Sunday, August 31, 2008

Thumper is tasty!

...ok, if that title didn't send you running for the hills in disgust, you have my thanks. Really, I'm not a totally cold-hearted b*tch. Honestly, I'm not. But there are very few animals that I wouldn't ever consider eating, and rabbits are not one of them. (Cats and dogs, though, are another story.)

The story goes like this - over a year ago, I discovered that our butcher at the time carried rabbit. Frozen, unfortunately, but as this was a relative delicacy that I have yet to see anywhere else, I just couldn't resist the temptation to buy one. As it happened, I bought two. And they've been languishing in our freezer ever since, because we just never thought of a way to try cooking them that really appealed to us. Sure, I found plenty of recipes for rabbit stew and rabbit braised in wine and rabbit pies and other similar things in my online search for ideas and guidance, but we just never got to the point where any of those things seemed like something we felt like eating. A lot of this was because we felt that with a new ingredient, one that neither of us had ever had the opportunity to even try, we wanted to make something that would really feature its flavor, rather than hiding it in a soup or sapping it in a braise.

Also, for awhile we honestly just forgot that we had them.

But a couple of weeks ago we found ourselves dealing with some tight finances until payday, and we wanted to use up some various odds and ends that we'd been saving rather than buying a bunch of new, fresh meat. Thus, one of our little icy bunnies made it onto the menu.

The inspiration? Traditional creole and cajun cuisine; namely, rabbit and sausage gumbo.

I know what you're thinking. "That doesn't look like any gumbo I'VE ever seen." And you'd be right. Because we didn't really make gumbo. We deconstructed it.

Deconstructed dishes tend to be sort of a trendy, high-brow sort of thing, but I think the idea has a lot of merit when thinking about single dish foods like soups, stews, baked goods, or other things that use many disparate ingredients to create a single harmonious whole. While such things can be completely delicious as they are, there is a lot of land to be explored when you consider each individual ingredient as a meal component in and of itself.

When making a normal gumbo, all of the bits and pieces combine and meld to make a bowl of goodness that has a truly tasty overall flavor, but those individual ingredients lose their identity, sacrificing individuality for unity. Deconstructing this dish allows each component to shine.

The rabbits themselves were packaged whole with certain organs still attached, mostly notably the kidneys. Breaking down the rabbit naturally fell to me, as I seem to have developed a bit of a knack for breaking down whole birds like chickens or turkeys. The rabbit, though, was well and truly a whole different animal. I suppose the basic structure was the same, but there were bones in odd places, and the mid-section of the animal was so lean I wasn't even sure if the bits surrounding the rib cage were actually meat or just especially thick skin. In the end I decided upon the latter, and I ended up quartering the rabbit (front and hind quarters on both sides) and removing what I believe were the saddles (a long relatively thick muscle that nestled against the ribcage on each side), discarding the bulk of the body of the rabbit. It would be prudent to note that there is really very little meat on a rabbit, and that the bulk of it exists unsurprisingly in the hind legs. The saddles are a hidden treat, however, and are tender the way a filet of beef is tender, as it seems to be a muscle that is little-used during the rabbit's lifetime. The skin on the quarters was left on, mostly because I found it to be a devil to remove.

Each of these pieces was rubbed down with a mixture of olive oil, salt and pepper - as I said, we wanted to keep it simple so that we could really taste the meat itself. They were then roasted in the oven (I honestly can't remember the temp. or time, its been so long since we made this... my apologies!) until they were golden brown and cooked through so that any juices than ran out when the meat was pierced were clear. Being a fairly uncommon meat and lacking in any sort of guide book for game meat, we didn't bother monitoring internal temperature and just used our instincts to judge when it was done - they didn't fail us, though I'd recommend anyone else who decided to give this a shot do some more thorough research than I did, just to be safe.

Accompaniments for the rabbit were some sliced and sauteed andouille sausage (made by Aidells, the founder of which was one of the writers of one of the most useful cookbooks we own, The Complete Meat Cookbook), some briefly stewed and spiced red chili beans, a heaping spoonful of trinity sofrito (onions, celery, and green bell peppers sauteed together with just a bit of salt and sugar - we added some carrot as well to round out the flavor), and a bowl of cajun-spiced broth.

The rabbit itself was delicious - the texture was almost exactly that of chicken, and the flavor was similar as well, but more earthy. This was a farm-raised rabbit, so I imagine that wild-caught rabbit would have a touch of gaminess to it as well, though I doubt it would ever be terribly strong. I would remove the skin next time, as it ended up a bit rubbery - we didn't achieve the crispiness I associate with good roasted poultry, and was a trifle unpleasant to bite into - but the meat was delicious, especially closer to the bone.

The true appeal of this meal was that with each bite of a single component - a slice of rabbit, or a spoonful of beans or sofrito, or a mouthful of sausage - you could taste the underlying purity of the ingredients, then chase it with a slurp of the broth and the flavors would combine in your mouth to give the distinct impression that you were, in fact, eating a bowl of gumbo. The contrast was fascinating, and great fun to eat and experience.

The truth is, though, that the cajun broth was the star of this show. It was spicy, rich, highly flavorful, and yet somehow light at the same time. I could take a thermos of this broth to work with me every day for a week and it would be a satisfying lunch all on its own, though perhaps a bit of cooked brown rice and sausage on the side would round things out. The flavor was incredible though, and I immediately requested that J make some more a few days later, this time as an accompaniment to some broiled catfish. The second time it was not as good, which leads me to believe that the recipe still needs some tweaking, but the memory of the very first spoonful that flowed over my tongue will stay with me for a long time, I think.

I won't post a recipe yet, not until I think we have it perfected and written down so that it could be repeated accurately, but here are some guidelines:

- The andouille that we ate along side the other parts of this meal actually created the base for the broth - J sauteed them in a saucepan along with maybe 1/4 cup of the trinity sofrito before removing them to eat separately with dinner. The relatively brief cooking period rendered out some of the fat and a lot of flavor, which made a huge difference to the broth in the end.

