Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Beautiful Weekend

This past weekend had its share of ups and downs, but far more ups than downs especially on account of the beautiful weather. After several weeks of soupy humidity, temps in the upper 90s, torrential rain, and violent thunderstorms, a huge storm front blew through the East Coast on Saturday night, killing business at the restaurant, but on its heels was a cold air mass that brought delightful levels of humidity and a cool breeze to us.

Sunday was a day to marvel at how beautiful this planet is and we spent a good bit of the early morning in the back yard, with me putzing about pruning and trying to control the weeds that are everywhere thanks to the past several weeks of rain.

Our First Sunflower of the Year
Out in the back yard, we noticed that our first sunflower is blooming. While we used to plant ornamental sunflowers, we haven't in the past several years. We haven't needed to. Our bird friends and the four-legged bushy tailed grey birds do a fine job of distributing black oil sunflower seeds everywhere. Even at this immature stage, the goldfinches are all over the sunflower blooms. They've spent the last few weeks on the sage blossoms and recently the anise hyssop.

Eastern Box Turtle
The beautiful weather brought out this fairly young box turtle. The dogs were fascinated. I believe that it was feeding on honeysuckle berries along the tree line in the back. After coffee in the back yard, we decided to grab a quick lunch at the local kebab house, a place near us that has been open for several years. I was always leery of the place and now I know why. The kebabs are pretty miserable. Compared to the places in Northern Virginia, this place doesn't even rate a mention, hence no name and no pictures.

It's always a good time out with Ann no matter what the food. After the fairly miserable kebab experience, Ann started lobbying immediately for soft serve. It was a really good diversion from lunch to sit outside on a beautifully cool and sunny day and eat ice cream without having to crush it before it melted all down my hand. And laugh about lunch.

Back at home, we decided on burgers. I've put enough burgers on the blog this year that I didn't feel the need to photograph yet another one.

Monday was a long, tiring day, kicking off at 2:30 in the morning with a call from the Sheriff's Office informing us that somebody had sneaked out of the house and was busted trespassing with his girlfriend at the high school. The consequences for said person were swift and severe and the repercussions much more than he bargained for, but the whole ordeal left us drained and without a lot of sleep.

I was in and out of the office early on Monday and we all converged at the house simultaneously around 1:30, ravenous for some food. I grabbed a couple of boxes of pasta on the way home and we had it simply with sage and a little leftover quesillo especial (aka queso Oaxaca o queso quesadilla) from the fridge. We all, reprobate included, sat at the dinner table for a late lunch.

Cellentani/Cavatappi/Spirali with Sage and Cheese
On Sunday, Ann asked me if I would make a calamari and white bean salad for dinner on Monday, a classic that I learned from two restaurants in Richmond, VA and a former sous chef who worked at both. This is a dish that I hadn't made since our Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner three Christmases ago. It is so dead simple to do: open and rinse some cannellini, slice some red onion, and dress with liberal lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, and dried oregano. Then sear the squid for just a few seconds. Add to the bowl with the beans and some fresh baby arugula. Toss and eat.

Squid and White Beans with Baby Arugula


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Italian Sub

As far as I know, the Italian sub has nothing to do with Italy, but is one of America's favorite meals. I imagine that we all have our own definition of the true Italian sub but there's no denying that whatever we think an Italian sub is or whatever we call it, be it a sub, a hero, a grinder, or a hoagie, it is one of our favorite sandwiches. It certainly is my all-time favorite.

Now, That's an Italian Sub!
I had a terrible one recently on crappy bread slathered in mayonnaise from a local sandwich shop whose claim to fame is that it is the best sandwich shop here in the Winchester area. That's a rather inauspicious claim, alas. That experience made me realize that if I didn't want to make my own Italian sub, I was going to have to travel to Northern Virginia to get a great one.

And that opportunity arose this weekend when we went in to McLean to spend Father's Day with Ann's parents. We dropped by a store that is widely renowned throughout the region for its subs. In anticipation, I didn't really eat breakfast and so I was starving when we arrived there around 2:30 in the afternoon. Our shopping for Father's Day dinner (mezze rigatoni with artichokes, pancetta, rosemary, and Fontina) complete, we sat down to eat our lunch, a sub for me, a slice of pizza for Ann's mother Mary, and a calzone for Ann.

