Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Temperature Battle

In recent weeks, we've had several complaints that our food is cold, our plates are cold, and so forth, both in person and via our customer satisfaction survey. All restaurants face this issue. This blog post is for all my fellow chefs that are reading along.

The time frame that I am talking about has been the last four weeks, which here in Virginia have been gorgeous, with the last gasps of summer still hanging on. We even had a couple of days in the upper 70s when it was possible to dine outdoors.

The weather always informs my cooking. When it's raw like yesterday, just above freezing with the wind howling, the menu was jammed with comfort foods: pork shank on grits, shepherd's pie, and duck gumbo with grilled alligator sausage. But when it's beautiful in October, I still think summer.

Recently and in tune with the weather, I've been making a Mediterranean-inspired chopped salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow Corno di Toro peppers, olives, capers, and extra virgin olive oil. I can't help it: these beautiful fruits are still in the market and we won't see them again for at least 8 months!

On this salad, I have been serving a grilled steakfish or a sautéed white fish, such as red drum or hazelnut-crusted mahi-mahi. While the fish has varied from day to day, I am committed to running this salad as long as the ingredients are in the market. I'm like the bear gorging on the last of summer's bounty in preparation for the long hibernation. But I also love this dish with its vibrant flavors and beautiful presentation.

But here's the rub. It's a cold or room temperature salad served on a cold plate. There is no sense plating a beautiful salad on a hot plate just to have it start cooking and wilting. And as soon as I plate a piece of grilled wahoo on that salad, I just know that a certain percentage of plates is coming back to the kitchen, because the dish is "cold."

Customers returning food because of a temperature contrast that I had deliberately intended used to bother me a lot more than it bothers me now. It still bothers me—as a chef, my ego will never be detached from that plate—but I am able to shrug it off a lot better now. I have come to realize that for many people, it is just a knee-jerk reaction, akin to grabbing the salt grinder and abusing the food before even tasting it.

Some of our customers are very senior citizens and I am convinced that the only sensation that they still have left is hot and cold (I wish I understood the physiology and I pray this never happens to me). And to be perceived as hot, the food temperature must approach the boiling point. We try to take this into account in the kitchen, for those customers that we know well.

But some of our customers come at it from different perspectives. Many Americans via their upbringing have been trained that hot food is good, cold food is bad. The ones that have travelled to Europe and Asia may have started to understand that a lot of the rest of the world does not insist on smoking hot food, but that leaves a lot of others. And, if the evidence in my dining room is worth anything, it suggests that the Brits share with us Americans this need for smoking hot food and plates.

A customer shared another perspective with me via an anonymous customer satisfaction survey. She stated most emphatically, "For $22 [the cost of her entrée], I expect a hot plate and hot food." Food be damned, for that price, the plate better be hot. It's an interesting world view, to say the least.

We take great pains to serve hot food hot on hot plates. We take equal pains to serve cold food cold on cold plates. Sometimes we screw up and we fix the problem. And it really bothers me when we screw up, as it should.

But sometimes, a customer sends back the grilled wahoo on the Mediterranean salad because it is cold; a dish that I sent to the dining room as I intended. As I mentioned above, I have reached the point where I can just let it slide off my back.

The reason I can let it go so easily is that I have learned my guiding mantra in cooking is that I cannot please everyone. The only person that I can consistently please is myself. If my dish pleases me, I have done my best and my duty by the customer. I refuse to beat myself up when a customer returns a dish that pleases me. I just shrug it off as a difference of opinion and warm the dish up for those who don't share my point of view.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Humble Celery

Am I the only person in the world who appreciates celery (and cousins celery root, stem celery, and lovage) as a vegetable? I love it raw, braised, pickled, any old way. When I make giardiniera, pickled vegetables, the celery is always the part that I eat first, followed quickly by the cauliflower.

Bias-cut celery and microcelery greens are key components of my Surry Sausage Salad, a dish beloved by many customers. I was particularly gratified a few weeks back when a customer said to me, "I am so glad that you treat celery as a vegetable in its own right. Nobody does that anymore."

With American Thanksgiving right around the corner, I thought that I would share this recipe/idea with you for it would be tremendous with turkey. I ran this celery salad/slaw with venison chops last week and I am so taken with my creation that I want to record it lest I forget it.

Celery-Cranberry Slaw

1 bunch celery, finely sliced across the grain
3/4 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 tablespoon sugar (or to taste)
2 tablespoons rice vinegar (or to taste, or other mild vinegar)

Mix well. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Let stand 15 minutes before serving. Looks worse and tastes much better after a day in the cooler.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Chipotle-Glazed Coho Salmon

I just had to show you this dish. Sometimes we create dishes that just work. This is one of them. Not only does it look great, it also tastes fabulous. One of the dangers of a menu that changes daily as does ours is that I forget most of what I have cooked in the past. I don't want to forget this dish.

This is one of those dishes that Brandon, our sous chef, and I bounced back and forth a bit until it took final shape. The lentils were his idea and the orange salad was mine. The chipotle glaze was his idea, the orange juice in it mine. And so forth.

Here you see a disk of beluga lentils down on the soup plate with broccolini over. Then the medium rare Coho with its chipotle-orange glaze and finally, the orange salad (orange segments, red Corno di Toro pepper, green onion, salt, brown sugar, and vanilla extract).

Friday, October 24, 2008


I just got in a side of Wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri) for dinner tonight. Wahoo, also known by its Hawaiian name Ono, is a long, slender fish that resemebles a barracuda or mackerel. It has sweet, firm white flesh that is generally cut into steaks. The 11-pound/5-kg portion you see here came off of a fish of about 25-30 pounds.

I put Wahoo on my menu as a sustainble replacement for Swordfish, which I don't sell at all if I can avoid it. I have only served Sword twice in the past six years, simply because I couldn't get anything else in an emergency. Very fresh Wahoo makes great sushi and it dries out when you cook it, so have a gentle hand with it. I cook mine about medium. Cooking any steakfish well done is a no-no.

Here's the flesh side of the Wahoo filet. Note the three white lines of membranes running horizontally along the fish and note the separation of the flesh in the lower right-hand corner. ideally, Wahoo should show no separation of flesh; any more separation than this and I would have rejected this fish. Before I proceed, let me apologize for these terrible photos. I finally figured out how to get my camera in full manual mode and what I don't know about photography would fill a library.

Before cutting the Wahoo into steaks, I need to pull the two loins off the filet. To start, I cut down the left side of the center membrane, all the way down to but not through the skin.

Once I cut down to the skin, I turn my knife blade parallel to the cutting board and slide it between the skin and the flesh, working from one end to the other. This is actually harder than I make it appear; it does take practice.

