Saturday, March 13, 2010

90+ Cellars Wine

I had a wonderful afternoon today despite the nasty rainy weather in Boston.  It started out with being taken out to lunch by a new friend, Rachel, who wanted to interview moi as a food "expert" for her Gastronomy Masters at Boston University.  We were connected by a mutual friend at work, Annie, who I day-tripped to Portland, ME recently.  I was tickled pink to be picked, and it was so indulgent to talk about myself for an hour or two.  I can't wait to read the final paper.

We had lunch at the Regal Beagle here in Brookline, one of my favorite neighborhood places.  I had a sandwich special with ham and avocado and we shared a pumpkin hummus appetizer which was very tasty.  I have consistently good food at the RB and the servers are always friendly and accommodating.  They were nice enough to prepare the lobster sliders for my friend as a salad since she is gluten intolerant.  You certainly can't beat that for service.

We headed over to Brookline Liquor Mart after to pick up a bottle of Fernet Branca for her "disgusting" class at BU.  The assignment was to bring in something for the class that some cultures find to be a delicacy and others find terrible.  She asked my opinion and Fernet came to mind.  If you haven't had it, it's a really bitter digestif that does wonders for your stomach, but with its medicinal characteristics, is definitely an acquired taste.  I thought it would fit the assignment rather well since it is popular in Italy and amongst restaurant industry people, but the taste is not pleasing to the average Joe.  I hope she is not in for too much of a shock when she first tastes the stuff in class.

In any case, while shopping for wine and the Fernet, we ran into an old friend of mine, Brett.  He has started a wine label called 90+ Cellars.  The concept is to buy highly rated wines from around the world that have been made in surplus.  They write to wineries and have samples of finished wine sent to Boston, which they taste and then decide which wines to buy at a discounted price directly from the producer.  The wineries take care of the bottling and slap a snappy 90+ Cellars label on the front.  The art of this, of course, is figuring out which wines to buy from the huge surplus of wine being made today, but Brett is blessed with a spectacular and discerning palate.  We tasted the line up together and I was impressed with everything he and his business partner picked.

They are currently offering quite a few different wines.  They all retail for less than $20 and are a steal when compared to many wines at the same price point.  I was especially impressed with the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, the California Pinot Noir, the Spanish Garnacha, and a particularly delicious German Riesling that was bottled with a Dr. Loosen cork.  I'm not saying this Riesling was from Dr. Loosen, but it had a Dr. Loosen cork in it.... wink wink, nudge nudge...

I was pleased that all of their wines tasted and smelled as they should considering the places and vintages from which they came.  In fact, most of them were easy enough to identify blind, and I felt that in all cases, the alcohol was in check and oak had been sensibly used.  Some of their wines are already sold out, so you may not be able to find some of the things listed on their website in local stores here in Boston.  I see big things ahead for these guys and I think they are on to a really great concept.

With all of the hot vintages and increased understanding of viticulture, many winemakers are faced with a surplus of great wine that they are willing to unload for a modest price.  90+ Cellars passes on that value to the consumer offering really great wine at a discounted price.  What could be better?!?!  Tasting is believing of course, and in my opinion, the wines really delivered and with talented tasters at the helm of the company, I'm confident there will be plenty of more great wine in the future from these creative entrepreneurs.

An Evening in Inman Square, Cambridge, MA

It all started a few days ago when I saw a tweet for coupons to eat at Midwest Grill in Cambridge.  I had eaten at Midwest Grill before and loved it, but it had been maybe a year or so since my last visit.  This was a good reminder that I was overdue for another visit.  Having a rare Friday off from work I traipsed over to Cambridge and made an evening out of dinner with several stop in Cambridge's culinary epicenter, Inman Square.

