Thursday, November 27, 2008

This One Also Went To Eleven

After three days of work, occasional stress, and a couple of failures (this molecular gastronomy thing is not an improv-friendly medium) the day arrived and I threw down another eleven course meal- although with a very different feel than last year. The number eleven was coincidental, though now it's probably going to have to become a tradition. Lucky me.

The more casual and homey vibe was the direct result of my markedly lower level of preparedness for the meal; up until this morning a bunch of the dishes hadn't taken shape in my mind, so I just busied myself with the components I knew I needed and let the rest work themselves out. The last couple of bursts of inspirado actually happened in the middle of last night; Milo woke me up, as he has been lately by coming into our bed, and during the tossing and turning portion of the program I seized upon the remaining details for a couple of dishes.

Here's the play-by-play, in order. The wines overlapped courses, since there weren't enough drinkers to put away a bottle with each course.

First, since the marshmallows I tried to make from the El Bulli cookbook didn't quite work out, as an amuse-bouche we had home-cured salmon with a sudachi-caper emulsion and scallion cream. It was like bagels and lox without the bagel.

Next, a little charcuterie plate of the newly ready batch of duck prosciutto and the pâté we made the other day: pork with brandied figs and pistachios.

Then, salad: fennel and jicama tossed with a silky avocado cream (avo, lime, oil) passed through a tamis and then dressed with my version of everyone's favorite takeout sushi place carrot-ginger dressing- an emulsion of carrot and ginger juice with sesame oil, ponzu, and our watermelon hot sauce. We changed over from the Champagne to a 1999 Kistler Vine Hill chardonnay.

Next came the soup: a strained purée of leek, yam, black radish, and celery root in chicken broth.

I bought some scallops yesterday and brined them in kimchi juice, since I had made a batch a couple of weeks ago to be ready for this dinner. Kimchi juice is a wonderful brine. I sliced them thin and garnished them with our homemade ponzu and minced jalapeños.

Here, we turned a corner and began the heartier, more wintry dishes. To go with the pork and beans (brined pork belly cooked sous-vide at 65˚ C for 8 hours and then seared, with scarlet runner beans pressure-cooked in dashi, served with kimchi and our barbecue sauce) I opened one of our dwindling supply of Pleiades XVI. It's superb, and this is the kind of food it does best with.

Traditional Thanksgiving flavors appeared here in the form of duck confit atop a confit/gratin of sweet potato I made by baking rounds of spud in spiced cream on low heat for three hours. The purple wiggles were beet juice-cabernet noodles made by blending the juice with methylcellulose and then filling a syringe with the juice and injecting it into simmering water. Around this time I opened and decanted a 1999 Barolo "Marasco" by Franco Martinetti. And yes, that's crispy duck skin on top.

For red meat, a little roulade of lamb neck; I saw the neck at the butcher's and grabbed it, then trimmed, seasoned it with ras-el-hanout, rolled it up with activa, and vacuum-sealed it so it would hold its shape. Once set, I rubbed it with a sage-rosemary-garlic pesto and browned then braised it in wine for six hours until meltingly tender, and served it on slow-caramelized turnips with some of the jus. For the sauce, I simmered dried chanterelles and dried apricots until soft, then blended and strained them, adding cream, to finish. The inspiration for this combination came from Khymos, where this month's "They Go Really Well Together" is chanterelle and apricot; they share a similar flavor compound and the idea lodged in my head until the lamb neck came along. They do go really well together, and with lamb neck. To complete the orgy of awesomeness, I puréed some of our raw mustard greens with garlic and oil, then strained it to make a bright green mustard oil.

As a bridge to the desserts, next up was seared foie gras with our grape jelly- disolved in wine, then reduced so that it jelled on contact with a cool plate- and peanut butter powder made by mixing fresh-ground peanut butter (unsalted) with tapioca maltodextrin. Everyone enjoyed the rich riff on PB&J.

Then, sweets. Christine made my Mom's cheesecake again, but this time we made a spiced pumpkin purée with a little gelatin and spread it on top, then topped it with a cranberry-cabernet glaze once the pumpkin gelled. Dreamy.

And last, a barely-sweetened dark chocolate mousse I originally planned to make into ice cream but it was so damn good that I left it alone. A few cocoa-dusted coffee beans garnished this very adult conclusion to the meal.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Leave Your Message After The Beep

I spent most of the day preparing for Thursday. In no particular order, I trimmed a deboned lamb neck, seasoned it with ras-el-hanout, sprinkled it with activa, rolled it up, gave the outside a good rub with a sage-rosemary-garlic paste, and vacuum-sealed it to set it in a nice torchon. I made a chanterelle-apricot sauce with cream for the lamb. I made chicken broth from last night's carcass. I made the custard for the barely-sweetened dark chocolate-espresso ice cream. I made savory walnut marshmallows, adapted from the El Bulli cookbook. I brined a hunk of pork belly, and cooked the pork terrine with pistachios and calvados-cider soaked figs in the water bath for four hours at 66˚ C.

