Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cabernet Compound Butter

A compound butter, that is a butter that you have mixed with flavoring components, is a great addition to any kitchen. We often use them at the restaurant to make a final addition of flavor to foods that don't otherwise have a sauce, such as grilled meats. Here's a walk-through of the Cabernet butter that I made for our filets mignons last night. Use the same method and vary the ingredients for any other flavor of butter that you'd like to make.

Cabernet Compound Butter

Here you see the ingredients that you'll need: 8 fluid ounces (1 cup) of red wine, 1 tablespoon each of minced thyme and freshly cracked black pepper, 1 pound of sweet butter at room temperature, 3 large shallots in fine dice, and a teaspoon of salt.

Put the red wine, shallots, and thyme in a non-reactive pan over high flame and start the wine reducing.

While the wine is reducing, cream the butter, salt, and pepper either by hand or in a mixer.

This is what you're aiming for: all the wine save two or three tablespoons is evaporated. Cool the wine reduction to room temperature—or else!

Add the cooled wine reduction to the butter and mix thoroughly. Lay a sheet of kitchen film on your work surface, place half of the butter on the film, and roll into a log. Repeat with the other half of the butter.

We store our butter in the freezer to keep it very firm. To serve, we slice a round off the log right through the film, then we peel the film off the round. These butters keep for a long time in the freezer so you can make a variety well in advance and have them on hand at any time.

Try this with rosemary, garlic, and lemon zest for lamb; dill, chervil, and lemon zest for fish; roasted garlic and black pepper for ribeye steak; rum, pineapple juice, and toasted coconut for shrimp; chipotle adobo, cilantro, and cumin for skirt steak; espresso and ancho chile for elk; lobster stock, cognac, and chives for scallops; garlic, sour orange juice, and oregano for pork, etc. You get the idea. The combinations are endless.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Perfect Bok Choy

And this is why I go to the farmers market personally: to find something as beautiful and exquisite as these perfect little bok choy. These are the miniature variety (bred to be small) of Brassica chinensis known as Shanghai bok choy.

Growers who are focused on maximum revenue don't want to pick anything this young; after all, think of all the money they could make when these gain four times their current weight.

Spigarello, Spigariello

Today I've got my hands on a new (to me) leaf broccoli called variously Spigarello or Spigariello. Actually, it's not new: it's an heirloom from Italy, where it is called variously Cima di Rape Spigarello or Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello. To add to the confusion, I've seen two different types in seed catalogs, one with flat leaves like this variety and one with really curly leaf margins. Some look more like standard rapini/cima di rape/broccoli raab; this kind looks more like small broccoli leaves.

The flavor is very much broccoli with a touch of spice reminiscent of rapini on the finish. I'm happy to have it in my arsenal this weekend.

If you don't already know the answer to the question how am I going to prepare it, you should. With olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, of course.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

To a Chicken

There are some flavors that are so deeply rooted in your soul that you'll never forget them. For me, I cannot forget what chicken tasted like at my grandmother's house where the bird was recently brought in from the chicken house. I still remember that essential chicken goodness now forty years later because it left a visceral imprint on my taste memory. I would recapture that memory but for a brief instant twenty-five years later in a small restaurant in the Beaujolais when eating Coq au Beaujolais made with a Bresse chicken from a nearby town. And since then, I have been searching for that elusive grail.

Every new pastured chicken producer in my area has promised chicken with flavor and I have cooked their birds only to find them underwhelming. Good birds, yes, but flavor approaching my taste memory, no. The birds were the wrong kind, bred for quick market weight and not for flavor. But recently, I got a chicken from another farm in the area. And something about the chicken spoke to me. I can't tell you why, but I just knew by holding the bird in my hands that it was going to be a great chicken. It sounds funny, but so be it.

I have often said to people when they ask me how I decide to fix something that I let the product tell me what to do with it. Holding this chicken, an idea popped into my head about what to do with it, almost as if the chicken were dictating what I should do to it. There is no way that I could have done anything else with this bird other than what came into my mind; this bird was destined to be cooked in this particular way and no other. Call me strange; I don't really care.

Last evening, I put the chicken in a weak brine, mainly to remove any traces of blood. This morning, I clarified a pound of butter and after patting the chicken dry, I bathed it, spooning boiling clarified butter over it for the better part of a half an hour, getting a perfectly tight, golden brown, caramelized skin.

Once golden all over, I put it into a covered pan with a bottle of fruity Pinot Blanc and let it cook ever so slowly for about two hours. We held the chicken warm while we strained the braising liquid, reduced it, and finished it with cream, shallots, thyme, and fresh morels. We pulled the chicken off the bones and served each guest some light meat and some dark along with the tiniest local asparagus cooked separately, morels, and the sauce. Photo above, shown with haricots verts and not asparagus.

