Friday, January 30, 2015

Hot and Sour Chicken Soup

Hot and Sour Chicken Soup
It was about 25 years ago in San Francisco's Chinatown that I discovered that hot and sour soup could really be a thing of beauty. I was splitting my time between Virginia and a residential hotel in Sunnyvale, down the 101 from San Francisco and I was spending most of my free time between Napa/Sonoma and Chinatown, learning both wine and Chinese food. This was back in the day before most of the good Chinese food had fled the city.

I was already a disciple of Henry Chung, at whose Kearny Street hole in the wall I was a frequent visitor before the scary 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake shuttered it for good. The storefront was tiny: five or six tables and a counter, my haunt, where I could watch the ladies making the dishes. What amazing smoked ham and scallion cakes came out of that kitchen! Thanks to the Chung family's help and that of many other generous souls in Chinatown, I was just learning how amazing real Chinese food could be and I was cooking a lot of it back at home in Virginia, learning the ingredients, the techniques, and the metaphors. And already I knew enough to know that I didn't like hot and sour soup, that insipid gloppy crap that every Americanized Chinese restaurant served.

Once I got invited to a fancy fixed menu dinner at one of the big touristy Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, a place that hole-in-the-wall-spelunker-me would never have entered. One of the early courses in our banquet was a cup of hot and sour soup that blew me away with its rich broth, carefully curated spice, and fresh vegetables. A light went on that evening!

Yesterday was a wan, bleak day. Schools closing right after lunch signaled the coming rain, sleet, and ice and scared off all our lunch and dinner customers, so I decided to take the night off and cook dinner at home. The weather had me thinking soup. I proposed chicken soup to Ann and somehow we arrived at hot and sour chicken soup.

A quick stop at the market yielded some chicken legs, straw mushrooms, pressed tofu, lop cheung, slivered bamboo shoots, and a couple kinds of pickled vegetables. There are two kinds of preserved vegetables at the market of which I am especially fond right now, the one that is mainly stem mustard in chile oil labeled "Tasty Vegetable Good with Meal," and a sweet-and-spicy turnip pickle that is not labeled at all in English.

Ordinarily, I would make a rich pork stock for my soup, but given that this was a spur of the moment dinner, I went with chicken and added sliced pork lop cheung for the pork component. I poached the chicken in water with a splash of soy sauce, ginger, whole garlic, a couple of star anise pods, and a half a cinnamon stick, just enough spice for a background hint and nothing more. Once the chicken was tender, I fished it out and strained the seasonings out of the stock.

Into the stock went dried daylily buds, tree ear and straw mushrooms, tofu, both preserved vegetables, slivered bamboo shoots, and the lop cheung. I'm not a big fan of straw mushrooms, but Annie is and so I added them for her. Next, I picked the chicken and added the meat to the soup and let the whole simmer for about 15 minutes to rehydrate the dried vegetables. At this point, I then started to season, working the balance of sweet (rock sugar), salty (soy sauce), sour (Chinkiang black vinegar), and spicy (ground white pepper).

The very moment I was happy with the seasoning, I swirled in the tiniest amount of cornstarch just to amp the body slightly (something I wouldn't have done with a super-rich pork stock) and served the soup with a scattering of green onions over the top.

This was the soup I was meant to make on this dreary day. Not only was it warm and comforting, but it brought back some great food memories from my days in California, of a time when each new dish was a revelation, a discovery. Those days are mainly long behind me now, but the memories are vibrant still.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Smoked Salmon Hash with Poached Duck Eggs

On Thursday, when Sarah brought us the first duck eggs of the year (who knew the girls were laying already?), I knew I wanted to poach some on Sunday morning and put them over a hash of some kind. Saturday night as I was leaving the restaurant, I went on a scavenger hunt to see what I could find: an end of smoked salmon, some unloved slabs of sweet potato, some smoked sausage, three little yellow potatoes, a few chives, and four duck eggs. Outstanding!

