Saturday, December 26, 2015

Pommes Anna for Christmas

There hasn't been much to celebrate this year at our house but we've put a brave face on it and gone through the motions anyway. For Christmas Day brunch, Ann decided some days ago that she wanted pommes Anna and so how could I refuse?

But seriously, you ever heard of doing pommes Anna for Christmas? Me either.

Ann's Snowman Christmas Tree

A Little Splash of Color

Playing Christmas Carols
It wasn't all sadness this year though. Ann managed to convince Carter to come play some Christmas carols at the piano with her. That's a pretty decent accomplishment given that he's a teenager that really wants nothing to do with parents.

Pommes Anna Takes Serious Quantities of Butter
Pommes Anna is one of the great classics of French cuisine, introduced to America largely by Julia Child. For anyone inclined to the kitchen, it really is quite a simple dish to make. I have made dozens and dozens of them in my life. In France, they actually sell copper pans specifically designed for making this dish, but really, any heavy bottomed round pan can work and this is a perfect excuse for me to pull out the old Griswold number 8 cast iron pan, made sometime in the 1930s.

Ready for the Oven
You can use about any potato for pommes Anna. I typically use russets because their high starch content helps the cake stick together. I sliced these by hand, though I often use a mandoline. The first layer is key: it will be your show side, so take your time and make the first layer look nice. After putting a good bit of melted butter in the bottom of the pan which should be on a low flame, I lay the first potato slice in the center and spiral my way out to the edge of the pan.

Between each layer, I pour over more melted butter and sprinkle on some kosher salt. After the first show layer, how you do the subsequent layers is fairly inconsequential. The real goal is to make the layers tight and even with as few gaps as possible, especially around the edges. The more edge contact with the side of the pan, the better and more solid your edge crust will be and that will help hold your potato cake together.

Out of the Oven
I use the bottom of a large pan to compress the potatoes into as flat a cake as I can before it goes into the oven and then again when I pull it out to uncover it. I cover the cake with foil and put it into a fairly hot oven, say 400F, for about 25-30 minutes. Then I will pull it out and check the doneness of the potatoes. If the potatoes are fairly soft, I will compress the cake again and then put it back in the oven uncovered this time until I see a good crust formed all the way up the sides, another 15 minutes or so. The top layer of potatoes will be starting to brown by this point.

Ready for Christmas Brunch
Let the cake cool for a minute and then pour off the butter from the pan. You'll need to hold the cake in the pan as you tilt it to drain the butter: a plate works well for this. Then invert the cake onto whatever serving plate or platter you're going to us. I decided on a cake stand, since the pommes Anna was the star of our brunch.

A Touch of Indulgence
It is now tradition that we have Champagne and caviar for Christmas, and so I got two different caviars for our brunch. I scrambled some eggs to go with our pommes Anna and we topped the eggs with caviar. It was a bright spot in our Christmas season.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Pork Neck Udon

In planning for our Christmas break, I knew that despite being closed on Christmas Eve, I had to go into work to receive a couple of trucks in the morning. I hoped to be home by lunch time depending on when the trucks arrived and so I planned to make lunch for us.

A couple of $20 bills disbursed the week before along with a box of chocolates for one of the driver's wives ensured that my restaurant was the first stop that the drivers made in Winchester on Christmas Eve. Amazing how that little trick (and being nice to your drivers throughout the year) works when you really need it. So, I was out of work by 10:30 in the morning to head home for lunch.

A few days earlier, I decided that I wanted a big bowl of udon and I didn't think I would have any complaints from the family. As it turned out, Carter's waif of a girlfriend also ate with us and although she barely ate any, I'm not taking this as a bad sign. I'm guessing that she barely eats at all anyway. I wolfed my bowl like a starving thing.

Pork Neck and Shiitake Udon
Udon is all about two things: the broth and the noodles. I have no say in the noodles. I can only get one type, the ones from the Brooklyn factory that everyone on the East Coast uses. What I can control is the broth. I decided to go way far away from traditional Japanese broths and do a deep, rich pork broth in keeping with the winter weather. Several days before, I roasted some pork neck bones to the point of caramelization and then converted them to a super-rich pork stock. Once the stock was cooked, I picked and saved the neck meat for garnish for the noodles.

Christmas Eve on my way home, I stopped at the market for cilantro, green onions, shiitakes, and pickled mustard stems as garnishes for the udon. At home, I prepped all the garnishes while reheating the stock. Once the stock was warm, I seasoned it with a little agave nectar and a little fish sauce. Into the seasoned stock went the neck meat to rewarm and the shiitakes to cook for a minute. Then for each bowl, I dipped a quarter of the noodles into the broth to warm them and transferred them to a serving bowl. Over the top went broth containing the neck meat and shiitakes and I left it to each diner to garnish with mustard, green onions, and cilantro.

I was a very happy boy. My udon craving was satiated.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Pork Chop with Sweet Potato Hash

I was off early one night in the lead up to Christmas and Ann was home from her parents' house, so I brought home some pork chops and some mâche, a light and slightly nutty salad green. None of us are eating/eating well given the current circumstances with Ann's father, so I am making a conscious effort to at least get us all around the table when I can.

