Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Putting the Prius Through its Paces - A California Story

The other weekend we were in Sonoma for a family wedding. I have my reservations about California in general (being a stuck-up New Yorker), but am not immune to the charms of beautiful countryside and delicious wine. Spending time with pseudo-in-laws was the price to be paid, but I figured the bounteous goodness of Northern California would ameliorate that nicely.

Oooh, there's just one thing: I know nothing about California wines.

I wanted a day of wine tasting and I hadn't done any research. The Man of the House just wanted to keep everyone happy and out of his hair. So I sat down with ye olde trusty laptop and went to work albeit belatedly. I decided to cheat, figuring if some of the best sommeliers in New York were selecting Sonoma County wines for their restaurants, they'd be good enough for me to do some casual tasting.

This was a mistake. The best sommeliers selected a great number of, no doubt, wonderful wines from wonderful wineries that...didn't have tastings. Only one stood out from the list of thousands and that was Martinelli. Helen Turley, of the can't be missed Turley vineyards, has now devoted her ample talent to this single vineyard.

I regret to say I didn't taste a single wine I would buy - not even the one the woman pouring suggested I pick up for pizza (are there people who buy cases of $25 wine for pizza night?). Dejected we toured around the towns and stopped for hard cider (in the midst of wine country this must be some sort of blasphemy) before taking our scenic drive.

Which, surprisingly, involved four loaves of bread. Nearly causing some sort of accident, we veered onto a road delineated by a sign that said Organic Brick Oven French Bread and ended up at the ohmygodunbelievable Wild Flour Bread. The smell was overpowering and as a self-avowed bread addict I was in a little bit of nirvana. I'm surprised me managed to only buy four loaves (more on that later). We bought basic wheat and white, a goat cheese and herb bread that became lunch, and a walnut cinnamon raising sticky bun concoction that was maybe a million times better than Cinnabon and was still warm hours later.

We made it to the coast literally each day we were there for no particular reason save if was so frickin' beautiful.

The food I ate (as it was all planned for me) was not so good. I resisted the urge to see if the French Laundry had a last minute cancellation as I am well aware it is bad form to skip a wedding for even Thomas Keller.

The morning of the wedding, seeing as within ten minutes of our house there were only fifty or so wineries, I dragged all the pseudo-in-laws to Mendocino County to visit a winery from which I had enjoyed an amazing Sauvignon Blanc two years earlier and could not find anywhere in New York.

Yorkville Cellars is an organic winery up a beautiful, but fraught with switchbacks Americans hardly ever encounter, road and for me, at least did not disappoint. They had yet to finish their harvest which I found unusual (it being October), but afforded us the chance to see grapes on vines whose colors were already turning.

The Sauvignon Blanc was as I remembered it and I eagerly tasted the rest of the offerings. Surprisingly, I was bowled over by two of the red wines on offer. It has been my limited experience that if a vineyard makes a white I adore, I generally think less of its reds and vice versa. The Cabernet Sauvignon was excellent and, in the mid 20-s, a terrific value. But the crown jewel had to be a wine they call Richard the Lion-Hearted, a cab-blend that uses a but from their other red plantings. It was rich and complex and even had the Man of the House, a notorious sticker-up-of-his-nose at things like "rich and complex" wines pulling out his wallet. I was so enthused I signed up for their thrice-annual shipments. My first one arrives next week!

Grossly misjudging actual distances between points, and traveling without aid of a map, we managed to see Point Reyes

but got back to change for the wedding 34 minutes before the wedding started.

Our rental, a lovely earth-friendly Prius was not speaking to us at this point. We had pushed her a little much around the single-lane backroads we navigated to and from, seemingly, everything.

The following day it was off to San Francisco for some quality time with cousins from the other side of the family - need I mention we took the scenic route?

And that's a story for tomorrow. We ate at a just-opened restaurant and took many pictures.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Our First Chicken

The elusive roast chicken. The dish that culls the wheat from the chaff. I confess I'd never done it. My only previous whole bird experience was with the turkey that wasn't quite done for the First Dijonaise Thanksgiving we tried in 2000. Yet it was the Man of the House who suggested that we learn to roast a chicken together. Dutifully he followed me to Union Square in the rain Saturday morning where we selected our veggies and picked out our charming 5-pound bird.