There was probably some other stuff too. It's particularly funny because I'm still not sure what I'm making. I'm tired. I made osso buco for dinner, on brown rice, with steamed yellow cauliflower, the mustard-heavy green mash left from yesterday, and a wonderful jus made from the braising liquid reduced with some beef demi-glace. We had a 1999 Ciacci Brunello. Milo, ecstatic, ate all of our marrow. It was good. I'm going to bed.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Cruise Control

Christine's Mom arrived this evening for the week, and I spent some of the day trying to get ahead of the Thanksgiving to-do list. I made barbecue sauce, blended it with 1% agar, and froze it so tomorrow it can go in the fridge to begin clarifying via syneresis (this is a method whereby a liquid is gravity-strained through a protein mesh in the fridge, thus making it clear but keeping all of the flavor; it works with gelatin, too, but supposedly agar takes less time. We shall see.) Milo and I also ground about 5 pounds of pork shoulder and fat with a heap of garlic, herbs, and spices into a mixture which will furnish us with both an elegant terrine (with brandied figs and pistachios) for Thursday as well as a humble pasta sauce for Wednesday night.

Milo and I also trudged out into the garden to get some things for dinner. Since it actually broke freezing today, I can't complain, but it wasn't exactly balmy. We dug potatoes, and picked a variety of greens to make mash- frisée, endive, radicchio, and mustard. He reminded me to pick lots of endive, just like every other 4-year-old in America would, because everyone knows that's the best green for mash.

That's ice on the potatoes; I had to beat these out of the Earth and trim some mushy parts off because they weren't deep enough to be properly insulated against the hard freezes. Mulch? What? We combined the potatoes with our last little kabocha squash and a sweet potato to make a nice tuberous medley for roasting with garlic cloves and woody herbs. I will never cease to be amazed by the powers of the waxy coating that winter squash develop; this was taken seconds after cutting the top off of a squash that was cut about two months ago and has been sitting around, outside and then in, since then:

I salted a good chicken, sprinkled a little 5-spice and ras-el-hanout on it, and put it in the oven with the veggies about an hour before their ETA. (Not the Basque separatists.) Once the bird came out- right on time, as they walked through the door- I made a gravy with the drippings plus garlic scape pesto and a little of the fish broth from the fridge. For those of you who haven't done it yet, ADD PESTO TO YOUR CHICKEN GRAVY.

Another totally simple, traditional meal, elevated by the extraordinary freshness of the ingredients plus a bad-ass gravy and seriously tangy mash that tied it all together from both ends of the spectrum- albeit with a substantial assist from a Pleiades XV. I thought these were gone, but my recent archaeology in Vermont revealed a hitherto unknown stash of a few fifteens so I brought them home. The XVI is better, no doubt, and there will be no future bottlings, but this one has charm to spare in a rounder, fatter, more conventionally Californian style.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

...And He'll Eat For Like A Whole Weekend

So the epic fish saga continued; I originally intended to grind up the rest and make fish ball soup, because it's still dead cold out and a tangy, spicy soup seemed like a good plan. Also, it would have afforded me the opportunity to write "fish balls" numerous times in the post. But as is so often the case, I changed my mind come prep time, after a pretty painless sojourn to the store for the first wave of stocking up the week's vittles. Actually, it was the second wave, since I went to the butcher's yesterday. And so you're just going to have to suffer through a post in which I only mention fish balls about a third as many times as I would have if I had actually made fish balls.

The remaining varieties included pollock, cod, and turbot, and since we had turbot the other night I put that back in the fridge and cut the other two into regular-ish squares, then dredged them in seasoned flour. We had just enough oil to get about 3/4 inch deep in our smallest pan- I forgot to buy more- but the pieces were small enough that with one flip they'd cook just fine. The lack of oil did pose a problem for the tartar sauce I wanted, since I normally like to make mayonnaise with a neutral oil. But I used olive oil, with dribbles of both sesame and truffle, plus a little mustard, garlic scape pesto, yuzu juice, and a little liquid from a jar of cornichons, then folded in some minced cornichons. We had just run out of capers this morning as I used them up on a bagel with cream cheese and homemade fennely-spicy gravlax. It was worth it.

I used the mandoline to bang out some Japanese yam fries, and baked them with generous olive oil- shaking frequently- until they were nice and brown. Before dark, I ventured out into the frigid twilight and grabbed numbly at a variety of greens in the garden- kale, chard, mustard, and collards. They got a spin in the processor with garlic and just enough oil to make a thick pesto. I gave all the fish pieces another dredge in the flour mixture and fried them in batches until all were brown and beautiful. And that was dinnner; it's funny- after all that, in the picture they do kind of look a little like fish balls. Milo invented mixing green mash and tartar sauce together to make an even better sauce for yam and fish alike.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Give A Man A Hell Of A Lot Of Fish...

Christine had a girls night out tonight, but it started a little late, and outside it's Witchtit, Wyoming cold, so I made a little extra food figuring that she would need an appetizer prior to going out. I had some fantastic ingredients to work with; yesterday I stopped off at my new source for ultra-fresh premium seafood and received around 10 pounds of various goodies, including a whole turbot skeleton and many fillets of cod, pollack, the turbot, and cusk.

As soon as I got home I turned the skeleton- plus a carrot, an onion, and a few herbs- into a big pot of fish stock, and strained it into a smaller pot for today and a container for the freezer. The turbot fillets I gave a quick dredge in seasoned flour and crisped in a pan, with baked kabocha and wilted kale on the side. I took two good-sized pieces of cusk and marinated them in yuzu miso and sake that I had stirred together until smooth.

Today, the real action began. I took the fish stock and used it to make a simple risotto- using sushi rice- which I finished with garlic scape pesto. While this was going, I made carciofi alla Romana with three artichokes (winter is artichoke season, so get used to these) and steamed a mix of chopped collards and red kale. Once the greens were bright green and tender, I rolled them in paper towels inside a dish towel, squeezing them into a nice tight cylinder. They give off a lot of moisture, so the layers are a good idea. Sliced into rounds like sushi, and garnished with our homemade ponzu and grated bonito, this made for an excellent- if untraditional- oshitashi.

The second course was risotto with an artichoke on top and a healthy pour of the glorious artichoke-infused oil in which they caramelize at the end of the braise plus a little squeeze of lemon. It could have used a flurry of parsley chiffonade, but I forgot to pick some, and once it's dark and the garden is covered, I don't go back outside for a damn garnish in this cold.

Last, I took the marinated cusk and cooked it in a medium-hot pan to get a good brown on both sides, then added a little wine and agave and let it steam for a minute to cook through. The resulting pan sauce was rich, deep, and sweet. My intention was to have this be like Nobu's black cod with miso- one of his signature dishes, and one of our all-time favorites. The texture of this fish is different; it's less firm and oily, so the result was not the same, though the taste was excellent. I was pretty overjoyed at how it looked in the plate that I made specifically for this type of dish- like a delicious little Japanese garden.

Milo and I made short work of all this, and Mommy got to have a small tasting plate- just for warmth, you understand- before leaving. I enjoyed a 2004 Girardin Rully 1er cru "Les Cloux" which could use another year or two to fully emerge from the sour, dumb period that most good white Burgundy goes through, but after being open for a bit it had all of the requisite flavors and qualities needed to do the complicated Italo-Japanese dance steps required by the food. Imagine Marcel Marceau performing Butoh in a trattoria and you'll have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Not So Much About The Benjamins As About The Ingredients

Last night's lasagna was easily the best I have ever made, but it was not exactly light fare (eating some cold leftovers today, I noticed the unmistakably grainy texture of beef fat, and was reminded that decadence has a price.) So to give our arteries a bit of a break, but keep the comfort level high, I put some yellow-eye beans out to soak early in the morning. Very early.

Around noon, I took a hunk of bacon skin and a bit of lardo, cut them up into morsels, and got them all rendery in the Dutch oven. A bag of our frozen mirepoix followed, and then the beans and their water. Herbs, maple syrup, tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, shichimi, and soy sauce rounded out the flavors. Once at a simmer, it went into a 200˚ oven all afternoon.

Around 5, I pulled the beans out and moved them onto a warm burner to keep going, and tossed yellow cauliflower with garlic, onion, oil, salt, and thyme and put it in a now-hot oven to roast. I sliced some guanciale, got it going, and added halved Brussels sprouts, let them caramelize pretty well, added garlic, deglazed with white wine and lemon juice, and let gently steam until they were soft. In a perfect world, I would have had teff fermenting in the laundry room so that it was all ready to make enjera. But ours is not a perfect world. So I made crêpes with teff and rye flour plus some yogurt for a little fermented tang. Usually I make these with Guinness, because the flavors are excellent together and it makes the crêpes bubbly. But we have no Guinness (see above note on worldly imperfection.)

This was win. Intense flavors, porky richness from almost no meat, melting sprouts, sweet brown cloves of garlic smooshed onto al dente cauliflower- we were all grinning. Milo couldn't figure out which thing he loved most, and there's enough left for him to take it for lunch tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Aw Jeez

Man, is it cold. After a freakishly balmy first half of the month, starting last night we were visited by a howling horror of an Arctic chill that sucks your will to live right out of the soles of your inadequate boots and makes you question the moral and philosophical foundations upon which your entire life has been laboriously, diligently, and attentively built.

That's right, Sarah Palin was in town. She and I had a thing a while back, as you may remember, and she just can't stay mad at me, goshdarnit.

Also, we made lasagna, also.

Or, as Milo loves to call it, Za-zagna! And much merriment ensues. (Those of you without kids can just go on drinking and rolling your eyes.) We were out and about, going to the doctor for Milo's appointment- sad, yet funny quote of the day, spoken through tears: "They shouldn't use needles on skin! Stupid grown-ups!" We also stopped in at Fleisher's- even though they're ostensibly closed Wednesdays, I can usually roust someone to hook me up- and I grabbed some of their wonderful pasture-raised ground veal. On the way home, I dashed into a store to grab a couple of other essentials and we were in business.

And thus did tonight's dinner take form, and encompass both the antithesis of last night's dinner and the synthesis of a larger dialectic. Seriously, what goes better with lasagna than some Hegel? After yesterday's bombastic tirade on the Zen Of Cooking: True Amateur Confessions, a nice bubbly baking dish of meaty, cheesy goodness got our Chi all sorted out and back to where it belongs- somewhere in the middle (that would be the Synthesis, for those of you taking notes.) The sad reality is that super-clean cooking like yesterday doesn't have the balls for this climate. Sometimes a body needs of the bubbly cheese.

So: the veal, cooked down with tomato paste, onion, garlic, herbs, and wine became a first-rate sugo. For the besciamella, I made a roux of butter and flour, but left out the milk; the leftover dashi from last night was an incredible complement to the veal, adding a gentle smokiness and enfolding it in a gorgeous embrace. Layered with organic lasagna noodles (no time to make pasta from scratch) and local mozzarella, it went in the oven to get all snuggly and melty-like.

