Saturday, February 20, 2010

Branko Pinot Grigio

One of the perks of my job is the Friday tasting.  We, as a staff, are invited to taste wine, beer, and sometimes cocktails and spirits with the sommelier staff to open up a dialogue that will hopefully enable us to learn and in turn better help our guests to find what they are looking for.  It can be an incredibly constructive experience for us, and I find it helps keep some fresh ideas in my head hearing other people's opinions about wine.  At yesterday's tasting, I was floored by a fantastic Pinot Grigio made by Igor Erzetik of Branko.

Unfortunately, when I see Pinot Grigio, I usually run the other way.  This grape has a bad reputation amongst wine snobs because of the lakes of insipid wine that are made every vintage devoid of any varietal character or sense of place.  The sad reality is that many Italian winemakers think of Pinot Grigio as a cash crop because so many Americans order it by name not really caring if it comes from Italy, France, America, or even Australia.  As a varietal, it seldom receives the careful attention in the vineyard and winery that it needs to make really great wine especially in Italy.

In some ways Pinot Grigio has gone the way that Merlot did, becoming a light, easy, fruity wine that one can knock back without thinking about too much.  While this may be fine for a hot Sunday afternoon by the pool, Pinot Grigio wouldn't typically be my choice for a special meal.  That's why I'm so glad to have tasted the one from Branko.  Perhaps, like Merlot, it is making a comeback as a candidate for making thoughtful, complex wines.  Afterall, it initially became famous for a good reason.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones

My latest find in cookbooks is Judith Jones' The Pleasure of Cooking for One.  I picked it up at Rabelais in Portland this past Wednesday on my food and art tour day there.  Rabelais is a must on my Portland excursions.  They have the best selection of food, wine, and cookbooks I've seen anywhere and the folks who own it couldn't be nicer.  Contact Rabelais via their website, or you can order it from clicking the Amazon link to the left.

If you've seen the hit movie Julie and Julia, you probably already know who Judith Jones is.  She is often credited with discovering Julia Child being the first to recognize what a tremendous pioneer she was for the American culinary world.  She has also published a collection of memoirs/recipes called The Tenth Muse, which has just found its way onto my reading list.  She references a few of the recipes from The Tenth Muse in Cooking for One.

Since I usually cook for just Dan and I, this is refreshing book to read with scaled back portions and lots of thought put into making things easy and time effective.  She even gives advice about what sorts of pots and pans to use for the recipes which are smaller than those commonly found in kitchens.  There is also a sense of practicality that many cookbook authors today are too often unconcerned with.  This book is not about photography and flashy techniques.  It is about honest, simple, good food that is nourishing and uses readily obtainable ingredients.

Fabulously Fierce Friends, Leslie

CQ writes: To a certain degree, your friends define who you are.  You identify with them and admire them for their best traits and often take on the characteristics that you admire in them.  This series will profile some of the amazing people that I have met over my years in music and the food service industry.  I'd like to share with you how fantastic they are. Starting on the first Friday in February, I will publish a different Fabulously Fierce Friend's answers to a standardized list of questions along with a little of their backgrounds.  I think you will enjoy reading their responses as much as I have, and maybe even learn a little something along the way too.

Leslie writes: food lover to the core who loves sharing her knowledge with others.

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

Leslie: Tony Bourdain, Julia Child and Alice Waters

CQ: 2. What is your drink of choice?

Leslie: Gin & Tonic

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

Leslie: Right now - Cooking for 1 by Judith Jones

Geitost: cheese?

On Congress street between Longfellow Square and the Old Port area in Portland, Maine, there is a fabulous collection of miniature markets under one roof.  My friend Annie and I stumbled upon it while walking around the area.  In truth we were drawn into the market by a selection of cheese that was visible from the front.  We are both mega curd nerds, and so we couldn't help ourselves from stopping in to check it out.

At the cheese kiosk inside, we took some time looking over their very impressive selection.  The two twenty-somethings behind the counter really knew their stuff from talking with them a little bit.  Most everything on display was at least familiar to me by name, though there were certainly plenty that I hadn't tried before.  One cheese in particular caught my eye because of its odd brown color.  Turns out it was the famous Scandinavian cheese called Geitost (pronounced YAY-toast).

Geitost is made by combining whey from cow's and/or goat's milk and boiling it down with some cream until it caramelizes.  Its texture is semi-firm and it has a really sweet flavor balanced by salt and tang.  It's traditionally served to children for breakfast shaved onto warm flatbread.  I enjoyed the little remnant I bought with an apple for breakfast this morning and it was delicious.  I'll keep an eye for it, but I'm not sure I've ever seen it in any my local markets or specialty shops.  Leave it to Portland's food-obsessed residents to introduce me to something new and interesting.

