Lisa doesn’t come back from Boulder until about 9 tonight, so I was taking dinner solo. So I improvised. Sauteed onions in butter and olive oil; added broccoli florets, lima beans, and a pinch of salt. Added a splash more olive oil and two cups of arborio. Started stirring in the obligatory chicken broth a half cup at a time. About ten minutes in, added cubed chicken thigh meat, and at the same time started browning larger thigh chunks in a separate pan. Five minutes later: about 3/4 cup white Bordeaux. More broth. Lemon zest. Then, off the heat, stir in a touch more butter and grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and top with the browned chicken breasts.

What is it about cooking that makes me feel so competent? I guess it’s the eating.

Sammiches I have loved

In no particular order, great sammiches of all time:

  • Turkey-breast pastrami with gouda and special sauce on fresh-baked whole wheat from Take It Away (Charlottesville, VA)
  • Grilled cheese (cheddar and havarti) on thick “Texas toast” style white bread from the late Corner Grill (Charlottesville, VA)
  • Toss up: either fresh roast beef with horseradish and cheddar or freshly roasted turkey breast with lettuce and tomato, both on sourdough bread (a deli in Rosslyn, VA)
  • The chicken parm sandwich at Oreste’s: breaded chicken breast, cheese, sauce, a little hot pepper relish (Rosslyn and Fairfax, VA)
  • Dino Special: capicola, fresh mozzarella, lettuce, tomato, oil, and balsamic vinegar on a soft sub roll (Dino’s, Boston)
  • Italian sub: salami, capicola, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, hot peppers on a hard sub roll (Monica’s Pizza, Boston)
  • Lamb gyro with hot sauce from the Moishe’s Chicken truck at MIT (Cambridge, MA)

QTN™: Not all barleywines are gold

Tonight’s tasting experiment is LaConner Brewing Company’s Olde Curmudgeon Barleywine Style Ale. I’ve been waiting about a week to try this one, but I think my wait was in vain. This is a truly disappointing barleywine.

Pour: flat, no head. Taste: heavy, syrupy, sickly sweet, with a slightly chalky aftertaste. Smells of yeast, and not in a good way. It’s possible the bottle is old or was stored improperly, I suppose, but I don’t think so. It’s just unbalanced—needs way stronger hop to compensate for the sweetness and alcohol—and not very pleasant to taste. Down the drain.

Rubbing elbows over rustic Italian food

Lisa and I went to an event last night at the Dahlia Lounge in celebration of Micol Negrin’s new cookbook, Rustico Cooking. The seating was billed as “festival,” which usually means you get seated with either an alarming assortment of loners or a party intent on making a good time by ignoring you. Not last night: our table-mates included the proprietor of a lavender farm in eastern Washington, the wife of a wine maker from Chateau Ste Michelle and her charming mother, and a salesman and collector of cookbooks (“I’m up to over a thousand now. I need to buy some more bookshelves. But on the plus side, I don’t have to buy other new furniture, I just sit on the books”). A fabulous night, and a fabulous meal composed of recipes from the book.

Appetizers: Sicilian olives marinated in olive oil, lemon, parsley, and garlic; fresh fried sardines with slow cooked onions and sultana raisins; a seafood salad with scallops, scampi, potato, cauliflower, and egg covered in a salsa verde. First course: three-meat agnolotti (rabbit, lamb, and veal). Second course: rabbit with pancetta stuffed fennel over kale. Sweets: chestnut fritters with honey and mascarpone. Cheeses: taleggio, a truffle cheese, and gorgonzola. Each course had Italian wines selected by the proprietor of the Pike and Western Wine Shop (whose mailing list alerted us to the event).

Perks: getting to meet Tom Douglas. Getting reintroduced to Micol, whom we had met previously at a similar event in Washington DC sponsored by La Cucina Italiana, her previous employer. Meeting our tablemates. Tasting the Col Solare that one of our table mates brought from her husband. Convincing Micol that, despite her not having had any food, she had to try a glass with some of the taleggio. A good night all in all.

Gumbo in our time

Last Sunday I promised myself gumbo. As you might guess, between work, mounting drawers, and this cold I woke up with today, I am just now getting around to it. After all, chicken and shrimp gumbo almost qualifies as chicken soup.

I have a long, somewhat troubled history with gumbo. The first time I ever made the dish, it was for about forty people at the beach. So I was accustomed to preparing huge proportions. Subsequent times out, I never quite figured out how much (or how little) roux I needed, with the result that you could stand a spoon in the gumbo it was so thick. (This may have had to do with the fact that I used okra and filé as thickeners). My wife eventually got to the point where she refused to eat it. This just strengthened my resolve to lighten it up enough that she would like it.

