Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Stuff I Like: Penzey's and Honey Pacifica

Finding quality ingredients can sometimes be difficult, especially when those ingredients can be termed specialty ingredients. Some things are easy: I do my best to buy my meat from a butcher if at all possible. You might remember these guys (and gals): They stood behind a counter of meat which they have trimmed, ready to help you find the perfect cut or even cut something special for you. Butchering is an art form that cannot be replicated by plastic-wrapped Styrofoam folks! (Look, I occasionally fall prey to vacuum-sealed meat but I really try!) The meat tastes better, and you know you're not getting the weird bits that you really don't want when you can look someone in the eyes. On the other hand, finding things like spices, great honey, and such can be a real chore. Luckily, I've found places that specialize in both locally, and for those of you not in Southern California, one has many branches and one ships!

In the world of spices, may I suggest Penzey's? They have branches throughout much of the United States, and they also ship. If you're still buying your spices and dried herbs at the grocery store, stop. Seriously. Penzey's is fresher, their spices and herbs are of a higher quality, and to be perfectly honest, they're cheaper. I am more than willing to drive the 10 or so miles up a LA freeway just to get to their closest store. The smells when you walk in are the best perfume in the world. As much as I love fresh herbs, sometimes that's just not possible, and I will take the dried herbs from Penzey's over wilted, overpriced supposedly fresh herbs any day.

It's been a long time since stores carried nothing but clover and orange blossom honey. Still, it's hard to find good quality honey that hasn't had the nuances of flavor completely processed out of it. Luckily, there is Honey Pacifica to rescue us from bland honey. They use minimal processing on their honey, and it shows on the palate. They carry a wide variety of sizes, and even some great infused honey. PB and mango infused honey sandwich anyone? Yum. They ship, but if you happen to live near Lakewood CA you can stop on in and pick up what you need. Just be sure to call first as they're not a shiny storefront operation. I'm not complaining as a shiny fancy store means higher prices.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lamb Chops!

I completely forgot to take a picture so you'll just have to use your imagination.

I've recently decided I will never again purchase lamb rib chops. Why pay to have someone cut a rack of lamb into nice little lamb popsicles? I can't for the life of me remember which magazine recently had an article on cutting your own, but it stuck in the back of my mind for a while. I happened to find a good deal on lamb, so I brought a rack home, trimmed the fat and bits of silverskin, and carved it into nice chops. Amazingly enough, I even managed to get them fairly even. Here's what I did:

Marinade for lamb chops:

1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp Herbes de Provence
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup red wine

Mix this in your favorite marinading vessel. I prefer plastic bags, but to each their own. Stick back in the fridge for a few hours. This marinade also works for lamb shoulder (make more of the marinade so it will cover the shoulder) or a full rack if you plan on roasting. For roasting, decrease the red wine a bit so it's more like a rub. Take the lamb out of the refrigerator a good 10 minutes or so before cooking so it won't be ice cold when you throw it on the grill or in the oven. Seeing as it was super late and I didn't feel like setting up the BBQ I grilled these on my grill pan for 2 minutes a side then let them rest. I also poured the marinade into a sauce pan when I pulled the chops out of the fridge, added another half cup of wine, and boiled it for a good 25 minutes. Served with some steamed baby broccoli and Parmesan risotto, it was a lovely meal.

Wine pairing: Petite Sirah is always awesome with lamb. There's something about this pairing that brings out the best in both the lamb and the wine. We had the San Marcos Creek 2004 Estate Petite Sirah. It was a rather lovely example of this varietal. Dark berries on the nose, with currant, berry, and a hint of chocolate in the finish. Yum.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wine review: Mastery Napa Valley Red Wine 2005

This is a very small production blend from Napa Valley made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Kevin Vogt, the main face of this wine, is a Master Sommelier, and it shows in his wine blending. (He's also a really great all-around guy, but I digress.) We had the opportunity to have this wine the other night along with a pork Wellington I made. I had heard whispers that this vintage scored incredibly well, amazingly high for a first release. I didn't know what to expect, and I was happily rewarded with the first sip.
A perfect deep purplish red in the glass, with a mildly spicy, dark fruit jam in the nose. This was one rich wine with a very plush feel and a beautifully layered blending of flavors: dried cherries leading to a bit of spice then a bit of earthiness. It reminded me of putting on a favorite cashmere sweater for the first time in winter. Overall, rather yummy. Unfortunately, the price point puts this wine out of the reach of many at $95 a bottle. Then again, the production is tiny, just over 350 cases overall. Would I buy it? Potentially, depending on the wine budget for the year. Would I be happy to enjoy it again? Absolutely!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kitchinspirations August Challenge: A la Julia