Just opening the wrapping, I was underwhelmed by the soft, chewy sub roll. I get it that some people like this soft squishy bread, but count me out of that crowd. I want a crusty loaf with some real chew. And that soft bread was enough to kill the experience for me, not that you could have told by the way that I inhaled the sandwich, starving as I was. The ingredients in the sandwich were really good and the sweet peppers in the middle were outstanding; it was just the bread that was lacking.

While I was shopping for wine for our Father's Day dinner, Ann had the presence of mind to get a half-pound each of provolone, prosciutto di San Daniele, mortadella, coppa (capocollo), and a nice soppressata. The original thinking was that we would do antipasti before our pasta (ouch, that was punful), but it turned out that Bob was starving and we got straight into dinner proper, leaving us all the cold cuts to take home.

The quality of the cold cuts was really good. The mortadella and soppressata were pretty good, not the best we've ever had, but plenty good for sandwiches. The coppa was flat out amazing. The prosciutto was off-the-charts good. The provolone was provolone.

And so last evening, I sliced some tomato and red onion, washed a little lettuce, and toasted some really good bread. Before I toasted the bread, I drizzled the cut surface in olive oil. After toasting, I drizzled it with Sherry vinegar and sprinkled it with salt, pepper, and dried oregano. And then it was a matter of building the sandwiches, one of which you see in the photo above.

Ann said to me with no disrespect intended to my skills as a chef, "It doesn't take any skill to make a sandwich like this, does it?" No, it doesn't. Anyone given these ingredients could make such an amazing sandwich. So why in the name of the culinary gods do they not?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Artichokes and Saffron Aioli

The last couple of weeks, Ann has been hinting that she wanted some artichokes, so I got some and planned to simply boil them and serve them with saffron aioli.


Artichokes Require High Acid White Wines
Artichokes are one of my favorite foods and wine is one of my favorite beverages. Mixing the two requires a little caution because artichokes contain an ester called cynarine which makes pretty much everything taste sweet. The only way to go with artichokes is to pick a really high acid white such as a Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Chablis, or Champagne. I chose a new high acid 2014 Pinot Blanc from the Willamette Valley to go with ours. The artichokes will bring the high acid back to the center of the palate.

Saffron Aioli; Boiled Artichoke
I haven't had boiled artichokes since I was a kid. There is something fun, though not terribly rewarding, about scraping the little bit of edible artichoke off of each of the petals, finally making your way to the choke and the edible heart beneath. Honestly, I'd rather have the artichokes grilled or shaved raw onto risotto or something like that, but that was way too much work for my day off.

Delaplane Cellars

It was a long, cold, and cashflow negative winter that has kept us from visiting our friends who own wineries. It's been so long since we had visited Jim and Betsy at Delaplane that we had two quarterly wine pick ups waiting for us. Because Carter would be out of school for the summer and would be out of town, we would have the day to ourselves with no worrying about what kind of trouble the teenager was into. So we promised ourselves last weekend that we would go out to Delaplane on Sunday. Besides needing to pick up wine, I also had some restaurant business to discuss with Betsy, but mainly, we just needed to get away for a few hours and have some adult time.

Cobbler Mountains from Delaplane's Tasting Room
After a morning of relocating shrubs from our flower beds to a new hedgerow between our house and our neighbor's, we sat in the shade of the pergola drinking our coffee and chatting as we are inclined to do of a Sunday morning. And about 12:30 or so, we headed over to Delaplane, where we tasted the latest wines and then settled in on the patio with a bottle of Left Bank 2012 and lunch.

Unfortunately, the breeze was so strong that putting the umbrellas up was not feasible and it was so bright without the umbrella that we decided to head back inside. With the great breeze coming up the hillside and all the doors to the tasting room open, it felt nearly like being outside.

Our Usual Lunch
As we were finishing up lunch, Jim came down the hill from the house and settled in with us. He disappeared and came back with a bottle of Duet 2014, bottled mostly from Mark Malick's grapes and then at some point later while I was busy talking to somebody else who was looking for a job at the restaurant and as I was chatting with Betsy about our mutual business, Jim handed me a glass of the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc from John Everson's grapes. Both were good wines, but the SB was pretty awesome. Jim only made 16 cases and that will probably be my only taste of it.