The result? Sublime. Chicken, you were worthy of this labor intensive preparation and I salute you. Now where are your kin?

Virginia Cheese

I've been so busy lately with Chef's Tastings and special events here at the restaurant that I have hardly blogged in the month of May. I think that the furor is starting to lessen a bit and I can get back to roughly a topic a day.

Today, let's talk about cheesemaking in the Commonwealth of Virginia (a state whose health and agricultural inspectors do so much to prevent cheesemakers from doing what they do). Despite the state-imposed red tape, a few brave souls have persisted in making cheese for many years and what they're making is now better than ever. Here are three examples from our cooler.

Meadow Creek Dairy

Rick and Helen Feete have been plugging away at Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, VA for years—I've been buying from them for seven years—and are making some of the best cheeses in the world right now. Their raw Jersey milk Grayson, a squat 4-lb. square with a red rind and creamy paste, has won first place from the American Cheese Society. To my taste, I think this is the best cheese being made in America right now, but Grayson is certainly not for the faint of heart. It reminds me of a cross between a true Münster, which most Americans have never encountered in its runny, ripe, funky state, and Taleggio, the red rind cheese from Italy. It's one of those cheeses whose funk is worse than its taste and a glass of Linden Claret mellows out the taste. I love this cheese.

Oak Spring Dairy

While Rick and Helen live all the way at the other end of the state from me and I rarely get to see them, Allen Bassler lives right in my back yard over in Upperville, VA where he makes cheese from Brown Swiss and Jersey cows on Mrs. Mellon's farm. I run into Allen from time to time and he's also a customer. Allen used to have a web site, kind of, years ago, but he's the kind of guy who'd rather make cheese and not fool around with marketing it. He makes a few basic kinds of cheese: a Derby, a Cheddar, and a Gouda. Although I think he should leave these names for the originals and find new names for his own versions, they do give you a good idea what to expect, except that the Gouda is a young, soft, white melting cheese, rather than the aged prototype that you are expecting. I think the Derby (said "darby" in English fashion and pictured to the right) is his best cheese. I've seen his cheeses for sale at the Leesburg and Berryville farmers markets.

Everona Dairy

And now for some of the best sheep's milk cheese in the world. Dr. Pat Elliott at Everona Dairy has been making sheep's milk cheese seemingly forever and it is a thing of beauty. Her signature is called Piedmont and it won the Farmhouse category for sheep's milk cheese at the American Cheese Society's competition in 2005. I love this cheese immensely. Pictured here, you see son of Piedmont called Stony Man. Stony Man is made with a thermophilic "heat loving" culture, which allows cheesemaker Carolyn Wentz to heat the curd, giving a smoother, denser paste that I really enjoy. I've never met Pat or been to her farm, but I hope to rectify that this year. When I spoke with her a few weeks ago, she urged me to try her new blue Camembert-style sheep's milk cheese. OMG! Fabulous, but it didn't last 24 hours in house, hence no photo. All the Everona cheeses are spectacular and we are so lucky to have this gem of a dairy right here in Virginia.

Now for the inevitable question: where can you find these cheeses at retail? Except for Allen's cheeses, I don't know. I either buy direct or I buy through a distributor. In any case, I buy whole cheeses, which is a lot more than you want or need for home use. But, you can certainly sample these and all our other farmstead dairy cheeses on one of our cheese plates here at the restaurant.

Friday, May 22, 2009


After a long winter of nothing in the market to make sauces for duck breasts except for fruit that we froze last summer and fall, rhubarb made its first appearance this week. Here's a really easy sauce that I like to pair with Moulard Duck breast and a nice fruity Shiraz. Rhubarb is one of the few vegetables that we typically treat as a fruit, that is, it almost always ends up in a sweet application.

Rhubarb Shiraz Sauce

5 pounds rhubarb, chopped
8 fluid ounces (1 cup) Shiraz
18 ounces (2 cups) sugar

This is a puréed and strained sauce, so in prepping the rhubarb, I don't worry about strings. For a pie or sauce in which you want chunks of rhubarb, peel any strings away just like you would for celery or asparagus.

Time zero. All the ingredients in a non-reactive sauce pan on medium high heat (yes, this is actually our grill; it works great for things like this).

Five minutes.

Ten minutes. Stop here for a chunky sauce.

Fifteen minutes and all the rhubarb is tender to the point of falling apart.

The final sauce, well blended and passed through a chinois.