The pork chops I put in a hickory bark syrup brine for about a week before cooking. These I seared in a hot black steel pan and then finished for about five minutes in a 400F oven. A quarter cup of hickory bark (or maple) syrup and a tablespoon of salt to a gallon of water makes a fine brine. Hickory bark syrup is made locally by boiling shagbark hickory bark in water and then adding turbinado sugar which gives it a smoky flavor.

Pork Chop with Sweet Potato Hash and Mâche Salad
I have for years made a sweet potato hash from sweet potatoes, onions, slab bacon, and dried cranberries. Once all is cooked, I deglaze the pan with bourbon to add a woody, caramel note. I spied a sweet potato on the counter and turned it into this hash. Ann wasn't a big fan but I'm not surprised: she's one of those that has an issue with fruit in savory dishes. I find that it a wonderful accompaniment to pork or duck.

Bourbon-Flambéed Sweet Potato, Bacon, and Cranberry Hash

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

Yesterday was a Monday, my short paperwork and erranding day at work, and I was in high gear from 7am on to make it home by early afternoon to spend time with Ann. Dealing with her father's stroke has been wearing us both thin, her more than me, and she has been away a lot, so we just needed some us time. When it was clear that I would be getting home on the late side of lunch, I asked her if I could bring something home for lunch. By the time she suggested Thai, I was long gone from downtown where I could get some carryout Thai. She then asked if I could make pad thai at home. Fortunately, I was at the market where I could grab some fresh rice stick and tamarind.

It's been a long while since I have made pad thai or even eaten it. It's a dish that I love but don't ever order out. I have yet to find a Thai restaurant in these parts that makes this simple food cart food well. So I make it at home and although the prep takes a little while, the dish itself takes almost no time to make.

Ingredients for Pad Thai
The setup for this pad thai is as follows from the bowl of beaten egg clockwise: cilantro, pickled turnips, pad thai sauce in the sauce pan, lime wedges, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, fresh rice noodles, and shallots.

The first thing to do is to make the pad thai sauce, which I always make separately from the noodles because the palm sugar is difficult to dissolve if put directly into the pan with the noodles. The sauce is roughly equal portions of palm sugar and tamarind paste, a half portion of fish sauce, and a half portion of water.

Tamarind Pods
Tamarind paste is fairly easy to make. If you are working with a block of tamarind pulp, cut off a chunk and cover it with water. I find a little heat helps dissolve the pulp, so I put it in the microwave for a minute. I find it easier to work with tamarind pods than with block tamarind. As you can see above, the pods have a loose bark and then longs strings under that running along and through the pulp. Pull off the bark and pull out the strings, then break the pulp apart between the seeds. Cover with water, and warm. At this point, no matter whether you're working with block or whole tamarind, use a spoon to agitate the warmed tamarind, then work it through a sieve to separate the tamarind pulp/paste from any seeds and debris.

To start making pad thai, I like to caramelize my shallots and garlic and this time I added lime leaves for their haunting scent. I added spicy pickled turnips instead of red pepper for spice. This would be the point where I would have added shrimp and/or tofu if I were using them. Next come the rice noodles. After tossing them for a few seconds, I start adding the sauce in small additions along with more water as needed to steam-fry the noodles until they are just ready to eat. At the last second, I add the beaten egg and stir it in.

I garnished with lime wedges and cilantro. And usually I garnish with crushed peanuts, but I didn't have any. I serve it at the table with white pepper and fish sauce for those who want a little more in their noodles.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Salmon Burgers

Ann had mentioned liking salmon burgers at some point last week and as I buy a side of salmon each week to snack on after work, I decided to turn this week's salmon into salmon burgers for her. I'm no stranger to salmon burgers: they were on the lunch menu at the restaurant for a couple of years in the early days until I figured out that nobody comes to my restaurant for sandwiches. It's a shame for it's a great sandwich.

Salmon Burger
Making salmon burgers is pretty trivial. I took the pin bones out of a side of salmon and skinned it, then cut it into large dice. Into the food processor it went and I pulsed it until it was the consistency of burger. To this I added a bunch of a quarter cup of capers, a half teaspoon of salt, a quarter cup of whole grain mustard, and a big handful each of chopped fresh dill and sliced green onion. I pulsed it again a couple of times to mix everything and then formed it into bun-size patties. A couple of minutes per side in a hot pan and we were eating. These burgers really are great.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Sad Sunday

Life around our house has changed recently and painfully. Ann's father Bob suffered a massive stroke Sunday a week ago that has left him hospitalized and incapacitated. Dealing with all the emotions and issues has left us all trainwrecks, Ann most of all because she has borne the brunt of caring for her mother and staying with her father, wrangling with hospitals, doctors, and insurance providers. It is so new and still so raw that I'm not sure I can write about it; I'm merely going through the motions here at the keyboard.

This Sunday was the first time that I was able to go see him in the hospital in Fairfax. And we took Carter too, the Carter who had been asking to go during the week. He did some growing up on Sunday. Before we left, I insisted that we all eat breakfast, not knowing what the day would hold for us and when or if we would eat again.

Caramelized Onion and Pancetta Frittata with Cheddar
I rummaged the refrigerator and found a small piece of pancetta, an onion, some cheddar cheese, and some eggs. In no time, I had a caramelized onion and pancetta frittata in the oven. Carter and I ate it. Ann did not. I don't blame her. I was just going through the motions myself.

