Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Heritage Turkeys

A nice piece on the modern turkey by Patrick Martins, director of Slow Food USA. Fast Food Nation meets the Thanksgiving table. We ordered a heritage turkey last year, and it was unbelievably good. No brining or marinading; I just tossed it in the oven and let it cook. I ordered two this year (but got three because they were out of 14-lb. birds, so I got two 8-lbs in place of one of my 14-lbs; one of the smaller ones is now in our freezer waiting for some springtime dinner party).

Here's the link [nytimes.com]

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Coming soon: More book reviews, and of course a write-up on Thanksgiving.

The Cheese Board Collective Works

It's easy to imagine that Berkeley's Gourmet Gulch, a four square block chunk on the northern side of town, started when its most famous occupant took up residence. But at least one purveyor existed there before Chez Panisse. A small cheese shop, started by Elizabeth and Sahag Avedisian, who wanted to run a specialty foods store and pursue other interests on the side. The store became popular and began to grow.

Caught up in the politics of the time, and based on their own communal experiences on kibbitzes, they took the still radical step of making the cheese shop a worker-owned cooperative. Thus was born the Cheese Board Collective, which runs the best cheese shop in the East Bay and arguably in the Bay Area and perhaps even the country.

At least that's how I think of it. To other people, the Cheese Board is a top-notch bakery. To others it's one of the best pizza places in Berkeley. To people outside the Bay Area, unaccustomed to alternatives to hierarchy, the collective that runs the shop probably just strikes them as another fruitcake idea from Berkeley. The collective's new book, The Cheese Board Collective Works, a title with at least three meanings that I've figured out, tries to make sense of these disparate aspects of the store, never forgetting that the Cheese Board's main purpose is to be a part of its community, a cornerstone of the neighborhood. The book is filled with stories about different people's experiences, primarily members of the collective, who all make the same hourly wage, work all the stations, and have equal voting power in decisions which need to be made. They are honest about the flaws in the collective system, but there is a common joy about their work environment and their empowerment as a result.

It is also a cookbook. After the stories, though they continue to weave and flit their way throughout the recipes, are instructions for making some of the Cheese Board's most beloved baked goods. I've never been a big fan of their bread, but their scones are some of the best I've ever tasted, and I'm eager to try the recipe. And though their pizzas are spontaneous creations, they have some combinations which have worked particularly well.

There is, of course, a discussion of cheeses as well, though it occupies a smaller part of the book than I imagined, accustomed as I am to thinking of the Cheese Board just as a cheese shop. It is a bit of an introduction to cheeses, though most of the discussion in the cheese section is about ideas for cheese plates. Nice ideas that everyone who loves this course will enjoy, though those looking for a more thorough instruction manual on the subject should check out The Cheese Primer (incidentally the only other book the Cheese Board sells).

It's hard to know how valuable this book is for people not in the area (or formerly of it). A pivotal aspect of the Cheese Board is how entwined it is within the community. Still, it's a good overview of what still strikes many people as an odd way to organize a group of people, and it has a lot of useful ideas for cheese plates, not to mention great recipes. For those in the area, it's a great way to learn more about this collective which is more of an institution than Chez Panisse.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

The Week After

In the Bay Area, fall turns into winter with the quick-change flair of a magician. One week we are suffering through the blazing heat of October's Indian summer, the next we are pulling extra clothes out and putting flannel sheets on the bed.

This can make planning dinner parties during this time a bit of a challenge. You have one thing in mind, assuming the day will be wiltingly hot, and the day comes and you end up with a frigid evening that threatens rain.

All this to explain why I didn't do raw oysters as the opener for our most recent dinner party. It's too bad, as it would have been the group for it. Lisa, Josh, Brian and Anisa all have a deep love of food that rivals, perhaps surpasses, Melissa's and mine. I imagined half a dozen Kumamotos each, served on a bed of crushed ice with a simple mignonette sauce and a wedge of lemon. But oysters means some sort of chilled wine, and I didn't think the group would be up for four cold whites and only one soul-warming red.