My first stop was at the East Coast Grill.  I had arrived early, as usual, and Dan was running late, as usual, so I stopped off there to see my friend, Mariposa, who works in the kitchen.  The place was busy, but I only had to wait a minute or two for a seat at the bar.  I had a drink at the bar and Mari sent over a couple of ribs for me to gnaw on, which I did with great relish.  They were deliciously flavorful and tender.  I also couldn't resist ordering some Jonah Crab claws.  I've loved crab claws since I was a kid and my dad used to always joke that there were an awful lots of crabs running around on the ocean floor without any claws.  I enjoyed eating them with the citrus mignonette they were served with.  It was a perfect start to my night of eating!

Next on the tour was Midwest Grill, a churasscaria rodizio, open since 1993.  As I overheard the table next to me say, "It's like meat dimsum."  This place serves Brazilian Barbecue, which translates to all the meat you can eat for a set price.  The servers walk around with skewers of rotisserie roasted beef, lamb, chicken, sausage, chicken hearts, and even dinner rolls - why not roast the bread too while you're at it?  They give you a card that is green on side for "keep bringing it" and red on the other for "I'm full".  You just flip the card over when you are ready to admit defeat.  We used our card strategically, and flipped it over to create three rounds, so that we could rest between bouts of meat.


There is also a buffet with plenty of delicious side dishes to chose from that comes with your meal.  There are fresh fixin's for a salad, two different kinds of rice, a traditional yucca-based stuffing, chicken wings (more meat), a couple of different stewed chicken dishes, potato salad, and cole slaw to name a few.  We hit the buffet between each round of meat to eat some vegetables.  Everything was very good, honestly and simply prepared.

The barbecue is spectacular here.  The meat is all very juicy, tender, and flavorful.  Just about everything is kissed with garlic - well, maybe more than just kissed.  We especially loved the beef and I thought the chicken wrapped in bacon was particularly good.  Dan is addicted to their rolls, which are skewered, brushed with garlic butter, and toasted over the fire.  They even managed to make chicken hearts taste pretty good - they are generally too rubbery a texture for me to eat, but at Midwest Grill, they are entirely palatable, even tasty.

Our server Kelly was a delight.  She brought us some delicious caiparinhas, a traditional drink made with a Brazilian variant of rum called cacha├ža.  They were full of lime flavor and were a refreshing treat against all of the rich flavors we were eating.  She was very good about offering to clear our plates so that we could get fresh ones for each round between eating breaks.  It was a busy night and we appreciated that she took extra care to make us feel welcomed and comfortable.  She even convinced us to have a little flan for dessert even though we felt that we were about to burst.  We were glad we did because it was delicious with a creamy, eggy taste topped with plenty of delicious bittersweet caramel sauce.

The last stop of the evening was Tupelo.  We walked a block up and caught them just before they were closing up for the night.  We sat at the bar and had intended on just getting a drink while our food from Midwest Grill settled, but then I learned that the chef was from Louisiana.  I asked the bartender where in Louisiana he was from since I'm from there too, and he responded by coming out of the kitchen to shake my hand and chat with me a bit.  Now that's Southern hospitality!

Turns out that Chef Layman's mom is from New Orleans and he grew up in Metarie.  I was really impressed with his beautiful menu and I was wishing that I had a second stomach to eat more food.  He invited us to try his gumbo and at first I refused because I was so full, but then reconsidered.  I can't resist gumbo.  We also had to try the red velvet cake.  It was too tempting and we couldn't help by succumb to our chocolate desires.

Chef sent out two heaping helpings of gumbo, which were delicious and spicy.  I loved the viscosity of his soup.  It was just the right thickness and it had quite a kick.  He told us that he seasons with a little Tabasco and jerk seasoning.  I hadn't thought to use jerk spice in gumbo, but it makes sense.  I may try it next time I fix a pot up for me and my friends.  The cake was delicious too: moist, chocolatey, and just the right amount of sweetness.  Dan loved it, especially the tangy cream cheese icing, and got a little weepy while he was eating it.  We will be back for dinner soon - the catfish is calling my name.

We won't be eating for a few days after all of the food we managed to put away in Inman Square last night.  I couldn't have anticipated all of the fabulous food that I would be having at East Coast Grill, Midwest Grill, and Tupelo last night.  I will be returning to all three in the near future for more, and I'm kicking myself for not making it to that fabulous neighborhood more often.  What a fantastic impromptu culinary tour!

