Wednesday, June 15, 2011

2011: June 15th

Hi everyone and welcome to the next post in my twice monthly series about doings at One Block West. The previous edition is here. For those of you wondering why the blog is so text heavy recently, when previously it has been chock full of pictures, the explanation is simple. While on vacation the first of May, my 15-year old Nikon digital took a direct hit of salt spray and that was all she wrote. Money to replace the camera is non-existent, so no pictures.

The first two weeks of June were moderately busy as usual. Historically, the last couple weeks of May and the first weeks of June are pretty good ones for us. Then, June just muddles along with all the high school graduations and comings and goings to the beach keeping traffic down. A big flurry of wedding anniversaries keeps it from being all out slow as is August, but as we head into the fourth of July weekend, business usually enters the summer doldrums phase.

Being now a week away from the start of summer, we can really start to see the shift in the markets. While summer produce such as squash and peppers is still a ways away (and tomatoes are just a dream), moving off the menu now are spring stalwarts strawberries, asparagus, soft shell crabs, and leeks.

I hate to see leeks go, but next winter and spring's leeks are in the ground now and the leeks planted this time last year are harvested. Leeks are a staple in our cooler for mirepoix, the mix of chopped vegetables (onions, carrots, celery, and leeks) that goes into many, many dishes. I am always surprised that more home cooks don't use leeks; I'm not sure what a professional restaurant kitchen would do without them or shallots, which also seem to be non-existent in home kitchens. We're going to have to switch to California leeks for the summer until we get a few locally harvested baby leeks in the fall.

Our big rush of soft shells is done now but we will have a few periodically throughout the summer and into early fall. The first flush happens when the water warms enough for the crabs to come up out of the mud and get on with life. The females start shedding almost immediately so that they can mate: a sook (female) cannot couple with a jimmy (male) when she has a hard shell. After this first big rush of soft shells, the crabs will shed several more times during the summer, giving a few every now and then for the menu, as long as the water stays warm. We can have a few soft shells into October in warm years.

At long last, the sweet cherries are here! We got our first bag of cherries on June the 11th this year. I bought just enough for the crew to snack on and snack on them we did. I love the sweet-tart sugar-acid balance of fresh sweet cherries and there's nothing better to do with them than eat them out of hand. They're a miserable pain to pit, cooking them doesn't improve them, and as I was complaining in the June 1st post, customers won't order them anyway. So, as excited as I am to have cherries in the market, I won't be wasting labor and money on buying them for our menu. That is truly a sad statement if you think about it.

Along with sweet cherries, there are also red raspberries in the market now and by the end of the week, black raspberries and blueberries will join them. Cucumbers and English peas have hit the market, along with a trickle of sugar snaps and snow peas. We're looking forward to peaches in the very near future; certainly before I write again. Beets have moved from a trickle to broad availability in the last two weeks and one of our growers has finally started bringing us cavolo nero (Tuscan black kale) again. Things are looking up!

Renovation of the restaurant has slowed to a crawl, because business has picked up a bit with the nice weather and because I am just coming off a wicked two-day bout with the flu. Sadly, there are no sick days for small business owners; I really could have used a day off. Even with these slowdowns, the ceiling is within about three hours of being painted, which means after all these weeks, it is just about done. And done with painting a drop ceiling is a good thing. There may be nothing worse to paint.

After a couple months of stability on our wine list, we've added a few new wines to the list in the past couple of weeks (and dropped a couple). We are very selective about what we add these days, not really because of the economy (well, yeah, that 500-lb gorilla is always lurking about) but because our list is fairly mature (that is, where we want it to be) and storage is an issue for us.

When we add a wine, it needs to be a good value for what it is, it needs to be well made, and it needs to play well with my food. Some customers complain that California is under-represented on our list. It is and intentionally so. In general, California wines are not good values (real estate is too expensive in many areas) and the grapes get too ripe making wines that fight my food rather than harmonize with it. And we live in Virginia and source our ingredients from Virginia, so our wine list give preference to the best of Virginia.

We've just added an Alexander Valley Cabernet, a Healdsburg Zinfandel, and a couple of Willamette Pinots. If you know your wine regions, you will recognize that these are all cooler climate wines. Cooler climate wines tend to have less alcohol, more restrained fruit, and higher acidity, all of which tend to make for better food wines.

On Sunday the 12th, Tony and I did a 90-minute demonstration at the Virginia Herb Festival at Sunflower Cottage near Front Royal where we cooked Soft Shell Crabs with Cucumber-Yogurt-Dill Salad, Chicken with Prosciutto and Sage, Summer Rolls with Nuoc Cham, Sockeye Salmon with Herb Mayonnaise and Asparagus, and Strawberries with Riesling and Lemon Balm. Hopefully the attendees took away some ideas about how they can incorporate culinary herbs in simple dishes that they can cook. In spite of a tent covering us and in spite of the fact that we work in a blazing hot kitchen all day, it was just miserably hot. When I got home, I weighed four pounds less than when I left. That's a half a gallon of water!

As soon as we were done there, we headed down to Linden Vineyards just east in Linden, VA to meet with Jim Law to select wines for our upcoming wine dinner with him on the 23rd. We chose some really nice wines, a couple of which are not generally available to the public, to feature at the dinner which has been sold out for weeks. These were not the best circumstances under which to taste—I had just been broiled for 90 minutes, hadn't eaten a thing all day, and was daydreaming about a shower! Still, I think we should be able to carry the dinner off pretty well. Jim's wines are so good that we want them to star, so we work hard to make the food play the second fiddle supporting role, to push it into the background. It's slightly different than our usual food-first modus operandi.

Thanks for reading along. I'll return to writing after I take a week-long hiatus to plan and execute the menu for the Linden wine dinner on the 23rd. You'll hear all about that in my July 1st posting. Until then, good eating!

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