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.

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.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Food Blur

The last couple of weeks have been a total blur. Crazy business last week and playing catch up this week. Working on a new restaurant project. Dealing with upcoming fall winery catering. Working through the details for a bunch of big parties over the next few weeks. It's all enough to drive a person crazy. Pardon me if I don't remember when or if we ate any of the following dishes over the past couple of weeks. Call me surprised that I had any energy at all to cook. It all ran out last night. With a belly full of cheeseburger, I passed out at 8pm and didn't budge until 6am. Be thankful for business, I have to keep reminding myself, and also that not only on "Game of Thrones" is winter coming.

Real Pho, No Garnish
I vaguely recall that I made pho on a Monday when I had all afternoon to make the broth in which to quickly cook some fresh rice noodles. The broth was classical with beef bones, charred ginger, charred onion, and a hint of spice, right up until the end when I put a handful of fresh kaffir lime leaves in the broth to give it a haunting quality. This broth was so outstanding that it did not need any garnishes to get in the way.

Strozzapreti with Fresh Tomatoes, Butter, and Garlic
This was a quick Sunday night supper. I sweated some slivered garlic in butter and tossed in a bunch of peeled and seeded tomatoes for the world's quickest pasta. The days for fresh tomatoes are winding down quickly. Gorge now.

Fried Rice
Another quick meal, a clean out the refrigerator meal. Scrounging in the fridge yielded lop cheung, green onions, a rough-looking carrot, cilantro stems, and red and orange peppers. I make my fried rice Thai style with white pepper and fish sauce. A little prep aside, this is an effortless meal and a great way to use up all those odds and ends in the fridge.

And the coma-inducing cheeseburger. Slow night last night and I got home early enough for dinner. Ann wanted Five Guys. Ed doesn't like their burgers. We compromised. Ann picked up some burger, cheese, buns, and chips at the grocery on the way home. I got there a few minutes later and prepped all the toppings. A couple of glasses of wine later, outside to the grill, where I grilled what is quite possibly the last burger of the year, for it is getting too dark too early from here on out.

This burger photo pleases me. This is a cheeseburger in its natural habitat, hot, on a plate, cheese sliding off the side, lopsided, lid all smashed because the package got manhandled on the way home, getting ready to get slammed. Have you ever seen professionally shot burgers, with the carefully pinned on lettuce, the cheese that was hit with the blowtorch, perfectly lit so there's not a shadow anywhere, condiments artfully put on with a squeeze bottle and a Q-tip? Those burgers are like women with the big fake boobs: they don't look real because they aren't. This, friends, you know is a real burger. And it was awesome, I assure you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Labor Day Weekend

While I believe that most people really enjoy the three-day Labor Day weekend, I'm not sure they could ever understand what it means to me. Labor Day is the rare Monday holiday when no contractors will come to the restaurant, nobody will be making deliveries, my bank will be closed and so will every other store in town that I need to visit in making my usual Monday resupply runs for the restaurant. Labor Day is one of the few days a year when I can get nothing productive done at or for the restaurant. And so I am forced to take a very rare ("scarce as hen's teeth," my mother would say) two-day weekend. Only if you work six days a week will you understand what a forced two-day Labor Day weekend means to me.

To say that I was really looking forward to it would be a gross understatement, especially after Saturday night, which was the busiest night in months. Everyone decided that Saturday was the day to come to One Block West. After a very late Saturday, I was really foggy on Sunday morning when the dogs begged to go out at 8am. But I was up and it was beautiful out, so after I fed the beasts, I went back outside and wandered about the yard to see what could be seen.

"Orphan" Rose of Sharon
It turns out that the new Rose of Sharon that I planted about July 4th has its first bloom, bringing some color to what is otherwise a pretty bleak, brown, and crispy landscape. Ann and I chose the plant at a local nursery where we bought it without any kind of label, not knowing what color it would be, rolling the dice and hoping for something special. The color fidelity in this photo is not great: it is mauve with a red center. We did this with an orphan wisteria a few years back and were rewarded with a gorgeous blue one. Our luck continues.

Final Sunflower of the Year
I also found one remaining sunflower blooming out behind the grill, so I brought it in for Ann. She has decided that she will call them Happy Flowers from now on.

Black Swallowtail Larva on Parsley
Later on after Ann came out to join me for coffee, she spotted a couple of Black Swallowtail larva feeding on the parsley out in the garden. The parsley has gone to seed and is useless to us so why not let the butterflies do their thing? They have very specific host plant requirements, feeding exclusively on members of the carrot family, including dill and parsley. I'm happy to share my parsley in exchange for beautiful butterflies.

Grilled Vegetable Sandwich
We had planned to go on a picnic on Sunday afternoon and so I made grilled vegetable sandwiches of grilled focaccia spread with parsley pesto goat cheese, and filled with grilled yellow and green squash, roasted red peppers, and grilled onions. Unfortunately, Carter's mouth got the best of him and Ann cancelled the picnic. Ann and I enjoyed the sandwiches at home for lunch. This is a pretty awesome sandwich.

Polenta with Marinara and Fresh Mozzarella
Apropos of pretty much nothing (that I know about) Ann said that she really wanted polenta with marinara and mozzarella for dinner. That's a pretty unusual request in my book but we had about 250g of polenta in the pantry, a bunch of tomatoes on the counter, and I had brought home four balls of mozzarella leftover from Saturday night dinner service.

Into the blender with a lot of tomatoes, some garlic, and a bunch of basil and about an hour later, we had piping hot batches of both marinara and polenta. When making marinara from fresh tomatoes, I usually have to add a little sugar to help attenuate the natural acidity of the tomatoes. In this case, I actually had to add about a teaspoon of rice vinegar to amp the acidity, so sweet and blah was the tomato sauce. Go figure.

