Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pretty In Pink

I hardly ever used to cook steak; lamb and duck are more interesting (and also best cooked rare.) There are not so many cuts of beef that I love. But now that we have a water bath, steak is much more interesting. First off, any flavoring agents really get pushed into the meat by the vacuum-sealing. Second, it's always perfectly done all the way through with no possibility of overcooking. And last, less tender cuts can be left in longer to relax and become luxurious. It's like a spa, but for meat.

Tonight, a couple of lovely local ribeyes with salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence underwent this treatment, and while in the bath I caramelized rutabaga with diced onion and steamed broccoli. Once the meat was done, I threw a few garlic cloves and a pat of butter in the iron pan, then seared the meat, then wilted a bunch of spinach in there after and deglazed with lemon juice. A 2005 La Spinetta Langhe Nebbiolo was perfect- chewy, rich, perfumed with violets- it blew away any regrets I had about not having made a reduction of some kind to go with this.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Today was just gorgeous. Sunny, well into the 40s- though shaded snow stayed powdery all day- it nonetheless harbinged Spring something fierce. By midafternoon the sun had melted off enough of the accumulated snow and ice in the garden that I was able to wrest the plastic from withunder and take a look at how the veggies have been faring. One of the benefits of so much snow is that they've been left to their own devices for most of the winter. They do just fine with recycling the water already in the soil via condensation, and now that the sun is up to pre-halloween heights in the sky, they're putting on some real growth- which is even more noticeable since I haven't been mauling them in wintry desperation on a regular basis.

So in keeping with our recent trend of two-course dinners, I began by turning the rest of the lovely 10-grain mix into supplì (or arancini) with a chunk of mozzarella in the middle and a diluted egg-cormeal crust. I find that they do just fine in about a half inch of oil; it takes a tad more attention to rotating them for even browning, but it uses way less oil than deep frying. So I put them on top of some spinach pesto and got to work on part two: grilled squid salad. Now this is a variation on what I had wanted to make the day I drove all over the place trying to find squid, but it's different because I made the peanut soup part anyway and we ate iterations of that for over a week, and now we have a new raft of leftovers that dictated this particular treatment.

I have found that when it's too cold to contemplate grilling, an iron pan heated to air-curling heat can do a passable job of putting a char on things that like a nice char. Squid is just such a food; you either cook it for 1 minute or several hours. Otherwise it's rubber. So four good-sized squid bodies marinated for a couple of hours in spinach pesto mashed with ume plums and got a righteous sear in the pan. Then I cut them into rings and tossed them with the last of the roasted beet salad from ages ago (that we've been hitting all week) plus a few remaining Kalamata olives, a final hunk of feta, and more spinach pesto. This rich ruby mixture I did serve atop an exciting bunch of greens plucked mere minutes before from the garden: claytonia, mâche, spinach, mustard, mizuna, chard, tatsoi, radish, and arugula.

The little camera had some depth-of-field issues with this one; it was all "Wow, that plate from Turkey is so cool" and I was like "But dude, the food" and it was totally "Whatever about your food- check out that plate!" (The big camera's battery was dead.) We enjoyed the last glass of a 2003 Guigal Crozes-Hermitage from last night- when we had an inexplicably unphotographed porcini powder dusted baked halibut on caramelized leeks and turnips- along with a newly-opened 2003 Jaboulet Vacqueyras. It's always so much more instructive to taste wines together, and when you can get regions or years to match up it's even better.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Fridge Vindaloo

The fridge was getting silly with crowded containers of leftovers, so I took those that were not certifiable biohazards and tried to convert them into something good. To start, some of the local 10-grain mix went in the rice cooker- it's a beautiful thing, since some dissolve while others remain toothsome- they cover the full spectrum of doneness and have a really rich flavor. Then, the baked sweet potatoes from last night, the pheasant broth and the carrots therefrom, toasted fenugreek, cumin, fennel, and mustard seeds, the braised fennel, about half the meat from a coconut I beat apart the other day, and the last of the peanut soup all went for a merry spin in the food processor. While that was churning, I added some powders to the rest of the already-seasoned burger meat from last night and formed it around skewers, then put them in the big sautée pan.