Friday, March 12, 2010

JC Bach's Quartet for Oboe and Strings

Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most prevalent composers in pop culture today, along with Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.  What many folks don't know about JS Bach is that he had over 30 children and married twice.  Three of his sons eventually went on to careers in composition: Carl Phillip Emmanuel, Wilhelm Friedman, and Johann Christian.  Living in the shadow of the great German master no doubt was a difficult challenge for all three of his sons, but perhaps none more so than the youngest of the three, Johann Christian Bach.

In broadly sweeping generalizations, JS Bach's works are marked by terse counterpoint and rapid harmonic rhythm.  JC Bach's music, on the other hand, favors melody and accompaniment and a much slower harmonic rhythm.  No doubt, JS insisted the his children learn counterpoint, but little of it is utilized in JC's works.  I feel that he must have been trying hard to get out of his father's shadow and create something that was all his own.  He went so far as to move to London to start a new life away from his family.  Furthermore, JC wrote in a style that squarely pointed toward the Classical style, but here and there one finds subtle references to his father's work when listening carefully.

The Oboe Quartet by JC Bach is one of the earliest in what would become a common instrumentation in Western Art Music, and is also one of JC Bach's more well-known works.  Composers like Mozart and Britten would later write works for this combination, and those have since become standards in the repertoire.  It represents some of JC Bach's most clever and graceful composition in my opinion.  Oboists like playing it because it is written in a beautiful warm key on the instrument, Bb Major.

The first movement is in a rough Sonata Allegro form with a brief development ending with an opportunity for a cadenza before the recapitulation, what I feel was a nod to the classical concerto form that was developing at the time.  The use of Sonata Allegro form of the first movement also puts it soundly in the classical period rather than the Baroque.  In terms of tonality, the first movement remains mostly in sunny Bb and F major, with a short turn towards the minor in the development.  It is in the development that one hears the influence of JS Bach with a series of suspensions and use of imitative counterpoint, but these references are brief and fleeting.  On the whole, the oboe takes the lead with the violin commenting and answering occasionally.  The viola and cello take an supporting role throughout.

The piece lacks a slow movement in the middle.  At the time of composition the concept of the Sonata da Camera and Sonata di Chiesa, which always included slow movements, were being abandoned in favor of forms that used only lively tempos.  JC Bach's lack of the inclusion of a slow movement was likely because of the piece's utilitarian purpose, ie courtly music intended to amuse royal ears.  I can only imagine the lively parties or lavish lunches that must have taken place while this piece was being played for society's higher-ups in 18th century London.

The second and final movement is a Rondo consisting of a Menuet with two trios - ABACA.  This dance form was popular in the Baroque and it prevailed in instrumental music through to the late classical period when the Scherzo took over.  The fact that it is dance music points again to the likelihood that the piece was intended for courtly performance, in which the musicians often served as a dance band.  What's interesting is that JC Bach titles the movement Rondo instead of Menuet.  Rondo is a distinctly Classical form, and I feel this movement really fuses old and new concepts more than the first movement.

JC Bach inserts some juicy passages for the viola in this movement in the second trio in g minor giving the oboist a break.  This is a clear example of thought about orchestration since the viola has a darker and more mysterious sound than the oboe.  Though this practice was employed masterfully by JS Bach, many baroque composers transcribed their works for other instruments freely without consideration for individual instrumental timbres.  It was not until later that composers started to think about the personalities of each instrument, and Berlioz was one of the first to codify this concept in the late 19th century.  JS Bach no doubt passed this concept on to his sons and in a sense JC Bach was a pioneer in this respect continuing the traditions of his father, a concept that would become very important later in history.

The overall feel of the Quartet in Bb by JC Bach is elegant and courtly.  The phrases demonstrate a graceful arch and follow regular intervals, a mark of the Classical style.  It's lack of a slow movement shows that the standard fast - slow - fast structure was still a developing concept.  There are however some subtle references to JS Bach's ideas such as orchestration and some use of imitation and dissonance.  As one of the first works in the genre of the oboe quartet, it is a formidable and beautiful piece that is a joy to perform.