On the drive back home from Fairfax—we decided to leave before dark—we discussed dinner, no doubt mainly to take our minds off, however momentarily, the elephant in the room. Ann mentioned that she had taken some ground turkey out of the freezer. What to make with ground turkey? I've never worked with it before, but it behaves like most other lean ground meat.

We discussed a bunch of options: chili, meatballs, meatloaf, etc. But when things get rough for Italians, Italians go for pasta. Ann was pretty firm in her desire for meat sauce with pasta, so we stopped by the store on the way home and grabbed some tomatoes, some cream, and some pasta.


Rigatoni with Turkey Sauce
This meat sauce I make, while really good, is not a classic ragù alla bolognese which I made for years before settling in on making meat sauce the way I prefer it and that way I prefer it is more Southern, more akin to ragù alla napoletana. My meat sauce I usually make with cubed meat that cooks until it shreds on its own rather than with ground meat, but I am no stranger to ground meat sauce, which according to many authorities is the proper form of meat in a ragù. Ah whatever, this is my blog and my dinner and I'll do it however I please.

Here are my tricks for making meat sauce with ground meat:

Develop a great fond. Fond is a French word meaning many things but bottom most of all, and in a culinary context, the layer of brown bits accumulating on the bottom of a pan. In a heavy bottom pan, start by browning the meat. Once it is browned, remove 90 percent of the meat from the pan and continue cooking the remaining ten percent. Cook until all the water in the juices evaporates and a heavy fond appears on the bottom on the pan. The fond should not be burned but it should be thick and it should not scrape off readily.

Add the vegetables to the pan at this point. For a simple sauce like this one, I use only onion. For a more complex and more traditional bolognese, I use onions (or leeks), carrots, and celery. Add more oil if necessary; you can always take it back off the top of the sauce later as it simmers. Add some dried basil at this point. Basil is fairly oil soluble and it renders better flavor (says I) when it is cooked in the oil rather than in the water-based sauce. Cook the vegetables, stirring frequently, until they are becoming translucent. Most of the fond will remain stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Deglaze the pan with a good shot of dry white wine. I am firmly of the opinion that meat sauce is better made with white wine than red wine. Scrape vigorously to get all the browned bits of fond off the pan and into the sauce.

Add a bit of tomato puree, maybe a couple cups per pound of meat, but remember, you are making meat sauce, not tomato sauce. Add a splash of heavy cream, say a half a cup per pound of meat. Many recipes call for milk. It's cream for me. I want the cream in the pan early on so that it caramelizes with long slow cooking. Add enough meat stock or water to just cover the meat: stock is naturally better but if you have built a good fond, you can get away with water if you have no stock.

Let it cook. Meat sauce takes a long time to mellow and caramelize and become that awesomeness that you seek. It takes a minimum of 90 minutes and four hours is better. Stir occasionally and be mindful of the liquid level. You want a sauce that is mostly meat with enough liquid to make it fluid. You may have to add more liquid as it cooks to keep it from scorching. Use a low flame, naturally.

Season towards the end and if it needs a splash more cream, splash it.

And that's it. It takes a long time to develop a good fond and an even longer time for the flavors to caramelize and coalesce into that luxuriousness called meat sauce. It's very simple but it requires a lot of patience.

And so we wolfed down big steaming bowls of rigatoni (Don't even go Bolognese on me and start talking about tagliatelle; I'm a thick-cut, no egg, dried pasta guy.). We were hungry after waiting for hours for the sauce to cook. And so we ate, but without a lot of joy. It was more going through the motions. What a sad Sunday.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ribs with Chipotle Sauce

Ann has been throwing hints out about ribs for months, although not so much recently, and yesterday I decided that I had enough time to surprise her with them while she was out chaperoning Carter's choir. (Although in the end, I almost didn't get them done. Our oven sucks and sometimes it appears to come on but will not actually heat. Yesterday it did this and I didn't catch it for an hour. Nothing like being behind by an hour when it comes to slow-roasting something.)

Pork Spare Ribs with Chipotle Sauce

These are St. Louis spare ribs (ends trimmed into a nice even rack) which I like better than back ribs because they are meatier, larger, and tastier than the smaller back ribs cut from the loin. I cobbled together a rub of pimentón, garlic powder, oregano, cinnamon, salt, and pepper: stuff I found in the spice drawer.

After rubbing the ribs down, I put them on a sheet tray on top of slabs of onion and wrapped the whole in foil. About three hours later, they were tender and delicious. Not as good as if I had done them low and slow outside, but what do you want for the first of December?

I have a standby three-ingredient pork sauce that works like a charm: a can of San Marcos chipotle salsa, a bit of agave nectar, and rice vinegar to taste. It's wonderful, spicy, and awesome with pork if you need a sauce. These ribs did not need a sauce.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

The Big Meal: Roast Turkey Thigh, Haricots Verts, Dressing, Gravy
Yesterday marked the seventh Thanksgiving that Ann and I have celebrated together. And it marked the quietest and most relaxed Thanksgiving that we have celebrated. Most of our circle of friends who celebrated with us in the past have moved away, my daughters are off and gone, and Ann's parents are getting to the point where they just don't want to make the drive from McLean, and who can fault them for that?

