26 September 2007

Benito vs. the Hotel Room: Salade Niçoise

I'm on the road again, and found myself spending most of a Sunday afternoon engrossed in a Survivorman marathon on the Discovery Channel. For those of you not familiar with the premise, the production team drop a Canadian guy into some uninhabited environment and he lives off the land for a week. The attempts to get food and water are quite entertaining, such as trapping a packrat in the desert and eating it bones and all.

I did some survival training back in Scouts. I spent a few nights in handmade shelters of branches and leaves, have built fires using flint and steel, and have eaten a handful of live black ants (which taste like lemon drops and have a pleasing crunch). But based on my success with the hotel room osso buco, I decided to try another classic dish. This time: no stove or proper cooking utensils. My goal: Salade Niçoise.

If you're unfamiliar with the dish it's a fancy tuna salad from Nice on the southeastern tip of France. I loosely followed Anthony Bourdain's recipe from the Les Halles Cookbook, obviously reducing the quantities to feed one person. Definitely a step up from your eggs, mayo, pickles, and celery mash spread on white bread and cut into triangles. (Though when I want that at home, I tend to combine canned tuna with hot dog relish, Dijon mustard, and loads of hot sauce. Tangy, spicy, and sour rather than savory and creamy.)

In the above photo, you can see what I had at my disposal: fresh green beans, a coffee pot, some clear glass coffee cups, a new potato, tiny Niçoise olives from the deli, an egg, a bunch of green leaf lettuce, a can of tuna and a tin of anchovies, and a fork, butter knife, and corkscrew (with a small foil cutter blade--thanks again Fredric). For heat I only had a microwave.

For the eggs that are normally boiled, I found a handy microwave tip online. I used a few drops of olive oil from the can of tuna to coat the interior of the coffee cup before breaking the egg into it. Puncturing the yolk is very important. I was amazed that I was able to quickly get an egg that was perfect for the dish if somewhat oddly shaped. I was even able to do a few short bursts to create a slightly runny yolk. Heaven!

I blanched the green beans in the coffee pot by heating up water in the microwave and pouring it over the beans. I let them steep until just barely cooked and then dunked them in an ice bath to preserve the green color and crispness. (Hotels have ample quantities of ice!) The single new potato (and I wasn't embarrassed to buy just one) was pricked with the fork and roasted on top of the paper lid of a hotel water glass in the microwave until cooked. The little heirloom tomato was sliced using the foil knife on the corkscrew.

Here's the finished product after assembling the various components. I was really quite surprised at how delicious it turned out The individual components maintained their flavors, and the beans were amazing--a sweet and crisp counterpoint to the rich texture of the tuna. The egg was great and this is a quick and easy technique I might use in the future when I just need a single boiled egg for something.

And if you don't like anchovies, I say give 'em a chance. They're salty and rich and impart an amazing quality to the dishes that include them. Plus the little bones are a good source of calcium, though I added a bit through the wedge of Manchego that I nibbled on along with the salad.

For the wine, I picked up a bottle of the 2006 Toad Hollow Chardonnay from Mendocino County, California. Unoaked, fruity, and full-bodied, but still dry and easy drinking. I've enjoyed the other selections from Toad Hollow and this one didn't let me down.

Overall I rate this a success. It was delicious, nutritious, and fun to put together.

24 September 2007

2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Nellie's Garden Dry Rosé

The other day at Wolfchase I was delighted to stumble upon the 2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Nellie's Garden Dry Rosé from the Columbia Valley of Washington. I didn't know that Ste. Michelle made a rosé, and it appears as though this one was previously available only to members of their wine club.

Wow. Such a delicate fruit aroma, and this will sound odd but it's the best way I can describe it: when I was a kid we'd sometimes take 7-up and add a splash of juice from a jar of Maraschino cherries. Sort of an ersatz Shirley Temple*, but when I was six I didn't know any German, only bits of French and Latin from singing in the Memphis Symphony Boys Choir. Anyway, when you sniffed the beverage there was only a hint of cherry aroma. Most of it showed up when drinking it.

It's got a bigger body than you'd expect from the nose. Touch of that fizzy acidity you get in some rosés, spice and a flash of heat. This wine begs for some Indian or Thai food. It's 96% Syrah with splashes of Grenache, Mourvedre, and Viognier. The peppery Syrah characteristics come through particularly well.

*The other cocktail of the childhood years was the "Suicide", made by combining various carbonated beverages from a soda fountain. Typically I enjoyed some combination of Coke/Sprite/Root Beer, but the more daring would all six selections together, including things like lemonade or Hawaiian Punch. Personally I never thought that orange soda mixed well with anything else. Two decades later I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how different types of grape juice are blended.

