Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas Dinner

Our plan for Christmas Dinner did not go nearly as planned. I closed the restaurant for lack of business on Christmas Eve and Ann and I were going to get in the kitchen together and make osso buco while relaxing with a bottle of wine. And then we were going to take a hike on Christmas Day and finish off the day with a nice pasta, as a reward for good behavior this past year. We haven't eaten any pasta in months and our waistlines show it.

Osso Buco, Risotto Milanese, Oregon Black Truffles
That was the plan, but the reality was much different. Ann spent a few days at her mother's and ended up following the ambulance to the ER on Christmas Eve because her mom was having more heart problems. Late afternoon on Christmas Eve after they admitted her mom for observation, Ann was able to get away and come home about dark. So much for getting in the kitchen and cooking. And as frazzled as she was, I just opened a bottle of wine and after some by-the-glass therapy, we cooked some pasta, and watched Love Actually for the umpteenth time. This was definitely not how we scripted Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day, we hung around the house without taking a hike, waiting for the call to come get Ann's mother and take her home. About 11:30 in the morning, it was clear that the hospital was taking its time in cutting her loose, so we decided to hurry up the osso buco into the crockpot so that it would be waiting for us when we got home.

Osso Buco Bubbling Away

We got the call about 2pm to come into Fairfax and as luck would have it, Mary had just got to the front door as we pulled up, so we didn't have to wait on her. After visiting her mom and me making a quick pot of stracciatella for her to eat, we headed west on the drive across the mountains to Winchester. Once again, it was about dark when we got home, but this time we arrived to the awesome smells of osso buco.

We collected our wits for a few minutes and then Ann went on an explore in the cellar for wine (because we drank our osso buco Barolo the night before) while I pulled together the mise for risotto milanese. I also happened to grab a few truffles from work for our risotto, an indulgence that we partake of only once a year.

Risotto Mise: Leeks, Shallots, Oregon Black Truffles

Just Starting the Risotto: Adding the Saffron

Risotto Milanese Ready for Service
Ann surprised me with two bottles from the cellar that I was supposed to guess blind. Unknown to me, she pulled a couple of 2011s from our friend Maggie Malick. I couldn't place the first wine, the Cabernet Franc. It was bricking from age, the color was fading, but the fruit was bright sappy raspberry with a darker cherry undertone and some bottle funk. I couldn't place the wine at all and was shocked when she showed me the bottle: Virginia Cabernet Franc.

Outstanding Aged Virginia Cab Franc
The second bottle, I could place. It was a dead ringer for 2009 vintage Pinot Noir from Ribbon Ridge AVA in Oregon. Only one problem: we don't have any in our cellar. I was dumbfounded to find that it was Virginia Merlot. Merlot makes sense in that it has this juicy blueberry streak that you also find in Ribbon Ridge Pinot. Damned delicious and better than the Cabernet Franc. Age has a way of making certain wines really graceful. Time was excellent to these two and I know they taste far better now than when they were bottled.

Even More Outstanding Virginia Merlot

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Special Linden Tasting

For the month of December, until they closed for their annual holiday break, Jim, Shari, and the crew at Linden were doing a special tasting, rather than their usual cellar and counter tastings. I believe that Jim guinea-pigged this tasting on us when we were in a few weeks ago. I had thought that perhaps we were going to have a short hike in the morning before going to the winery in the afternoon, but in retrospect, it seems that was never in Ann's playbook. Good thing it was pouring all morning making the whole idea moot.

Each weekend in December would see a different tasting. You can see ours in the photo below.

Tasting Menu at Linden
The star of the whites was the Avenius Chardonnay 2008 which is displaying some gorgeous oxidized notes. I could drink a lot of this wine and it certainly shows why you should lay down your Chardonnay for a few years. The Viognier, I can report, is not terrible! I just really don't care much at all for Viognier and I have had hundreds of them including Condrieu and Château-Grillet. Winemaker Jonathan Weber poured our whites for us. I remember when he was just an intern and would schlepp wines to us up at the restaurant. Now he's all grown up and is the winemaker. It's good to see.

Avenius Chardonnay 2008
The Avenius Red 2008 in half bottle was a revelation. I've had a lot of this wine over the years, but in half bottle, it was really advanced showing great mint, cedar, and eucalyptus notes. Spectacular.