Smoked Salmon, Sweet Potatoes, Smoked Sausage, Potatoes, Chives, Duck Eggs

Smoked Salmon Hash with Poached Duck Eggs

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Roast Chicken

One of the great culinary tests is to see how one stacks up when roasting a chicken. Roast chicken is one of the classic dishes that is deceptively difficult to carry off with aplomb and so delicious when done well. So many people are accustomed to buying pre-roasted chicken at the store that I doubt that many people even bother to roast their own any longer. People have often asked me what I would make for dinner were the President to come for dinner. The answer has always been roast chicken.

Roast Chicken, a Simple Pleasure
I stuffed my bird with two lemon halves and the sprigs of rosemary and lavender that I had left from garnishing a charcuterie plate last Sunday. I don't know if the herbs actually contribute anything to the taste of the meat, but they smell fantastic while roasting. Our house was redolent of chicken, rosemary, lavender, and garlic Monday night. A rubdown with extra virgin olive oil and a good amount of salt and pepper readies the bird for the oven. As you can see, I tucked the wing tips under so that they wouldn't burn, but I did not truss the bird. Sometimes I truss the bird, sometimes not. I feel like the bird cooks better without trussing.

Roast Potatoes and Garlic
The perfect accompaniment to roast chicken is roast potatoes with whole cloves of garlic. This is such a great combination that I almost never roast potatoes without a lot of garlic cloves. I love how sweet and tender garlic becomes after roasting.

Delaplane Springlot Vertical Tasting

On Sunday, Ann and I went to Delaplane Cellars to participate in their Springlot vertical tasting. I like doing these retrospective tastings; in many cases, they can help me hone in on the singular characteristics of the vineyard and/or stylistic preferences of the winemaker.

Ann's Favorite: 2007 Reserve
We arrived about 11:28 and a half for the 11:30 am tasting and were among the last to arrive to see a much more formal setting that I had imagined. I was expecting to have a very informal tasting upstairs, but the staff had cleared the tasting room (and were not opening to the public until 1pm for that reason) and had set the room with six tops with 8 glasses of wine at each place, one for each vintage from 2007 to 2014.

8 Pours of Springlot for Each Person
Jim Dolphin led the tasting and spoke about each vintage as we tasted it. Winegrower John Everson was also in the room and contributed his thoughts. His Springlot Vineyard is 3 miles due west of the winery up at between 1200 and 1400 feet (which is high for Virginia). The two-acre vineyard is planted to 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc, 12% Petit Verdot, and 10% Merlot. All these red grapes go to Delaplane Cellars for vinification.

Stylistically, I am not sure what Jim is aiming for in this wine, but I have always considered it more of a Right Bank blend, especially in later vintages in which Cabernet Franc is the dominant component. I am more of a Left Bank kind of guy and it should be no surprise that my two favorite vintages were the 2008 and 2009 which are the anomalies, the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant wines.

Because the blends were not consistent through the vintages, I did not take away a whole lot about the terroir of this site except that it produces wines of good to great acidity. The wines, however, said a lot about vintage variation here in Virginia. I could taste the ripeness in the hot years of 2007 and 2010. I could taste the thinness and acid of the disaster year of 2011. And I could taste the restraint of the cooler years of 2008, 2009, and 2012.

2013 and 2014 were (obviously) barrel samples. While it is clear that the 2013 (the entire barrel of it, not even 25 cases) is going to be a very nice wine, there is not much to be said for the 2014 which may or may not even be through its malolactic fermentation.

Detailed notes follow.

2007 Reserve: 50% Cab Franc, 32% Cab Sauv, 13% Merlot, 5% PV. Bricked garnet with a clear meniscus, slight funk and earth on the nose, red plum and bramble on the nose, slight hint of cooked blackberry jam on the palate, coffee notes in the finish, high acid (surprisingly for very hot 2007; blame it on 1200-1400 feet of elevation), spicy finish, pretty structure. Drinking very well now. Most 2007s are shot now. Drink up.