Salmon with Shrimp Mousseline and Lemony Dill Sauce

I've been on a seafood and fish kick lately.  I've resolved to eat less meat and poultry and more vegetables to feel better and have more energy.  I was recently listening to a podcast where Mark Bittman was talking about eating vegetarian during the day and for dinner, eating whatever he liked.  He lost a bunch of weight and his blood pressure returned to normal.  I can't help but think that this lifestyle could help everyone become healthier in the long run.  Don't get me wrong - I am still a fierce omnivore, but it occurred to me how often I eat meat.  It's been a bit of an adjustment, but I'm going to enjoy learning new recipes.

A few days ago, I headed over to Whole Foods to pick up groceries for dinner.  It's always fun to go there just because there are so many beautiful ingredients to chose from.  The salmon was calling out to me from the fish case.  I had the idea to use dill and lemon with it since that is such a classic combination.  I used the shrimp mousseline to give it a little fat and also to protect it from the direct heat of the oven so the salmon would stay moist and tender.  The results were pretty delicious and I think this concept warrants a little more exploration on my part.

Salmon with Shrimp Mousseline and Lemony Dill Sauce

2 6 oz. salmon filets
5 or 6 shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 egg whites
1 teaspoon mustard
1 handful fresh baby spinach, washed
1 handful fresh dill, washed
juice of half of a lemon
1/2 cup white vermouth
1/2 cup water
1 bay leaf
3 or 4 peppercorns
3 tablespoons butter, divided
salt and pepper

For the salmon:
  1. In a food processor, combine egg whites, shrimp, 1 tablespoon butter, and mustard.
  2. Puree the ingredients until they are well incorporated.
  3. Spoon the mixture on top of the salmon.
  4. Roast the salmon in a 400˚ oven for 15 to 20 minutes depending on how well you like your salmon.
Make the sauce:
  1. Bring water, vermouth, peppercorns, and bay leaf to a boil.
  2. Puree the spinach, dill, and hot liquid in a blender until smooth.  The heat of the liquid will cook the spinach and dill just enough.  Thin out with more water if necessary.
  3. Just before the salmon is done, bring the puree back up to serving temperature in a saucepan.  Swirl in two tablespoons of butter, add lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper.
To plate, simply spoon the sauce onto warmed plates and place the salmon on top in the center of the plate.

With wine:  We had a Sangiovese from Tuscany called Notturno.  It had a lovely earthy cherry nose and was medium bodied.  It balanced out the herbaceous quality of the sauce quite nicely and cut the richness of the salmon very well.  A white wine like a Sancerre or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc would also be a great choice.

Fabulously Fierce Friends, Paul

cq writes: I worked with Paul at the Fireplace in Brookline for a little over year. He has also owned two restaurants, Daddy-o's and Macondo both in the greater Boston area. Currently he is the chef at Brandy Pete's in the Boston's Financial District. He is a championship crossword puzzle worker, has a lovely family, and makes a delicious Cornish Game Hen.

cq: 1. Who are your role models - food related or otherwise?

paul: James Beard, through his books and through his championship of American food and ingredients, has always been an inspiration.

cq: 2. What is your drink of choice?

paul: Cocktail- a bourbon Manhattan, white wine - Chassagne Montrachet, red -Chateau Talbot, beer - Circus Boy by Magic Hat.

cq: 3. What is your favorite cookbook or other food related book?

paul: James Beard's "American Cooking" and Jeremiah Tower's "New American Classics"

cq: 4. What was your most memorable meal and why?

paul: My 50th birthday at Marcuccio's with Chuck Draghi cooking - 5 amazing courses with 5 amazing little-known Italian wines - with my family and friends.

cq: 5. What is your favorite kitchen gadget or tool?

paul: My trusty 25 year old Kitchenaid mixer

cq: 6. If you had to make dinner with ingredients at your home right now, what would you make?

