Friday, May 30, 2008

Up To Speed

I read recently about cooking vegetables sous-vide; evidently 83˚ C is perfect for breaking down starch but leaving the pectin intact for the ideal combination of creamy yet firm. So I sliced some sweet potatoes and vacuum-sealed them with a little salt and dried sudachi zest and dropped them in the bath. Milo likes to grab eggplants and grapefruits when we shop (because they're big and beautiful) so I split and roasted the former and supremed the latter.

I puréed the roasted eggplants with some cashews, salt, olive oil, and grapefruit juice to make a sort of mutant baba ghanoush, then pushed it through a tamis to make it super-velvety. Christine made more mash from endive thinnings, and I sliced some wild Alaskan salmon into sashimi; once plated, I gave it the hot garlic-infused sesame-olive oil treatment and then squeezed a little lime juice on top.

The flavors collided in all kinds of interesting ways, and it was good fun to try all the various combinations. The sweet potato could have used more time; I had to pull it out because dinner was running late, so it hadn't completely cooked. Next time I'll try to get them going in the afternoon so they can fully soften. But all in all, this was pretty successful improv. A few days off let the creative urge rebuild, and good ingredients plus- since I finally got the crates built and packed- the time to play with them made for a meal that found a sweet spot near the intersection of lightness and complexity.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Special Guest Chef!

I spent all day in the woodshop building crates for a couple of pieces destined for Chicago, so my lovely wife obligingly made a perfect dinner for us. It was pretty incredibly great to have dinner ready when I came down from showering. Honestly, I have to say that she roasts a better chicken than I do; she does the thing where she stuffs garlic and herbs under the skin- as well as in the cavity- so the flavors suffuse the whole bird. (I usually do the thing where I don't.)

With brown rice and steamed broccoli, plus her version of green mash (which is much heavier on the lemon than mine) and some gravy which I whipped up at the last minute, this was pretty much as good as home cooking gets. The mash takes the other flavors to a magical place; the bitter-tangy-green just throws everything else into such sharp relief. There is nothing it doesn't make better. Run, don't walk, to buy a suribachi and some bitter green seeds.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Clean & Simple

Chick peas soaked and simmered with coconut milk and spices. Roasted potatoes with thyme and garlic. Fresh-picked kale wilted with shallots and lemon juice. Cucumber salad with baby shiso.

Humble, cleansing food that encourages reflection. I enjoy these meals as much as I do the decadent ones; it's important to pare down sometimes and appreciate the basics. As fun as it is to get complicated and fancy, I need to be reminded sometimes that this blog is not the boss of me.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Oh, The Umamity

The family picked me up on Friday and we went to Vermont- only an hour away- for the weekend. On the way up, and for much of the preceding week, we had been excitedly talking about Pascal's sausages: the trademark culinary treat of all recent Vermont trips. Our favorites include his merguez, cabbage and bacon, chicken and blueberry, and his crepinettes of duck with green peppercorn and rabbit with figs. These sausages are so good that calm, temperate people become crazed, wild eyed hyenas after trying them. There are never any left over, no matter how many were bought. They are pupil-dilatingly awesome.

Saturday morning, we bounded down to the farmers' market to load up- some for dinner, some more to take home with us. We got the really good donuts, looked at some excellent stoneware, and wandered around, suddenly and simultaneously realizing that Pascal wasn't there. We asked pottery guy, and he said, clearly bereft, that Pascal has shut down due to some regulatory and/or financial issues. A little piece of me died inside when I heard. Christine almost wept. The sausages are no more.

I have now taken it upon myself to duplicate a few- at least the duck and rabbit (I have already made good merguez) since we have an excellent source for them. I will not let these superlative sausages go gently into that good night. They will rise from the ashes to be grilled again. There will be more sausage parties (the good kind.) Oh yes. But they will also have to wait until later on this summer, after all this business tapers off a little.

Also, his terrines were pretty good.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I spent the second half of last week doing the first part of a residency at a sculpture park upstate. It’s a great, big, funky old farm just gearing up for the fourth season in its new incarnation, so there are lots of appealingly rough edges to the many buildings and facilities. The people are great, and everyone takes turns cooking a big communal dinner. Despite the serious physical exertion of getting my piece made, I nonetheless made dinner on two of the nights.

The first night, there were just three of us, since it was absurdly late and the others had gone to bed. My first day was easy, measuring and drawing on the field with one of those athletic paint striper things. This was pretty fun to play with, and it engendered all sorts of lawn graffiti ideas, not to mention the desire to invent several new sports.