Avenius Red 2008
After the tasting, I asked Jim what we should be drinking. Pondering it for a second, he said, "I have just the thing" and went off to the back to fetch us a delicious bottle of Avenius Red 2013. He knows my predilection for high acid reds and my fondness for the wines from Shari's vineyard with their mineral core. He came and sat with us and we shot the breeze for a half an hour or so. This is why we visit in the off-season. It's my off-season too and we can all relax a bit, the pressures of work being so much less than in the fall.

Avenius Red 2013

I Love This Woman!
What was I supposed to do? Put a "no cell phones" sign on the wall and I'm going to whip out my cell phone and take a picture of it. The point is moot anyway: there's no signal at Linden.

I Couldn't Resist
Back home, Annie got to baking another couple batches of Christmas cookies and we brought home a bottle of the Hardscrabble Red 2013 to drink with dinner. At this point, the Avenius Red 2013 is drinking better.

Cookie Monster

Finishing Out the Night

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Chicken Cacciatore

We decided to take a weekend off from hiking to get set for Christmas and this involved putting up the tree and making something yummy for dinner. During the week before, I threw together a list of easy braised comfort food dishes as ideas for Sunday dinner and the very first item on that list was chicken cacciatore. On Friday, I asked Ann what she was thinking about for dinner. The very first thing out of her mouth was chicken cacciatore! We hadn't discussed dinner at all prior to this and I cannot imagine how it is possible that we were thinking of the very same dish, but I took it as a sign from the culinary gods. Chicken cacciatore it was.

Chicken hunter-style is probably a northern Italian dish, but then I suspect that many, many cultures roast chicken with herbs and mushrooms. That dish is not what we, Ann and I, think of when we think of hunter's style. Ours has onions, bacon, porcini mushrooms, roasted red peppers, herbs, and tomatoes (not sauce). Call it what you will and make it however you want, slow-roasted chicken of any sort is fantastic.

Browned Chicken and Herbs

Ready for the Oven
After cooking the bacon, veg, and mushrooms for the sauce, I poured it over the chicken. Then I wet the whole thing with a little white wine from a leftover bottle in the fridge, covered the pan in aluminum foil, and put it in a slow oven to roast-braise for a couple of hours until everything was soft and co-mingled. Absolutely delicious.

Annie Trying on Her Light Dress!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Gunther, I Hate You

Compton Peak Panorama
"Fuck my life!" I exclaimed while sitting on the back bumper of the Jeep putting on my hiking shoes Sunday at the Gravel Springs Gap parking lot on Skyline Drive just minutes after 10am. A vast white tour bus with its noisy diesel engine pulled up, stopped in the middle of Skyline Drive, and vomited 30 or 40 seniors dressed in hiking gear. "Are you kidding me?" I asked myself as I wandered over to the herd and asked where they were headed; the reply "To Big Devil Stairs, looping back to Jenkins Gap."

I blame it on the piebald deer we saw earlier. Is a piebald deer good luck or bad luck? I'm going with the latter. What else explains on a random cold December Sunday with zero traffic on Skyline Drive that we decide to hike the one damned place, a place that is one of the lesser visited hikes in the park, that a bus full of seniors is also hiking at the same time? "We're going elsewhere," I grumped at their general direction. Nothing against them, really; I just don't hike in crowds. Ann and I are out to get away.

Now, this bus, a huge white coach with "Gunther" emblazoned on the side in huge red letters, and I, we already have history. Earlier, coming south down Skyline Drive, we came upon a bus stopped in the road just before a curve making it damn near impossible to see around it, to see if it is safe to pass. "Pull off the road!" I shout at the driver as I creep around the bus, knowing full well that he cannot hear me, and more than likely, doesn't give a crap what I think. Passengers are milling about the 15-yard wide margin on the side of road where you could have parked a fleet of busses. As we pass by, I am thankful they are not near us. I am so wrong.

Flashing back to a happier part of the day, we got up and going about 8 am. I had promised Ann the day before to take her to a funky little coffee bar in downtown called Steamy's for coffee and a bagel before the hike. Although I like to get up and hiking in the mornings, with a planned hike of less than six miles, there was no particular pressure to hurry, more so now that it is winter and we are actually waiting for the sun to get up as opposed to trying to get our hike completed before the sun comes up.

We both had bacon, egg, and cheese bagels with our coffee. I think that this is the first time that we have started a hike with a belly full of a real breakfast rather than just a couple of granola bars. It was enough to keep me going through 1:00 in the afternoon; Ann lasted even longer. I'm not a fan of breakfast, but I kind of like the energy it gave me.

