Thursday, January 29, 2004

bacar and Dine About Town

Melissa and I like bacar quite a bit, and we've eaten a number of memorable meals there. So we were very happy to see that they were once again participating in SF's Dine About Town program. We thoroughly enjoyed our Dine About Town experience last year, so we decided to use one of our three budgeted Dine About Town evenings back at bacar.

Our table was on the restaurant's second floor, really more of a mezzanine I guess. This was great, because my biggest complaint about bacar is the noise level. We still got plenty of noise, but it was better than being down on the floor proper.

The menu choices for the prix fixe were enticing. For the appetizer, we could choose between a salad of endive, watercress, "market heirloom apples", and blue cheese or a duck and foie gras sausage. Melissa went for the salad; I went for the sausage. It was served with a red onion-port reduction, and was presented simply. The sausage arced across the plate and a waterfall of the compote was placed on top so that it flowed down to the plate. The texture of the sausage was a pleasant mix of smooth and coarse (presumably the foie gras and the duck meat, respectively). The flavor was mild, a nice blend of the two types of meat. The red onion-port reduction was very flavorful, and complemented the sausage nicely.

Melissa enjoyed her salad, though there were no real surprises here. This type of salad is pretty popular in Bay Area restaurants, and for a good reason. It combines a nice combination of flavors and textures and allows for seasonal variations.

We both went for the grilled duck breast with a tangerine-cranberry sauce. And we both ordered it rare. The meat arrived, cooked perfectly with a stripe of purple-pink framed by a deep brown crust. The breast had been fanned and leaned against a pile of greens, the whole assembly in a pool of sauce. Really good duck, cooked exquisitely. It's a hard dish to argue with.

To accompany the Dine About Town menus, bacar's wine director Debbie Zachareas had assembled three optional wine flights which one could choose. For $20 each, you got 5 2-oz. samples of different wines. I went for the mixed white and red, but in retrospect I should have chosen the all-red flight. The whites were overshadowed by the duck and foie gras sausage, and I found myself rushing through the second one in order to get to the reds. Melissa chose a couple wines by the glass, having some Roederer sparkling wine (from California, not Champagne) with her salad and the Rock River Zinfandel with her duck breast.

I was disappointed they didn't have mousse on the menu; it would have been worth it just so I could order "duck,duck,mousse". But the taste of the desserts made up for the lost opportunity. Melissa and I shared the two cold desserts on the menu: a peaches and cream gelato and a strawberry-amaretto sorbet. I found the sorbet's flavors interesting. There was a burst of strawberry flavor, and then the amaretto came in and made up the bulk of the finish after I had swallowed. It was almost as if I had two separate bites, so distinct were the impressions, though there was some blending in the middle of the taste. The peaches and cream gelato, on the other hand, had flavors that were dancing hand-in-hand, twirling about and blending together in a seamless rush.

As always, bacar delivered great food. A co-worker who loves bacar (though he was disappointed when he went the week after) thought he might do three nights at bacar for Dine About Town. I don't blame him. But we decided to do some others, so check back soon for our review of Bizou.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Casual Dinner Parties, Part 2

If I didn't have time to do a full dinner party when our friend Jean came over on Saturday (see below), I certainly didn't have time to do one the very next night when our friend Chris came over. I went to the Fancy Food Show from ten until five (along with Hillel, Lauren, Alex, and the two Debbies from and my friend Tim who runs Zocalo Coffeehouse). More on that later.

Still, I managed to get food on the table. I started with the same salami/olive platter we had had the previous night. When I bought supplies, I bought enough for both nights to keep things simple for me.

I also didn't serve a separate opener. Instead, I made chicken pot pie and "California Weed Salad" as Chris calls it. You know, warm goat cheese on a bed of greens which have been tossed with dried cranberries and candied nuts? Standard fare in California Cuisine restaurants. But I didn't actually candy the pecans; I toasted them. And I didn't have dried cranberries.

Oh, and I warmed the goat cheese by frying it. Warming in the oven is so banal.

The chicken pot pie used chicken from the roast we had had the previous night, as well as various veggies, all in a bechamel sauce. I'm sad to say it, but the puff pastry was store-bought, not homemade. I had hoped to make some the night before, but never got around to it. I decided to make palmiers with the scraps of puff pastry I had after cutting out circles for the crusts. Always my favorite way to use up puff pastry.

