Saturday, October 31, 2009

Another Step-by-Step: Chicken Cacciatore "Modernized"

I love chicken. I love vegetables. I love them together, but I never loved chicken cacciatore. For that matter, I never loved coq au vin, either. Why? The disgusting, rubbery mess that chicken skin turns into when you braise the pieces in liquid. Further, though I like white meat chicken, boneless-skinless breasts (which are one solution) are often like eating cotton. What to do?

I was vexed and set out some time ago to solve this problem.  Surprisingly, it wasn't all that difficult and it makes for a nice presentation to boot. I just had to think outside the envelope a little and get away from the "traditional" recipes you can find all over the Interwebs.

First, I borrowed some techniques from other dishes, the first being the ratatouille I posted about a while ago. Here's a shot of the vegetables all prepped and yes, that's a carrot you see. It adds a nice, earthy component to the dish. Bear in mind that  what you see is for one serving, so don't fret that there don't appear to be many vegetables.

Once you have your vegetables prepped, the first step to get the chicken started. Choose nicely-sized bone-in, skin-on breast haves and season them with salt and pepper. Heat some olive oil over medium heat in an oven-proof skillet until shimmering, and brown the breasts skin side down until nicely colored. Turn them skin side up and put the skillet in the oven at 375 degrees until they're cooked through -  about 25-30 minutes.

The second step is exactly like the ratatouille, and that's to separately lightly brown the zucchini, mushrooms and carrot and set them aside, then sweat the onions and peppers until soft and then stir in the garlic and allow it to become aromatic. If you don't like zucchini you can substitute (or add) yellow summer squash, and you can leave out the carrots, but the mushrooms have to stay or it's not "hunter's style". Add some diced canned tomatoes (about half a 14.5-ounce can for this one serving), return the other vegetables to the pan and cover. Simmer over low heat about 15 minutes. If you like, you can add a little white wine before adding the tomatoes and boil off the alcohol, but this isn't necessary.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it liberally. It should almost taste like sea water. Cook a pasta shape of your choice (I like thin spaghetti or angel hair, but penne rigate or ziti would work) until done al dente, or "to the tooth". With all the other things in this dish, about 2 ounces per serving should be about right - half what you'd normally consider a serving of pasta. A note on pasta: I'm a huge fan of Barilla pasta. It's inexpensive and almost impossible to overcook. I used to like DiCecco, but I've graduated to Barilla. Also, this dish is not the place for fresh pasta, which would be overpowered by the strong flavors.

When the chicken is done, remove it from the oven and allow to cool just a bit so you can handle it, and carefully remove the meat from the bones.  Cut the breast into fat diagonal slices and serve it over the vegetables, which you've tossed with the cooked pasta. Shave some parmigiano reggiano over the top and you'll have something that looks like this.

Wine match: As with any dish with tomatoes, you want something relatively high in acid. It's easy to pick something from Italy, but this is a blog dedicated to food and wine of the Northwest, so try a barbera from Oregon or Washington. Mystic Wines in Salem makes an excellent one, and there are several I've seen but haven't tried from the Columbia Gorge. Lower-alcohol zinfandel would be good, too, but they're harder to find these days. And, in the summer, the Shy Chenin syrah rose would be just the ticket.

Buon appetito!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Warren Zevon At His Best

Sorry for the extra music post, but I just got this today from Wolfgang's Vault. It's an outstanding concert by Warren Zevon at the Tower in Philadelphia in April of 1980, and it's worth a listen. The band is top-notch and Warren is in rare form.  RIP.

The Worst Example of Elevator Music . . . EVER!

Several years ago I heard this song over the speakers in some place I don't remember now. It may have been the old Meier and Frank in downtown Portland (now a Macy's) and it may have been in an actual elevator. Hell, it could have been anywhere, but once I finished scratching my head and managed to identify the song I was appalled. The funkiest band ever . . .  the fathers of East Bay Grease . . . reduced to pablum, complete with violins, cellos, oboes, bassoons, clarinets and flutes - and probably a glockenspiel. Just try to picture that orchestration as you listen to this, from San Francisco's Winterland in 1973.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

It's Almost Dungeness Crab Season - Want The Perfect Wine?

Dungeness season starts on December 1 here in Oregon, so we're not that far off and you'll want the perfect wine for the first crabs of the year. Well . . . here it is, peeps.  Shy Chenin chenin blanc.  It's from my friends Chenin and Sean Carlton who also have Basket Case Wine, the off-dry Stumbling Block Wine and the huge, complex Reversal syrah from southern Oregon.  There's another Shy Chenin wine and it's a really good syrah rose that's best in warm weather but there's no reason you can't light a fire, crank up the heat or just get hot and bothered with your honey and have some over the winter.