Once I remove the loin on the left side, I do the same thing with the loin on the right side. In this photo you see that I have cut down the right side of the center membrane and am about to remove the other loin from the skin.

Once the loins are off the skin, I separate the center of the loin from the tough membrane running lenthwise along the loin. Although I show using a knife here, I normally just slide my fingers along the membrane to separate the center of the loin from the scrap. The scrap gets trimmed of membranes and goes into staff meals. Only the center of the loin goes into customer dinners; now you know why fish is so expensive: we get precious little yield from a fish.

Now that I have isolated the center of the loin, I trim any remaining bloodline and any ligaments from the loin. The ligaments are most prevalent back towards the tail. After final trimming, I cut the fish into steaks. Here they are, all ready for the grill.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What's a Chinois?

A reader sent me an email recently asking what on earth I meant by "pass through a chinois" in my post on the wild boar rack. Sorry, I'm not trying to talk in code; I forget too easily that we don't all speak the same language. A chinois, pronounced SHEEN-wah, is a conical strainer. They are so useful in the kitchen that I own many of them from teacup-sized to the 16" monster farthest away in the photo.

Chinois is a loanword from French that means Chinese and likely refers to the conical hats worn in China and Asia.

There are two basic kinds of chinois as you can see in the photo above. The closest and farthest chinois in the photo are perforated metal cones, which in some kitchens are called china caps. The middle chinois has a fine wire mesh cone and is universally called a chinois in English. The French, when making the distinction and as in English, they often don't, would call the mesh chinois a chinois étamine. Mesh chinois come in coarse, fine, and double mesh, depending on the application for which you need them.

If you work in the business, you might recognize the tami root in étamine. A fine wire (and now, nylon) mesh on a hoop is called a tamis, pronounced tah-MEE. Here is one of my tamis. Besides being a great sifter, it's standard practice to force certain forcemeats for pâtés through a tamis with a flat scraper. The tamis yields a silky texture unachievable by another other means. But because using a tamis is so labor intensive, most kitchens now use high powered food processors, even though the resulting texture of the forcemeat is not quite as good.

We use the perforated metal variety, the china cap, as an all purpose strainer, especially when separating bones and mirepoix from stock. Pressing on the contents in the chinois with the bottom of a two-ounce ladle helps force all the stock through. The wire mesh variety, like its cousin the tamis, we use when we want a very smooth sauce. The wire mesh is too fine for the sauce to drain through on its own, so we force it through with a conical hardwood (beech) pestle.

Chinois are equipped with a hook on the rim opposite the handle so that they will fit over a bowl or pot while in use. You can also buy a three-legged chinois stand to support the chinois. That's just something else to get bent or lost in our kitchen. Hanging the chinois over a stock pot works just fine for us.

There you have it. More than you wanted to know about this kind of colander or strainer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I know that you’re probably thinking that salt is salt, that salt is white, and that there’s nothing new about salt to learn. But are you sure? Think about the kinds of salt that you already know: there’s the iodized and fine-grained refined salt that you use on your table, there’s the rock salt that you use for melting snow and making ice cream, there’s Kosher salt, there’s the sea salt that you see in the grocery but probably never buy, and if you’re into food, perhaps you’ve heard of fleur de sel.

So you really do know that salt just isn’t one single white, refined, fine-grained seasoning. In fact, salt comes in myriad forms and colors from all over the world. And each salt has different flavors. Years ago, my wife was skeptical that you can really taste the difference, so we set up a tasting of all the salts that we had in the house: Morton’s iodized table salt, Morton’s Kosher salt, La Baleine Fine Sea Salt, and fleur de sel. The very expensive fleur de sel was easily the best with the least salty and the most complex flavor, the sea salt was next, then the kosher, and we figured out that Morton’s iodized is not worth having in the house and it hasn't been in more than 15 years.

Salt has been a prized seasoning since the beginning of time and up until modern times, extraordinarily valuable. From this value derives the word salary and the phrase “worth his salt.” Mark Kurlansky, known for taking esoteric subjects and creating enjoyably readable books from them, has tackled the subject in his book Salt: A World History. Although lacking any real ties to the culinary arena, this world history told from the perspective of salt is an engaging read and I recommend it highly, if you like history.

Here’s an overview of the salts that we use in the restaurant:

Morton’s Kosher Salt. This is our workhorse salt at the restaurant. It looks good on food, it tastes good, it sticks less to our fingers than fine salt, and it is less likely to be sucked up the vent hood than fine salt. And what a battle it is to find it. Fortunately, our grocery store carries it, so we buy it at retail just like you. All our distributors carry other brands and they are awful by comparison. The term kosher is misleading; the salt is not per se kosher, but it is used in the act of koshering meats.

Fleur de Sel. Fleur de sel (salt flowers) is the French name for salt crystals that form on the surface of salt ponds and are skimmed off with a special rake, as has been done for centuries. The crystals have a delicate texture, a pleasant crunch, and are always off-white in color reflecting the mineral content of the salt. Each body of water produces a slightly different taste and color because the mineral content of the water is different. These minerals, missing from refined table salt, are what give fleur de sel its unique flavor. The proper role for fleur de sel is as a finishing salt. Just a little bit sprinkled over a dish right before the table lends a pleasant saltiness and crunch. You may see fleur de sel referred to as sel gris (grey salt, because it is off-white).

Mallorcan Black Olive-Flavored Flor de Sal. We use a black olive-flavored fleur de sel (flor de sal in Spanish) made by mixing the salt with ground black olives. This is an incomparable finishing salt for roasted fish, lending a subtle and delicious Mediterranean flavor.

Smoked Sea Salt. Sometimes, we don’t have the time or the means to smoke something and yet we want a smoky flavor. When chipotle peppers would be too spicy or bacon would destroy a vegetarian dish, we might reach for the jar of smoked sea salt. It is very aggressively flavored, so we use it only in tiny amounts. It’s not for everyone, but we are happy to have it in our arsenal.

Himalayan Pink Salt. We fill the salt mills on our tables with Himalayan pink salt that we get from Pakistan via France. The pink tint indicates that the salt contains iron oxides. We use it for its beautiful color on the table.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Help Us Help You

I felt really horrible all last weekend because we couldn't accommodate a customer's special request on Saturday night. This almost never happens because we pride ourselves on not only handling special requests, but handling them gracefully, and exceeding our customers' expectations.

Last Saturday was about as busy as it gets in this business. Our ticket rail was wall-to-wall for four solid hours and it was all that we could do to stay on top of tickets and keep the food moving to the dining room. If you've ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, you understand this chaos and treading the fine line between getting the food out and going down in a big ball of flames. If you haven't, just rest assured that you have to put 100% of your focus into getting the food out and you have to work absolutely as fast as you can. There's no time to think about anything else, get a drink of water, or even move from your spot on the line.