Table for Three, Please
That left just Ann and me and Carter, who was more focused on having to work Black Friday sales at his job at the mall that evening than he was on celebrating with us. Progress though this year: he left his cell phone in the kitchen when he joined us at the table for dinner.

Herbs from our Garden
Unlike years gone by, I did very little in the way of advance prep and that was limited to a quart of turkey stock that I made from a half dozen turkey necks on Wednesday and a pint of the meat that I pulled off the necks. Just cooking for three, we scaled the menu and the portions way back and that really reduced the prep load, so I just prepped everything Thanksgiving morning in a slow, leisurely manner.

Ann and I started the morning after our obligatory coffee in the sun room by walking about the back yard collecting herbs from the various beds: chives, sage, rosemary, and thyme. For the second year running, the parsley plants that I bought at the farmers market immediately bloomed and went to seed upon planting them. Though they were tiny, they acted like second year plants. Note to self, no more parsley from the market. I brought home a bunch of parsley from the restaurant. At least until it snows, it looks like Beth will have plenty of parsley, but damned if I don't miss being able to go out the back door and cut some at will.

Thanksgiving Mise en Place
Once a chef, always a chef. The reason we are so efficient in the kitchen is that we have everything in its place and ready to go before the flame goes on. In the restaurant kitchen, we spend all day getting ready for four hours of dinner service. At home, I spent 20 minutes getting ready for an hour of cooking: mirepoix for the dressing (leeks, onions, celery), ingredients for the pancetta-pecorino butter for the turkey (sage, rosemary, shallots, garlic, pancetta), chives for the mashed potatoes, and herbs for the dressing (sage, thyme, and parsley).

Ann put on some oldies from the 1960s on Pandora and we worked away in the kitchen, in no sort of rush. We had no agenda really, but by 1pm, it became clear that we were getting really hungry and so we put a move on things and ate at 2:45.

Roast Turkey Thighs with Pancetta-Pecorino Butter
Some years ago, Ann found a recipe for a pancetta-pecorino compound butter that we used under the breast skin of the turkey and it turned out so good that we have made it every year since. This year, it went under the skin of the turkey thighs and then all over the thighs, into the mirepoix for the dressing, and as the base fat for the gravy. It's really good stuff: butter, finely minced pancetta, shallots, garlic, salt, pepper, pecorino, olive oil, rosemary, and sage, all tossed into the food processor. Can be made a long time in advance and would be something awesome to keep in the fridge most of the time.

Gravy is Awesome
Once the turkey had cooked, I put the dressing in the oven. Ann makes the same dressing every year because it is wonderful: toasted cubes of bread, saltines, mirepoix (onion, leek, celery), herbs, stock, and milk. This year, I might have deglazed the mirepoix pan with a glass of Chablis while Ann wasn't looking (because we can NEVER change a recipe: we have to follow it to the T) and some turkey stock to get up all those browned bits of pancetta-pecorino butter that also wasn't in the recipe.

While the dressing cooked, the turkey rested and once it had cooled, I started making the gravy by taking the fat off the roasting pan and adding it to some of the compound butter. A little flour went into the pan until I had a nice light brown roux, then in went the drippings from the roasting pan, the pint of turkey neck meat, and the turkey stock. A few more minutes on a low flame, a touch of salt, and done. Ann: "I could eat a bowl of just this!"

While I was making gravy, Ann made a batch of mashed potatoes. We have a running mock argument about them each year as I really don't see the need for mashed potatoes and dressing in the same meal. She disagrees. I need some cranberry sauce with my meal or it isn't Thanksgiving and she does not. We enjoy our little verbal sparring. ;)

Ann put a bunch of green beans tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and pecorino on a sheet tray and once the dressing came out of the oven, I put the beans under the broiler for about five minutes just before we ate.

It was a quiet Thanksgiving dinner, just the three of us at the table with the dogs curled up below, low stress and calm with few dishes to clean up. But I won't lie: we missed our friends and our family. It wasn't the same without them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Butter Lettuce with Smoked Salmon, Clementines, and Red Onions

Butter Lettuce with Smoked Salmon, Clementines, and Red Onions
On Monday, I got home early enough to eat lunch with Ann and she wanted to have a big salad. She really loves it when we make a huge salad, snuggle up in the big chair together, and dig in with two forks. When she suggested a salad for lunch, for some reason, I had bagels with smoked salmon, capers, and red onions on the brain. And so combining the two seemed pretty natural. While making the salad, I spied a bunch of clementines on the counter and so those went in. And Ann dredged up a container of dried cranberries which we added as well. The dressing is lemon juice, clementine juice, mustard, salt, and olive oil.

Linden Vineyards

Sunday, Ann and I made our first trip post-harvest to Linden Vineyards to meet up with Karen and we had a wonderful afternoon doing a cellar tasting and then chatting until just before they closed for the day. It was just really great to get out of the house and have some adult conversation for once.

Happy Girls!
Annie surprised me by wanting to drink Petit Verdot. In the past, the tannic structure of PV has put her off. With each passing month, she comes more and more to the dark side, appreciating acid and tannins more and more. Petit Verdot is not one of my favorite standalone grapes (it's wonderful for adding color and structure to a blend), but darned if it doesn't do really well here in Virginia in the right hands.

