31 August 2007

Benito vs. the Ocean: Smelt

When I brought I half pound of smelt home from the store, The Roommate looked at me and said, "You're going to eat bait?" Honestly, upon looking at these four-inch long fish, I'm either inclined to use them for catching largemouth bass or to throw them back so they can grow. But I've had other small fish like this in Italy, and they were cheap at the store. I'm a sucker for weird stuff on sale.

A side note: I think smelt is one of the least appetizing names for fish ever, even if smœlt means "shiny" in Anglo-Saxon. What we know as Chilean Sea Bass was previously known as "Patagonian Toothfish". I've got no problem with renaming something to make it more palatable on a menu or butcher counter.

I prepared these simply, just dipping them in lemon juice and dredging them through cracker crumbs before pan-frying in hot butter. The end result? Tasty but not necessarily worth the trouble. It's difficult to keep them from burning, and while the fresh horseradish sauce I prepared was delicious, it would have been better with trout fillets. Frankly when I get the craving for little oily fish again, I'm just going to go with some high-quality tinned sardines or anchovies.

29 August 2007

2005 The Show Cabernet Sauvignon

As I've shown several times on this blog, sometimes I write a post and don't post it until much later. Such is the case here. I was impressed by the 2005 The Show Cabernet Sauvignon at a recent Great Wines blind tasting. When I went to purchase a bottle of one of my anonymous favorites, I was delighted to discover a glowing testament to commercial poster graphic design as well as a wine from the creative minds behind "Three Thieves".

It's made up of (deep breath now) 42% Monterey County Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Monterey County Merlot, 6% Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, 3% Dry Creek Valley Petite Sirah, and 3% Napa Valley Petite Verdot. Overall the wine has a profile of dark fruit, with a surprisingly complex structure and easy drinkability. I got a lot of blackberries and dark plums with this one.

The label design comes from the Hatch Show Print firm in Nashville, which has for many years designed concert posters. They designed three different labels for this wine, and the winemakers decided to release bottles in all three designs. This is a dream come true for graphic designers. I did that for eight years, and whenever you had to come up with multiple designs, typically there were one or two that you really loved, and invariably the client would choose the third that you hated.

In the above photo you can see some of my tomatoes set to ripen as well as orange marigolds from my garden. But what am I reading while enjoying this wine? The final three chapters of the last Harry Potter book. I'm not ashamed to admit it, I've read the whole series and thought the seventh and final book was a fitting end. I happened to have an evening to myself at home and was able to enjoy the ending in blissful peace and silence, accompanied by The Show, of course.

27 August 2007

Homecoming Feast

On the Saturday following my return from Denver, I ran by the grocery store, grabbed a few odds and ends and settled in for a pleasant dinner with a couple of young ladies. Everyone had different cravings and dietary requirements, so I just kept the dishes simple, served them family style, and at the end of the night I was satiated. In the great words of Jerry Clower, nobody went home with a holler belly.

Why not start off with some seafood? A couple of soft-shell crabs, tempura-battered and crisped up under the broiler. Then a pair of tilapia fillets, grilled and topped with yellow tomatoes and oregano from the garden, all atop a bed of arugula. I've recently seen these pre-fried soft-shell crabs show up in the seafood counter of some local grocery stores, and while not perfect they're tasty enough at $3 a piece. If you're on good terms with your fishmonger (or the minimum wage equivalent at the local Stop-n-Shop), try to get those that don't have major portions of the shell regrowing.

For the iron-rich portion of the meal, I roasted a 2 lb. porterhouse until rare, and then I applied a knob of homemade sage butter to the top while it rested. (Not pictured: some steamed broccoli to go along with the meat.) Using a sharp knife, I carved the roast in three ounce portions but kept everything in place. The bone improves the taste of the meat, and afterwards you can save it for stock.

The wine served was the 2005 Ridge Sonoma County Three Valleys. 74% Zinfandel, 13% Petite Sirah, 8% Carignane, 3% Grenache, 2% Mataro. Deep cherry flavors, medium tannins, and a smooth finish. An elegant, complex wine that will definitely improve with age. Granted, a white would have worked better with the seafood side, but I had some San Pellegrino sparkling water on the table and that was a nice counterpoint.