While we waited for dinner time to approach I amused myself by starting a vat of vanilla extract:

Then I sacrificed these lovely apples:

to this:

to this:

I'll be canning it this afternoon and then eating apple butter for the rest of the year. Thanks to 101 Cookbooks for the recipe I used this year.

I also tried my hand at pumpkin hazelnut gelato, but it didn't turn out as I wanted. It was too hazlenut-ey, not sweet enough, and not pumpkin-ey enough.

So then it was time to get down to business.

Nothing loves a roasted bird more than olive oil and butter do. This would be the first couple of turns' basting liquid.

Man of the House was on prep and slather:

We used Julia Child's plain and simple recipe. We, mistakenly, didn't truss the chicken, though one of us, and it wasn't me, did trek around the neighborhood desperately searching for butcher's twine (our neighborhood is more of the bologna sandwiches and fried food persuasion). The recipe didn't mention trussing, though we'll definitely do it the next time.

So it was pretty simple. Chop veg, butter bird, cook, and baste frequently.

Halfway through, so far so good. It was the later innings where things went awry. There wasn't enough liquid pooling in the bottom, the veg were burning, and I had to continually add more butter and oil just to have something to baste with. I don't know why this was the case or how to rectify it in the future. The result was that the wings started sticking to the bottom. Then they decided they would prefer to be affixed to the bottom and not to the rest of the bird. C'est la vie, the rest of our chicken was looking ok.

I followed the instructions to a T and I should have been a little more flexible because the chicken was about 10 minutes overcooked. The meat wasn't yet dry, but neither was it moist. I made the gravy while he carved, and we ended up with this:

Man of the House gave it a 7 out of 10, I'd give it a 6. We're excited to try again!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Catch-up Friday Tagging

It's been a couple of weeks (I've been otherwise disposed for a couple of Fridays), so indulge in the following with my apologies.

Mascarpone Banana Tartlets - Well, obviously, this could only be good. Note to self: have not been food shopping since returned from California; perhaps today would be a good day to remedy that...and buy some mascarpone.

Pumpkin Hazelnut Gelato - As the damn Italian merchants who were supposed to send me pistachio cream have gone radio silent, I guess I'll have to make ice cream with other nuts. This looks phenomenal.

5 Broccoli recipes for people who hate broccoli - Wait, that's me. I hate broccoli. Perhaps I shall give it another chance in the interest of being a grownup.

Spicy Sweet Potato Fried - Ok, perhaps I will go to the market tomorrow (see aforementioned lack of edibles in house). Can I serve these with roast chicken?

Pumpkin Bread Pudding - Someone strangely resembling me might have made a vow just the other week not to make bread puddings this year, citing the problem that occurs when a loaf pan of the stuff somehow convinces us to treat it as dinner. In its entirety. So damn you, Smitten Kitchen, for convincing me to welch on this vow so soon after it was made (and also thank you for the above).

Yumpkins - Now I'm starting to feel persecuted. Pumpkin cheesecake poundcake bars? Fine, I warn all the people in the Bahamas with me this winter that I will be very fat indeed and will possibly be the person eying your persons hungrily on the chance that I could make a Yumpkin out of you!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Siren Song of Danny Meyer

"Where should we go for dinner?" How often is this question answered with a Danny Meyer restaurant? Out of the last 4 dinners I've eaten in Manhattan, the answer is 3.

Last night ye oldest friend and I called an audible on dinner and decided at 6:00pm that we would meet in front of Tabla at 6:30 and if they could seat us, terrific, if not, we'd check out A Voce and, failing, that, walk over to Blue Smoke (a 66% Meyer favoritism from the get-go). The Bread Bar had availability and we had our decision made for us.

The waiter recognized me, which is only slightly surprising given it was three weeks earlier that he last served me. Ye oldest friend (YOF) had only ever eaten upstairs before so this was his maiden voyage, compelling me to strongly suggest the onion rings

Oh Boodie's ketchup, how I adore you, dream of you, think, actually, that I have the recipe for you in Floyd Cardoz's book, One Spice, Two Spice - must investigate that tonight. What I mean to say is that I find the onion rings a necessary component of any Bread Bar meal.

Though, as inflamed as my passions become when I muse on Boodie's, the dish I long for when I am all the way uptown, far away from any decent grub, is the lamb "naanini."

Let's be frank: there is no way for a sane human to not get hyper over a sandwich of lamb and mashed potato. i cannot live in a world where this is not a universal good. But when the lamb is so tender and flavorful, the mashed potato so spiced with mustard, and the naan - here I must just admit that I have a naan problem and be done with it - so bready and wonderful.