So after our appetizers of olives, butternut squash pickles and chicken liver paté, paired with an estate-bottled Champagne from René Geoffroy a Cumières, I opted for French Onion Soup. The soup was good, helped along by home made beef stock, but I couldn't get quite the right browning on the cheese. Still, everyone slurped it down. To go with this most classic of brasserie dishes, I opted for a classic brasserie wine: Beaujolais. In this case from the set-apart Julienas appellation. It was a nice wine, one that reminded me that I don't drink enough Beaujolais anymore. Perhaps it's time to restock.

The main course was half a cornish game hen served atop a bed of wild rice and white rice, surrounded by a "fennel ceviche"--fennel sliced super-thin and briefly cooked in a warm vinegar solution. Over the birds, which had a beautiful brown skin from the balsamic glaze I had applied while they cooked, I spooned a beurre noisette sauce. It wasn't visible against the brown birds, but it added a nice richness of flavor to the whole dish. To go with this course I pulled out our bottle of the L'Aventure 2001 Estate Cuvée from western Paso Robles. When I tried this wine at the winery as research for an article I'm writing, I mostly tasted cloves from the oak. I don't know if its couple of months in the bottle had been kind to it, or if the different glasses we used made a difference, but the cloves weren't present at dinner. What was there instead was a nice, well-balanced and flavorful wine.

I mentioned that our guests are all food lovers, and it's always a treat having such guests, because I can pull out the stops for the cheese course. I served Livarot and Epoisses, two of France's stinkier cheeses. There are laws which forbid carrying Livarot on a plane. It's an intense, flavorful cheese at its best, and Epoisses, from Burgundy, is one of the few cheeses which can stand up to it when served alongside. On the side, I served more of our pepper-cured dried figs, and in the glasses I served our beloved Meulenhof 2001 Erdener Kabinett Riesling.

The cheese course worked nicely, but I was disappointed by the dessert. It tasted fine, but its presentation lacked interest. Mentally, I more or less knew how I wanted to present it: three poached pears lying in a pool of honey caramel, with piped Brie de Meaux in the center of each pear. But the Brie didn't whip up quite right, so I only had enough to pipe into the center of the peace sign of pear quarters. And my original batch of honey caramel burned as I was reheating it, so I had to quickly make a new batch, which didn't have the depth of color that I wanted. So the plate was somewhat monotonous to look at. Still, the flavors worked well together, so it's just something I need to touch up a bit looks wise. Accompanying it, I opted for an Austrian Trockenbeerenauslese made with Chardonnay, an unusual wine I got at a tasting for Blue Danube Wines, a new importer of Eastern European wines.

A note on pictures, by the way. Our camera has been replaced, but it turns out to be awkward to deal with pictures in our new apartment. There's no good place in the kitchen to set up dishes, and it's terribly uncomfortable to take pictures at the table; people are there to enjoy their food, after all, not wait for a photo shoot. So until we figure this out, no pictures of platings, though I know some of you liked having them available.

To close out the evening, I served each person a small plate with three chocolate truffles and two pomegranate jellies. After my failed experiment with The French Laundry's jellies the week before, I wanted to try again, and this batch came out much better. One person whose opinion I trust quite a bit suggested they were still somewhat sweet, so it's not perfected yet, but they were significantly closer to what I wanted: deep red jellies coated in sugar with a pure pomegranate flavor (I juiced the pomegranates to get the most flavor, rather than buying pomegranate juice). The truffles had a healthy dose of port in them to add complexity to the flavor.

It's funny how your perspective changes. I don't like to do dinner parties on Saturday nights, because of the amount of work I put into them. But after the ten-course meal the week before, doing the five-course meal, or however many it was, didn't really phase me. I had time to take a break during the day, oddly. And this despite the fact that my oven (though not the burners) went out mysteriously during the day, which meant that the paté was cooked in a different oven. Just as mysteriously, it came back on later that day, and so I didn't have to cook the French onion soup and the hens in a different oven. Maybe I'm beginning to get comfortable with this whole entertaining thing.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

J & J 10 X 10

It was an email I didn't think I'd ever see. "Hey, what if we did a 10-course meal when James and Jeffrey come over?" Melissa is usually the voice of reason when it comes to dinner parties. It is not a coincidence that she is also the person who cleans up afterwards. She is understandably reluctant when I want to introduce a second amuse-bouche, or an additional course, or anything that would require a new set of plates and attendant glasses.