If you see it around, pick up a little chunk to try.  I can attest to the fact that it makes a delicious breakfast eaten alone, but it is also commonly melted into sauces to flavor game dishes.  Geitost fondue anyone?  I think you'll be intrigued and beguiled by its simple but unique charms.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Evangeline, Portland, Maine

Annie and I have discovered that we each like to eat as much as the other on our little food trip to Portland.  It was fantastic going from restaurant to restaurant with her and trying as many different things as we could.  I learned so much from her observations about the food.  She was a great dining companion and together we tackled three restaurants and a bakery in one afternoon.  The last stop of our day, Evangeline, may have been the most memorable and delicious by both of our accounts.

Evangeline is located in Longfellow Square, close to the happenings of the busy and famous Old Port area.  I had eaten here years ago for one of their very affordable Monday night prix fixe meals.  I have been wanting to go back for the full show for a while, and I was glad that Annie was game to help me take it all in yesterday evening.  The meal was worth the five hours of travel alone and even with transportation costs, it's still cheaper than it would have been for us to have the same experience in Boston.  Every bite of food we ate was delicious and we were treated like kings and queens by the staff and Chef Desjarlais couldn't have been more gracious.

We began with Gruyere gougeres which were followed by a bit of California white sturgeon caviar.  The caviar was plated on a potato cracker with scrambled egg, and parsley oil.  It was an exquisite sensation eating the caviar with the perfectly cooked egg.  I wish I had a decent picture to show you how generous the portion was too - I think we each had almost a full ounce of the caviar on our plates.  It was a stunning way to begin what would be a spectacular meal.

Museum of Art in Portland, Maine

I've visited Portland now a few times, and I wanted to make it a point to see the museum on my most recent visit.  Since I've been on my museum kick, I've discovered how fabulous it is to spend an hour or two wandering around them.  The Portland Art Museum has a wonderful collection that Annie and I enjoyed seeing very much.

For starters, the building that houses the collection is a work of art itself.  It's an IM Pei building.  He is the architect also responsible for the famous glass pyramid in front of the Louvre and the Kennedy Library here in Boston.  His works are visually stunning and take advantage of the natural elements that surround the structure offering amazing views.  What I liked best about the layout of the museum was that the galleries flowed easily from one to the other.  Even when you are in one gallery, there are overlooks and windows that connect you to the previous gallery.  It gave a cohesive feel to the museum's entire collection that I feel is often lacking when I've visited other museums.

We blew through the entire museum wanting to get a feel for it as a whole in about an hour and half, but I'm looking forward to going back and spending more time in each of the galleries.  There are some really nice pieces to see.  I'll include some photos here of a few of the highlights:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lunch at Nosh, Portland, Maine

Who woulda thunk that I would stumble onto a brand spanking new restaurant outside of my hometown simply by surfing the blogosphere?  That's how I discovered Nosh where we ate our first lunch of the day in Portland.  My friend, Annie, and I set out from Boston early this morning and caught the 9 am train from Boston to Portland.  You can buy a round trip ticket for only $39 if you plan a few days in advance on the Downeaster line on Amtrak.  The last train leaves the Portland at 7:55 and puts you back in Boston around 10:30.  It was practically meant for a day trip, and after today, I'm sure I will be taking advantage of this tremendous bargain again very soon.  I'm not even sure you could drive from Boston to Portland and back on $40 worth of gas with the price of fuel these days.

Nosh is an unassuming little spot near Longfellow square on Congress Street near the Old Port area.  We had checked the menu out online and wanted to try their extensive selection of charcuterie, but unfortunately, it is only offered after 5 pm.  We ended up with sandwiches instead, but it certainly was not a disappointment in any way.  On the contrary, our meal was above and beyond any expectations that we might have had for the charcuterie and the price was even better.

I went for it with gusto by ordering the pork belly Reuben sandwich.  Just in case you don't know, pork belly is the same cut as bacon - it's just not smoked or cured, but has all the same delicious fat and meaty meat as bacon.  It was as wonderfully flavorful and rich as it sounds.  The pork belly was seared after being braised and had a lovely light caramelization that gave it the slightest bit of crunch.  The provolone cheese was melted and gooey and there was plenty of Russian dressing and kraut all served on nice rye bread.  It was a great way to have a classic with a twist and I relished every bite that I was able to eat.

Elizabeth Powell's Red Beans and Rice

I'm not a chef, but i've played one in a bar.

Here's my recipe for red beans. I also have a recipe for a crazy cocktail featuring a home-made espresso infused bourbon.


