Saturday, June 27, 2009

Summerlong Basil

I'm completely taken with a new basil cultivar called Summerlong which you see to the right. Some plants have the micro leaves that you see here while others have slightly larger leaves. The cultivar is a very compact globe or bush basil that is slow to bloom. If you've ever grown basil, you know that once it blooms, it's not nearly as good as before. The smell and flavor is outstanding. The tiny leaves can be tedious to work with, but I'm still taken with this basil, and the tiny leaves are a bonus for us in the restaurant where we need tiny leaves for garnish. Try some in your garden next year. Ed likes this.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Water Pepper

You see here some micro Water Pepper (Persicaria hydropiper) that we recently received to experiment with. As microgreens go, its handsome green leaves with pink undersides and pink stems look great on the plate.

Water Pepper is known for its wasabi-like spice. The grower that I bought it from went on and on about how spicy it is, but we never found it to be overly spicy. Maybe these micros are just too young to have developed killer spice. Eating a few of the leaves is akin to taking a bite of prepared "wasabi" powder. Wasabi is in quotes because wasabi powder contains no actual wasabi, but that's the subject of another post, once I get some fresh wasabi root to photograph.

I notice that the leaves have a slight bitter cast on the initial taste, followed by the spice, which lingers and reminds me of Sichuan pepper. What's a bit weird is that it doesn't have any real flavor of its own, just slight bitterness followed by the burn.

I enjoyed it as a replacement for wasabi with tuna sashimi, wrapped into tekka rolls, and in summer rolls. I also mixed a bit into my local mesclun for my personal lunch salads. Water pepper retains its spice when cooked (I put a batch of wilted leaves into a quick salsa), but I'm not sure why you'd cook with such an expensive green.

Note to chefs: this micro does not last long. It wilts in a hurry. You must store it cold and tightly covered, so you can't keep it in the top of your garnish box, even with a loose fitting lid. That's a bit of a pain at service, but so it goes.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sorrel-Wrapped Mahi Demonstration

Here's a brief photo essay from a recent lunch special that one of my cooks was prepping. It's a good lesson in how to wrap any kind of protein with a leafy green. In this case, we're wrapping relatively mild Mahi Mahi in bright, lemony sorrel.

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is not well known in the US and not commonly grown. In fact, we take all we can get from two different growers and it's still not enough for us. The bright lemony flavor is a favorite in our kitchen. If you've ever tasted the shamrock-leaved Oxalis that we commonly call sour grass and gets its sour flavor from oxalic acid, you know the flavor of sorrel, which gets its flavor from a big dose of ascorbic acid.

Sorrel pairs extremely well with mild seafood such as this Mahi and with poultry; roasted chicken with sorrel sauce is a classic.

Here are the lanceolate or arrowhead-shaped leaves of raw common sorrel.





When you blanch sorrel even for just a second, it goes olive drab; it's unavoidable. After blanching, blot the leaves well to remove any water.



Chop the leaves finely and flatten between two sheets of film. Peel the top layer of film off.




Place the raw fish bottom side up on the sorrel and using the bottom layer of film, wrap the sorrel around the fish.




Here's the bottom side of the fish after having been wrapped.



And the top side.

And the finished lunch special with rice wine vinegar-poached dried pears, microgreens, and a plum-sesame sauce. We seared the fish bottom side down in a hot skillet and then finished cooking it in a hot oven.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


An event at lunch today reminded me that I have a whole treasury of WTF stories to tell. Here's what happened today, followed by three more.

Worth the Detour? Customers called ahead this morning to reserve a table for lunch, telling us that several people had recommended that they have lunch with us. When they arrived, they made a point of telling us that they were from out of town and that many places recommended us for our creative cuisine, and that they had come all the way across town from the Visitors Center to dine with us. After all this, the three customers ordered three soups and two side salads, but tried none of the creative cuisine. WTF!

Our Famous Buffalo Burgers. One Saturday at lunchtime, I was in the front of the house when in walked a couple that I had never seen before. The man queried, “We read about you someplace. Do you still have those buffalo burgers?” I thought he was joking because at that time we had never had buffalo burger or any other kind of burger on the menu. I thought he might be confused with buffalo at dinner, knowing that NY strip of bison had recently come off the dinner menu (we rotate through various meats on the dinner menu somewhat at random). I replied, “No sir, I’m afraid we have no bison today.” He turned to his wife and said, “I guess we drove two hours for nothing!” and they spun on their heels and walked out the front door. WTF!