But since we were inviting James and Jeffrey over to celebrate their 10-year anniversary, she thought it would be a cute touch. Never one to pass up a challenge, and worried that she might renege once the reality set in, I eagerly agreed (and said at work, "Ha! I've worn her down at last!").

Still, the theory of an all amuse-bouche menu is different than the reality. At their best, amuse-bouches (or amuse-bouchen, the pluralization I concocted) are just a bite or two. Twenty bites is not a lot of food, especially considering the several hours our dinner parties typically last.

So I decided to do a "small plates" menu. Something a little larger than an amuse-bouche, but smaller than the modest plates we serve at our normal 5-course dinners. So ten courses, each one a small plate of food for our guests to sample. And wines to match. Oh, and the two other guests were vegetarians, and would need seperate courses as appropriate.

It was a challenge, but it was a lot of fun. I often feel like our 5-course dinners are a bit of a rut: appetizers, opener, entree, cheese, dessert, plus amuse-bouchen and a mignardise course, plates of cookies or truffles or whatever after the dessert itself. I realize this is a skewed perspective, but whatever.

We greeted our guests with platters of salami and olives (the only items on the platters I hadn't made) and fried oranges. I also had a tapenade and red-pepper, pine nut, and dried cranberry relish. Obviously, vegetarian items were on one platter, carnivorous items (including the tapenade, which had anchovies) on the other. To hold the spreads, I made brioche in my little pain de mie pans from Paris. One square, one round, they made impressive slices, especially when toasted.

Some at the table argued that I snuck in an extra course, but I consider the amuse-bouche a part of the appetizer, so I maintain that there were only ten courses. In this case, the amuse-bouche was a pumpkin soup served in an espresso cup with a drizzle of pumpkinseed oil for garnish. Our friends Tom and Carol tipped us off to how well pumpkinseed oil complements squash soups, and they're quite right. Its nuttiness balances out the sweetness of the soup.

With this course and the next one, I served the obvious celebratory beverage: Champagne. In particular, the René Geoffroy a Cumieres, Cuvée 1999. This Champagne is an estate Champagne, with all the grapes grown on the property (most Champagnes are blends from around the region). It's the Champagne which won the tasting we held for our wedding Champagne, but it was also the one we had thrown in that we couldn't afford to have for our wedding (we used a non-vintage from the same producer). But we did buy a couple bottles for our enjoyment. The nice thing about Champagne is that it complements a wide variety of food, so I didn't have to worry about the pairing too much.

The next course featured an ahi tuna tartare for the carnivores, and a "tomato tartare" for the vegetarians. The ahi tuna I cut into small dice which I then marinated in a bit of soy sauce and molded with a cylindrical mold on top of a thin, hexagonal slice of celery root. The tomatoes were prepared similarly, but marinated with a decent sherry vinegar and garnished with basil chiffonade and 25-year-old traditional balsamic vinegar. Both dishes were garnished with a teardrop shaped Parmiggiano-Reggiano crisp, which I made by grating the cheese, cooking it, and then cutting out the shape I wanted with a teardrop-shaped mold. The celery root was a last-minute impulse, but worked beautifully with the tuna. Its sweetness and crunch contrasted the salty fleshiness of the fish.

After this, I served a tart inspired by an Alsatian classic: an onion and ham tart. The vegetarians got theirs without the ham, of course. For each one, I made a small tart crust which I pre-baked. Each tart crust was about four inches in diameter. Once they came out of the oven, I spread a chestnut purée over the bottom, laid ham over the puée on one of the tarts, and topped each one with lightly caramelized onions. Then I put the whole assembly back into the oven and finished cooking it all. Each person got one fourth of the small tart, and I garnished the plate with three steamed baby carrots with an arugula and melted-butter sauce.

