Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cooking with Herbs

[Here's another article that I have migrated from]

Here are some recipes and notes from a demonstration of cooking with herbs at Blandy Farm, the State Arboretum of Virginia, on Sunday October 10, 2004, a gorgeous fall day in a most beautiful location in Clarke County. Thank you to the volunteers at Blandy for all their help. I had a wonderful time and the audience was super, asking questions, tasting dishes, and tasting the herbs.

When I was asked to do this demonstration, I knew that on one hand, it would not be difficult for me to find dishes to do because cooking with fresh herbs is one of the key differences between restaurant and home cooking. But, on the other hand, it would be terribly difficult to pick just a few dishes to do, because most of our dishes involve fresh herbs. I tried to pick dishes that span a wide spectrum of cuisines and techniques.

I also need to preface this article by saying that these recipes are just guidelines, written after the demonstration. Those of you present know that I measured absolutely nothing. Here then are the dishes.

Veal Medallions with Prosciutto and Sage
Grilled Herb-Marinated Pork Tenderloin
Lemon-Dill Risotto
Thai Fried Rice with Roasted Pork
Corvina in Warm Vinaigrette aux Fines Herbes
Apples with Thyme and Honey

Veal Medallions with Prosciutto and Sage

I don’t really expect that you have access to good veal. If you do, good for you. If you don’t, use pork tenderloin, turkey, or chicken medallions. Also, you may not be able to make your own demiglace or have access to commercial demiglace. For a substitute, use a bit of any meat broth.

8 ounces veal tenderloin
Wondra or plain flour
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
salt and pepper
4-5 leaves of sage, finely sliced
2 slices prosciutto
2 teaspoons veal demiglace
splash of water

Slice the veal into medallions. Heat a sauté pan over high heat and film with vegetable oil. Dredge the veal in Wondra and shake off the excess. Place in the pan and cook for a minute. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and add the sage and prosciutto. Turn the medallions and after 30 seconds, add the demiglace, stirring to melt. If the sauce is not liquid enough, add a splash of water. Remove the meat to hot plates and pour the sauce over.

If using meat broth rather than demiglace, after the medallions have cooked, remove them from the pan and keep warm. Continue reducing your sauce over high heat until it is a thick as you want it.

Grilled Herb-Marinated Pork Tenderloin

Although I cut the pork tenderloin into medallions and then marinated them at the demo, that was because I didn’t have a grill. This recipe was designed for grilling whole marinated pork tenderloins.

This is one of those freeform recipes in that it really doesn’t matter what herbs you use in the marinade. At the restaurant, we use whatever we happen to have on hand. Whatever mix we make, it is generally half parsley. We use assertive herbs such as rosemary and sage sparingly. There can never be enough garlic. We avoid licorice tasting herbs such as tarragon and chervil. I don’t think cilantro has any place in this recipe; you may disagree.

The mix I made at the demonstration consisted of parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary, basil, and chives.

1 or more pork tenderloins
1 cup assorted minced fresh herbs per tenderloin
black pepper
garlic, minced, one head per tenderloin
extra virgin olive oil

Mince the herbs and garlic. Add them along with black pepper and enough olive oil to form a fluid paste to a seal top plastic bag. Remove the silverskin from the tenderloins. Place the tenderloins in the bag and massage the herb paste all around them. Place in the refrigerator overnight or longer.

Grill on medium high heat, turning the tenderloin twice (they have essentially three sides), until done. Do not overcook. Medium to medium well is a good stopping point.

Lemon-Dill Risotto

This is a wonderfully subtle risotto that I use as a base for seafood, especially our house specialty caramelized scallops. Risotti are very easy to make, provided that you start with the correct Italian shortgrained rice. We use Arborio at the restaurant, but Carnaroli and Vialone Nano are just as good.

The canonical recipe for risotto is half a diced onion, 2 cups of rice, 1 cup of white wine, and 6 cups or more of other liquid. From here, it is merely theme and variation.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 yellow onion, finely diced
2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
6 cups warm water (or vegetable broth or seafood stock or chicken stock)
1 pinch saffron
2 tablespoons chopped dill
zest of half a lemon
2 tablespoons grated cheese (Romano, Parmigiano, or any other grana)
2 tablespoons butter

Heat a pan over medium heat and add the oil and the onion. Cook the onion until it turns translucent, then add the rice, stir it to coat with the oil, and cook until the edges of the rice become translucent.

Add the wine and let it all but evaporate. Add enough liquid to barely cover the rice and adjust the flame so that the rice is barely boiling. Add the saffron. As the liquid is absorbed into the rice, add more liquid by the ladleful until the rice is cooked to your liking. Stir frequently to keep from sticking. We stop cooking the rice when the center is just cooked through, about 20 minutes or so.

When the rice is just done, stir in the dill, lemon zest, cheese, and butter. If the rice is not a fluid consistency, add a bit more liquid. Stir very well to incorporate all the ingredients. Taste for salt after adding the cheese, which has a lot of salt. Serve immediately.

Thai Fried Rice with Roasted Pork

Here’s a dish that shows off some non-Western European herbs that are very simple to grow at home: cilantro and Thai basil. No two batches are the same because this is another clean out the refrigerator dish.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon essential fried rice paste
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 cup each of various ingredients (diced carrots, green onions, cherry tomatoes, roasted pork, etc.)
3 cups cold long-grained rice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
1/2 cup Thai basil leaves

Heat a large sauté pan over high heat and then add the oil. Then add the paste and black pepper. Stir well and cook for a minute or so. Then add any raw ingredients that you want to cook (such as carrots). When they are cooked, add the rice and any ingredients that just need to be warmed. Stir well. Add fish sauce to taste. When done, stir in the fresh herbs off the heat and serve immediately.

The white and black pepper kick in a surprising amount of heat. Should you want more, make some nam prik, sliced Thai bird chiles in fish sauce, to spoon over according to your tolerance for heat.

Essential Fried Rice Paste. Many Thai dishes start with a paste fried in oil and this dish is no different. The pastes are made in large granite mortars with heavy pestles. I use one at home. At the restaurant, we use the huge Vita-Prep which will liquefy anything in seconds. At your house, do your best with what you’ve got, although a household blender or food processor isn’t going to do a great job.

1 bunch cilantro, preferably with roots
1 bunch Thai basil
3 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 T white peppercorns (or 1 T ground white pepper)

Remove the stems and roots from the cilantro and Thai basil and roughly chop. Reserve the leaves (for the fried rice recipe above, for example). Pound all the ingredients to a paste in a mortar, or do the best that you can with a blender (in which case, start with ground pepper). If you need to add liquid to get the blender to work, add vegetable oil.

Corvina with Warm Vinaigrette aux Fines Herbes

I love to make fish this way: sautéed and finished with a vinaigrette. I actually came up with this idea during the middle of another demo. But, there’s nothing original in the cooking universe. A quick search of the Internet shows that this has been done time and time again by countless chefs. Here’s my take.

Corvina is a lovely small-flaked sweet white fish in the drum family, the same family that includes grouper and croaker. Customers seem to prefer corvine to grouper. Substitute any white or non-oily fish that you like. I would stay away from salmon and char, however.

Fines Herbes is a classic French combination, traditionally of four herbs. Years ago, I used to be certain what the correct four herbs were; however, the older I get, the more things tend to gray, not only my hair. Each chef has a preferred combination of fines herbes. Herbs that are more or less traditional are parsley, chervil, chives, tarragon, and perhaps dill. My combination is parsley, chervil, chives, and dill, in equal proportion.

1 tablespoon vinegar (rice, white wine, sherry)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (pure olive, soy, canola, grapeseed)
2 tablespoons minced fines herbes
2-4 fish fillets

Mix your vinaigrette by whisking the vinegar, oil, herbs, and salt to taste. Sauté the fish fillets until they are done. Pour over the vinaigrette and cook for 30-45 seconds. Serve immediately.

Apples with Thyme and Honey

I just wanted to show that apples respond well to savory seasonings. Think about all those German and Alsatian dishes of apples with caraway and/or juniper berries. Thyme is probably my favorite herb and would always be number one on the list of the five herbs I could take with me to a desert isle. I’m not going to give quantities here—they really don’t matter.

Key here is the quality of the apples. I used Blushing Goldens because they are one of the finest cooking and eating apples that I know. Look for a crisp apple with good flavor and excellent acidity. Hint: go to a farmer’s market. You are not going to find such an apple at the supermarket.

When we cannot get wild local honey (winter), we use honey from Virginia Honey in Berryville. Remember to shop locally.

apples, in slices
fresh thyme

Melt the butter in a sauté pan and brown the apple slices. Add fresh thyme, salt, and honey to taste.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pass the Port, Please!

This was originally published on

Among diners in the restaurant and even among the servers, there is a good bit of confusion about Port. It seems nobody is exactly sure how it is made or what the differences between the kinds are.

Port is one of the oldest recognizable wines in the world. If you were to go back to Portugal in the latter half of the 17th century, you would find sweet fortified wines that you would recognize, although the name Port didn’t evolve until much later.

The name Port is an anglicization of the town of Oporto, the port from which Port is shipped, on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Douro river in northern Portugal. Although the wine has been traditionally matured and bottled in Villa Nova da Gaia, across the river from Oporto, the wines are made a long way upriver in the upper Douro, from the east-west center of the country to the eastern border with Spain (where the river is known as the Duero as in the Ribera del Duero DO).