So, it's not a really great time for a special request from the kitchen. And by special request, I don't mean substituting green beans for the baby turnips. Those kinds of requests are routine and easy to handle. What I mean, is, well, forget about what I mean and let me just get on with this story.

A server came back to the kitchen to talk to me about the options for a woman who was vegetarian and required a gluten-free and lactose-free meal. Talk is not quite the appropriate verb for what happens in the chaotic world which is a restaurant kitchen on a full-bore Saturday night, when we're all barking at the top of our lungs to be heard over the exhaust fans and the dish machine. Unfortunately for our would-be customer, our vegetarian special for the evening contained cheese, ruling it out.

If I had someone to step into my spot on the line or if I could have found five minutes, I am certain that I could have gone into the walk-in and found some ingredients with which I could have created a gluten-free, lactose-free, vegetarian meal. But, as it turned out, I wouldn't have five minutes free for another two hours. And, if I had taken five minutes right then, the whole line would have gone to hell and I would have significantly delayed dinner for half the tables in the dining room.

The server knew the outcome before he came to the kitchen, but he came to ask anyway as is his job. Maybe I could have worked another miracle as I have done dozens of times before. Not last Saturday. I couldn't stall the dinners for half the dining room for one table. Ultimately, the server had to convey my apologies and suggest that if she could find some things on the menu that would be suitable for her for diet, that we would gladly plate them and send them to her. She chose to leave and I cannot really blame her for that.

I feel bad that she left and I really feel sorry for her because it must be terribly difficult for her to find suitable meals out at restaurants. And I have no doubt that she chose my restaurant because we specialize in handling special requests such as hers. I'm also quite sure that she has never seen a restaurant kitchen on a Saturday night and has no idea why we couldn't do anything for her in a timely manner.

And, I'm a little upset that she brought this outcome on herself and didn't give me a fighting chance to help her. If only she had mentioned her dietary needs when she booked the table, we could have blown her mind with something fantastic to eat. Please, please, please, if you have a special dietary request, let us know when you book your table.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


I confused a couple of people by using the French word chiffonade during my demo at Blandy Farm last weekend when talking about basil. Despite the ubiquity of food shows on TV, I guess this is a technical term that many people aren't familiar with. Chiffonade, from the verb chiffonner, to (c)rumple, is a wonderfully concise way of saying "sliced into very fine shreds."

The following photos demonstrate the technique with basil. Photography by daughter number two.

Stack the leaves one on another.

Roll the leaves tightly.

This is what you're aiming for.

Slice into shreds as fine as you like. I do kaffir limes leaves microfine, less than a millimeter across. This basil is fairly coarse, for pasta.

This is the finished product, which ended up in pasta sauce of braised yellow and red peppers, leeks, and onions, roasted skate, and roasted tomatoes for staff meals last night.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Nothing So Nice as a Bowl of Rice

My post on Monday about making Arroz con Pollo sent me into our pantry here at the restaurant and got me thinking about rice. I love carbs and call me weird for an American, but of all the carbs including bread, I crave rice the most.

When I was growing up, my rice universe was confined to the only kind that I had ever seen or eaten, long-grained white rice. Now my pantry is not complete without at least a dozen rices—none of which is the long-grained white rice that I grew up eating—each with different uses and cooking methods.

Rices are generally divided into three categories by length: long grain, medium grain, and short grain. Long-grained rices tend to stay separate with little stickiness. Medium-grained rices are stickier. Short-grained rices are very sticky and tend to release a lot of starch. Here is a sketch of some of the rices that we use.

Basmati Rice. Our workhorse long-grained rice at the restaurant, Basmati is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas and is no doubt the rice that you have encountered at Indian restaurants. It has a wonderful fragrance unlike any other rice, and the flavor and fragrance improve with the age of the rice, to a point. When cooked, the grains are extremely long, distinct, and fluffy. This rice is a true joy in the kitchen.

Jasmine Rice. We use this long-grained rice from Thailand quite a bit. Also fragrant, but not as fragrant or as long-grained as Basmati, Jasmine rice is a great all purpose rice. The fragrance is more floral where I would say that Basmati smells nutty. Jasmine is also a bit stickier and that is an advantage in many cases. When we want to put a mold of rice in the middle of a bowl, we will use Jasmine because the grains stick together more than Basmati.

Carolina Gold. This is an heirloom American rice that is in short but increasing supply, available from Anson Mills. With a long grain and a nutty and buttery flavor, this is an excellent rice whose character depends on the cooking method. When parboiled, the grains will stay separate; otherwise it takes on a risotto-like consistency. I am very pleased to see this rice, the foundation of the “Carolina Rice Cuisine,” making a comeback thanks to dedicated growers. I urge you to try it.

Risotto Rices. There are several kinds of this medium-grained rice on the market; the most well known is Arborio. Other fairly widely available varieties are Carnaroli and Vialone Nano. Varieties not often found outside of Italy include Baldo, Padano, and Roma. These stubby medium-grained rices never get quite soft and they give off a lot of starch, exactly what is needed for a perfect risotto. They are almost always cooked in an open pan by the slow addition of liquid, with frequent stirring to yield a creamy product.

Paella Rices. Paella rice is a medium-grained rice that separates well when cooked and does not release as much starch as risotto rice. From Calasparra in the Murcia region of Spain, these rices were at one point almost extinct. Bomba is the premium variety. Anything labelled simply Calasparra is likely to be the Sollana variety. All the paella rices produce a very dry grain at harvest, allowing them to absorb a lot more liquid than most rice. These wonderful products are available at La Tienda.

Sushi Rices. Sushi rices are medium- to short-grained rices that are fairly sticky, necessary so that the rice holds together as a base for the fish. Many of the best sushi rices come from California and are imported into Japan. American sushi chefs squabble over the two major brands: Kokuho Rose and Nishiki. Although my favorite sushi chef swears by Nishiki, I prefer a really high grade rice that is not available in grocery stores. But honestly, the skill of the sushi-master at making rice trumps the brand of rice every time, all other things being equal. That is, you would be better served practicing how to make perfect sushi rice rather than worrying about brand of rice.

Sticky or Glutinous Rice. A short-grain rice also known as sweet rice, this rice is the sticky rice of dim sum fame. Mostly, it is used for desserts, often mixed with coconut milk. Soaked overnight and then steamed, this rice requires a very different cooking technique than you may be used to. I love green papaya salad with sticky rice, Som Tom, a Thai classic.