Bagel and Coffee at Steamy's in Winchester
Back to the Gravel Springs Gap parking lot, I was having zero luck getting enough signal on my phone to try to determine an alternate hike when I had a "Doh!" moment. Whenever we are hiking the AT or nearby, I always carry the NatGeo guide for the section in my pack. We chose Big Devil Stairs because of our plans later in the day. Jeff had invited us by the winery for a prerelease cellar tasting, so we wanted to have a quick hike near the winery before going to join that particular party.

In looking at the map, two hikes stuck out at me as short hikes nearby, both of which we have hiked before: Compton Peak and Overall Run Falls. Compton Peak, being closer to the winery, won, but the climb up from Compton Gap is very, very short, albeit a short hike that really kicked our butts a couple of summers ago when we were really out of shape and not hiking regularly. We also wanted to go climb that hill again and laugh at how sadly out of shape we were.

We decided to tack on some AT mileage to get a short 6-7 mile hike and approach Compton Peak from the south rather than the north and Compton Gap, so we found a suitable place where the AT crossed Skyline Drive between Browntown Overlook and Hogwallow Flats Overlook.

The Start of our Hike
One of the downsides to hiking the AT in Shenandoah National Park is that you are rarely more than a few yards from Skyline Drive and in winter not only do you hear the traffic as it goes by, but with no leaves on the trees, you can often see the traffic as well. As we had started our walk north towards Jenkins Gap and Compton Peak, the big bus came roaring back past us. And by the time we had got within a half a mile of Jenkins Gap, we could hear the bus idling in the parking lot there. We had to listen to that engine idling for a good twenty minutes of both the out- and back-legs of the hike. Gunther, I hate you.

Gunther, our Nemesis
The walk along the AT went through quite varied areas. We started in what was clearly old farm land with no really old trees, only black locusts reaching maturity, undergrown with large stands of greenbrier, raspberries, and pokeweed. And then we moved on to quite sandy soil with mountain laurel encroaching on the path. Then we moved to a stand of very young maples and then to a burned over part of the forest.

Sandy Soil; Mountain Laurels

Raspberries, Beautiful in Winter

Long Fern-Clad North-Facing Slopes

Bird's Nest in Young Maple

Random Trail Marker

Lots of Brilliant White Shelf Fungi

Lunch: Cream Cheese and Olive Wraps
Up top, we had Compton Peak to ourselves. Although we passed a threesome going north up the AT, they clearly did not take the side trail to the peak. The last time we were up top, we had to share the rocks with several others. The weather was pleasant enough, just above freezing, but it was extremely overcast and hazy: the views were not as good as the last time we were here.

Shenandoah River in the Haze

Annie Takes in the View

Happy Girl

Shot of a Boot Shot in Progress

The Sun Tried to no Avail
After the hike, as we drove back north along Skyline Drive, I kept joking with Ann that if we just turned left off the roadway, we could be at Jeff and Kelly's in just a couple minutes. The farm is nestled in the hollow just below the Gooney Run and Gooney Manor overlooks. Twenty-five minutes later, we pulled up to a busy tasting room and after catching up with Kelly for a couple of minutes, headed down into the cellar to see Jeff. The last I saw him was mid-August just before harvest. I won't bother him during harvest.

Kelly Orchestrating the Tasting Counter

The Tasting Line Up

Tonnato and Bread
In the cellar, we tasted a wonderful 2016 Sauvignon Blanc barrel sample, the newly bottled 2014 Petit Verdot, and 2014 Hodder Hill Bordeaux blend. Ann decided that upstairs, we should get a bottle of the 2014 Hodder Hill, which leads with acid rather than fruit. While I got that, she managed to get us some space at a table with Bob and Carol to whom we introduced ourselves and with whom we chatted away the rest of the afternoon. Ann also managed to get a little bit of bread and some tonnato from Kelly, which combined with the rest of our leftover lunch, helped kill off a little of our hunger.

We were getting ready to leave when Jeff came up from the cellar and opened the bottle of 2012 Albariño that I brought for them to add to their next blind tasting. I wasn't expecting the bottle to be opened same day, but it was, so we hung around and tasted it. I brought it to show everyone that Albariño really can benefit from some bottle age.