(A word on okra: when I grew up I didn’t know you were supposed to hate the stuff. Mom breaded it and fried it with potatoes and it was fantastic, chewy-crisp and flavorful. I wasn’t that impressed with how it did in gumbo, but this cookbook I found said you’re actually supposed to fry it first to get rid of any residual “sliminess,” then add it to the gumbo. This may be specifically a Creole vs. Cajun thing, I’m not sure.

But here’s the thing: this cookbook called for using either okra or filé (a powder made from sassafras and sage), but not both. And since I was trying to find a recipe she would like, I reluctantly held off on the okra this time.)

So anyway, this was the recommended sequence of events:

  1. Brown the chicken in oil (I used Crisco because the only other stuff at hand was olive oil and rice oil, both of which had flavors I didn’t want in the final product). Remove the chicken to a plate
  2. Make a roux with the same oil. (Roux can be tricky. In a nutshell:
    • Equal volumes of oil and flour (I used a half cup this time; my previous recipes had me using a full cup)
    • get the oil hot but not smoking (make sure you’re using a high sided pot so you don’t spatter yourself)
    • add the flour a bit at a time and stir
    • keep stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot until the roux goes from white to pale beige to brownish to the color of a 1979 penny you found in your driveway.
  3. Add chopped bell peppers (I use red, yellow, and green for color) and onion and stir them in the roux until soft.
  4. Add garlic, hot pepper (I used a serrano, sans seeds), seasoning (bay leaf, thyme, a dash of allspice, a little Pickapeppa sauce, salt, pepper), and chicken stock. Cook for about an hour.
  5. Add the chicken and correct the seasoning (with the hot pepper sauce of your choice).
  6. About ten minutes before serving add the shrimp.
  7. If you plan to eat all the gumbo at this sitting, stir in some filé powder off the heat; otherwise, stir a little into each bowl. (Apparently when you reheat the gumbo with the filé already in it, it makes the gumbo thick and ropy. Not desirable.)
  8. Serve over rice.

And that’s that. And, man, it’s good stuff. If I erred, it was on the side of too little hot sauce; but that’s easily remedied at the table. Hopefully Lisa will like it this time.

QTN™: Kerst Pater Winter Ale

Kerst Pater Special Winter Ale: Another Belgian beer today, another winter ale. Will I ever get tired of either? Not as long as I have taste buds and it’s cold out. —On the pour you know this beer is serious. It looks totally black, but when held to the light it reveals a winey red deep within. Head poured dense and tall, rising about half an inch above the top of my glass before subsiding without incident or spillover. Nose complex, yeasty, a little spicy, a little pine note giving a hint of hops to come. Tasting: big malt up front, lingering kiss of hops at the end. Spicy all right, but not overwhelmingly so. Just a deep bready flavor with hints of nutmeg on the way down.

QTN™: New Belgium Frambozen

So a while back I was talking about fruit lambics, and I said something to the effect that the beer was better when it didn’t taste overwhelmingly like the fruit it came from. Well, the Frambozen from New Belgium Brewing Company is not overpowered by the taste of raspberries. The bit that’s awkward is that it could actually use a bit more raspberry flavor, or something. Great brown ale, but I think the lambic flavor—the natural yeast—would have brought out the raspberry a bit more. Still quite pleasant and drinkable, but as New Belgium have had a history of putting out beers that approach the highest Belgian standard this one doesn’t quite hit the mark.

QTN: Hale’s Ales Rudyard’s Rare Barleywine

More Northwestern beers for George today. The style known as barleywine is generally characterized by high alcohol level and high residual sweetness (it’s difficult to make a beer both very dry and high in alcohol, as substantial amounts of sugars are needed to encourage the yeasts to produce the alcohols).

This particular barleywine is a very limited edition from Hale’s Ales—so limited that it’s branded Rudyard’s Rare rather than Hale’s. Looking more like a British specialty beer than one of Hale’s usual brews, it nevertheless is clearly a Northwest beer, with high hopping balanced against the very malty sweetness. It’s perceivably strong, but remarkably balanced considering the high alcohol level (9.2%). Not a lunchtime beer. —Excuse me, I need a nap.

QTN: Snoqualmie Falls Avalanche Winter Ale

This edition of the Quick Tasting Notes™ strays far from the Belgian beers that have dominated lately, back into the Pacific Northwest (at George’s request). Those who visit Snoqualmie Falls for the dramatic waterfalls, or head east to the pass for skiing, probably never knew that there was a brewery nearby. Okay, neither did I, until I found the Avalanche (see the bottom of the linked page). Malty, a deep copper color, no apparent spices, but quite hoppy—in fact, slightly bitter from the strong Northwest hops. Definitely a winter, rather than holiday, beer.

