Saturday, June 28, 2003

Breakfast of Champions

One of my co-workers, a regular at triathlons in the area, managed to get ten of our company's employees interested in doing a triathlon. A "newbie" one, to be sure, but still not a trivial feat.

Knowing my notorious anti-exercise stance, they tried to convince me to join them. I demurred, but got into the spirit of things enough to offer to make breakfast for everyone when they finished the race.

This was how Melissa and I found ourselves pulling into Pleasanton's Shadow Cliffs park at 6:15 on a Saturday morning. Yes, that's right. Who knew there was another 6:15 during the day? Ginger didn't feel the need to advertise this in the process of getting everyone excited about it. When she sent out a note suggesting that the carpoolers from San Francisco meet at 4:45am, one of the other runners responded that he hadn't known the race was actually on Friday night.

Clearly being able to make everything in advance was a key consideration; there was no way I was getting up any earlier than necessary.

Here's the official menu:

  • Gravlax - not knowing how much to make for the roughly 20 people who would be there (racers as well as significant others), I asked the butcher. He came back with 1/4 lb. per person, so about 5 pounds. So I bathed my big slab o' salmon in vodka, coated it with a salt-sugar mixture, put it under weights for a week and brought it along. I brought my knife roll so that I could cut it there.

    Let me just say that 1/4 lb. of gravlax per person is a very generous amount of the stuff. I cut probably 1/2 lb of the stuff for the diners that morning. And now I have 4 big slabs of gravlax in the freezer, so Melissa and I will probably be doing a lot of brunches soon.

  • Chocolate-chunk coffee cake - Cook's Illustrated had a big article on sour cream coffee cakes about a year ago, and it had stuck on my mind as something I wanted to try. Brunch (breakfast, really; everyone was done by about 9:30 in the morning) seemed the perfect opportunity. Perusing their variants, I was struck by the lemon-blueberry version. At least until I saw the chocolate chip version. They use chocolate chips, but I swapped in Scharffen Berger chocolate chunks, which seemed to be a good substitute.

    This is a recipe I should've made a long time ago. Man, those cakes (I made two) were good. And they keep well at room temperature for a few days. I brought some into work on Monday and it was still delicious. Moist and dense and flavorful, with a yummy strudel in the middle and on top, I feel like I should be making this every weekend.

  • Fruit Salad with Lime-Ginger gastrique - Partially in honor of our organizer, but mostly because I'm a big fan of the lime-ginger combination, I figured this would be a good sauce for a summer fruit salad. A gastrique is basically just a syrup, but rather than water, you use some sort of acidic liquid (lime juice, here). Once it was reduced to 1/4 its original volume to concentrate the lime flavor, I tossed a whole lot of minced ginger in to let it infuse for a day or so. Needless to say, the sauce had some kick. When I was doing the assembly in the park, I put in a little sauce, tried some fruit, and kept going until it was well seasoned. Of course then the fruit sat in this sauce for another hour, so every bite was bursting with flavor. It went quickly.
  • Homemade Brioche rolls with Explorateur cheese - All those racers burning up all those calories. I couldn't bear the thought of it. So I figured a triple-creme cheese (75% butterfat by law) with a nice egg-butter bread would compensate for all that running, biking, and swimming everyone did. The real intent was to slice open a brioche, smear some cheese on it, and then top that with the gravlax. Even Melissa, who isn't a big gravlax fan (unfortunate, given the four huge slabs of it sitting in the freezer), loved this combination. I didn't feel like the brioche was the best I had ever done, but it was good. And, more importantly, filling.
  • The almost-rans: I had this great idea. Borrow a camping stove, and do scrambled eggs right there in the park for the triathletes. Melissa would use the other burner to boil water for coffee and tea (Ginger brought orange juice, Gatorade and water). I got up early and cracked 4 dozen eggs into a big container so I could just ladle out the mixture in the park. It sounded perfect.

    And it probably would have been. If the tank for the stove hadn't run out of gas. Melissa and I ended up having scrambled eggs for dinner that night, and no one managed to have coffee or tea that morning (except Melissa, who made herself some when we first got to the park).

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Cascina del Cornale and Slow Food

A month before our wedding, a friend of ours pointed us to an article in Gourmet. It featured a small co-operative, Cascina del Cornale, which supports small, artisanal farmers. They have a market and a restaurant which spotlights those producers: everything they sell, and probably just about everything they use in the restaurant, can be traced to one of these artisans. The reason she had pointed it out is that it is right on the main road connecting Asti and Alba in the Piemonte. Exactly where we were honeymooning.

