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.