By the time we wound our way back home on the long drive in the dark, it was a long day and in spite of dear friend Gunther, a good one.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Kelley and Mark

It all started with a random message on Facebook from Kelley last week telling us she missed us. Such is the connectivity or lack thereof in Pocohontas County, WV in the dead zone around NRAO that we are relegated to communicate via FB Messenger. Ann and I have been kicking around the idea of meeting both Kelley and Mark at some halfway point between here and there, about Seneca Rocks, and we mentioned that to her as something we had to do in the spring after they get done with their ski season jobs at Snowshoe.

Long story short, Kelley decided that we needed to do this on Monday and so I cleared my calendar for the 2-hour drive, to hike a little and socialize a lot. But then it turned out that this early in the season, Mark had three days off and they decided to come back to NoVa to attend to some family matters. So they came to our house yesterday late afternoon and stayed for dinner en route to NoVa.

The Three Musketeers
I wanted something really simple for dinner and was thinking about tacos, but I wanted something even less work than that so we could visit and catch up rather than work in the kitchen. I hit on the idea of nachos and then the idea of buying a rotisserie chicken and shredding it on the nachos came to me, so I grabbed a chicken, some grated cheese, and a bag of chips from Costco, and from FoodMaxx some fresh jalapeños, cilantro, a jar of nopalitos, and a can each of black beans and pinto beans.

At home, I drained and rinsed the beans, picked the chicken, pulled the cilantro, and sliced the jalapeños so that at dinner time, all we needed to do was fire up the oven and make some nachos.

Ann Decorating Nachos; Mark Filching Nopalitos
In the photo above, note the so-called "pumpkini," a squash of unknown heritage that Kelley brought along. Most squashes and gourds are somewhat edible and if nothing else, you can generally make soup from them, even if they are super stringy. We got into this one today and found that it has about 1" thick bright orange flesh that is not at all stringy, but it doesn't have any flavor either. It is headed for a squash cream sauce for ricotta gnocchi with chanterelles, rabbit confit, and cavolo nero.

We made two sheet trays of nachos, the first with black beans and the second with pinto beans, between rounds of Cards Against Humanity. A little Prosecco and some red wine might have been drunk. During our match, somebody got the "swooping" card, which none of us could recall ever having encountered before and the reference to which none of us got, so of course, we turned to Urban Dictionary, the arbiter of all things Cards Against Humanity, and found the joke was on us. No spoilers here. Go check for yourself.

Chicken and Pinto Bean Nachos with Nopalitos and Jalapeños
We haven't seen Mark and Kelley since we stayed at their house two Aprils ago and it was just a fantastic short visit to catch up. With my schedule giving me only a single day off a week, opportunities to see them, a 7-hour round trip away, are scarce. We miss them terribly.


Now that hunting season is open, we're restricting our hikes to lands where hunting is prohibited. We hiked Shenandoah National Park extensively during the summer, to leave it for the relative solitude of George Washington National Forest during leaf season, and now that the hunters are back in GWNF, we're back to SNP where we hiked a 9+ mile loop around and over Hawksbill on Sunday.

Lower Hawksbill Parking Area
At 4050 feet, Hawksbill is the highest point in SNP giving a nearly 270-degree view into Page County to the west and Madison County to the east. The views of nearby Old Rag and Stony Man from the summit of Hawksbill are spectacular. Hawksbill is located right on Skyline Drive between Skyland to the north and Big Meadows to the south, both places we hiked this summer. It's easy access from Skyline Drive and that makes it an extremely popular hike; we waited for the cold weather to deter a lot of hikers.

We started our circuit on the east side of the parkway at the Cedar Run trailhead where we picked up the Skyland-Big Meadows Bridle Trail and walked it parallel to Skyline Drive for about 4.5 miles south to the Rose River Fire Road (that leads down to Dark Hollow Falls) at Fisher's Gap. There we crossed Skyline Drive and picked up the Appalachian Trail on the west side of the mountain and walked it back north to Hawksbill, where we climbed up the west side on the Salamander Trail to the summit. From there, we dropped down the east side to the Lower Hawksbill parking area. We left the Jeep across the road in the parking for Cedar Run.

The Starting Point of Our Hike
The bridle trail is a nice, wide trail that is seldom used by horses. Despite horses being stabled at Skyland and trail rides being offered, I've never encountered a horse on any part of this trail, nor have I ever seen horse droppings. I'm not sure I'd want to tow a horse trailer up these mountains. Aside from a few rocky places and a few sections where we were wading through mid-shin-deep oak leaves, it was smooth walking all four and a half miles.