YOF wanted a salad, something I am eternally teasing him about as I consider salads to be a waste of stomach space that could be filled with meat or bread, and we got the radish and cucumber Dhabba salad which was, I grudgingly admit, quite good.

YOF also was thrilled by the Saag Paneer Pizza which was a first time selection for me and one I don't know if I'd order again simply because I am not a super spinach fan and longed for something tomato-ey in my pizza - the crust, however, was spot on.

We together decided to order the Pork Vindaloo, a dish I think might be new as I don't recall seeing it before or, rather more accurately, cannot believe I would have seen it before and not ordered it. While not as spicy, surprisingly, as the naanini, the pork had been cooked so long and so well as to be absolutely flavor-saturated, the fat was rich and smooth and so not good for me. I apologize to my fellow diners that I was the uncouth loutess who dipped my forkfuls of pork back into the dish to get more juices.

That was wrong of me.

There was sourdough naan and mustard seed corn naan and apple, tamarind, and mint chutney (ok, maybe I also dream of the mint chutney - the apple chutney, a seasonal addition, was killer and I definitely want to make some). In short, we over-ordered. This was much appreciated later by the man of the house who dug into our leftovers with gusto - he too has a potentially damaging addiction to lamb naaninis.

I offered the donuts to YOF as they are a signature, but he allows me to choose the Saffron Poached Pears:

Chai tea was poured into the shallow dish which imparted a wonderful spiciness but did create some unanticipated sogginess in the crust beneath the pears. The pears themselves were nice, but the star of the dish was the pear sorbet which was unbelievable (note to self - also make pear sorbet this weekend).

All in all, yet another amazingly satisfying meal at the Bread Bar. I'd like to say I'll be able to stay away, but I'm fairly certain we have plans with an out of towner in a week or so and she mentioned she'd never been to Tabla...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Top Chef at Home

The man of the house and I are going to the Bahamas over New Year's and we could both stand to pay more attention to getting ourselves in fighting form. This means that this morning at the greenmarket, I spent less time fantasizing about buttery tarts, pies, and pastries I could make with fall fruit, and more time realistically planning healthy meals that wouldn't taste, well, like salad.

The cool organic salad people tricked me out with a mixed assortment of everything they had and then directed me to the purslane (hmm, where have I heard about purslane recently?); I paused very briefly to give their baby cherry tomatoes on the vine a grab, followed soon after by the sungolds I get from Walter every week.

After grabbing some apples and raspberries, I had a hankering for fish. Even though Wednesday is not a great day for me to be buying fish as immediately after work I have my french lesson (allowing said fish to become a little more room temperature than strictly desired), I decided to risk it because we haven't had scallops in a while.

But wait, surely purslane and scallops remind me of something. Oooh, that's right, it was a dish made on the finale of Top Chef. I think they used grapes - lucky for me then, I bought about 200 pounds on a rare Saturday trip to the market this past weekend! I think I remember something about fennel and, voila, here is some beautiful baby fennel staring right up at me - god, I love this market. I think there would have to have been an herb included somewhere, but I can't be expected to remember what it was. How about lemon thyme? Lemon thyme seems like it would work well with scallops fennel, purslane and grapes. Let's grab it.

Upon arriving at work I hope that I can find the recipe online and lovely Bravo obliges. Shoot, it was tarragon not lemon thyme, and I do not have a lemon at home for fresh lemon juice, improvisation will have to commence.

Fast forward 12 hours and I realize that I only have yuzu rice vinegar, but the yuzu in the vinegar will obviate the need for the fresh lemon juice. So I start cleaning and picking and stirring and sizzling and suddenly:

dinner is served.

And dinner tastes good. Really good. Even at 10:30 at night.

Seared Scallop with Purslane (adapted from Top Chef season finale and Dale)

1/2 cup green grapes, halved
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tbsp. lemon thyme
3 tbsp yuzu rice wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
9 fresh scallops scallops
5 bulbs mini fennel, shaved thin
1/2 cup purslane, cleaned and picked

some corn I found in my freezer

Marinate grapes in olive oil, lemon thyme, and vinegar; season with salt and pepper. Sear scallops until hard and brown crusted (really this took quite a while, about 8 or 9 minutes, but the scallops were quite big and I have a horro of undercooking them). Toss fennel and purslane with grapes. Place scallops on salad and garnish with sweet corn.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Friday From The Tagosphere

To start with, I just read this and it made me laugh out loud: "I come by this particular tendency honestly, as that's just the way we always did it in my house while I was growing. It's akin to the how my mom's family used to eat cheesecake when she was growing up. Her mom would plunk a frozen cake down on the kitchen table and everyone would sit around it with forks, picking at the defrosting edges." By way of Slashfood.