To go with the onion tart, I chose a wine I thought would complement it nicely. Our wine club (Melissa and I recently changed to the one offered by the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant) had described the 2002 Pinot Gris from Raptor Ridge as "nodding towards Alsace" in style, so it seemed an obvious choice to accompany the tart inspired by the same region.

I didn't anticipate how well the wine would go with the next course, a simple goat cheese salad. Everyone commented on how well the pairing worked, with everything balancing out nicely and the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. The salad was simple. I topped some frisee with an artisanal Piemontese olive oil and some butternut squash pickles I had made earlier that week. On this assembly I placed a warm goat cheese round, which I prepared by breading it in Panko bread crumbs and then baking in a low-heat oven for about 10 minutes.

To get people warmed up for the "main course", I made small plates of gnocchi, which I dressed with a rosemary-garlic sauce. Gnocchi can fortunately be made the day before, sautéed in warm butter at the last minute to warm up again. Each person got about five or six small gnocchi, but Melissa commented that it was just the right amount.

To accompany the gnocchi and the main course, I chose some of our wedding wine, the Cascina Val de Prete Barbera d'Alba. I mostly chose it because I knew it was going to accompany the next course, but it went reasonably well with the gnocchi.

The main course was a departure from the petite, elegant dishes I had offered so far. I thought it would be a nice counterpoint to the meal so far to have a rustic dish. So I decided to do braised oxtails on a bed of taleggio polenta. The vegetarians got "mushrooms Dowdy", a recipe from our friend Tom Dowdy. For the mushrooms, you brown them a bit, then pour in a boatload of wine and herbs and let the whole thing stew until the wine is gone. The oxtails are actually made in a similar way, though the braising liquid was red wine plus homemade beef stock, which resulted in a stunning sauce.

After the heavy food (not to mention the glasses of wine and increasingly late hour), I figured people would need something to perk them up, so I served a lemon sorbet which I started the previous evening and finished that morning. I think it made a difference, getting people reinvigorated for the next three courses.

I wasn't sure how well the 2001 Hexamer Spatlese Riesling would pair with the lemon sorbet, but it ended up doing just fine, its own acidity and sweetness holding up to the tart sorbet.

I was pretty confident the wine would work nicely with the cheese course. For this course, I made a coeur a la creme, a semi-esoteric French dessert where you mix mascarpone and whipping cream and pour into a heart-shaped porous mold. The holes in the mold allow the liquid to drain out, and you are left with a simple cheese that is slightly sweet and fluffy. Since even a small coeur a la creme is a substantial amount of food, Melissa came up with a great idea. We seated the two members of each of the three couples across from each other, and each couple had to share a full heart. The hearts were garnished with pepper-cured dried figs, which have the virtue of needing to be made at least five days in advance. All you do is layer dried figs with peppercorns and bay leaves, and then weight them down for five days. They have a really nice flavor, starting out as all fig and ending with a solid pepper kick.

The next course was a blueberry shortcake. Fairly straightforward, and even making the shortcake was fairly trivial. It was easy enough that I wonder why I don't make things like this more often.

To go with it (and the next course), I chose a Bonny Doon Vin de Glaciere, which I've used before when I need a decent dessert wine.

The final course was the mignardise course, where I served a couple plates of Concord grape jellies. I've made jellies before, but I tried the version in the French Laundry cookbook for the first time, since it's made with apple pectin and is therefore vegetarian-friendly. Chef Keller describes them as "delicate" and my batch definitely was. So delicate that the slab of jelly didn't set up as firm as I would have liked, and I lost half the batch to a corner that folded over itself as I moved the slab. Plus they didn't end up as nice squares because they were so wobbly. And then I had to coat them in extra sugar because I didn't want them sticking like glue to everything they touched. This made the jellies too sweet for my taste, though they did still have some of the grape flavor and they definitely had the gorgeous purple color I hoped for.

It will be a while before we do something like that again, but it was certainly memorable.