A couple of weeks ago, OakMonster from Hmm...Food...Good talked me into joining Kitchinspirations, a monthly cooking challenge blog. I figured it would be a good way to expand my cooking horizons even further from time to time. This month, the challenge is as follows:

And so this month ~ I challenge you to get to know Julia Child. Let her influence your cooking. Let her teach you something. Cook with Julia. If possible, or - if you haven't already, get your hands on a copy of Volume 1. Pick a recipe that inspires you - something you've always wanted to learn, to improve, or try for the first time. If you don't have a copy and don't want to buy just yet, ask around! As popular as this book has been, chances are it is in the collection of one of your friends or family members. Check the library, or (in Oregon) borrow from me.

Sounds like fun, right? I grew up watching her shows on PBS as a kid and have many fond memories of her descriptions of everything as "simple". Of course, to a little kid, nothing she made seemed simple at the time. I made my way to the kitchen, opened the bookcase to grab my copy of whatever Julia Child cookbook I had (I must have picked one up at an estate or rummage sale, right?) only to discover No Julia in the Collection. I checked a few times not believing the omission myself. Then, off to the bookstore I went. I picked up a copy of the classic Volume 1, and sat down with what I found to be a darned good read. Of course, I love butter, cream, and mushrooms, so how could I not love the book? Choosing what to make was the hard part. Eventually, I settled on the souffle au chocolat, or chocolate souffle.

It has been ages since I've played with folding whipped egg whites into anything, so I cheated and experimented first. On Friday we had some friends over for dinner and I made a recipe I found on Food and Wine for a Chocolate Souffle Sundae. It turned out pretty well, so I figured what the heck and decided to make the souffle for dessert after the parents brought over a ton of seafood for a boil dinner last night.

One warning to those who cook off the cuff and don't read a recipe in full before beginning: don't even attempt to do so with Miss Julia. She will find a way to make you miserable if you do. Fortunately, I did read the recipe through a few times before starting. I also decided to heck with a couple of her instructions and cheated with an easier route. I'm posting my version here. If you want the full real version, go get the book silly! You can find used copies for cheap.

Chocolate Souffle (based very heavily on Julia Child's Souffle au Chocolat on page 619 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

The Ingredients:
7oz bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup leftover coffee
1/2 Tbsp softened butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
3 Tbsp butter
4 eggs separated and 2 additional egg whites
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar

Special equipment: an 8in souffle dish

Oven preheat: 400F

1. Heat up your coffee to simmering. Stir in the chocolate and set aside to fully melt and cool.
2. Butter the souffle dish, place a buttered foil collar around it that comes up at least 3" above the top, and set it aside.
3. Put the flour in a saucepan, and slowly whisk in the milk. Add the butter and bring to a boil slowly. Boil for two minutes, stirring constantly, then take off the heat and continue to stir for another couple of minutes.
4. Beat the egg yolks just enough to break them up a bit, then temper them with a bit of the white sauce. Once fully tempered, add the egg yolks to the sauce a bit at a time. When fully incorporated, stir in the chocolate mixture, then the vanilla.
5. Whip the egg whites and salt in another bowl until they form soft peaks. Slowly begin to add the sugar and continue to whip until stiff shiny peaks are formed. Pretty much make it look like meringue.
6. Pour the chocolate mixture down the side of the mixing bowl, and fold it into the egg whites. When you no longer see streaks of white, pour the mixture into your souffle dish.
7. Place the souffle in the prepared oven, then turn it down to 375F. Bake 40 minutes for a softly set souffle, 45 for a firm set souffle.
8. Carefully remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before removing the collar. Remove the collar, and serve immediately with either whipped cream, custard cream, or vanilla ice cream.

My deviations include the chocolate melting method, tempering the eggs rather than hoping I could mix them into the sauce one by one without scrambling, and I skipped the powdered sugar topping for the last few minutes of baking. OK, I forgot the powdered sugar. It still turned out, OK? The family loved it, and wouldn't have missed the part that fell off when I removed the collar if I hadn't mentioned it.

Will I make this again? Absolutely. It was pretty, and it tasted great. Will I bother with the creme anglaise? Nope. Whipped cream will be just fine. And if some spills on the counter again, I'm calling it the cook's share and eating it when no one is looking.