Lots of Oak Leaves
The morning started cold, well below freezing, and it never really warmed up. We'd get to a sunny spot and I would take my gloves off and then we would duck into a hollow and I would put them back on again, all day. Somewhat paradoxically, the warmest we were all day was up on the summit in the full sun.

The Morning Started Cold

Icicles and Moss
The walk down the bridle trail offers very little in the way of views and not much to photograph, but once you cross Skyline Drive and start walking the AT north in the vicinity of Franklin Cliffs, there are many, many opportunities for awesome views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west.

Franklin Cliffs
We selected one of the big sunny west-facing rock outcroppings on which to eat lunch. It would have been nice to eat up on the summit of Hawksbill, but we were still an hour away and our hunger would not be denied. As we were eating lunch, we heard the half-crow, half-frog croaking of a raven as it soared above us. We watched it glide over and then forgot about it for a little while until we heard the scream of a hawk join the croaking of the raven. Off to our northwest, the raven had spied a Broad-Winged Hawk and was giving it hell. After a couple of minutes of harassment, the hawk finally got free and glided south along the ridgeline, almost directly over our heads. The autofocus on my camera took this opportunity to fail me, being unable to acquire focus at all. Bummer.

Shenandoah Valley Panorama at Our Lunch Spot
Also while we were eating, Ann spied a lone goldenrod still blooming on the cliff face. This is the first flower we've seen in weeks.

A Lone Solidago
The walk north on the AT was fun and in a couple of spots had a couple of steep climbs. Soon enough, we came to the junction of the AT and the Salamander Trail on the west side of Hawksbill and we started climbing. Although we gained about 500 vertical feet over a touch less than three-quarters of a mile, the climb felt very gentle. Just as we started to top out with blue sky 360 degrees around us, we started seeing random balsam firs here and there, a clear sign that we were up at about 4000 feet.

At the top, the summit flattens out and opens up at the site of the stone Byrd's Nest shelter number two, one of a series of shelters caused to be built by Harry Byrd, Senator and Governor of Virginia, one-time Winchester resident before moving to Berryville, and father of my one-time neighbor and Senator Harry Byrd Jr.

Byrd's Nest No. 2
Just beyond the shelter, the trail climbs a handful of feet up to a low-walled stone observation platform, the very highest point on the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park.

Plaque on the Tower at the Summit

Sitting on the Platform Wall

Well Earned Rest

Annie Striking a Pose

Old Rag

Old Rag Through Forest Fire Compass Crenel
From the summit, we proceeded east down the mountain on a much steeper trail than we had climbed on the west. This trail took us, for a few yards at least, through an area of Balsam Firs, which occur in Virginia only at the summits of Hawksbill and next door on the summit of Stony Man. This is a tree we saw much of above 5000 feet in the Smokies, but which really does not grow south of New England and Canada. Pretty cool to see it here.

Balsam Fir, in Virginia??
At one point on the way down, we stopped to investigate the sounds of little feet running through the leaves to see a squirrel darting here and there about us. While I was watching a male Downy Woodpecker do his thing, the squirrel found a nice source of food just above us and proceeded to shower us with gnawings. Note in all these pictures what a spectacular day we had without a cloud to be seen anywhere.

Male Downy Woodpecker

Our Squirrel Friend
Nine and a half miles makes one very thirsty and so we were eager to get on the road and get a beer. Our usual haunt when hiking SNP is PaveMint in Front Royal. Because we have been over in GWNF for leaf season, it had been a while since we visited.

A Sight to Warm a Hiker's Heart
The beers constantly turn over here which is both a blessing and a curse. Find one you really love and you know it will be gone on your next visit. But then, there are always more to be found. I really enjoyed the Lonerider Hoppy Ki Yay from Raleigh. Ann really liked the Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat from Eureka CA.

Lonerider Hoppy Ki Yay: Delicious!
I ended up eating a burger because this is always a safe bet here. They do burgers well. Some other things, not so well. Ann was not particularly happy with her grilled cheese and tomato soup, the sandwich not being cooked long enough to brown or melt the cheese and the soup being too chunky for her liking.

Burgers Are Always Decent

Grilled Cheese and Soup: More Miss than Hit
It proved to be a gorgeous day, chilly but sunny, and a great day to tackle a very popular peak in Shenandoah National Park. This is a must-do hike for anyone visiting SNP.

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...