Black Rice. There are two kinds of black rice, a short-grained sticky rice from Thailand, often called Thai purple rice, an excellent dessert rice. I love to make rice pudding from this rice with coconut milk, coconut, candied pineapple, candied papaya, and a little brown or palm sugar. Macadamia nuts finish off this very decadent dish. The other kind is a medium-grained rice from China called Forbidden Rice. I like it in more savory applications because it has a flavor and texture somewhat reminiscent of wild rice. Both rices start black and finish a deep purple. The color bleeds so anything that you cook with black rice will end up deep purple.

Wild Rice. Not a rice at all, but rather the very long seed of an unrelated grass (Zizania aquatica), this grain is treated as a rice because it is cooked and served just like rice. I really like its nutty and chewy character, especially with duck and game.

There are thousands and thousands of kinds of rice in the world and of those, we also use small amounts of several, including Bhutanese Red Rice, a rice with a rusty brown bran, not all of which is polished away. And we use Bamboo Rice, a sushi rice that has been infused with the juice of bamboo, giving it a green tea fragrance.

There are also rices that we don't use at the restaurant. Remember the long-grained white rice of my youth? We prefer either of the aromatic rices: Basmati or Jasmine. Converted rice, otherwise known as Uncle Ben’s, has no place in our kitchen. It takes a mere 15-20 minutes to cook rice from scratch so we have no need for the quicker cooking converted rice. And we've tried Texmati, a hybrid Basmati grown in the US, and found it wanting. It has none of the flavor and character of true Basmati so we see no need to pay a premium for it. And then there's brown rice, white rice without the bran layer removed. Widely available and widely touted for its health benefits, it takes a long time to cook and I have to say that I really just don't care for it.

Finally, I must admit in public that I don't know how to use a rice cooker. Call me a dinosaur, but I have always cooked rice in a pot and I will always cook rice in a pot. I bought a rice cooker once when I had to cater a gig with rice for 60 people. The rice cooker and I were a miserable failure. I ended up cooking many batches in my favorite rice pan. I can cook perfect rice every time in a pan, but I'll be damned if I can figure out a rice cooker. Anyone want to buy a slightly used rice cooker?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What's in a Name?

Over the years, I've written fairly extensively on chile pepper nomenclature and lack of standardization of the common names. The lack of standardization stems from two sources. Chiles are about as promiscuous as any plants around and they crossbreed at the drop of a hat, leading to a real diversity of forms. And the areas where chiles developed (Mexico, Central, and South America) were often highly inaccessible and lacked communication with each other, so that common names could not develop. Rather, each community developed its own names.

This comes to mind today, because I heard one of the cooks on receiving the produce order ask the driver where the pasilla peppers were, as listed on the invoice. When the driver pointed to the case of poblanos, the cook told him that they were poblanos, not pasillas.

While it is true that the vast majority of people calls the large, mild, triangular peppers (on the right in the photo) poblanos, there is a small minority that calls the same pepper the pasilla ancho. Most people call the dried form of poblano an ancho. What most people call a pasilla is the dried form of another chile, the one with wrinkled skin on the left in the photo.

For some reason, our produce company has elected to go in the face of majority opinion and call the fresh poblanos pasillas. They don't even list poblanos in their inventory. In our first days with this produce company, we had rampant confusion in getting poblanos until I got on the phone with a Spanish speaking sales rep who cleared it up for me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Of Corks and Screwcaps

If you’re a wine lover, surely you’ve heard of the great cork controversy. Corks are routinely sanitized with chlorine. Chlorine can react with mold on corks to form a compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), which can spoil a wine. In the best case, TCA merely robs a wine of all its fruit. In the worst case, the whole wine smells of musty paper, just like those old newspapers in your attic, and tastes just as bad. Other chloroanisoles and a bromoanisole are formed in the same way and are also responsible for tainting wine.

Receptivity to these anisoles varies greatly among individuals. I have a friend in the business who once opened a bad bottle and I told him it was corked from across the room. Even with his nose buried in the glass, he had a hard time smelling the cork taint. And I know another guy in the business who claims wines are corked that I can’t detect.

In any case, wines are being spoiled by these chemicals and the largest vector for contamination is corks. Various factions claim that this spoilage is acceptable or wholly unacceptable depending on their points of view. However, the issue has spurred the industry to look at alternative closures.

For several years, many wineries used synthetic corks, which fell out of favor. From our perspective at the restaurant, they were impossible to remove when first inserted into the bottles and then after a few months, they became so loose that they pushed right into the bottles at the mere touch of the corkscrew. Once these plastic plugs loosen, wines oxidize very quickly.

And, many other alternative closures have been proposed, tested, and found similarly wanting. The most promising “new” closure is one we have had for decades, namely the screw cap. Naturally, the screw cap suffers the stigma of having been the closure of choice for a lot of really poor jug wine for decades. Beyond the stigma, there is sentimental attachment to corks, comfort in the time-honored ritual of opening the bottle, and that wonderful aural stimulus—the unmistakable pop that we wine lovers adore—that anticipates the first sip.

All my traditional likes for corks are immediately overwhelmed when that first whiff or sip of a newly uncorked bottle is ruined by cork taint. This, more than anything, has convinced me that it is time for us all to move on and get used to screw caps for wines that do not need to be aged. The jury is still out on how wines age long-term under screw cap versus under cork. I worry that the wines will not age as gracefully under screw cap, but the evidence is not there to support my worry.

Still, from my perspective as a restaurateur, we don’t buy wines to age—very few of us can afford to tie up that much working capital—we buy wines to drink now. And I think most consumers do as well. In our business, initially the servers bemoaned the loss of the cork because it removed a lot of the tableside theatrics and romance. And, secretly, I am sure they were concerned for their tips: screwtops have not affected their tips in the least. Moreover, for by-the-glass pours, there is nothing easier for us than a screw cap. Unscrew, pour, rescrew, back in the fridge. And for customers who want to take a partial bottle home, the screw cap won’t leak all wine all over the car on the trip home. And the bottle will fit better in the refrigerator door without the cork poking out of the top.

Any trip to the grocery store or wine shop will show that the screw cap is inevitable. Already most New Zealand wines are under screw cap as are many lower end table wines. Australia and South America will soon have the majority of their wines under screwcap. On the one hand, I applaud this move. And on the other, I sure am going to miss that “pop!”

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Arroz con Pollo

My kids are at the restaurant for dinner tonight and I, like cooking parents everywhere, sometimes struggle to find dishes with good kid appeal for dinner. But I'm not struggling tonight because I'm making arroz con pollo. Vegetarians aside, is there anyone who doesn't love chicken and rice?