22 August 2007

Benito vs. the Hotel Room: Osso Buco

First off, a view outside my hotel room at sunset, looking westward towards the Rockies. Now on to the food!

I've always wanted to cook osso buco ("bone with a hole"), the succulent shank cut of beef or veal, typically served in a savory sauce alongside a starch like beans or chickpeas. But I haven't seen it often in Memphis grocery stores, and the one or two times I did it was more expensive than ribeye. This is a tough cut (from the equivalent of the shin or forearm on a cow) that requires long braising time. I'm not paying $15 a pound for it.

However, while here in Denver I got to stop by a Whole Foods for the first time. When you walk in and see everything that's available, you just about want to cry. Four different kinds of beets? A sushi bar where you can either get takeout or sit on a stool and have a meal? A farmer's market with fresh local produce on the front steps on the weekend? A butcher counter where there's not only five different cuts of buffalo but everything is fresh--no steaks slowly graying in plastic packages on a shelf? Amazing. And while some wonks have referred to it as "Whole Paycheck", I found the prices to be quite reasonable, even for some of the seafood that had to be flown in.

My hotel suite has a two-burner stove and some basic cooking supplies. I spied the thick $5/lb beef shanks in the butcher case and determined that it was my best chance to make some osso buco. It's not exactly roughing it, but I don't have access to my enameled cast iron Dutch oven, nor my herbs, nor any actual utensils. My only seasonings are salt and pepper packets swiped from the lobby. In this picture you see everything that I had: an aluminum pot as thin as a Coke can, a vegetable peeler, and some assorted ingredients. Hell, I've had cauliflower soup cooked on the engine manifold of a Ford van. I've cooked breakfast using an old coffee can and a candle. Give me a heat source and a piece of metal, and I can fix dinner.

It's a virtue to be resourceful, and it often makes for good stories. Whether you're talking about fixing a leaky head gasket with a half dozen raw eggs in the radiator or the chick I saw eat a salad with two pencils held like chopsticks, such innvoative thinking drives the human race forward.

I'd like to point out the tomatoes: those are locally grown Cherokee Purples, dark heirloom varieties that were ripe to the point of bursting. I peeled them and had to hand crush them for the dish. The onions are sweet little cipollini since I didn't have a knife to dice bigger ones for a mirepoix. Or aromatici since we're talking Italian.

About four hours of low-heat braising later, here's the finished product with cannellini beans (warmed in the microwave), served alongside a spinach salad with dried cranberries, walnuts, and mandarin oranges from the salad bar. Oh, and a sunflower seed-studded roll for good measure. The beef shank turned out luscious and tender--this is the epitome of "falling off the bone". And the marrow was sinfully delicious. I'm surprised that it hasn't been condensed and offered in tub form at $20 a pop as a gourmet spread for toast.

This is peasant food: it's not supposed to be beautiful. Cooks in Europe struggled for centuries to find the best way to prepare the leftover scraps after the wealthy had helped themselves to the most rare, most tender cuts. Some of these scraps like shanks require a bit of extra time or extra care, but often the flavor is well worth it.

For the wine, I decided to "drink local" and try a Colorado bottle: the 2003 Plum Creek Cabernet Franc from the Grand Valley AVA. About a third of it was used for the osso buco, but the rest was enjoyed along with the meal. Blueberry and cherry aromas, tannic but not bitter. Full fruit profile with a touch of vegetal flavors.

* * *

So if I've got a craving for some beef marrow, why not just go to a restaurant? If you do a lot of traveling, eating out gets old. At least a mini-fridge and microwave will let you enjoy a few meals in the room. And if you enjoy cooking and have the facilities, it's a nice way to relax. I cooked this meal barefooted in shorts and a Guinness Beer T-shirt, while watching mindless stuff on TV and catching up on e-mail with friends. I'm better rested now than if I'd gone out for a meal in a restaurant.

And the best part? The hotel room now smells like home.

19 August 2007

Coors Brewery Tour

I'm not a Coors drinker at heart (I favor microbrews and the strong, dark beers out of Europe), but when I had the opportunity to visit the largest single-facility brewery in the entire world, I couldn't pass up the chance. Think about it: 1.8 million gallons of beer a day. And not just the Silver Bullet: they also produce Killian's Irish Red and Blue Moon, which have some great flavor.