While this hot meat-on-carb-on-dairy action was taking place, I braised some finely sliced fennel bulb in white wine- a dish I "invented" way back in grad school in Chicago, though at the time I preferred a sweet muscat for the braise. And I made the simplest of salads with some arugula. The fennel had time to get all silky while the lasagna cooked, and everything hit the table at roughly the same time, which, you know, you look for in a dinnner.

Seriously? Dashi béchamel? With veal? Unbelievable. Absolutely perfect. And the rest? Well, it hit spots that we enjoy hitting. Another added dimension to the Hegelian wonderland that was our meal this evening was a 1997 Soletta Cannonau Riserva. I've been a fan of this property for quite a while, and this bottle slumbered unnoticed in Vermont until my last inventory. It's gorgeous; while it may not be transcendental, there is not one single thing wrong with this wine. And it cost around $30. Frankly, I've never had a Cannonau that I didn't like, and most of them made me rush out and find more. Sardinia makes wines of extraordinary value. Go buy some.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Turning Japanese

High quality ingredients inspire. Yesterday I made a vegetable curry with cauliflower, sweet potato, carrot, and peas; puréed radish greens with yogurt, fenugreek and mustard seeds; and tofu simmered in one of my patented mutant soups. It started as the dashi in which I cooked the radishes for Sunday's dinner, then turned into a funky addition to some pappa al pomodoro- Tuscan tomato soup with stale bread- which I made for lunch. That puréed bread soup, with the addition of a bunch of spices, made a decent sauce. With brown rice, it was a perfectly good meal, with a nice variety of flavors- but it didn't shine. The tomato thing was a little muddy, the vegetable curry a little bland (though the greens were excellent) and these limitations, though minor- and partly rectified with some of our peach-habañero chutney- revealed the lack of detailed attention I paid to the preparation. There wasn't much time, and I just tossed things around until they were "done."

Tonight, I finally had some time to get into the exquisite ingredients John and Chris brought me from Japan. The contrast in my approach was stark, and the results were equally different. To begin, check out this bonito shaver (katsuo kezuri-ki.) This right here is the happy, happy place where woodworking and meat intersect, and it's immaculately crafted to boot. Just opening it up makes me smile. It's not possible to begin preparing a meal by block-planing smoke-fossilized fish into a handmade box and not be reverential.

In addition, the smell of fresh-grated bonito is as different from the packaged stuff as the sweaty neck of your true love is from her dirty laundry. The aromatic overtones in this fish are nothing short of astonishing. And it's as hard as ceramic; if you drop it, it shatters like volcanic glass. (Not that I would know about that.) And the perfumed steam that rises from the dashi makes you swoon.

A trip to the store this afternoon furnished me with a couple of Alaskan king crab legs, shiitake, and some watercress, and everything else came from our newly enriched pantry or the garden. The mushrooms, given a good caramelization with garlic, inspired me to open the Tosa soy sauce I made last week; it's supposed to sit for a month to marry the flavors, but I couldn't resist the urge to try it out on this most umami of dishes- so I used a splash to deglaze the pan.

Another clove of garlic followed, and then the watercress for just long enough to wilt it, followed by a splash of the ponzu, which is also supposed to sit for a month. Same reason. I garnished the cress with a sprinkle of dried sudachi zest, and quickly made a salad of curly endive with sesame and olive oils and rice and balsamic vinegars for a nice balance.

So I carefully made fresh dashi, adjusted the flavor with shoyu and sea salt, and set it aside to keep warm. I steamed the half-thawed crab legs in a little water and sake just to heat them through, and strained the liquid into the dashi. Meanwhile two bundles of the fancy udon simmered in an adjacent pot. Udon, broth, and crab met very happily. These noodles are incredibly silky; they're in a different league than the kind we're used to. The broth was deep, light, and satisfying, and it goes without saying that the crab was super sweet and perfectly supported by the broth. The chervil garnish completed a beautiful combination of flavors. I don't for a minute think that this would fool any Japanese gourmand, but it was a damn fine soup and made us all happy.

At the end, I warmed some brown rice from last night and topped it with the shichimi-kabocha seed gomasio I made a while back plus one of the über-artisnal umeboshi and a little of the red shiso they are pickled with, which comes along with them in the container, tucked in the corner. And a little later on we had a slice of the banana bread with cacao nibs that Christine and Milo made this afternoon. Since I had neglected to get any sake, we made do with another delicious Bret Bros. Pouilly Fuissé. It's wonderful wine, and handles these kinds of flavors with aplomb; it was lemony against the sesame oil, acidic against the sweet crab, tropical against the earthy mushrooms, and never overwhelmed the delicacy of the food.

I've been waiting a long time to cook like this. These plates I've been making were a beginning, and the beautiful ingredients were another requirement that my incredible friends knew I needed, and brought me just when I needed another infusion of inspiration. From now on I hope to be more mindful and attentive in the kitchen (and out) no matter what it is that I'm making. This aesthetic of reverent care and quality materials in the service of maximum sensory pleasure is something I can get behind.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Lazy Sunday

On Saturday, we met briefly with Gerard and Alison so they could give me a belated birthday gift since they were too sick to come to the party. So, like secret agents, we met in the AutoZone parking lot and they handed me a bag with a side of wild Alaskan salmon in it. The cloak-and-dagger locale was especially appropriate because he works at the CIA. (The food one, not the one with real spies.) I rushed home and packed the fish in my favorite salmon cure of salt, sugar, shichimi, fennel seeds, and citrus zest.

