Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

By way of wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, let me share the recipe for a bread pudding that you might want to include in your repertoire.

Notes: This recipe makes a half hotel pan (11.5"L x 9.75"W x 2.25"D). Actually, I only ever make full hotel pans, but this is as close as I can scale this for home use. For bread, I use 7 of the 4-ounce demi-baguettes that we use for table service. We grind all our spices fresh at the restaurant so they are very pungent. You may need to increase the quantity of spices if you are using preground spices. As with all recipes, season to taste.

Pumpkin Butterscotch Pecan Bread Pudding

pan spray
28 ounces hearty white bread, cubed
2 cups butterscotch chips
2 cups pecan halves
8 large eggs
1 cup white sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pinch salt
1 cup pumpkin purée
1 and 1/2 quarts heavy cream

Preheat your oven to slow, 300-350F. Coat your pan with pan spray (not necessary, but it makes clean up a lot easier). Mix the bread cubes, chips, and pecans and place in the pan. Mix all the remaining ingredients save the cream, then when well mixed, add the cream and stir. Taste for seasoning and adjust to your liking. Pour the custard over the bread and press the bread down into the custard. Place the pudding on a sheet tray and cook until not quite set in the center. Let rest for 20 minutes before serving. The top will probably brown before the center is set. Once browned, cover with aluminum foil and continue to bake. My puddings generally cook for the final thirty minutes under foil. Cook time varies (there's no thermostat on my oven) but it takes about two hours total.

I hope you enjoy this recipe and from all of the staff here at the restaurant, we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Goodbye Fried Green Tomatoes!

We have two seasons for fried green tomatoes, early July when the vines have set the first green fruit of the year and November, when we use all the fruit that we were forced to pick before the first frost back in October. And last night saw us cook the very last green tomato of the year. That always means that Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

Customers love fried green tomatoes so and I'm never sure why, but when they're on the menu, they sell like crazy. I'm OK with them, but they aren't something I would go out of my way to order at a restaurant, perhaps because I have cooked so many hundreds or thousands of orders in my life. Still, I can see how a crispy crust on a slightly tart fruit when paired with a bit of goat cheese and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc could be hard to resist.

I have been known to spoof fried green tomatoes from time to time as well. Just recently, we did fried green apples as a dessert: a real winner. And sometimes in the middle of winter when imported tomatillos are inexpensive, I'll put fried green tomatillos on the menu just for grins, and perhaps to quell that desperate sort of longing for warmer weather.

Anyway, goodbye fried green tomatoes at least until early next summer. We've had fun again this year, perhaps too much fun because I'm so done with cooking order after order. Now it's time to move on to brussels sprouts, turnips, kale, collards, celery root, and so forth. Soon enough I'll be tired of playing with these leaf and root crops and I'll be longing once again for fried green tomatoes.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Truth in Advertising

Here's a new one on me. We get all kinds of excuses why people need to cancel reservations, but never heard this one before.

"I need to cancel my reservation because my husband's being a big jerk!"

Monday, November 9, 2009

Turkey Wine

It's that time of the year when the phone starts ringing and the emails starting arriving. Everyone wants to know what wine to pair with turkey. Let me preface my answer with there is no single correct match; there are many acceptable matches; and that most people stress way too much about the subject.

And before I go any further, just let me state that Pinot Noir is the universal food wine. When in doubt, Pinot Noir.

Delving into the subject a bit further, you must realize that the turkey in itself does not drive the pairing decision, for it's about as mild a meat as you can encounter. Driving the pairing decision are all those myriad side dishes, some very aggressively seasoned and some very sweet or sweet and sour.

When in doubt, Pinot Noir.

With all the fruity sweet and sour going on at Thanksgiving, I like a wine that can stand up to the fruit. There are five categories of wine that I have paired very successfully with a full Thanksgiving meal and those are rosé, sparkling wine, fruity unoaked whites, lightly oaked light red wines, and fruit-forward reds.

Rosé. In general, rosé wines pair with a lot of difficult dishes; you'll find cranberry notes in many that will work well at Thanksgiving. And as most of these wines are made for immediate consumption, I like to empty my cooler of the remaining rosés of the current vintage at this time of year.

Sparkling Wine. Champagne is the LBD (little black dress) of the wine world. It's almost always appropriate and goes with so many things. But while Champagne works pretty well, the sweetness of a lot of Thanksgiving dishes may turn it a little sour or tinny, so I look to other more fruity bubblies this time of year. Now is the time to consider a gorgeous rosé Crémant d'Alsace, a sparkling Shiraz from down under, or a sparkling Chenin Blanc such as Vouvray.

Fruity Unoaked White. My preference in Thanksgiving wines runs to reds, simply because of the weather. Cold weather has me seeking a red wine. But I always have a bottle or two of fruity Riesling, Alsatian Pinot Blanc, or Gewürztraminer open for those who prefer white. These are all great turkey wines.

Light Red Wines. Because turkey is such a light meat, I don't want the wine to overpower it. This eliminates Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec and so forth from the running. This is the time of year that I love to serve a delightful Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, or maybe even a lightly oaked light red from Italy, such as Sangiovese or Nebbiolo.

Fruity Red Wines. Thanksgiving dinner is one of the spiciest meals most people will eat during the year; many dishes are loaded with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Another approach to selecting a wine is to complement these spices with a spicy wine such as a Zinfandel, Shiraz, Syrah, and other spicy fruit-foward wines or wines with soft tannins. I really like a fruity Grenache for its spiciness.

Oh yeah, when in doubt, Pinot Noir.

So what am I pouring at Thanksgiving? Lots and lots of choices of the wines I've discussed above so that everyone has something and hopefully so that people will try something new. And what's in my glass? Do you have to ask?

When in doubt, Pinot Noir.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Things of Beauty

Just looking at these gorgeous organic Hakurei turnips, how could you not be moved to want to try them? I feel blessed to be able to work with such gorgeous foods each day. Hakurei turnips are Japanese hybrids known for their sweetness, uniformity, and delicious hairless leaves. They're really tasty and I'm looking forward to serving these tonight as part of a vegetarian special.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Fall Chef's Tasting

I really love composing and cooking tasting menus for a lot of reasons. In building a cohesive menu from scratch, I have a strong sense of engagement and I enjoy and welcome the intellectual challenge. Also, I get out of the rut of cooking the same old crab cakes and filets mignons that pay our rent month in and month out. And I enjoy cooking for people who are willing to have their palates challenged. This frees me to not only show off the bounty of local ingredients with which we are blessed to work, but it also lets me serve delicious things that wouldn't sell well on the main menu, and it lets me experiment to a certain extent by taking some risks that I wouldn't under normal dinner circumstances. Did I also mention that this is how I like to eat? When I go out, I just want the chef to send out small bites every 20 minutes or so.

A lot of restaurants have tasting menus and many of them run a tasting menu for a fixed period of time, such as a week or a month or a season. Each tasting menu that we do is custom designed for a particular client. Even if we are doing tasting menus for multiple parties simultaneously, they will be having different menus. Admittedly it's a crazy way to run a restaurant, but then my sanity escaped to the ether some years back. But in this way, the cooking is very personal. I am cooking for a specific client and not just for anybody who walks in off the street and happens to order the tasting menu.

I don't post many of the Chef's Tastings that we do simply for lack of photographs. It's often too busy to photograph our work or because we're in a rush, photos for a certain course just do not turn out. Shooting macro shots by handholding in a busy kitchen on reflective stainless steel tables under really crappy fluorescent lighting is somewhat short of ideal, especially when I brace the camera against the table and someone down the line hip checks the table at the same time I'm shooting.

But the pace and karma Saturday night all aligned perfectly and I got some good shots, good enough for blogging, at least. Not great, but good enough considering the terrible lighting. They follow below.

I was pleased that the clients actually encouraged me to pair this menu with Virginia wines. Often I have to cajole some clients into letting me show off some of our local wines. The following is a highly seasonal menu, one that screams late fall, exactly what I was aiming for:

Chef's Tasting
Saturday, October 31, 2009

Crème Brûlée of Mapled Foie Gras
poached cranberries, bread crisp

Chrysalis Petit Manseng Virginia 2007


Fan of Tataki of Opah and Local Daikon
lemon zest, fleur de sel

White Hall Viognier Virginia 2007


Stone Crab Claws
parsnip purée, vanilla bean beurre blanc, salad burnet

Glen Manor Sauvignon Blanc Virginia 2008


Veal and Rabbit Terrine
quick-pickled local cucamelons; whole grain honey mustard

Swedenburg Pinot Noir Virginia 2008


Local Lamb Ribs in the Style of Peking Duck

Fabbioli Chambourcin Virginia 2007


Lightly Grilled Caribou Tenderloin
duck fat-sautéed matsutake mushrooms and sunchokes; dried blueberries; elderberry and truffle demiglace; local organic spigarello

Linden Claret Virginia 2005


A Study in Local Apples
Cheesy apple crêpe, apple granita, apple-kaffir lime compote, fried green apple with apple cider reduction; Kerrygold Ivernia cheese

Local Apple Cider-Calvados “Martini”

Crème Brûlée of Mapled Foie Gras. This dish started with a lobe of foie in the cooler that I needed to use and with the local Chrysalis Petit Manseng that I wanted to serve. Americans seem always to want the sweet wines at the end of dinner instead of as an aperitif, so I wanted to buck that by serving the sweet wine up front. I wanted to add some sweetness to the dish to work with the wine and initially I was thinking about brûléeing a slice of foie, and from there it wasn't a huge leap to crème brûlée. The maple syrup was almost an afterthought, mainly a liaison with the maple leaf garnish on the plate. To offset some of the richness, we just barely poached fresh cranberries in simple syrup. We served this warm out of the oven and I have to say that it was a brilliant dish.

Fan of Tataki of Opah and Local Daikon. I had a really clear piece of Opah that I wanted to feature and the first local daikon of the year just arrived in the farmer's market the morning of the tasting. I put a slight pickle on the daikon, for a salty and acidic counterpoint to the barely seared Opah. The flavor combination of the two and the texture contrast between the two were fine, but in the end, I'm not crazy about this dish or the presentation.

Stone Crab Claws. Stone crab season just opened so I wanted to celebrate that with this dish. I feel like I went out on a limb here a little putting stone crab claws on a parsnip purée. Garnishes are a vanilla beurre blanc and salad burnet. I felt the combination of the slightly sweet and herbal parsnip worked amazingly well with the vanilla and the crab. This dish is a winner and visually appealing too.

Veal and Rabbit Terrine. This is another one of my terrines; there's always one in the cooler. While I generally don't use liver in my terrines (because of knee-jerk customer reaction), I used the livers out of four rabbits along with a good splash of cream to bind this terrine. A touch of Cognac doesn't hurt either. Interior garnishes are black truffles, pistachios, dried cranberries, veal tongue, green peppercorns, and rabbit loin. Really a very tasty effort. I opted for the artsy photograph here so the interior garnish is tough to see; pity. In the foreground you see that our nasturtiums haven't given up the ghost yet and in the background you see the last of the local cucamelons, lightly pickled.

Local Lamb Ribs in the Style of Peking Duck. Selling ribs in a fine dining restaurant is an exercise in futility, a real pity because they are so good. We have to sell the ribs somehow, so they most often end up on tasting menus. I am a huge fan of braised dishes (slow-cooked with a little liquid) and especially of the style called red cooking from northern China. We rubbed the lamb ribs in garlic and five-spice powder and braised them with soy sauce, white wine, brown sugar, hoisin sauce, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, and green onions, then let the ribs stand in the braising liquid overnight. We pulled the rib meat and minced it, defatted the braising liquid and reduced it slightly (soy is very salty!), augmented the braising liquid with a little hoisin and sesame oil to make a sauce, then mixed the minced lamb with the sauce, bias-cut green onions, and white sesame seeds. We then brushed a crêpe with the sauce and stuffed it with the minced lamb. This is absolutely delicious and much more flavorful than duck done the same way.

Lightly Grilled Caribou Tenderloin. Caribou is a mild and delicious deer that under the best of circumstances is difficult to obtain, so I was happy to be able to get a little bit for this tasting. This dish is all about fall: lightly grilled caribou over a nest formed from local spigarello (a leaf broccoli) and filled with a sauté of just-dug Jerusalem artichokes and fresh matsutake mushrooms from Oregon. We finished this with a few dried blueberries and a demiglace augmented with local elderberry syrup and black truffles.

A Study in Local Apples. I'd be really remiss here in the heart of Virginia's apple country not to do a dessert of local apples. I had wanted to do a separate cheese course, but the menu was starting to get a little long so we combined the dessert and cheese courses into a single course. Cheese and apples, especially apple pie, is a natural combination at least in the school of traditional southern cooking in which I was raised. A big slice of sharp Cheddar (rat cheese as we called it) was a must with apple pie.

When I was at the farmers market on Tuesday last week, I was getting some green tomatoes for fried green tomatoes. In the next bin were some green apples causing me to flash on fried green apples. I did an instant market survey ("Hey, what do y'all think of fried green apples as a dessert course?") and the conclusion was that it couldn't be bad, so I came back to the restaurant where Chris and I started to experiment with apple thickness, coatings, and seasonings. After a half a dozen samples we got it right. You see fried green apple under the cheese and the crêpe in the photo above. We removed the core of the apple and plugged it with a piece of apple so that the whole would be edible.

On the plate from left to right you see apple compote (Golden Russet apples) cooked down with local honey and kaffir lime, topped with a blade of vanilla grass. Then the fried green apple with the cheese wedge. The crêpe holds wedges of Empire apples roasted with honey and cinnamon, along with grated cheese. The crepe was warmed in the oven to melt the cheese, then topped with a bit more cheese. Under the fried green tomato you see a syrup that we make by straining and reducing local cider until it is syrupy. On the far right, you see a small serving of apple granita, made from 8 varieties of apples and almost no sugar. I'm really happy with the flavors, but the presentation is a bit monochromatic.

Local Apple Cider-Calvados “Martini”. I didn't want another dessert wine with this menu (remember, we started with one) and I had a couple gallons of local cider on hand in the cooler, so I mixed up a cocktail of cider, Calvados, lemon juice, vanilla syrup, and some bitters. The glass is rimmed with cinnamon sugar. The apple slice is from a sweet Fuji; the cider is naturally sweet so a tart apple would have been unpleasantly mouth puckering.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Turkey Time

Monday November 2, I was fortunate enough to be able to taste nine breeds of heritage turkey at Ayrshire Farm, which supplies many of our proteins here at the restaurant including chicken, guinea, pork, veal, and beef, not to mention outstanding organic produce. Frequent readers of the blog will remember that I have been to two other tastings this year, first chickens, then steers, and the results of the double-blind tastings have been fascinating, showing remarkable differences between the breeds.

This tasting, though it followed the same format as the previous two was just a bit different in that CBS Sunday Morning was filming a piece on Sandy Lerner and that I had the honor of being one of the "celebrity" judges, along with Anya Fernald, of Live Culture and one of the judges on The Next Iron Chef; Lisa Brefere of GigaChef; and Chris Edwards, chef of Patowmack Farm in Loudoun County.

One thing that home cooks might take away from this tasting is a conversation that we judges had while sequestered in a back room tasting our samples—with a TV camera, boom mike, and several still photographers clicking away. And that is that none of us are much in favor of roasting a whole bird. There is such a difference between the white and dark meat that they are best when cooked separately and differently. For myself, I like to take the breasts off, then brine and smoke or roast them. The legs, I want to slowly braise with bacon, wine, and mushrooms.

If you frequent the restaurant, you may notice that we often treat poultry (and by extension, rabbits) this way. You'll frequently see a lightly grilled breast of guinea or lightly grilled loin of rabbit on the same plate with a gratin of the rest of the animal, often braised with red wine, Virginia slab bacon, pearl or cipollini onions, and wild mushrooms.

I'm not suggesting you do this with your Thanksgiving turkey—no doubt all your guests are expecting the traditional whole roasted bird—but if you do get one of the heritage turkeys that we tasted, you might want to reconsider. They spend considerable time running around foraging and as a result, they have really muscular legs that you may find a little tough and chewy simply roasted.

We tasted Black, Bourbon Red, Chocolate, Midget White, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate, Standard Bronze, and White Holland turkeys, all raised identically at Ayrshire this year.

I found it interesting that we judges rated the Royal Palm highest (photo above courtesy of Wikipedia), while the rest of the crowd about 70 strong had a marked preference for the Midget White. I had the Midget White third on my card. I really liked the Royal Palm for not only the depth of flavor in the breast meat, but for the really intense dark meat. I don't want to speak for the other judges but I think we were all drawn to that delicious dark meat.

My hat is off to Ayrshire chef Rob Townsend for getting up at the crack of dawn and cooking not nine turkeys but eighteen, nine of which went into a gorgeous display in the dining room.