I poked around the kitchen to try to locate the basics and see what might be interesting. There were nice fresh ocean perch, so I planned the meal around that; I spun a pretty good salsa out of tomatoes, red bell peppers, red onion, cilantro, and lime juice in the food processor (I was so glad they have one there.) I made some garlic mashed potatoes, and a salad of greens I had brought from our garden. Maria picked some of the monstrous rhubarb in front of the house and cooked it down with a little sugar.

Then the gas went out.

Nobody knew how to switch it over, and I had just arrived (turns out it’s ridiculously easy, but I had no clue it was even on a propane bottle) so we scrambled, lit a fire in the big grill outside, and cooked up some hot Italian sausages instead. Pretty good, even if we did end up eating at around 11:00.

The next day I spent pushing a heavy-ass rototiller around in the rain for the better part of ten hours. The best part about it- there were three, actually, apart from the rain which made what would have been pretty nice, crumbly soil into a dense black mud- was the fact that the engage lever didn’t turn off when released, so I had to lunge at the throttle if I wanted to stop, then manually flip the (way too close to the still-rotating tines for comfort) switch into the off position. In addition, the exhaust pipe was thoughtfully pointed right into my face, especially when I was bending forward both to relieve stress on my back and also act as a sort of anchor on the beast so that it actually dug into the wet turf rather than just sliding along on top of it.

And last, it had ergonomically diabolical handlebars- like it was a Schwinn with a banana seat and tennis balls in the spokes for cruising around your neighborhood when you’re ten- instead of a brutal, semi-controllable earth churning monster that you might actually need to operate with precision over a prolonged period in sub-optimal conditions, and thus a device for which one might desire a more secure, comprehensive, and comfortable hand-machine interface. It was at these moments, reading the “Made with pride in the USA” sticker on the handle (beyond which, the engine clearly said Honda) that I entertained myself, so desperate as I was for a massage, with fantasies of massaging the ass-clown who designed this machine with the selfsame machine to really emphasize the importance of good design. Remember how you really, really wished that the people who designed those butterfly ballots in Florida had choked to death on hanging chads? It was like that.

But I digress.

Insane though it may seem, after a shower I did in fact make dinner again. The gas had been sorted out (and explained to the others) so I made the fish: dredged in a mix of cornmeal and spices and crisped up in a little oil. The mashed potatoes plus an egg (they have chickens and ducks) a little flour, and some corn made little frittery-hush puppyesque starch cakes, and I sautéed spinach. Maria roasted beets, and blanched then cooked a big bag of fiddleheads in garlic butter. I do not love fiddleheads, but this method is as good as they get. Better late than never, we fell upon it like ravenous rototillers on hapless exhaust-loving middle managers who took a correspondence course in industrial design that one time. After dinner I even made a pie out of the rest of the rhubarb from the night before, using a wine bottle as a rolling pin.

And, just so you can see what this is all about, a picture post-tilling. It doesn’t look like much now, but just wait until the pretty flowers grow.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Land Sushi

One of the advantages of cooking meat sous-vide is the ability to get a bunch of other things done without risking overcooking- especially since I like my meat on the rare side. So I took a NY strip steak of Piemonte beef, seasoned it very simply with salt, pepper, oregano, and garlic, sealed it, dropped it in the bath at 54˚ C and forgot about it until it was time to serve dinner. While it was doing its thing, I was able to get some 10-grain mix into the rice cooker, make a quick wine reduction with soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, garlic, and a little agave syrup, and prepare some garnishes. I also sautéed some chard, since we had to dig up the last of the winter chard to make room for the rest of this year's nightshades: peppers (hot and sweet) and eggplants.

And that was about it; we also picked some parsley and galia endive from the doomed bed and I made a little green mash out of those, plus garlic, an ume plum, and copious olive oil. There is nothing that goes with red meat quite like green mash. And kids love to help make it in the suribachi. Since there was time to do things like brown chard stems and wild garlic in a bit of butter, and then wilt chives in same, I assembled it all into sushi- but in a pinch, it could have easily been served as meat, grains, greens and sauce on a plate. I just get off on the refined presentation, because then each bite has the requisite proportion of all the flavors, and it's delicious before you even have the first bite.