Caramelized Red Onion and Goat Cheese Tarts - Not much to complain about here. I have passed by the red onions in favor of the cipolinis for several straight weeks, but next week might be the week I change my tune.
Ricotta Tart with Honey Glazed Figs - I have been rather disappointed with all the figs I've eaten this year: those from the guy on the corner, the horribly expensive ones I had sent to me from California and, yes, even those I have eaten in restaurants, but I seem to remember loving figs, so I keep taking down recipes that use them.

Raspberry Crumb Cake - The weather just doesn't seem to be cooling off which means that there are still buckets of raspberries being displayed on market tables. I've been just popping them down my gullet at my desk for sport, but perhaps more could be done with them.

Dark Chocolate Custard - I must must must coordinate my work so that macaron day and ice cream day are either the same or very close together so that I don't run the risk of more egg wastage. However, instead of ice cream day, perhaps there should also be custard day. The man of the house does enjoy custard especially now that we own a blowtorch.

Quince Tartlets - So, I'm looking at you chef from Payard who was fairly brusque and forwny with me on Wednesday at the market when I expressed delight in your menu choice of wild boar and quince, when I say that just because I don't have the kind of relationships with the US Customs and small wild boar purveyors in Canada does not mean I will be unable to enjoy the brief exciting quince season. I am a lady so I will content myself with extending a VTFF to you as well - sheesh I was just trying to be personable.

Monday, October 1, 2007

New Camera Tryout

I bought a new camera the other week, a cheapo that was on sale and I figured, hey, for 100 bucks let's see how she flies.

Below are scenes from a dinner. The first shots are taken with my surprisingly trusty Canon A85, a shockingly good camera even in these days when its paltry four megapixels seem ancient; the second with the newcomer, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LS70, a smaller seven megapixel camera.

All attempts were made to take the same shot with the same settings. Alas, as the evening wore on and the drinks accumulated, I don't know how faithful we were.

As for the dinner: superb! I am not at liberty to extol its virtues or reveal its name as I have a weighty conflict of interest. Suffice it to say, were I free to gush, gush I would.

Part 1: Bread.

- Canon

- Lumix

The colors of the Canon are definitely more true to life and the flash - which I am often loathe to use, created more distortion in the Panasonic. I do not immediately detect a quality difference given the number of megapixels in the Panasonic model.

Part 2: Tarte Flambee.

- Canon

- Lumix

Notoriously unphotographable, that Tarte, the Lumix beat out the Canon on this one because the picture I took with Canon and flash was so bright I thought the cheese might have been radioactive. I didn't touch these photos up in any way though now I'm tempted to do some levels adjustments to see which photo looks better post-edit.

Part 3: Foie Gras.

- Canon

- Lumix

My dinner date, Ed, pointed out to me that the Panasonic models have a special shooting mode for food, so we tried it out. I don't think there's any question which photo is better. The detail on the Canon shot is pretty out of this world. Both the greens and the sea salt have exceptional clarity and the color is spot-on.

Part 4: Lamb.

- Canon

- Lumix

The food scene mode is suffering mightily as trusty Canon trots out another bang up shot. The shots are a little small on the screen, but the Canon succeeds in capturing the grains of couscous as well as the glistening hunks of lamb. The Lumix - not so much. It looks like a big unappetizing blur.

Part 5: Dessert.

- Canon

- Lumix

Ouch. Yet again one of these cameras is bitchslapping the other. In the top shots I can see grains of cocoa powder, berries, and color differentiation. In the second I can't.

Final verdict: I won't be using the Lumix for food shots. In fact, I won't be using the Lumix. It's a perfectly serviceable point and shoot that I suspect will be better suited to daylight and the casual shooter. As such, it will be gifted to mom and dad (who currently do not own a digital camera), and I will return to lusting after a DSLR while contemplating simply moving to the Canon A-series older brother the 7-megapixel A570.