Today as ever, the wines are vinified on the quintas (the estates) upriver where the grapes are grown. Then the wines are put in casks called pipes and sent downriver to the various lodges in Villa Nova da Gaia where they are matured, and thence after shipped to the world, primarily northern Europe. Since 1986, the wines no longer have to be matured and bottled in Villa Nova and we are starting to see many fine wines matured and bottled on the various quintas, of which there are thousands, many privately owned.

The restrictions on maturation and bottling in Villa Nova were put in place by the large port shippers to control the trade: small producers could not afford to build a lodge in Villa Nova in which to mature and bottle their wines. They were forced to sell their wines to one of the bigger houses.


Port starts off life like most wines, undergoing the usual pressing and fermentation, except that winemakers do not try to slow the fermentation by keeping the juice cool as they do in other hot weather climates. Fermentation of port is often very warm. The sweetness comes in because the winemakers do not allow the fermentation to complete: they stop it by adding aguardente, neutral grape alcohol, in a process called fortifying the wine. Once the alcohol level gets above 15% or so, the yeasts responsible for fermentation are killed, leaving unfermented sugars intact, hence the wine is sweet.

Most winemakers fortify their wines when the sugar level falls to about 90g per liter of juice by adding 110 liters of alcohol to 440 liters of wine (the Port pipes hold 550 liters). To make a drier port, they let the fermentation go longer and add less alcohol (the longer the natural fermentation, the higher the base alcohol level). To make a sweeter port, they stop the fermentation earlier and add more alcohol.


The styles of port are very confusing if you try to read the labels on the bottles. The best rule to remember is that in addition to a port made solely from white grapes (called white port), there are basically only two styles of red port: ruby and tawny. Both these names are taken from the color of the finished product and if you look at both in a glass, it is immediately obvious which is which.

Once the port is fortified, it is then placed in pipes to age. How long it ages governs whether it is a ruby or a tawny. Rubies spend little time in barrel and maintain their youthful color, fruitiness, and vibrancy in bottle where they are no longer exposed to oxygen (a reductive environment). Tawnies, on the other hand, spend a long time (8 to 50 years or more) in barrel, oxidizing further and further. As red wine oxidizes, it turns browner and paler and takes on nuttier flavors. Where rubies are bright and fiery, tawnies are mellow and nutty. Different styles for different folks.

There are further subdivisions, especially within the ruby style. A normal ruby will see between zero and four years in barrel and will be blended from several vintages. A late bottled vintage (LBV) will see between 4 and 6 years in barrel and will be the wine of a single vintage. There is a move afoot to call LBVs reserve ports. A vintage port legally sees less than two years in barrel and is the product of a single vintage, a vintage that the port shippers decide is especially worthy. Vintage ports can take decades to mellow into fine drinking wines. As an example, my 1977s are just barely ready to drink and will age well beyond my lifetime.

We offer many different ports at One Block West, often pairing the nutty tawnies with nut-based desserts and the rubies with chocolate. They're both great matches.

Sparkling Wine

This was originally published on

One of my favorite subjects is sparkling wines. I’ll start with a brief overview of how these wines are made and then discuss some of the more prominent sparkling wines from around the world. Realize that this is a subject that really could occupy several hundred pages in a book, so bear with my obvious skimping on detail.

How They’re Made

I know of a dozen ways and variants of ways to make sparkling wine. Familiarity with two will cover 95% of all sparkling wines made and will certainly make you the cocktail party expert. The classic model for making sparkling wine is the méthode champenoise, the Champagne method. A cheaper bulk process for making sparkling wine is called the Charmat process.

Méthode Champenoise. In this classic method developed in the Champagne in northeast France, a base wine is made, like any other still wine. Then the base wine, sugar, and yeast are bottled. The sugar and yeast cause a secondary fermentation in the bottle, giving off carbon dioxide, the source of those wonderful bubbles. The wines are aged and, by various processes, inverted such that the yeast sediments into the neck of the bottle. To remove the dead yeast, the necks of the bottles are placed in a tray of freezing solution, forming an ice plug in the neck of the bottle. The bottles are turned right side up, uncapped, and the pressure of the wine shoots the plug out of the bottle. Finally, the bottles are topped off with more wine and sugar syrup (the dosage)—the base wines from which sparkling wines are made are very acidic and some sugar is needed to make them drinkable.

Charmat Process. In this process, the base wine, sugar, and yeast are put into a pressure tank in which the secondary fermentation occurs. The wines are clarified, generally by filtration, and then bottled with dosage.

Something special happens during secondary fermentation in the bottle, especially if the wine and the yeast (the lees) stay in the bottle together for a long period of time. The yeast gives off some very interesting flavor compounds that make Champagne method wines much more than just the base wine plus carbon dioxide. This effect seems to be lost or less effective in the bulk tank process, but the wines are much, much cheaper and faster to produce and therefore can be sold for a lot less money. In general, the best sparkling wines are made by the Champagne method.

Major Sparkling Wines

Champagne. It is fitting that we start with the archetypal sparkling wine, the justly famous Champagne. The Champagne is an area of northeast France that is entitled by French law to make wines under the Champagne appellation. I am firmly of the opinion that the word Champagne belongs to that place on earth and to those wines produced there, and nobody else is entitled to use that appellation in describing a wine.

Champagne is made from three grapes, two red, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and one white, Chardonnay. I find that the best wines, the ones with the most complexity, are blends of all three grapes. Increasingly, I see 100% Chardonnay Champagnes called blanc de blancs on the market. While many of them are very good, I think that the blended wines are generally better, and I wonder if this is not a marketing ploy aimed at Americans who recognize only one kind of white wine: Chardonnay.

Champagnes are generally white wines, although there are some rosés as well. Rosé champagne is now generally made by adding a little red wine in the initial blend, but increasingly rarely is it made by the traditional process of keeping the clear juice in contact with the red skins during fermentation.

Most Champagne is blended, not only from wines of the current vintage, but with wines from prior vintages, to achieve a consistent house style. In exceptional vintages, Champagne houses will produce vintage-dated wines. My first bottle of 1982 Dom Pérignon is a wine that I will never forget.

Champagne is made in four styles, named for the amount of sugar that is added in the dosage. If the wine is bottled with no sugar (very rare), it is called extra brut, brut zero, or brut intégral. Extra brut appears to be for masochists; I don’t really care for it. The vast bulk of Champagne sees 1% sugar and is called brut. Rarely seen are extra-sec (1-3% sugar), demi-sec (3-5% sugar), and doux (8-15% sugar). Demi-sec is stretching my limits and I find doux absolutely wretched.

Vin Mousseux. Vin mousseux is the French term for sparkling wine and it refers to any sparkling wine that is not Champagne. Many of the finest are called Crémant (“creaming”) and the French appellation organization INAO now recognizes many appellations such as Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Loire, and Crémant de Bourgogne. There are some very fine sparkling Chenin Blancs coming out of the Loire, especially from the Saumur. Each appellation allows different grapes.

Cava. Cava is a relatively new term that the Spanish started using when they gave up use of their infringing term Champaña. The Cava appellation is not geographically restricted in Spain; however, the vast bulk of the wine is made in Catalonia, home of Cordoníu, the first house to make Champagne method wines in Spain. The Cava DO on the label guarantees a wine made by the méthode champenoise. Several grapes are used in making Cava, the principal being Macabeo (which I also know as Viura and Queue de Renard). Incidentally, the Spaniards are the inventors of the gyropalette, a mechanical system of inverting sparkling wine bottles that has almost entirely replaced what was a fully manual, tedious, and very slow process called riddling.

Prosecco. Prosecco is a white grape from Friuli in northeastern Italy. The vast majority of wines made from Prosecco are made into a sparkling wine, so much so that the name Prosecco is synonymous with sparkling wine in current usage. Most Prosecco is made by the Charmat process, making it a fairly inexpensive wine.

Spumante. Spumante (“foaming”) is the Italian term for sparking wine. Over thirty appellations produce sparkling wine in Italy, in all colors, from all manner of grapes, and in all levels of sweetness. Many very good spumantes mimic Champagne in grape selection and in process. Unfortunately, the term spumante has a deservedly bad reputation in the US, thanks to Martini & Rossi and their sickly sweet, low alcohol Asti Spumante, made from the Moscato Bianco grape.

Sekt. Sekt is the German term for sparkling wine. From personal experience, I can say that most Sekt is very cheap, rarely seen in the United States, and is not worth drinking. I understand that there are some very good Sekts being produced from Riesling in part, but I have yet to have the opportunity to taste one.

Every winemaking region of the world makes some version of sparkling wine and many are excellent. For me, the standard by which all sparkling wines will be judged is Champagne. There is something about the grapes grown in that area that makes a very special wine. The rest of the world is catching up to Champagne in a hurry and that is a good thing for consumers. We have more excellent wines to taste now than ever, from everywhere, including several from right here in Virginia.

Ten Essentials for Your Pantry

Here's another article that I wrote years ago, in 2004 I think, for the Northern Virginia Daily with some ideas that home chefs can take away from restaurant cooking to improve their own. The advice that I wrote so long ago still seems pretty relevant.