To accompany, a 2003 Jaboulet Vaqueyras, which for $20 is one of our go-to wines; it's leathery, substantial yet light on its feet, and has plenty of tannin for meat. There's enough fruit in there to handle wine reductions, and it evolves really nicely over the course of an evening. Having bought out the local store, I'm now officially sad that there may be no more for us to enjoy.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Sometimes a simple jumping-off point can become pretty complicated. Especially if you're hungry, and have a lot of interesting leftovers in the fridge. So what began as an idea for an easy chicken and veggie curry quickly spiraled out of control and ended up as four dishes. It really came down to my desire to let certain things retain more of their individual identities, and my love for having lots of plates of Indian food on the table- whether at home, or in a restaurant.

All the various orphaned root veggies from the drawer in the fridge (carrot, turnip, sweet potato, onion) became the base for a lovely coconut curry that also included cauliflower and peas. Chicken thighs got their own pan, and simmered with yogurt, nettle purée, ginger, garlic, many other spices, and water. I cooked more of our tuscan kale with fresh mint, plus fenugreek and fennel seeds, and then blended it smooth. I also made a cucumber salad with dill from the garden like my Grandmother used to. (Milo grabbed the cucumber the other day so we've been enjoying another of his random out-of-season choices.)

It's a tough time of year; despite the warm(ish) weather, we're at a low ebb as the garden gets up to speed. Not so much of this was home-grown. It makes me a little nuts to buy vegetables when we have so many that will be ready soon, and next year I will make an extra effort to get certain things in the ground (with protection) even earlier so we can avoid this frustration. But nonetheless it all looked great on the beautiful Turkish plates, and it tasted really good over brown rice with a delicious 2006 Max Richter Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett. (Take that, Google spell-checker.)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunday, May 18

Yesterday would have been my Mom's 63rd birthday, and coming as it does on the heels of Mother's day, it makes this time of the year hard to deal with. But I've got her Grandson to distract me, and watching him help me dig in the garden is as fitting a tribute as I can imagine. Our lilacs are out in full force, and the wet breeze yesterday was intensely perfumed with memory-inducing smells of earlier rainy Mays. I moved our blueberries, and planted a variety of raspberries in their place, and generally kept myself busy in the garden and woodshop.

For dinner I made ma po tofu, but using the rest of the seasoned lamb mixture instead of pork. I also don't make it spicy, but we compensate after the fact with lots of hot sauce. To go with it, quinoa and some of our Tuscan kale which is finally starting to bolt. Considering that I planted it in October, it easily wins the award for the most successful overwintering crop, and it's sweet and beautiful to eat as it takes its final bow and makes room for the next generation.

I read somewhere recently about lilacs being edible, and a lilac ice cream, so I decided I'd try making it to accompany a strawberry-rhubarb pie; the flowers and the pie are both things that I associate very strongly with my Mother. I simmered the flowers in cream, a little soymilk, sugar, and a splash of rum, figuring that some of the perfume in the flowers might be more soluble in alcohol. I also added some honey, since that seemed like a nice secondary flavor for the ice cream. The kitchen smelled incredible while I separated eggs and beat them.

The pie was very simple: my Grandmother's perfect crust (which, amusingly, my Mom could never make; we called it the "generation-skipping crust" which should amuse all you probate lawyers out there no end.) The filling cooked down a bit and I thickened it with a little flour since we had no cornstarch. And I made lattices with the extra dough, again for reasons of tradition, and also because my wife likes lattices on her pies.

Once frozen, the ice cream had a lovely smooth curl to it, and it did in fact taste very strongly of lilacs. Have you ever used some hand lotion or other product and it smelled so heavenly that you wished you could eat it? That's exactly what this was like. And since I always under-sweeten my tarts just a bit, the sweet ice cream did a wonderful job of highlighting the tangy filling and flaky crust. Milo was so excited by the ice cream that he also took a couple of bites of the flower I used to garnish it with. Happy birthday, Claire.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Short Stack

We came back from Boston pretty tired and glad to be home. I planted the potatoes that had arrived on Friday and thinned a salad of galia endive. There was some ground lamb in the fridge, and some big sweet potatoes that needed eating, so I stood in the kitchen for a while staring at everything like a dummy and eventually figured out what I wanted to make. Sometimes it's hard, but eventually the wheels do turn.

First I seasoned the lamb with lots of garlic, cumin, herbs, 5-spice, sudachi zest, and a splash of wine. The potatoes par-baked in the oven while I accidentally invented one of the best things ever- nettle purée mixed with Greek yogurt and a little truffle oil. The nettle and the yogurt flavors overlap in the most amazing way, complementing each other and amplifying the overall effect; it's perfectly balanced between creamy and green, and the truffle oil (and a little salt) make it sublime.

I pulled the not-quite-soft spuds from out the oven and sliced them, then browned them gently in some of the fat rendered off the little lamb burgers I formed with the ring from a mason jar lid. They all made nice little stacks, and got topped with sautéed Swiss chard and lardo that Christine had made for Milo since he got hungry before we did. In a perfect world, I would have done two things differently: made a nice red winey fruit reduction to dribble like maple syrup on the stacks, and prepared the chard stems separately from the leaves- say by giving them a quick pickle or vacuum-sealing them with salt for a bit- to scatter around for color and textural contrast.

But the nature of home cooking is working within the constraints of life, including long drives, fatigue, residual jitters from an awful cup of Whole Foods coffee, a hungry child, and a hundred other things. I plan on revisiting this dish later with a few refinements. At the end of the day, though, it's more fun to invent and improvise; sometimes things don't quite work, but sometimes there's a thick green Perfection Sauce to enjoy. It's also fun, and satisfying, and makes for a more interesting blog, but for me the main reason I like to cook this way is the knowledge that when I make something like this, I can be pretty sure that the lavishly beautiful woman across the table is totally going to give it up later on.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Green On Green

Today I had to keep it simple; it's getting into crazy time with the number of projects looming on the near horizon. Today was rainy, but warm- another sign that we're into the next season- and the temptation is always to rush into the summer flavors even though they're not actually here yet. So I tried to focus on what is here, and make it as good as possible. I find it frustrating, though, since it's a tough time for getting certain things locally, especially fruit. I was in a market that I don't usually shop at the other day, and the smell of all the incredible fruit from all over the world sent me into a tizzy. But I didn't buy any, not that time.

Instead, I cut a bunch of stinging nettles from the patch between the ramps (done) and the blackberries (far, far away) and brought them in to process. Steamed up in their own rinsing water, then spun in the food processor, they became that unbelievable dark green that looks more like paint than food:


and then I evaporated off more of the liquid in our new post-teflon nonstick pan, and stirred the thick green goop into the pasta dough.


And then I ran it through the pasta machine. (No pictures, since it takes two hands to do that part.) Meanwhile, I cut some of our very own salt pork into little cubes and browned it in a pat of butter. Yes, butter is the magic ingredient that makes salt pork become carnal perfection, adding a sweetness to the rich, clean herbal tang of the pork fat. To this, some flour to make a little roux, then a splash of white wine followed by milk, dried porcini mushrooms soaked in some of the nettle cooking liquid, more of the nettle purée, and then a little more butter to adjust the consistency for a proper balance between the two conflicting sauce coefficients of pasta adhesion and lubrication.

For lack of any other herbs (I was rushed) it got garnished with a few radishes for snap and color, a dribble of truffle oil, and was accompanied by a salad of our penultimate little heads of bibb and butter lettuces that regrew in the winter bed. It worked very well; the pasta had a nice green flavor balanced by the eggy bite, and the sauce was pretty insane, but restrained due to the relatively small amount- it was just enough to coat the noodles and provide porky surprises in every other bite. We had the luxury of eating this with a glass of the Savennières from last night, followed by a Mas de Gourgonnier rosé that really got along with this dish- with fraises des bois positively leaping out of the glass in counterpoint to the mushroom and nettle earthiness. And then, for dessert, a last glass of the Carver Sutro petite sirah from last night, since the rosé will keep just fine in the fridge.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

From Good To Better

It was a perfect day today: warm, gently breezy, cloudless. I of course had to spend the bulk of it hunched over this wretched appliance, but I did break out this afternoon to do some gardening and then hit the store for a couple of things. On the way back up out of the valley, there are some particularly nice views of the mountains North of town from a couple of places. Down here, all the trees are pretty much fully burst into leaf, but up on the mountain top they're still bare- so there is a perfect gradient from bright Spring green at the bottom to dull brown at the top, with the trees at the summit still naked. Because of the late afternoon sun, this gradient had the added overlay of orange light which made purply shadows that defined the topographical undulations the gradient had ignored. This is the kind of thing that makes me swoon; I am a complete sucker for color, especially when complements coexist without graying each other out.

Speaking of topographical undulations, I had a hankering to do something elegant on the homemade plates, so while buying red meat to satisfy a cranky spouse I also picked up a small hunk of tuna for an appetizer. Minced very fine with chives, jalapeño, olive and sesame oils, tamari, dried sudachi zest, cider vinegar and lemon juice it made an excellent tartare to begin the meal. Milo wolfed it down, saying "this doesn't taste like tuna fish." I poured some 2002 Baumard Savennières to go with it, which it did, and handsomely at that. For around 15 bucks, this one is a winner. And Savennières worth the name is very ageworthy, so it's just starting to pick up some rich, unctuous honey around the edges of the minerals, melons and sour apples (though it will only go so far; for more, you'll need to shell out more than around 15 bucks.) As I am fond of saying- about wine, and life in general, "You may get what you pay for, but you sure don't get what you don't pay for."

Then, because we've subsisted for months on the cheap, slow-cooking cuts of lamb, a perfect rack (local and organic, of course) trimmed and Frenched, rubbed with salt, pepper, garlic, and cumin, seared in the iron pan and then put in the oven to finish while I tended to the rest of the mayhem on the stove: caramelized turnip cubes with onion, steamed sunchokes subsequently puréed with yogurt, butter, and salt, and Pak choi quickly sautéed with garlic and lemon juice. I had also made a pesto of all the herbs we have going on right now: mint, chives, garlic chives, rosemary, sage, lemon balm, oregano, and thyme, plus olive oil, lemon juice, cider vinegar, salt and lots of pepper.

The chops separated to reveal juicy pinkness, and the roots- one creamy and smooth, the other crispy, both super sweet- offered a wonderful counterpoint to the meltingly tender meat and tangy pesto. I should have put the greens on the same plate, but I had some clamoring going on at the table and needed to get food into faces stat. For this course, I popped a 2001 Carver Sutro petite sirah, which is a favorite of the wife, and thus chosen to smooth out any remaining rough edges; it's at its peak, and a veritable jam-fest on strong structure. And thus did I discover the cure for PMS.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Learning By Drinking

After a great dinner party Sunday nearby- where I didn't have to make a damn thing- I got another break last night in the city as I dropped in on Kris and Ken following a very productive day. David joined us, and later Mary, and we had simple food and excellent wine: curried chicken with okra and mashed potatoes (Kris makes incredible curries) followed by chili and rice, then 5 cheeses, then possibly the best bread pudding I've ever had.

David makes the wine for Camille Giroud in Beaune, so the guys pulled out some excellent bottles and we tasted them blind. To begin, a 2001 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett, which they had opened on Saturday and was rich, perfumed, and had an astonishing taste of rainwater on apricots, lychees, and stones. Then, with the food, a 2002 Joguet Chinon "Les Varennes du Grand Clos" that was clearly a cab franc, but the geography was puzzling; it tasted almost like a St. Emilion. Next up was a Faurie 2001 Hermitage (that we guessed was a St. Joseph) that was restrained elegance with the classic Syrah profile of fruit intertwined within the structure of the wine. Last, a Magnien chambolle-Musigny 1er cru Borniques that started out wonderfully and got better and better.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Kid's Choice

I let Milo choose dinners this weekend, since I'm tired, and tired of fancy cooking after the exertions of the past week or so. My Dad is English, and when I was growing up he was allowed to make breakfast on Sunday in the full-blown tradition of his people: bacon, eggs, sausage, tomatoes, potatoes, and bread, all fried in the bacon grease. When I was an impoverished grad student in Chicago I would often make myself a modified version of it for dinner, based on some Hangover Helper™ pub food I had when I live over there: eggs, beans, chips (fries) and usually kale.

Last night we had beans- pintos soaked and then cooked low & slow for three hours in smoked chicken broth with onion, garlic, tomato paste, cider vinegar, a little maple syrup, and chilli powder- plus fried eggs, toast, kale, and a hot dog each. He had ketchup, I had HP sauce. He dunked everything into the runny yolk like a pro. The whole meal was a testament to his discerning taste, and a suitably manly bachelor dinner in Mommy's absence. It was also perfect for the chilly, raw English weather we had yesterday.

Today, warm and bright, we busied ourselves outside potting up some herbs for a neighbor, taking a walk, and giving John some seedlings when he stopped by. After lunch we made some pizza dough (for same-day eating, I use a modified version of the Silver Spoon recipe, but with half whole wheat flour and adjusted hydration) and then after a gallery opening in town we came home, fired up the oven and rolled it out. Or I did; he was tired so he watched "My neighbor Totoro" while I did it.