paul: I always keep the ingredients for spaghetti with clam sauce on hand - a good 15 minute go-to meal when I haven't made it to the store, other plans fell through or I'm just not inspired to spend the afternoon in the kitchen.

cq: 7. What kind of music do you like to listen to while you cook?

paul: Jazz

cq: 8. What is your philosophy on cooking and eating?

paul: Be respectful of the food you cook and eat. Understand where it came from how it got to you. don't be wasteful and appreciate the bounty that is available to us.

cq: 9. Are there any foods you can not stand to eat?

paul: No, only badly prepared food.  Well, ok, I'm not that fond of sea urchins, and I could live without truffle oil.

cq: 10. If you could use any super power in the kitchen, what would it be and why?

paul: Super digestion - eat as much as you want and never gain weight.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ragusano

The city of Ragusa has existed in one incarnation or another since 2000 BC.  Currently it is considered a historical treasure.  In the 17th century, an earthquake destroyed it.  It was rebuilt with stunning baroque architecture everywhere and now it houses several notable churches and cathedrals.  Having learned this about Ragusa very recently, I'll hope to visit there someday, but the way that the city even came on my radar in the first place was by way of the delicious cheese that is made there called Ragusano.

The cheese, Ragusano, has an interesting history rivaling that of the city from which it comes.  It was known to the Ancient Greeks and has been in production since that time.  When settlers from Sicily and other parts of Italy came to the United States, it became one of the number one imported cheeses.  It was essentially a commodity cheese like cheddar or Parmesan is now.  Traditionally, Ragusano had been made in big wheels, but because it is easier and more efficient to stack brick shapes in the hull of a ship, the cheese is now made that way instead.  In Sicily it is sometimes called Scaluni meaning step because it looks like a step in a staircase.

To make Ragusano, cheese-makers begin by boiling and stretching the curd just like Mozzarella.  This puts it in the family of pasta-filata (literally translated spun paste) cheese or stretched curd cheeses.  It can be eaten young in which case it is a mild and sweet, but if aged it becomes intensely salty and sharp, still exhibiting a subtle sweetness on the finish.  You're likely to get the young version only in Sicily - another reason to visit.  When aged, it has a crumbly texture, but there is still a satisfying bubblegum-like chewiness.

I love Ragusano for the spicy finish that makes my lips tingle a little.  One theory is that cheese made in hot places often has that spicy finish because of the diet of the cows who give the milk to make the cheese.  It can also be smoked in which case it carries that designation affumicato.  It is truly one of the more unique cheeses that I have ever had and I could eat it by the plateful with a glass of Marsala given the chance.

I hope you'll get the chance to try some Ragusano.  I'm going to experiment with it for cooking.  I imagine it would be delicious in a grilled cheeses sandwich, or shaved over a pasta dish or a salad.  Keep a look-out for it at your local cheese shop and pick some up if you see it.  You'll be happy you did.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chef Erik Desjarlais' Crispy Veal Sweetbreads, Braised Endive, and Bacon

I had an outstanding meal at Portland, Maine's Evangeline a few weeks ago.  To read about it, click here.  Chef Erik Desjarlais invited us into the kitchen afterward, and couldn't have been more warm and welcoming.  He agreed to contribute a recipe to my blog, and few weeks later, this is what he sent.  I unfortunately missed his sweetbreads on our meal there, but after reading this recipe, I have decided to make another trip to Portland just to try them!

Crispy Veal Sweetbreads, braised endive and bacon

One of my favorite foods to prepare is Veal sweetbreads. Poached then pressed, then fried crispy on the outside so they are molten and unctuous on the inside. They are just heady enough. Not as much as spleen, liver or lights, and not as delicate as brain.

Usually, one would soak them overnight in ice water, then poach them in court bouillon and press them overnight to maintain a shape for even cooking on the pick up.

At Evangeline, We skip a step and then add a step. We always have a ton of brine on hand for chickens, poussin, poularde, pheasant quails and various pork pieces. One day, after getting really pissed because a diner said the sweetbreads “tasted like chicken”, I finished my breathing/coping mechanism and decided to poach the sweetbreads in brine. It just made sense. And it made the most flavorful sweetbread I have ever tasted.