I told the story about re-connecting with Chenin way back in my post about Pacific City, and it's a good one, so I encourage you to check the archives and read it. Just rest assured that Chenin, who was named after the chenin blanc vines her parents planted in Temecula in 1968 while her mom was pregnant with her, is anything but shy in real life, and neither is Sean. After all, how shy can they be when the motto for their Basket Case line is "Wine For The Crazy In All Of Us"?  How shy can either of them be when the educational page of their website - where you can find a long and detailed treatise on trichlorianisole (TCA), the compound that causes "cork taint" or a smell of musty cardboard in your wine - is entitled "Screw U"? But, as usual, I digress.

Find yourself some of this wine. It's aromatic, floral and crisp - just the perfect thing for Dungeness crab, hot or cold. They sell it mostly at their tasting room and at farmers' markets around Portland, but it's available in some retail outlets and they have out-of-state distribution, too. Ask around or, if all else fails, drop me a note and I'll get ahold of Chenin and find out where you can get some.  

And while we're on the subject of Dungeness crab, here are some tips I've picked up during my time here in the northwest.  One is, if at all possible, buy it live - or better yet catch it yourself.  While there's generally good turnover in crab you buy cooked, you don't really know how long ago it was cooked before being delivered to your retailer, who can only tell you when it came into the store.  The other advantage of buying them live is that your fishmonger should be willing to take the backs off them (killing them instantly) and clean them for you.  That way you can steam them without the body meat (the sweetest part) getting tainted by the innards.  

Another is not to use those hinged cracker thingies to crack the shells. All you end up with most of the time is pulverized shell in your crab. Get yourself a cheap dinner fork from Goodwill or a restaurant supply store and stick a tine into the little seam where the shell is soft on the legs and claws. Then sort of zip the fork along the leg longitudinally to create an opening. Now you can just open the shell the way you'd open a book and the meat will come right out. The body requires you to pick the cartilage out with your fingers anyway, so roll up your sleeves and go to it.

Lastly, try something kinda different to dip the crab in. Steep a crushed clove of garlic in some melted butter for about half an hour, then stir in a little bit of Sambal Oelek, available at Asian groceries and most regular supermarkets that have branched out beyond Wonder Bread and Velveeta "cheese".  Huy Fong is the brand I'm accustomed to seeing, but I'm sure there's more than one. It's a red chile paste, so be careful when you add it unless you like your food spicy, bearing in mind that too much spice will overpower the delicate crab.  

One more tip: If the crabs don't weigh at least a pound and a half (2 pounds is better) don't buy them.  The meat-to-shell ratio isn't very good.  

So there you have it.  I can't wait for crab season now that I've written this.  

A Screaming Deal On Oregon Pinot Noir & Pinot Gris

Made by our friends Linda and Art Lindsay at Stone Wolf in McMinnville, the two Rascal wines are true rarities. They're under $10 ($6.99 in some places) and they're varietally correct; a combination that almost never exists, especially with pinot noir. Typically, pinot noir this inexpensive reflects the grape only in that it's red and liquid, commonly because it has another wine - usually something cheap - blended into it. In California that can be as much as 25% of the finished wine but only 10% in Oregon, and that contributes to the difficulty in finding drinkable Oregon pinot noir in this price range.

It's possible there's something besides pinot noir in the Rascal, but given its flavor profile and knowing Linda and her passion, I seriously doubt it. This guy looks like pinot noir, smells like pinot noir and tastes like pinot noir. Ditto on the pinot gris which, though it has a little residual sugar in it, drinks fat and dry. You can't do better for the price and, in some instances, you won't do better for twice or three times the price.

If you see some, buy a couple of bottles. You won't be sorry.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Just For Fun!

Where Do I Find Good Oregon Pinot Noir If I Don't Live In Oregon?

One of my new readers (or peeps as Tracey calls her readers) asked, in her comment this morning, if I could recommend some Oregon pinot noirs beside her current favorite, Big Fire, produced by R. Stuart & Co. in McMinnville.  Well, if she lived in Oregon I could go on for pages, but she doesn't.  She lives in Georgia about two hours from Atlanta, and that poses a problem.  I sent her an email with some information and, after I'd thought about her dilemma for a bit, decided to post a more detailed explanation.

The thing is that most wineries in Oregon are sort of artisan in nature; low-key operations with small productions.  Sure, we're getting some palatial, showy places that remind one of The Magic Kingdom . . . err, the Napa Valley . . . but they're still fairly few and far between.  This is partly due to the nature of the valley, a place where people are conscious of all things organic and sustainable and where they share the low-key Oregon lifestyle, but it's also because of the nature of pinot noir, which doesn't readily lend itself to being made into wine in large quantities.

The upshot of this low production is that a lot of wine doesn't make it out of Oregon and Washington, and what little manages to sneak out ends up in California and perhaps New York, Chicago, Boston and Atlanta - but that's about it save for the Pennsylvania state stores, which seem to get more than you'd expect.  Even then, a wholesaler might get 3 or 4 cases that are supposed to supply an entire state.  When you consider that the real money in the wine distribution business is, for the most part, in moving entire pallets of wine, not a few bottles at a time, there's not much incentive for most wholesalers to bother with Oregon wine, especially considering the relatively low demand for it.