- We've discovered that the key to really authentic-tasting cajun/creole food seems to be generous amounts of garlic, paprika, chili powder, and thyme - combined with the flavors in the holy trinity, this really seems to lay down the base for a good gumbo or jambalaya.

- When in doubt, over-season. The broth was initially rather too strong when J completed it, but that was easily remedied by adding a bit of water. Making the flavors too weak at the outset, however, can require a lot of tweaking of spices later on, and it gets awfully difficult to maintain the proper balance when you're on your third or fourth addition of the same spice. Don't be afraid of them! This style of cooking demands the kinds of flavors that smack you in the face and leave you speechless as you try to figure out what the hell just happened, and that's really ok. What matters is that the proper blend is achieved, and once you get that, its always easy to just thin out the final product until you reach the level of intensity that you prefer.

I promise to share this recipe once we've gotten it down, because its just way too good to keep to ourselves. We've had tons of other ideas to use it, from cooking rice in it to using it to poach chicken, to thickening it with a roux made from andouille fat and flour and spooning it over steak, and I'd love to know what other people might think of!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My First Blogging Group

Well, there's no going back now - I'm committed to this blog, for better or worse. Know why? Because I've just joined my first blogging group! I've been accepted for membership in the Barefoot Bloggers, a group that is working its way through all of Ina Garten's recipes, two recipes per month. I've always been a huge fan of Ina and classify her as one of my heroes of the cooking world, so I'm thrilled to have more chances to try out her recipes. I'll start participating next month - so excited!

In other news, the Olympics are finally over (and what an event they were this year!) so I finally have my freetime back. I have probably half a dozen posts waiting in the queue, so maybe now I can actually get around to putting them up. And of course, we're still cooking every night, so I'm just racking up more and more meals that I want to share. I gotta figure out how to keep up with my own habit!

At any rate hopefully I'll be around more now, and I'm really looking forward to making my way into the food blogging community with the Barefoot Bloggers! :)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rules Shmules

I am completely incapable of following the rules when it comes to food. I almost never actually follow a recipe, even when I'm baking, because I'm always tweaking flavor components and finishing methods, and I can't remember the last time I made any sort of traditional ethnic dish the way it is traditionally made. I've always gotta get my little hands right down into the heart of a recipe and futz with things to get the result I want, which I suspect won't win me any fans from the militant-accuracy set. But I don't care. Know why? Because my food tastes GOOD.

Please, please excuse my horrible photography - I'm still experimenting with my digicam and don't have anything resembling the right set-up to take well-light or focuses photos. I can guarantee you, my next gift to myself is going to be a tripod, closely followed by the materials to make myself a lightbox.

Take these enchiladas, for example.

In my admittedly-non-extensive experience, your standard enchiladas are made with corn tortillas, either cheese, meat, or perhaps bean filling, and topped with a simple red chili sauce and shredded white cheese like cheddar or jack. And I like standard enchiladas. I really do. I almost always go for some kind of enchiladas when we go out for tex-mex, my favorite being the ubiquitous combination platter of one cheese, one chicken, and one bean enchilada with rice and refritos. I love me some enchiladas, I do.

However, when it comes down to it, I've never been a huge fan of corn tortillas unless they're in chip form. I've even made my own homemade corn tortillas, and while I liked them and would make them again (with the proper tool for flattening them out, anyway) they're still just not my favorite as a yummy filling and sauce delivery system. I generally prefer flour tortillas for almost everything, but since we've recently been trying to replace as much of our carb intake as possible with whole grain alternatives, this time around I used some really delicious multi-grain tortillas made by Mission brands.

Also, since I always like a combination of different kinds of enchiladas on my plate, I figured, why go to all the trouble to make three different kinds of enchiladas of individual fillings? I'll just mix 'em all up in the whole batch.

And then, instead of using a basic white cheese for the topping, I used a mix of a couple of sharp artisan cheeses we picked up at the Italian specialty store the week before. Once again, I've given my dinner an identity crisis. I'm surprised my food doesn't grow legs and run away screaming as soon as I bring it home, just to avoid the emotional trauma.

Anyway, despite all these deviations form the norm, let me just tell you that these were some seriously delicious enchiladas. J made the chili sauce from scratch, and I wish to God I was paying attention when he did because although he followed this recipe by Emeril to begin with, he changed it all over the place and I have no clue how. I really hope he can remember what he did because I want him to make some more of the stuff that I can jar and keep in the pantry for future deliciousness. The filling itself was a mixture of some smoked pulled pork that we'd made much earlier in the summer and have had bags of in the freezer ever since (didn't do THAT the right way either because we couldn't keep it int he smoker long enough to get that uber-tender pull-apart texture, so we had to finish it in the crock pot with some bbq sauce to finish it... I know, I know, we should both turn in our pitmaster-in-training badges) plus some cooked black beans and some of the same cheese I used to top them with. It was a perfect combination, smoky and sweet and decadently cheesy, but without the grease that always seems to accompany the cheese enchiladas I get in restaurants. The finished enchiladas tasted sinful, but really weren't all THAT bad for you. Not healthy, but not that bad.

I'm not going to try to write a recipe here, because really once you have all the different components - tortillas, fillings, sauce, cheese, all of which you can alter to fit your own tastes - making enchiladas is all about assembly. Each enchilada ought to have the same amount of filling, and with a combination of fillings like I used, you want to have the same amount of each thing in each tortilla so that the flavor will be consistent. You want to pack the filled tortillas into your baking dish pretty tightly so that they stay rolled neatly and get all hot and soft and gooey when they cook. You want enough sauce both below and above the tortilla rolls so that they won't stick or dry out, but not so much that it ends up drowning in sauce and turning into something you have to slice, because at the end of the cooking process, after the whole dish cools for maybe 5 minutes, you want to be able to lift each roll out individually to serve. I've learned how to achieve these things just from trial and error and having quite a few dishes of enchiladas just disintegrate when I dipped a spatula in to serve, and this time around I got it just right.

We ate them with some quick homemade yellow rice (long grain brown rice cooked in chicken stock with saffron, tumeric, and chili powder) and a big 'ole dollop of sour cream, with sliced green onions sprinkled over everything. They were perfect - warm, savory, spicy, and comforting.

And I really, really wish I had some more right now.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lessons Learned

I've been a little absent from the blogosphere this week. I'm sorry. Its way too early in the game here at "Table for Two?" for me to disappear for 6 days straight, and I apologize. I'll try not to let it happen again but, well, you know how it is. Life gets in the way sometimes.

That being said, there are a couple of legitimate reasons for my neglect. The first is that the Olympics started last Friday, and I've been watching them just about every night. I've been looking forward to the games for months, and there's been some really great stuff going on this year (Michael Phelps, anyone?) and I just don't want to miss a minute of it if I can avoid it.

The second is that we naively planned a couple of positively epic meals this week, and when we spend 2-3 hours making dinner after a full day of work, its all I can do to sit in front of the boob tube for an hour or so of Olympics coverage afterwards before passing out for the night.

This week did, however, yield quite a few valuable learning experiences which I'd like to pass on.

Mmmm. Melty Mexican goodness.

Lesson #1
Enchilada sauce, or red chili sauce, is shockingly easy to make at home, and tastes SO much better than the canned, store-bought variety that I've always used. J actually made the sauce this first time around, and although he used Emeril's recipe as a jumping-off point, he changed enough as he went along to render the original probably nearly unrecognizable. The end result? Pretty much what I would consider the perfect enchilada sauce: rich, savory, and tangy, with just a bit of warmth from some dried chilis. Poured under and over whole grain tortillas wrapped around smoked pulled pork and black beans, it yielded what J called "the best enchiladas EVAR" but I'll leave the details for a separate post.

Lesson #2
Cleaning your own squid is an absolutely monstrous job, and not at all pleasant. More importantly, its a hell of an undertaking for a weeknight. I don't think we ate dinner until after 9pm that night, and when you're used to eating dinner closer to 7:30pm, that is a seriously late meal.

I volunteered to do the squid-cleaning first, and I have to admit that my knee-jerk revulsion to handling shellfish innards (and having my fingers anywhere near a dead creatures eyes) lessened significantly after the first 2 or 3. I managed to get through about 8 before deciding I'd had enough, and passing the torch to J to finish up. Of course that meant he ended up doing almost twice as many as I did (the package we bought had a shockingly large number of whole squid in it) but he was graciously silent about the clearly unfair division of labor. I think I owe him a 6-pack or something for that.

We cleaned out all the bodies (or tubes) so that we could stuff them with a mixture of veggies and breadcrumbs, then bake them in a basic tomato sauce. The tentacles ended up getting discarded because, frankly, they just didn't look that good after being frozen and thawed. But of course, what you really want to know is, was it worth it?

No. Not at all. Never mind the fact that the plate of food up there will never win any beauty awards. It just didn't taste that good. The sauce and the stuffing, taken individually, were delicious. And being that we based it on one of Mario Batali's recipes, I'm not surprised. But the squid itself? Meh. Not impressed. I do think it was cooked just about right, as the finished product had a texture somewhat like al dente pasta. However, I'm used to squid being relatively non-fishy, and this was definitely fishy. I'm not sure if that's because it had been frozen whole and then thawed, or if we just didn't do a thorough-enough job of cleaning it (I suspect the latter, because some pieces were significantly more fishy than others) but quite frankly, I couldn't finish it. It was dsappointing, to say the least, and not something we'll be repeating anytime soon.

Now we've got a bag of about a dozen squid tubes in the freezer that we'll need to use up, though. I'm thinking we'll probably just fry them up at some point. Not anytime soon - I've got some mental scarring from this first fresh-squid encounter that needs to heal before I even look at it again - but eventually.

Lesson 3
Those little mini-springform pans I bought on my birthday are every bit as awesome as I expected them to be. I used them this week to make these delicious single-serving broccoli quiches, and they were really the perfect size for dinner when paired with some sauteed snow peas. The quiches rose in the oven and then held their form perfectly when removed from the pans, and were just perfectly cooked. I can't wait to find more uses for them.

Lesson 4
Sometimes, just sometimes, you want something simple. Something comforting. Something that fills your belly and warms your soul without breaking the bank. Something like... franks and beans. Or as J calls them, beanie weenies (*gigglesnort*). However, just because you're making a dish that your father made for you for dinner in grade school, doesn't mean you can't make it spectacular. We had this deceptively simple meal one night this week and made it amazing by making the baked beans from scratch, using dry beans that were soaked overnight and then cooked for a looooong time (over 12 hours) in the crock pot while we were at work. As a pleasant counterpoint to the squid fiasco, this made for a quick and easy dinner once we got home - all we had to do was crisp up the hot dogs a bit and then toast a couple of hot dog rolls in the rendered fat to have a supremely satisfying and surprisingly delicious dinner.

You know you want some of this. C'mon, don't try to hide it.

Even more surprising is that this particular dish was really not that bad for you - if you skip the bread-toasted-in-hot-dog-fat part, the franks and beans themselves have no added fat (helped along by that pre-cooking step with the dogs). There's a fair amount of sugar though, so diabetics may want to keep away from this sort of dish. The rest of you? Go get some beans soaking. Because I can guarantee there'll be a day this week when you won't want to cook, and this bowl of hot, hearty goodness is sure to soothe you after even the most difficult day.

Lesson 5
I still can't make fried rice. I tried my hand at a thai-style vegetarian fried rice on Thursday, and although it was basically ok, it just wasn't quite right. I'm pretty sure I overcooked the rice the night before, so it was a little too sticky and mushy when I tried to stir fry it, and fried rice just shouldn't be mushy, ever. I also think I used too much fish sauce in the seasoning, because the flavor was just a bit too prominent for me to really enjoy the dish. The basic premise was good, and the bites that got a piece of fresh tomato or pineapple were really delicious, but I couldn't quite finish my serving. J loved it, which I'm glad of, but I just know I could make it better if I could just get the rice part of it right.

Lesson 6
Rabbit is delicious. Also, "deconstructed" dishes are a ton of fun. But, I'll leave those details for my next post.

Bonus Lesson:
My photography SUCKS. Its virtually impossible to take decent photos in this dim-as-hell basement apartment. Normally I enjoy the gentle lighting we've got going on down here, but its not at all conducive to taking attractive photos of our dinners. I've really gotta work on that lightbox...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gazpacho and Sesame Chicken (but not the way you think)

For the second time in two weeks, we're eating Greek here at "Table for Two?". Well, sort of.

I won't pretend for a millisecond that there is anything traditional or authentic about this meal. Its got a little bit of an identity crisis going on. "Gazpacho... isn't that a Mexican soup?" Well, yes, but this one isn't. "Sesame chicken? Sounds like Chinese takeout." It does, doesn't it? But its not. "You're calling this Greek? I've never seen a Greek meal like that." No, I'd imagine you wouldn't have, but wait, just WAIT till you taste it.

Lets start with the chicken, shall we? Really, this couldn't be simpler. J was inspired by a recipe for "Tahini Turkey Thighs" in the Better Homes & Gardens New Grilling Book, a birthday gift from my parents last year. Their recipe was heavily influenced by Asian cuisine and called for things like soy sauce and rice vinegar, which I'm sure would be good as well but wasn't what we were in the mood for. So he simplified the recipe significantly and made a few subtle changes to swing the dish around from Asia to the Mediterranean, ending up with a marinade of only five ingredients: tahini, toasted sesame oil, honey, and S&P. And substituted chicken. Because frankly, as much as we love turkey, we really felt that this NEEDED to be chicken.

I can't speak for the quality of the original recipe, but J's take on it was delicious. The tahini in the marinade created a really fantastic crust on the outside when the chicken was cooked, and kept the inside moist and tender. The sesame flavor was made even more prominent by the addition of the toasted sesame oil, with just the barest hint of honey sweetness. Next time I think I'd squeeze a bit of fresh lemon over the chicken after cooking, just to further balance out the flavor, but as it stands it was savory and aromatic and wonderful.

The soup was, I think, a bit of a revelation for J and a proof of concept for me: gazpacho can, in fact be GOOD, and it doesn't have to be Mexican.

Gazpacho is something that always sounds really great to me in theory, but always disappoints in reality. I mean, I really can't imagine anything more summery and refreshing than a bowl of cold, fresh tomato soup, but anytime I've ever eaten it or made it myself I have really not liked it at all. But recently I had a wonderful lunch at Grayz in Manhattan during NYC Restaurant Week 2008, and my first course was essentially a gazpacho with an Italian twist. Chef Kuntz called it "Two Tomato Coulis with Three Basils", but whatever it was called it absolutely blew my mind. What struck me most was how simple, natural, and fresh the tomato flavor was - it was obvious there was very little in this soup other than the tomatoes themselves, with the upper flavor notes provided by a fresh garnish of chiffonade basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil. I absolutely had to learn to make it myself.

Further research showed that the soup was just as simple as it seemed - basically its just a bunch of tomatoes all whizzed up in a blender with some garlic, salt, sugar, and white pepper. Thinking about that, I realized that what I don't like about other gazpachos is the other ingredients that get added; the bell pepper, cucumber, onions, jalapeno, and whatever else just cover up the flavor of the tomatoes. The fact that I've never been a big fan of cucumbers probably doesn't help, but for whatever reason it never really occurred to me to leave them out. I almost never follow recipes as-written, but I just never thought about altering this one. I know, it makes no sense to me either. I was tempted to smack myself in the forehead once I figured this out, but was afraid J might think there was something wrong with me.

Anyway, moving on.

I'm going to include the recipe here, because the soup was delicious and I savored every bite just the way it was. However, I think I could execute it better and really clarify the flavors into something much simpler and cleaner on the next go-around, so expect to see this recipe revisited probably in the very near future..

Greek Gazpacho with Fregula Sarda
Fregula sarda (sometimes spelled fregola) is an Italian pasta variety from Sardinia (I know, even MORE of an identity crisis - this poor soup must be so confused). It looks rather like Israeli couscous, but the "grains" are toasted rather than simply dried, providing a distinctly nutty flavor to the cooked pasta. I used them here mainly to add some textural complexity, which worked really well. Its not something that is particularly easy to come by, though, so you could substitute in orzo pasta, rice, or Israeli couscous, or leave it out entirely - it won't affect the flavor of the soup either way.

And yes, I used canned tomatoes for this (for shame!) because they were all I had on hand. Obviously that's something I would change next time around.

1 14oz can diced tomatoes
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock or water
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp each fresh chopped oregano and rosemary
1/4 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped
1 pepperoncini pepper, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup green olives, chopped
1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1/4 cup fregula sarda
1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water

Toppings: fresh lemon juice, crumbled feta, chopped fresh parsley, and good extra virgin olive oil

To make the fregula sarda: heat the stock or water to boiling in a saucepan. Add the fregula and stir to keep the grains from sticking, then cover and cook for 10-15 minutes or until most of the water liquid has been absorbed and the grains are tender. Remove from heat and set aside - the grains will continue to soak up mist of the liquid that is left. If you like, you can rinse them in a colander before serving to remove any residual starches, but I didn't bother.

To make the soup: place all ingredients except for the lemon, feta, and parsley into another saucepan and stir to combine. Place over medium heat and simmer for 10 minutes or so, or until all of the components are soft enough to blend. Remove from heat and either puree right in the pan with an immersion blender (my favorite method) or pour into a standing blender and puree until smooth. The mix could then be strained through a sieve or tammis for a super-smooth product, but again, I didn't bother. Taste for seasoning - I found that my soup needed no salt at all and just a bit of fresh-cracked black pepper. White pepper would also be a good option, but I didn't have any fresh.

Pour the finished soup base into a sealable container (or into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap) and chill for at least an hour. You don't want this to be ice cold, but you don't want it warm either.

To serve, divide the soup base between two bowls. Gently spoon half the cooked fregula sarda into the middle of each bowl, then top with a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkling of feta and parsley, and a drizzle of good olive oil.

Notes for next time: Aside from the fresh vs. canned tomatoes thing, I would like to simplify the soup base a bit by removing the olives and using them instead as a garnish when serving. The rosemary may have been unnecessary, so I think I'd omit it completely. I'd also like to cut out the cooking process, which I think will be a necessity if I use fresh tomatoes, so I'm expecting to need to strain the soup next time around to get rid of any little bits of the tougher ingredients (thinking of the pepperoncini here) that won't break down into the soup without cooking. Other changes may present themselves when I try this again that I can't anticipate right now, but we'll see.

In Photos: BBQ for Two (a.k.a. The Perfect Sunny, Summer Saturday)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Gift with Possibilities

I don't say this often enough, but my parents are really cool. I mean, REALLY cool. You hear that, Mom and Dad? I'm talking about you!

Why do I mention this now, you ask? Well, here's why:

What you're looking at right there is quite possibly the coolest birthday gift EVER. (Well, maybe next to J's gift, which was Rock Band, and one of coworker buddy's gift of a Roger Dean print, signed by the artist. I mean honestly, how did I get such awesome people in my life?) Its a $100 gift certificate for a food enthusiast class at the Culinary Institute of America, and a catalog that's just full of temptingly interesting courses. I've always wanted to take a real cooking course or two, and the CIA is one of the most respected culinary academic organizations in the world. The only downside to this? Figuring out what course to take!

In theory, I could go to either the Astor Place location in NYC, or the main campus in Hyde Park (which is in the Hudson Valley area of NY, near Poughkeepsie). The Astor Place location would be a lot more convenient for me, and the hands-on classes are a bit cheaper there, so that would seem to be the obvious choice, but the main campus offers "boot camp" programs, which are a full day's worth of instruction along with an afternoon lecture.

I already know that I want to take a hands-on course rather than a basic demonstration course, despite the fact that the demonstrations are significantly cheaper and could be paid for entirely with the gift certificate - if I'm going to do this, I want real, hands-on instruction. There's a couple of classes that I'm eying (specifically the Astor Place "Sundays at the CIA" programs in Pasta or European Breads, or oen of the CIA Fundamentals courses, or the main campus Boot Camps in Classic and Contemporary Sauces, Spanish Tapas, or Italian-America Classics) but I want to ask around a bit to see if anyone I know has had experience with the CIA's enthusiast courses and which formats are the most worthwhile. I'm also debating the merits of choosing a course that might be a bit cheaper so that I could foot the bill for J to go with me - I know he'd enjoy it and it would be a lot more fun for us both to go at once. Decisions, decisions!

I know there aren't many people reading this blog yet, but if anyone happens to see this, do you have any suggestions or experiences you could relate?

I don't think I can express just how excited I am about this.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Poor Man's Surf-n-Turf (+dessert!)

I think the classic surf and turf dinner consists of filet mignon and lobster tail - delicious, I'm sure, but a little rich for us right now. Besides, with my food allergies, its entirely possible that I can't eat lobster at all. I don't actually know, I've been too scared to find out. I know, I know, I'm a wuss. Shut up.

Anyway, this is our significantly-cheaper version of the classic, because even if we can't afford filet and lobster we just can't resist the perfect pairing of tender, beefy steak with delicate, moist shellfish. And when you don't even have to go out for dinner for a great steakhouse meal, well, why would you ever want to?

That being said... well, honestly, this just didn't come out that good. It sounded great in theory, and I think if we'd thought a little more about execution it probably would have been. As it is, the steak was tasty but slightly overcooked and light on the seasonings, and the shrimp were WAY overcooked, so dry and rubbery I honestly couldn't bring myself to finish them. I can't even remember the last time we overcooked shrimp, let alone overcooked them THIS badly. How embarrassing.

It certainly looks good, doesn't it? Sigh.

It wasn't a total failure, because the steak itself WAS quite beefy and plenty juicy, and I think the seasoning would have been great had we ramped it up a notch. It was very simple - just some kosher salt and black pepper, plus a few grinds from my new favorite spice mill, and some finely-grated fiore de sardegna cheese that we toasted into a crust under the broiler right before serving. It needed more of both, I think, because the flavors were there but were a bit subtle for my tastes, and the cheese crust didn't really adhere to the meat as well as I'd like, probably because it was too thin.

I'm not really sure what happened with the shrimp - J cooked both the shrimp and the steak on the grill, and normally he's flawless with that, but the shrimp were in a pouch rather than directly on the grill grates, so I think it may just have been an issue of visibility. They DID taste good, lightly seasoned with kosher salt, black pepper, and lemon, but I just couldn't get around the texture. Not a big deal though, because we've turned out enough perfectly cooked shrimp that I'm willing to call this one a fluke, an error in judgement, and just pretend it never happened. Next time will be better.

However, check out that broccoli up there. THAT was tasty. Broccoli is just about my favorite vegetable in the whole world (I was one of those weird kids who actually got excited when my mom made it with dinner) and I've been cooking it for as long as I've been cooking, basically, so I've pretty much got perfectly cooked just-tender broccoli down pat (although I do still screw it up sometimes). I switch up the flavors depending on the meal its accompanying, but my method is simply to melt equal parts butter and olive oil in a pan over low heat so that the fats in the butter don't burn before it melts completely, then crank it up to medium-high and toss in a whole mess of fresh broccoli florets. (and the stems sliced-up, if I'm feeling frugal and don't want to waste them. Last night was one of those nights.) Then I'll add whatever seasonings I happen to be using - last night was garlic and onion powder, soy sauce, black pepper, and a few grinds of the same dry porcini used on the steak (and yes, I do occasionally use garlic and onion powder instead of fresh when I don't feel like chasing bits of garlic and onion around my plate. Again, last night was one of those nights.) - and basically stir-fry the broccoli until its nice and green and slightly browned around the edges, and is tender but still just a bit crisp in the very middle of the stalks. Mushy broccoli is not something anyone likes. Or at least, I certainly hope not.

This technique works just about every time, as long as I pay attention and don't walk away for too long so that it burns, or add to much liquid for flavor so that it takes forever to boil off and gets mushy. Sometimes I switch up the soy for lemon juice, or use fresh garlic and onions, or use balsamic vinegar and honey, or a sweet chili sauce - no matter what, its always good. And honestly, I don't care that the shrimpwere less-than-stellar, because I can just about always make do with a big ol' bowl of broccoli and nothing else and be completely satisfied. The fact that this time, the broccoli came with a pretty decent steak, was just a bonus. A big bonus.

If you ignore the blurriness of this photo, you'll notice that we were drinking Bedell wine, yet again. This time it was the Taste Red, and it was every bit as good as I remembered and a really lovely pairing with the rich, savory, meaty steak. I do think we just might need to repeat this meal and get it right, so we can have an excuse to buy another bottle.

Now, dinner may not have been a hit, but dessert... oh, dessert was a home run. And it was SO EASY.

A couple of weeks ago I picked up some late season rhubarb at Chelsea Market, wanting to make a strawberry rhubarb pie for J. (Who has never even tasted it. *gasp!* *shock!* *dismay!* I know!) However, being the scatterbrain that I tend to be, I completely neglected to buy strawberries at the store, and lacking the transportation or the strength of will to go back out to the store at the time, I decided to make rhubarb preserves instead, figuring that just about anything I could think to make with rhubarb would work just as well with rhubarb preserves. Besides, the preserves themselves were shockingly delicious - they're extremely simple, made with just about 5 cups of fresh diced rhubarb, 4 cups of sugar, and a bit of water to bring everything together, and although I will admit the preserves might have come out a bit too sweet, and I'll knock the sugar back by half a cup next time, the finished product is shockingly complex on the tongue - sweet, floral, fresh, just barely tart and bitter beneath the sweetness. Delicious.

Finally this weekend I had the presence of mind to pick up a punnet of strawberries, but I found that I was no longer in the mood to go to all the trouble of baking a pie. But I also found that I had about half a container of whipping cream in the fridge, leftover from a batch of vichyssoise last week, and some good aged balsamic vinegar in the cupboard. Bingo!

Forgive the yellow-ness of my living room lighting - I promise that in actuality this was white and red and gorgeous.

Rhubarb Fool with Balsamic and Black Pepper Strawberries

I made this in about 35 minutes total last night, with about half an hour of that time being completely inactive while the strawberries macerated. Yes, it really is that quick, and just about the easiest desert I think I've ever made. But you would never, ever know then when you taste it. This, my friends, is divine.

1 cup fresh strawberries, washed, hulled, and sliced
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp aged balsamic vinegar (Mine is an 8 year aged and is sweet and syrupy while still hanging onto the signature balsamic fruity tang. If you don't have a vinegar that is quire that sweet, or if your fruit is on the tart side, you may need to adjust the sugar content.)
1/2 tsp fresh-cracked black pepper (Would love to try pink peppercorns in this!)

1/2 cup whipping cream
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup rhubarb preserves

Combine the strawberries, sugar, balsamic and black pepper in a bowl and stir to coat the berries and help the sugar begin to dissolve. Cover with plastic wrap and stash in your fridge for at least half an hour, or longer if you can manage it - the longer they sit, the better they'll taste.

Pour the cream into a cold metal bowl and whip the heck out of it, preferably with a hand mixer or a stand mixer if you have it, but go ahead and use a whisk if you have that much arm muscle. You want to whip until you see soft peaks, then add the sugar and continue to whip until stiff peaks form and the sugar dissolves into the cream. Just don't over-beat, or you'll end up with butter!

Very gently fold in the rhubarb preserves - it doesn't need to be perfectly combined, and actually, little ribbons of preserves running through the cream look quite pretty. And there you go - you've got a fool. (I do love the name of this dish!)

To serve, spoon some of the strawberries into the bottom of a dessert cup or bowl, then gently top with a generous amount of the rhubarb fool, and finally with another spoonful or two of the berries and a drizzle of the sweetened balsamic/strawberry syrup left behind in the bowl. Garnish with a bit of fresh mint if you have it, and serve to your grateful guests. Trust me, they'll love you for this, no matter how mediocre dinner turns out.

Monday, August 4, 2008

We <3 Wine

Wine is something that I've sort of learned to love over the course of the last few years, almost entirely as a direct result of dating J. Before he and I started spending a lot of time together, my wine-drinking habits were basically limited to a lot of cheap rose (bad white zinfandel, basically, that was more sweet than anything else) and the occasional glass of fruity white. But J was a wine fan long before he met me, and he taught me a lot about wine just by exposing me to more of it. Where I used to shy away from anything darker red than a white zin, I discovered that a good pinot noir or shiraz became one of my favorite alcoholic beverages to drink casually. Where my tastes used to revolve around the sweeter end of the spectrum, I began to appreciate the dry, the smoky, the tart, and the complex. And although my palate is far from refined, and any bottle that costs more than $50 is generally wasted on me, I feel I've come a long way from where I used to be - at the very least, I definitely know the difference between a bad bottle, a mediocre one, and a really good one, and the range of wines that I can enjoy has widened exponentially.

The exploration of the world of wine has become one of our favorite hobbies, just below our cooking habit and on par with our fascination with microbrews and local beers (though that's a subject for another post).

Living on Long Island, we are just about an hour away from an already-huge-and-growing wine community on the east end. Both the north and south forks are just teeming with independently owned vineyards and wineries, nearly all of which welcome visitors for tours and tastings. Two weekends ago we made only our second trip out to the North Fork to tour Bedell Cellars and sample some wine, but I have to say it was one of the most enjoyable and educational experiences I've had for a long time.