Ten Essential Foods for Your Pantry

The well-stocked restaurant pantry at One Block West has hundreds of ingredients—everything you might imagine from rice flour to palm sugar to Tarbais beans. Here are ten essentials from our pantry to help you glamorize your home meals.

1. Gloss it up. To add just that little zing of flavor to a finished dish, buy a good extra virgin olive oil to drizzle over your white beans, minestrone, or fresh sliced tomatoes. Olive oils range from light, mild and buttery to sharp, pungent and herbal. Taste several and buy one or two that you like for glossing up a finished dish. Cook with less expensive oils though.

2. French fundamentals. Learn from the French. Demi-glace is stock reduced until it is syrupy and coats the back of a spoon. Save your bones in a bag in the freezer and then once every couple of months, roast the bones and some vegetables, and cook your stock all day. Strain and degrease the stock and return to the fire. Keep reducing until it is syrupy and freeze in an ice cube tray. Or buy some preprepared demi-glace at a well-appointed kitchen store. A tiny bit will finish a pan sauce or add body and depth of flavor to a soup.

3. Aged with grace. Take a second mortgage and buy a small flask of aged Balsamic or Sherry vinegar. Nothing finishes a steak or a slice of perfect heirloom tomato like a single drop of 50-year old balsamic vinegar.

4. King of the woods. Although expensive, a few dried porcini mushrooms go a long way to giving soups, stocks, stews, and risottos an incomparably rich and woodsy flavor. Add a handful to your next pot of white bean soup and you will be hooked.

5. Forget me not. Use the forgotten onions—shallots and leeks—for flavoring and discover subtle flavoring nuances that separate restaurant cooking from home cooking.

6. Fresh is best. The number one thing you can take from restaurant cooking—liberal use of fresh herbs, in sauces, in marinades, in salads and dressing, scattered on a finished dish, and for garnish.

7. Old salt. Ordinary modern table salt is the one salt we do not use. For brilliant, nuanced flavor and outstanding texture, try finishing a dish with a salt harvested from the salt marshes of France the way it has been for centuries—the incomparable grey fleur de sel.

8. Bring the heat. When you need to spice it up, think beyond vinegary Tabasco®. Try Sriracha from Huy Fong Foods for pure flavor and chipotles en adobo (smoked ripe, red jalapeños) for that extra hint of smokiness.

9. Grate finish. Nothing says class like grating a hard cheese over a dish to finish it. No need to spend a mint on Parmigiano—we like the more affordable sheep’s milk pecorinos better for all around use. Save the Parmigiano for eating out of hand.

10. Go east. Sauces from the Orient such as oyster, hoisin, black bean, soy, and white soy are chef’s playtoys. Each brings different flavor nuances to a dish and the thicker ones such as oyster and hoisin sauces are great for decorating plates.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


When I was growing up, there was just one vinegar for seasoning, White House Apple Cider vinegar, and Mom used white vinegar in canning. Now my pantry is not complete without at least a dozen vinegars.

Vinegar is indispensable in salad dressings, in certain marinades, and to perk up the acidity of a lot of dishes. I am constantly chiding my cooks about acidity and making them taste a sauce before and after the addition of a dash of vinegar or lemon juice. A long cooked sauce without sufficient acidity tastes flat and one dimensional. Add a little vinegar or other acid and the whole sauce brightens. Here is a list of the vinegars in my pantry and their uses.

Balsamic Vinegar

Our workhorse vinegar for salad dressings, this sweet, aged vinegar from Modena in Italy is made from the juice of grapes, primarily the Trebbiano grape. The juice is boiled down over open flame and then placed into wooden barrels with some older vinegar to start the acetification. Aged for a minimum of twelve years, the vinegar is transferred periodically to barrels of different woods to add different flavor components. You should have at least two balsamicos in your pantry: a mid-priced one for salad dressings and cooking, and an older one to use by the drop for seasoning (such as on melons, prosciutto, tomatoes, steak, strawberries, and so forth).

Grape Wine Vinegar

Wine vinegar is what happens naturally when wine is exposed to the air and airborne acetobacter bacteria. In fact, at home, I make all my own vinegar—it’s that easy. At the restaurant, we use red wine and white wine vinegar from Maille in France, primarily in our salad dressings. White wine vinegar is also my workhorse vinegar for pickles, chutneys, and sauces. There are many named wine vinegars such as Champagne vinegar and Cabernet vinegar, most of which tend to be of very fine quality with underlying flavor components from the base wine. In particular, we use two named vinegars a lot at the restaurant: Moscatel (brand Unio) vinegar and Sherry vinegar, both from Spain. Moscatel is an amber colored sweet vinegar that we use in flavoring sweet-sour dishes such as peach chutney. Sherry vinegar is also amber colored, fairly strong, and wonderfully nutty. It is incomparable in gazpachos and in romesco sauces. I use it whenever I want a nutty flavor component. And at home, I have some outstanding 50-year old sherry vinegar that I use by the drop, like aged balsamic.

Flavored Wine Vinegar

These are wine vinegars that have been flavored with some agent, generally a fruit or an herb. Two that are used frequently are raspberry vinegar and tarragon vinegar. Although I typically buy raspberry vinegar, I make tarragon vinegar which is as simple as walking to the garden, cutting some tarragon, washing it, and stuffing it in a bottle of good quality white wine vinegar. We do not typically use flavored vinegars at the restaurant, preferring instead to work with the fresh flavoring ingredients.

Rice Wine Vinegar

These are the vinegars of the Orient and are well worth knowing. Although there are many kinds being made, we use three different ones at the restaurant. We use plain (unsweetened) rice wine vinegar (brand Kong Chen) whenever we want good vinegar flavor without overwhelming acidity. This is often the vinegar that I select for the dressing for my lunch salad. We also use sweetened rice vinegar (called “Seasoned,” brand Marukan with the yellow lid, not the green lid). We use the sweetened rice vinegar in making our Thai dipping sauce of vinegar, sugar, fish sauce, and chile paste. We also use it for flavoring our sushi rice for staff sushi meals. And we use Chinese black vinegar (brand Gold Plum), called Chinkiang after the province where the best black vinegars are made from glutinous rice. Black vinegar can be incredibly complex and is in its own right as good as any balsamic. I use black vinegar for dipping, for barbeque sauces, for meat marinades, for braising meat (especially pork), and sometimes as a substitute for balsamic. There is also a red rice vinegar with which I have no experience.

Cider Vinegar

Those of us living in Winchester surely know when National Fruit (our local apple processing plant) is making a new batch of apple cider vinegar! In the fall, we start smelling vinegar when the wind is to the north. A good all purpose vinegar, I reach for it for pickling cucumbers, making mignonettes, and acidifying Mexican dishes, especially adobos. White House brand is way better than Heinz, but the French brands have them all beat. Cider vinegar is all about the apples used to make the cider and the French have cider making down to an art form.

Malt Vinegar

Strangely enough, malt vinegar has never been in my culinary vocabulary. I guess growing up in apple country will do that to you. Made by the same process as beer, malt vinegar starts as barley that is sprouted (called malting), then brewed into an unhopped ale, and acetified. Commonly used on fish and chips, but I like my fish unfried and my chips without vinegar.

White (or Distilled) Vinegar

White vinegar is an industrial product: acetic acid from any source, distilled to remove flavor and color, and diluted to a specific concentration (4% to 5%). We use a lot of white vinegar at the restaurant, especially as a deliming agent in our dishwasher and in our food warmer. We have to get all those white lime deposits off our glasses and plates! White vinegar is a pretty good disinfectant too and we use a lot of it to wipe down counters and equipment. We do not use it in cooking.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Chile Primer

What a boring world this would be without chiles to enliven it! Our kitchen staff and most of the crew at the restaurant are chile heads and I am the chief among them. We take our heat seriously. It took me a year of solid once-a-week training to train my favorite Thai chef in Fairfax to heat it up enough for me. Here’s a brief stream-of-consciousness primer on some of our favorites. We start with the fresh chiles and then move to the dried and condiment chiles.


Before delving into the chiles and their uses, let’s spend a moment on terminology, which is as confusing as the day is long. I use the world chile to describe the fruit of any of the plants in the Capsicum genus (except that I call a Bell pepper a Bell pepper). Common names of the various chiles are terribly muddled, in part because chiles crossbreed like crazy, resulting in hundreds of named chiles (any many without any common names). Also, many of the names developed in rural and mountainous areas of Mexico, and Central and South America. In some cases, different names evolved for the same chile because of the difficulty of travel between neighboring areas. And then, there are regional differences in names, not unlike our own rockfish which is an entirely different fish from rockfish on the west coast.

I confront this nomenclature issue every time I order chiles from a new company. For example, our workhorse chile is the poblano, and yet various produce companies list it (wrongly, it turns out) as pasilla, mulato, or ancho. Pasilla is an entirely different chile. Mulato and ancho are dried forms of poblanos (mulato is the dark brown color variant and ancho is the brick red variant).