Artsy Photo of Ann
The highlight of the cellar tasting was the 2013 Avenius Chardonnay. It is a phenomenal, taut wine with hints of underripe pineapple. I have to say that it is the best Chardonnay I have ever tasted from Linden and certainly from Shari's vineyard. The 2010 Late Harvest Vidal is absolutely nuts, being Vidal on steroids. I could only drink tiny sips of it, so intense was the experience. The 2008 is much more drinkable.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Roasted Potatoes with Garlic Cloves and Surry Sausage

Roasted Potatoes with Garlic Cloves and Surry Sausage
We're in the grips of the Thanksgiving Blues at the restaurant: business dies for the two weeks before and after Thanksgiving. It's really an ugly time and a reminder that January, February, and March are just about on us. Rather than stick around the restaurant on a barren Friday night and be constantly reminded that the sucking noise I am hearing is really the sound of my bank account on auto-empty, I decided to come home and try to forget about business for the night with Annie.

Last week, I had picked up a few yellow potatoes in anticipation of roasting them, but I never got around to it. I brought home three small Surry sausages, one for each of us, and cubed them along with the potatoes. I tossed these with olive oil, fresh rosemary from the garden, salt, pepper, and lots of whole peeled garlic cloves (about a half a pound) and then this mix went onto a sheet tray in a very hot oven with the convection fan on for about 25 minutes, turned once about 15 minutes in.

Roasted potatoes with rosemary and whole garlic cloves is one of my all-time favorite dishes. I've never roasted potatoes with Surry sausage before, but it is a huge winner. This dish is so, so delicious. I cannot forget this one.

A word about Surry sausage. These are small maybe two-ounce smoked pork sausages made by S. Wallace Edwards and Sons of Surry, VA. They have a firm texture and taste of pork, sage, and black pepper and have been made the same way as long as I can remember and I can remember more than 50 years. Sam Edwards once told me that they used to take the leftover fresh sausage that didn't sell, stuff it into casings, and smoke it to preserve it. Now, the demand is so great that they purpose make the smoked sausage; no longer is it a by product of their fresh sausage business. When you go to order them, look for "hickory-smoked sausage links." Now only they call them this: everyone else in the state calls them Surry sausage. They make different kinds of sausage, but these little smoked guys are what you want. They are one of the very best sausages in the world.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Strozzapreti alla Puttanesca

Strozzapreti alla Puttanesca
Cloudy evenings spitting rain do not predict good evenings at the restaurant and so I left the crew to their devices last evening so I could spend the night with my wife (and despite my absence and lack of reservations, they had a good evening, so what the hell do I know?).

Ann wanted linguine alla puttanesca for dinner, so before I left the restaurant, I gathered a few things, including some strozzapreti, the longest pasta that we have in stock currently.

The Ingredients for my Sugo alla Puttanesca

In addition to the classic ingredients for sugo alla puttanesca (tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic), I also grabbed some artichoke hearts and a couple roasted red peppers. They're certainly non-traditional, but they work perfectly in this dish. Because fish sauce is so easy to buy and store and use, I no longer keep anchovies in the refrigerator. No more deboning the nasty little fishies! And rather than use crushed pepper flakes for heat, I used fresh sambal oelek. A big handful of fresh basil really helps this dish sing. I sliver my garlic (about 5 slices per clove) and then cook the garlic in olive oil until just starting to brown. At this point, I go ahead and make the sauce. I just think it is really important to let the garlic cook in the oil and not rush it to infuse it really well. The sauce doesn't need cooking so much as it just wants to be heated through.

There is no wonder that this is a classic pasta dish: it is so flavorful and so delicious. And it is no wonder that for the past fifteen years, a dumbed down version of this pasta has featured on the restaurant's lunch menu. What's not to love?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Porcini, Bacon, Caramelized Onion, and Sour Cream Meatloaf

No food posts recently: the last few weeks have been a blur at the height of our busy season and I am still looking for a much needed day off. November and the slow season are upon us now and I will have a chance to rest a bit now and hopefully cook a bit more at home. I took last night off trying to rest a bit and even though I was super-tired, I still managed to force myself to cook, when all I wanted to do was zone out on a chair. I needed something easy and no-brainer to make for dinner and when Ann and I couldn't negotiate something, I decided to make meatloaf.

Porcini, Bacon, Caramelized Onion, and Sour Cream Meatloaf
Why meatloaf? I'm still asking myself that question. I'm not a meatloaf person. It wasn't in my mother's repertoire and I do not recall eating it as a child. It's not in my culinary lexicon either: this was the second meatloaf I have ever made, the first being a few weeks ago at the request of some good customers, who were most enthusiastic about the results, "meatloaf mas fina!" I do recall having eaten meatloaf a couple of times and remembering that it was junk, probably in the chow hall at college though I couldn't say for sure. Suffice it to say that I just don't make meatloaf and it doesn't just come to mind when I am looking for something easy to make for dinner. But it did pop into my mind last evening.

Even though I don't really have any experience with making meatloaf, my meatloaf is top quality because I make a ton of charcuterie each year and handling forcemeat is second nature. Below is a recipe and some lessons learned over 35 years of making charcuterie.