Chris had asked if he could bring anything, so I asked him to bring fixings for dessert, which we would make here. We poached pears in syrup until they were soft, and then pulled them out and kept them warm. Poached pears are simple but good. I scooped out all the spices from the syrup, and reduced it until it was a light caramel. At that point I added cream to make a sauce, leaving us with a spicy pear-flavored caramel.

To serve, my original idea was to just do the three pear pieces on the caramel sauce with piped creme fraiche. It was Chris's idea to add the asymmetrical elements. He's very artistic, and our combined efforts produced one of my favorite dessert platings to date.

That's it for now on casual dinner parties. In a couple days I'll post a review of bacar, where we had our first Dine About Town dinner.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Casual Dinner Parties? From us?

You all know about my dinner parties by now. Five, six, and once ten, courses, wines paired to the course as best as I'm able. Days of work.

So when Melissa suggested we have our friends Jean and Chris over last week-end (on Saturday and Sunday respectively), I wondered how I could do it. I had big events going on on both days, about which more to come soon. That would leave precious little time to assemble dinner.

"Maybe we can make them more casual dinners. They can bring some dish, and you can just do a couple courses." A casual dinner party. Allowing other people to contribute. Hmm. That seemed novel.

Our first casual dinner party was with our friend Jean. She and Melissa had spent the day together, and Melissa thought it would be a nice end to the day for all of us to have dinner together. I was in Redwood City for a big wine tasting, so had to keep things somewhat simple.

When Jean and Melissa arrived, I had a simple appetizer plate ready. Thin slices of prosciutto salami, and two different kinds of olives (a more casual dinner party meant that it was easier to take pictures, so you get shots of all the dishes for this one). While they nibbled on these treats, I started assembling dinner. We poured some Rock River Merlot to start. I mentioned before that our wine club from the Ferry Building Wine Merchant hinted that this was a second label from a very well-known producer. Not knowing (or caring) much about Napa wineries, we just enjoy the flavor.

I had been thinking about caprese salad when planning this dinner. You may not know the term, but you've undoubtedly had the dish: slices of succulent tomato topped with rounds of fresh mozzarella and basil. It's a good dish, but very seasonal; if you can't find good tomatoes, in my opinion, it's not worth making it. So I decided to do a winter version. I roasted gold and red small beets (not quite baby but still smaller than average), sliced them into rounds, drizzled them with walnut oil and topped them with slices of goat cheese (this from Redwood Hill Farms). I sprinkled tarragon over this and garnished with toasted walnuts. All very classic pairings of flavors, and they worked well together. Jean, not a big beet fan, enjoyed hers quite a bit, at least enough to clean her plate, which I figure is always a good sign. If I were doing it again, I'd probably use a more crumbly goat cheese. I wanted the stripes of color from the beets to be more visible.

For the entree, I did a simple roast chicken. I had brined the chicken that morning, and started roasting it when Jean arrived. On the side, I served wild rice tossed with hazelnuts and celery root cut very small and fried in duck fat. I also served winesap apples sautéed in duck fat. I just started discovering the joys of cooking with duck fat, so it shows up a lot these days. For the sauce, I made a chicken stock with the back of the chicken (which I had butterflied) and the neck (from the bag of goodies inside the bird), which used yet more chicken stock as part of the base. Once it was made, I reduced it A LOT, and added some Frangelico, which I cooked off just a little.

By now we had switched to the Ridge Sonoma Station Zinfandel, a favorite wine at our dinners. It worked nicely with the chicken

For dessert, Jean made molasses "lumberjack" cookies, which she served atop a bowl of Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond ice cream. She garnished the dish with finely chopped crystallized ginger, which mirrored the ginger in the cookies. And since she cooked the cookies here, they were nice and warm and soft.

I had been at the wine tasting earlier, which was a big tasting of German and Austrian wines. My favorite wine of the show was a Schereube Auslese from Weingut Ed. Weegmüller. Schereube is one of Germany's fine wine grapes, a cross between Riesling and sylvaner. And Auslesen are funny wines. I love them dearly, but they're a little too sweet to accompany the cheese course and often not sweet enough to go with dessert. But when Melissa mentioned Jean's plans for a dessert to me, I thought it would go quite well. It handled itself nicely, its pitch-perfect balance of sugar and acidity staying fairly true through the dessert. The fragrant spiciness of its aroma was a bit swallowed up by the ginger in the dessert, but not too badly. I don't know that I'll pair it with dessert again, though. Maybe with a foie gras course.