Now if the common nomenclature is muddled, taxonomy is also a bit of a work in progress. At the current state of understanding, the Capsicum genus is divided into about 26 species, five of which are domesticated. These are Capsicum annuum, including most of the common varieties such as Jalapeño and Bell; C. baccatum, including the tiny South American berry-like Aji chiles; C. chinense, including the really fiery Habañero and Scotch Bonnet varieties; C. frutescens, including the very bushy chiles such as Tabasco; and C. pubescens, including the very spicy South American Rocoto and Manzano varieties.

Fresh Chiles

Poblano. A large, deep green, heart-shaped mild chile with a touch of heat, this chile is our workhorse replacement for Bell peppers, which I don’t really care for. Extremely versatile, this chile can be roasted and stuffed whole, roasted and diced, or simply diced. We rarely use this chile raw (for salads or salsas). The spice can vary dramatically from chile to chile, so taste a bit from each one. I have created some extremely spicy dishes by accident. Also, I have received serious burns on my hands from some extremely spicy poblanos. In general, however, poblanos are very mild.

Jalapeño. We keep Jalapeños around for their rich flavor and green crispness. We use them either sliced (and unseeded) in stir-frys or finely diced to add spice to salsas. Sadly, it is hard to find jalapeños that are spicy. I believe that they are being selected for size and looks, and not for flavor. More and more, we pickle jalapeños and then stuff them. So, we keep the next two chiles in our arsenal for times when we want the heat.

Serrano. Short and bullet-shaped, these medium green chiles pack reliable heat and are almost always available in produce markets, making them a regular in our cooler. We use them for perking up salsas.

Thai Bird. These very small and short chiles start green and ripen through yellow, orange, and red (as do most chiles). They are the spiciest chiles that I regularly tangle with. Not as spicy as Habañeros, but worlds spicier than serranos, we use these when we really want intense spice, which is most of the time in our staff meals. We often slice bird chiles and cover them with fish sauce, which we then put liberally on our Thai dishes.

Piquillo. Piquillos are short, triangular, deep red sweet chiles with fairly thick walls, grown in the Ebro river valley in northern Spain. When fully ripe, they are slow roasted until their skins blister and char. Then they’re peeled and canned and shipped to market. Piquillos have the most intense and satisfying flavor of any sweet chile that I know. They are expensive and worth every penny of it.

Roasted Red (Pimientos). These big triangular red sweet peppers are roasted, peeled, and canned. The ones we use at the restaurant are locally grown in season and from Turkey otherwise. We use them in various soups (cream of red pepper), sauces (romesco), and in plenty of other dishes.

Corno di Toro. “Bull’s horn” is the name of an heirloom Italian frying pepper that we buy at the local farmer’s market. Once you see these beautiful long, curved chiles resplendent in all shades of green, yellow, orange, and red, you will understand immediately how they come by their name. Their incredibly rich flavor when sautéed makes them a fixture in our summer pastas paired with sautéed onions and grilled eggplant.

Anaheim. These long, light green, fairly thick-walled chiles have a mild chile flavor with almost no heat. We would use these in place of Poblanos if we didn't have any Poblanos in the cooler.

Pepperoncini. These short, light green peppers come to us already pickled and ready for salads. I have never seen a fresh one. Spice levels vary from one brand to the next.

Dried Chiles

Cayenne. Cayennes are long, skinny, thin-skinned red chiles with good heat. We buy them in powder form. Cayenne sees the bulk of its use in our kitchen in our Cajun spice mix, which we call “Magic Dust.” Cayenne also finds it way in very small quantities into pâtés and cream-based soups and sauces, along with white pepper, just to give a richer flavor, without adding any appreciable spiciness. We sometimes use chiles de Arbol, a shorter chile than a cayenne, with about the same flavor and spice profile.

Ancho. Anchos are dried poblanos, very dark, deeply wrinkled, and heart-shaped. Toasted and ground anchos are the primary chile in our mix for flavoring stews such as chile colorado. There is a very dark brown form of ancho called a mulato.

Pasilla. Pasilla, often called pasilla negro, is the very long, skinny, black, wrinkled, dried version of the chilaca chile. I use this mild, earthy chile to add background to moles.

Guajillo. We use the shorter smooth guajillos as an accent note in our chile dishes and moles. They have more spice and brightness than anchos and pasillas.

Pimentón. There are paprikas and then there is pimentón, a paprika that has come to be our darling spice in the kitchen. In the area around La Vera in Extremadura of Spain, they grow a wonderfully flavorful pimiento that they dry over a smoky fire before grinding. Sold in dulce (sweet), agridulce (bittersweet), and picante (spicy) forms, this paprika is a mainstay in flavoring chorizos and myriads of traditional dishes such as paella. We use a lot of the agridulce form—it is the primary flavoring in the dressing for our smoked chicken salad, for example. The brand we use, La Chinata, is available at


Sriracha. Sriracha is a fluid paste of ground red jalapeños that comes in squirt bottles. Euphemistically, we call it ketchup in the kitchen, where we squirt it on our own meals whenever we want a little zing. We also call it rooster sauce, after the rooster logo on the bottle of our favorite brand from Huy Fong Foods. The only downside to Sriracha is that it contains a good bit of sugar, so it comes off tasting sweet.

Sambal Oelek or Chile-Garlic Paste. Sambal oelek and chile-garlic paste, both also from Huy Fong, are coarsely ground sauces of red Jalapeños, without and with garlic. I love to start a dish by caramelizing a spoonful of either sauce in an extremely hot pan (don’t breathe the fumes!). We use these sauces to flavor certain soups such as Moroccan Chickpea Stew and in various marinades and sauces such as harissa.

Tabasco. We all know Tabasco and at the restaurant, we buy it in the giant bottles. I don’t make scrambled eggs without a shot of Tabasco (you don’t know it is there, but the eggs do taste richer) and our Bloody Marys wouldn’t be anywhere without a healthy dose of Tabasco. We use it to flavor anything where we don’t mind the vinegar that it’s made from. When seasoning a cream sauce, I wouldn’t want the vinegar in Tabasco, so I would use cayenne. Tabasco is always in our bean soups, though you may not be able to taste it.

Chipotles en adobo. I know that McIlhenny is trying to extend its Tabasco brand with a chipotle sauce, but still, the real deal cannot be beat. Chipotles are ripe, red jalapeños that have been smoked. They come either dried or canned in an adobo sauce (fundamentally a tomato purée). We use all the smoky adobo from the can to flavor various dishes (our black bean soup usually has a healthy dose of chipotle) and then we blend the chipotles and run them through a fine mesh to remove the seeds and bits of skin.


In our kitchen we do not use Bell peppers. I have always been of the philosophy that if you don’t like something, you have no business cooking it. Although I do like raw Bell peppers in salads from time to time, I am not a fan of that in-your-face vegetal flavor that uniquely screams Bell pepper. Also, we don’t often use Habañeros. Putting aside the fact that they are too spicy to feed to the general public, they have a really fruity (apricot, plum, and green apple) undertone that I don’t really care for in a chile, except in fruit-based salsas.

When handling chiles, especially ones of unknown spiciness, assume the worst and wear gloves. Once, I peeled a half bushel of normally mild roasted poblanos and came away with very bad burns on my hands, because I assumed the chiles were mild. Bad assumption. And remember that when you slice chiles, you are contaminating both the knife and the cutting board. Capsaicins, the family of alkaloids that provide the heat, are not particularly water soluble. I find that rubbing alcohol does a better job of cleaning capsaicins than does water.

Remember too that the capsaicins are not uniformly distributed in a chile. The seeds and the ribs (the membranes holding the seeds to the walls of the fruit) are more likely to be spicier than the flesh of the chile. And a little nibble off the tip of the chile is not necessarily a good predictor of what the rest of the chile will be like. Ask me how I know. I have found that with larger chiles, my nose can often tell me whether a chile is spicy or not.

Also, if you’re grinding dried chiles in the spice mill, wait for the dust to settle down a bit before you open the mill. I can assure you that a big snootful of ground Arbols is no picnic!

Finally, make sure that you wash your hands well. One touch to your eye with a fingertip laden with capsaicins or a visit to the restroom is enough to teach you a really valuable lesson! Yep, I learned this one too.

An Herb Primer

Here are notes on the herbs that we use most often at the restaurant.


Most of the culinary basils have some mint, licorice, or cinnamon flavor components. Each basil varies in flavor, but they are all wonderful. Basil and tomatoes are forever joined in my cooking vocabulary. I don’t understand one without the other. Basil is always included in my herb marinades. Basil is generally cut in ribbons (called a chiffonade) or chopped. It grows easily from seed once the ground warms up. Pinch it back liberally to keep it from blooming. See also Thai basil.


A tender herb with delicate fernlike leaves and a slight licorice flavor, chervil does not tolerate heat, so we use it most in spring and in the fall. Chervil is a classic component of fines herbes and works very well with fish and poultry. Chervil is generally plucked from the stems. I love to steam salmon with chervil and if I have it in stock, chervil goes into our herb mayonnaise for fish. Sow early and late in the season in not too direct sunlight. I find it works great on the back side of my pea trellis.


Chives are a workhorse for me, always featuring in my herb marinades. I love them for their delicate onion flavor and beautiful blue-green color. Also a classic component of fines herbes, chives are usually sliced into thin rings. I often use them to bring a bit of color to light colored foods. Once established, chives are care free and easily self-seeding (to the point of being a pest!). Even if you only have a coffee can on the windowsill, you should have some chives. We also use the blossoms for garnish and I often shred the blossoms into omelettes.