Porcini, Bacon, Caramelized Onion, and Sour Cream Meatloaf

1 pound bacon
1 large yellow onion
1-1/2 cups sour cream
2 large eggs
1-1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
1 cup panko
1 cup porcini powder/bits*
1 cup grated pecorino romano
3 pounds ground pork

*To make a rough cup of porcini powder, I start with about two cups of dried porcini bits from the bottom of a bag of dried porcini and I knock them down in a spice mill in batches until I have mostly powder with no bits bigger than a dime left.

Dice the bacon and onion and cook over moderate flame, stirring from time to time, until the bacon is almost rendered and the onions are browning nicely. Remove the bacon and onions to a bowl big enough to hold the meatloaf forcemeat. Let cool for a minute or two so you don't risk cooking the eggs.

Add the sour cream, eggs, and salt to the bowl and mix well. Then add the dry ingredients (panko, porcini, and grated cheese) and mix well.

Using your hands, break up the ground pork as fine as you can over the wet mix, then mixing as little as you must with to evenly distribute the pork and the seasonings, bring the forcemeat together into a coherent uniformly colored mass. When in doubt, mix rather less than more.

Shape into a freestanding loaf on an oiled sheet tray and place in a low oven, about 325F, until a thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf reads 140-145F, about 90 minutes. Remove to the counter for 20 minutes to allow the final temperature to come up to 155F and so that the exterior cools enough to slice.

Tips

Ground pork makes the most succulent meatloaf. Ground beef makes the most rubbery. Veal is very good when you can get it. I opt for straight pork for best price performance.

Fat is key. I generally grind my own pork so that I can control the fat, 20-25% by weight, but if I don't then I buy at a store that grinds whole shoulders and I sort through the packs to find the ones that look the fattiest. And then I add cream or, in this case, sour cream just to ensure a high fat content. A dry (i.e. low fat) meatloaf sucks.

Mix the wet ingredients first to evenly distribute all the seasonings.

Use your hands to pull the meatloaf together, rather than stirring with an implement or a mixer. Wear gloves if you are squeamish. Gently does it. Just get all the ingredients equally distributed and no more. The more you work the forcemeat, the tougher the meatloaf.

Low and slow in the oven is the rule. You get more even cooking and less shrink, meaning more yield and more tenderness.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cream of Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese

I'm not sure any longer how we decided to have grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, that quintessentially American comfort food combination. But that's what we had for Sunday night dinner. I do remember telling Ann that the soup needed to have cream and I do remember her telling me that I am lactose-intolerant and that it wouldn't be good for me and I do remember her telling her I would suffer through it and I most certainly do remember suffering, almost immediately. It might have been worth it but it will be a long time henceforth before I touch any cream again.

Cream of Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese
At the farmers market, I picked up several pounds of less than stellarly ripe tomatoes figuring that I wanted more acidity rather than less in the soup. Whew! The acid was huge and I actually ended up adding some sugar to the soup to help counterbalance the acidity.

Ready for the Oven
The tomatoes roasted in a very hot oven with the convection fan running the whole while, for at least 45 minutes until most of the water from the tomatoes had evaporated. Meanwhile, I sweated two minced garlic cloves and half an onion, diced, in butter. Out of the oven, I peeled the blistered skins off the tomatoes and then threw the tomatoes, onions, garlic, and a sprig of basil in the blender. How nice of some local grower to come by the restaurant Saturday night with a sample of his hydroponic basil!

Soup, Cream, Salt, Sugar, and Sriracha Added, Mellowing on Low Flame
Out of the blender and into a pan over a very low flame went the soup, some heavy cream, and a little water. I added salt, sugar, and sriracha to taste.

Another Awesome Loaf
Just as soon as I pulled the tomatoes out of the oven, Ann put in this great loaf of bread. It has the best crust of any loaf she has ever made.

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
I sliced the bread and buttered it, then sliced a big piece of Sweetgrass Dairy Thomasville Tomme, a cheese that featured in our wedding "cake." Into the frying pan went the sandwiches and the rest is history. I have got to say that Ann's bread and its impeccable crust really made the sandwiches! Great job honey!

Cheap Red Sauce Italian

Baked Gemelli with Fresh Mozzarella
On the way home, there's a newish cheap red sauce Italian place whose owner worked for me for about a week some years ago. His current place is a dive but the food isn't that bad. I got off early one day last week and Ann wanted me to grab some to-go from there on the way home. But I have a real problem paying good money for something as trivial to make as baked pasta. So I brought home a brick of mozzarella that we made at the restaurant, some pasta, and a can of tomatoes.

Ann cooked the pasta while I made the sauce and sliced the mozzarella. Fifteen minutes of work and cleanup and a half an hour in a really hot oven to brown and we were done. Easy and delicious.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Pease Porridge

Depending on who you ask, we've been on borrowed time for anywhere from three days to two weeks. Our luck ran out overnight on Saturday: our first frost of the year followed by a 28F freeze the following evening. Earlier in the week in preparation for the coming cold weather, I picked all the basil and made pesto and Ann asked if I would make a pot of split pea soup on Sunday to accompany the chilly weather and a loaf of her delicious bread.

I've never really considered split pea soup and by considered, I mean in an academic nature. [Cue groaning noises from my wife.] Been making it all my adult life, but I never considered from which culinary tradition it has come. I didn't know anything about the history of the dish.