Arroz con pollo is one of those dishes that sometimes causes skirmishes (read "religious wars") for the mere reason that everyone's abuela (grandmother) makes the best version in the world. The truth is that everyone's arroz con pollo is pretty decent, with the exception of a version that one of my Mexican dishwashers made for me. He claimed that arroz con pollo was one of his great dishes; apparently he cannot even warm a taco in a microwave.

I'm a through-and-through gringo with no Latino or Spanish heritage, so it's not possible for my grandmother to have one of those "best in the world" versions of arroz con pollo. This is greatly liberating for me in that I am able to steal bits and pieces of the dish from around the world and not have my version judged by the grandma standard.

For my version tonight, I'm starting by marinating bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs in a classic Cuban mojo of lime juice (sorry, no sour oranges in the house), olive oil, garlic, cilantro, oregano, cumin, black pepper, and here I go deviating again, pimentón.

The choice of rice is critical. Arroz requires a short-grained rice so that it has a risotto- or paella-like texture, so I went into the pantry to get some Arborio rice. The traditional rice for paella is Sollana (aka Calasparra) or Bomba, both available at La Tienda; to reduce items in inventory, we stock only Arborio, which is a good, but not perfect, substitute. In the pantry, however, I got sidetracked by the Carolina Gold rice from Anson Mills, which is also a fantastic rice short-grained rice. Tonight, may your abuela not roll in her grave, I'm using Carolina Gold.

Not to put to fine a point on it, arroz is all about the quality of the rice. When I order arroz in a Mexican restaurant and I get Uncle Ben's, that's a clear signal that they don't care about the quality of their food. But, I can understand that if you've got starving kids and 45 minutes to get dinner on the table, you're going to use whatever you have in your pantry. Just make sure you get some good rice on your next trip to the store.

I also like my arroz more like paella in flavoring, so I am using a bit of chorizo in it, backed up by the pimentón. I also am using fresh tomatoes rather than tomato paste as in many versions of arroz. And, a big pinch of saffron will find its way into the pan.

To start my dish, I made some annatto oil (1/4 cup vegetable oil heated with 2 teaspoons of annatto seeds; seeds removed) in which I will brown the chicken and then cook my sofrito of yellow onion and red Corno di Toro pepper.

Here then is a recipe for approximately what I did. I didn't measure the liquid at all; I have cooked so many rice dishes in my life that I can just eyeball it. Fortunately, rice is pretty forgiving and you can always add more liquid if you need it. Serves 8.

Ed's Confused Arroz con Pollo

Chicken Mojo

8 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
juice of three limes, two sour oranges, or one orange and one lime
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced cilantro
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground

Mix the chicken with all of the mojo ingredients and refrigerate until you are ready to cook it.

Mise en Place

1/4 cup annatto oil
1 yellow onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
4 ounces hard spanish chorizo, diced
1 large tomato, diced
1 12-ounce bottle lager beer
salt and pepper
large pinch of saffron threads
2 cups short-grained rice (Carolina Gold, Arborio, Bomba)
1 quart water or stock

Preheat your oven to 350F. Heat the annatto oil in a large sautoir or other oven proof pan. Brown the chicken and remove. Add the onion and pepper and cook until the onion starts to wilt, about three minutes. Add the chorizo and tomatoes and cook for another minute. Add the beer, salt, pepper, saffron, and any remaining mojo from the chicken; stir well. Return the chicken to the pan and let cook, turning once, about 4 to 5 minutes per side, then remove again. Add the rice to the pan with about three cups of water or stock. Stir well and let return to the boil. Place the chicken on the rice evenly and in a single layer. Cover the pan and place into the oven for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and check for doneness and need for more liquid. Cook longer and add more liquid as appropriate.

¡Buen Provecho!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Blandy Farm Demonstration

Yesterday, I made my annual visit to Blandy Farm, home of the State Arboretum of Virginia, located just outside Winchester in Clarke County, to help entertain guests visiting Arborfest, an annual fundraising event for the benefit of the Arboretum. I've been doing this for five years now and it's become a fall ritual for me. We were blessed with very warm weather, maybe a few degrees too warm standing in the sun, but with almost no wind. Finally, my poor little butane burner didn't have to battle the wind.

As every year, I brought along a helper; this year, daughter number one Lillian, who, as you can plainly see in the photo, is in full-on teenager ("I am so bored; I would rather die than stand here.") mode. Imagine her reaction when she reads this! She is a loyal One Blog West reader. If you know the grounds at Blandy at all, you can see that we are in the courtyard of the Quarters, the only place that I can get a good windbreak against the prevailing westerlies.

This year, we were blessed with four snaggle-toothed devils and color commentators right in the front row! I think these four young gentlemen kept us all entertained for about an hour. I know that I couldn't get a word in edgewise. I'm pretty certain that they ate the vast majority of the samples!

In years past, I've done demonstrations with various themes. This year, I decided to highlight some of the October dishes from our menu this past weekend. I wanted to show that October is a month of real contrasts: while we have abundant winter squash and apples, we are also still blessed with great tomatoes, squashes, peppers, and eggplants.

The first dish I demonstrated was one that I devised for our Saturday menu from items that I scavenged at the local farmers market, a dish that I called, for lack of imagination, Fall Salad. It consists of roasted diced butternut squash, diced Asian pear, and Cajun-spiced pecans, all tossed in a dressing of highly reduced apple cider, honey, maple syrup, membrillo, roasted shallots, Port, rice vinegar, and canola oil. Pardon the photography: the sunlight was brutal.

I also demonstrated a salad that the food editor at Northern Virginia magazine really likes, so much so that it was featured in their September edition. The salad consists of bias-sliced Surry sausages, walnuts, bias-sliced celery, micro-celery, dried cranberries, roasted local apples, and balsamic vinaigrette.

Back to the more summery aspects of October, I demonstrated a dish that I call Swordfish Sauce Vierge, after the sauce popularized in the 1980s by Michel Guérard. Vierge means virgin, in this case referring to a raw uncooked sauce. Doing my own thing with it, I have converted the sauce to almost a chopped salad to serve as a base for my swordfish.

After tasting the mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, olives, capers, basil, garlic, parsley, olive oil and lemon juice, one of the attendees commented "It's like a raw puttanesca." and in a sense, it is. And it was certainly a perfect vehicle to showcase the beautiful heirloom German Howard tomatoes and Corno di Toro peppers that I brought.

To quote Amishland Heirloom Seeds about these tomatoes:

The locals here in Amish country also call them "Pepper Tomatoes". I have never seen these exact same tomatoes grown anywhere else. Prolific harvests of 5-1/2 inch long, weirdly pointed paste tomatoes that weigh about 5-8 ounces (although this year they were huge and averaged more like 10-14 ounces). These are very meaty with a good, rich flavor. They have virtually no seeds, maybe 6 or so per fruit. An old scarce variety great for canning, paste, or sauces. Also delicious right off the vine in salads. Just the best all purpose tomato I have ever grown. Very resistant to disease and bugs, as well. Still seen here in Amish country, but elsewhere it is a really rare tomato.

