Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Memorial Day 2015

About a week ago, we started talking about what to have for Memorial Day, grilling out never mentioned and taken for granted. We arrived at grilled clams as a starter with burgers and potato salad. And I had a surprise in mind for the kids.

This Memorial Day was a delightful day and we spent most of the day outside, the late afternoon hours when the temperature headed for 90 excepted. I started in the morning with the dogs on the patio for an hour before everyone else was up. And then Ann joined me just as I had poured our coffee. There is something incredibly peaceful about sitting in the back yard watching what will be seen while sipping coffee and relaxing in the incredible luxury of a Monday totally without work, something that almost never happens at our house.

And there is much to be seen in our back yard for those who will see. This weekend's sights included a six-foot black rat snake sunning on the patio, the Cooper's Hawk making multiple passes up and down the tree line looking for birds, Robins sitting on their nest in the arbor, the tiniest of Chipping Sparrows trilling and buzzing, penstemon in its full purple glory, fuzzy green dill plants growing like weeds, and bridal veil spirea with their cascades of snowy white blooms.

As Ann and I were finishing up our coffee and long before expected, Carter made an unusual early morning appearance to help me install new vintage-looking café-style string lights in place of the old rope lights that I put in 4-5 years ago. I know that the birds nesting in the pergola were very happy when we finished. After hanging the lights and working in the yard a bit, as the sun got up, we went inside and while Carter disappeared with his friends, we started prepping for dinner: hamburger fixings, potato salad, and a tomato-bacon topping for grilled clams.

Grilled Clams with Tomatoes and Bacon
Carter and his friends returned about 4:30 and so we kicked off the grilling early knowing that we had ravenous teenagers on our hands. I started by putting these clams on the grill, figuring that Ann and I could munch on them while the kids devoured burgers. We figured they wouldn't touch clams and we were right.

Grilling Clams
To grill clams, after soaking and rinsing the clams to rid them of sand, place them directly on the grill and they will open soon enough, in four to seven minutes. Discard any that do not open after this time. I removed them to a platter to cool and then Ann took charge of pulling off the top shells and detaching the clams from their lower shells and placing them back in their shells. Over this, I drizzled a mix of diced grape tomato, fine bits of crispy bacon, and red onion, dressed with a little melted butter, a little bacon grease, and a good splash of Sherry vinegar.

Bacon Cheeseburger, Potato Salad

Burger Fixings

Now That's a Cheeseburger

Red Potatoes, Herbs, Bacon, and Sour Cream
I made a big bowl of potato salad at Ann's request by mixing diced, still warm red potatoes with green onions, chives, parsley, bacon, and sour cream. This is about as good a potato salad as exists. There are other good ones, but bacon and sour cream is the best. I can't eat much of it because the sour cream really bothers me, but it tastes amazing.

Ann's Soba
Carter's girlfriend of the moment eats mainly vegan on advice of her doctor so Ann was kind enough to make her a big bowl of soba noodles. This I could eat all day, it is that good.

Strawberry Gelato
And finally as an especial treat for the kids, I made strawberry gelato, rich, dense, not very sweet, and vivid strawberry. It is the simplest recipe with four ingredients only: two quarts of strawberries, hulled and blended with the juice of a half a lemon and a scant cup of sugar. To this, add milk and/or cream to bring the total volume to a half a gallon.

It was another great Memorial Day, kicking off the summer on the patio and the grill.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bacon Cheeseburger

I had pork tenderloin and fresh asparagus in the refrigerator for Monday night dinner. But when it came right down to it, I just wasn't in the mood for eating well or eating that. Like the proverbial grizzly bear in the berry patch, I have gorged myself on asparagus for three straight weeks eating at least a half a pound a day. To quote the great B.B. King who died this week, "The thrill is gone."

And besides, I wanted something from the grill, something more traditional than grilled pork tenderloin. Damn it. I wanted a bacon cheeseburger. Inside my head, Jimmy Buffett was singing to me all morning as I thought about what to make for dinner. And so I didn't even ask Ann what she wanted for dinner. I just brought home the fixings for bacon cheeseburgers. For the record, not even a peep of displeasure was heard from her and even Carter was excited by the prospect. Also for the record, I made him two half-pound burgers, a solid pound of burger. Oh to be a teenager again! NOT!

My idea of a great burger is a half-pound burger cooked rare to medium rare with melted cheddar cheese, thick bacon, tangy fresh pickles (love the crinkle-cut slices from Clausen), and Dijon mustard on a toasted Kaiser roll. Your idea may be different, but this is my blog and my burger!

Patrick's Potion
Ann wanted me to make a cocktail before dinner, so I made a couple of these Cognac cocktails that I call Patrick's Potion, a slight reimagining of the delightful classic Crusta cocktail (itself a Sidecar derivative) that we were introduced to at Thistle Restaurant in McMinnville OR by bartender Patrick Bruce. Wrong glassware, but what the hell: it's a great cocktail!