Nothing screams “Fresh!” to me like cilantro (whose seeds are called coriander). The most commonly used fresh herb in the world, cilantro (also known by its Hindi name Dhania) features in all my Latino cooking, in Indian chutneys (dhania chatni, for example), and as a primary flavoring ingredient in salsas. Salsa and cilantro are so linked in my culinary vocabulary that if I did not have fresh cilantro on hand, I probably would not make salsa. Use sparingly as cilantro has a pronounced flavor and be aware that as much as ten percent of the population finds cilantro disgustingly soapy tasting (this is believed to be a genetic issue). Cilantro is most often plucked from the stems and chopped or used whole as garnish. Cilantro does not tolerate heat well, so grow in the early and late seasons. Grows trivially from seeds.


Dill is a favorite herb. When I think dill, I think cucumbers, sour cream, and salmon. An inoffensive herb, dill can be used in fairly large quantities. It is especially good with eggs, fish, and poultry. Dill is plucked from the stems and optionally chopped. Readily sown from seed, dill reseeds without any effort on your part.

Garlic Chives

Garlic chives are an onion relative with bright green, flat leaves with a pronounced garlic flavor. I use them in generic herb marinades and also any time that I want garlic flavor plus bright green coloring. They are a classic in the chicken mousse that is stuffed into Chinese dumplings. Garlic chives are generally sliced into thin rings as are chives. I always add them to my herb marinades because I have them everywhere now. I never had any success germinating them from seed, but I was able to buy a small pot at a greenhouse and divide it about 12 ways. Now that I have them growing, they self-seed like crazy to the point of being weeds. Go figure.


Lavender is not much used as a culinary herb in the US, but it is often found in herbes de Provence from the south of France. The leaves are slightly musty as is sage, so I use them sparingly in herb mixes and chop them very fine. The blooms I sometimes steep in cream to flavor desserts.


Lemongrass is a grass that grows in clumps and has a delicate citronella flavor that is very difficult to mimic with other lemon flavorings. Easy to grow, but very tender, lemongrass wants heat and moisture. Harvest individual stalks from the outside of the clump and strip away any of tough outer leaves. Cut off the top of the stalk about five inches above the roots and discard the tops. Slice the cream colored lower part of the stalk into rings for marinades and chop the rings finely if you are using the lemongrass in a finished dish. At first frost, harvest all your lemongrass and freeze it. You can try to bring it inside, but I have never had any luck at this.

Lemon Verbena

We grow this tender herb in pots outside the restaurant door. It has a wonderfully intense lemon flavor and even more pronounced fragrance. I use it in herb marinades and for garnishes, but mostly for flavoring desserts such as panna cotta.


There are many, many kinds of oreganos and marjorams on the market and they all vary slightly in flavor. The flavor is very assertive, so use a light hand with this herb. Strip the leaves from the stems and chop finely. I mostly use oregano in flavoring Greek dishes and in general herb mixes. I do not like oregano in tomato sauces. It reminds me too much of crappy pizza sauce.


I think we’re all familiar with parsley and its bright flavor. We only use flat leaf parsley at the restaurant. Not only is it easier to chop, but it has more flavor than curly parsley. Although it is a biennial, it is pretty useless in its second year—all its effort is going into bolting. Replant every spring.


Rosemary is a classic Mediterranean herb and a natural with lamb and in meat sauces. I love to roast chickens and potatoes with rosemary. It’s a very assertive herb, so use it sparingly. Depending on what I want to do, I either include whole sprigs in bouquets garnis, strip the leaves, or strip the leaves and chop them very fine. If you’re lucky, you can grow rosemary in our climate. There are two cultivars that can tolerate some cold, Arp and Alba. Arp has much better flavor than Alba. Over a period of years, I was able to select a strain of Arp that consistently wintered over for me (on a southwest-facing wall) and ultimately got four bushes to be about five feet tall. Then we remodeled the house and the bulldozer got them before I could move them. A sad day that was.


Sage is one of the classic Southern poultry herbs along with thyme. Sage features prominently in my poultry dressings, in dirty rice, in my Southern style sausage, and I stuff it into the cavities of chickens that I roast. Sometimes I put whole sage leaves under the skin of chickens to be roasted. Sage is also prominent in Northern Italian cooking and I love it with veal and in white beans. Sage is one of the few herbs that I like better dried than fresh. I generally chop the fresh leaves fairly fine.


Tarragon is another of the classic fines herbes from France. It goes well with both poultry and fish and is a key flavoring ingredient in sauce tartare and in sauce Béarnaise (which I detest). An assertive herb with a definite licorice flavor, tarragon wants to be used sparingly. Strip the leaves from the stems and chop finely.

Thai Basil

One of my darling herbs, Thai basil tastes to me like a cross between mint and black pepper. What a fun flavor profile! An indispensable garnish for many Thai dishes, Thai basil is easy to grow from seed, once the soil gets warm. Strip the leaves as for any other basil. Since the leaves tend to be very small, I often leave them whole. Thai basil is a catchall name for a variety of basils, most of which have purple stems and small dark green leaves.


Were I asked to choose five flavorings to bring to a deserted island, the first four are no contest: salt, pepper, thyme, and garlic. I like thyme so much that I cannot think of cooking without it. And it is the one herb I can count on year round. It’s always in the garden, even under the snow. Thyme is one of the quintessential poultry herbs and I rarely roast a chicken without a healthy sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves and a bunch of sprigs stuffed into the body cavity. Thyme leaves are easily stripped from the stalks by pulling from the root end to the tip. There are scads of cultivars, each with its own flavor. Plant a bunch and try them out. My all-time favorite was a variegated thyme (lemon yellow margins on dark green leaves). Sadly, it died without me being able to divide it. I don’t use dried thyme. It can be really strong and bitter.


A frittata is an Italian egg dish that is often described as an omelette. Frittate (uno frittata, due frittate) are actually more like egg tortes or or cakes than omelettes. In Italy, they would flip the frittata in the pan to cook both sides. It seems much simpler to finish the frittata in the oven, rather than trying to flip it. You can put anything you like in the frittata for fillings. Here is what we do at the restaurant for a small frittata.

One Block West Frittata

1 tablespoon oil
3 large eggs, well beaten
fresh basil, chiffonaded, to taste
garlic, to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1 small tomato, chopped (fresh or canned)
1 small redskin potato, boiled and sliced
1 tablespoon diced pancetta or diced ham
a few spinach leaves, blanched or wilted
1 tablespoon feta cheese, crumbled
grated Pecorino or Parmigiano cheese

Preheat the oven to hot, 400-450. Preheat a small ovenproof skillet (8”) over medium flame. Meanwhile, beat the eggs really well with basil, garlic, salt and pepper. If you take your time and beat the eggs well, incorporating some air, you will end up with a fluffier frittata [which is why my frittate always look better than the ones my line cooks make—they always want to rush things]. Add the oil to the pan, then the beaten eggs. Let the eggs set on the bottom of the pan for a moment, then add the tomato, potato, pancetta, spinach, and feta.

Let the eggs set around the edges, until the frittata is about half cooked. Sprinkle the top with grated cheese and place it into the hot oven. Cook until the center is set and the frittata is risen. Remove to a plate, slice into wedges, and serve immediately.

An 8” 3-egg frittata and a salad feeds two people, or one very hungry one. A 10” frittata (increase the eggs to 8) should feed four people, with a salad. Cooking time on an 8-egg frittata will almost double from 7-8 minutes to about 15-20 minutes.

Variations. We serve a different frittata special everyday here at the restaurant. Here are some ideas:

Pancetta, Rapini, and Fresh Mozzarella Cheese
Pancetta, Sun-Dried Tomatoes, and Spinach
Caramelized Onion, Asparagus, and Artichoke Hearts
Pancetta, Red Onion, Artichoke Heart, Feta, and Basil
Chorizo, Onion, Manchego, Thyme, and Potato
Bread Cubes, Fresh Tomato, and Basil
Pasta, Spinach, Pine Nuts, Dill, Garlic, and Lemon Zest
Crab, Herbed Cream Cheese, and Chives
Fennel, Artichoke, and Goat Cheese
Tomato, Basil, and Fresh Mozzarella
Tomato, Spinach, Dill, Pepperoncini, Olives, and Feta
Balsamic-Glazed Red Onion, Roasted Red Pepper, and Serrano Ham
Grilled Chicken, Croutons, Asparagus, and Muenster Cheese
Chipotle Cream Cheese and Kielbasa
Wild Mushrooms, Caramelized Onions, and Brie
Fennel, Tomatoes, and Olives

As you can see, the possibilities are endless.

Ten Useful Kitchen Gadgets

While I'm dredging up old stuff from the restaurant web site, I might as well repost this article that I wrote about three years ago for the Northern Virginia Daily. The advice about which kitchen gadgets are actually useful (as opposed to the myriad that are not) is still valid today.

Ever wondered why restaurant food is so different from home food? It’s because we take just a little extra time to make things special. Here are ten of my gadgets and tricks to help you easily glamorize your home meals.