Sorry for that digression on tomatoes, but they are so good that they merit digression. The final dish that I demonstrated was what I call Prosciutto-Wrapped Medallions of Rabbit. I boned out a rabbit loin (to remove the backbone and ribcage), sprinkled the loin with thyme, salt, and pepper, then wrapped it in prosciutto. After searing it on all sides, I roast it at the restaurant, but for the demo without an oven, I sliced it into medallions and cooked them in a pan. I served the medallions of rabbit over a bed of chiffonaded Swiss chard and topped with a Surry sausage jus.

Photos that I didn't take courtesy of Sharon Mesa. Thank you, Sharon.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Razor Clams

Recently, a customer asked me to make razor clams for him and his girlfriend. I really don't mind it when customers call or email and ask me to cook a certain food product for them. It's actually one fewer decision that I have to make during the course of the day and because the menu changes daily, I'm always looking for different foods to feature.

I jumped at the opportunity to do razor clams for him, mainly because I'm always looking for an excuse to work with new foods. I've worked with lots of other clams in my life, so I assumed that working with razors is similar. And it is, with the exception of having to clean them, which our local clams don't require.

I've seen razor clam shells littered all over the beaches here in Virginia and have seen baskets of them at bait shops, but we don't have any fishery for them as far as I know. On the other hand, we're known for our quahogs (pronounced "co-hog" and mainly called by their size names: littlenecks, cherrystones, and chowders), which I have harvested most successfully on Assateague Island. I just wade out onto the mud flats at low tide and feel them with my feet, then pull them out of the mud. Free feast!

Razor clams are a lot harder to harvest. They're apparently fairly mobile, able to move vertically in the sand very quickly to escape prying shovels and the bills of the oystercatchers that prey on them.

A quick email to a supplier and I had a box of Common Razor Clams or Atlantic Jackknife Clams, Ensis directus, delivered by FedEx the next morning. They're very long and resemble a straight razor as you see in the photo above, while the Pacific Razor Clam, Siliqua patula, of the Pacific Northwest is an elongated oval.

Preparation is straight forward. After washing them well to remove the sand, pour boiling water over them for a few seconds (if you use a colander, the water will drain away). At this point, the clams pull right out of the shells with no fight. With a pair of scissors, snip off the tough ends of the siphon and the digger; your fingers will tell you where to cut. Then pull the siphon off the body of the clam and open it with the scissors if necessary to clean it. I didn't find it necessary. Open the body of the clam and the digger and remove all the brown bits and you're done.

As for cooking clams, remember that they are excellent in raw preparations such as crudo and sushi, so you don't have to cook them at all. If you're going to cook them, think squid: less cooking is more. Merely warming them for a few seconds is all that is necessary. Here are my razor clams in a preparation that I call Razor Clams Nancy's Style, with diced pancetta and shiitakes cooked in clarified butter, with white wine, garlic, and lots of fresh parsley, finished with a swirl of whole sweet butter.

And the eternal question: "But, are they worth the trouble and expense?" Worthiness depends on your point of view, your like for shellfish, your wallet, and your tolerance for labor. They are head and shoulders the best tasting clams that I have ever had. Worthy, worthy, worthy.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

On Liking What You Cook

I alluded to cooking those things that you like to eat in my post yesterday on Grand Marnier soufflés: when you cook things you are passionate about, the passion comes through.

And the converse is also very true. I remember some years ago during shad roe season, several of my customers were complaining vociferously to me in my dining room about the terrible quality of shad roe at another local restaurant. By the way, I'm not a big fan of hearing how bad my competition is; rather than dish on the competition, I wish my customers would have good things to say. It's better for us all that way.

Anyway, I went to the other restaurant and told the chef, "You ought to know that people are really complaining about your shad roe." And he said, "The owner makes me cook it; I hate that shit!"


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Grand Marnier Soufflé

A customer asked if I would make a Grand Marnier soufflé for his 30th anniversary, to which I replied, "No problem!" Soufflés, while they look like kitchen wizardry, are really simple to make. And I kind of like making them. There is something really neat about putting a mousse of egg whites in the oven and pulling out a perfectly risen soufflé. I'm sorry that this is such a crappy photograph, because this soufflé was nearly perfect, rising almost three inches above a 2-inch soufflé dish. We served this with a Chocolate Grand Marnier Crème Anglaise.

I don't eat desserts (sweets don't appeal to me), so I rarely make desserts. I've always been of the opinion that you should cook things that you like and are passionate about, otherwise the passion won't shine through. And so, I leave most of the pastry work to the other cooks in the kitchen. I could be a fine pastry chef—I can create desserts equally as easily as any other kind of dish—but I don't want to be. But I have to admit that I really do like to make soufflés.

Most soufflés, including this Grand Marnier soufflé, are made with a béchamel base. Béchamel is not necessary if your flavorings have sufficient viscosity (such as chocolate or certain vegetable purées). I make my dessert soufflé béchamels with heavy cream. You may use milk if you prefer.

Grand Marnier Soufflé

For each 4-ounce soufflé dish, you will need:

2 fluid ounces of very thick, lightly sweetened béchamel
zest of half an orange
1 tablespoon of Grand Marnier
2 egg yolks

2 egg whites
1 tablespoon of sugar

parchment (silicone) paper
masking tape or string

To the room temperature béchamel, add the orange zest, Grand Marnier, and egg yolks. Mix very well. Whisk the room temperature egg whites to nearly soft peak stage, add the sugar, and bring to the soft peak stage. Add 1/3 of the egg whites to the béchamel base and mix to lighten the base. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites and note that the mixture does not have to be perfectly mixed. Place the mixture in a prepared soufflé mold and place in a 375F oven until risen and set, about 20 minutes.

To prepare a soufflé mold for a sweet soufflé, rub the mold with soft butter and coat with sugar, dumping out the excess sugar. Fold a piece of parchment paper and wrap around the mold, securing with masking tape or string, as you see in the photo.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Flageolet Beans

One of the great things about fall is that we can start to bring a lot of comfort foods back to the menu without a lot of pushback from customers. During the summer, we cut way back on the carbs in favor of the excellent seasonal produce in the farmers markets. As the season wanes as it it right now, we have to look more and more to our pantry for garnishes for our main dishes. And our pantry contains a lot of beans that have been sitting all summer, waiting for their chance to shine on the menu.