Tour information is available on the company website. It's free and available Monday through Saturday. The brewery is located in scenic Golden, Colorado, which is on the west side of Denver and nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. One such foothill is visible in the picture to the right, marked with a big white M for the Colorado School of Mines. And in that picture you can see one of the paragliders riding thermals. There were about five of them, lazily drifting around the peak for about half an hour.

Here's a shot of some of the brew kettles where the initial fermentation happens. One interesting aspect of the tour is that each stage of the brewing process involves a different temperature and has a different accompanying aroma. At times it smells like a box of cereal, at other times like a bakery, and then sometimes like beer.

At some point in the fermenting/malting phase of the tour, you get a tiny sample of either classic Coors or Coors Light. Fresh and cold, right off the line. At 10:30 in the morning it wasn't what I was craving, but one doesn't look a gift beer in the plastic cup.

After viewing the packaging line (did you know that Bill Coors invented the aluminum can in the late 1950s and purposefully didn't patent it because it wanted it to become an industry standard?), you get to the tasting room, where you get to have up to 3 samples of any of the various brews bottled at the facility (soft drinks are provided for the kids). While enjoying your sample you can look at various photographs and exhibits around the tasting room to learn more about the history of the company. I was especially interested in what they did during Prohibition: they made a malted milk and a non-alcoholic beer called Manna, as well as diversifying into porcelain production. Though they were a regional brewer before Prohibition, after the repeal they were able to become one of the stronger producers in the country, and sold half of their output to the military during WWII in order to help keep up morale.

Memphis readers should know about the big Coors facility in Memphis, where Zima, Killian's, and Blue Moon are produced for this part of the country. There's another big facility in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia that produces Coors and Coors Light for the East Coast.

15 August 2007

Denver Restaurant Review: The Tuscany

I'm in Denver this week and next, so pictures might be a bit thin on this otherwise colorful blog. But I do have to give high marks to The Tuscany, located in the luxurious Loews Hotel (I'm not staying there). Had a light dinner at The Tuscany tonight, and although I did bring my camera with me on this trip, I think I'd feel the hand of my mother smack me if I took pictures during a meal in a restaurant. I'm not slamming those bloggers that do this--I love the photos from The French Laundry and other great establishments, and Lord knows I've taken pictures of all the dishes at various private dinner parties--but something in my upbringing prevents me from whipping out the camera in a nice restaurant. It's one of those activities on the same level as giggling in church.

I wasn't starving, so I had a simple dinner of white wine and fish... First came the amuse bouche of a razor-thin slice of cucumber wrapped around mango salsa and drizzled with a pomegranate-balsamic vinegar sauce. For the wine, I had a glass of the 2004 Coppola Diamond Chardonnay, an old favorite. And for the main course, a slab of grilled halibut on top of lobster pancakes (a heretofore unknown treat) layered with spinach, all topped with spring onions and seated in a shallow pool of a light-tasting yet dark brown sauce. Savory, sweet, and bitter all in glorious harmony.

Excellent service, and I've got to give the host tops for directing this solitary diner with a book to a table with excellent lighting.

13 August 2007

Flatiron Steak

I'm not normally a picky person. There's virtually nothing that I won't try as long as its not spoiled or poisonous. I've gulped down big black ants and tiny white octopuses and shady dishes from Chinese restaurants that include abalone and "black fungus". But when it comes to beef, I hate to have someone that I don't trust pick out a cut of meat for me. For the uninitiated, there are many things that look like a great grilling steak that aren't. And even when we get into the steak realm, am I in the mood for a ribeye or a porterhouse or a New York Strip or what? And the different cuts all require different cooking methods. Unless you've actually stood shivering in the cold of a meat locker and looked upon a primal with a saw in your hand, profit in your heart, and hunger in your belly, I don't want you choosing my steaks.

Though I could probably get arrested for saying this, I really think that kids need to spend some time in butcher shops learning the various cuts and which sections of a pig or cow are ideal for individual applications. It didn't warp me as a child and it will probably do your kids good. You never know: a neighbor might grace you with a quarter of a deer and your kid will ask for a fresh hacksaw blade and ask how many pounds of roasts, stew meat, and sausage you want.