I certainly did have a guess that since we have a nursery rhyme about the dish ("pease porridge hot/pease porridge cold/...") that the dish is very old. And that it is, the rhyme is first recorded in the early 18th century but the dish is mentioned by Aristophanes and that was nearly 2500 years ago. Split pea soup is downright ancient on a human timescale. Further reading leads me to believe that cooked dried peas and pork is common to most of northern Europe; it certainly is extremely common in many militaries and all throughout Scandinavia. That it appears across such a broad swath of the world tells us that this dish is so old that it predates our modern notion of cuisines and international boundaries.

And its antiquity probably explains why we love it so: at this point, love for the soup is probably recorded at some level in our DNA. All joking aside, it is one of the few dishes that I, the ultimate omnivore, came to kicking and screaming. When I was a youngster of about 8 or 9, my mother made for the first time in my reckoning a nasty looking green soup which she assured me was delicious. I've never really balked at foods, but I bet it took her a solid half an hour of cajoling me while she was cooking it to get me to try that damn green stuff. I guess the color put me off. But once I finally nerved up enough to taste it, I was hooked.

[The only other thing that I came to balkily was sushi. At 25 years of age, I had never seen raw fish before. These were the days before you could buy sushi in any town anywhere. Four or five beers it took to get into the raw fish, but after that, I was likewise hooked.]

My split pea soup is always made with green split peas, a ham hock, an onion, a couple of carrots, some garlic, a bay leaf, and some thyme. Except this batch.

Not My Usual Split Pea Soup Mise
I was fresh out of carrots, so I grabbed a sweet potato for color. That's the only reason carrot is in the soup: for contrasting color. And I grabbed a few small pork sausages because I don't have a ham in the fridge and I didn't feel like getting one out of the back and unwrapping it. The secret weapon in my soup is what we call "pork goodness," the juices that congeal in the bottom of the pan after we have roasted our pork belly. I added about a pint of that at the very end. Because it is so salty, I add it at the end instead of salt.

Ann's roasted garlic loaf was incredibly delicious. Alas the photos did not turn out. The short day did not afford enough daylight and the picture quality was awful. Pictures or no, the soup and bread in front of the fire was a great way to temporarily chase away our first taste of winter.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Delaplane Cellars

It's been a long time since we have been to a winery. We try to skip them in September and October when our friends are working so hard to bring in the harvest and get it crushed. But as things start winding down--and this year Hurricane Joaquin brought things to an early close by dumping inches and inches of rain on us over many days forcing everyone to pick early--we start visiting again as we do frequently during the winter months.

We needed to pick up some wine and I needed to talk to Betsy about a couple of catering jobs coming up in the next couple of weeks, so after our morning coffee, we got dressed and made the quick and pretty drive to Delaplane.

Annie at Delaplane

Lunch

Williams Gap 2013
It was too cool and windy to sit outside, though some poor fools were trying it, so we camped out inside the tasting room and enjoyed a rare bit of grown up time talking about this and that and nothing at all. Ultimately, Jim came up from the cellar, complaining of being sore from all the punchdowns, and sat with us for a half an hour or so while we shot the breeze. We asked him why some of the Cabernet Sauvignon is still hanging. "Infected with botrytis," he replied. "Last year we brought in 9 tons, this year 3." 2015 was such a promising year (in fact, the whites are going to be really great) up until the hurricane struck.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Final Grilling 2015

We had a spot of nice weather Monday this week and I had a pork tenderloin that wasn't being used for anything else, so I determined to hit the grill. By 7pm though, I was grilling in the dark. Fortunately, as a professional chef, I know what a cooked pork tender feels like, even in the dark. Sadly, I am afraid that the lack of daylight signals the end of grilling for 2015. Though I'm looking forward to comfort food, I know it won't be long before I am jonesing for the grill again.

Grilled Pork Tender, Roasted Potatoes, Garlic, and Asparagus
We had some potatoes and garlic at home, so I decided to roast them because, quite honestly, there is hardly anything better in my book than potatoes roasted with whole cloves of garlic. And, yes, that is asparagus in October. As much as it offends my chef sense of seasonality, it makes my wife happy and so I roasted some asparagus for her. Annie, you are corrupting me!

A Really Expressive Willamette Pinot
Pork and Pinot is such a classic combination and this 2013 Terrapin is delightfully expressive, lightly extracted, and blessed with zippy acid. For an inexpensive bottle, this wine is a great value.

A One-Pan Vegetable Roast
Though my wife will try to argue this point, I always try to keep the number of dishes and pans that I use to a minimum, especially at home where Ann and I are the dishwashers. Here's a great trick. The potatoes and asparagus have vastly different roasting times. In a hot oven, the potatoes will take 25 minutes or so to become golden brown while the asparagus only want about five minutes with the convection fan running to become soft and tender. So I cook the potatoes until they are about five minutes from being done and place the asparagus right on top for the final five minutes. Two roasted vegetables, one pan to clean.

It may be the end of grilling season 2015, but we can always roast potatoes!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Porcini, Chanterelle, and Bacon Risotto

Though we celebrated our anniversary last Sunday, Wednesday the 30th was our actual anniversary. I wasn't sure until the last moment if I could get the night off from work, but in the end, I managed to get home bringing some Arborio, dried porcini, fresh chanterelles, and some grated Pecorino Romano.