Nothing to Eat on the Menu. Customers drove 20 minutes from a local inn where they had viewed our sample menus and on arrival, the husband told me how much they were looking forward to dining with us and chatting with me after their dinner, how much our menus stood out amongst all the others, etc., etc., fairly gushing. Five minutes later, they got up and left, claiming that they couldn’t find anything to eat on the menu. Generally this is a price objection, but this couple was staying at the most exclusive and most expensive inn in the area. WTF!

One Party, Two Tables. On a busy Friday night, we had a reservation for 8 people for which we set an 8-top. When the group of eight women showed up, one of them approached the host and asked if they could be seated at a table for six and a table for two. That raised some eyebrows. We couldn’t move the six people to a table for six, so we seated the six at the 8-top and put the other two at an open two-top on the far side of the dining room. Once seated, the same woman who requested the separate tables came back to the host and asked if we would include the two-top on her bill for the six-top. They proceeded to have two entirely separate dinners, with no communication between the two tables, the woman at the six-top paid, and then all eight of them got up and left together. WTF!

Aren't we humans silly at times?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Porcini with Thyme

Yesterday, I did an outdoor demonstration at Sunflower Cottage as part of the Virginia Herb Festival. During the 90-minute demo, I cooked Scallops with a Tarragon and Shallot Compound Butter, Herb-Crusted Wild Boar Chops, Local Lamb with Chimichurri, Shrimp with Mojo (an oregano-inflected citrus marinade), and Porcini Mushrooms with Thyme.

Here's an easy way to fix porcini or almost any mushrooms.

Porcini with Thyme

2 tablespoons clarified butter
1 large shallot, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 pound porcini mushrooms, sliced
salt and pepper

Heat the clarified butter in a large sauté pan and add the shallots and thyme. Cook for a minute or so, then add the mushrooms. Cook and toss for another minute or two until the mushrooms are tender. Season to taste and serve immediately. Serves two as an appetizer.

Variations: add a splash of cream; add pancetta and a splash of veal demiglace; serve over pasta as an entrée.

Friday, June 5, 2009


Each year, just around Memorial Day, our summer wines start rolling in and we revamp the wine list for the upcoming hot weather. This year is no different, but one of the labels (right) on one of our wines is very different this year. The wine I ordered was Tocai Friulano, the box it arrived in had Tocai on the side, and the wine tastes like Tocai Friulano, a light crisp white, great for seafood on the deck.

But as you can see, the word Tocai is notably absent from the label which now only states "da uve Friulano," from the Friulano grape. And there's a good reason for it. I've long believed that certain names belong to certain styles of wines from certain regions. Champagne belongs to sparkling wines of that region of France; Port belongs to fortified red wines from the Douro. And, now Tokaji belongs to Hungary, not to Friuli (Tocai Friulano) or Alsace (Tokay d'Alsace) or anywhere else. Use of the word Tokay in any of its spellings is banned except for Hungarian wines.

If you want to read more, Jancis Robinson has all the details on her web site.

But you've still got to admire Max Di Lenardo 's spirit in using the emphatic TOH! on the label, as a gentle middle finger at the European Union.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Chef's Tasting

Last week, Brandon and I did a Chef's Tasting for two of our longtime customers and two of their friends. Sometimes we go all out with technical tricks (soup filled dumplings, spherical piquillo peppers, etc.) but we just weren't feeling it for this tasting.

The day before the tasting, we had the first tremendous flood of local goods of this growing season and so we just decided to showcase what awesome food products we had and leave the technical tours de force for other tastings. I think these dishes show my less-is-more philosophy: just enough ingredients on a plate and no more.

Shrimp Cóctel

This is a pun, a wink at Luis Uno-Ojo, and an Americanization of a Mexican version of an American dish. Whew! Many years ago, my friend Luis from Guadalajara (Jalisco) introduced me to a soup that he calls cóctel (cocktail), a cold tomato and beef bouillon soup garnished with poached shrimp, avocados, cilantro, and so forth. His cóctel is a soup version of Cóctel de Camarones, the American classic Shrimp Cocktail. I reverted the soup to a true cocktail of beef consommé, tomato juice, and a good shot of that Jaliscan joy juice, tequila. I always serve it up in a martini glass as you see here, rimmed with cumin salt and finished with a fun garnish including shrimp. This version is garnished with a shrimp skewered around a piece of chorizo, then grilled. Putting the fun back in dinner and the cocktail back in Shrimp Cocktail, Guadalajara-Style!