19 September 2007

2003 Ridge Ponzo Vineyards Zinfandel

Had a craving the other day for a porterhouse and some pierogies. I would have made the little dumplings from scratch, but the last time I did that I spent all damned day on the project. So I made do with frozen. The porterhouse was big enough for three people (I know I've written about that often but it's a lot of fun for dinner). For the wine we split a bottle of the 2003 Ridge Ponzo Vineyards Zinfandel from Healdsburg, California. Raspberry aromas, and the mouth feel is surprisingly light for the grapes: 85% Zinfandel, 14% Petite Sirah, and 1% Carignane. Nice fruit flavors without being too big and bold. And a restrained 13.5% alcohol content.

Here's a little gift I got from my boss: a double-bladed mezzaluna and a jar of oak smoked Chardonnay sea salt. I'm looking forward to trying out the mezzaluna, but I've been keeping the sea salt near the computer so I can just sniff it occasionally. To break down the description a little better, it's good, slightly moist sea salt that's been smoked using oak barrels that previously held Chardonnay. Make sense? It's got a nice tan color and smells of buttered popcorn. And the smoke flavor is just enough to enhance the salt but doesn't overpower it.

17 September 2007

Birthday Weekend

I turned 31 on Thursday and had a four day weekend of rest, relaxation, and good eating. Friday night The Girlfriend and I had dinner with my parents at River Oaks. The meal was amazing, including the best oysters I've ever had in my life (topped with a watermelon salsa of all things). Dad ordered a bottle of the 2002 Peter Lehmann Cabernet Sauvignon from the Barossa Valley of Australia. As the main courses arrived, I ordered the
2003 Heller Dancer Meritage
(a personal favorite) from the Carmel Valley of California. The Girlfriend was kind enough to pick up the tab on that second one, and both wines were enjoyed by all. Chicken and red snapper and duck breast and scallops... the food and service were spectacular. The charcuterie plate we had to start out with was quite nice, with a delightful assortment of cheeses and sausages.

Saturday night I had a small, informal gathering over at Paul's place while I was housesitting. Starting off, a little salad of baby greens including peppery watercress and a few sprigs of dill, sliced eggs, a disc of goat cheese, and a baguette crouton, topped with a homemade vinaigrette.

I paired it with the 2005 Yard Dog White from Australia, $12. Grass and lemon aromas, tart acidity with a splash of sweetness and a slight flavor of golden raisins. It's made up of 77% Chardonnay, 14% Semillon, and 9% Gewürztraminer. And in case you're wondering, yes, that's a chihuahua-like dog wearing an E-collar on the label so he can't chew out his stitches.

Next up I roasted some chicken thighs and made a savory French onion soup with mushrooms and homemade stock. I decided to keep the soup thick and full of onions and mushrooms and rest the chicken on top, with a healthy sprinkling of shredded Kaltbach cheese.

This was an idea that came to me earlier in the day. I'd been craving French onion soup but wanted to try something different. And I've found that a lot of my braised chicken has tasted better when served in a pool of the braising liquids, so why not try a combination of the two? It took a bit of dissection at the table but no one present seemed to find it difficult or cumbersome. My standing rule at dinner is "Tell me if you don't like it, and I won't make it again or I'll work to improve it". Fortunately for my friends I rarely spring my more adventuresome experiments on them.

Veggies were served on the side but turned out to be a favorite part of the evening. Pictured here are green and yellow beans, a slice of golden beet, and half a roasted plum (with just a bit of brown sugar and Bourbon). The beans were great but many were surprised by the golden beets (get 'em at Wild Oats while they last). The flavor is somewhere between a beet and a sweet potato, and managed to convert a few that weren't overly fond of beets to begin with. And the plums were a big hit and served as the closest thing to dessert (again, I'm not a sweets person).

For the chicken and veggies I poured the 2005 Phélan Ségur Bordeaux Rosé, $15. (Sadly, there's no info on that website about the wine, much less elsewhere on the web.) No idea about the grapes but Bordeaux's rosé production is only 3% of their total annual output, and while there's plenty of search engine hits on the topic, I've only seen a couple of Bordeaux pinks and I'm someone that actively searches for dry rosés. This one had strawberry and watermelon rind aromas with a touch of watermelon Jolly Rancher flavor. A bit of acid, a touch of ash, overall well balanced and delicious.

It was a great dinner and a good opportunity to hang out with my brother, The Roommate, The Girlfriend, and Paul's better half Grace. Paul came home the next day and was able to take advantage of the leftovers, so he wasn't completely left out of the festivities.