2008: 44% Cab Sauv, 25% Cab Franc, 19% Merlot, 12% PV. Garnet with a clear meniscus, very transparent, bright black raspberry on the nose, dark fruit on the palate, plums and spice cake, fruit comes across sweet, less acidic and less tannic than 2007, much more restrained and a prettier wine. Will continue to age.

2009: 42% Cab Sauv, 39% Cab Franc, 11% Merlot, 7% PV. Deep ruby with slight bricking, clear meniscus, black fruit, cassis, tamarind, and mint on the nose, dark fruit on the palate with firm fine tannins and detectable new oak influence, a few licorice and herbaceous notes on top of the black fruit.

2010: 47% Cab Franc, 33% Cab Sauv, 20% Merlot. Deep burgundy with a hint of bricking, throwing sediment, nose of eucalyptus and black cherry, sweet red fruit with some black on the palate, ripe and weighty, very Californian in style, 14.5% (very hot for Virginia) without tasting it, abundant fruit with moderate tannins. Hold this wine. It's only going to improve as the baby fat recedes.

2011: 38% Cab Franc, 29% Cab Sauv, 19% Merlot, 14% PV. Ruby colored and slightly cloudy, musty leather, tar, a touch of funk, and a little plum in the nose. Plum fruit with leather on the palate, moderately high acid. Really not a bad wine considering it rained 33 of 35 days during harvest. Worked very nicely with cheese: tamed the acid and popped the fruit.

2012: 48% Cab Franc, 32% Cab Sauv, 12% Merlot, 8% PV. Burgundy with a clear meniscus, red and black fruit with persistent notes of caramel apples in the nose. Overall the nose and wine are dumb now compared to prior tastings. Fruit is primarily red but there are some blackberry notes as well. Very good acid and medium tannins suggest that when this wine comes back around, it should be very nice.

2013 barrel sample: 43% Cab Franc, 40% Cab Sauv, 12% PV, 5% Merlot. One barrel made. Ruby with a clear-ruby meniscus, slight funk and a lot of black pepper in the nose, beautiful plum fruit and decent acidity. This is going to be a nice wine in a few years.

2014 barrel sample: 32% Cab Franc, 25% Cab Sauv, 22% Merlot, 21% PV. Bright ruby with a clear meniscus and stained tears, still hints of ML (touch of spritz), low alcohol visually, bright grapy nouveau nose, but seems quite balanced.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Yiouvetsi

Yiouvetsi
It was getting late in the morning on Monday when I called Ann to ask about dinner. She generally has some ideas about what kind of food she'd like and those ideas always help focus my mind. I can cook anything I want to (if the ingredients are on hand) and my mind sometimes gets lost in the possibilities. It always helps to have Ann point in a particular direction.

And Monday morning she said, "Let's have pasta. What do you have?"

I started calling off shapes to her while browsing the pantry shelves: pappardelle, gemelli, lumaconi, casarecce, rigatoni, orzo.

"Orzo! Can you make yiouvetsi?"

Can I make yiouvetsi? Of course I can, if I have some lamb. And I just happened to be heading to Costco where they generally have legs of lamb.

Yiouvetsi Basics: Lamb, Onions, Garlic, Cinnamon, Tomatoes
A yiouvetsi is a baking dish, a Greek clay casserole, that has lent its name to a family of baked meat and pasta dishes. When Ann says "make me yiouvetsi," she means arni yiouvetsi, lamb and orzo. At the restaurant, we make vegetarian versions and seafood versions. Octopus yiouvetsi is a staff favorite.

The ingredients are simple and the procedure is simple as you will see in the recipe below. It all comes down to the quality of the ingredients, like most simple dishes. The bowl of yiouvetsi that you see below is incredible, the best that I have ever eaten or made, so good, in fact, that Ann went back for thirds.