So not too bad for a casual dinner party. It was, I have to admit, nice to not have my entire day consumed by prep work for the dinner. I love big dinner parties, but this was a nice compromise solution.

And the next night we had our friend Chris over for yet another casual dinner party. I'll write that one up in the next couple days.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Casual Dinners

One of my un-New Year's resolutions is to come home early enough to have dinner once or twice a week. Most people assume that I come home and cook dinner every night, but in truth I get home so late, and I don't eat much anyway, that I usually don't bother (lunch is usually sufficient for my eating needs).

But this means I don't get to spend time with Melissa. It means I only get to cook for dinner parties, all at once in a big burst of culinary activity. I don't get to play with ideas. I get frustrated by all this, hence the decision to change.

Here's a quick rundown on some of the food I've cooked at home in the last couple weeks.

After the dinner with Melissa's shop mates, I had some pork loin left over (at least that's my memory of the cut that would be nestled up against the rib roast; my knowledge of meat cuts is pretty bad). This is a nice cylinder of meat, perfect for cutting into medallions. I pan-fried the medallions in a hot pan, and then laid them on a bed of spinach and rice. For the sauce, I juiced a bunch of oranges (we were still working through the glut of oranges from my dad), which I then strained through a fine-mesh strainer. I used the strained juice to deglaze the pan where I had fried the pork medallions and let it reduce until it was just a thin film covering the pan. Normally when correcting a sauce one starts with salt, but in this case I had to start with sugar; the acidity of the orange juice was overwhelming.

Not only was the dinner good, I got it together in something like 40 minutes (Melissa had washed the spinach in advance, which helped), including all the prep time.

Later that week, Melissa and I tried out a top round steak from Prather Ranch. We were very excited to discover this vendor in the Ferry Building. Prather Ranch beef is all organic, grass-fed, and from a closed herd since the 60's. Even better, they dry age their meat for 30 days. No one does this anymore, because of the expense, but it produces superior meat.

I treated this very simply as well. I seasoned the meat with salt (lavender salt in my case; Melissa was dubious of this addition) and pepper, and then seared it until it was done (it went a little past the rare state I like). On the side, I served mashed potatoes and green beans with shiitakes. For the sauce, I deglazed the pan with Barbera d'Alba (the rest of which we drank with dinner) and then reduced it a whole bunch, adding in a little butter at the end. The meat was fantastic, bursting with flavor. I think I just found a new meat purveyor. This dinner took longer to make, primarily because of the mashed potatoes.

The week after, we made a very simple dinner. We had toured Fabrique Délices (a local, artisanal charcutier) the week before, and they were kind of enough to give us all paté to take home. Melissa and I went for the truffled duck liver mousse, perhaps our favorite of their products. Anyway, we had this paté in the refrigerator, and one night we sliced some up and served it with baguette pieces and a simple green salad tossed with a mustard vinaigrette. I took the rest for lunch the next day. Simple but wonderful.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Melissa's Shop Mates, part 2

For the last couple years, perhaps longer, I've included a cheese course in our dinners. This course has been fairly predictable: two or three cheeses, some bread, some relish/garnish/condiment on the side.

This is a very classic cheese course. Simple and satisfying. We have a deep love and knowledge of cheese, and enjoy sharing interesting cheeses with our guests.

But after however long it's been, I want to try something new. Thomas Keller includes an extensive array of "composed cheese courses" in The French Laundry Cookbook, and many of them are striking to look at, not surprisingly. They bring together classic pairings in unusual forms, also not surprisingly. The French Laundry's reputation is well-deserved and the book is a good reflection of Chef Keller's philosophies.

It seemed like a good starting point for experimenting with more interesting cheese courses, and Melissa's shop mates got to be the guinea pigs. His recipe, "Ashed Chevreaux with Slow-Roasted Yellow and Red Beets and Red Beet Vinaigrette", was the basis for the cheese course we served that evening. It required some modification. I had originally thought to use Selles-sur-Cher as my goat cheese, but the one example looked past its prime (this wasn't at the Cheese Board, by the way). But serendipity is a charming thing. Because the Selles-sur-Cher looked grim, I asked about the Sainte Maure (both are goat cheeses from France's Loire Valley; Sainte Maure is a generic name for a number of the region's cheeses which are made in the style of, but in slightly different regions than, Sainte-Maure de Touraine). The woman working the counter said "our young one, or an aged one?". I was immediately tantalized by the notion of an older Sainte Maure, and tasting them settled the case. The older version had a more complex flavor, much more interesting. The younger one seemed very bland by comparison. I neglected to ask if they were from the same producer. The cheese comes in a log shape, and I bought one log to divide among the five diners.