Nachos and Margaritas

I took my cue from Ann on Sunday. She was in the mood to eat bad and by bad I mean junk food. I suggested fully loaded nachos and margaritas. She agreed most enthusiastically and we headed out to FoodMaxx for supplies: blue corn Tostitos, hint of lime Tostitos, cilantro, green onions, queso quesadilla, refried pinto beans, jalapeños en escabeche, and chipotle salsa. At home, we had a jar of nopalitos to add to the mix. Once the nachos came out of the oven, we poured the chipotle salsa over the top. San Marcos makes a great salsa that is just blended chipotles and adobo. It's a winner.

Hot out of the Oven
Prepping the nachos was a tag-team effort. Ann put half the toppings on the chips and I put the other half on. Carter, hearing rustling of chip bags, made a hasty appearance and made a raid on the chips. He expressed concerned that we were making "Ed nachos," the derogatory teen term for "fancy" nachos, when he saw Ann putting jalapeños and nopalitos on the chips. But I notice that this did not stop him from eating the chips or coming back for seconds or thirds.

Nachos with Chipotle Salsa
I love FoodMaxx, but they don't have a good selection of gringo food there and I guess that frozen limeade concentrate is gringo food. I was surprised to find Tostitos there too; previously their selection of chips was nil. So, we settled for a can of passionfruit concentrate from which to make our margaritas. [It was a lazy Sunday and no, I was not juicing a gazillion limes for real margaritas. So there.] It's not the same thing, but at least passionfruit has good acidity. Even though I added extra lime juice to the margaritas, they still came out a bit sweet. We should have thrown in the towel and made the extra trip to the regular grocery store.

Passionfruit Margarita

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Lemongrass Pork

Monday was a gorgeous day, prompting Ann to suggest something on the grill for dinner. I was in the mood for some bright flavorful Vietnamese food. And so I combined the two wants to make grilled lemongrass pork with a fish sauce caramel and a bright table salad.

Lemongrass Pork with Table Salad
The dish has four components: the marinade for the pork, the fish sauce caramel, the table salad, and the nước chấm dipping sauce that I dressed the salad with. For pork, I used thick-cut strips of shoulder that I picked up in bulk at Costco. I planned to really sear the pork over a blasting flame to get an awesome crust, so I wanted a cut with some fat in it to protect it from that intense heat. Shoulder is the way to go. Most people don't think of shoulder as a grilling cut, but it is infinitely better than loin which has almost zero margin for error: it goes from just right to dry in moments.

Look at the Crust on this Pork!
The crust was accomplished with a blender marinade. I thinly sliced four or five stalks of lemongrass, the stems off a bunch of cilantro, and a couple cloves of garlic. This went into the blender with a few glugs of oil, a couple splashes of fish sauce, and a healthy portion of ground black pepper. The smooth green marinade went over the pork and it sat on the counter for a good hour, coming up to room temperature.

For the table salad, I thinly sliced cucumber and red onion and put that in a bowl with plucked cilantro, Thai basil leaves, and a handful of bean sprouts. Easy, simple, crunchy, and flavorful. The contents of this salad vary each time I make it depending on what I have on hand. I might have thrown some mint into this too, but honestly, I already had enough herbs in the salad by the time I thought of it.

To dress the salad, I made a small amount of nước chấm from lime juice, agave nectar, fish sauce, garlic, and sambal oelek. Always simple, always delicious, nước chấm is one of the great sauces of the world and every cook should have it in his or her repertoire.

Finally, I made another classic Vietnamese sauce, nước màu, a fish sauce caramel to dress the pork with. I have made this sauce my own with the addition of both shallots and black pepper. I make a caramel by melting sugar until golden brown, add minced shallots and ground black pepper, and once the shallots have caramelized (pun intended), I add fish sauce to taste to balance out the sweet bitterness of the caramel. I add water if necessary to thin the sauce to the consistency I want.

I hit a home run last night, no doubt. Ann and Carter wiped the pork out; Carter had thirds. This from the teenager who doesn't normally eat with us because we eat weird food.

Awabi, Winchester VA

The stars rarely ever align for us. But they did yesterday. Ann and I both had haircuts downtown at lunch time and then we had a meeting at 3pm on the south side of town. After our haircuts, we had about 90 minutes to kill and we just came off the busiest Saturday ever in the history of the restaurant and were in the mood to celebrate. Sushi time!

We dropped into Awabi on Winchester's Old Town Mall just a few storefronts from where we get our hair done, and coincidentally, just 125 yards from our restaurant. Because the day was so gorgeous, we decided to sit outside under an umbrella and take in the beautiful day, listening to the kids romp on the splash pad next door. I went inside briefly to let them know that we were there and immediately got into an animated conversation with Marcus and Emma. It was a long, cold winter with no income and so we hadn't been out to eat sushi in forever, so we had a lot of catching up to do. And now their baby is a year old! How did that happen?

A Gift from Marcus
I was taking so long inside that Ann came to find me and finally after a few more minutes of catching up (and talking shop about a person that we had both fired), Ann and I headed outside to start thinking about lunch. Meanwhile, Marcus brought us this delicious roll that he named after his new baby boy. It is squid, salmon, shrimp, and shiso. I really enjoyed it and though I am not the world's biggest shiso fan, I thought that it worked really well in this roll.


A Rainbow of Rolls
I left the ordering to Ann. She loves the crazy maki and so I let her do her thing. I'll eat just about anything, though my preference in sushi runs to nigiri. It was so much fun acting like real people, sitting outside on the Mall, chatting away and eating a leisurely lunch like we had no cares in the world. The stars did truly align yesterday!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mother's Day Risotto

Morel and Asparagus Risotto

How paradoxical is it that I buy and cook so many rare and wondrously expensive foodstuffs and yet never eat them myself? I guess I save all the really good stuff for the paying customers. For Mother's Day though, I decided to surprise Ann with some morels. We are getting fantastic local morels now and this heat is bringing the season rapidly to a close. If we are going to partake of these super-expensive foraged treats, now is the time.

Knowing that I would be out in the yard for the better part of the day mulching all of our flower beds, I needed to come up with a dish that would be simple to execute, not take more than a half an hour, and would be delicious.

I decided on risotto because I know how much Ann loves risotto and because of a really not so good version we had last weekend at a local restaurant. I can't tell you how deflating it is to really anticipate a dish at a restaurant and then to have it come to the table poorly made. I decided to make exactly the dish I expected to be served and to make it correctly.

Fresh Herbs! Love!
To go with the morels, we have tons of local asparagus now (I have been stuffing myself silly on asparagus for two weeks now, eating nearly a pound a day!) and the herbs in our garden are in full swing. In fact, the herbs look so great now that I almost don't want to cut them. Almost.

While I was out in the garden, I pulled the last leek from last year and added it to the risotto along with a few ounces of Surry sausage from our good friends at S. Wallace Edwards in Surry, VA. Ann helped stir the risotto while we both sipped a little wine. Happy Mother's Day!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Linden Vineyards/Panzanella

It was early Sunday morning (10am is early in our house) on our last day of annual holiday and Ann and I were sitting in the sun room, drinking coffee, chatting, and chewing on what to do for our final act of vacation, when I received a text from Mike, "Scott and I are doing to go to Linden today. Would you all like to join us?"

Linden, Beautiful in all Seasons
Needless to say, Ann said yes in a nanosecond and 90 minutes later, Mike and his friend Scott rolled up to our house and Mike offered to drive. While we were texting, I mentioned that I was making a big panzanella for dinner, way more than we could possibly eat, and invited them to dinner after the winery.

Mike's Friend Scott

Jim's Wisteria is Ten Days ahead of Ours

World's Most Expensive Panzanella
I call this panzanella the world's most expensive because I was in sticker shock over how much things cost in a grocery store. I get into a grocery store once or twice a year and then only to pick up a specific item that just cannot be found elsewhere. The last time I actually shopped for ingredients for a dish in a grocery store, well, I just cannot remember the last time. It would have been well more than a decade ago.

We all pitched in making the panzanella when we got home. Ann made a dressing from balsamic vinegar, mustard, and olive oil in a big salad bowl. I sliced a loaf of multigrain bread into croutons and tossed them with olive oil, garlic, and herbs before putting them in the oven on a sheet tray under the broiler. The other items in the salad are salame, mozzarella cheese, grape tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, and arugula.

Mike Brought Dessert
 We finished off the evening with fresh berries and pound cake that Mike had brought along.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Claire's at the Depot, Warrenton VA

On Saturday, nearing the end of our annual break from the restaurant, we decided to make the 45-minute drive to Warrenton and have lunch at Claire's, where we like to sit outside in beautiful weather.

Michael Shaps PV, a Decent Bottle
Duly seated outside on a fantastic spring day, we had to ask for the wine list. It's terribly difficult to sell wine in a restaurant if you don't give customers the opportunity to buy it. A pair of catbirds were raising hell in the trees above and around us as I looked through the very limited list. I am spoiled by our list at our restaurant, I will admit. Just as I had hoped at Tuskie's for a decent bottle of Willamette Pinot, I hoped at Claire's and came up wanting. The only interesting bottle on the list was the Michael Shaps Petit Verdot 2012 and so I ordered it, knowing that he does not make bad wine. Dark and jammed with deep berry fruit and with tannins that are well in check, this is a very good Virginia Petit Verdot, though it is about 5 years too young to drink.