Then, Sunday morning, Sirkka called to see if we wanted to come for dinner. I mentioned that we maybe sorta had plans with G&A, and thus was a little party organized. Gerard brought some beautiful black bass, and an amazing panzanella of spelt bread, roasted beets, pomegranate, mushrooms, butternut squash, and arugula. Sirkka picked and made greens with bonito and leeks. I had pressure-cooked black radishes with dashi to bring, and since the bass was not by itself going to be enough fish for eight I cut a hunk off the half-cured salmon. Once we were close to eating, I broiled it with pine needles. The bass also got broiled, with a nice marinade.

Some pics of the feast:

The radishes in dashi

The salmon, pre-broil

...and post-broil

The bass

I love meals like this. Everything was delicious, and harmonized beautifully with everything else. The wines were good; I brought a Cava Avinyó to begin with some bubbles, then a 2006 Jacky Blot Vouvray "Les Carburoches" to help us cook (I must say that while it's good, it's a little tight, and has nothing on his Clos de la Bretonnière, which is rotund and delicious) and last, to eat with, a 2000 Giuseppe Cortese Barbaresco "Rabajà" which really started to get going around the last glass, since I forgot to decant it. The other bottles of this that I still have will make for some tasty treats down the road. Sirkka made a just-sweet pumpkin custard with pie spices and dried cranberries for dessert.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

It's Business Time

Last night we actually went out- to a reading, and then dinner at the very good tapas place next door. There are some things that I would do differently, but I feel that way at most restaurants. OK, all restaurants. Having said that, we're lucky to have an inexpensive place nearby that gets good meat and knows what to do with it. If you know what I mean.

I had some lovely double-cut pork chops in the freezer- cut to order on the bandsaw- and some ideas for how to treat them. To start, the yuzu miso that came in John's insane birthday gift bag has been torturing me with visions of (among other things) slathering it on some gi-nommous chawps (as they call them in my home town) and cooking them sous vide. So I brined said chops in a random mix of water, sake, salt, homemade watermelon-habañero hot sauce, maple syrup, herbs, ginger marmalade, and soy sauce for about 6 hours, then patted them dry. A good schmear of yuzu miso and a quick sealing, and they were good to go (Kristie will surely have a comment.)

So while the chops sat in a 63˚ C bath for about 2 hours, I steamed some of our red potatoes, puréed the pressure cooked cabbage from a week ago with some of our applesauce, and baked half of our last big kabocha. The potatoes became pommes écrasées- mashed with an egregious amount of excellent olive oil, salt, and the wild garlic chives that have reappeared in our freakishly mild November (65˚ today, with copious warm rain- we haven't had a frost in weeks.) I can say without exaggeration that this is as good as mashed potatoes get; they are hands down better than with butter or cream, and lest you dismiss my opinion, you can take it from my wife, who is a dairy-loving midwesterner: this way is seriously best. It's exquisite. Make them for a vegan sometime, and have your way with her/him.

I also mashed the squash, but with just a little salt since it was perfect. Once all the other parts were ready, I sprinked salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence on the chops and seared them hard in the iron pan until good and brown on both sides. This way of cooking meat is genius, really, especially for pork. You just can't overcook it, so it's perfectly pink and juicy the way all thinly disguised metaphors should be. Tangy, silky cabbage blended with unsweetened applesauce might be the best sauce a pork chop ever got drunk and went home with on a first date.

And to drink, another 2003 Jaboulet Vacqueyras. I've said it before, and I'll say it agin: this wine is everything I look for in an under-$20 bottle. It's like a weekend in the Castro with Tina; fruit, leather, ass, and tannins still feisty enough to cause a good pucker. Over time, you realize that it doesn't have the sublime middle palate that makes for a great wine, but by then it's pretty much moot, because you're waking up broke, sticky, and confused in a strange neighborhood- and your clothes are gone.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Prozac For Eeyore

I've been on a mission to vanquish all the leftovers from Saturday's party, so I made a plan that would include pretty much everything that remained. Today pretty much sucked; it rained, and I couldn't get my mind out of second gear all day. I did accomplish a few things- in the kitchen, even- but I also spilled duck fat all over everything, and then yogurt on the floor right before serving the meal. So I was in a pissy mood, and needed something to take the edge off. What does that? Carbs, and melted cheese. Oh yes. There's a little science for you all, free of charge.

Among the things I accomplished today were the preparation of a big crock of kimchi which should be ready by Thanksgiving, two different sauces from the Japanese Cooking book (Tosa soy sauce and ponzu, which both need to sit overnight, get strained, and then age for a month in a cupboard) and a huge pot of broth made from the rest of the smoked chicken carcasses plus beef and lamb bones that were lurking in the fridge.

So for dinner I made a roux with smoked chicken fat, then stirred in some cheap Chilean sauvgnon blanc and smoked broth until it was silky. Then I grated in the rinds of three cheeses we had left: Manchego, another hard more yellowish one, and a crumbly blue, and added a tease of truffle oil. I steamed and mashed some purple potatoes and reheated the polenta and mushroom soup. Into a pyrex dish went all of the above, smooshed into layers, topped with a little more of the yellowish cheese, and into the oven. While it heated through I heated up the jus from the short ribs to sauce the result.