12 September 2007

Wine Grapes

I get a lot of press releases and other e-mails as a result of writing this blog. Sadly, I can't attend a lot of the events as I don't live in New York or Los Angeles. However, when presented with the opportunity to sample some wine grapes during the harvest, I jumped at the chance. Yesterday I received a box (actually a wooden wine box) full of grapes from the California Association of Wine Growers. (The consumer-oriented website can be found at One Nation Under Vines.) Check out the websites for information on the history of California Wine, their "Declaration of Independence", and information on sustainable grape growing practices.

The varieties seen here are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. I've been to vineyards before, but never when fruit was on the vine and and I was really surprised at how small the grapes were. I considered using a coin to illustrate the size, but given my international audience it would have looked odd to throw a handful of nickels, pounds, euros, guilders, lire, and old Deutsch Marks onto the plate. Instead, I grabbed the closest and possibly most standard measurement item that was handy: a beer bottle cap.

The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are a bit difficult to describe flavor-wise, since there's a lot of skin and a big seed. Chewing on a mouthful of the skins definitely hits you with a strong tannic sensation. They're not sweet, just somewhat fruity and more refined than your regular black or red grapes you get at the grocery store.

The Chardonnay grapes are a whole other ballgame. They're a little bigger and full of juice. Yes there are seeds, but you get a flavor that actually tastes a little like Chardonnay, though sweeter and thicker. I'm surprised that Chardonnay grapes haven't made an appearance as a gourmet garnish like pomegranate pips.

10 September 2007

Benito vs. The Farmers Market: Polenta

"Pasta has become so universally accepted as the national dish of Italy that it is difficult to believe that not much farther into the past than two generations ago, pasta was as foreign to certain Italian regions as it might have been to, say, Lapland. For a quarter of a millennium, in the Vento and Friuli, as well as in much of Lombardy, it was polenta, more than any other food, that sustained life. Preparing it was a ritual, eating it was like receiving a sacrament." —Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, 1973.

I love polenta, but I don't think I've written about it here before. I've had it both in Italy and back home negli Stati Uniti, but I was delighted to see it offered at the Downtown Farmers Market on Saturday. While at the stand for Delta Grind (purveyors of many wonderful ground corn products), I bumped into Papa Squirrel. He introduced me to the proprietors and I went home with a container of masa as well. Tamales soon to come—watch this space!

When it came time to cook I ignored dear Signora Hazan and followed the interesting recipe on the back of the Delta Grind container. It's unique but quite tasty. To find out the secret, go to the Farmers Market and buy some for yourself. I topped the polenta with cremini mushrooms and Swiss chard, and braised some chicken thighs in beer, broth, and onions.

For the wine, I stuck to Italy and poured a glass of the 2006 Campo al Mare Vermentino di Toscana, around $14. It's got a light citrus fruit aroma with an almost fizzy crispness. It's an uncomplicated wine but is a great Italian white and should pair with a wide range of dishes. Overall the dinner was simple but a success. One of the diners had never had polenta before but ended up asking for seconds. While that's often one of the best compliments a cook can get, I'm really looking up to forming the leftovers into discs and pan-frying them tomorrow.

07 September 2007

Minor Changes

I'm tweaking the layout of the site—apologies for any weird display problems over the weekend. Had to throw Futura Medium and a fleuron into the header, that's been bugging me for a long time. I've got some leading issues and am doing my best to use em dashes when appropriate.

Benito vs. Jaws: Grilled Shark

I've been craving seafood recently. Maybe it's the heat in Memphis and the desire for lighter fare, maybe my body is telling me I need Omega-3 with a side of mercury, who knows. I grabbed a pair of shark steaks and marinated them for two hours in lemon juice, olive oil, and a touch of molasses. Then I seared and grilled them for about half an hour, after which they were still a bit rare in the center. The big green zebra tomato slices were great, and I had another craving for cornbread, so I made a batch of cornbread muffins. Add in some green beans and heavily reduced mushrooms, and we've got a decent meal. The shark turned out OK, but was a bit tough.

I've succumbed to popular fashion and picked up a set of square plates. This time next year I'll be bragging about two-foot long white porcelain platters on which I have a few ounces of meat and a tiny drizzle of sauce, perhaps with a foam perched nearby. Joking aside, I purchased these mainly because they'll do excellent double duty as serving dishes for family-style dining.

For the wine, I uncorked a bottle of the 2005 Finca El Peral Malbec from the Mendoza region of Argentina. I got this at Wolfchase Wine and Spirits, where John the manager always has a fun Malbec on hand and lets me know when a new one has arrived. This one retailed for under $9 and has aromas of plum, spice, and leather. In the mouth it's smooth with a bit of a tart finish and a pleasant lingering plum flavor. Curious note: it comes wrapped in the white tissue paper you see on some finer wines, but neither the paper nor the bottle have a bar code. I enjoyed sipping another glass of the wine after the meal along with some nice bitter dark chocolate, a great combination I picked up from Fredric.