Melissa and I showed up at the end of lunch hour, fully expecting to not be able to eat there (why we got there late is a long story; don't assume that the Cascina del Cornale is actually in the only Cornale on the Michelin map). But they seated us anyway. Magazine in hand, we showed it to the woman doing the seating. After all, she was the woman featured in the picture.

She is also the driving force behind the Cascina. Elena Rivera was dismayed to see a number of small producers going out of business, driven out by larger, blander competitors. So she came up with the idea of banding together to manage risk. A decade later, the mark of the Cascina is a respected indicator of quality in the Piemonte region.

The best place to buy these special products is at the Cascina's market. A small room is reserved for fruits and vegetables, and features the stories of the producers who grew this food and what makes this particular fruit or vegetable interesting. The signs are all in Italian, but Simona, one of the main people in the co-op, was happy to translate as she showed us around. The other, larger, room is where you can buy cheese and meats, olive oils, honey, wine, and a myriad of other products made by the people in the co-op. We walked away with some olive oil, Carnoroli rice (said to be superior to Arborio for risotto), and some samples of ice cream.

But if you don't feel like cooking, you can also find these products at the restaurant on the same lot. We ate there twice, and had a good meal each time. The food is served "family-style" even for two people. The wine list is modest at two pages (this is modest in the Piemonte), but we enjoyed both wines we had there. The staff is welcoming and kind, and you can't help but feel like part of the family when you eat there, even if like us you speak no Italian.

When savvy food lovers in the U.S. think of artisanal producers in the Piemonte, they can't help but think of Slow Food, the international organization which supports such producers and is headquartered just down the road from the Cascina in Bra. But Cascina del Cornale is not associated with Slow Food. We quickly learned that Slow Food in Italy has a different profile than it does here in the U.S. Ms. Rivera and her fellow co-op members distrust the fact that Slow Food takes money from corporations and the government. Where do the membership fees go, they want to know? They were very curious about our experiences with Slow Food here in the U.S. They wanted to know what kinds of things we did, and seemed interested about the different experiences. It was interesting to hear alternate perspectives on the movement.

In many ways, Slow Food puts forth a dream which Cascina del Cornale lives every day: a world in which artisanal producers have a market in which to sell their unique products, a way to sustain a traditional practice or a heritage vegetable. But Cascina del Cornale has out Slow Fooded Slow Food itself. We couldn't help but compare Cascina del Cornale's restaurant with the osteria Boccondivino, the restaurant where Slow Food started and which is now run by the organization. At both places, the food was good, but at Boccondivino, there were a couple of items that were called out as special ingredients. At Cascina del Cornale, one section of the menu was devoted entirely to the producers who prepared the ingredients. The charcutier (for lack of the Italian) was mentioned, as were the cheese producers, and vegetable growers. It was what Slow Food strives for, a world where consumers know how the food got to their table. But it has taken someone else to achieve it.

Monday, June 09, 2003

Entertaining Again

Two months ago and more, we held our last dinner party before the wedding. But even before we left, we were planning more. I've been itching to entertain, and I eagerly looked forward to last night's event. Not only did we get to entertain, but we got to show off all our wedding presents: dishes, crystal, vases, our copper champagne bucket, we pulled out all the stops.

Perhaps I was too eager. Melissa suggested early on that I was being overambitious, especially given the fact that I was away from home most of Saturday (a soufflé class, about which more soon), but I tried. In the end, though, she was right. I had to change a number of plans midway through the day, and only about 15 minutes before our guests arrived I began to feel under control of things.

Still, I think I made a decent recovery. Below is the menu. For those who enjoyed pictures from my last party in February, a word of advice: if you are going to drop your brand-new digital camera, I would avoid doing it on the stone floor of a chateau in the Loire. Especially if the zoom is all the way out. So now all the pictures come out a little blurry, and we haven't had it fixed yet. Fear not, though! It will hopefully be ready by our next dinner party. We'll have to go back to describing platings in the interim.


Antipasti platter with Piedmontese olive oil

amuse-bouche: mussels stuffed with turkish-style rice

Wine: René Geoffroy Champagne a Cumieres

Despite the rest of my insanity, I managed to pick a fairly simple antipasti platter (this was because I was planning 3 amuse-bouches). Acme bread, prosciutto salami, and olives. For dipping the bread, we used some of the olive oil we brought back from the Piedmont, an artisanal producer associated with Cascina dell Cornale (again, more about that later).