I'll be honest: this looked like a smashed ass. A big bowl of wrong. The scallion slivers I strew around the top only highlighted the fail that was this pile of food. Without the armature of noodles to separate the strata, it all just kind of burbled together into a grey-brown goop. So there will be no picture tonight. But the taste, oh, the taste. Deep, funky, hot, meaty, mushroomy, cheesy, and with a double-shot of starches; it was like the hairy bastard love child of lasagna and mashed potatoes with gravy- if they ate shrooms and got down hard and nasty in the mud at some hippie dipshit festival up in the alps somewhere.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I Shall Wear The Bottoms Of My Trousers Rolled

So for my actual birthday, much less fanfare. I did benefit though from both a little planning ahead and from the high-quality leftovers already lurking in the fridge. Mid-afternoon I came in from cleaning the studio and floured and seared some short ribs, then removed them and added a bag of our frozen magic mirepoix plus some garlic to caramelize in the fat. After that, the remnants of some weird sour BC cabernet that John brought to try, and about a quart of smoked chicken broth. Then I put it in a 200˚ oven until dinner time.

About an hour before eating, I pulled out the meat, strained the broth, and put the meat back in the oven with just a little of the liquid to continue cooking. The rest of the liquid I combined with some of the mushroom soup from Saturday and let it reduce until nice and saucy. Meanwhile I also steam-resuscitated some of the polenta, and crisped up leeks in olive oil because they're delicious and Milo LOVES them. He was actually disappointed when he saw the meat simmering on the stove after I took it out of the oven, because initially he thought they were marrow bones and got very excited because he loves them so much. I reassured him that we have marrow bones in the freezer and that this dinner would be yummy too.

And that was it: polenta, meat, mushroom jus/gravy, and crispy leeks, with a perfect salad of all the ornery and impervious greens still thriving in the garden. One of the signs that I've lived up here in the sticks for a while is that I can tell when it will frost at night just by the feel and smell of the air in the late afternoon when I'm out picking things for dinner, so I know whether to cover the beds or not without listening to the weather. That, and I make my own meth.

I swerved back and forth like a broken toy all day long about whether or not to pop something special to go with dinner, since we've had our share of celebratory bottles lately between the election night Krug and the '68 Rioja on Saturday. But hell, I figured- why not; one only turns 40 once, and I had brought a 1982 Gruaud Larose back from Vermont for the express purpose of celebrating the fact that my future is now roughly as long as my past. So I decanted it, and began enjoying its awakening after 26 years of slumber. The first time I ever had this wine was in the early 90's at La Grenouille in Manhattan. I was invited there by my cousin and her husband, and we were all the guests of a colleague of theirs. I remember knowing even back then that the '88 Gruaud he ordered was way too young, and not a particularly great vintage at that, but since he paid I said nothing while I gagged on the opaque tannins. Seriously, it might as well have been Drano. DRANO! I say.

This was a whole different animal. 1982 is legendary, and enough time has elapsed so that this wine has reached that exalted place where it's impossible to tease apart the scintillating skein of flavors. The fruit, the cedar, the leather, the minerals- they're all intertwined and fused into that most beautiful of holographic silken fabrics: a beautiful old wine with a story to tell. And it's only 12% alcohol, like the Rioja, which is as it should be; there's a lightness to it, an elegant, effortless grace that reveals the essence of what one pays for when one pays for great wine.

Here's what I got to open this morning, just after I ordered a pile of exotic culinary chemistry to geek about with in the coming weeks, and after getting the amazing Japanese culinary pornocopia on Saturday:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Zuppa Dupa

Taking a break from the rich decadence of the weekend, and of recent meals, I dug deep (literally) into the garden to make something much more veg-o-centric. With two of the smoked chicken carcasses I made a simple broth, then picked all the meat off of them and strained the liquid back into the pot. Milo ate all the "broth carrots" and drank two bowls of broth as an appetizer. He then helped me add all the other things required for a good minestrone: soaked borlotti beans, more carrots, potatoes, beets, radishes, kale, radish and beet greens, leeks, onion, garlic, little pasta shells, herbs, and pepper.

It simmered for about an hour, at which point I added some shredded sorrel and parsley, and enough salt to make it tasty. To finish, truffle oil, more parsley, and croutons with melted aged gruyère. To drink, an accident; when I was picking up wine for the party and beyond, I grabbed a 2003 Sancerre that looked promising. But it turned out to be a red- how I missed that I do not know. It's 100% pinot noir, and I aerated it with my special new funnel, but it's lean, sour, and just not at all special. I kept hoping it would open up into a pretty, funky pinot, like its nose intimated it might, but it demurred, staying harsh, and refused to put out. While I love good white Sancerre- and it can really age- and I've heard that some of the reds can pass for decent Burgundy as easily as Ann Coulter in a tranny bar, this one was shallow, harsh, and joyless. Like Ann Coulter in any context.

But the soup was good, and the delicate smokiness of the broth added a wonderful depth to set off all the homegrown goodness. And cheese toast is pretty self-explanatory.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

I'm Soooooo Tired

We had a bunch of people over last night to celebrate my 40th birthday; the actual day is Tuesday, but Saturdays are more conducive to parties. In keeping with the dinner party traditions of our crew, we made it a pot luck, but I took care of all the main things. Everyone loves my smoked chickens, so I made six of them, plus polenta, and pressure-cooked cabbage with peppercorns, juniper berries, fenugreek, cumin, and caraway seeds. Others brought 2 kinds of greens, turnips, fruit salad, amazing cheeses, and more.