And there you have it. It couldn't be simpler.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Farm to Fork 2009

I was fortunate enough to clear my schedule yesterday afternoon so that I could attend the Farm to Fork symposium at Long Branch. My thanks to Juliet Mackay-Smith of Locke Store and Marjorie Lewis for their hard work in organizing the symposium.

I must say that I was really surprised to see about 200 people in attendance, not just the usual ones of us who believe that the shorter the path from the field to the table, the better. In fact, this was the biggest thing that I took from the symposium, that so many people paid to attend, welcome news indeed. And a few of the attendees were customers of the restaurant although I don't suppose that is very surprising.

I was saddened that I was seemingly the only area restaurateur/chef in attendance. I know some of the others were busy, but it seems like some days I am carrying this banner all alone. In a side note, I was really disgusted by a recent article in the Winchester Star talking about how a new restaurant uses local and organic products. The only thing local about that restaurant's products is that the Sysco warehouse is within 100 miles of here. Every restaurant it seems wants to talk the talk, yet how many chefs do I see at the farmers market day after day? There are only three of us and we know who we are; the rest are all poseurs.

[Before you think that I am Sysco bashing, let me say that I am not. I have a great many friends who work at Sysco and they are committed people largely doing good things by their customers. In fact, their efficient distribution mechanisms may well be a part of the farm-to-fork distribution solution.]

This was my first experience in hearing Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm speak, although I've eaten his delicious chickens for years. His "big agriculture is evil" mantra is a little strident for me, after all, big agriculture has fed this country for decades, yet he makes some compelling points.

The other thing that I took away from the symposium has to do with distribution of local products. I know first hand how hard it is to go and get these products or to have them delivered, so distribution has always been a key concern for me. What I never thought about until yesterday was that all these small producers driving around making small deliveries are inefficient and waste a lot more energy in delivering goods than do the Syscos of the world. Food for thought. Just how do we improve the efficiency of the small farm distribution mechanisms?

Finally, I went to the symposium in hopes of hooking up with more local producers. While they may have been there, there was no mechanism for getting all the anonymous attendees introduced to each other. Maybe next year.

One attendee approached me afterwards and asked something to the effect that the problems seem so vast, how do we get started? And I replied that it is a lot like climbing a mountain. Standing at the bottom of K-2, if you constantly focus on the summit, you might find it a very daunting proposition to get there. Yet, if you assemble a team of climbers and each focuses on getting just a little bit higher, you can get there. Which is to say that we can all contribute to building a better food system, one little step at a time. Remember that next time you need groceries. Stop by the farmers market first. You have choices and your choices matter.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cream of Stinging Nettle Soup

Whew, it's been a busy few days leaving me scant time to blog. Lots of special menus, meeeting after meeting, etc. Here's a quick post about a funny from last night.

Making use of the local bounty of stinging nettles, we put a cream of stinging nettle soup on last night's menu as an appetizer. Flavorwise, it's similar to cream of asparagus or spinach.

After a deuce finished their dinner, they approached me on the way out of the restaurant and the woman said, "We have a funny story to tell you." They looked at each other and he said to her, "You go ahead."

"I've got to tell you," she said, "after the soup came to the table, my husband looked at me and asked, 'Where are the jellyfish?'" We all got a good chuckle out of that. I love people that can laugh at themselves!

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Letter to my Daughter

Prom season is upon us once again and this year, tomorrow in fact, will be my daughter's first prom experience. This is a letter to her.

Dear Lillie,

We love prom kids. I know it's hard to believe, but there we were, your mother and I, thirty years ago all spiffed up and ready to show everyone that we were in charge of the world. We love seeing you all dressed up and knowing that you have a bright future ahead of you. We love thinking back on our high school days and how much fun it was before the real world messed everything up!

But in the restaurant business, we also hate prom kids. We shouldn't hate; it's all wrong, I know. But still, we do. Part of what we love about you, your naïveté, causes us to hate you because you and your friends have a lot to learn about how to conduct yourselves in a restaurant.

You are in a unique position. You have worked in a restaurant and you have seen how hard the work is and you know how miserable it is to be faced with an ill-mannered table. You have the chance to educate your peers and you have the chance to make us restaurateurs love, if not all prom kids, at least your table.

Here are some pointers that I would appreciate if you would share with your friends.

1. If you make a reservation, show up. You know what no-shows do to a restaurant; they're killer. If Mom made that reservation for you and then gave you the money for dinner, show up and spend the money on dinner. No skipping dinner and spending the money on beer and weed.