Soon thereafter we applied the brine to our calf brains and our Skate wing. The honey in the brine aided in caramelization, and the salt seasoned it from the inside out. It also leeches out any impurities and replaces them with flavor, which is nice too. The end result is clean, white, flavorful sweetbreads, brains and skate wing. The brains get boiling brine poured over them and we allow them to cool in it. After about 3 hours we take them out. The skate wings get cold brine poured over them and they chill for a few hours.

Here is the process for the sweetbreads. The braised Endive and bacon follow.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio

Ever since I tasted the Branko Pinot Grigio a few weeks ago, I have decided to open my mind about what I have wrongly  considered to be one of the less interesting wines being made today.  It's terrible to generalize about any sort of wine that way, but my experience has unfortunately led me to that bias.  I am happy to report a new found love of the grape and the wines produced from it in Northern Italy.  Alois Lageder's "Classic" Pinot Grigio is yet another example of Pinot Grigio that is breaking down my personal bias for this underestimated and severely neglected grape.

The problem with Pinot Grigio, and the reason why I have developed my bias, is that it is grown just about everywhere in Italy and there are only a few winemakers who give it the serious treatment that it deserves.  Typically, it is picked too early and made into a thin, tart, insipid wine that lacks any sort of varietal character or complex aromatics.  In some of the examples I've tasted, you may as well be drinking alcoholic lemonade for a cheaper price and equally satisfying results.

What makes the Pinot Grigio from Lageder so special is the intense care taken with the vines and in the winery.  They follow biodynamic practices, which I feel consistently produces interesting wines.  The region itself, the Alto Adige, is also marked by a long cool growing season with long daylight hours and cool nights, which is ideal for coaxing phenolic maturity out of grapes which characteristically are less aromatic such as Pinot Grigio.  The family's history with wine-making dates back to the 19th century and Alois Lageder, himself, has made a significant commitment to quality rather than quantity, though he does produce a myriad of styles.

I'm sure you can tell already how impressed I was with this wine just from what I've written so far about its producer, but to taste the wine on its own justifies its praise even without knowing all of the background.  The color is a crystal clear and bright straw gold with a silver gleam.  Aromatically, it reminded me of Chablis.  It was steely, and had some of the struck match scent that associate with those great wines of Burgundy, some of my favorites.  There is a also a purity of pear and ripe melon, and I picked up a little cucumber as well.  Maybe it's just the impending Spring in New England, but I also got a whiff of wild flowers.  I'm getting carried away because I quite enjoyed the complexity and subtlety of the wine so much.

On the palete it was equally engaging.  It had a focused linear quality balanced with the right amount of acidity that gave the wine backbone without it seeming tart.  The finish was long and mineral as expected for Lageder's wines.  Dan commented on how well it went with our meal.  We were eating Chinese as usual on these late nights after work - I had shrimp with cashews, celery, and peppers and he was having chicken with scallions and ginger.  The alcohol in the wine is also on the lower side, around 12% which I also appreciated.  It's nice to be able to have two glasses and not feel like going to sleep right away.

I also have to admire Lageder for his passion for the arts.  His labels are all designed by artists Elisabeth Holzl, Mario Airo, Eva Marisaldi, Marcello Maliberti, and Luca Vitone representing light, earth, vines, man, and wine respectively.  He also supports new music commissioning new works from composers and hosting chamber music concerts in his enoteca, which he calls Paradeis.  For now I will dream of performing a concert there in the beautiful setting of Northern Italy.

All of this for a relatively inexpensive and humble bottle of Pinot Grigio.  As I mentioned, the wine drinks great on its own, but knowing all of the tangential information regarding the producer has made the experience of drinking it even more special.  You can be sure that I'll be looking for more great wine from Lageder and, if you are a lover of art, music, and all delicious thing as I am, I would encourage you to do the same.  Cheers.