The mussel idea was adapted from Mediterranean Street Food, a book which piqued my interest when I read the Cook's Illustrated review of it: every person in their test kitchen who evaluated it went and bought their own copy. This is the first item I've tried out of it (that whole wedding thing), but the recipes all sound delicious. To do the stuffed mussels, you make a rice seasoned with onions, tomato paste, red pepper flakes and dried cranberries (this was my adaptation, so the list of ingredients is fairly different from hers, but I kept the spirit the same). You pry open the mussels with an oyster knife, spread their shells apart, stuff 'em with rice and then set them in a pot with a weight on top to keep them closed shut. Then steam as you would for moules marinieres (a little longer though). Très simple.

Our champagne was one of our last bottles from the wedding: our caterer poured freely. It's a good Champagne, estate bottled (unlike most Champagnes), and a reasonable price too.


Muenster, Ricotta, and Lemon Soufflè

Wine: Roero Arneis, Cascina Ca'Rossa

So I had this great idea for doing a soufflé amuse-bouche. A simple cheese soufflé served in a tiny ramekin. After all, I had this whole soufflé class the day before, right? And then for my opener I was going to do ravioli with an asparagus purée on top and some sort of cheesy filling.

This was one of the areas where I overextended myself. I had already made the filling and the purée, and was making the pasta when I realized that I wouldn't have enough. By a long shot. And I had no time to make more.

So I changed tactics. I decided that our opener would be a soufflé flavored with the filling I had made for the ravioli, and I'd skip doing it as an amuse. The purée? Check back on Eating Well Cheaply at some point in the future.

The soufflé came out really nicely. One of our guests asked if I had been making a lot of soufflés, and I had to be honest and say it was the fourth soufflé I had made that weekend. I used real Alsatian Munster (this is not the bland flavorless stuff you get on your deli sandwiches; this is the real thing and it's a potent cheese), and Ricotta to stiffen it up a bit. I tossed in some conserved lemon to give it a little burst of contrasting flavor.

The wine is also leftover from our wedding. Our guests cleaned us out on the reds and the champagne, but we have plenty of the white. Which is just fine with us.


Mushroom-stuffed Pork Rib Roast with a Porcini sauce

Wine: 2001 Tavola, Ponzi Vineyards, Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

The style of wine was decided long before the food for this particular dinner: both Tyler and Michelle and Lisa and Josh were kind enough to give us Riedel Pinot Noir glasses, so we had to serve some. Unfortunately, I don't know a lot about Pinot Noir, but Wine Spectator had a review of Oregonian Pinot Noirs recently, so I picked one off their list. (long-time readers will know that I don't take tasting notes during dinner parties, so you must buy your own bottle if you want to know what it tasted like; it was good)

The pork roast was fairly simple, and the sauce was really good. I used a combination of chicken stock and the liquid leftover from rehydrating some porcini to deglaze the roasting pan and make my sauce. I garnished the roast with carrots cut "Parisienne" style, which is to say scooped into little balls with a teensy melon baller, and julienned fennel. Not exactly a seasonal dish, but it was nonetheless quite good.


Brie de Meaux and Strachitund, with verjus curd

Wine: 2002 Griffin Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough New Zealand

Again, I had a vision. Nice patties of goat cheese sandwiched between beet tuiles to make a little Napoleon. Then I got to the cheese store, and the woman behind the counter suggested I try some of their Brie de Meaux. I love Brie de Meaux, enough that I'm willing to deal with the fact that we can't get the unpasteurized version here. And in the same way that authentic Alsatian Munster is nothing like the flabby cheese you put on your sandwich, authentic Brie de Meaux is unlike the flavorless impostors you find in most American markets.

The other cheese was one of the cheeses we got as part of our cheese club membership. Yes, you read that right. Melissa's aunts were kind enough to give us a membership to the Tomales Bay Foods cheese club, and our first shipment (ironically enough, as we had just come back there) was Italian cheeses. Strachitund (and this comes from Slow Food's Italian Cheese book) is made similarly to Taleggio, but is allowed to develop mold to make a blue cheese.

The verjus curd was an idea I had (Art Culinaire had a whole section on verjus which got me thinking) and wanted to try out. I made it just like lemon curd, but with verjus. I didn't have anywhere else to serve it, so I served a dollop with the cheese course. Cause nothing counters cheese like eggs. But seriously, the acidity was nice with the cheese and the flavor was quite good.