So we come to the flatiron steak, a relatively new cut of beef from the chuck roast area. I pan seared it with a bit of soy sauce and other seasonings, sliced it up like flank steak and made little tacos with white corn tortillas and fresh tomatoes and oregano. Not bad, but I don't see it overtaking flank or skirt steak in that particular application, and didn't find the meat to be any more flavorful than your standard sirloin.

I served it with the 2003 Fifth Leg from Western Australia. 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 27% Shiraz, 3% Cabernet Franc. Dark fruit, leather, a hint of coffee. Not perfectly balanced but a decent table wine.

10 August 2007

Big Rainbow Tomato

Here's another product from the jardins de Benito, the Big Rainbow tomato. The catalog advertised these as big and yellow with red tints, but I found the actual fruits to be red with streaks of yellow (difficult to see on top-- click here for the striped bottom). Deeply ribbed as well, which is a trait you don't often find in your round, flavorless supermarket tomatoes.

It's a sweet and low-acid tomato, with a skin as thick as an apple's. The fruits I've harvested have been between 3" and 6" in diameter.

Upon slicing this tomato reveals more of its variegated character. What did I do with this precious heirloom tomato? I made a BLT. Multi-grain bread, organic nitrate-free bacon, Boston lettuce, and homemade mayonnaise. Enjoyed alongside a mason jar of ice water on a Friday afternoon following a morning of yard mowing, hedge trimming, and weeding. Drenched in sweat and relishing the treat in my hands, I've got to echo my grandfather Chuck: "Fellers, it just don't get much better than this."

08 August 2007

2003 Novella Synergy

While wandering around Arkansas wine shops in my spare time (which feature drive-through windows), I found the 2003 Novella Synergy, which comes from the EOS family of wines. This is a creative blend of 56% Petite Sirah, 39% Zinfandel, 5% Sangiovese from Paso Robles, California. I got it on sale for around $12.

A funny thing about this wine: upon the first sampling, I was hit with aromas of jam and toast with some nutty tones underneath. Basically a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I'm not putting the wine down, it was just one of the strangest yet most comforting combinations I've ever encountered in a wine. With breathing the jammy character subsided and I was left with a decent but confused wine. Petite Sirah and and Zinfandel are pretty hearty grapes, the kind that don't mind pushing and shoving their way to the front. I don't know that they complement each other that well.

06 August 2007

2003 Double T

The 2003 Double T is a proprietary Napa Valley claret blend of all five red Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.

Pomegranate aromas and black cherry flavors, a pretty crisp mouth feel for a red, and a medium body that permits you to enjoy the long tail of this wine without the puckering and drying of heavy tannins. Like a newborn horse it's not perfectly balanced, but it's serviceable for an evening in with a good movie and the dogs at my feet. I enjoyed it on a Thursday night with a slab of Cognac-flavored pork paté and some crackers.

03 August 2007

2005 Margan Shiraz Saignée

2005 Margan Shiraz Saignée from the Hunter Valley of Australia. Light raspberry flavors, dry but crisp and fruity, everything a good summer rosé should be. Saignée refers to the process of bleeding off a portion of red wine after only minimal contact with the skins. To me it sounds like a great deal: you get a rosé from the bleeding and the remaining wine has a stronger, fuller-bodied character.

I'm really impressed with this one. I served it with some king crab legs and Rainier cherries. As for the photo, I forgot to take one of the bottle but instead substituted a shot of one of the lovely pink roses that used to grow in the front garden. A bit of Photoshop wizardry and you've got that Pleasantville effect.

So what if I don't have a shot of the wine? "A rose is a rose is a rose."

01 August 2007

4 Things

Swiped from Barbara in New Zealand, here's my four things reponses:

  • A nice rare ribeye roast
  • Roast duck
  • Seared scallops
  • Garden fresh tomatoes

  • Corporate Trainer
  • Graphic Designer
  • Credit card manufacturer
  • Resident Advisor for a dorm

  • The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
  • Grosse Pointe Blank
  • Clerks II
  • The Royal Tennenbaums

  • Any place cooler than Memphis (95°F/35°C)
  • Any place drier than Memphis (63% humidity)
  • Driving around the countryside of France to sample fresh local vegetables and cheeses
  • Hiking in the Pacific northwest, with trips into town in order to gorge on fresh seafood