For starters, I made more of my maple-togarashi popcorn, which is a nice accompaniment to sparkling wine and gave early arrivals something to eat while we waited for the rest. Once everyone arrived, I gave each person a coffee cup with my patented cappucino mushroom soup: crimini, shiitake, chanterelle, portobello, and porcini all caramelized and puréed with espresso and cacao nibs, and served with foamed milk on top with a few more cacao nibs. I didn't take a picture, but there's some soup left so I'll try to make some later this week. I also made a caramelized onion tart with gruyère and pine nuts, which was as good as it sounds.

John and I had been lamenting 1968 as a birth year, since it is widely hailed as one of the worst ever in France. But he's resourceful, and incredibly generous, and produced two immaculate bottles of 1968 Viña Valoria; 1968 was a great year in Spain. He actually apologized for not spending $1900 on a bottle of '68 Vega Sicilia. I pulled out a 1995 Remírez de Ganuza so we could compare Riojas, and it was fascinating; as good as the Remírez is, it's still a baby in comparison. And the Valoria was a delight, and continued to evolve over the course of the evening. By the end, it had arrived at a sort of Brunello kind of place, with dark, tarry fruit at the core- but all the leather and spices swirling around that core were unmistakably Spanish. Best of all, we only drank one of them, so I can save the other for a future birthday. This wine has many more years left in it.

Christine found my Mom's incredible cheesecake recipe, and made me one; I haven't had it since my Mom died and it was perfect. It's the best cheesecake of all time, and I might just post the recipe- it's also very easy, and kicks the asses of all other cheesecakes ever made. Sirkka made me an unbelievably beautiful espresso-chocolate cake with fancy frosting and chocolate covered espresso beans on top. I'm ashamed to say I didn't take a picture.

I got a wonderful pile of gifts, including a haircut on the spot from Richard, a fashion industry pro, who arrived with his kit. John and Chris had just returned from a tour in Japan, and they brought me an astonishing pile of culinary goodies:

Chris brought me the wooden box, which is a bonito shaver; the fish-shaped thing in the foreground is a hunk of smoked dried bonito that one grates into the box and then uses to make dashi. I have coveted his for years, and he remembered. All the rest is from John; udon, ume plums, kombu, dried shiitake, yuzu miso, ume vinegar, 7-spice, sudachi juice, kinako, soba-cha, and a soy-mirin sauce all made by this one woman who John reveres. My head is spinning with ideas, and with gratitude. I have the best friends in the world.

Friday, November 07, 2008

But Wait... There's More!

Normally I avoid featuring the same ingredient twice in a row, with the exception of no-brainers like summer tomatoes or corn. But I just couldn't get the lamb idea in its original form out of my head. It loitered, obdurate, mocking me, and demanded satisfaction. Fortunately, Fleisher's was open, and I had an appointment at the gallery, which is only a mile away. So I chatted with Josh, and bumped into two friends (I love small town life) and stocked up on chickens for the party on Saturday, brisket to make into pastrami, marrow bones, double-cut pork chops, and four beautiful lamb rib chops.

Upon return home, I trimmed the chops of all fat, vacuum-sealed them, and dropped them in a 51˚ C water bath for an hour. While they did their sous-vide thing, I pressure-cooked some Christmas lima beans with onion and guanciale, caramelized parsnips in a little olive oil, steamed our giant red mustard greens with fenugreek, cumin, and mustard seeds, and browned (in a little lamb fat with bits of guanciale) the 30%/70% feta/ricotta gnocchi I made yesterday, bound with 1% activa and piped onto parchment paper to set up in the fridge overnight.

Once the meat was ready, I puréed the greens and strained them. I added the parsnips (which had been off the heat) to the gnocchi, and also some peas just to warm through. Each chop got liberally brushed with a harissa tapenade (fresh harissa I made with toasted spices and oil, then folded into some of the tapenade gravy from last night) and wrapped tightly in an egg roll wrapper, then fried in a little oil for just enough to crisp the wonton skin- about 30 seconds per side. I pooled some green purée on each plate, scattered the gnocchi/parsnip/pea mixture around, added some beans, drained with a slotted spoon, and placed a crisp chopsicle in the middle.

What's funny is that this wasn't actually the original idea at all, outside of the fried chop with harissa tapenade. All the other stuff was totally different than I originally imagined, because we were out of yogurt, and I used the last of the preserved lemon for yesterday's lamb. (I did just make a new quart jar full, but it takes a month to get good.) But it did the job. Because it was a FRIED LAMB CHOP. And the other flavors- harissa, olives, sharp mustard, funky feta, earthy beans, sweet peas- all play exceptionally well with lamb, which was the idea. The cooking method ensured perfect doneness; they were like kalamata-merguez pudding pops with a crispy crust. And one was actually enough.

I almost didn't open any wine, since Milo has been waking up at 4:30 in the morning since we set the clocks back, and it's torture, especially since he hasn't really been getting back to sleep after he arrives in our bed. It's hellish, but he's really snuggly, and he pronounces gnocchi "yonkey" which is pretty cute. But fried lamb chops (did I mention them?) cry out for wine- big wine- in sultry, irresistable voices that will not be denied. As you can see, this meal was all about being bullied by lamb chops, without any choice in the matter. Deride my masculinity if you will, but my wife was pretty impressed, and she made noises that I enjoy. A 2000 Carver Sutro petite sirah was also euphonious with this food, though after the meat was gone it revealed itself to be still very tight and wanting of more cellar time. Having said that, I like the tannic austerity, since the nose in the last glass suggested that it might become too opulent; if the deep black fruit ever escapes the confines of that structure, it will be just another painted whore of a California wine. But I like its chances.