The wine was inspired by the goat cheese I had planned on serving, traditional Sauvignon Blanc being a classic partner to goat cheese. But I decided it would work well for our other cheeses (I am one of those ever-growing number of heretics who find white wine generally a better pairing with all but the firmer cheeses).


Strawberries Three Ways

Wine: Bonny Doon's Vin de Glaciere

Again you can thank Art Culinaire for the inspiration here. Their pages are flush with "this three ways" or "that tasting", dishes which encompass different preparations of the same ingredient.

I served a strawberry sorbet (in a gorgeous crystal bowl) which I garnished with honey-caramel ribbons, raw (fanned, of course) strawberries with 25-year-old aceto balsamico tradizionale, and a dense gingerbread topped wth a strawberry-rhubarb compote (both of which I served warm). It was a standout dish, though the soufflé came out well enough to be a contender for most memorable dish of the evening. The gingerbread came from In the Sweet Kitchen, one of my favorite dessert cookbooks: at something like 780 pages long, the recipes don't start until page 400 or so. The rest is just ingredients.

I've touted Vin de Glaciere before. It's not as spectacular as the ice wine it emulates, but it's quite a good dessert wine, and very reasonably priced.

One of my failings was that we did not have a mignardise (I bought the chocolate for truffles), but we did finish the evening with a digestif, high-end Muscat grappa from St' George's Spirits. Even a tiny sip and my throat was burning. It's potent stuff.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

The Wines of the Piemonte

Steep hills. Baking heat. A haze of dust and smoke which obscures the beautiful vistas from picturesque hilltop towns. This is the Piemonte region of Italy, and some of its wines are among the country's, perhaps even the world's, best.

This is Barolo country, a wine that enjoyed international renown long before the Super Tuscans became trendy. But it is also Barbaresco country, a wine that has come into its own in the last century and is similar to Barolo. In fact, Slow Food's Wine Atlas of the Langhe points out that the regulations for the two wines are virtually identical; it is their location in Piedmont which distinguishes them.

But it is above all a land of farmers, and they work the land and reap what profits they can. Wine is the beverage of choice, but even here at their source, Barolos and Barbarescos are special treats. The more common wine on osteria tables is Barbera d'Alba, or Dolcetto, or even plain Nebbiolo, the latter made from the same grape as the region's regal representatives but lacking the finesse of classic Barolo and Barbaresco. Indeed, even though we were staying 2 kilometers from the picturesque town of Barolo itself, it was the region's less prestigious wines which accompanied our meals.

But that didn't stop us from tasting the majestic wines as we visited wine makers throughout the region.

These are delicious wines, no two ways about it. Of course, many Barolos and Barbarescos are being made to what is often called "international style" in the general public and "Parker style" by cynical observers of the wine trade. The name comes from Robert Parker, the noted wine critic whose high ratings guarantee the makers a hefty profit as rabid American devotees flock to the store to buy the wines.

Barolo and Barbaresco are powerhouses, best drunk at least a decade after the vintage on the bottle, but with the capability to age very well. In fact, Melissa and I bought ourselves a bottle of the 1998 vintage so that we can open it at our five-year anniversary.

The other wines of the region go down easily even while young: a 2000 Barbera d'Alba was the red wine we served at our wedding feast. But even these simpler wines possess a notable complexity, one that keeps your nose and mouth guessing each time you bring the glass to your lips.

It seems that every wine maker diversifies. Visit one, and you'll find yourself sampling both simple Dolcettos and stunning Barolos. Grape growers own small chunks of prestigious vineyards, just as in Burgundy, and so they make what Barolos they can and fill out their inventories with the simpler wines that nonetheless sell well to the regional consumers.

A fortunate thing, too. A freak hailstorm just before harvest in 2002 wiped out most of the region's Barolo vineyards. This is an unbelievable loss in so many ways: these wine makers rely on the income from the scant rows of Nebbiolo grapes they own in prestigious Barolo vineyards. For many of them, this year will represent a downward spike in their livelihoods, a frightening event when you live close to the bone as many farmers do. Even when their crops are worth so much.

Many wine drinkers do not think of the people who put the bottle on their table. For them, this will mean a lost vintage, a disappointment that they will not be able to stock their cellars with the 2002's. But many of us will hope the best for the farmers and families who grow these grapes. May 2003 be the best vintage yet for Barolo and its cousins.