Oh, and the best part? It really was as simple to make as Julia made everything on her show seem.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Kriek De Ranke

For those of you unfamiliar with the world of beer beyond the Miller/Coors/Bud swill, get out there and look around. Try some real beer, then come back. For the rest of you, TheTooth found a great lambic that both of us would put at the top of our lists. From a very small brewery in Belgium, Brewery de Ranke, Kriek de Ranke is a wonderful cherry lambic. Their story is pretty long, but if you have a moment, check it out here. Friday was a pretty hot evening, so I decided to throw together a cheese & crackers & meat platter. I know, I know, all of the "experts" say not to have more than a few cheeses on one platter, but how would we know which ones we liked with the beer? As for the meats, I can't call it a fancy charcuterie platter since I left off the condiments and all. (Admission time. This is one of our favorite summer meals as we can graze for the duration of the evening and enjoy a great beverage at the same time.)

About that beer: if you haven't tried a real lambic, you're missing out! True lambics have a bit of a sour note, so if you like anything fruity to be sweet, move on. In reality, that sourness is perfect here as it helps round out the fruit flavors. We went with tulip-shaped glasses, and discovered a red, tingly brew in the glass. The head was a dark pink that quickly dissipated into a thin film. The nose was very tart, more acidic than cherry, but the cherry crept up on you. And the flavor? Amazing. Full, round, sour cherry, followed with a bit of earthiness. The sourness was pleasant, not too sharp. On the mouth, the feel was crisp and clean, but not thin. The level of carbonation made this seem even drier than it was.

Heavenly pairing: Peppered goat cheese smeared on whole wheat crackers. There's really nothing to say about it except wow.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Estate Sale Finds

My Dad is the king of great estate sale finds in this area. While most people are looking for the "big hits" of antiques or are trying to get collectible dustables super-cheap, he finds the real treasures. Sometimes, it's a Christmas item. If you know my parents, you know they Do Christmas. More often than not, it's something cool for the kitchen. Dad and Mom found the vast majority of my corning ware at such sales, for far less than you find the stuff on eBay. You know the stuff: the old kind, squared-shapes with handles and designs on two sides. I still swear it is better than anything the Corning company has come up with in ages. Dad also finds the best cookbooks at estate sales. Years ago, he found me a full set of the Women's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery. Originally sold at grocery stores the set covers just about everything and has the best pumpkin pie recipe out there. Dad even found the entire "The Good Cook" series from Time Life for $10. I marvel at his knack for the good stuff.

Last week he had another great outing. Time Life did another series, this one called "Foods of the World". This series came as two books: one large format book with pretty pictures and recipes, and a companion spiral bound of just recipes. While the large books are cool, and appeal to my love of all things kitsch, it is the spiral bounds I've been after. Thanks to Dad, I now have 20 more! With my earlier discoveries, I now have all but three of the books. I've only just started exploring the books, so expect to see some recipes soon! Thanks Dad!

Vino & Cucina in Long Beach

Just a brief one tonight. Vino & Cucina has become (over the last couple of years) one of our favorites! This is a lovely little trattorria here in Long Beach. The food and service remind both of us of our time in Italy last summer: relaxed service, portions for a human, an obvious sense of caring overall about the ingredients and the people. This is not a place to go when you are in a hurry, and I really think more Americans should take note. Dinner is to be enjoyed slowly, with the food and the company being part of the experience. Chew, think, discuss, repeat. There would be much less obesity around here...

I have to admit that I just didn't feel like cooking tonight. We finished the wine cellar (for now) and I just needed to get away from the house. I don't like to go out often, but this is one of my favorites. They also take reservations, which is always a bonus in our book. So we stopped in for a couple of plates of fettuccine rustiche. Think fettuccine in a creamy vodka tomato sauce with a hint of red bell pepper, but somehow the chef makes it call come together somehow more ethereal than it sounds. Edit: TheTooth would like the description of the dish to include the all-important sausage. You're right dear, the sausage makes it sing. If you happen to be in southern California, stop in and taste what Italian food should be, not the massive slop the chains would have you believe. More is not better. Do so soon though...the restaurant is closing for expansion and remodeling in the next month or so.

Best dishes: Depending on the special, this could easily be the choice. They make a killer stuffed artichoke heart, great calamari, the fettuccine above is wonderful, as is the spaghetti della nona, their risotto is actually risotto instead of paste, and is to die for. Dessert? If they have panna cotta, you must save room. The rest are good, but their panna cotta is divine.