Quick tasting notes: Delirium Tremens Noël

It’s a little late to be tasting holiday beers, but I found the Delirium Tremens holiday beer, their Noël, in the wine department of DeLaurenti’s at Pike Place Market on Saturday and had to check it out. This holiday beer, like the Orchard Street Jingle Ale, is spiced; unlike the Jingle Ale, the Delirium Tremens has a depth of flavor and a sweet bready aftertaste from the complex yeast strains used that keeps you guessing about the flavor. Is it cinnamon? ginger? just fantastic after-flavors from the fermentation? God knows but it’s good.

Quick tasting notes: Brouwerij Verhaeghe Echte Kriek

There comes a moment in every young beer drinker’s life when he either discovers the great world of tastes beyond Miller Genuine Draft or forever languishes in longneck hell. For me, there were several such moments in Charlottesville—my first Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout at the late lamented Kafkafé, drinking Hefeweizen in the Court Square Tavern—but my first fruit lambic didn’t make too much of an impression. I don’t remember whether I was in school or already in Northern Virginia, but I remember my friend John Liepold raving about Lindeman’s Framboise and Kriek. I have to say that my first lambic didn’t make that much of an impression. Sweet like soda pop was my first and probably only thought.

I’ve learned a few things since then about beer. For one thing, lambic is a fascinating drink with or without fruit. A true lambic is fermented in open air tuns, and naturally occurring yeast strains in the environment contribute tremendous complexity and depth of taste. Some lambics, such as the wonderful “old red” Rodenbach of Flanders, develop a piquantly sour taste that is simultaneously challenging and refreshing. And adding real fruit to a lambic (instead of the extracts rumored to be used in many of the more outlandish beers from Lindeman, including the Cassis and Banana flavors) contributes natural sweetness and color and deepens the flavor.

Knowing all this, I was thrilled to see that one of my most recent shipments from the RealBeer Club included Brouwerij Verhaeghe’s Echte Kriek. The echte means “real,” and this is indeed the real thing, intense sour lambic flavored with big handfuls of cherries. The color is a reddish brown with no suspicious hints of gold; the mouthfeel is dry, the nose is aromatic without being cloying. The taste… sour cherries but more complex, the classic lambic “sour ale” taste hitting the palate just after the first flavor of cherries. There isn’t a lot of depth of flavor beyond the combination of sweetish cherries and sour-ish beer, but my God, what else could you want? Highly recommended.

Small culinary confession

I was busting George’s chops earlier about scrapple, but I had to ignore a small voice inside my head that said, hypocrite bloggeur! —mon semblable, —mon frère!”

Yes, I too am guilty of desiring unidentifiable meat products. In particular, ring bologna, which is similar to summer sausage in taste but not form. I used to eat a half-pound of this stuff at one sitting. On Triscuits. Hey, I was young.

Anyway, I was amused to find quite a few online sites for ordering both ring bologna and scrapple, including Stoltzfus, which sells both products in holiday gift boxes (still available, though Christmas has passed by) or individually. If you’re ordering scrapple or ring bologna on line, I think you’d have to do it from Stoltzfus, since not only do they have a fine Dutch (as in Pennsylvania Dutch, or Deutsch) name, but also an address in the fine town of Intercourse, PA.

Hey, I’m not making this stuff up. Other towns in Lancaster include Paradise, Bird-in-Hand, and Blue Ball. My parents were gifted on their wedding day (at Leacock Presbyterian in Paradise) with a set of road signs measuring the distances to each of these towns, in case they got lost on the way to their honeymoon destination. After all, as it is written, “In order to get to Paradise you have to see Bird-In-Hand, enter Gap, then go through Intercourse without reaching Blue Ball.”

Haddock a la whatever

After my first workout in over three years tonight, Lisa and I went shopping and had a cook-off. She did haddock steamed in white wine over green beans and broccoli in foil. I did haddock grilled (well, fried in a grill-pan) with an improvised sauce, as follows: rice bran oil; soy sauce; chopped ginger, serrano pepper, and shallot; sea salt; and a little sugar to taste. Sauce brushed over the fish as it cooked. Served over rice with chopped cilantro and scallions. I’m not saying who won the cook-off but oh man mine was good.

My in-laws found “Roman Holiday” on AMC which was the perfect follow-up to the dinner. I’d love to watch “Sabrina” with them, but alas tomorrow is a work day…