If there's lead time, I normally make a pre-ferment for the dough the night before, and sometimes I make the recipe in Hamelman's Bread taken from the very bakery in Rome where I would go every morning to get pizza rossa for my breakfast. But the quick version does fine, especially if you're topping it with things picked an hour before. The first one was a pizza rossa with a heaping arugula salad piled on top, and the second one was the last of our winter spinach- we pulled up the row today, since the new crop is big enough- wilted with garlic and topped with lots of fresh mozzarella.

Daddy's choice: a 1997 Produttori del Barbaresco Moccagatta, which is my kind of wine. Still pretty fiercely tannic, but it softened after some time in a decanter into a tangy, stanky, difficult wench of a wine with a rare but gleamingly angelic smile that makes your heart go boom boom. I think there are 9 more in the long-term stash, so sometime in the next 10 years or so this will become one of those wise old wines where you're awestruck at the subtlety, elegance, power, and balance that a glass of fermented grape juice can show you.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Other Red Meat

The New Yorker came today, and in it is a profile of Grant Achatz, molecular gastronomy wunderkind and chef at Alinea in Chicago, and his work and dramatic struggle with tongue cancer. Christine and her Mom go to the city tomorrow, so I wanted to make something a little fancy to send them off. And there were some nice new ingredients that she bought; when somebody else does the shopping there can often be unexpected inspirations since we all have our own habitual patterns, no matter how hard we try to stay open-minded. And there was an ostrich tenderloin in the freezer. I should probably mention that.

So taking taste- a central theme of the article- as the jumping-off point, and being aware that one of the signatures of the new new cooking is the combination of sweet-savory-spicy-sour-umami (plus strongly contrasting textures) on the same plate, I took a bunch of different ingredients and tried to rope them together in to a diverse yet unified plate of food that would be unique and delicious. We had an appetizer of the duck prosciutto with syrup from the pickled strawberries (see below) and a glass of 2007 "Les Rials" Côtes du Tarn which is a lovely white to begin a meal- it has a lot going on for the money (though I kind of hate the label.)

To begin, the ostrich, vacuum-sealed with salt, pepper, garam masala, and a little chilli powder went into the water bath at 54.4˚ C for about an hour and a half. I took some of the smoked chicken broth and reduced it with a splash of red wine, some champagne, and a bit of our BBQ sauce until it was quite thick and concentrated. I pickled strawberries in some leftover rooibos-chocolate-mint tea they had for breakfast, plus balsamic vinegar and agave syrup. I candied cashews in butter, togarashi, salt, and agave until they were nice and brown. I wilted broccoli and radish sprouts in garlic and olive oil. I made polenta. And I took some of the remaining ricotta-beet juice gnocchi and gave them a quick sautée in a little smoked duck fat, plus the rest of the garlic-oil mixture from the greens.

So all of these things, combined on a plate, did in fact wake the taste buds and combine to do many interesting things- asserting their own flavors while playing well with others. The meat really absorbed the spices, and the sweet-tangy strawberries played well with the meat, the smoky reduction, and the spicy nuts. Polenta and greens did what they were supposed to, and the cheese gnocchi, apart from being bright pink, contributed some fat to the mix since the meat was so lean. To further add to the mix, a bottle of 1999 La Poderina Brunello, which over time opened up into that tarry, licoricey gorgeousness that is Brunello- though still a bit restrained; a few more years will probably serve it well. I'm so happy that we have a few more socked away for future feasts.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Saved By The Belle

In an effort to make this evening's meal easier on me, Christine and her Mom bought some fresh porcini ravioli at a local place. I was partly relieved, and partly sort of wished that I could have made them myself. Having said that, it's a busy week for me and was grateful to put the extra time to good use. For a sauce, I took the rest of the crème fraîche and poured in about half a bottle of Champagne left from the party then let it reduce. After it got thick again, I stirred in a knob of butter. I had picked both a salad and some Tuscan kale, so I wilted the shredded kale in olive oil and garlic and dressed it with lemon. The pasta got finished with parmesan, pepper, garlic chives and truffle oil.