Red Beans and Rice

Oh, I know, people look down on the simple, homey food stuff these days. Everything has to be macerated this or "scented" that. Yeah, I get it. I do it at times when i'm feeling all hoity-toity and looking to impress some visiting dignitary. Usually, I just whip up something that I would like to eat.

Being Southern and having a little love affair with Blue Runner red beans, I sometimes crave red beans and rice. Recently, I decided to tweak my recipe and the result was tasty.

Here's how it goes:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bulleit Bourbon

Another Bourbon to try was purchased this week on my latest wine and spirits run.  I picked up a bottle of Bulleit that my blogging buddy, Banu, mentioned in a comment to one of my posts.  She writes a fabulous blog about food and cooking that I love to read.  It also turns out that we both love Bourbon.  I find it an extremely satisfying thing to have after a big dinner, or a great drink to warm up with on these cold nights during the long New England winters.  Last night, I poured myself a nice tumbler full and enjoyed it in bed while doing a little reading with covers pulled up and a snuggie!  I wish my beautiful, but old and drafty, apartment building held heat better.

Bulleit has a story that goes back around 200 years.  It was initially produced by someone who disappeared without a trace and later revived a hundred and fifty or so years later by a surviving grandson.  It has a higher percentage of rye than a typical Bourbon does, but still maintains the minimum corn mash quota for Bourbon - at least 51%.  That extra amount of rye gives it a spicy and zesty backbone that a lot of other Bourbons don't have.

I like it for its bold aromas and mouthful of flavor.  It has plenty of warm toasty notes on the back end that still make it smooth and warming balancing out all of that fire and spice at the beginning.  I'd venture to say that it's one of the more complex Bourbons I've had and I think the quality backs up its slightly higher price making it a justifiable indulgence.  It was a very satisfying way to unwind after a long service at work on one of the biggest days of the year.

Japonaise Bakery, Brookline

Yesterday, I stopped into Japonaise Bakery here in Brookline on my way to work for a bite to eat.  I wasn't counting on family meal at work being a terribly rewarding experience.  I knew the guys in the kitchen would be very busy putting out lunches and getting their mise en place ready for dinner service, it being Valentine's Day and all.  It's one of the busiest days of the year for us and requires a lot of work from every hand available in the back and front of the house to prepare for the plethora of guests, so there isn't much time to think about making a feast fit for a king to be served up between services and to be eaten only by employees.

I left my apartment with a good deal of excitement thinking about stopping at Japonaise.  I have been there many times and I knew that I would be able to get a quick and cheap meal that would satisfy my appetite and give me plenty of fuel for the busy night ahead.  They have terrific sandwiches, pastries, and cakes.  I usually get a loaf of their shoku pan, a traditional Japanese yeast bread enriched with heavy cream to take home.  It's as delicious as it sounds and it has a really nice texture that makes me think of the "snap" of al dente pasta or a natural sausage casing.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Truffles: The Forbidden Fungus

Truffles are probably the single most sought-after and expensive vegetable in the culinary world.  Traditionally, attempts to cultivate them have borne good, but not great results, although I understand that farmers are getting better and better all the time.  There are many many varieties of this little fungus that grows under ground, but two are commonly used in haute cuisine: tuber melanosporum and tuber magnatum, or the black and the white truffle respectively.

Truffles historically have been widely regarded as aprhodisiacs.  The Greeks and Romans were truffle crazy in their hedonistic societies.  Brillat Savarin, the great 19th century French gastronome, relays a story of a virtuous maid succumbing to a suitor after dining on truffle stuffed pheasant.  No doubt today, the smell of truffle from across a dining room gets many a heart palpitating.  I must confess that it is torturous for me to serve them to people - we usually shave them right at the table where I work.  This never fails to make me feel dreadfully ravenous.

Lore, legend, and commonly held beliefs about truffles are that people who forage for them use pigs to locate them under several feet of soil.  They usually grow among the root systems of certain types of trees - different species of truffles like different types of trees.  European truffles prefer oaks, and North American ones often grow under fir trees.  The reason pigs like them is because the chemical compound that makes truffles smell so delicious is the same compound as one found in boar saliva.  This drives the lady pigs wild and makes them want to root up the truffles to get at that sexy boar smell.  I am not making this up!

The only problem with all of this is that pigs, like humans, also like to eat truffles.  Therefore modern truffle hunters have trained dogs to locate them just as effectively as the pigs, only the dogs don't tend to eat the truffles.  Goats have also been used with some success.  New experiments are even being done with machines designed to detect them in ways I can't understand.  The market demand for them is such that people are willing and able to invest significant amounts of money into finding new and more efficient ways of tracking these little love nuggets down.

What you should know about truffles on your Valentine's Day date: