Friday, July 31, 2009

Dragon Tongue Beans

Here's a photo of the beautiful Dragon Tongue beans that we are getting at the farmers market now. I have read about these beans for years and seen them many times in seed catalogs, but this is my first experience with them. And I'm in love. Territorial Seed says, "Dragon Tongue is probably the best multipurpose bean available." Amen. This bean tastes better than any I have had in the last 25 years.

Dragon Tongue is an old French variety called Dragon Langerie that was apparently re-established in the Netherlands. It's a moderately long flat yellow (wax) bean with purple streaks and mottling that disappears when cooked. This very tender stringless bean is excellent raw and as a fresh bean and couldn't be simpler to prepare. I am waiting for the fall to try it out as a shell bean, for which it has an excellent reputation.

We are currently bias cutting the bean into small pieces and sautéeing it in clarified butter with shallots to order. Done this way, the bean is incredibly delicious.

They are available now at the Freight Station Farmers Market from Mark Bishop of Master's Touch Plants & Produce from Berkeley Springs, WV. Mark tells me that they are a very prolific bush bean and that we can continue to look forward to them for a while longer.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


If you're a long time reader or good customer at the restaurant, you won't find it very surprising that I have a hard time with recipes and trying to record art as a scientific process. A case in point. What exactly do you use when a recipe calls for something as straightforward as basil?

At first glance, basil is basil, no? Well, no, not really. For example, this summer, we have had at least 9 or 10 different cultivars of basil to play with in our kitchen. Each has a unique flavor that bears experimenting with. Here is a photo of a few organic basils that came in last week, from bottom left, clockwise, ending in the center (click on photo to see labels): Thai basil, Genovese basil, Globe basil, Holy basil, and Opal basil.

Now, don't go burning your cookbooks because of this post: almost all basils are interchangeable. Go to a farmers market and try some different ones!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Here's my latest new vegetable toy of the summer. It's a cabbage called Brassica oleracea var. costata or var. tronchuda with common names including tronchuda, couve tronchuda, or Portuguese kale.

In the field, this leaf cabbage looks similar to Brussels sprouts or collards, with large rounded leaves radiating off a central stalk, and no sign of a head like cabbage. As you can see, the leaves look very much like collards, but collards are bluer and collards don't tolerate the heat of summer. Also, these leaves are thicker than collards.

The flavor tastes very much like cabbage and not at all like collards. As such, so far, it has only gone into our farmers market slaw where it performs admirably. It is the traditional green in a wide array of Portuguese soups.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Dill Pickles!

I just love this time of year when I can feast directly from the produce coming into the restaurant without having to cook anything! And among my favorite feasting items are cucumbers. A cucumber right off the vine is a wholly different beast than you're used to eating, if you get your cukes from a traditional grocery store.

I love the little Kirby pickling cucumbers for pickles, but right now I'm blessed with a bumper crop of what we call Eurocukes in the trade, the long, slender largely seedless, so-called burpless cucumbers with the tender skins. Not only do I love eating these cukes out of hand, I also love to make pickles with them (or any cucumbers for that matter).

I know that the legion of putting-by cookbooks treat pickling as an exact science, but what I've learned after making hundreds of batches of cucumber pickles is that for fresh, refrigerated pickles, any old attempt at winging it will result in a tasty product.

Here then is my winging it for today. While my gallon of brine was coming to a boil, I sliced a bunch of cucumbers (about 10) and layered them in my bin with roughly mashed cloves of garlic (about 24), heads of dill (about 16), and a few sprinkles of crushed red pepper (about a teaspoon). Note how much head room I am leaving in my bin. That's important later on.

Pickle Brine

3 quarts water
1 quart vinegar
1 cup Kosher salt

Once the brine comes to a boil, pour it over the cucumbers until they are covered, still leaving plenty of head room. You should have a quart or a quart and a half of brine leftover. Let the remaining brine cool down so that you can handle it without burning yourself for the next step.

Fill a large plastic bag with the cooled brine, press all the air out of the bag, and seal the bag. Lay the bag over the wannabe pickles to seal the bin. Refrigerate. These pickles are good to eat at any time, but I like to let them sit at least a week. Naturally, they will keep for months.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jefferson Vineyards Tasting

After a grueling day at the desk yesterday trying to get caught up from my road trips over the weekend and dealing with payroll and bills, I finally got a break around 4pm when my friend Andy Reagan showed up with his wines in tow. Andy's the winemaker and vineyard manager at Jefferson Vineyards just southeast of Charlottesville, right next to Monticello.

I've known Andy since he was the winemaker at nearby Chrysalis Vineyards and a frequent guest in my dining room, but I haven't seen him since he headed south a few years back to make wines in my hometown, so this was a good time to catch up. He was up in the area meeting with one of his grape growers, a mutual friend of ours and frequent customer at the restaurant. This really is a small world, the food and wine business.

It's always fun for me to taste one on one with the winemaker because we can get into details about how exactly the fruit and juice was handled to make the wine. We got into details about stuck fermentations and canopy management yesterday that you would never get into with a distributor rep. I find the more I know about a wine, the better I can appreciate it and the more I know about the mind of the winemaker, the better I can appreciate his biases and approach to making wines. The thing that I always come away with after having talked with a good winemaker is how creative he or she is at solving problems when the winemaking process doesn't go exactly by the book.

We tasted through the wines, about 10 in all, from Pinot Gris to Meritage, which was badly corked, so I never got to try this vintage, although it has been really solid in vintages past and I expect no different in this vintage, 2006. My overall impression is that the wines are very solid and together, they form a body of work that certainly places Jefferson in the top five wineries in the state.

Two wines stood out for me. The 2007 Pinot Gris stood out with its typical Pinot Gris nose and crisp acid, coupled with the really ripe mid-palate that the 2007 vintage is famous for. On the red side, I really loved the 2007 Petit Verdot (not the reserve wine) for a smooth, easy drinking red coupled with good acidity (not easy to do in such a vintage) and a nice touch of Brett. I grew up drinking southern Rhônes so a little Brett is a good thing in my book for certain wines and this Petit Verdot benefits from it nicely.

Andy, well done and keep up the good work. It's people like you who will help elevate Virginia wines in the eyes of the world.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tastes Like Chicken...

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you won't be surprised to learn that I spent the better part of yesterday at Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, VA, seeing where a lot of our meat and produce comes from. I was also there to participate in the Chicken Choosin', a blind tasting of 10 heritage breeds of chicken and Ayrshire's White Cornish Rock Cross (the industry standard broiler chicken) thrown in for good measure. Not only was this event planned to focus attention on heritage breeds of chicken, but it will also serve as input to Ayrshire about what breed or breeds to concentrate on in the future.

Each chicken was raised at Ayrshire farm on organic feed with equal access to pasture to an age of 16 weeks, except for the Corn-Rock which reaches market weight in 6-8 weeks. The Corn-Rocks are what they currently raise and I know from prior experience with them that they are excellent birds, superior in flavor and texture to anything else in this area. Each chicken was roasted identically with no seasonings, then moistened with unsalted chicken stock to keep it from drying out in the chafing dishes. Kudos to the kitchen staff: well done.

I've done hundreds of blind tastings of wine in my life and even blind tastings of things so esoteric as salt, but never have I tasted a major protein source blind before. The good news is that there are significant differences in flavor and texture of the various breeds of chicken that call into question the phrase "tastes like chicken."

I'd say that roughly 80-90 of us tasted the numbered chicken samples and ranked them on flavor, texture and appearance on a scale of 1-6, with 6 being the highest score. Because the chicken was cut up, I only ranked my samples with an aggregate score of both the dark meat and the breast meat for flavor and texture, and not appearance. Each of us then indicated which numbers ranked first, second, and third on our scorecards.

For me, one chicken in particular stood out for being excellent in both flavor and texture and two stood out for being at the bottom of the heap. I had three other chickens clustered near the top and the remainder were in the middle. I retasted the highs and the lows just to reconfirm my rankings with new samples.

As the votes were tallied, a clear consensus emerged for chicken number two on our cards. This handsome bird to the right ranked first in first-, second-, and third-place votes. I had this chicken in third place on my card out of 11 birds. The crowd favorite is the Dorking, and old English breed said to have been brought to England by the Romans. This photo courtesy of podchef.

I had to chuckle when I heard the name of this bird announced. I hope that residents of the town of Dorking won't take offense that I my mind flashed on a Gary Larsonesque cartoon of a nerdy rooster sporting eyeglasses and a pocket protector.

Surprising to me was that the Corn-Rock cross was tied for second with the crowd. I had it as the lowest scoring bird on my card, tasting very generically chickeny, which I suppose is why it appealed to so many people. My favorite was the Plymouth Rock, which edged out several other birds on my card by virtue of its excellent texture across both the dark and the light meat.

We tasted the Buckeye, Cornish Rock Cross, Delaware, Dominique, Dorking, Faverolle, New Hampshire, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island, and Sussex.

My thanks to the entire staff at Ayrshire Farm for inviting me and for all their hard work in making this event run smoothly.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Good Server is Hard to Find...

We've been looking for a new server here at the restaurant for months with no success. They are extremely hard to find. Not one in a hundred has the smarts and the customer service skills to handle our daily changing menu, vast wine list, picky (I mean this in the best sense of the word) and highly educated customers, and our demanding SOB of a chef (that would be me).

The server pool is really thin out here in the middle of nowhere Virginia. A case in point. Kenny and I went out for some sushi for lunch yesterday; he was already sitting at the bar when I arrived. As I approached the sushi bar:

Server: Can I get you something to drink?
Ed: A really, really big bottle of water.
Server: Seriously?

I rest my case.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

DC's Wine Country Wine Festival Notes

Just back from the trade tasting at Whitehall Manor in beautiful Bluemont, VA just across the mountain from us in Loudoun County. Props to the Loudoun Convention & Visitors Association for organizing this trade-only tasting on Sunday afternoon before the Wine Festival opened to the general public.

Here are some brief notes on what I tasted, and I only tasted about 40 wines. I did not attend the outdoor festival where the wineries were pouring everything that they make. The trade tasting was about 40 wines from perhaps 10 wineries who sell to the trade as well as retail to the general public.

There were some hits and misses. You would think that for a trade-only tasting for those of us who buy and sell wine on a regular basis, that the wines would be carefully selected so that there were no misses. Not so. This tasting confirmed for me once again that there is a sea of bad wine being made in Virginia and that you must taste each wine before you buy it, with a few exceptions.

I tasted two horrible Merlots and one Cabernet Franc that was so green that the Bell pepper flavor just leaped off of it. This was a 2007 Cab Franc and 2007 was the dream vintage in Virginia. If you couldn't make good wine in '07, you can't make good wine. What happens to these people in a tough year?

Viognier is supposed to our grape here in Virginia and I tasted three that I haven't tasted in a year or more. One was so-so, one had so much sulfur on the nose that the fruit couldn't even penetrate it, and the big name, big-priced one, well it had been doctored to death by the winemaker. Full ML and tons of oak are not my idea of a good time with Viognier. As I was tasting this wine, the winery rep was giving me the spiel about how he really liked his unoaked Chardonnay that sees no ML. How about leaving your beautiful Viognier fruit alone too?

Here are some notes about wines worth tasting.

Both the Bordeaux blends from The Boxwood Winery in Middleburg are outstanding. The Merlot-heavy Topiary is fairly feminine and ready to drink now. The Cabernet Sauvignon-based Boxwood needs more time. Both are structurally sound and I'm planning to bring them in house.

Doug Fabbioli's rosé of Sangiovese called Rosa Luna is utterly delicious. Go visit Doug over in Lucketts, grab a bottle of this and just enjoy life. I won't be adding this to our list this year because we've already selected our single rosé for the year, but it will be a candidate next year. Why, oh why, won't customers buy rosé??? We already sell Doug's Cab Franc, stunning Chambourcin, and Raspberry Merlot. You should definitely try his Tre Sorelle blend as well.

The Syrah from Tarara, co-fermented with Viognier in the Rhône manner, is worth seeking out. Hopefully I will add this to the list.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


You're right. They're so damned cute that it's ridiculous. Grape-sized watermelons. Not exactly. These little Curcurbits taste like cucumber with a bit of watermelon rind and a squeeze of lemon juice. The crunchy little critters are tasty, no doubt.

I first read about them perhaps four years ago and got to play with them for the first time last summer. And I have more in hand right now. This native of Mexico and Central America, Melothria scabra, besides being known as a cucamelon also goes by several other monikers such as pepquiño, mouse melon, Mexican sour gherkin, and sandía de ratón in Spanish. It's still too early to know what name will catch on here in the US.

