Pesto, Goat Cheese, Tomato, Roasted Red Pepper, and Salame
I drove all the way to Charleston, so I couldn't take any pictures on our trip there, a real shame because the scenery was beautiful. We started with decent early fall color in Winchester which had faded by the time we exited I-81 for I-64 West in Lexington, two hours south of us. But that soon changed as we started to climb up from the Shenandoah Valley into the Allegheny Mountains and by the West Virginia border, the sugar maples were flaming and the Virginia creeper was a deep crimson. Even the hickories were starting to turn yellow, which they are not yet at home.

In all my days here in Virginia (and that is most of them), I have never been west of Lexington on what is now I-64/the West Virginia Turnpike. The scenery between the state line at Lewisburg all the way in to Charleston is phenomenal and it amazes me that there is a road at all traversing this rugged mountainous terrain. I have heard stories about people heading out west on old US-60; I imagine that I-64 shaves hours off that trip.

After winding through the mountains on I-77 from Beckley on, with one tight curve after another, it was a relief to hit the relatively flat and straight stretch along the Kanawha river leading the last few miles into Charleston. Driving the city portion of US-60, Kanawha Boulevard, along the river led us past huge mansions and the Capitol building in an almost deserted downtown. The streetscape along the river is well done and quite beautiful as you can see in the photo below.

We almost made it to the hotel without incident; however, we found the street barricaded right at our hotel with no access to the hotel from any direction. I finally drove past the barricades on the west side of the hotel and into the parking lot. The street was blocked for the annual car show, which is apparently a "big deal." You can see a couple of cars still in the street in the photo below, what looks to me like a mint-green T-bird and a candy apple red Chevelle Malibu rag-top, though my grasp of cars is pretty suspect. For most of the way from Beckley to Charleston, we were surrounded by about fifteen or so Virginia-plated new Corvettes. I guess they were coming to see the cars too, but the show was over and most were gone by the time we arrived around 3:45pm.

View from our Room: The Kanawha River

Just Below our Room in the Street
We brought a couple of bottles of Delaplane wines with us, a bottle of Williams Gap 2012 as a gift for our hosts and a bottle of Duet 2012 that we drank in the hotel room while winding down from the road and getting ready for our tour of the salt works and dinner.

We Took Some of Virginia's Finest to WV
I was excited to find a more-or-less local salt to use for finishing at the restaurant in place of the fleur de sel from France that we had been using. Nothing wrong with the French product, but I do like to keep our dollars as close to home as possible, and 9 out of 10 tasters preferred the JQD salt to the fleur when tasted blind. I found out about J. Q. Dickinson salt through the chef grapevine: a couple of chefs whose opinion I trust recommended it to me. So I ordered a pound of it and we tasted it blind against the other salts we had in house at the time. We were very impressed with the salt. Not only is it a lot more local than what we had been using, it tastes great too.

On arriving at the salt works on the grounds of a landscaping company about 10 minutes east of downtown along US-60 on the flats along the Kanawha River, we saw these very neat round stones. I have no idea what forces shaped them this way. By way of history, the Dickinson family started making salt on this property in 1817 and descendants Lewis Payne and Nancy Bruns, brother and sister, have revived the process on the family farm which is also home to another family business, the landscaping company.

How Cool are These Rocks?
Of course, to make salt from brine, one has to have brine and there are apparently large pockets of brine below the ground in this part of West Virginia, which in the mid-19th century was the leading producer of salt in the US. The brine for the current operation comes from a new well that extends 350 feet below ground. Brine is pumped into a large holding tank where it is aerated to oxidize the iron in the brine. The iron oxides settle to the bottom of the tank and the brine is taken off the top of the tank and flows by gravity to the concentrating beds in the adjacent greenhouse. As the sun concentrates the brine, impurities crystalize out.

Lewis Payne Describes Salt Crystallization to Ann; His Sister Nancy Bruns Looks on
Once the brine concentrates, it is removed to crystallizing beds in a separate greenhouse. In the photo above, you see Lewis explaining the process to Ann while Nancy looks on. The crystals you see are salt that have formed as more water evaporates. The concentrated brine is a super-saturated solution so any further evaporation will cause crystallization of salt.

Salt Rake; Beautiful Craftsmanship
Once the salt has crystallized, it is raked to the sides and allowed to drain. And then it dries for a prolonged period before being pulverized (if necessary), sifted, weighed, and packaged. The salt rakes, combs, and scoops that they use are all handmade locally and are true works of art.

High Tech Salt Drying Apparatus
Here you see the salt, wrapped in towels, drying before being packaged. After touring the salt works, I came away impressed by the amount of labor and passion that it takes to make, process, and package the salt.