Saturday night, we cooked the first flageolet ("flah-zho-lay" beans since March. Flageolets are small white to pale green, slightly kidney-shaped beans of French origin, shown here, dried on the left and rehydrated over night on the right.

Flageolets are harvested when still green, unlike most other beans which are harvested after the pods have dried. They are able to maintain some of the green color into the dried state, which makes them fairly unique among beans.

Flageolets are the bean in France that traditionally must be served with lamb. Not wanting to buck tradition, we served them with our braised local lamb shanks.

Flageolets don't break down during cooking, so you can use them in presentations where you want to see whole beans, such as cassoulet (in the absence of the ultra-rare and ultra-expensive Tarbais beans, which we also have in our pantry. Note to self, put up some duck confit for cassoulet). But they do get very creamy once you cook them. They're just an excellent bean.

Flageolets with Rosemary and Bacon

2 cups dried flageolets
2 bay leaves
fresh rosemary
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
1 cup diced slab bacon, rind off
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper

Wash the flageolets and soak overnight in plenty of water. Drain and cook in water to cover with bay, a sprig of rosemary, and the crushed garlic cloves. I also throw in the bacon rind. Cook until you're happy with the tenderness, an hour or two. After an hour, add some salt and pepper to the pan.

Once the beans are tender, drain them and remove the bay, rosemary, garlic, and bacon rind. Return the beans to the pan. Cook the bacon about 2/3 done, add the garlic and cook for another minute, then add the bacon, garlic, and bacon grease to the beans.

Rewarm the beans and season to taste with salt, pepper, finely minced rosemary, and extra virgin olive oil.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Calling All Oyster Fans!

I have just heard about a way that you home chefs and oyster lovers can win 4 dozen oysters from Marx Foods. To sweeten the deal, if the winner is one of my customers, I'll shuck the oysters!

Marx Foods is offering live oysters from Puget Sound, a dozen each of Pacific, Kumamoto, Virginica, and Olympia oysters to be delivered at the winner's convenience up until the New Year. While we have some fabulous east coast oysters (Virginia's own Chincoteagues from Tom's Cove are briny amazing, if a bit fragile to shuck), the Pacific Northwest is home to some equally wonderful oysters such as the tiny Olympias and the small Kumamotos. If you love oysters and have never tasted these oysters, put it on your must-do list.

To win, all you need to do is to post a comment between now and October the 19th on the Marx Foods blog stating what you would do with the oysters if you won. That's not so hard is it?

Well, in my case, it might be. First, I'm a professional chef, so I won't be getting involved in a contest aimed at home chefs, but second, my comment would involve a bottle of Dom Pérignon and several X-rated details that wouldn't be fit for publication. ;)

The blog readers will vote on the winning entry between the 20th and the 24th of October. I'm guessing that the winning comment will not involve cooking the oysters. That's just my hunch as an oyster lover. Why waste a perfectly good live oyster by cooking it?

Disclaimer: I buy from the wholesale company of which Marx Foods is the retail arm. I came across this contest on their web site. I get nothing out of this. I just thought it would be fun to see some of my customers enter the contest and perhaps win.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


On Frying Pans

For many years, I have been trying to find really solid frying pans for the restaurant. We use them hundreds of times a day, so they need to be relatively inexpensive and work reliably.

Years ago, I got a stack of used All Clad stainless pans at a good price and they lasted for a couple of years. They were slow to heat but the surface was really nice and the pans looked nice, sort of. After a pan goes through its paces at a restaurant, you would never again say that it really looked nice. But in the end, they proved to be expensive junk. At around $100 apiece, they should have lasted forever, but they couldn't stand up to the professional kitchen. They all delaminated after being heated over very high heat and then being tossed into water in the pot sink.

Like every restaurant, we've always had a stack of Vollrath or Dura-Ware 10-inch aluminum pans. They're relatively cheap and light enough weight to be useful. They heat quickly, but they're going to warp over time and the rivets on the handles are going to come loose, but then, they're cheap. But you can't use them to get a really good crust on anything; everything sticks to aluminum. Still, they're the workhorse of every restaurant kitchen.

We made another foray down the All-Clad way with a couple of their MC2 pans. They look nice and seem to work OK, but they just haven't found favor with us, probably because they're expensive and we feel that we have to baby them.

Then Vollrath introduced some really nice pans in their Tribute line. We have several of their 10-inch stainless clad pans and they work pretty well. While they're on the expensive side (but less than All Clad), they seem to be a good value. They're a little slow, but they seem to be rock solid and the gator grip handles are extremely nice. The jury is still out on them; we've only had them about nine months so they haven't been through the test of time.

But, I finally got fed up with high end pans in my search to find a pan that is inexpensive, fast to heat, robust enough so that it doesn't need a warranty with three pages of disclaimers, and sears the hell out of food. I got so fed up that I went back to basics, 9-1/2" Matfer Bourgeat black steel frying pans, which you see in action in the photo above.

They heat quickly, they sear like crazy, and once broken in, they produce amazing crust on foods with little to no sticking. We can put them on high flame and forget them, toss them smoking hot into the dishwater, and heap the usual restaurant abuse on them, and they just take it, service after service after service. And at less than $15 apiece, they're cheap! We're in the process of replacing all the glamour pans with these French beasts.

Black steel is not for everyone. For starters, it's really heavy and looks like hell after just a few uses. And, it requires constant maintenance to prevent rust. We've had to retrain the dishwashers not to use stainless steel scrubbers on our pans, not to put them through the dish machine, and not to put them through any sanitizer solution. The dishwashers have to give the pans back to us on the line and we either throw them on the grill or in an oven to dry them completely, then we wipe them down with oil all over. So, they take a little upkeep, but no more than my cast iron at home, so I can deal with it.

I am so done with other kinds of pans.

Friday, October 3, 2008

You Say Pâté; I Say Terrine

Last evening, after eating a couple of slices of my lamb terrine flavored with dried pears and red wine, a customer asked me exactly what a terrine is. I'm afraid that may have launched me into a mini-lesson on charcuterie at his table. I hope I didn't overwhelm him with details. Some people love to bake breads, others love to do desserts, me, my passion is for charcuterie. I'm not a big meat eater, so go figure.

Charcuterie (from the French chair cuit, cooked meat) is that branch of cooking that in modern times embraces sausages, meat pies, hams, smoked and cured meats, terrines, pâtés, galantines, ballotines, and so forth. These are dishes that I love to cook from the humblest Cornish pasty or albóndigas to the most elegant truffled pheasant galantine, and you will see them on the appetizer menu from time to time.

Like the customer last evening, most customers and my staff are really confused about the terminology. They are not alone: most professional chefs have no clue either. And a lot of the information that I read on the web is just wrong.