I had to modify the recipe in other ways. Finding micro beet greens is difficult, and regular beet greens would not have been the same as a garnish. And I just couldn't find beet juice, so I wasn't able to make the beet glaze Keller suggests. But I stayed as true to it as possible. I roasted yellow beets and red beets (in separate packages), and then sliced them into rounds. The red rounds got cut into batons. I made beet powder, which requires that you puré e a beet and then dry it in the microwave for 45 minutes or so with the microwave at very low power. Then you grind it down even more in a spice grinder to produce a powder. This serves as garnish (and a very pretty one at that).

To serve, you lay a round of yellow beet on a plate. Place a layer of red beet batons on that, and then place a second yellow round on top of the batons. Sprinkle the plate with beet powder. Top each little pile with a portion of the Sainte Maure log. It's a very pretty dish, with a lot of color and texture. I know, I know. Pictures would be great.

Classic wine to go with soft goat cheese? Sauvignon Blanc. A traditional one, not one of California's lackluster renditions. We opted for a Trebaumer Sauvignon Blanc from Austria.

And then we moved on to dessert. My dessert has a somewhat entangled family tree. I was struck by the idea of a hazelnut-topped brownie which I read about on Clotilde's site. But I wanted to do something interesting, presentation-wise. My friend Tom mentioned a presentation he did once from a book called Grand Finales (though it might have been from a later book in the series). I don't remember the details, but the way it transmuted in my mind was that I wanted to take the brownie cakes, which I cooked in individual springform molds, cut out the center, stand the brownie ring on its side, and have a cylinder of vanilla ice cream on the plate which I would shape with the same mold I used to take the center out the brownies. So you'd have a "donut" on its side with a tower of ice cream in front, cut to be the exact same size and height as the ring. Rest both in a bed of caramel sauce, and make a tuile "cigarette" which would go from the ice cream and through the hole in the middle of the brownie.

That was the idea. The reality came out differently. The only cylinder molds I had that would go all the way through the brownie took out a sizable hole. The resulting donut looked not quite right and wasn't very stable. So instead, I used the "plug" which I had cut from the brownie, and set it on the plate. Next to it, I did a cylinder of home made vanilla ice cream, same basic shape. I drizzled caramel sauce over the two towers, and put a normal round tuile into the vanilla tower, on edge. And on Barbara's chocolate tower, we put a candle, since she had recently celebrated a birthday.

We served this with a nice Madeira, as we had done for the trial run two nights earlier.

Finally, just as everyone thought they were done, we brought out the mignardise course. We did nine madeleines (Melissa got me silicone madeleine molds for my birthday; very neat) and a tray of mandarin orange jellies (you may remember the abundance of oranges we got from my dad just after Christmas). As with the pomegranate jellies I made not too long ago, these could have been tarter. I have to remember to add some lemon juice to the recipe to counteract the sweetness a bit more.

So that was our first dinner party of 2004 (my mom and her husband came over New Year's Eve). Coming soon: some dinners that just Melissa and I have eaten, quick dinner parties, and a review of our first Dine About Town dinner.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Shopmates, Part 1

Melissa has a business which connects her jewelry and woodworking skills. The jewelry component is easy to do at home but the woodworking requires a bit more space, and so she shares a shop with a number of people. She's become friendly with some of them, and asked if we could have them over for dinner. I never mind a chance to cook (sometimes to a fault), and was happy to get to know them better or at all; I had only met one of our guests before that night.

We started dinner with a bagna cauda, a traditional Piemontese dish which is essentially a fondue where the central pot is filled with warm olive oil, garlic, and anchovies. It was a cold night, and something warm and gratifying as guests walked in seemed like a good idea. I also added some lemon with a nod to the Lemon Bagna Cauda from the Zuni Café Cookbook. I use salt-packed anchovies for my bagna cauda (indeed, for all my anchovy needs). I decided to try them after seeing both Jeremiah Tower and Judy Rodgers sing their praises, and I've come to share their belief that they're better than the more popular oil-packed fillets. They're a bit more work; you have to run them under cold water and rip the fish apart to fillet them yourself.