  1. Please squeeze me. One look in one of our reach-in refrigerators would show dozens of clear plastic squeeze bottles, like the ones you see holding ketchup and mustard at a diner. They’re filled with everything from flavored oils to homemade sauces to pre-prepared sauces. We use them to dot dishes with flavor and to decorate plates. Blend chives and olive oil and let separate. Decant the oil into a squeeze bottle and you’re ready to go.

  2. Beyond coffee. We use the common and cheap coffee grinder for grinding whole spices. As the Indians and Mexicans do, toast whole spices and then grind them for a fresher, more vibrant flavor.

  3. Zest for the best. The fantastic Microplane® grater/zester is the tool for grating hard cheese over pasta or a salad. It’s also the tool that we use to grate lime zest over our Thai and Mexican soups.

  4. Bag it. Use a pastry bag with a star tip to pipe those mashed sweet potatoes onto your Thanksgiving plates and your guests will think you’re a kitchen genius. For cleanliness and food safety reasons, we’ve switched to one-time-use disposable bags.

  5. Be the wizard. Think we’re knife wizards with hours and hours of spare time to hand slice all those beautiful cucumber scales for our cold poached salmon? Or those potato scales for our potato-crusted sea bass? Think again. After having gone through three $250 professional mandoline slicers, we think that cheap Japanese benriners cannot be beat.

  6. Blend in. Our inexpensive immersion blender lets us thicken and puree soups right on the stove, without moving the hot pan and without risking burns using the big blender. And it makes salad dressings a snap—we can make small quantities right in the speed pour bottles from which we dress salads.

  7. On point. Wonder how we get those lamb racks on point—just how you want them—time and again? It’s a five dollar meat thermometer, the best investment you’ll ever make to safeguard against both over- and undercooking foods.

  8. Soft and curly. Another favorite is our soft-handled vegetable peeler. Besides getting a constant workout on potatoes, it’s also responsible for the beautiful cheese curls on our salads and soups. When yours becomes dull, get a new one.

  9. Cook’s friend. Parchment paper has hundreds of uses from lining pastry pans, to making icing horns, to shoring up the sides of soufflé pans. A favorite use: making packets of fish, vegetables, herbs and white wine for a sensational baked fish en papillote that will amaze your guests.

  10. Foiled again. Forget how useful aluminum foil is? We bake our baby beets in a foil pouch on a sheet pan. They steam without burning and we have no mess to clean. Do the same for roasted garlic to enhance your sauces, stews, and pasta.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Winter Squash

I am doing a lot of tidying of the restaurant web site. Here's an article that I just found laying around in the depths of the site. I wrote this originally for the Winchester Star some years ago and have updated it for the blog. I figured it wasn't doing a lot of good just laying around in cyberspace and it seems a timely enough topic. We're using a lot of winter squash at the restaurant right now.

Many people know winter squash, the hard-fleshed, hard-skinned squashes that store well over the winter, from sweet preparations, if at all. However, there is a whole savory world of uses for winter squash. You’ll find some of the winter squash recipes and ideas from the restaurant below.

All winter squashes in the US belong to the gourd family (Cucurbita) that includes summer squashes, melons, and cucumbers. We generally see Butternut, Acorn, Hubbard, Long Island Cheese, Fairy Tale, and various Pumpkins in the markets in Winchester. From time to time, we also see Kabocha, Delicata, and Cushaw squashes and Turban Gourds in the market.

From a cooking perspective, these squashes are interchangeable (as are sweet potatoes) and are excellent in soups, baked, roasted, scalloped, in gratins, mashed, and sautéed.

These squashes get their deep orange and red colors from carotenes (notably beta carotene), which are precursors of Vitamin A, thus winter squashes are good sources of Vitamin A and some also have a fair amount of Vitamin C as well. Winter squash are generally good sources of antioxidants. They also happen to taste great too.

There are two main preparation techniques for these squash. Either you split them, roast them, and scoop out the flesh to get a purée, or you peel and slice the squash raw. In either case, you must have a very sharp and heavy knife to work with the hard-skinned and hard-fleshed winter squashes.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Country Ham and Leeks

Here's soup that I have been making for more than 20 years. If you don't want the ham or don't have any, omit it. The real trick here is in making sure that you caramelize the squash very well. You don't have to caramelize it at all, but that is what makes my soup so much better than the average soup.

1 medium butternut squash, 3-5 pounds
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1/4 pound country ham
1 large leek
1 sprig of fresh thyme

Peel, seed, and chop the butternut squash into cubes. Make sure that the cubes are all roughly the same size so that the squash will roast uniformly. Place the squash in a roasting pan and coat with olive oil and a little salt and pepper. Toss well to cover thoroughly and place in a hot oven to roast. Turn every five minutes or so until all sides are well caramelized.

Meanwhile, dice the ham into small pieces and clean and chop the leek. In a sauté pan, add the ham and a little olive oil and cook the ham until it is well caramelized. Add the leeks at this point and sauté until they are soft, a minute or two. Place the ham and leeks in a soup pot. Deglaze the sauté pan with a little water to remove the caramelization on the bottom. Add the pan juices to the soup pot.

Place the caramelized squash in the soup pot and add water to cover. Add the thyme sprig. Simmer for 20 minutes and remove the thyme sprig. Place the soup in a blender and carefully blend until smooth. Thin with water or stock as needed. You can omit the ham to yield a vegetarian soup. Garnish with tiny dice of sautéed apples finished with honey, a swirl of crème fraîche or sour cream, and fresh thyme leaves.

Roasted Winter Squash and Onions

Nothing could be easier; what a simple side dish for a roasted fowl or joint of meat! I also do the same thing with summer squash as a side for fish or fowl in the summer.

1 winter squash
1 large yellow onion
2 large garlic cloves
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Peel and seed the squash. Slice into uniform slices 1/8” thick. Slice the onion into similar slices. Slice the garlic into fine slices. Add all vegetables to a roasting pan and toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper to coat. Roast in a hot oven, turning occasionally until the vegetables are just soft, about 10-15 minutes.

Winter Squash Gnocchi

Gnocchi is one of those dishes that is an acid test of a chef's ability. Gnocchi takes a very light hand: not enough flour and it falls apart; too much flour and the result is gummy and leaden. This shouldn't discourage you from making gnocchi, but if you're just starting out, use (russet) potato until you get the hang of it. Potato is easier and cheaper, in case you have to toss out the result. I have a very good friend who begs me to make gnocchi for her every time she comes to the restaurant. She keeps me in practice.

1-1/2 cups squash purée
1 egg
1 to 1-1/2 cups flour

Bring a pan of salted water or stock to a simmer on the stove. Mix the squash purée and the egg. Grate a little nutmeg into the squash. Add 1/2 cup of flour and gently mix. With your hands, gently knead in another 1/2 cup of flour. Mix as little as necessary. If the dough is too sticky, gently add more flour until you have a dough that you can roll out in 3/4-inch diameter logs. Cut the logs into one-inch sections. Roll down the back of the tines of a fork to give the gnocchi little ridges. Drop the gnocchi in small batches into the simmering water or stock. Simmer until they float, about 6-8 minutes. Drain and dress with butter, with sage butter, or a wild mushroom sauce.

Note: you shouldn't need an egg for potato gnocchi. Squash is so comparatively wet that it needs the extra protein from the egg to bind it.

Roasted Winter Root Vegetables

This is a great accompaniment to any roast meat or fowl.

Cube any or all of the following vegetables, toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and roast until just tender.

Winter squash
Sweet Potatoes
Celery Root

Mashed Winter Squash

Here's a great alternative to mashed potatoes to have in your repertoire.

Split a large squash into quarters or eighths, if really large. Scoop out all seeds and fibers. Brush with oil and place into a medium oven. Roast until the flesh is soft and readily pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven and scrape out the flesh. Put the flesh through a ricer and then add about one tablespoon of butter per cup of squash purée. Whip well with a spoon. Add nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste. For a different taste, omit the nutmeg and add grated orange rind.

Winter Squash Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter

Here’s an elegant first course that is easy to do provided that you are adept at making pasta. Making pasta is another one of things like making gnocchi that takes a little practice, but isn't really that hard.

Roast and purée a squash as per the previous recipe. Return the purée to a saucepan and cook gently until the purée is very thick. Stir in a tablespoon or two of butter. Season as you feel inclined—I like nutmeg, thyme, or sage and salt and pepper.

Lay one sheet of very thin pasta on your cutting board. Place a meager tablespoonful of filling on the pasta in rows about three inches on center. Brush around the filling with water or egg white. Lay a second sheet over the first. Press down gently, squeezing out any air bubbles. Seal well around the filling. Using a cookie cutter or pastry wheel, cut out the ravioli. Let dry uncovered for about a half an hour.

Bring water to stock to a bare simmer. Cook the ravioli just until the center is heated, not much more than two minutes. I look for the ravioli to float.

To make sage brown butter, melt a quarter pound of butter over high heat. Finely mince 4-6 fresh sage leaves. As the butter starts to brown, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon, add the sage leaves, and stir well. Remove from the heat. Season to taste.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

¿Risotto in a Box?