Porcini, Chanterelle, and Bacon Risotto
I was tired, but risotto start to finish including prep takes under a half an hour. And besides, I know how much Ann loves risotto. Any amount of labor for that girl!

Modern Style Amarone
Amarone has historically been a tough wine for me to drink and even tougher to pair with food. The litany of woes with old school Amarone is long: low acid, tendency to develop volatile acidity, cloying flavors, vast alcohol, botrytis and so forth. Fortunately, a new generation of winemakers have applied new technology to the wine and their products are so much better now, notably in the preservation of acidity and the taming of off flavors. This Degani Amarone is a great example. There is no doubt that it is Amarone, but it is drinkable and more importantly, it did fine by our risotto.

Happy Anniversary Ann. It wasn't much, but it was all I could do not knowing if I would even be able to get home early enough for dinner.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Chicken Paprikash

Years ago, more than a quarter century, truth be told, I spent a few months immersed in George Lang's "The Cuisine of Hungary," teaching myself the fundamentals and absorbing the classics such as Paprikás Csirke, paprika chicken, better known as Chicken Paprikash. And from there, starting from the classic dish, I felt free to change it, to integrate it into my culinary vocabulary, and ultimately, to make it mine. I haven't made the dish in over a quarter century and it had been largely relegated to the recesses of my mind until Monday when suddenly, it popped quite jarringly into full consciousness.

Chicken Paprikash Soup
In an instant, I knew what was for dinner. I would make a soup version of paprikás csirke.

Lard, yellow onions, and paprika are the holy trinity of Hungarian cooking. To do it right, you must use lard, not something I have in any quantity at home. But I have bacon and if I have bacon, I can sure render some lard. Though non-traditional, I love the smokiness that bacon brings to the party. And then for paprika, because some smoke is good, more must be better, so I chose to use a really good Spanish pimentón, a smoked paprika.

Finished with small pieces of egg pasta, my version is not authentically made, but it certainly is authentic in spirit. And it is what I wanted for dinner.

Quoting my wife, "You have to make that soup again. FREAKIN AWESOME." Thank you George!



Ashby Inn

Sunday, I wanted to take Ann out for a nice lunch to celebrate our anniversary, which quite naturally given my business, falls on a work night this year. There's a new chef at the Ashby Inn in Paris, Virginia and I wanted to go meet him and see what his food is all about, professional curiosity if you will. Moreover, customers ask me daily about his food and whether they should dine there and I wanted to be able to finally answer their incessant questions.

A couple of my former employees work there so I asked one of them to set up a lunch for us. I had asked that we not order, that the chef send us whatever he thought was a fair representation of dishes, so that we could get to know his cooking style. Also, knowing that it was Sunday after a hard Saturday night, I sent word to keep it simple.

We arrived about 1:45, just before the close of their brunch seating at 2:00pm. I let them choose the hour of our dining to best fit their reservation book. Despite it being a rainy Sunday, the parking lot was nearly full when we arrived.

St. Innocent Pinot, A Gift
No sooner than we had sat down than Stuart Brennen, the sommelier, appeared at our table with a bottle of St. Innocent Pinot as a gift from Rory, the former employee who set up our lunch.

Smoked Salmon, Avocado Mousse, Egg, Pickled Ramps
The first course was this smoked salmon plate which was mainly fine, but the avocado mousse tasted to me to be made from overripe avocado.

Chanterelles, Braised Chicken, Frittata
The second course was this goat cheese frittata with a sauté of chanterelles and some pieces of braised chicken. It was plated with a sauce that was entirely too sweet.

Crepe, Goat Cheese, Honey, Walnuts
This crepe filled with goat cheese came next and was so sweet it could have been dessert. It should have been in retrospect, even though it is offered on the menu as a savory course.

My Lovely Annie

The Star of our Meal
After the Pinot, which was a very young fruit forward wine typical of Eola-Amity and the 2012 vintage, we started talking to Stuart about another wine to follow. I mentioned that we have been drinking a lot of Nebbiolo recently and we discussed the local Virginia producers. We ultimately decided to go Italian (never any question in my mind) and Stuart returned some minutes later with this bottle of Marchesi di Barolo Barbaresco, a very fine choice. It was the best thing we had all day.

Dessert
The prior "savory" crepe course was sweeter and more dessert-like than this almond sponge, meringue, and lemon curd dessert. Although this dessert looks pretty, it certainly is not the kitchen's best work, the cake being tired and a touch dry and the figs being underripe.

Relaxing Outside, Barbaresco in Hand
Because of the timing of the second bottle of wine and the dessert course, we had plenty of wine left. Not wanting to keep them from turning the dining room, we asked if we could take our wine outside and finish it, which we did. The rain had subsided and it was pleasant enough, in a soupy kind of way, to sit out back and peer through the mist.

The Ashby Grounds are Beautiful
The grounds certainly are beautiful and there are many times when I wish my restaurant were situated in such a lovely setting, but then I think about the upkeep and shudder. Annie and I had a great time and truly enjoyed the Barbaresco: that part of our mission was a great success. My mission to meet the new chef and understand his food was pretty much an utter failure. I still really don't know any more about him and his food than I knew before we ate there.

Our 52-Hike Challenge 2017

On January 1, 2017 as Ann and I were headed to Harper's Ferry WV for our first hike of 2017, Ann told me of something she read about on ...