A small plate of bagna cauda dippables greeted our guests
Anyway, even Melissa, who normally is not keen on bagna cauda, liked this rendition. For dipping, we had bread, radishes, and blanched baby carrots. Some of you may be surprised to learn that I didn't serve an amuse-bouche. I also didn't sculpt the radishes. But we did have the dinner on a Saturday, which makes such niceties more difficult.

Not surprisingly, we served a Piemontese wine, a Roero Arneis (our wedding white). Piemontese wines made in the traditional way are perfect exemplars of the axiom that regional wines go well with regional foods.

To open, I served risotto cakes. I made risotto the day before (somewhat overcooked, I think, but still good), and chilled it overnight. The next day I shaped them into rounds with cookie cutters, packing in the risotto, and shortly before the guests arrived, I dredged the risotto cakes in flour, egg, and then Panko bread crumbs. To cook, I dunked the cakes in hot oil and fried them until the crust was golden-brown.

When I served it, I laid thinly sliced raw fennel on the plate, then I put the risotto cake on that, placed some fried basil leaves on that, and then garnished with a sun-dried tomato mayonnaise.

Some notes on this. Fried basil leaves? Really fantastic garnish. I saw the idea in Art Culinaire and thought I'd give it a whirl. They work pretty much like you'd expect: heat some oil to 350°, drop in some basil leaves a few at a time so they don't glom together (and stand way back; the water in the leaves causes a lot of popping), then use a skimmer to remove them when they seem finished and drain on paper towels. A simple process, but they're stunning. They look like basil leaves that have been fashioned out of thin, translucent green glass. They crumble easily, so are fairly fragile. The basil flavor is muted (it has been cooked after all), but still present.

The sun-dried tomato mayonnaise was a last-minute idea, but came out extremely well. This was largely due to the sun-dried tomatoes I used. My mom recently went to Italy and bought some for me, which she gave me as a Christmas present. I thought this was an odd choice; sun-dried tomatoes are available in every bulk section of every supermarket, I imagine. Maybe so, but not these sun-dried tomatoes. I was caught by surprise when I tasted the purée I made to be mixed into the mayonnaise. Made with nothing but these tomatoes, rehydrated, the puré was flavorful and delicious, far more so than what I would've gotten with our domestic versions. They don't seem to have any particular provenance, though the Italian label might be telling me quite a bit about them and I wouldn't know it. No producer's name seems apparent. Maybe my mom just bought high-end Italian tomatoes. Or maybe just regular ones. Or maybe ones that had been seasoned. Either way, the normal sun-dried tomato you find here just doesn't compare.

With this course we served a Rock River Merlot. This was from our wine club, and is one of those typical things where they tell you that it's a second label from a well-known winery, whose name they can't disclose. Someone famous I guess. Regardless of which illustrious wine maker constructed the wine, it's quite good. My tasting notes say "baked cherries, but not cherry pie", among other things.

For the main course, one person (who doesn't eat a lot of meat) got the striped bass dish from the other night (see below) while everyone else got a slice of pork roast. Probably the slices were too thick, but people enjoyed it. I served it on top of the same spinach/shiitake/pepper/saurkraut mixture which went under the fish, and which I used the other night, but obviously the sauce was different. For the pork, I deglazed the pan with chicken stock and reduced it.

To go with this we took a chance. Another wine from our wine club, "The Prisoner" is a tantalizingly named wine from Orin Swift. Like most of the Napa reds we've gotten through the wine club, it's a blend of a wide variety of grapes. Not bad, but I probably won't be buying more (unlike other shipments we've gotten; we've bought more of virtually everything).

After that, we took a break. Our guests had brought a bottle of 2001 Sterling's Vintner's Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, and we retired to the living room (such a luxury) to enjoy it. We started pulling out some samples from my mechanical puzzle collection (another one of my hobbies) and our guests, two of them woodworkers and one a mechanic, were fascinated by the stunning woodwork and clever mechanisms. My mechanical puzzle collection turns out to be a great thing for people to play with when we retire to the living room, as we tend to do once or more per meal these days. It serves as a nice break, a chance to digest, and puzzles are possibly the world's greatest ice breakers.