My mother-in-law came to visit last weekend and as always came bearing bags of groceries, for which I am not ungrateful given my rather straitened means. It wasn't until today that I noticed one of her gifts, a box of "Italian Herb Risotto" sitting on the counter. You may already understand why she comes bearing gifts: there are no preprepared foods at my house. To the uninitiated—such as my children—it appears as though we have nothing to eat. I have learned that the verb "eat" now encompasses a complex idea that runs rather breathlessly something like "find something preprepared and throw it in a microwave and bolt it down so that I can get on to the rest of my life."

I have always been and I will always be a scratch cook and cooking has never been a bother or chore: it is something that I take pleasure in. I had nearly the same reaction to seeing that box on my counter as I imagine that I might have had if I had seen a miniature Martian sitting there, such is the scarcity of such things as risotto in a box at my house.

I cook risotto from scratch almost daily at the restaurant and don't find it particularly laborious, so curious about how the rest of the world lives, I flipped the box over and read the ingredients. Here's what I would put in an herb risotto: olive oil, yellow onion, Arborio rice, white wine, water or stock, salt, pepper, herbs, garlic, butter, and pecorino cheese.

And here's what is in the box that would never touch my risotto, ever: rice flour, onion powder, garlic powder, cane juice powder (fancy name for sugar, don't you think?), dehydrated tomato, buttermilk powder, whey powder, turmeric, and safflower oil.

Reading all this junk was enough to turn me off, but I then went seeking the preparation instructions, figuring that the boxed risotto had to offer some convenience, such as a significantly shorter cooking time. But no, you still have to cook it for 20 minutes just like scratch risotto. Who's zooming who? This is not convenience food; this is just junk marketed to people who think they cannot cook risotto. Folks, if you can cook what's in this box, you can make risotto from scratch with almost no additional effort. And I guarantee that what you make will be an order of magnitude better tasting than the junk in the box.

I apologize again for the recent paucity of posts. Most of my free time is devoted to the rearchitecture of the restaurant web site. It comes along nicely: the prototype is complete and tested with the major browsers. I'm looking forward to launching it around the first of the year.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm Not Worthy

Each year at this time, a letter arrives from New York, a letter whose envelope is emblazoned with "Is Your Wine List Worthy?" It's the annual pitch from Marv Shanken and crew at Wine Spectator to get restaurants to submit their wine lists to be judged worthy (or not) by Wine Spectator.

The idea is that if Wine Spectator deems my wine list "worthy," customers will come specifically to my restaurant because the list carries the WS imprimatur.

I was dumb enough to fall for this years ago. I packaged everything and sent it off to New York, along with a check for $250. Yes, it is pay to play. You do the math: there are currently 4118 restaurants that have been bestowed with this "honor." That's over a million dollars in revenue to Wine Spectator and that does not even include the restaurants whose lists are not worthy. I never said that Marv Shanken wasn't a great businessman. I'd kill for a profit center like that.

Anyway, back to my experience. A couple of months later, I got a letter back from Wine Spectator stating merely that my list was not worthy, but please feel free to send us another check next year to try again. The letter did include an email address for inquiries about specifics, so I inquired. And what I heard shocked me.

Before I get on with the rest of the story, I should tell you that I submitted my wine list for their basic award "for lists that offer a well-chosen selection of quality producers, along with a thematic match to the menu in both price and style."

As most of you know, my menu features local products from Virginia and more specifically, from the beautiful Shenandoah Valley where the restaurant is situated. It naturally follows that my wine list has an identical focus on Virginia wines, especially on those of the local wineries.

The email that I got back from Wine Spectator informed me that my wine list had too much of an emphasis on Virginia wines (the implication being that Virginia wines are not of sufficient quality for Wine Spectator). I have always suspected a bias against Virginia at WS, but to see it in writing was a bit of a shock.

I know that when the Wine Spectator crew is in a restaurant in St. Helena, they expect to see a lot of Napa wines on the list and when in Tain-l'Hermitage, they expect a lot of Northern Rhônes on the list. And when in Virginia, apparently they expect to see a lot of Napa wines and Northern Rhônes, too.

I just thought that you would like to know that my wine list is not worthy. Does that surprise you? 80 wines by the glass. 50 handpicked local wines. Wines from all the major wine regions of the world. Not worthy? I think my prices must be too low to attract the interest of the magazine that should be retitled Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

And Wine Spectator, you know what I'm doing with that $250 I'm not sending you? I'm buying more wine, more Virginia wine.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Chef for a Day

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. I'm busy revamping the restaurant web site by rewriting it from the ground up to make it much easier to maintain. This is causing the old dog to learn new ASP and CSS tricks. I hope to launch the new site at the beginning of the year. Bear with me while most of my energy goes into completing this much needed renovation.

We have a great program here at the restaurant called Chef for a Day and it is much like what it sounds, a chance for our customers and others to come spend a day working as part of the crew here at the restaurant. Here is our latest victim, Dr. Natasha, a real live medical doctor too, working on the Farmers Market Slaw for our crab cakes.

Not only do our chefs for the day enjoy the program, we do too. Being stuck here inside our four walls all the time, we don't get out much and this is a way of bringing an outside perspective into our kitchen.

We host our chefs for the day on our slower days of the week so that we can integrate our guests into the flow as much as possible. On busy weekends, it's all our crew can do to get the food out, without having to worry about a newbie in the kitchen.

It's an interesting study in personality. Some of our guests stand around timidly, afraid to make the slightest mistake, while others just jump right in. We prefer the ones who just jump right in.

For more information about the program, refer to the restaurant web site.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pancetta Demonstration

I got away from the paperwork at my desk long enough to make a pass through the kitchen this morning, only to see one of the prep cooks struggling with (and making a mess of) a piece of pancetta that he was to dice. It seems that all our prep cooks struggle with pancetta, so I figure that a lot of readers do too. Here's a whole pancetta.

This demonstration is not really about pancetta, it's about how to dice any cylindrical foodstuff safely, neatly, and efficiently. It's really a tutorial on a fundamental knife skill, one that our prep cooks seem to have missed along the way somehow.

The basis for cutting anything safely is to establish what I call a "stable base," a flat surface that will not rock or roll while you cut. For any cylindrical object such as this pancetta, a cucumber, or the neck of a butternut squash, you do this by taking a slice across the cylinder, as in this photo.

And you end up with a round that will lie flat on your cutting board, like so.

Using the flat surface as your stable base, slice vertically into the round of pancetta. Make the width of your slice the size of the cube that you want to end up with.

Next, lay several vertical slices on their sides in a stack as high as you are comfortable slicing. Three deep is what I am doing here. Notice that by stacking the slices on their sides, I have created yet another stable base for myself. I'm never going to put myself in a situation where the food that I am slicing might roll or shift out from under my knife.

Then slice each stack into batons as wide as the width of the cube that you want to end up with.

Rotate the batons ninety degrees on the cutting board and make your final slices, finishing the cubes.

Here's the end goal: neat, consistent cubes.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Customer or Con Artist?

Have you ever been ripped off? If so, you know how it feels and you know how I'm feeling now.

The vast majority of our customers at the restaurant are honest, upstanding people. But every now and then, we have customers whose motives I suspect. It's happened twice this week and I believe that it's a premeditated act to get dinner comped.

The ploy goes thus. A customer orders a meal and we cook and serve it. The customer shows no signs of distress on starting to eat the meal and when the server goes back by the table, the customer doesn't indicate any sort of problem with the meal.

Several minutes later, the customer flags down the server and most indignantly and dramatically indicates that the meal has suddenly developed an incurable problem. It's tough, it's cold, it's nasty (yes, people are so rude that they do use that term), it's whatever.

Here we see two variations in the act. In the first, the customer will have eaten half of the primary protein and all of the garnishes or side dishes and will insist that we take the plate away and will insist that we cannot replace the dish with anything else.

In the second, the customer has eaten half the primary protein and insists, no, don't take it away, I'll just suffer through eating all the sides and garnishes.

Naturally in both these cases when the food comes back to the kitchen, we find nothing wrong with it. If there's something wrong with it, we're going to do whatever it takes to fix it, including comping the dish.

In both these cases however, the customer expects the entrée to be comped. That is the scam: eat enough food to be satisfied and then not leave the restaurateur any options but to comp the food. It's a minor form of fraud to be perfectly technical.

As a result of this, I'm seeing my way clear to implementing a new rule. If a customer has a problem with a plate, but refuses to let us cure the problem by replacing the plate with a similar one or something entirely different, and we cannot find a problem with the food, the customer will be billed for the food. Judicious application of this rule should send would-be scammers elsewhere, never to return.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Good Server is Hard to Find

Last night I was reminded again why I have so much respect for good servers: it is a very hard job to do well. On weeknights like this, I generally float between the front of the house and the back of the house, doing whatever needs to be done, so I see what's going on in the front of the house much more than chefs whose sole domain is the kitchen.

Last night, we weren't all that busy, but everything happened at once. There was a point when things turned suddenly from going very smoothly to the entire dining room being needy. I don't mean this in a bad way and it's not a reflection on our customers; it's just that every single table needed some attention at the same time.

This is when servers earn their money. The ability to remember fifteen things while doing six and prioritizing another five, all while chatting with a table and hearing the kitchen calling for pickup, and noticing all the water and wine glasses in your section while maintaining your total cool, that ability is priceless. Very few people can do it and even fewer can do it well.