Fried Polenta and Bacon
Monday, Labor Day itself, I put the leftover polenta to good use, frying it in bacon grease for breakfast. We needed a poached egg on the polenta, but I didn't feel like getting a pot of poaching water simmering.

Ann's Gorgeous Bread

On Sunday, we decided that since I had brought home a goat cheese, some mozzarella, and three kinds of sausages that on Monday, Ann would bake a loaf of bread and we would feast casually. So Sunday afternoon, she threw some dough in a bowl to work overnight. This plain loaf, which she claimed didn't rise well, was absolutely one of her best efforts. It was silly good, so good that we gorged on it. Annie, if you're reading this, you done good!

Sunday Smorgasbord
Our dinner was this pitiful selection of meats and cheeses: a crazy ripe Valençay from Shepherd's Whey Creamery, fresh mozzarella, a Chianti soppressata, hard chorizo, and an all-beef kielbasa from Texas.

All in all, it was a great weekend of feasting and relaxing! I can't wait for my next two-day weekend. Memorial Day 2016. Ugh! Such a long time to wait.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Grilled Snapper with Tomatoes and Capers

When I told Ann that on Tuesday night, I had switched shifts and would be coming home in time to make dinner, she replied, "in the mood for something really light like a grilled fish with some tomatoes and capers." The hardest part of cooking, for me, is deciding what to make and it is always wonderful when I get this explicit direction.

So before I left the restaurant, I grabbed a bunch of cherry tomatoes, some capers, and a yellow squash. At the market on the way home, I grabbed some banana leaf and a 4-pound pink snapper, figuring that Carter would devour most of it. A 4-pound fish should yield slightly less than two pounds of meat.

At home, I cut up the tomatoes and minced some garlic. Half the garlic I reserved for the fish and the other half I put in the tomatoes along with a quarter cup of capers with some of their brine. To this, I added some extra virgin olive oil to make a quick tomato-caper salsa for the fish.

Scale, Slash, Rub with Olive Oil, Salt, Pepper, and Garlic
I laid out some banana leaf on a sheet tray and then scaled and slashed the snapper. After rubbing it with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic, I transferred the banana leaf and fish directly to a blazing hot grill and shut the lid.

After 20 Minutes, Fish Done, Banana Leaf Incinerated
Trying to grill skin-on fish on the grill is not a winning proposition, I have found, because the skin sticks to the grill bars and it proves nearly impossible to remove the fish from the bars without destroying it. The banana leaf provides great separation from the grill bars and as a bonus, provides a good smoke source. After ten minutes, I checked the fish and it was about half done. In another five, I put slabs of yellow squash on the grill and let them go for about 3 minutes before I turned off the gas and let everything sit for another 5-6 minutes just to mellow out.

Pink Snapper with Tomatoes and Capers; Yellow Squash

Wings and Rings

Ann wanted to eat "bad" so Monday night and so I rummaged around in my brain and found some good bar food to make for her: wings and onion rings.

Chipotle Wings
The wings are oven-roasted at 450F with the fan on, turned every 10 minutes, for a half an hour until the wings are super crispy. Then toss them in a sauce of chipotle salsa, agave nectar, and rice vinegar; sweet, tangy, smoky, and spicy.

Onion Rings
These onion rings are a direct result of eating the crappy rings at MELT Gourmet Cheeseburgers a few weeks ago. When I want an onion ring, I want an onion ring, not some overfried reconstituted onion paste in dubious batter. I want a light tempura-style ring made from real onions, the way onion rings are supposed to be made.

To make a great onion ring, you need large yellow onions, and definitely not the supersweet kind. Slice the onions into half-inch slabs and separate the slabs into rings. Place the rings in buttermilk to wet them and shake off the excess. Toss them in seasoned flour. Then into fairly thin beer batter (beer, flour, salt, touch of baking powder). Shake off the excess and into the fryer.

Tacos and Tomatoes

Back in the spring, I got an email out of the blue from Martha, an old friend of the family. She and her first husband were great friends of my parents and I saw a lot of her during my days in Charlottesville. But the last time I saw her was 31 years ago. I went my way to Texas and she went her way to Missouri. She and her husband Bob have recently moved back to Virginia and she reached out to me, wanting to catch up. So she and Bob drove up on Sunday and we caught up and had lunch together, standing around the kitchen counter.

Pulled Pork Taco with Salsa Verde, Cotija, and Spicy Curtido
On my day off, especially for lunch, I really am not into cooking all that much. Whatever I make for lunch needs to be something that can be prepared in advance and/or doesn't take more than about 15-20 minutes of active work, so I decided to roast some pork shoulder and serve it as tacos. That way, the oven could do all the work while I had coffee with Ann.

The pork I rubbed down the night before and put in a slow oven when I awoke on Sunday morning to deal with the dogs. The slaw I made at work a couple days before: cabbage, all manner of peppers, carrots, red onions, habaneros, garlic, spices, sugar, vinegar, and oil. I also brought home some salsa verde made from roasted tomatillos, poblanos, cilantro, and roasted garlic all slowly cooked down in pork stock and then blended to make a smooth sauce, whose acidity I adjusted with a touch of lime juice.

Tomatoes with Cotija and Cilantro
And I decided that we needed to have a very quick tomato salad to go with our tacos, mainly to take advantage of the most amazing tomatoes of the year. I sliced the tomatoes and laid them on a platter, sprinkled them with salt, cotija cheese, and cilantro. Less than two minutes from start to finish.

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...