05 September 2007

Random Musings

When it comes to eating, as with many other aspects of human behavior, we are driven by two conflicting urges: neophobia versus neophilia.

Neophobia is a fear of that which is new. When it comes to food, people who are dominated by neophobia tend to stick to a handful of "safe" dishes and beverages, which are consumed on a regular and sometimes static routine basis. "If it's Thursday this pale lump must be chicken." While not exciting, the urge of neophobia has kept the human species alive for eons. If all of us had the switch in our brains that caused us to say "Ooh! Yummy!" every time we saw a bright red mushroom or a deadly insect, then I doubt we would have come down from the trees in the first place.

Neophilia is the love and embrace of that which is new. Food-wise, this is the constant search for something new and different, or the next hottest chile, etc. The neophile can suffer from boredom, will frequently experience stomach upset in all of its colorful forms, and may even die in the pursuit, but the neophile urge helps drive humanity forward. Jonathan Swift famously quipped "He was a bold man that first eat an oyster." And honestly, there's nothing about the outside of an oyster that looks appetizing. In fact, it's hard to distinguish from a rock. But the treasure inside is so worth it, and we should all thank that bold man every time we enjoy a dozen on the half shell. Especially in months without an R.

While I've always been willing to try something new if offered, a few years ago I found myself in a rut when it came to my own dining: drinking the same two or three wines, eating the same meat and potatoes meals. I was spurred on by a quote from Internet legend and accordionist Joey deVilla:

In the infinite set of universes, there had to exist a particular universe in which the events in our lives were being watched as a TV show. We then made a solemn vow to live the kind of life that got high ratings.

With the world (or the 5,000 unique visitors a month) reading, I forced myself to broaden my horizons, almost never drinking the same wine twice, only repeating dishes when I needed to hone a skill or found a great recipe that I wanted to share with different groups of friends.

So thanks to all of you who have found the site interesting, amusing, helpful, or appetizing. I do this not for fame or fortune, but out of the sheer joy I get from writing a couple of articles a week and the adventure of exploring new tastes. I've barely scratched the surface of all the various gustatory delights that exist on this pale blue dot: there's sure to be many more surprises in the months and years to come.

03 September 2007

Guys' Night

My brother was in dire need of a guys' night over at his place, and I was happy to oblige. There were six of us in all, and I kept things relatively simple for dinner. John took care of all the wine, and I've got to say that my younger sibling did quite well: a 2006 Brancott Sauvignon Blanc, a 2002 Dry Creek Meritage, and a 2004 Louis Latour Marsannay. The Grandfather Port was brought along by Paul, but we started late and at one in the morning, it was a bit too late for Port and cigars on the back porch.

First course, something I came up with yesterday, loosely based on something I had in Denver and wrote about here. The dish at the right was assembled like so from bottom to top: I made a nice mix of bok choy and fire-roasted tomatoes, and used this as the base. Then a johnnycake (or cornmeal pancake), but I added a pound of shredded crab meat and a healthy dose of Old Bay seasoning to the batter beforehand. Then a fillet of grilled tilapia, topped with a bit more of the bok choy/tomato mixture. Finally, a drizzle of sauce (reduced soy sauce+orange juice+honey+Dijon mustard) and a dash of orange zest. Granted this may sound a bit fancy, but honestly it's not that different from grilled bass with cornbread and greens.

The main course, and celebratory portion of the meal for my brother's 29th birthday, was a nine pound ribeye roast. I've cooked this many times and blogged on it often, so I won't go into further detail, but let's just say that it never fails to amaze. This one I rubbed down with a mixture of Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper a few hours before roasting. I served it with some baby green beans (steamed with sea salt and rosemary), but the big hit was the horseradish sauce, and for that I'll provide the recipe.
  • Get a horseradish root from the grocery store. It will be brown, ugly, and possibly coated in dirt. Wash it as best as possible, then trim away the skin and dirt until you've got a nice pure white root showing.
  • Rinse it off and then grate it into a bowl. I used a microplane grater. If you need to clear your sinuses, sniff the pile of gratings.
  • Important: The longer you wait after grating, the hotter it gets. To stop the process, put the grated horseradish into an acid. I prefer white wine vinegar or cider vinegar.
  • Take a bowl of mayonnaise and then squeeze the vinegar out of the horseradish. Add to the mayo, stir, and serve.
Dead simple, and light years beyond those packets of Horsey Sauce from Arby's.