While the meat sizzled, I chopped our own green beans from the freezer and added them to sweated onion, shredded chard, and a bit of vindaloo paste. The meatsicles went on a nice little salad with a soy-sesame dressing. Once we had eaten the first course, I deglazed all the crispy bits of meat and onion with a splash of wine, then dumped the green mixture in and finished them with a little yogurt. By this point the purée was bubbling nicely. All told, it worked pretty well; the orange curry had a rich depth of flavor, and the greens/beans were frankly awesome. I found one more beer in the door of the fridge, so I even had a delicious beverage to go with this healthy, efficient goodness. I can totally see the back of the fridge now.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


I like stuff in my burgers. Not a ton of things, or any big chunks, but minced onion and garlic, herbs, and occasional spices can all elevate the experience to something much nicer than the usual (as can using local, organic meat.) They can also be halfway healthy, too- especially if you bake rather than fry the sweet potatoes, and serve them with a brassica-heavy mesclun, braised fennel, and roasted beets on a spelt English muffin with a slice of melted Swiss cheese. I'm going to keep refining this; now that I'm into grinding my own meat there are limitless possibilities that will still taste like a burger (rather than sausage.) A 2005 Domaine du Joncier Lirac was quite a serviceable burger wine, with some fruit and spice behind strong tannins. With time it might be more versatile, but for now it wants meat.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It's The Economy, Stupid

I've been obsessed with this wine-braised fennel lately; I first "invented" it in Chicago a dozen years ago (although then I usually used muscat, because I liked the sweetness) and it's so luxurious and wintry that it goes with everything this time of year, and I'm craving it. Fennel has this way of storing summer's bright sweetness deep into winter, and now that spring is creeping up on us, I find myself craving it a lot. We ate the last of what I had cooked on Saturday, so I bought more and got it going about 2 hours before dinner time- though 4 is better for maximum silkiness. A little lemon really helps give focus to the extremely wilted fennel, and copious good olive oil to finish lofts it into the realm of the world's great side dishes.

We still had roasted beet salad in the fridge- ironically since I forgot to pull it out on Saturday- and I had made the Valentine's pheasant carcasses into broth yesterday with an eye toward risotto today. Milo is really into chard these days, and chard and beets are close cousins, so I made chard risotto finished with a little feta to accent the subtle gaminess of the pheasant broth and to give the beets that little earthy/tangy bump that they like so much. To go with this austerely elegant symphony of winter veggies, we popped a 2005 Saint Cosme white Côtes du Rhône, which I bought on the affordable strength of their reds- especially the 2003 Saint Joseph. It's good, but a tad restrained- acidic, with reluctant fruit- so it matched well with a complex veggie-based meal like this, but I wouldn't recommend it for sipping by itself as an aperitif.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Country Lunch

Christine's sister & Mike visited us on their way back to the city Monday which gave me an excuse to make pâté. I had bought some pork shoulder, fatback, and chicken livers in anticipation, so I ground them all together (after browning the livers and deglazing with Armagnac) with lots of herbs, spices, and garlic. I also added a couple of eggs and a spill of flour for a panade, and green peppercorns for texture and bite. Once mixed and packed into a pyrex dish, I vacuum-sealed it and dropped it into a 71˚C (160˚F) water bath for about 6 hours, then refrigerated it until it was time to eat. Served with a toasted baguette, mesclun salad, cornichons, good mustard, and garlic-stuffed olives, it made for an excellent lunch on the first plausibly springy day of the year. (Though now it's snowing and dropping back into the teens.)

