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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Brussels Sprout Hash

One of the staples of my journeys to Tahoe with my friends Rob and Michael is Brussels Sprouts Hash, this is largely due to Rob's love of both hash and Brussels sprouts. One of the most hated and misunderstood vegetables of all time. When fresh and in season, especially straight off the stalk, these little cabbages are delicious and nutrient packed. The principal is pretty simple, some photos.

Taters and Carrots

Organic Ruby Crescent potatoes, chopped and mixed with some small carrots, cut from the stem. These were slowly fried with some chicken fat and olive oil, as olive oil is healthy.

Sprouts and Onions

The cleaned and sliced Brussles Sprouts along with some chopped onion, the heat was turned up a touch to get these going. I also added several pinches of sea salt to aid in wilting. I also added some Red Boat fish sauce to punch the umami, you will notice, no meat at this point. Once things cooked in a bit, I added a few sprinkles of The Rub Company Santa Maria rub. Finally, just before serving, I added some medium grind Phu Quoc black pepper, just a pinch or two.

I then fried and egg or two, screwed it up and ended up with soft scrambled eggs. Oh well, it still tasted great.
It ain't perfect

At least didn't overcook the eggs. Which was a good thing, as it still tasted great.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Stuffed Potato Night

Well, the past week or so was just a lot of meat, a whole lot of meat, and something had to change, so tonight was vegetarian night and a stuffed potato seemed like the way to go. I happened to chance upon a beautiful organic potato, a huge one, a stuffer for sure.
The Lowly Potato

A few pokes with a fork, some olive oil and into the oven at 375F for about an hour, or when it was done actually. I sort of timed it. I actually just test for whether or not it is tender when squeezed lightly. If you squeeze too hard, it bursts and sprays burning tater guts all over your arms (don't ask). Anyway, some stuff was chopped up, things like shallots, garlic, choi sum (some call it baby bok choy), baby mustard leaves, baby shiitake mushrooms and some green onions.
Choi sum stems and leaves, pea sprouts, shallot, garlic

Baby Shiitake mushrooms, baby mustard greens, feta cheese

The aromatics were stir-fried until the choi sum stems were softened, but not translucent, then the mushroom and greens were added. Tossed and then heat was off, no cooking the greens, no breaking down the mustard greens releasing bitterness.
Mushrooms in the wok

Once the greens went in, I added some day old Jasmine rice and a mix of 2 tablespoons each of liquid amino acids and Red Boat fish sauce, which is a great ingredient with all manner of vegetables. Yes, I know this makes it non-vegetarian, but it also makes it tasty. All tossed together and then allowed to cool.
Vegetable mixture, Feta cheese and Potato

Once the mixture was cooled the Feta was tossed in and the stuffing began. I find it is easiest to scoop out the potato to make the boat by using a salad fork, and scraping, sort of like harrowing a field prior to plowing. I know, like everyone knows how to harrow a field, it was what I could thing of. Then laying a blob of stuffiing and just rolling palm fulls into the potato. You end up with this...well, at least I did.
Poor potato, he never saw it coming...

Once this was done, into a 375F oven for about 30 minutes, until heated through, then a little cheese, another 10 minutes and it is ready for a little flash to be added. This came in the form of some more grated cheese, some chopped green onion (green part) and a little whipped topping. I made the whipped topping from some Greek Yoghurt, half and half, some sea salt, ground white pepper and a little palm sugar syrup. Yes, it is overly complicated, but, it tastes really good.
Topped Tater

I also happen to like how it drapes over the tater like a Veloute sauce as opposed to a glop of sour cream. Anyways, the sliced shot, showing that it was not just a way to justify eating a baked potato, that there was something there that was green.
The Eating, see mom, veggies!

Okay, maybe it was just a justification to eat a baked potato for dinner. But, this was a terrific dinner, with a wonderful balance of flavors, textures (thanks to not cooking the choi sum stems to death) and I suspect nutrition. Although I can't be sure of that last one.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Very Young Wine

On Friday, I had the chance to travel back to Alpha Omega with Arleigh, this time to review and taste the wines that he is going to use in his current unnamed wine project. We met up with the winemaker, Frederic Delivert and were lead into the fermentation areas to try out the very oyung wines.