Blue Cornmeal-Crusted, Crab- and Lemon Zest-Stuffed Softshell Crab with Grapefruit Beurre Blanc

After our brief trip south of the border, we brought things right back to Virginia with some local softshells, the first of the year from the Chesapeake Bay. The lemon zest and crab stuffing is a flavor idea that I stole from a crab cake appetizer from Tracy O'Grady at Willow (Tracy, your crab cakes rock!). A little organic blue cornmeal from a local mill gave a bit of crunch and the grapefruit beurre blanc brought the dish in line with a really grapefruity Sauvignon Blanc.

Chicken with Morels and Haricots Verts

I got a perfect pastured chicken and it was easily the highlight of this particular dinner. I loved the resulting dish so much that I've already blogged about it. Classic French technique meets impeccable local American ingredients, paired with Jim Law's equally impeccable Linden Hardscrabble Chardonnay.

Local Veal Skirt Steak, Blue Cornmeal Hoe Cake, and Poblano Crema

Upscale fajitas anyone? I had a lovely local organic veal skirt steak in the cooler along with the remnants of a case of poblano chiles that had seen better days. I've replaced the corn tortilla with an organic blue cornmeal hoe cake (cornmeal, garlic-infused butter, salt, pepper, and boiling water) and converted the rather limp poblanos to a roasted poblano crema. The skirt steak is lightly marinated in garlic, fresh baby cilantro, and kaffir lime, then lightly grilled to medium rare, rested, and sliced across the grain.

Lamb Samosas with Apricot Chutney and Red Wine Rosemary Demiglace

One of the things about working with local lamb is that we only get so many cuts off of each lamb. With each batch of lamb, we get chops (rack and loin), shanks, ribs, leg and shoulder (usually in kebabs), and then all the scraps go into ground. Needless to say, we have a lot of ground lamb to work through, so we're always having to find ways to use it.

Somehow, Brandon and I were both thinking samosas at the same time, so I made a bunch of them. We decided to stay away from traditional Indian spices and go with a more or less traditional Shepherd's Pie filling: lamb, mirepoix, herbs, garlic, gravy from lamb stock, and mashed potatoes. A quick reduction of Grenache and rosemary bound with demiglace gave us a sauce and then a sweet and spicy apricot chutney (what would be called a pickle in India) finished the plates that you see Brandon setting up here.

And the finished plates. I'm OK with white/negative space on a plate, as you can see here. Oh yeah, the samosas were banging—like little lamb empanadas. Yum.



Red-Cooked Bison Short Ribs with Local Spinach and Fried Rice Cake

Here you can see the fried rice cake and the spinach down in the soup plate, before we add the bison. The fried rice cake is merely fried rice bound with egg and fried into a pancake. Easy as can be and a crowd pleaser. We have this beautiful whole local spinach, cut off just above the roots, so we blanch it, toss it in butter and then curl it on the dish, in this case on top of the rice cake.

And here is the final dish with the bison on top and the sauce over and around. Red cooking is an awesome braising technique that you should have in your arsenal. I need to do a blog post just on that. In short, it's a classic Chinese braise in which the meat is cooked in a sweet and spicy liquid made from soy sauce, white wine (Shaoxing is typical), brown sugar or caramel, ginger, garlic, green onions, and sweet spices such as star anise, black pepper, Szechuan pepper, cinnamon or cassia, and so forth.

We braised the bison ribs in such a liquid, then strained the liquid, refreshed it with fresh spices, green onions, garlic, and ginger, reduced the sauce, strained it, added a bit of hoisin sauce, and brought it down to final sauce consistency. In China, the sauce is often used over and over to braise new dishes; at the restaurant, such practice, no matter how delicious, would certainly raise red flags at the Health Department.

Frozen Strawberry Soufflé with Lemon Verbena-Mint Shortbread Cookies

Finally, local strawberries arrived after 11 months of being gone. Throw together strawberry purée, Italian meringue, and whipped cream and what do you get? A frozen strawberry soufflé if you're patient enough to wait for it to freeze. The mint and lemon verbena are from our herbs growing outside the front door of the restaurant.