So, to reiterate, FRIED LAMB CHOPS.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Meat, Well Met

I had an idea the other night for a great lamb chop dish, and we wanted to celebrate, so I rushed out yesterday to get some chops. But I was foiled by the lack thereof, so I settled for a piece of boneless leg. By the time I got to making dinner, it was too late to do anything fancy, so I rolled the meat in herbes de Provence, olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic and tossed it in the oven. On the rack below, fresh-dug potatoes with leeks, garlic, and rosemary. It's funny- lately I've really been getting into playing with super-traditional English food. In part it's because of the season, but my Dad is English and though I haven't been there in ages I've been thinking about it more recently. Not exactly a culinary Mecca- until recently, in London mostly- but it's fun to tweak the meat and potatoes thing, and the breakfasts are rich material for invention.

While all that was cooking, I made green mash and a tapenade variant (olives, yogurt, preserved lemon.) And when the meat came out, the pan drippings inspired me to make a gravy of sorts with the tapenade- so I stirred in some flour, browned it, then added wine and tapenade to make a thick dark purple-brown sauce of extraordinary awesomeness. Strong flavors, united by hot lamb fat, and with a gorgeous velvety texture. My fantastic little boy ate all his mash, and most of ours, before he would deign to eat any meat and potatoes. Then he discovered the crispy leek pieces and roasted cloves of garlic, and switched over to those until they were all gone.

While we beamed with pride at just the really unbelievably amazing job we've done raising him, we lubricated our self-satisfied smiles with a 1999 Guigal Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It's still a baby, with strong tannins still dominating, but underneath there's beautiful funk and fruit; in another 5-10 years all the components should be much more seamlessly intertwined. So the others stay out of sight until then.

Upper Crust

On Monday, Christine expressed a hankering for pot pie, and we had the chicken wings that I used to make broth still in the fridge, so it seemed like a good idea. I made crust, and pulled the meat off the wings, and sautéed onion, garlic, radish, yellow beet, and sweet potato, dusted all with flour and added the rest of the tom kha gai from the day before. I let it simmer for a bit, then put it in a baking dish, covered it with crust, and slid it gingerly into the oven for about 30 minutes.

Since the crust recipe makes enough for two open tarts, I took the second half and made a galette with fresh plums plus dried apricots, prunes, raisins, and dates chopped up with a little maple syrup, 5-spice, and Vermont cassis. The fresh and dried fruit made for a jammy, almost fruitcakey filling that gave the whole thing the feel of a giant linzer cookie.

Mmmmm... giant linzer cookie...

We opened another of the surprise discoveries from Vermont- a 2003 Siduri Clos Pepe pinot. Good, but not great, and not even a little bit Burgundian. There's also an 04 Sonatera, which I remember as being much funkier. We'll have to take it for a spin soon to see.

And, for those of you who enjoyed the wine description in my Smackdown guest spot, last night I received this email from that very woman:

BRAVO pour l'élection d'Obama !!
Je ne sais pas si tu as voté pour lui mais en France on esperait tous son election.

C'est un grand moment pour les usa, pour le monde. Que d'espoir pour les noirs américains, pour les minorités.

C'est beaucoup d'emotion, de joie pour nous aussi.


The best part about all this is that the first president my Son will remember is a black man. That reality will form the baseline for what's normal and unremarkable in American politics, and in life. This is exactly how we make the world better for succeeding generations- by manifesting our ideals so that they become givens, and form the foundation for the next generation to build upon.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Oh HELL Yeah.

Congratulations, Mr. President Elect. And congratulations, America. You're all grownsed up now.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Simple Lines, Intertwining

Milo has another cold, so I made chicken broth today. I set some aside for him with the soft broth carrots in it- the way he likes it best- and added coconut milk and some red curry paste to the rest to make a simple tom kha gai. I shredded some of our cabbage with a little garlic, ginger, and radish, and rolled the mixture into wonton wrappers and fried them in a little oil. With a dipping sauce of sambal, tamari, nam pla, balsamic vinegar, and scallions, plus a side of habañero pickled onions, it made for a pretty good lunch- and one that did not induce a food coma after a tough night of the boy waking up a bunch from coughing.

When I made the chicken broth I also made baked beans for dinner; borlotti beans, soaked overnight, plus lardo and bacon skin that I rendered a little to begin, and onion, garlic, herbs, cider vinegar and maple syrup simmered on the stove and then spent 6 hours in a 225˚ oven. We had them alongside eggs en cocotte that I made with a layer of leftover mashed potatoes on the bottom, then more of our cabbage that I pressure-cooked with guanciale, peppercorns, juniper berries, a little of the tom kha gai, and cider vinegar for 20 minutes until silky and gorgeous. On top of that went an egg, and crispy little lardons of bacon skin, and I put them in the oven to set.

All in all, this was really just English pub food gussied up a little bit, but the homemage/homegrown ingredients and the slow/pressure cooking made them exceptional in flavor and texture. And the hunk of bacon skin is fast becoming my favorite piece of home-cured pork (we have four to choose from.) A few days ago, I invented my new favorite breakfast in the tradition of eggs benedict/florentine: from bottom to top, a spelt English muffin, strips of crisp guanciale, a fat slice of fried tomato degalzed with balsamic, a fried egg over easy, a big dollop of green mash, and a smaller dollop of sambal. I haven't come up with a name for it yet, but MY GOD it's delicious. How about "Eggs Obama?"