I don't think customers even noticed how busy we were on the floor last night, but that's the trick, isn't it? When there's a good crew on the floor, it all seems effortless and nearly invisible. That's the magic of the server's trade. So to all you great servers out there, I know firsthand how hard you work and how difficult your job really is. Just know that everyone thinks he can do your job better than you can, but only one in a thousand might be able to. Keep doing what you do!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Goodbye Chanterelles

It's December and the Golden Chanterelle mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius) have disappeared after a several month run here at One Block West. Goodbye chanterelles! See you next year! But weep not, for the end of chanterelle season always signals the beginning of the seasons for both hedgehog mushrooms and black trumpets.

Hedgehog mushrooms (Hydnum repandum), so called because they don't have gills like typical mushrooms but rather teeth-like spore bearing structures that resemble the spines on a hedgehog. Hedgehogs range the color spectrum from light blonde to almost golden, similar to a golden chanterelle. I like to call them mushrooms with training wheels, because they are one of the best tasting and easiest to like mushrooms. For those just starting to eat wild mushrooms, hedgehogs are the perfect introductory mushroom. There are similar looking inedible mushrooms, so hedgehogs are perhaps not a great mushroom for the beginning forager.

The other mushroom that we have in stock right now is the Black Trumpet (Craterellus fallax), also known by the French name Trompet de mort, Death Trumpet. It's possible that our mushrooms are in fact Horn of Plenty Mushrooms (C. cornucopioides), very similar cousins to Black Trumpets, so similar in fact, that some mycological taxonomists are not sure that the two represent distinct species. Oh well, let the taxonomists argue, we're calling them Black Trumpets and enjoying them.

Trumpets run the color spectrum from light brown to gray to black to almost blue black. They are not easily confused with other mushrooms and are therefore a pretty reliable mushroom for the novice forager. Make sure that you clean trumpets well. Their funnel-shaped bodies collect all manner of dirt, especially bits of oak leaves, because trumpets are almost always found in oak (and beech) forests.

Want to be sinful? Go buy a wheel of really good Camembert or Brie, some puff pastry sheets, and a half a pound of trumpets. Sauté the trumpets in clarified butter with some shallots and season with salt and pepper. Slice the cheese in half horizontally and hollow out each half a bit. Stuff the cheese with the mushrooms and reassemble it. Wrap in puff pastry and bake until brown. If you don't love this dish, you're probably lactose intolerant like me!

I find it interesting that both Hedgehogs and Black Trumpets are closely related to Chanterelles. And next up in our line up in late winter with be another Chanterelle, the Yellowfoot (Craterellus tubaeformis), about the only mushroom going after hedgehogs give out and until we get the first flush of local morels in April.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Bread Pudding Basics

This is the final "recipe" from my recent Low Country cooking class, in which I made a White Chocolate, Caramel & Pecan Bread Pudding. I put the word recipe in quotes because there is no real recipe. I'll give you a formula for the basic custard and some cooking tips and from there, you're on your own to devise flavorings that appeal to you.

Bread puddings are very simple creatures with very few ingredients, so the ingredients need to be as high quality as possible: fresh eggs, heavy cream, and above all, excellent bread.

I typically make bread pudding by the full hotel pan, whose dimensions are 20-3/4"L x 12-3/4"W x 2-1/2"D, about 40 servings. I know that this pan takes about a gallon of custard. When faced with a smaller pan at home, I don't sweat it; I just let the pan guide me.

First, I use the pan to show me how much bread I need. I rip my very good French bread into small chunks until I fill the pan. Then I remove the bread to a bowl and pour over an appropriate amount of custard—I generally start with a quart. Then I spray the pan with pan spray to simplify clean up. Once the bread has soaked for 15-20 minutes, I pour it back in the pan and make any additional custard needed to fill the pan about 3/4 deep. To recap, that's a pan full of bread, but about 3/4 deep in custard. You need that extra head room because the bread pudding is going to puff beautifully.

As for the custard, a good rule of thumb is one whole large (I say large, but our eggs come from chickens and not factories, so they are not graded) egg per cup of heavy cream, with sugar and flavorings to taste. So, to a quart of cream, you'd add four eggs; to a gallon of cream, you'd add 16 eggs. I use the finger test to assess if I've got the seasonings correct. I don't like my bread pudding very sweet, so to a quart of cream, I might add a 1/4 cup of sugar. Your taste will vary, naturally.

As you might have guessed from what I hinted about above, a good bread pudding is a variation of a custard or flan, so standard custard cooking techniques apply: a water bath in a low oven is the preferred method. Are you kidding? I don't have a water bath at the restaurant big enough to hold a full hotel pan and I am sure as heck not doing a water bath at home! So, low and slow.

I cook the bread pudding at about 350 until it starts to brown on top, cover it loosely with foil, and turn the oven down to about 275 and let it finish. (These temperatures are approximate; there are no reliable thermostats on our ovens.) It will be done when it is good and golden on top and the center has just set. With experience, you can look at the bread pudding to see when it is done—the center will be the last part to rise. Otherwise, give the pan a jiggle to see whether it is still shaking in the center, or insert a toothpick or skewer in the center to see if it comes out clean or not.

Now for the class, I made White Chocolate, Caramel & Pecan Bread Pudding. This means that I took about 3/4 cup of white sugar and caramelized it over high heat and added the caramel once cooled along with a cup of white chocolate pastilles (chips) and a cup of pecans to the bread pudding. When I mixed up the custard, I added a vanilla bean, a pinch of salt, and a scant amount of sugar (because I knew I would be adding caramel to the pudding).

There are your basics. I leave it to you to devise your own flavorings. I also leave you with a bit of advice: don't sweat it. Bread pudding is forgiving. My grandmother used to make it for me by spreading butter and strawberry jelly on slices of white bread, overlapping the slices of bread in the bottom of a shallow pan, pouring a little custard around the edges and baking it straight away. It was delicious and so will be anything that you try.

I now make all manner of bread puddings, both sweet and savory. One of the most successful has been a savory one made from a custard infused with thyme, sage, rosemary, parsley, black pepper, and garlic. This is a killer accompaniment to roast fowl or meat.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Family Thanksgiving

I hope that if you cooked yesterday for Thanksgiving and you have children at home that you got them involved in the kitchen. My kids and I had a great time in the kitchen.

Before I got into the restaurant business, I used to be that perfectionist who wouldn't let anyone help. Being in the business, I have no choice but to give up control and let others help. Yeah, it's not always the same as how I would do it, but so what? Especially at home, so what if the celery dice is a little larger or smaller than you wanted? If you're a control freak too, lighten up. Life is a lot more fun when you lighten up!

Our dinner yesterday was a family affair. Here I am kneading the dough for the potato rolls. They were "off the chain!" Maybe I'll follow this up with a "recipe" for rolls and a bit on technique. Maybe. Making breads is one of those feel things; how do I convey just how something should feel? This is a lesson that only experience teaches.

Here is Ellie demonstrating her "mad celery skills." I'm not too sure about that grip she has on the knife, but the celery did get diced. And good form with the left hand, thumb and fingers out of the way! We're still working on this; using a knife is still a bit of a scary proposition. Hey girls, I didn't get "mad knife skills" overnight. You're seeing the result of 40 years of daily experience. Keep on practicing and it will come.

And Lillie is my sauté chef in training. So far, she won't toss the ingredients in the pan in true sauté chef fashion, because "I'm going to make a mess!" She who hasn't tossed a pan of food onto the burner has never tossed a pan. How else are you going to learn? We all learned our trade by screwing up a few times. Of course, it helps to put a pound of dried blackeyed peas in the pan and go out into the backyard and play until you get it.

And the two of them breaking up cornbread for the dressing (aka "savory bread pudding"). When I mentioned to Ellie that I was going to make dressing to go with our pork rack, she said, "No, make savory bread pudding," meaning to make the dressing with a savory custard base. I guess the girls are picking up stuff via osmosis.

Here's hoping that you will get your kids involved in the kitchen. Yeah, I know all about psycho weeknights when you just need to get something on the table ASAP and when you surely don't need any more "help." But on weekends and holidays when there's no rush, what's wrong with some help?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm sitting here in my home office—so this is what it's like to not be at work!—with my cornbread for my savory bread pudding in the oven and my potato rolls on the rise and the kids watching the parade on TV, preparing to make Thanksgiving dinner for the three of us later this afternoon.

This year is very strange. In all the years before I opened the restaurant, our house was Thanksgiving central. We'd invite friends, family, and anybody we knew that didn't have anyone to celebrate with. The house would be full and the feast would be enormous.

Since I bought the restaurant, my aunt has taken up the challenge and we've gone to her house to celebrate. This year, circumstances have conspired against us and it's just me and my two daughters along with the faithful floor-cleaning beagle. The house is oddly quiet.

While our celebration is very small this year, we are together and celebrating. Which brings me to the point of this entire post. I spoke to another chef last evening about his book for today and in the course of that conversation, he said that he had reservations for nine singletons. Nine people dining by themselves on Thanksgiving. How pitiful! If I knew who they were, I'd invite them over to eat with us, like the old days.

Do me a favor. Next year, invite someone who has nobody else to your house for Thanksgiving.

Mmmm, I smell cornbread smells wafting up the stairs. Time to go check....

Happy Thanksgiving!