Check back soon for the conclusion of the meal, with a new take on a cheese course, a deeper explanation of the brownie dessert I tried with my mom, and of course the mignardise course.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

New Year's Eve, Part 2

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. New Year's Eve, main course. This course was one of the experiments. We were having a guest a few nights later who eats fish but not much more in the way of meat. I had been itching to try the Prosciutto-Wrapped Striped Bass from East of Paris and so decided to do a non-Prosciutto version for our upcoming guest. This meant doing a trial run.

The dish is relatively simple: sauté onion and bell peppers, add saurkraut and paprika and braise for a while (roughly an hour if I remember right). Let cool. Lay out two fillets of striped bass, season, cover one fillet with the cabbage and pepper mixture, put the other fillet on top, and tie them together. Sear the package on each side (fish skin down), and then roast. Serve with more of the filling (each person gets half of each fish, cut crosswise across the fish). I modified this in a few ways.

I put the cooked fish on a heap of the filling as the recipe suggested, but I first combined the filling with sautéed spinach and shiitake mushrooms. Also I made a fumet (fish stock) which I used to make a simple veloute sauce. The woman standing next to me in the store was curious about my request for two striped bass, gutted, scaled, and filleted but with the carcasses included (I had to work that day, so didn't have the time to do it myself). I'm not sure my explanation made any sense to her, but the stock I made from the fish skeletons was worth the curious looks.

This recipe is another winner from East of Paris. A lot of good flavors going on, as well as beautiful colors. Now that our piscivore dinner guest has come and gone, however, I hope to make the prosciutto-wrapped version soon.

To go with the main course, some of us finished off the Gruner Veltliner while some of us switched to the Vino de Casa from Ceja. This was one of the bottles from our wine club, and though its price tag prevents it from actually being the "house wine" its name suggests, it's an enjoyable wine with a lot of character and complexity. It is scrumptiously fruity, with cherry dominating but other aromas adding layers that invite appreciation.

The cheese course was easy for us; we had recently gotten some great cheeses from our cheese club. We enjoyed a Pierce Point from Cowgirl Creamery as well as a Colton Bassett Stilton. With the cheese I served more of the cherry compote I had used as interior garnish for a recent foie gras terrine.

Finally for dessert I served a round chocolate brownie topped with hazelnuts, which I served with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. Another experiment for the dinner party two days later, so I'll talk more about it then. But with it, I served a good Madeira. Madeira isn't usually to my taste (I tend to not be a big fortified wine person), but this worked well with the brownie and hazelnuts.

So what was the dinner party we were doing all these experiments for? You'll have to come back in a couple more days to find out, I'm afraid.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

New Year's Eve, Part 1

Melissa and I spend our New Year's Eves quietly. Usually just a simple dinner (French Onion Soup is quasi-traditional), perhaps with some friends over. We had made plans for such an evening, doing a trial run on some dishes we would be doing for a dinner party three nights later.

At the last minute, we decided to invite my mom and her husband to join us. They are always so generous to us, and have us over for dinner quite a bit, so it seemed like it was time to return the favor, at least in part.

I did not precisely learn cooking while watching my mother in the kitchen, the common mythology all food writers seem to share, like some Jungian archetype. In fact, both my parents are very good cooks, and I took little interest in cooking until college. Still, from my mother I developed a deep love of the elegant. Her parties are a panoply of little hors d'oeuvres.

And so she probably understood perfectly when I said I would make a casual meal--one with only five courses. It was a bit of a change from our original plans, but such is life.

When they arrived, we had a platter of antipasti waiting. Salami sliced thinly, baguette pieces with a tapenade, and fried oranges. I've made the fried oranges before, but this batch came out really nicely. The idea comes from the Zuni Café Cookbook, one of my favorite cookbooks. Slice oranges thinly, dredge in flour, then buttermilk, then flour again, and fry in 350° oil. The buttermilk and flour forms a soft crust, and the orange cooks just enough to be warm; as you bite in, the acidity serves as a sharp contrast to the doughy exterior.

Everyone loves Champagne, and never more so than on New Year's Eve. But I rankled a bit at the tradition. Even so, I couldn't veer away from bubbly wine completely, and instead we served our favorite Prosecco. This sparkling wine from Northeast Italy is a current darling at restaurants in the Bay Area, but not without reason. It is distinct from its French cousin, more fruity and lighter. However it shares Champagne's affinity for food.