Monday, February 18, 2008

THAT'S what I call a wine label

Last weekend when Chris and I had the 2000 Gemstone cab we also drank a 2005 White Barn Black Blend, made from the same vineyard as Coturri's Albarello but in a decidedly different style. It's funny, because the fancy-ass boutiquey overpriced cab got its ass kicked by this tangy, funky, multi-faceted, inexpensive homebrew with no label; with Chris' excellent beef stew, you'd think the Bordeaux blend would be a no-brainer, but the Black Blend kept us coming back (and back again) while the Gemstone tasted like an over-the-hill Australian drag queen in comparison. From the Coturri website:
This blend consists of 40% each of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah with small amounts of Alicante Bouschet, Carignane, Barbera and Gamay for the red varietals, Sauvignon Vert, Semillion and Muscat make up the white grapes.
2005 was the last year for both wines; I believe the vineyard was torn up and replanted.

In addition to the 2005 White Barn Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir that John brought on Saturday, he also left us a 2006 viognier-chardonnay because he's generous like that. There's still a little of the pinot left, so I'm going back and forth, trying to understand what it is that makes these wines so distinctive; they have a unique signature- the reds in particular- that, like Thackrey's wines, make them unmistakable. The reds are marked by an intense sourness that gives way to kaleidoscopic flavors that seem to rotate rather than form a traditional hierarchy or order. Each sip can seem different somehow, dominated by tastes ranging from sweaty ass (in a good way) to flowery incense.

The white is a deep almost-gold inclining pretty steeply towards peach, and has a fascinating nose that evokes both grapes: stone fruit with a whiff of caramelized pineapple, and a flowery, almost lavender edge that embellishes the more obvious fruit, throwing their burnished glow into bracing relief. In the mouth, it's like some kind of Wonka hard candy with lots of thin layers; around the sweet candy core revolve flavors ranging from the aforementioned fruit to vanilla and even gummi bears- all contained by strong acidity. All for 15 bucks. Unfortunately, as the label might suggest, it's not commercially available. Long live the DIY winemaker.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pot Lucky

We had a few of the crew over for dinner, and everyone brought something. We began with the peanut soup, enhanced with cayenne and togarashi, and complemented incredibly with the rest of the Moulin Touchais. It was like peanut butter and jelly all over again. Crazy good when the spice and rich peanut flavors collided with the big tangy-sweet grapey wine. Pure pleasure. Next, John's poke of gorgeous 'ahi and Liz's collard rolls with carrots and tamarind dipping sauce. For these, I opened a 1996 Colin-Deleger Chassagne Montrachet that tastes like a Kistler chardonnay's unrequited sex dream.

Following this, we actually sat down and had hijiki-saffron fettucine (the dough was in the freezer from last month) with a truffle butter sauce and sliced black truffles. We opened a 1997 Gevrey-Chambertin "Les Cazetiers" by Dominique Laurent that was sadly corked and undrinkable. To our rescue came John, with his 2003 Alion Ribera del Duero (made by the dude from Vega Sicilia, from his own vineyard) that started out good and got better and better, especially with the main course: John's baked sea bass and tilefish with porcini powder with Chris' turnips with onion and vanilla, my slow-braised fennel and sautéed pak choi, and John's salad. Everything went so insanely well together; it was like one giant perfect plate of food. To finish, we had a 2005 White Barn pinot noir and boucheron de chèvre on baguette. We're so lucky to have such friends, and to have this kind of meal be the standard for a pot luck.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Better Late Than Never

So herewith the tardy Valentine's dinner: I tried to combine decadent pleasure with some of the things already in the fridge to make good use of some of the nicer leftovers. The first course was kind of a riff on peanut butter and jelly; seared foie gras trimmed into heart shapes on raisin toast with homemade grape jelly and some of the peanut soup underneath, garnished with Indonesian long pepper. We had a glass of 1989 Moulin Touchais Coteaux du Layon, which was more or less a perfect match; it's not dessert-sweet, but sweet and bracingly acid (20% of the grapes are picked underripe, the rest, almost over) so it's ideal for this kind of sweet/savory combination. It will also keep just fine in the fridge until tomorrow.