Although the cucamelon tastes like a cucumber-melon cross, it is botanically neither and won't cross with either. The vines with deep green ivy-shaped leaves are beautiful and lend themselves to trellising. If I had more room in my garden, I'd grow these prolific little fruits. At 75 days to maturity, they are well suited to our growing season here in Virginia, seeded out May 15 and fruiting the first of August, or even faster if transplanted from the greenhouse.

I don't have a whole lot to play with right now, but my experience over the last two summers is that they store very well under refrigeration. Right now, I'm just eating them out of hand—the whole fruit is edible just like a grape—and putting them in salads along with heirloom cherry tomatoes. I'm looking forward to pickling some when I have more quantity.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Farmers Market Photos

Here are some snaps from the market this morning. I love this time of year; so many toys to play with!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


What got me going on this article was a question from a friend who asked, "Do you spell seviche with an 's'?" when we were chatting about that dish that we both adore. She spelled it ceviche and I spelled it seviche. They're both correct and so is cebiche and I happen to think that all of them are corruptions of escabeche (which itself has myriad spellings and corruptions). Language is crazily fluid and cannot be corralled and who cares anyway as long as we understand one another?

But this is all an aside for the real idea behind this post. I think most of us foodies are familiar with this dish, raw fish marinated in citrus. Most references state that the citrus "cooks" the fish, with cooks always in quotes (from the food dictionary: The action of the acid in the lime juice "cooks" the fish, thereby firming the flesh and turning it opaque). This got me pondering about cooked versus raw, the very semantics of two states that we take very much for granted. Or to ask it in a more straightforward manner, what does it mean for something to be cooked?

This leads to many other questions such as "Does the transformation from the raw state necessarily imply the application of heat?" Gee, I'm a professional chef and somewhat of a language pedant and I haven't a clue. So I set about finding an answer, as if such a fundamental question can have but a single answer.

But before I move on, let me just limit this discussion to the physical transformation that happens when food changes state from what we call raw to what we call cooked. The subject would otherwise be fairly boundless. If you don't believe me, ask yourself the following questions:

Am I cooking when I remove heat from sweetened cream and make ice cream?
Am I cooking when I whisk together oil and vinegar in that emulsion that we call a vinaigrette?
Am I cooking when I salt sliced raw cabbage and leave it at room temperature so that it undergoes lactic acid fermentation and becomes sauerkraut?

First stop, a few dictionaries of the English language. The majority such as the compact OED are fairly abolute: cooking is preparing food for consumption by application of heat. A few others such as Merriam-Webster, no doubt wanting to avoid absolutist traps, give more grey definitions along the lines of cooking is preparing for consumption especially by application of heat. Hmmm. A lot of leeway here.

So I decided to consult my well read copy of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking which generally has the answer to most of my questions culinary. And what did I see in his discussion of seviche but the quotes around the verb cook? Subsequent reading in McGee leads me to understand that the acid in citrus denatures (breaks down) proteins in a way similar to what happens when you apply heat to those same proteins. But it also clear that because of the lack of heat, no Maillard reactions happen and those reactions produce the browning and flavors that we associate with being cooked.

So I am back to square one. I don't know if seviche is raw or cooked or in some hybrid state. But I do know that I love it and that it's just the perfect summertime dish. Here's a recipe that I devised after one that a Mexican prep cook made for me once upon a time. The thing that I took from him was the celery, sliced crosswise into kidney shapes,which adds great texture to the dish. The tequila is my own thing. I make this from scraps of flounder when we are running flounder as an entrée. Any mild white fish will do nicely.

Three Citrus Tequila Flounder Seviche

3 cups diced flounder, about 1 pound
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon toasted and ground cumin
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1-½ tablespoons guajillo chile paste*
½ medium red onion, minced
2 green onions, sliced
1 large celery stalk, sliced crosswise into kidney shapes
2 cloves garlic, minced
Zest of one blood orange (or regular orange)
Zest of one lime
Zest of one lemon
Juice of two blood oranges
Juice of two limes
Juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon gold tequila

Mix all ingredients well and let marinate under refrigeration for at least two hours. Serve cold in a martini glass rimmed with cumin salt and garnished with blood orange.

*To make guajillo paste, reconstitute toasted and seeded dried guajillos in warm water until soft. Drain and blend with sufficient fresh water to make a paste. Pass through a strainer to remove any skin and seed bits.