Brooklynguy's blog reminded me about Vieux Pressoir's sparkling Saumur rosé, so we began with that (it's a terrific aperitif, and there was one in the fridge) and then to keep everything thematically consistent moved on to a 2006 Thierry Germain Saumur Champigny. I don't know what it cost, since someone left it here on Saturday, but it's unremarkable; given some time the tannins might soften up into something interesting but my guess is not so much. Perfectly good with the thrice-dairy sauce and ravioli, though. I can't say enough good things about Champagne reductions; they're by definition decadent luxuries, but if you ever have any left after a party, save it and reduce it with a little butter or cream. It's genius with lobster, or pasta like this, and has a complex, almost lemony tang that you just can't get any other way.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Today it was sunny again. Today I felt normal again. And today, Christine's Mom joined us for the week. So to celebrate a new chapter, and to move away from the heavy party food of the last few days, a super-clean meal tonight. We got some more of the incredible local 10-grain mix (millet, rye, winter wheat, oats, triticale, barley, spelt, corn, flax and vetch) so I made a broth from the smoked chicken carcasses and turned the grain into a hearty "risotto" with our own ramps and asparagus. The beautiful thing about this mixture is that when cooked this way, the grains range from completely disintegrated to still quite firm, and everything in between; they form a continuum of doneness that makes each bite a textural delight. Their polenta is also fantastic, and I use their other flours to make bread.

More burdock got the standard treatment, simmering in water spiked with soy sauce and balsamic vinegar until it was perfectly al dente. I rewarmed some of the braised cabbage from the party and rescued the carrot chunks from the chicken broth; Milo loves them so much, and while the onions and herbs always turn into droopy, slimy things that do not look good to eat, the carrots are still bright and sweet once the broth is done. And they have that mushy texture that kids love.

I also picked a salad of various greens: some of the surviving winter lettuces, new cutting mesclun, and thinnings of beets and endive. It's funny, looking at the picture, how brown and unappealing this all looks. I was a bit rushed, and forgot to pick garnishes. The flavors were sharp, deep, and rich, and the three dun-colored foods had dramatically different flavors. We began with a 2005 Carpineto rosato Toscano, and then moved on to a Pleiades XIII that John left behind at the party; I haven't had an older one in a while, and it was a curvy, voluptuous, gorgeous mature treat of a wine. I'm not sure I've ever had a California wine with as much Burgundian funk. It's so good. And the XVI arrives on Wednesday.

I'm Cured!

One of the great things about curing an entire side of wild king salmon to make a bunch of teeny appetizers is having a lot left over for Sunday brunch. Here seen on an everything bagel with crème fraiche and wasabi tobiko. I added capers too. The fish has such an intense, wonderful flavor from the unorthodox cure.

And since it's been ages, and I've got cured meat on the brain, I decided to pull down the last duck prosciutto and try it out. It's excellent- better than the first one, which I attribute to the much longer hanging time. Patience is a virtue.

The confluence of these two things, plus the salt pork (trimmings from the bacon that is almost ready, and cured differently; it will get its own post because it's bacon) and the lardo also being ready meant that I got my act together and made a little care package-early birthday present for a good friend out in Seattle. He sent me some insane salumi from the eponymous store out there for my birthday a while back, and I'm finally reciprocating.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Christine's Birthday, Part 3: Extended Dance Party Remix

I woke up feeling like garbage; the cold had migrated to me. Fortunately, I had gotten enough done ahead of time so that I was able to go back to sleep for three hours and felt much better. I got the smoker going, and put in four chickens. After an hour, the chickens repaired to a 200˚ oven while 5 slabs of well-rubbed spare ribs took their place on the grill. I kept the fire medium low, alternating between our apple and maple wood while I took care of the rest of the preparations.

Which were: three cabbages worth of slow-cooked sauerkraut (begun the day before, finished the day of) six huge turnips cubed and caramelized with a dash of vanilla to finish, ricotta gnocchi colored with beet juice to make them a nice girly pink, and a salad of baby greens and thinnings. Then Gerard showed up, bearing an ounce of Osetra caviar, a couple of dozen Long Island oysters, a trough of wasabi tobiko, and a big bowl of already foamy blini batter. He had given me the side of King Salmon a few days earlier to cure- I used salt, brown sugar, togarashi, fennel seeds, cinnamon, and lime zest, and it sat in the cure for two days- so it was firm and delicious and ready to slice.