Next up were roasted pheasants on the sunchoke purée, with pheasant sausage and a cinnamon-blood orange gravy. I made the gravy in the pan that the foie and sausage both cooked in, and used a broth made from the pheasant giblets. For this we opened a 1990 Barolo by Marchesi di Barolo, which is still tannnic and not showing much fruit. 1990s are killing right now, so it's either in a dumb phase (unlikely) or just not that good (more likely.) It's a shame, because their 1990 Cannubi is sublime.

Then, another sumptuous salad, and last, Christine's (and now Milo's) favorite dessert: the warm chocolate torte with the molten center. Easy to make, and pretty unbeatably wonderful, even by itself- since I forgot to make the kumquat marmalade to go with it. So just imagine it with nice tangy orange curls on the side, and maybe a heart of powdered sugar on top. Even without them, it didn't suck.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

I Heart Lasagna

Alright, it's lame. I admit it. But I had a finite amount of paint mixed, and it wasn't going to last until tomorrow; it needed to go on the piece today before it dried on the table. So this is what I was able to pull off. Lasagna (jerusalem artichoke pasta, with ricotta, tomatoes, herbs, and smoked mozzarella.) And a really nice mesclun salad. And a bottle of the ever-awesome and love-inducing Pleiades XV, the gorgeousness of which makes me smile every time I open it. Just the other day I ordered some of the XVI, which was just released. I'm very excited to see if it can top the XV, which is the best ever. It's just so damn yummy; there is literally nothing not to love about it. Ain't love grand? (The official meal of this artificial holiday will take place tomorrow night.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Steak, etc.

In my quest for squid, I did find a huge, local London broil. Painting went a little late, so it only got sous vide-ed for an hour (at 54˚ C, with salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence) but it still ended up more tender than it otherwise would have been. While it was having its therapeutic soak, I steamed sunchokes and puréed them with yogurt and feta, caramelized cubes of rutabaga with guanciale and onion, and steamed shredded kale. It ended up being kind of a meat and potatoes without the potatoes; the sunchokes are incredibly sweet, almost like parsnips, and the caramelized rutabagas are like insane earthy home fries with sweet onions and a nice porky richness- all aided by bringing them to just shy of burnt. Finished with juices from the cutting board and little pats of black truffle butter.

Had I world enough and time, I would have puréed the kale and integrated it into the plating, and it would have been Marvellous. It was pretty great on the side, especially mixed into the purée with a bite of meat. To complement this near-ultimate rainy day feast (it's above freezing!) I opened a 1997 White Cottage cabernet. Good, and refreshingly nimble for a Cali cab; it's totally different from the 2000 Gemstone I had over the weekend, which was really thick and jammy, due no doubt to the different site and the Bordeaux blend, especially the merlot, which no doubt contributed. The boutiqueness (and concomitant excessive price) of the Gemstone no doubt demand the more extracted style of winemaking, but Screaming Eagle (overrated as well) it ain't. The more I drink of these wines, the more I only like them after 20+ years, when time has softened them into something special- like the 78 Stag's Leap we had a while back, or the 92 Beringers we liked so much; it's an open question whether the wines made today will age as elegantly.

Baby, It's Cold Outside

With highs in the 20s and another snow/sleet storm under way, it's comforting to see that global warming is a myth after all and we can just get back to our busy lives. Whew. So to celebrate the 57th storm of the season, a kind of random meal, that nonetheless insisted upon itself from the moment I first though of it sometime yesterday morning. When I see the food in my head, I pretty much have to make it or else the voices start. To keep them at bay, I actually drove about 20 miles looking for squid of all things, and found none. So I got mussels, which are delicious, and the squid will have to wait (as will the voices; I tried, dammit.)