As I mentioned before, the wine for this project is going through an open fermentation process in barrel, eschewing the more common and much more highly visible large stainless steel tanks more commonly used in winemaking currently. This process allows for various benefits, including increased tannin integratiuon and flavor development. We would get to taste directly from the barrels the wine is actually being fermented in. The grapes were allowed to naturally express their juices, the process of pumping, fermentation and 'punching down' would actually be the forces that bring forth the juices. The wines we tasted have been fermenting for about two weeks.

Naturally, at this stage, the wine is rather hard to disitnguish it's final characteristics, there is still yeast and the wine is quite full of sediment. We got to taste both Cabernet sauvignon and Petit verdot. The grapes went into the process somewhere around 25 Brix and is not in the neighborhood of 4 to 5 Brix. This is getting close to the point where it will be placed into barrels for aging. As shown in the photos, the entire fermentation, in this case, was accomplished on the lees.

Here is a shot of the lees in the top of the barrel, they look like raisins

Here is how we pulled the juice from under the lees, it is remarkably not high tech...

And the wine we pulled, note that the color and clarity is not quite there...

Frederic and Arleigh, discussing wine, or women, maybe song...

A shot of the AT wines in barrel fermentation, note that there are two barrel heights, the shorter ones are Bourgogne barrels, the taller ones are Bordeaux barrels.

I love the textures of wineries, there are patterns everywhere, these are barrels in closed fermentation, the technique favored by Jean Hoefliger for some of the Alpha Omega wines...

These are used barrels lined up, probably recently taken out of the fermentation process when the wines that were in them were moved to closed barrels...

The colors of wine are so vivid, it seems the overcast and fall weather in Napa makes those colors even more intense. A final shot, of Fred, grabbing a sample of the 2010 wines that he made for Clark Claudon.

The project is still a long ways from fruition, although the wines we tasted were quite good for very oyung wines that had no barrel time. There will still be two years of work to make it all come together.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Day in Napa, part 2

In my previous post, I discussed in brief detail what we saw when we were walked through the initial stages of vendage and vinification, the stage we saw today were the sorting, pumping into barrels and preparation for the fermentation process as well as some wines that were already in the cold ferment, warm ferment and even in a closed barrel fermentation. All of this is quite fascinating to a person who really wonders about how our food and drink reach us. But, that is not what this is all about for most people. It is about the experience of being in Napa. Here are a few more images from today.

The winery, Alpha Omega, that is performing the process of vendage and vinification. A bit about those terms, we use the terms harvest, crush and winemaking to describe what goes into making of wine, but, the these terms, while quite descriptive, lack a little magic. The French use the term vendage for the harvest and crush, while vinification refers to the act of making the wine. I really like the idea of a little magic in our language.

The view from the winery...

A vignette from inside the wine tasting room...

The middle one is mine, you may all share the others...

And a rarity from what I have seen in many wineries, a generous and beautiful picnic area...

I wonder if they will let me use this one day, I know more about cooking in one of these than of vendage...

Another shot of the waste product of the vinification process, beautiful compost...

There are always flowers and the son of a rose grower will always top to smell the roses...

And finally, what it is all about a little wine tasting, in a beautiful tasting room, there is something about the light through a line of wine glasses that just fascinates me...

And then there were these glasses that suddenly had wine in them...

And there is what it is all about, the wine, in a beautiful glass. Although I love beer and the incredible ability to move something as simple a grain and water into a wonderful beverage, there is nothing that speaks to place and art as wine. The process of vendage and vinification being used by the winemakers at Alpha Omega focuses on using a relatively new technique for Calirfornia, that of fermenting in barrel. This is a technique that is showing great promise in managing and integrating tannins, increasing extaction, setting and holding color in the wine and improving the texture of the wine. Here is my take on the wines we tasted, and what I hope Arleigh and David's wine can achieve in a few years.