He made the blini, them topped them with salmon, crème fraiche, caviar, and a chive. Then he shucked the oysters and gave them each a dollop of the wasabi tobiko. I knew he'd be bringing the blini and caviar, but the oysters were a surprise. An amazing display of generosity, plus he actually has a salmon slicer and knows how to use it. He also brought some insanely fresh black bass, and made what might have been the best ceviche I've ever had.

Then we put it all out; appetizers first, then everything else. John brought ramps and burdock from Richard and Susan's garden; Susan made her incredible blue cornbread. Leanne made vegetable curry, and Liz made edamame dip (plus macaroons and a vegan lilikoi-lemon custard for dessert.) Madness ensued.

The Cheekens.

The reebs.

The birthday girl, plus Milo and his friend Madeleine, who stayed up WAY past their bedtimes.

It was a mighty meal. Sirkka made a wonderful 4-layer chocolate birthday cake. There was copious wine, which I won't list but John brought most of it, including a Sine Qua Non grenache and good champagne. If it hadn't been so cold and rainy, we could have done it out on the porch, but otherwise it was a perfect evening, and a fitting conclusion to the three day birthday.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Christine's Birthday, Part 2: The Dessert

So in the midst of preparing all the things for tomorrow's party (curing a side of salmon, beet-ricotta gnocchi, sauerkraut, etc. I also made some Stilton gnocchi with a bit of leftover tofu, figuring tonight I would use them with a sauce idea that's been bugging me for a while. But they failed. Completely. Now normally, that would be OK; since they melted when I tried to sautée them I would have let them melt and thus become a lovely blue cheese sauce for pasta. But they WERE the pasta, and already had a sauce- on the adjacent burner- in the form of a rich bolognese I made from the extra buffalo burgers, since I bought too many, then thawed them all like an idiot. (Thus no fancy idea-sauce; that will wait until I get the gnocchi right.) The intended dinner was kind of an inverted blue cheese burger. The actual meal was store-bought fusili with the meat sauce, plus roasted kabocha, zucchini soup with smoked duck broth from the freezer, and a salad made entirely of thinnings from the garden. The Stilton gnocchi will have another chance next week after I add more activa and pipe them out again.

A failure pile in a happiness bowl.

I did, however, make the dessert. Honestly, I would have waited one more day- because I'm throughly beat, and because the idea of doing more cooking on top of all that I have done and have yet to do tomorrow made this seem crazy. So call me crazy. But I needed room in the fridge, and I had made a beet juice-blackberry coulis, and it seemed like it wasn't going to get any better, so in the oven they went. And yet something gnawed at me... a sense of incompleteness, through the fog of fatigue and stress. Then, given the lateness of the hour, and the mountain of dirty dishes, and the many tasks left to complete before 25 people show up tomorrow, I did what any sane, stable, well-adjusted person would do in such a situation. I peeled a blood orange, cut the pith off, and candied the peel.

No, it didn't look restaurant quality. No, I didn't do the dishes. But yes, a big ooze of molten chocolate came out as we mauled them frantically with spoons. And yes, I was right about the blood orange peel. So I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that one should always trust one's inner voice, especially in the kitchen.*

*Less so if your middle name is Dubya and the voices are telling you that they're God and you should go do yourself some invadin'.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Christine's Birthday, Part 1

We were supposed to go out for dinner tonight, then come home for her favorite dessert (see Valentine's day.) But she has a cold, and Milo is getting it, so I scrambled to finish the preparations for Saturday's big party (and tonight's intended dessert, which is in the fridge for baking tomorrow) so I could run out and get something. Since she loves her a burger, I got some buffalo burgers at a specialty place nearby and got (back) to work. In honor of the birthday girl, here's a picture of the salad she made me yesterday with one of our little butter lettuces since I was out late hanging some work and then buying her gift (a couple of vintage glass bedside lamps) and then getting the shades and also the stuff I needed to rewire them so they actually worked.

Normally I hate buying pre-formed patties, since they're always too thin and somebody else seasoned them. But I couldn't be picky. I tried to make up for it with the rest: sweet potato fries, super-fresh picked baby greens, root pickles, and 2-year aged Vermont cheddar. Not too shabby for a punt. Since she wasn't drinking, I got to enjoy the 2005 Raffault Clos des Capucins Chinon all by myself; I decanted it since the first sips were searingly tannic; over time it's revealing some nice layers and will no doubt be quite elegant in a few more years. (Unlike my wife- she's so agelessly beautiful that it's starting to get kind of Dorian Gray scary.) So despite our plans, a mellow evening. Saturday should make up for it, to say the least.