Bowl of Heaven
Arni Yiouvetsi

This simple and classic dish of comfort food will require a large ceramic or other baking dish. As you can see above, I used my large oval cast iron cocotte. I use my cocotte so that I can start the dish on the stove and then go to the oven: one pan, not much to clean up. If you use ceramic, you will need a sauté pan in which to brown the meat and cook the onions and garlic. With full prep, cooking, and resting time considered, allow 2 and a half hours to make this dish. Active cooking and prepping is about an hour.

1/2 cup or more extra virgin olive oil
1 small leg of lamb, cubed, about 3 pounds
2 medium onions, diced
12 cloves garlic, minced
1 cinnamon stick
1-2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 quart tomatoes, diced in juice
1 lemon, juiced
salt to taste
1-2 quarts of water
1 pound of orzo
4 ounces kefalotyri or feta cheese

Preheat the oven to moderate, 350F. Heat a pan in which to brown the meat over high flame and then add the olive oil. You did not misread the quantity. The key quality that separates a yiouvetsi from other baked pastas is the oily, lemony slickness of the pasta. You want that much oil or possibly more.

Season and brown the lamb in batches and remove. Add the onions, garlic, cinnamon, and oregano to the pan. The reason I fudge the quantity of oregano is that my experience is that each type and batch of oregano is more or less potent. If you don't know your oregano, add some now and then taste and adjust later in the cooking process.

Once the onions are translucent, start deglazing your pan by adding some of the tomato juice and scraping all the bits off the bottom of the pan. If you are baking in this pan, go ahead and add all the tomatoes and lemon juice at this point. If not, transfer the onions to the baking dish and add the tomatoes and lemon juice. Add the lamb and cover with water.

If you are using a flame safe pan, bring the mixture to a slow boil before transferring to the oven for one hour. If you are using a ceramic dish, go ahead and put it in the oven at this point but cook it for 90 minutes instead of an hour.

Check the lamb for tenderness; check the liquid for seasoning; and fish out the cinnamon stick. If you are happy with the doneness of the lamb, add the orzo and stir. Return to the oven for 20 minutes.

Although feta is less commonly used than kefalotyri, I prefer feta. In either case, I like to cover the top of the casserole with the cheese and turn on the broiler to brown the cheese just slightly as you can see in the top photo above.

Let the yiouvetsi rest for 20 minutes or so before serving. Sprinkle or grate additional cheese over each portion as desired.

Cassoulet

Sunday the 11th had been in a bunch of calendars for a long while. We have been trying to get together with our winemaker friends Jim and Betsy Dolphin of Delaplane Cellars and Jeff and Kelly White of Glen Manor Vineyards for a long time. January is always a down time in the wine world (in our hemisphere) and so it is also in the restaurant business. It's the perfect time to get together. But even as slow as it is, we all run businesses and it takes planning to extricate ourselves even for an afternoon and evening of celebrating.

Cassoulet: Our Guest of Honor
Many, many weeks ago, Ann sent out the invitations and at some point well before Christmas asked me if I would make a cassoulet for the event. Cassoulet is one of my favorite winter foods and is great festive party food: you can just leave it on the counter and let each person serve himself. The timing was perfect: we just butchered a hog and lots of hog parts are required for a great cassoulet. I set about making the cassoulet on Thursday so that it would be in perfect form by Sunday.





As our guests arrived, I opened a couple bottles of Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay. What better for two of the best winemakers in the state than the best sparkling wine made in the state?

Headcheese and Terrine
Sparkling wine in hand, we started off the afternoon with a couple of pieces of charcuterie that I made from the aforementioned hog, butchered just before New Year's Day: truffled headcheese (on the left) and terrine with pumpkin seeds and golden raisins. That hog also furnished a few ribs, a few trimmings for garlic sausage, some miscellaneous bits, and a lot of pork stock, all of which went into the cassoulet. Without a lot of pig, it is really, really hard to make first-rate cassoulet.