All of the Cabernet sauvignon showed incredibly supple tannins, great color and extraction and excellent texture. The flavors were classically Napa Valley, the acidity was bracing, the wines being built for aging and not jammy. The Era Cabernet had a very distinct and curious mid-palate where it became notably subtle and earthy before turning on in the finish. I can't really remember that effect before.

There was a late harvest white, which showed all the hallmarks of a Borytised wine, but, with a lighter sweetness and texture that would make it an excellent dessert option on a warm summer night. It was as good, in a lot of ways as Dolce or a good sauterne, but, ligther and racier.

Finally, we were given a taste of a wine that was a blended Rhone varietal, that showed a funky, earthy nose, reminiscient of a true Chateau neuf de pape, flowing into a taste that was very much what I think of when I think of Rhone-style wines.

In general, today was a great experience and I think portends well for the as yet unnamed wine. In the meanwhile, I think the wine at Alpha Omega and the winery itself will stay on my radar going forward.

A day in Napa

Today, I was fortunate enough to be invited by my friend Arleigh Taylor to visit a winery where he has a little project in the works, Arleigh and another friend, David Friend, have decided to try making a couple of barrels of wine, a lofty project. As many who know me understand, I have been a wine drinker and student of wine for many years now, and this project holds a great deal of interest to me, as it gives me interesting access to the making of a new label. Yes, Arleigh and David are making a wine to be produced and sold. They are nuts.

We started with a look at a truck full of grapes, one ton of which belongs to the guys, and will form the juice that eventually becomes their wine. These are not the bulk grapes you see being piled into 3 ton tugs, these are all hand picked and placed in small plastic trays, the grapes are protected from crushing. They are shipped in an enclosed trailer and do not get baked in the sun. Harvest had started during the night, and the grapes were at the winery early in the morning. We arrived at 10:45am with the line already in full production. We received a very interestingt walk through of the process, a rather unique process where the wine will be fully produced in barrel fermentation, mostly in open fermentation at that.

The truck of grapes:

The Initial sort, done by hand, whole berries (grapes) with the stems and leaves sorted out

The Second Sort, looking for small stem pieces and bad berries

The Final Sort, there is certainly a great deal of care to make sure only good berries make it in.

Here are some grapes, staged for sorting, you can see the tight clusters, bright color and tight skins

This is what doesn't make the cut, I like the colors of fall

The barrels, these happen to actually be Burgundy barrels, but, what's in a name?

Grapes in a barrel, ready to start the journey to wine

Being pumped into the barrel for the first time

Here is what that looks like, just before punch down for the first time, look at all the bubbling

Staged before going into the cold ferment area, as you can see, nothing more than a shower cap like covering, not sealed in the least

Here is the cold ferment room, along with a little dry ice to cool things down and slow the ferment

From here, the barrels then move to a heating tent and ultimately to a warm fermentation room

A few of the barrels we saw had actually been open fermented, then had the barrel head replaced, while the wine was still in the barrel

There was more to the visit, but, that is enough for one post.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Commis and Emotion

I recently had the opportunity to dine at Commis, one of the most lauded restaurants in the East Bay, helmed by a young chef that has been identified as 'one to watch'. I had very interesting dining companions, it was a lovely night and I was certainly looking forward to what I expected to be an interesting fine dining experience. What we experienced was a incredible example of technique and foucs by a chef and kitchen that produced some very good food. The service was also exactly what I would hope for a casual fine dining restaurant. There were a couple of things that did fall short for me. And the meal with pairing was costly enough, that one of the flaws is glaring, the other less so for most people.

The obvious flaw, the pairings were simply uninspired to my palate. An interesting aspect of food and wine pairings is that it is possible to take a great dish, pair it with a excellent wine and end up with a poor pairing. Throughout the dinner, with the exception of the beef dish, I felt the pairings were just not well considered. I found each choice of wine to be interesting, just seemingly not a good complement to the dish it was presented with. I look for several factors in making a pairing, amongst them are acidity, texture, level of sweetness and balance of flavors. The thing I most noticed was a disjointed level of acidity in a couple of pairings, this also affects texture on the palate, as a more acidic wine can effect a lighter mouthfeel. I found this seemed to be the biggest issue for me. There were several instances where the wine just did not counterpoint the food enough.

Obviously, there is a personal preference here, as most Americans do not like acidity and minerality in their wines and perhaps most folks will like the pairings. I was excited that none of the pairings were Cabernet or Pinot.

A bigger issue for me is that I place a lot of importance on the emotional response, the intellect and wit that is a part of fine dining. When a chef really speaks to me, he satisfies more than just my interest in addressing my hunger, or my love of technqiue in the kitchen. The food satisfies a deeper emotional need and engages me at an intellectual level where wit and memory meet. It has a soul. This is where I seemed to not connect at Commis. It was like a beautiful woman (or man if that works) that can't maintain a conversation. It looks great, you admire the beauty, but, there has to be more to make for a truly interesting dialogue. Food should be like that, it should make you want more, to engage the conversation, to understand it more, I just couldn't get there with Commis. It was beautiful, stunning, delicious. But, I doubt there will be a second date.

To be fair, this is about me and my approach to food as much as it is about Commis and what the food or pairings might be for someone else. I suspect that many folks really do want delicious food beautifully presented that speaks to their hunger more than anything else. I can certainly understand that, and as I said, the kitchen and staff were excellent. I heard Ferran Adria once refer to this aspect of food as being like seeing a painting by Picasso, some are brought to tears, others just walk by. I love Picasso's paintings, for they have soul.

I have recently, by this I mean the last 10 years, really become more aware of the emotional aspect of dining and how important that role in food really is. Our food memories are so powerful and last so long, it can make an old man young. I have experienced this so rarely, in perfect realization, that it is almost 'Grail' like in it's presence. I can remember a bottle of wine that elicited in my emotional mind a profound effect, bringing me back to when I was a little boy following my dad at the flower market. It was on my 40th birthday, and it was the most profound, singular, emotional experience I had ever had at a table to that point. I remember crying in the restaurant. I could feel and smell the cold, wet concrete floor of the flower market in the minerality, the crazy mixture of flowers, spicy carnations, floral roses, musky camellias all swirling in the aroma, the old man smell redolent in the undertones of the muskiness that a great aged wine should have, even the hints acridity of smoke and tobacco, all a heady rememberance of a better time.

But, to think that food has to be rare and perfect, expensive and elite, is to mistake desire for emotion, greed for values. I remember the most important food I ever cooked, we made a New Year's feast, it would be the second to last New Year's meal my dad would eat. I remember how my dad ate, how he seemed to tear up and couldn't stop talking about the food between bites. Somehow my sister and I had hit on a few of recipes that perfectly evoked his memory of his mom's cooking. I doubt they were the same, but, they spoke emotionally to him. The food was very simple, rather poorly plated, it contained nothing fancy, but, it spoke to a very core level of emotion, it spoke to an old man of his mother's love and caring. If I never cook another decent meal, I know that we fed my dad's soul that night. This is what a great meal can be.

These experiences really changed how I view food and what a successful cook really is. The idea of creating food that transcends time and place, to evoke both visual and emotional responses, while still nourishing and feeding the body has to be the ultimate goal of any great cook. It would be ridiculous to expect a restaurant to achieve this kind of culinary challenge, but, there are levels, there can be excitement and wonder, humor and grace in how food is cooked and presented. Sadly, I just could not find that in all of the technical perfection I found at Commis.
In some ways, it speaks to a fundamental flaw in the way Foodies have framed the nature of how we eat and partake of food, of our perceptions of dining and eating. They flock to the latest and greatest, not so much out of intellectual or emotional consideration, but, because it seems to be the place to be and the thing to do. Like a birder's list, to be the first, or the last, to just have the longest list of places considered by others to be incredible. A focus on ingredients and technique is great, it certainly is something I appreciate, but it tends to block the other aspects of how we consider food. Indeed, there is an overemphasis on food in general in our modern culture, the excesses that our lifestyle and birthright have granted us, and perhaps most of our life, food should be the fuel that serves us. But, from time to time, when the promise is there, I want a little more.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Quick Dinner

Having expended way to much energy over the past couple of days, yet sticking with my resolve to work out as often as possible, I was faced with the dilemma of what could I eat that would be quick and somewhat reasonable to eat.