We were joined by my parents who came up from the day from CT (where I as born and grew up). The vineyard tour was sort of a last-ditch effort to do something special on my birthday, since our original plan (Yes concert at Jones Beach) fell through (the band canceled the tour because Jon Anderson, the vocalist, was horribly ill). I was a little concerned going into it because I didn't know what to expect, but the entire experience was really wonderful.

The old farmhouse that was converted into Bedell's winery, offices, and tasting room. The big covered deck is new, just built within the last few years.

The Bedell building and grounds are really beautiful: the vineyards themselves are sprawling, rolling hills covered with grapevines; there is a grassy, shaded picnic area surrounded by an impressive flower garden; the covered deck is huge and houses lots of tables and chairs, a tasting bar, and space for a live band to play (which apparently happens every Saturday and Sunday afternoon during the summer); and the building itself which houses the barrel rooms, bottling room, offices, and the main tasting room, is simple and open and very modern in a sleek, clean, black-and-white sort of way. The vineyard owner is apparently a rabid art collector, so the winery building is heavily decorated in his favorite pieces, which are switched up every few months or so. The whole thing is also set back just far enough from the road and separated from it by just the right number of trees to significantly mute any road noise and make you feel like your way out in the country somewhere. All together, it feels very sophisticated and luxurious without being intimidating, which I think is made possible by the fact that everyone on staff seems to be extremely friendly, knowledgeable, and welcoming.

We began our afternoon with a picnic at a shady table on the side of the winery building, snacking on cold grilled chicken, red cabbage and fennel slaw, leftover stromboli, and some fresh goat cheese that my parents provided. It was delicious, light, and satisfying, especially when eaten outside, surrounded by all that beautiful scenery, with the soft sounds of live music wafting over from the pavilion nearby.

View of the vineyards from the picnic area.

Our private tour was scheduled for 3pm, and we ventured into the tasting room a bit early to browse the selection and let the staff know we were there. Our tour guide, Matt, showed up soon after and provided us with a glass of their First Crush White blend to take along on the walking tour, and off we went to the vineyards themselves.

Our tour guide, Matt (on the left) leads my parents and J down the corridor between two lengths of vines.

A 20 minute discussion among the vines gave us some history of both the tradition of winemaking on Long Island and the background of Bedell Cellars specifically, then the basics of growing wine grapes. Though there's nothing basic about it - I always knew that winemaking was a complicated and delicate process, but I never though about how many details can affect the final product: the lay of the land on which the vines are planted; the number of weeds that grow around the base of the vines (which are apparently a good thing because they suck up water, and wine grapes like it dry - another thing I didn't know); abnormal weather patterns that effect any of a number of minutiae, from the moisture content of the soil to the frequency and strength of winds to the seasonal migration of birds. There's clearly a lot to think about and pay attention to if you want to make good wine!

There's something really cool about seeing wine grapes on the vine. These are chardonnay grapes.

Then we moved indoors and into the barrel rooms for an explanation of the aging and blending process (and a welcome respite from the sun and heat). Bedell specializes in wine blends rather than true varietals, and they excel at it, again because they work at an excrutiating level of detail to ensure the best possible product. I don't know how common their operating practices are, but I was certainly amazed to learn that they hand-harvest and sort almost all of their grapes, keeping grapes from each section of the vineyard separated, even if they're the same kind of grape! Apparently grapes grown on a hilly patch of land will have a different flavor than grapes grown on a flatter patch of land, and they keep them separated to have the most control over the flavor of the finished product. They taste regularly, from once every two or three weeks to every other day depending on the variety and the age of the wine in question. And they use a mix of oak barrels from France and huge, modern steel tanks to age their wine, always in pursuit of what Matt repeatedly referred to as their "perfect, happy medium" - never too dry or too sweet, too oaked or too flat, always walking the middle of the road to make wines that are easy to drink but the best in their class.

Wine barrels. Matt uncorked one of the empty barrels and let us smell the inside - they smelled lovely, woody and dark and smoky.

Giant steel holding tanks. There were probably 8 of them in the room with the wood barrels, and probably another 8-10 in a separate room. They were massive and very, very shiny.

The last stop on the formal tour was the bottling room, which was shockingly small coming from the huge aging rooms. This was understandable, though, as the bottling process is entirely automated on a very nifty-looking piece of machinery. I would've loved to see it in action, but they weren't bottling anything that weekend.

The tour completed, we finished our afternoon in the owner's private garden for an hour of wine and cheese.

The lovely (though very warm) garden where we enjoyed our wine tasting, outside the vineyard owner's private on-site house. We were given a quick tour of the house as well, and it was really beautiful. Very much the sort of place I'd like to have someday, if a bit on the small side.

The wine tasting was shockingly generous and extremely good. We were given two plates of at least 14 different cheeses, covering a wide ranges of styles, milk-types, textures, and flavors (there was manchego, brie, fontina, asiago, stilton, drunken goat, and I can't even remember what else), with accompaniments like cornichons, grapes, blanched almonds, quince paste, and good crusty bread... and everything was delicious. The quality and variety of the cheese was nearly overwhelming, though in a good way.

And then, there was the wine portion of the tasting, where Matt provided 7 different wines for us to sample(on top of the glass of Taste White we were given earlier, mind you).

He started us off with their new sparkling white (apparently its so new that its not even on their website yet, so I can't confirm what its actually called) which was crisp and clean and danced a bit on the tongue; a bit sharp perhaps, but refreshing and not too sweet.

Then it was their Gallery white blend, which was one of the favorites of the day. Very tart on the backend, reminiscent of one of our other favorite whites, the Louis Jadot Poully-Fuisse... but more intense and well-rounded. It had a distinct crisp fruitiness, very strong hints of green apple and perhaps pear, that lightened it up significantly and provided a nice balance to the more sour undertones. It seemed to work well as a table wine, but also seemed like it would pair well with the right meal.