Ann Made This Beautiful Loaf
To go with the charcuterie, Ann made this delicious loaf of bread. What was left accompanied the cassoulet. As always, her bread is wonderful.

Arugula with Pomegranate, Manchego, and Shallots
Cassoulet is not a lightweight food. It is a huge bowl of beans and meat swimming in rich broth. And so we needed a counterpoint, a light and crisp salad with a fairly acidic dressing. This is baby arugula, pomegranate seeds, raw minced shallots, and finely grated Manchego cheese dressed with a little pomegranate juice, Sherry vinegar, and olive oil. It was the perfect foil for the über rich cassoulet; in fact, I think most people co-mingled the two dishes on their plates.

A Good Day!
This group, we like our wine. And it was a great day to sit around the island in the kitchen and crack a few bottles and let our hair down. After the Thibaut-Janisson, we opened a 2005 Louis Carillon Puligny-Montrachet that Jeff brought. It was delicious and everything that white Burgundy should be. After that, we opened my two magnums of 2010 Grand Veneur Châteauneuf-du-Pape. What a fabulous bottle of wine that is! I have not tasted better, even in 2001 and 1998. After dinner, I opened a 1986 Raymond-Lafon Sauternes that did not show well. It is sad and tired now and that is a pity. 1986 was one of the fabulous vintages.

Cassoulet: It's All about the Beans
Here are some tips for making cassoulet, if you dare take them from an American. You do understand that small land wars have been fought over the "proper" cassoulet in southwest France, don't you? No matter that it originated as a peasant dish of whatever beans and whatever meat scraps were at hand. And that it may actually be a Catalan dish. But still, the French are pretty touch about this subject.

Use the best dried beans you can find. I have pretty much an unlimited number of kinds of beans at my disposal. I choose Steuben Yellow Eye beans (pictured above) because I think they are the best. I have used Tarbais beans, haricots blancs, local bird eggs, and many other kinds. Steubens rock.

I am a big fan of soaking the beans overnight in many changes of water. This helps alleviate some of the issues in digesting them. I also discard the initial cooking water. Yes, I parcook my beans to half done with a touch of rosemary and discard that cooking water before assembling the cassoulet.

The essence of the dish is pork and beans. If you have great beans and great pork, you don't need a lot of other seasonings. I use a hint of rosemary in the beans. In the cassoulet proper, I use a few bay leaves and a little garlic. Aside from that, the dish is just primal pork and beans.

In the same vein, cassoulet doesn't need a lot of vegetables. Just a bit of mirepoix (2 parts onion, 1 part carrot, 1 part celery), but make sure you sauté the mirepoix in duck fat (or barring that, lard). We process a lot of ducks at the restaurant, so there are always gallons of duck fat on hand.

Use a great stock, pork or duck or mixed, to make your cassoulet. The gelatin in super rich stocks helps form the crust on top of the cassoulet, which after it browns, you punch back down into the broth to further enrich it.

I like to punch down the crust four or five times while the cassoulet is cooking. Some French people swear by seven punchdowns but I don't think my beans need to cook that long.

Start your cassoulet days before you need it. Cassoulet is always, always better the second and third day. Make it in advance and do your final punchdown and crusting just before you serve it.

Here is my rough cassoulet process:

1. Soak the beans overnight in several changes of water.
2. Cook the beans halfway with a little rosemary and discard the cooking water and rosemary.
3. Prep a little mirepoix and garlic.
4. Assemble the meats: garlic sausage, pork trimmings, duck or confited duck legs or both, etc.
5. Heat a little duck fat and brown the meats. Remove.
6. In the same pan, lightly brown the mirepoix and mix with the beans.
7. Put half the beans and a few bay leaves in the cassole, casserole, or whatever dish you're baking in.
8. Put the meats in next.
9. Cover the meat with the remaining beans.
10. Cover all with stock.
11. Bake in a slow oven until crusted.
12. Punch down and add more stock as necessary.
13. Repeat until you're happy.

For the cassoulet above, I made a little garlic sausage from pork loin and shoulder trimmings. And I roasted all the bones from the hog and made pork stock from that. All the meat that I pulled off the bones after making the stock went into the cassoulet. I grilled fresh loin trimmings (rib eye cap) and put them in the cassoulet after cutting into pieces. And I separated a bunch of spare ribs and put them in. Finally, I used half fresh duck legs and half duck legs that I confited a few weeks ago.

For a cold January day, what better to serve friends than a glorious cassoulet?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Potato, Leek, and Bacon Soup with Pepperjack Cheese

Saturday night, I was given my marching orders. "We have a bag of red potatoes; I want potato and bacon soup." So, all right then, I guess we're having potato and bacon soup on Sunday. I'm kind of kidding about this. 98% of the dinner battle for me is deciding what to make. If I know what I am making then it is all down to the easy part, execution.

Potato, Leek, and Bacon Soup with Pepperjack Cheese
The final product was delicious, creamy, chunky, warm, spicy, and herbaceous. In short, it was a wonderful soup, but it took a good long bit of effort to make this seemingly effortless soup taste so good.

Leeks Just in from the Garden
I don't guess too many people have seen leeks as they grow in the field. They're easy to grow and easy to prepare, but the roots, the big root clusters trap a lot of dirt and rocks. It's best if you can wash them in a bucket of water outside, but when it's below freezing as it is now, that's not exactly the best plan. We're very fortunate that the ground is thawed enough to dig leeks. Many years we cannot dig leeks in January.

They Look Very Different When Cleaned


Yum!
After prepping the leeks, mincing some garlic, and dicing the bacon, I rendered the bacon in a big sauté pan, then transferred just the bacon to the slow cooker, leaving the grease in the pan for cooking the sliced leeks and minced garlic until they were translucent. Once the leeks went into the slow cooker, grease and all, in went a small bouquet garni of rosemary and thyme from the garden.

Rosemary and Thyme Bouquet Garni
Then I diced about 5 pounds of potatoes and put them in the slow cooker along with a half a pound of diced pepperjack cheese, a cup of grated orange cheddar cheese (for color), two minced jalapeños that I pickled last summer, one brunoised carrot (also for color), a bit of salt, two cups of fat-free lactose-free milk (I'm lactose intolerant) for the illusion of creaminess, and a quart or two of water.

After about 4 hours in the slow cooker, and after skimming the fat a couple of times, I blended one gallon of the one and a half gallons of soup to a thick, super creamy consistency and added that back to the remaining chunky portion of the soup so that at the same time it would be silky yet have good texture.

This is a great cold weather soup!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Annie Does New Year's Brunch

I bet you spend some time recovering on New Year's Day don't you? I do too, but probably for a different reason. I just spent six hours the night before cooking and plating food as fast as possible, non-stop all night long. So on New Year's Day, I am very prone to do absolutely nothing but sit on a chair. And Annie knows this, six new years in the books since we met. So, very sweetly, she offered to make us brunch for New Year's Day. It's always a wonderful treat when she does cook.

Sparkling, Anyone?
She was all set with sparkling wine in the refrigerator along with the orange juice to make mimosas, but I like this Bailly-Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne too much to put orange juice in it. We ended up drinking it solo.


Chorizo and Tortilla Casserole
From late morning after we drank our coffee until we ate around 1:30, the smells from the oven were pretty amazing. I didn't have any idea what Ann was cooking for brunch and I was blown away by this chorizo and tortilla breakfast casserole that she pulled out of the oven. It was awesome for days!

Candied Bacon
And this candied bacon was a welcome surprise too. What an awesome wife I have! Recovering from a long hard night at the restaurant has never been so easy or good!