For the opener, I made individual soufflés with an orange, red onion, and chile filling. My mother and I share palates that are unaccustomed to food with the heat of spice, so the chile was just an accent, half a serrano minced and mixed into the filling. The soufflés were good, though the liquid core suggested that they could have used a bit more time in the oven. You may be noticing the orange theme in these dishes; a few days prior my dad and his wife had brought us a voluminous amount of oranges (both Valencias and Mandarin oranges) and so I felt a bit like an Iron Chef contestant, trying to use oranges as creatively as possible. Battle orange!

We didn't precisely pair wines with each dish. With only four people, you don't really go through a full bottle with each course. Instead we had a progression of wines which people enjoyed throughout the meal. After the Prosecco, we poured a 2001 Brundlmayer Gruner Veltliner from Austria. Brundlmayer is perhaps Austria's best producer, and we have a number of his bottles. Like nearby Germany, 2001 in Austra was a fine year, if not the showstopper it was further north. The wine was definitely funky, and at first we feared it might be corked. But no, I remain convinced that it just had a lot of interesting character. Perhaps not a wine for everyone.

And there I must leave you for now. Come back in a couple more days to read about the rest of meal.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Un-New Year's Resolutions

I don't make New Year's resolutions. I always figure that I'm reasonably good about making changes at other points of the year, so why make a point of it on January 1?

But this year the changes I want to make happened to take place around year end, so I guess you could label them as New Year's resolutions.

A lot of those changes involve this site. Since this site is part of my food and wine writing portfolio at this point (which oddly I'm only focusing on now that I have articles either actually or soon to be in print), I think it needs some sprucing up.

I'd like to invite you, my readers, to let me know what things you'd like to see. Use the e-mail link at the top of the page. Here are my initial plans, roughly in the order I'm going to focus on them:

  • Comments - I've found I like these on various other blogs I visit, so I'm going to figure out how to add them to mine. Blogger, the software I use, is perhaps the only blogging software at this point that doesn't support comments. So I may have to switch. This may cause some hiccups with the site, but I'll give ample warning just before I ransack everything.
  • Prettier design - at least a better template. UI isn't my forte, so a better template may be the only real change.
  • More pictures - I put all this effort into plating food, and only a few people get to see the efforts. Like I've said, it is awkward to do pictures at dinner parties, but I'll try and figure something out.
  • More frequent updates - I'll do my best on this one, but my full-time job (plus the freelance writing thing) takes a fair amount of time. But I might spread dinner party posts over a few entries (like Clotilde at Chocolate & Zucchini)
  • The return of Eating Well Cheaply - a lot of you have commented how much you enjoyed that portion of the site, and while I enjoy being employed, I had a lot of fun with that site as well. How I'm going to fit that into my life remains to be seen, so that's sort of a longer-term goal.

Anyway, let me know what you think, or what other ideas you have.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Impromptu Breakfast

Our friends often complain that it's difficult to make plans with us. We seem to book up early. But every now and then we are able to make last-minute plans. For instance, when Amanda was in town for the holidays and Melissa suggested we cook breakfast the very next morning. We had nothing in the apartment that one might need for such a thing; we were out of eggs and butter, among other things. So Melissa went to the store in the morning, and we managed to get something together.

In particular, waffles, bacon, scrambled eggs, and the cute little fruit salads I made (see above). Always nice to practice presentation tricks. I also served a cherry compote made with dried cherries rehydrated in Merlot (which I originally used as an interior garnish on a foie gras terrine, but I've been enjoying the leftovers for a while now).

We also had toast, which was very exciting because we got to use the toast rack we got as a wedding present from our English friends (technically Holly's an ex-pat, but never you mind). Yes, we get excited about such things. But our toast rack is not the elegant and yet common metal toast rack that one sees throughout the British Isles. No, no. Ours is porcelain, with a porcelain grey cat perched on one side (I wondered why Holly asked what Omelette looked like).

It's true that we don't often get to do last-minute activities, but we enjoy them we do. Maybe we should plan more of them...

Friday, January 02, 2004

Dine About Town 2004

Melissa's mom (mother-in-law is still odd to type) reminds me that Dine About Town is once again here. Bay Areans make sure to check out the site and take advantage of this opportunity to enjoy some of San Francisco's finest restaurants at discounted prices. We had mixed luck with our experience last year. Here are my reviews of bacar (our favorite), Acme Chophouse, and Greens.

We'll almost certainly do bacar again. The others we haven't decided about, but we'll probably get one or two others in before the month ends.