2. And the corollary: show up with the number of people that you reserve for. I know you know how financially difficult it is for us to sacrifice three 4-tops to seat a party of ten when only four show up and we are out the revenue for the other 8 seats. Restaurateurs get really grumpy when this happens. And no, it's not OK to bring two more couples along without calling us first to find out if we have room to seat them.

3. Know how much dinner is going to cost before you go to the restaurant and plan accordingly. In this day and age, Google will find you the answer. Of course, you can put that cell phone that I pay for to good use as well to find out what dinner will cost. After you show up is not the time to decide it’s too expensive and only order appetizers. You, of all people, should know that to survive, restaurants depend on weekend tables ordering full meals.

4. If one of the cool young gentlemen you're with decides that the best way to attract the attention of the females in the party is by throwing food at one of the other guys, could you and all the other young ladies just smack him?

5. When you see your friends across the dining room and you just have to say what's up to them, could you refrain from yelling?

6. If one of the super coolsters in your limo decides that because I'm not serving alcohol to anyone dressed for prom, that he'll try to sneak it into my restaurant, let him know that this is a really bad idea. Not only is he going to have to deal with me, but by the time the cops and his parents get done with him, it will be a night he'll never forget. And it won't be because he has the prom pictures to prove it.

7. Payment is not optional. Just ask the young man who still goes to your high school who tried skating two years ago by making a big show of placing a $10 bill in the bill presenter, instead of what he really owed. He found it necessary to leave prom mid-way through to come correct his math before the police escorted him back to the restaurant. He also found it in his heart to leave a very large tip for his server; it was the least he could do to keep his father, a good friend of mine, ignorant of his son's feeble math skills.

8. Now that you have worked for tips, do you think tipping is optional? You keep an eye on your bill and you make certain that your group leaves a minimum of 20% for your server.

9. Remember Barney and his silly songs? "Please and thank you, they're the magic words!" Barney was right. Please treat your servers with respect and they will return the favor; they might even faint because it will be so unusual!

10. And finally, do I let you bring your cell phone to the dinner table? Enough said.

So, please go have a wonderful evening and look gorgeous and remind us all that we were in high school once too. But, if you could just do me a favor and share this letter with your friends, I would be grateful.



Thursday, May 7, 2009

Indian Celery

Here's a new one on me, folks, Indian Celery. A friend on the west coast sent it to me. When I opened the box, I thought it was wild fennel. You can't blame me for thinking that: the plant is clearly an umbellifer. But you can smell wild fennel from a long way off and this plant has no smell to speak of. When I tasted a bit of the bloom, I got a huge celery bomb. Wow, this stuff is potent! I'm not sure of the exact species, but this is a Lomatium.

That's about all I know except the stems are too woody already to eat, so I'll use the blooms. I think I'll finely dice it and use it like fennel pollen for garnish.

What do you know about this plant?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


One of the servers came to find me today saying, "somebody's here with some greens." I'm always looking for new locals to do business with, so I went to investigate and from the end of the hall, I saw a sackful of the "greens" to the right. I was expecting salad greens, not these particular harbingers of spring. Many locals need no explanation that these are ramps (Allium tricoccum), wild lily-leaved members of the greater onion family.

From mid-April to mid-May, we find ramps in the local woods; they're fond of rich, moist soil in areas where they can get some sunlight. When walking through the woods this time of year, I find the lanceolate lily-like and leek-colored leaves highly distinctive and growing in patches, just like lily-of-the-valley, which is poisonous. Fortunately, ramps and only ramps have a distinctive garlic odor, making them easily to distinguish from any plants that might confuse you.

Some of the locals call them ramsons or wild leeks, but just about all the rest of us call them ramps. Ramson (hramsan) is an Old English term for the European version of this plant (Allium ursinum). Apparently the term came to the east coast of the US with the English settlers and was corrupted to ramp.

Ramps are becoming very popular, to the point of being trendy, with big city chefs plus there has always been good demand for them at the many ramp festivals around here this time of year. Unfortunately, this is putting a lot of pressure on the plant. If you forage for ramps yourself, leave some to reproduce another year.

To prepare ramps, wash them well as you would any onion and use them raw or cooked, both bulbs and greens, in any manner that you would use onions, green onions, or leeks. Ramps have a flavor that is a cross between an onion and garlic. Sometimes I blanch them to mellow the garlic flavor a bit, but I've found that the odor is more assertive than the actual plant tastes.

I like to caramelize ramps to heighten their natural sweetness. Caramelized ramps have been a big hit at my house on pizza with bresaola and smoked gouda. The traditional preparation around here is to make home fries of ramps and potatoes. Also great in soups (think leek and potato), risotti, stews, stir fries, and braises, the ramp is a vegetable of many talents as are all the alliums.