Speaking of SB, from the tasting room, we could see Jim's new SB vines up on the hill by the house and they are really growing fast, being in their second leaf now. I noticed that there are new end posts at the ends of the new rows, but there don't seem to be any line posts and no fruiting wires yet. Jim says the guys will install the lower fruiting wires this week.

A great day out at Delaplane. The view never sucks and the wine is delicious.



Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Shrimp Summer Rolls

Summer roll, nem roll, salad roll, gỏi cuốn, by whatever name, these Vietnamese rolls are delicious and make for an easy dinner. And they are what Ann wanted for dinner last night.

Shrimp Summer Roll
The hardest part of prepping dinner was cutting the cellophane noodles with scissors, submerging them in water, and then putting them in the microwave for a couple of minutes. That, and squeezing the limes for the nước chấm, which is by way of saying that there was almost no prep for dinner. Even the shrimp are precooked and frozen and only need to be refreshed in cold water for a couple of minutes before they are ready for the table.

Nước Chấm, Shrimp, Cilantro, Green Onion, Thai Basil, Cellophane Noodles, Rice Papers
I know that a lot of restaurants serve peanut sauce with their summer rolls, but I find that the heavy peanut butter-based sauce overpowers the delicate rolls. Instead, I like to put chopped peanuts in my nước chấm. Best of both worlds.

It was fun standing around the counter assembling these rolls and dipping and double-dipping them in the nước chấm. It got us to talking about why so many Americans who think nothing of grabbing a slice of pizza with their hands have such a hard time eating other foods with their hands.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Ricotta Gnocchi

Ann wanted me to make her some ricotta gnocchi yesterday after we got home from my youngest daughter's high school graduation party. Ann tasted them up at the restaurant at some point in the last 10 days or so and wanted some more. They are among the easiest gnocchi to make, my usual potato gnocchi made without flour being among the most difficult.

Ricotta gnocchi are so easy to make in fact that I had them made and the counter all cleaned up before the poaching water even came up to a simmer.

Ricotto Gnocchi; Asparagus, Tomato, and Goat Cheese Salad
I served the gnocchi pan-fried because I love the contrast between the crunchy outside and the soft creamy center. Accompanying them is a salad of asparagus, grape tomatoes, and goat cheese.

Ricotta, Pecorino Romano, Duck Egg, Olive Oil, Salt
Gnocchi is a feel thing, like making bread is a feel thing, and like making biscuits is a feel thing. There is no recipe in the world that can convey the exact recipe because there are too many variables: how big the egg is, how humid the day is, how moist or dry the flour is, how wet the ricotta is, and so forth. If you want to make these gnocchi, you're just going to have to get your hands dirty and try a couple of batches until you get the feel for it. That said, there's about a cup and a half of ricotta in this bowl with a duck egg, a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and maybe a quarter cup of grated Pecorino Romano. I didn't measure anything: the whole recipe was dictated by how much ricotta I had left in the container. But try those measurements as a starting point for a small portion of gnocchi for four people.

Add Flour Until it Just Comes Together; Rest Five Minutes
Vigorously mix all the ingredients in a bowl until well mixed. Then stir in a cup or so of flour, gently, very gently. With your hands start bringing the dough together in a ball. Add little bits of flour as needed. When you have a ball such as the one above that you can just handle, let it rest for five minutes.

Roll out and Cut Gnocchi
Then cut the big ball into smaller chunks that you can roll out into logs with your hands. Cut into individual gnocchi. I use a bench knife for this. Use whatever works for you.

Poach Gnocchi in Small Batches until They Float
When your water is at a good simmer, but not a rolling boil, add the gnocchi in small batches as you see here. They will immediately sink to the bottom. In just a short while, they will start floating to the top. As the dumplings rise to the top, scoop them out with a ladle, spider, or slotted spoon. Drain well and transfer to a well-oiled sheet tray. Once all the gnocchi are poached, transfer them to the refrigerator to finish drying and to firm up.

Place on Well Oiled Sheet Tray; Chill in Refrigerator

Pan Fry
Film a hot heavy pan (here you see my black steel frying pan) with a little olive oil and add a layer of gnocchi. Turn to crisp until they are done to your liking. Enjoy!

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 ...