The basis for most (but certainly not all) charcuterie is a forcemeat (farce in French from farcir, to stuff), a mixture of ground meat and fat. When cooked, this forcemeat is called pâté, from the French pâte (paste). There are further subdivisions of pâté based on how you make the forcemeat, but that's a subject for a technical book and not a blog post.

In this post, I want to examine four different ways of cooking a pâté that form the basis for the nomenclature on my menus.

If I encase the pâté in pastry (called, oddly enough, pâte à pâté, pastry for pâté) and bake it, and then fill the voids between the pastry and the cooked farce with aspic, I have made a classic pâté en croûte, pâté in a crust. If I call something a pâté, that means in my lexicon that I have encased it in a crust.

If I cook the pâté in a mold called a terrine, from the French terre via the Latin terra, earth, formerly an earthenware baking dish, I have made a pâté en terrine. This form has been shortened to simply terrine. Here is a photo of one of my terrines, the industry standard cast iron model from Le Creuset. I own many more terrines in various shapes, but they are earthenware models and I keep them at home, lest my dishwasher beat them up.

Both pâtés and terrines are chilled, unmolded, and served cold. Beyond this similarity, I think many of us chefs make a distinction in terminology based on the fineness of the forcemeat. When I make a pâté en croûte, I use a very finely ground or mousseline forcemeat. When I make my workaday terrines, I use fairly roughly ground forcemeat. So there is a tendency in the industry to reserve the term pâté for fancy presentation work and terrine for quotidian work.

If I take a whole bird (usually a chicken, pheasant, or guinea hen), skin it, bone it, stuff it with forcemeat, and roll it back in its own skin, I have created a galantine. I would then poach it and cover it in an aspic or aspic-based sauce such as a chaudfroid (French, literally hot-cold: you pour it on hot and it solidifies as the gelatin cools). Then I would decorate the opaque chaudfroid with designs made from vegetables such as leek leaves and poached carrots and seal the deal with aspic. This is a major work of art, perhaps the epitome of showpieces, and if I ever make one for you, I like you a lot!

More often, I will bone out a bird and prepare it as for a galantine. Then I will bake it so that the skin browns very prettily and serve it warm, without further decoration. This is a ballotine.

That's enough for one blog post. Certainly this is only the tip of a very large iceberg: I have dozens of books on the subject. Maybe someday I will get up the energy to talk about mousses, mousseline pâtés, quenelles, and so forth.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


One of our servers asked me last evening about Amarone (technically Amarone della Valpolicella Classico). It's a wine that we have on our list, yet one that nobody buys, probably because they aren't familiar with it. But I cannot imagine a wine list of any stature that does not contain an Amarone, merely because of its uniqueness.

Amarone is, like the Prosecco that I discussed back in May, from the Veneto in Italy, from the area around Verona. The typical Amarone is made primarily from three grapes indigenous to the Veneto, three little known grapes of which Corvina Veronese is the principal, with lesser amounts of Rondinella and Molinara. Other grapes may appear in minuscule amounts.

What sets Amarone apart in the wine world is that it is a dry red wine made from partially dried grapes. Granted that there are vins de paille in France and even vin santo in Italy that use the same method, but these are mostly sweet white wines.

Actually, Amarone is one member of a family of wines from the Veneto. If the grapes are pressed straight away and fermented, they become Valpolicella, a mostly unremarkable, but popular wine. If the grapes are dried, on average of four months, then pressed and fermented, the wine can go two directions. If the fermentation is stopped early (or gets stuck), it yields a sweet red wine called Recioto della Valpolicella. If the fermentation continues until the fermentable sugars are consumed, the wine becomes Amarone.

There's also a hybrid wine called Valpolicella Ripasso, which is made by mixing Valpolicella with the lees (what is left in the barrel after the wine is racked off) of a Recioto or Amarone. This causes a second fermentation (the ripasso) and yields a more complex wine than Valpolicella.

But back to Amarone. In typical fashion, the grapes are harvested about mid-October in the Veneto and the best bunches are selected for Amarone (the remaining grapes go into Valpolicella). Traditionally Amarone was made vin de paille-style by drying the grapes on straw mats. Technology now lets the winemakers dry the grapes under more controlled conditions. Still, it takes about four months for the grapes to dry to the point where they lose 35-45% of their water.

Drying does a few things. First, it increases the volume of fermentable sugars in the grape as the water evaporates, yielding a wine with a very high alcohol potential. Also, the acid level drops, the tannins mellow, and the color deepens because of the long skin contact with the juice in the grapes.

At about mid-February, the grapes are pressed and fermented. Given the cool temperatures, the fermentation is low and slow. The result is a very big wine with deep ruby color, high alcohol (I'd say 15.5% is about average), and not much acid. Each Amarone differs in flavor components, but black cherry forms the background. Drying provides some raisiny flavors. In really good Amarone, I detect chocolate notes, as in chocolate-covered raisins.

Now, what to pair with Amarone? I belong to the school that says if the wine has too much alcohol or not enough acid, it wants to stand on its own. Personally, I like Amarone after dinner with a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano (nothing new here; this is the classic textbook pairing) or even with chocolate-dipped figs.

If I were going to pair it, I would want a dark meat to stand up to the Amarone's weight, say roasted venison chops with a wild cherry compote to echo the background cherry notes in the wine. And I would bring missing acid to the dish by means of a vinegar (probably balsamic) in the cherry compote.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What Kind of Catfish is That?

I don't often get stumped by customer questions, but this one set me back. Recently, we've been serving Blue Cornmeal-Crusted Catfish with Shrimp and Ham Gumbo, as a break from more exotic fish and because of customer requests for catfish. I told the customer, "I think it's channel cat, but I'm not sure." Species I was unclear on, but I was certain that it was farmed in Tennessee.

Checking in with The Catfish Institute reveals that, yes, the vast majority of catfish farmed in the United States is channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) harvested between 18 months and two years at one to two pounds.

I'm glad that customers are asking for it. There was a time when people regarded catfish as a trash fish and I have certainly had plenty of wild caught catfish that was not worth eating. But all that has changed. With advances in aquaculture, farmed cat is consistently good product, inexpensive and very tasty, consistently mild and a touch sweet. Plus the relatively high oil content makes it fairly hard to overcook making it a great fish for home cooks.

And it's a great answer to the eternal question, "What's for dinner?" My kids love it when I rub catfish with Old Bay seasoning and throw it on the grill. The touch of grill smoke makes the catfish irresistable and it's hard to keep the kids (not to mention the adults) away from it. It might work for your kids too. I've made myself hungry, so I guess there's no choice but to head to the kitchen to grill a piece of catfish!