Beautiful Retail Packaging
The retail packaging for the salt and the nigari is beautiful and simple with an earth-tone aesthetic. Nigari is a coagulant that is traditionally used to curd tofu and is the mineral-rich liquid left once the salt has precipitated out. I knew about its use in making tofu, but it never occurred to me to use it in making ricotta. I always make ricotta with vinegar or lemon juice, but Nancy made the ricotta for our dinner using her own nigari. Live and learn.

Ricotta and Hazelnut Crostini with Honey and Salt
The caterer had set out several plates of hors d'oeuvres including these crostini topped with the ricotta that Nancy had made, hazelnuts, honey, and a sprinkle of JQD salt for contrast.

At Dinner Outside the Salt-Works
After the tour, we dug in to a most delicious buffet of local foods from a local caterer. The quality of the food was fabulous.

Tomato Salad; Awesome Sweet Potatoes
Although the tomatoes were primo, it was the sweet potatoes that stole the show. They had a mild jalapeño dressing that made them spectacular.

Quinoa Salad
From talking to several attendees, all people in the trade and mostly foodies, I understand that quinoa is a grain that is being researched as a cash crop for West Virginia. It wasn't clear to me if the quinoa that we had was locally grown or not.

Swiss Chard in Beautiful Pottery Dish
This very simple salad of chiffonaded Swiss chard and a touch of ricotta was delicious. This chard is very young and very mild without any of the iron flavor that older chard gets.

Excellent Pulled Pork, Brioche Buns, Smooth Ambler BBQ Sauce
The star of the dinner was this pulled pork, which was as good as any pulled pork I have had in years. The brioche rolls that it was served with were absolutely delicious and made by a bakery in Charleston. The other accompaniments were cole slaw and a barbeque sauce made with Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon from over in Lewisburg. The bourbon gave the tomato-based sauce a distinct vanilla and wood flavor that was great, but not on my pork, thank you. This pork was so good that it didn't want any sauce.

String Trio
We were entertained during dinner by this trio with the guy on the left alternating between his mandolin, his fiddle, and his banjo. That's some talent!

Kanawha River and Kanawha Boulevard by Night
After dinner, it was starting to get chilly so we headed back to the hotel in Charleston, which is as pretty by night as it is by day, maybe prettier. I'd like to say we slept well, but that would be distorting the truth. At first other patrons kept us up by making a ton of noise in the corridors and then the alarm clock in the unoccupied neighboring room went off at 12:15am and once again at 5:45am. At 5:45, we decided to throw in the towel and hit the road back. We got away about 6:20 and as we drove by the Capitol building, I couldn't believe that ours was the only vehicle on the road on a Monday workday. Can you imagine driving South Capitol Street in DC by yourself at 6:20 in the morning?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Anniversary Paella

In the restaurant business, we celebrate our personal milestones on days off. Work days are for helping others celebrate their milestones. I wish it weren't so, but it is the nature of my occupation. This past Sunday was the day closest to our actual anniversary and to celebrate we invited a dozen or fourteen friends over for tapas, paella, and a case of Tempranillo, which our friends, who are not shy about wine, promptly emptied!

Paella Mixta
We really had a beautiful day and I kicked the hardwood fire off about ten minutes to four in the fire pit out on our patio. At 4:30, I started the chicken, which was followed by the chorizos, the tiny Salvadoran ones called tuzas (gophers), and my mirepoix of red peppers, onions, and hard Spanish chorizo. After this, into the pan with a spoonful of pimentón and my picada (parsley and garlic). Then a gallon of mixed stock (chicken, pork, mussel, and saffron), right up to the bottom of the handle rivets.

Once the stock came to a boil, a kilo and a half of rice went into the pan at 5:00 and was done by 5:25 or so. After 15 minutes of resting under a couple of towels, we all dug in, scraping big hunks of the crunchy socarrat off the bottom of the paellera.

Rear to Front: Chicken Wings, Salvadoran Chorizos, Red Prawns, Mussels
I thought I had lucked out and got some amazing red prawns. They sure look good, but their texture was pasty and the flavor very fishy. Not again for me. They are a new product that I was checking out for my seafood company. No bueno.

Figs, Goat Cheese, Jamón
For starters for our guests while I was out back tending the fire and the paellera, I made two tapas: these halved figs topped with local goat cheese and wrapped in ham. And I threw together some sautéed onions and red peppers from the garden with some thyme and eggs for a tortilla. Finally, as Spaniards will often do for a quick tapa, we raided the pantry for some marinated olives, peppers, and lupini.

Mixed Olives, Peppers, and Lupini

Red Pepper and Onion Tortilla
For wine, I picked a really smooth Tinta de Toro crianza from Finca Sobreño. It's a ripe Tempranillo that tastes of darker fruit, blackberries and cassis, without a lot of aggressive wood and with tame tannins. A great party wine.

A Nice Tempranillo (Tinta de Toro)

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...