First, a big red kuri squash, peeled and chopped, went in a pot with the chicken broth from the night before- I was wrong about the fridge soup- a bunch of peanuts, some spices, and half a can of coconut milk. It all simmered for an hour or so, maybe more, and then I stick-blended it smooth. I steamed the mussels in beer, garlic, thyme, and lemon juice. Had I found squid, the peanut soup would have made more sense, since I had a sympathetic thing planned, but together these two dishes did provide some elegant comfort. And an excuse to drink more beer, which we haven't had in ages.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Mystery, Inside a Riddle, Wrapped in a Tortilla

It's amazing what a difference tortillas can make for a fridge full of leftovers. Tonight, I made broth with chicken thighs, saving the broth for tomorrow, and wilted some spinach with garlic and lemon. In the fridge, black bean soup (really thick) and veggie curry, brown rice, our pickled serrano-carrot mix, and some wicked roasted beet salad from the weekend all lurked. I pulled the chicken meat apart and tossed it with garlic and chili powder in a pan, then combined all this goodness in a giant whole wheat tortilla. It's as good a way of dispatching the week's remains as any, and a refreshing departure from fridge soup (which is likely what the broth will end up becoming the base for, along with all that was not burritoed this evening.) Yesterday I discovered the Siduri pinot we bought a while back, so we had some. It lacks the funky depth of their single vineyard offerings, but is still an excellent Washington pinot for the money.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Black Bean Soup

I threw some beans in water to soak, then put them on a very low simmer about 2 hours before dinner. Once tender, I added onion, chili powder, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, lemon juice, salt and pepper and let it bubble for a bit to marry all the flavors. Before serving, I took about half out and gave it a good blast with the stick blender, then stirred it back in to thicken the whole. I finished it with yogurt, paprika, cilantro, and more lemon juice. A beer sure would have been nice.

And for lunch, (leftover from dinner last night) the tomato-chick pea soup became, with the quick addition of coconut milk, spices, vindaloo paste, and chunks of sweet potato, a delicious curry. With brown rice and spinach wilted with garlic and ginger plus some lime pickle, it rolled up into a fabulous, effortless midday break.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Spring Fever

This was originally going to be Indian: a chick pea curry, a salmon vindaloo, rice, and greens. But there was no salmon. Scallops, yes. So I brazenly grabbed dinner's wheel and yanked it hard to the left. The chick peas had already soaked, so to them, I added half an onion, herbes de Provence, and, reminded by a little bird, a quart of our strained cherry tomato purée from the summer- a gorgeous, velvety mix of all the different colors we grew. While this was simmering, I seasoned the scallops with smoked salt and togarashi, and seared them up in a pat of browned butter. Deglazed with fresh blood orange juice, soy sauce, and agave syrup, the butter made for a perfectly textured sauce that united the scallops and the leftover celery root-parsnip-broccoli stalk purée from a few nights ago into a dish of seamless pleasure.

I finished the soup with truffle oil and black pepper; the sweetness and depth of flavors (dried chick peas are a hundred times better than canned) was really incredible. For a beverage, I reached for a 2001 Guigal white Hermitage to go with both these dishes; it was OK with the scallops, taking a back seat to the intense flavors, but with this crazy good soup it was stunning. The hazelnuts and fruit in the wine played with the sweet tomatoes, while the wine's stony architecture was a perfect frame for the earthy chick peas. Amazing what a brief warm spell can do for the imagination (and by warm, I mean 40˚; we're getting rain instead of sleet or snow.)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Fat Tuesday

I fully realize that I should have made New Orleans cuisine tonight, but fridge and pantry required otherwise, since my attempt to secure some good fish was foiled.

One of the many benefits of slow-cooking a big hunk of lamb in the oven for 7 hours is, of course, having both meat and liquid left over for future meals. The deep, complex flavors and meltingly tender texture are an incredibly luxurious jumping-off point, even for something as simple as pasta (which is what I made.) Some garlic and herbs, the meat and juice, a can of busted-up tomatoes, and a nice simmer to unite the new with the old, then tossed with penne and served with a side of steamed pak choi from the garden via the freezer. No picture, because you've seen a bowl of pasta before.