Next was the rose - another winner - which is produced by Corey Creek Vineyards, their recently-acquired sister vineyard. Forget all those sickeningly sweet bottles of Sutter Home White Zinfandel; THIS is what a rose wine should taste like. Only barely sweet, slightly dry actually, with a round, complex, bright berry flavor that is strongest on the nose. Matt touted it as the perfect summer "patio" wine, and he was absolutely right - he poured it heavily chilled, and to sip it under the hot sun was just divine. This was absolutely the best rose I have ever tasted.

Next was the First Crush Red, counterpoint to the white we were given at the beginning of the tour. The white was quite good, bright and clean and acidic and nice to sip while walking on a hot summer day, and the red version was rather true to that profile. It was light on the heft and body that I generally look for and love in a good red, but retained a fair amount of the bright acidity boasted by the white, and the flavor of the grapes seemed very true. Both First Crush varieties are aged entirely in the steel tanks, so that fresh fruity aroma and flavor is probably a direct result of their unoaked status.

Following the First Crush was the 2006 Merlot, which to me was the only weak point in the entire tasting and absolutely convinced me that what Bedell does best are blends. The merlot, while certainly drinkable and not in any way bad, was simply flat and uninteresting compared to everything else we tried. Mind you, of all the red varietals I have ever tasted, I've always found merlots to be the most dull, so its possible this is just my own still-developing preferences talking. Regardless, I was unimpressed.

The next bottle put it right out of my head though: the Taste Red. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah, this was very close to my perfect red table wine. It was fairly well balanced, leaning slightly to the dryer side of things, but had a complex, deeply fruity aroma and flavor overlaying a dark wash of smoky bitterness and subtle spice.

But if I thought that was good, it was nothing to the grand finale: the 2005 musee. Another red blend, this is Bedell's highest quality, most sought-after, and most expensive bottle. I'm not honestly certain that this bottle is always included in their tour-and-tasting packages, or if Matt was just giving us a bonus (which he did several times over the course of our afternoon), but this was a true treat and a real pleasure to experience. If the Taste Red was almost the perfect red wine for me, this very well might have been it. I can't really figure out how to describe it, except to have you imagine what the Taste Red would be like, then ramp it up a notch or two and add just a bit of extra sweetness that makes the whole thing smooth and velvety when it flows over your tongue. It was exactly what I look like in a table wine, in that it needed absolutely no pairing, no accompaniment, not palate-cleanser between sips and no outside flavors to develop the ones in the wine. It was perfect and delicious just as it was, and it only tasted better after each sip. Most definitely, this was a high note on which to end our vineyard experience.

Le sigh. The arbor-shaded walkway leading out of our little private garden haven of wine and cheese and back to the public area of the winery. It was a real shame to have to leave.

Before leaving we, of course, had to buy a few bottles. Sadly, the musee was quite a bit our of our price range (though I feel sure we'll be grabbing up a bottle or two before they're all gone - apparently there's only about 30% of the original run left) but we went away with a bottle each of the Gallery white, the rose, and the Taste Red, all of which my mother generously footed the bill for as a birthday gift. Thanks Mom!

(And as further proof of the value they place on their customers, we were not only given a bit of a break on the price of the tour itself because of "the heat in the garden" but we were also given an extra discount over the usual one offered to tour members. Anyplace that gives us bonuses like that, completely unsolicited, is automatically ranked pretty high in my book.)

All in all, this was a truly wonderful experience, one that I'm grateful to have had. I learned far more than I would have expected about the process and business of winemaking, and got to eat and drink tons of good things, and spend lots of time outdoors in a beautiful place on a gloriously sunny day. Does it really get any better than that? I don't think so. And in case you're wondering, we will definitely be going back, and will definitely be buying more of their wine.

Of course, having a few bottles in our hand right now, we just couldn't resist the opportunity to repeat the experience at home, albeit on a much smaller scale. :)

I can't think of a better way to relax on a warm Sunday afternoon than with a great bottle of wine, a plate of cheese and munchies, and my honey to share it all with.

Our private wine-and-cheese party consisted of a bottle of that fantastic Corey Creek rose (which I must admit we did not properly chill - oddly, it seemed to be at its best when quite cool), two kinds of cheese (drunken goat, which is goat's cheese that is aged with grape must, and fiore de sardegna, which was a random choice at the store this week and is completely delicious, nutty and almost tart with a texture like manchego), a fuji apple all sliced up, plus a few marinated mushrooms, almond-stuffed green olives, tri-color cerignola olives, and some tiny sweet grape tomatoes.

I just love the way this wine looks when the sun hits it. (Also, my pictures look so much better when taken in natural light! Our apartment is just too dark to take good photos, and I'm too lazy to set up a proper light box. I think I'll have to work on that.)

Though our outdoor patio isn't quite as quiet or pretty as the vineyard was, and though we didn't have the extravagant collection of tastes to savor, it was still a perfectly lovely way to spend an afternoon. Who says you have to drive an hour just to feel grown-up and sophisticated?

(Clearly, though, we were just pretending, because just a few hours later we were walking to the grocery store for beer and Elios frozen pizza for dinner. What? I know its trashy, but even a gourmet cook just wants some Kraft mac-n-cheese every so often!)

Bedell Cellars Vineyard and Winery
36225 Main Road, (Rt. 25)
Cutchogue, NY 11935
Phone: (631) 734-7537

What we did:
Proprietors Garden VIP Tour and Tasting
Weekends at 12 & 3pm
$50 per person
Call up the vineyard and ask for Matt - he'll be able to set you up. Just call a week or two in advance to be sure there'll be an open spot for your party. For bigger groups, there's always the snatdard VIP Tour and tasting, which is $35 per person and is the same tour, without the private garden tasting afterwards (though you still get some kind of tasting a tthe end - not too clear on the scope compared to ours).)

Click here for more photos from our tour of Bedell Cellars