A huge Super Burrito! NO!

What would the point of working out be if I then go and plow more calories and fat into my body than I could possibly justify with a simple workout. I was literally in the car to go get a burrito, when I realized this was not a good plan.

Instead, I got out the broccolini I had in the fridge, a package of fresh pasta from the Phoenix Pastifacio in Berkeley and a little uncured bacon, render the bacon, oil poach the broccolini and cook the pasta, toss in the wok and you get a really delicious and very fast dinner.

Yes, that is the true color, oil poaching, while not the lowest calorie form of preparing the vegetables provided a beautiful green color and a light crunch while still be quick and easy to manage. The veggies never left the wok after 3 minutes in hot oil, the pasta was tossed in and tossed with a few chunks of bacon. Nothing else needed, maybe a little Phu Quoc black pepper ground over the top.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Death of Civility

Part 1
Today, as I left the car parts store, I chanced to approach the exit door as a man stepped through it, the wrong way, thus blocking my path, he held the door then leaned out and yelled at his wife (and I quote) "c'mon, hurry up bitch!" I wonder if this makes him think he is more masculine, stronger or greater because he can crudely demean another person.

I guess I have grown tired of late, of the death of civility, the name calling, the broken hearts and broken dreams, the endless parade of hate and distrust, I am even tired of cooking.

I think it is time for me to go back to the gym.

Part 2
Again, something that has nothing to do with food...something brought this memory to me. From my late Uncle Henry, who taught me all the things a son does not learn from his father when the son has stopped listening because he knows better than dad.

One day, when we were working, hard physical labor, under hot and dry conditions, and I was whining, as tennage boys are wont to do. Like many Japanese men, he told me I was born to a noble family, I told him the samurai were dead.. He pulled me aside, told me to sit down, drink some water and listen. He told me this...

You are samurai by birth, a warrior in soul and spirit, who serves his family and home with honor and valor.
You are Ronin by choice, serving no lord, but your family and all of those you would love and cherish as if they were master.
You are Servant and Companion, at your best, carrying the burden for others, that they might more easily carry theirs when the load gets heavy.

another of his axioms...when I questioned that it seemed that I was carrying the heaviest load of work (there never seemed to be a shortage of hard physical labor under hot conditions with Uncle Henry, unless it was freezing, of course) compared to others...

A strong man is at his greatest when he kneels before the weakest and bids them command him, that all would succeed.

Today, I ended up a little sadder than when I started.

I would add, I don't think I ever really did know more than the old man did. Dammit!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Veggie Burger continues, I had all those vegetables and needed to do something with them. The mushrooms, a bunch of aromatics, an odd can of chickpeas and that slaw, salsa and avocado sauce. Can't let it go to waste, so I made a few changes to the stuff and came up with a veggie burger. I did add some fish sauce, as I find that a little Red Boat fish sauce goes a long way. And, even though, I personally do not consider this vegetarian, due to fish as an ingredient, many folks consider themselves to be vegetarian even though they eat fish.
Anyway, I mush up the chickpeas, added the mushrooms and the cooking liquid, added some more chopped celery and green onions along with a large egg and 1/2 cup of bread crumbs. This was mixed together and formed into patties, then fried in olive oil. This is a very loose mixture and requires either ring forms or a small saute pan to keep things together. A nice bun, some salsa and slaw and there you go.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Vegan Tostada

Today, I decided to go vegan, yes, I know, shocking. I have just had too much pork over the past few days an need to change direction briefly. Tonight, a tostada was just the thing.