But MAN, the rich, elegant decadence of this sauce- hitting winter comfort and refined subtle chords at the same time- made me wish hard that I had cranked out some fresh fettucine to take this into the realm of pure perfection. Getting it most of the way there, though, with a noble assist, was a 2000 Thackrey sangiovese from the year it got no labels or capsules in between being named Centaur and Aquila. After the still-reticent schoolmarmy Brunello from last night, this wine is a wanton harlot. But, you know, classy, with a really great personality.

Monday, February 04, 2008

2 Years

This blog is two years old as of yesterday, so I thought I'd make something humble yet refined to exemplify my approach to home cooking where improvisation and aspirational experimentation dominate. So tonight, a lamb shoulder, braised for 7 hours in mirepoix (I fear we're almost out) plus mustard, cumin, caraway and fennel seeds, juniper berries, pink peppercorns, preserved lemon, garlic, olives, herbes de Provence, a splash of wine, a shot of espresso, and water to come about halfway up.

Once ready, I removed the meat, strained the liquid, and reduced it some. While it was reducing, I made polenta. Thus lamb atop polenta, served with some of the liquid, and topped with a nice dollop of cranberry tapenade (cranberries, olives, jalapeño, ketchup, maple syrup) and a glass of 1998 Castello Banfi Brunello. The tapenade really meshed with the meat, on many levels, and the wine, though awkward, provided a nice counterpoint. It will be interesting to see how it tastes tomorrow and beyond, since 99s are drinking so well right now.

Summer in Winter

The warm day and peek at the garden inspired a meal that would almost be more appropriate in Summer, but that nonetheless hit the spot in a nice comfort-food way. In the center of the plate is a salad of our own microgreens, surrounded by roasted beet salad with onions and feta, lentils with carrot, onion, and a bit of guanciale, the rest of the root purée from the day before, and steamed kale with oil and balsamic vinegar. The plate was a terrific collision of contrasting and harmonizing flavors and textures. Very satisfying, especially for a meal that is so close to being vegetarian (I added the guanciale so I could smell the heavenly perfume while I cooked; it's not so evident in the finished lentils.) To celebrate a beautiful day, and our return to health, we opened a 1998 Domaine du Gros Noré Bandol- one of a case we bought years ago, on Serge's advice- and which is in fact proving to be one of our better bargains. For 18 bucks, and now with the requisite age on it, this is a meaty, deep, elegant mourvèdre that still has enough tannin to handle another decade.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Midwinter Garden Update

Today it's sunny and relatively warm- around 40˚- so I was able to wrestle the plastic off the South side of the covered beds and see how the plants are doing. Growth is slow, but happening, and the hardy stuff is perky and beautiful. We're going to have a huge head start with kale and collards come March; we're already getting as much sun as we do in mid-November. Here's a shot of the salad bed, with the mâche, arugula, and sorrel soldiering on, and the two microgreen mixes ready to get macro in a hurry.

The cabbages are doing well, and the turnips and radishes are getting pretty fat. Given how little I knew or did this winter, I think that next time around we'll have a pretty serious crop; timing the late-Summer planting is key, as is choosing the right species. (Milo votes for more radishes.)


Feeling mostly normal, finally, I had both strength and desire to make a real meal for the first time in a long time. Beautiful short ribs from the freezer provided the focus for all the other lovely things in the fridge. The ribs, browned and then braised with our frozen mirepoix plus balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, water and herbs, were just tender by the time the other things were ready. I steamed and then puréed celery root, parsnips, and broccoli stalks with Greek yogurt, a little butter and truffle oil (I always save the stalks and use them for soups or like this; otherwise you're composting half the money you spend on broccoli. The stalks hold their shape like a root in soups, and purée to a lovely smoothness as well.)

For a nice finish, slices of shiitake crisped in olive oil with garlic and tossed in parsley. Tender meat, rich liquid (with melting mirepoix) sweet & creamy purée and crispy mushrooms. What a joy to eat like this again. I had the last glass of Pintia, sitting opened for a full week on the counter, which had finally shed its harsh tannins and softened into something rich and wonderful. Just the thing for such a dish, and not enough to precipitate another relapse. This year's flu has been a savage one.