Yellowfin Ahi Tuna Wontons
I let Ann pick the food as I perused the wine list and she chose two appetizers and two entrees for us. The tuna wontons didn't excite me but they weren't bad. I felt that there was too much wonton for the tuna and the soy dipping sauce did not work for me. With wasabi, I would want a ponzu sauce, but this was more of a Southeast Asian sauce, tasting of tamarind. Again, not a bad dish, but there are tweaks I would make to it.

Crispy Calamari
The crispy calamari was a very generous portion and quite excellent, easily the best dish of the day. The rémoulade on the side was fairly flat and tasted mainly of mayo; I would have liked a bit more character in it, but then, I really don't want any sauce at all on my calamari. Lemon and salt is all I want or need.

Spring Risotto
The description of the spring risotto sounded great to us risotto hounds. What's not to like about "melted‎ leeks, morel, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, wilted spinach, chives, marjoram, shaved parmesan"? As it turns out, there was nothing wrong with those ingredients, but the rice itself was botched. The outside was way overcooked while the interior was still underdone. In my experience this is hard to do. This is the dish that caused me to make my own version on Mother's Day to put this one out of my mind.

Artichoke Raviolone
The other entrée that sounded intriguing was a special of artichoke ravioli. I guess I was hoping for house-made ravioli, but that is pretty unrealistic at lunch. The filling was pretty decent, but then the whole was drowned in a cheese sauce that didn't help the dish one bit.

So our appetizers were a lot better than our entrees, but I think that's true at most restaurants. I know that we are a lot more excited about the appetizers on our own menu than our entrees. And it seems to me that the execution has slipped since we were last there. All in all, we had a very enjoyable lunch and we'll keep going back as we are able to help support Claire in bringing good food to Warrenton.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Tuscarora Mill, Leesburg VA

Friday of vacation week came way too soon. I knew we wanted to go out to lunch somewhere and I knew we wanted to stay far, far away from Winchester and the madness of the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, so I suggested going to Leesburg for lunch. I had in mind one of the small ethnic restaurants there, but Ann insisted she wanted to go some place with a good wine list and she chose Tuskies. I haven't eaten there in 20 years.

We arrived for a late lunch around 1:30 and started with a glass of sparkling wine while I looked over the wine list. I really wanted a nice Pinot for lunch but their Pinot list is not good. I did spy a bottle of Vietti Perbacco Nebbiolo which is always a nice buy. Vietti always chooses some of its precocious barrels of Barolo Castiglione and bottles them early as Perbacco. Baby read-to-drink Barolo at a great price, what is not to like?

Vietti Perbacco, Always a Great Buy
While I looked at the wine list, Ann picked a bunch of small plates from the menu for us to eat, five appetizers and an entrée.

Flatbread with Chorizo, Spinach, Provolone and Balsamic Glaze
The most successful dish of the day was this flatbread which with its super thin crust was really outstanding pizza. I was a little leery of the balsamic reduction on the pizza, but it worked really well. This is the best pizza I've had in a long time and is better than anything we've had at their sister restaurant next door, Fireworks Pizza.

Tuna, Seaweed Salad, Daikon

Country Pâté and Duck Rillettes with Onion Jam
The tuna was OK for the price, but it is not something I would have chosen for myself. Anybody can scoop seaweed salad out of a container and on to a plate. The pâté was pretty good, but I wonder if it was made in house. The rillettes needed some seasoning. We always make ours from duck confit with copious amounts of nutmeg and thyme. The smoked onion jam was delicious, but really super (i.e., too) smoky as if the onions weren't smoked at all and were flavored with smoked salt after being caramelized.

Crispy Pork Belly Tacos, Scallion Pancakes, Korean Slaw
And last was this plate. It looks a mess and unfortunately tasted a mess and we were highly disappointed. The scallion pancake and crispy pork belly tacos were put into a mini taco stand and then buried in a heap of overly sweet slaw. As a result, the pancakes were soggy and the pork belly no longer crispy. Our restaurant has some acclaim on the East Coast for our pork belly and I have yet to find a restaurant that does it even half as well as we do. Pity. We also got a crab dip that was pretty mediocre, so mediocre that I didn't feel the need to waste storage on a photo of it.

We are used to food not being up to our admittedly exceedingly high standards, so that didn't really dampen our day. In all, the experience was pleasant and we had a great time.

After lunch, I suggested that we pick up a couple of pizzas next door to take home for dinner. And we did. Not remembering that we ordered the Barcelona pizza on our previous visit and found that it wasn't as delicious as it sounded on paper, Ann ordered another. And we had the same experience. The roasted red peppers dominated all the other toppings. Blah.

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...