Saturday, April 19, 2008

Technique: Chicken Rillettes

I often buy a whole chicken for a week’s worth of dinners. The first two meals are easy: something with the legs and then something with the breasts. But what about the wings?

There’s not much meat on them; certainly not enough for a main course. In the past, I’ve picked the meager flesh from the bones and added it to omelettes or soufflés, dishes where you don’t want a big hunk of meat with rich eggs. But for a few recent chickens, I’ve made the wings into rillettes, a spread of shredded meat and fat.

I think I got the idea after making rabbit rillettes from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. While many books suggest treating rabbit rillettes just like pork rillettes — cook the meat slowly in fat — Rodgers takes a more complicated route that gives the delicate meat a chance to shine: Poach in water with mirepoix and white wine, add a pig’s foot for body, pound in a mortar and pestle, and dribble in fat in tiny amounts.

What had worked so well for rabbit might also work well with chicken, I thought. I modified the recipe — I don’t have pigs’ feet in my freezer on a regular basis, no matter what you think — but the results were still delicious, and the dish has been a recurring favorite.

Except I make them in an ad hoc way. You could argue that Rodgers’ recipe has little in common with my technique, but they share key kinships.

First, salt the wings. Sprinkle a handful of kosher salt onto a plate, press the wings (both sides) into the salt and set them on a dish in the refrigerator for 24 hours or so. The first time I made the dish, I tried to skin the wings: I urge you not to do this; it is time-consuming and ineffective.

The next day, poach the wings in a stick of butter and just enough water to cover them. (If you want to add a little dry white wine or white wine vinegar, please do. If you want to add spices and aromatics, please do.) Cook them at barely a simmer until the meat falls off the bone with even the glancing blow of a fork, about an hour to an hour and a half. Pull the wings from the liquid and let them cool briefly, and remove the liquid from the heat. Using your fingers, strip the bones of the meat and skin and put them into a mortar. Pound the meat with the pestle until it begins to flatten. Now dribble in a tiny bit of the fat from the pot — it will have risen to the top. Pound the meat some more. Dribble in a little more fat, and continue to pound. I probably add two or three teaspoons of fat over five or six doses. You want a spreadable paste of shredded meat, but you also want the flavor front and center: Too much fat will mute it. Season with pepper, smush into a ramekin, cover, and refrigerate. If you won’t use the rillettes that day, you can let the fat continue to cool and then spoon it over the rillettes to seal them in.

Then what? I smear rillettes onto bread or put it into dumplings. Two chicken wings do not yield a lot of rillettes, but two people can get a decent dinner out of them. The other night for a potluck, I smeared a dollop of rillettes and butter onto baguette slices and topped the smear with sliced radishes to make 18 bites of finger food. The rillettes added flavor, while the butter added richness and volume.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

San Francisco Chronicle: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc At A Crossroads

When Melissa and I visited wineries in Marlborough, I was struck by the number of winemakers who said something along the lines of “Well, Sauvignon Blanc is kind of boring.” or “Sauvy keeps the accountants happy, I guess.” I was also surprised by the wide array of other grapes that wineries were bottling. Other than the occasional Pinot Noir, we rarely see anything other than Sauvignon Blanc here. It struck me that Marlborough has been so successful with the grape that it’s become difficult to get drinkers to buy anything else.

I wrote about these observations for the lead story in the Chronicle’s Wine section. And while you all may have gotten used to these announcements, this article has a special OWF bonus: Melissa took one of the pictures they used for the piece.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Food/Wine Pairing Tasting Notes

Here is a question I often ponder. If you are going to suggest a wine to go with a particular dish (or vice versa), why would you just write a regular tasting note and not reference the dish? That thought crept into my mind again as I noticed this post on Personal Wine Buyer, whose author will be suggesting wine pairings for Design*Sponge. (And I only single him out because I just read his tasting note; I can’t think of the number of times I’ve seen this.)

Here is his write-up of the wine he chose to go with Matt Armendariz’s Sautéed Beet Greens with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Pancetta:

Beautiful golden straw in color. Not extremely forward or exotic on the aromatics — a bit subdued on the nose. On the palate, this wine shows beautiful grapefruit and citrus, nice apple with some butter and almonds. Really nice minerality with great weight, balance and acidity with a nice crisp finish. This is a good value at about $18 a bottle — and just a really nice wine. Recommended.
Sounds like a wine I would like. But why, exactly, did he choose it to go with Matt’s dish? It doesn’t matter if you agree with him: Why that wine?

In my wine writing, I try to also be a wine educator. I want people to finish my pieces and think, “Hmm. I learned a little something.” I can and do write adjective-heavy tasting notes, but I don’t kid myself about the number of people who actually read them: very few, I think.

To me, his tasting note and its siblings in the bulk of the wine press are wasted opportunities. The author could have talked about how structure, weight, acidity, and flavor led him down that road. He could have given readers something to think about: a better way to think about wine than as a bag of descriptions. He could have empowered them in the wine shop. What happens when the average reader goes to their local hooch supplier and can’t find the wine? He’s stranded them: They have no way to articulate what they want. Furthermore, he hasn’t given them a language they can use in the future. He has described a wine and failed to give it any context. I, too, have done this in my professional writing. That doesn’t make it right.

Give a man a fish, the saying goes, and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and feed him for a lifetime. As wine writers, we owe it to our readers to teach them to fish.


Two-Part Hominy

As I cleaned out my pantry at the apartment, I rediscovered a small bag of large, dried corn kernels, brown at the tips and expanding into dusky yellow balloons. Melissa quickly spotted their resemblance to Corn Nuts.

But the label on the Rancho Gordo bag said hominy. I had bought it one Saturday on a lark; it beckoned to me, challenging me to discover its charms and challenges. I brought it home, put it in our pantry, stacked some pasta boxes in front of it, and forgot about it. Its rediscovery seven or eight months later prompted a slight frenzy of research as I tried to remind myself what it was and how to cook it.

Hominy is corn that’s been de-hulled by being cooked or soaked in an alkaline solution, a process called nixtamalization. It is the precursor to grits and masa, staples of Southern cuisine and Central American cuisine, respectively.

But I would not be grinding my hominy into grain: I wanted to cook the kernels whole for posole, a stew or soup that showcases the yellow nuggets. You can find posole recipes on the Rancho Gordo site, and from them you can extract a simple cooking technique: Soak the kernels overnight or don’t, but simmer for 3 hours.

First Attempt
The first time I cooked my corn, I skipped the pre-soaking step, though perhaps, “I forgot about it” is more correct. I opened a can of diced tomatoes, sautéed sliced shallots, added the kernels to the pot, and then poured in the liquid from the tomatoes plus enough water to cover the hominy by about an inch. I brought the water to a boil, then reduced it to a simmer for 3 hours. Every half hour or so, I checked the hominy and added water as needed. About 2 hours in, I added the tomatoes and some fresh oregano from our yard. (You can use dried oregano — indeed I rummaged through boxes in vain looking for my bag of Sonoran oregano — in which case you should add it at the beginning of the cooking time.)

Harold McGee, in On Food and Cooking, describes hominy as having a “dense, chewy consistency.” Certainly this first batch did: We exercised our jaws and worked the kernels to the pulpish state we needed before we could swallow. It wasn’t bad, just a lot of work. I imagined adding crispy bits of fried tortilla to create a texture beyond tough.

Second Chance
A week later, I decided to give hominy another try. This time, I remembered chose to soak the kernels for 6 hours before they went into the pot. I used a similar recipe, substituting green garlic for shallots, adding Spanish-style chorizo, and soaking sun-dried tomatoes in boiling water to create both ingredients and cooking liquid.

Melissa and I tentatively took bites, prepared for another chew-a-thon. But the soaking time had softened the kernels and reduced the chewiness to simply pleasant.

Like dried beans, hominy can handle a wide range of stew-y ingredients. You can probably slow-cooker it — I haven’t tried yet — but even without a slow cooker you can leave it simmering gently on your stove as you attend to other things. Just check it periodically in case the water has evaporated. It reheated well the next day for lunch.

Both times I made this, we drank beer with it. Both times, in fact, we drank Cantillon: once the gueuze and once the Rose de Gambrinus. I like the beer, and I figured its body was comparable to the dish’s weight. The acidity would carry the flavor despite the high-acid tomatoes in the dish, and the beer’s strong flavor would still be present despite the chorizo.


Saturday, April 05, 2008

Not About Food: New Job

Since so many of you were so kind with your thoughts and comments about my layoff, I wanted to let you know that after a flurry of interviews and leads, I have accepted an offer for a new job. Technically, I’m jumping the gun a tiny bit, but I’ve got the offer letter in my hands and I plan to sign it.

So barring any disasters, I will be doing server-side work for Spore, the upcoming game from Maxis. If you’re a video gamer, you’ve probably heard of the game. If you’re not, just think of it as the iPhone of video games. The Wikipedia page gives a good overview of the real information and rumors.

I’m super excited to be on the team: I meshed well with everyone I met, and they thought the same of me. The game is slick, the challenges will be really interesting, and my new commute is about 10 minutes by car. And several of my new teammates are serious foodies. (I should note, however, that I will probably have to cut back on my freelance writing for a bit, as I’ll be arriving right at the beginning of the crunch cycle.)

Thank you again for all your kind words (and, in a couple of cases, the leads you sent me).