I used some hand made corn tortillas available in this area, these are Sonoran style, so they are a little thicker than most corn tortillas people are used to. I like them as they are a little more moist and instead of turning into a chip, they retain some chewy tooth in the center of the tortilla.

The base of the tostada was a saute of mushrooms, in this case, crimini and shiitake, sauteed with onions, garlic a little olive oil and some Lucky Dog hot sauce and tamari. Naturally, some salt and Phu Quoc black pepper freshly ground in.

The salsa was a simple tomato and onion salsa, some cilantro then to add a little upgrade, some roasted Hatch chiles and fresh roasted corn were added. The corn was just colored up a bit over a flame, the center was still cold and fresh.

The avocado is more of an avocado salsa, less of a guacamole. I use some cider vinegar and olive oil, along with some almond milk to make it more liquid and smoother than a guacamole. I like the edge of sour bite that the vinegar gives and a little Lucky Dog hot sauce. I add a little sugar, Phu Quoc black pepper and salt to balance it all out.

The slaw is a very simple cabbage and carrot slaw, a little shredded green onion and cilantro for the herbal touch. Again, vinegar, a little sugar, Phu Quoc black pepper and salt, and a little Lucky Dog hot sauce.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Boot and Shoe Service Cafe

It is probably no surprise to anyone who knows me that I love coffee, I treat it just like many who love wine or beer, I love the complexity and variety, of how the hand of man (or woman if it is one of my favorite roasters) can affect the work of nature and how terroir changes a sibple seed. In San Francisco, there is an oft-rotating 'best coffee ever!' buzz surrounding whatever latest coffee roaster or coffee house is the current darling of the crowd. Lately, Sightglass coffee keeps coming up in conversation of the coffee cogniscenti. So, it was both surprsing and good news when I heard that Boot and Shoe Service in Oakland, Ca. was serving Sightglass coffee as a part of new morning service. They have turned a narrow and very rustic space into their coffee bar.
They are using a small La Marzocco espresso machine which seems perfectly sized for the location. Of late, it really seems all of the coffee I enjoy is made on some version of a La Marzocco, including my ususal coffee from Zocalo in San Leandro.

They do have a little competition, being within easy distance from powerhouse chains Peet's and Starbucks, which I suspect will not be a problem for them. In part, it has to do with the coffee, the espresso, my preferred method for getting to know a coffee shop, lacked for nothing. It had a wonderfuil texture, with a touch of sweetness and a smooth overall mouthfeel. The flavore were berry and fruit forward with a tough of mocha richness on the backside, lingering coffee flavor with no bitterness. The coffee and crema held beautifully with the flavor holding even as the coffee cooled. Look at tha...hey, where did it go?
However, as good as the coffee was, the food really shows it's heritage of being a part of a restaurant. For those not in the know, Boot and Shoe is the second restaurant opened by Charlie Hollowell of Pizzaiolo. The baked goods are handled in-house or at Pizzaiolo and the food is prepared in the kitchen.
The shop also offers house made granola and house made baked treats, we did not try these, as we were inclinded to more substantial fare. But, it is easy to see that they have all the standards people look for in a coffee shop as well as a few other options less often seen. The granola is very interesting looking with a unique color and loose texture.
We had a delicious pork belly sandwich which offered a unctuous and tender pork belly, which must have been slow cooked and a wonderful sauce that balanced the heft of the prok belly fat. The sandwich was certainly a worthy representative and will cause me to come back here again.
The real treat was the crispy friend sweet polenta with honey, this was a wonderful balance of crispy, creamy and sweet which could, and probably should, be served as a dessert. This dish represented one of those hallmarks of a great kitchen, simple ingredients in a simple presentation that tastes incredible.
Anytime I run across food like this, it really makes me want to come back and try out the other items on the menu. Boot and Shoe Service got me in with excellent coffee, but, I will be back for the food coming out of the kitchen.