There's a silver lining to this little cloud, as there usually is, because the lack of interest on both the supply and demand ends of the equation means there's more wine available for you.  You just have to work at finding it, and your local store might have to order it for you.  Or, better yet, if you're willing to pay for shipping and live in a state where it's allowed (trust me, you don't want me to get started on a rant about interstate wine shipping laws), you can order direct from the winery.

So, my dear peeps, unless you're one of my wine geek pals who knows all this already, bear it in mind when I publish my notes and recommendations on Oregon pinot noir. Sometimes I'll comment on something like the Cloudline which, even though I don't know how much was made and can't find out, probably has fairly wide distribution because of its Dreyfus Ashby parentage. But more often than not I'm going to be commenting on something like the 2008 Ayres Lewis Rogers Lane, a $32 bottle of wine that was made in the huge quantity of 251 cases, or 3012 bottles to supply the entire country. You won't be finding any of it at your local Safeway or Winn-Dixie, that's for sure - much less at Zeke's Groceries, Guns and Bait Shop.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

2007 Cloudline Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

This is a wine produced under the auspices of the big importer, Dreyfus Ashby. They have a long-standing relationship with Maison Joseph Drouin of Beaune, having imported their wines for decades. So, when they decided to produce Willamette Valley wines under their own label (there's also a pinot gris), it was only natural that they utilize their existing relationship and contract with Veronique Drouhin-Boss, the winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon to be their consulting winemaker.  In other words, she gets to make the decisions while someone else does the heavy lifting.

Veronique has a well-earned reputation for producing wines in an elegant style that reflects her family's long history in Burgundy, and this wine doesn't disappoint.  I don't know specifically where the fruit comes from because the label doesn't say and neither does the Dreyfus-Ashby website, which just says it's from "some of the finest vineyards in Oregon".  Big help, huh?

If I had to guess, I'd say that a big slug of the fruit comes from the Dundee Hills because the wine practically screams, "Red Hills of Dundee!"  It's loaded with red fruits - cherries, raspberries and strawberries, and it shows a little dusty note that many wines from Dundee show.  It's really a pleasant wine and a bargain at around $20.

Pick one up and see how you like it.  You won't be able to miss it, because it has a label that, while pretty and well-designed in a minimalist kind of way, was printed in an unfortunate blue - a color that doesn't occur naturally in food and one that I find unappetizing in a wine label, something that will probably hurt sales with the shopper who buys wine based on the attractiveness of the label.  That said, it certainly stands out on the shelf.

So You Think You Hate Brussels Sprouts?

So did I.  Miniature cabbages that my mother used to boil until they were gray and lifeless (but she did that to broccoli, too) and stunk up the entire house.  They were absolutely vile and disgusting; the kind of thing that made my mouth water in a really bad way, as though I were about to hurl.  And then I tried roasting them.

OMG, a gustatory breakthrough!

They're not stinky and the vegetable equivalent of sticking your finger down your throat, they're actually sweet because the sugars caramelize in the roasting process.  Last night, and we didn't take pictures for some unknown reason, I roasted some for Tracey - another professed sprout-loather - to go with chipotle sweet potatoes and a pork tenderloin I'd rubbed with herbs de Provence, seared then finished in the oven.  She ate every last little morsel.

But the best part?  They're easy!  Just toss with a little salt, pepper and good olive oil and roast them at 375 degrees until they're caramelized and tender - 20-30 minutes.  Here's a pic I took of some I made last fall to go with my coffee-ancho short ribs. I roasted these whole, but I normally cut them in half and peel off the tough outer leaves.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More California

Unfortunately, I forgot my USB cord for the camera so I won't be able to upload any pictures for another couple of days, but it's been a whirlwind visit.  Carrie (Mrs. Mac 'n' Cheese), my daughter and I shopped practically non-stop Thursday, Friday and Saturday for the supplies necessary for a 16-person wine and food blowout to be held Sunday.

First it was a mega-trip to Costco, where Carrie and I picked up 5 racks of lamb, Kalamata olives and assorted other goodies, then I was off to Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, where I got a bunch of excellent cheeses, crackers and tomatoes.  Off to the bakery to order the bread, then a trip on Saturday to Bryan's Fine Foods in Corte Madera to pick up an 8 1/2 pound piece of strip loin (New York steak).  I could shoot myself for not getting a picture of it because it was a thing of absolute beauty.  Perfectly trimmed and incredibly marbled.  More on the beef later.

Of course, for that journey we had to fortify ourselves, so we went to the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market in San Francisco to shop for a couple of items of produce I'd forgotten to get, then to Ton Kiang out in the Richmond to meet my old pal BoomBert for dim sum.  The dim sum was fabulous and the first I've had since my last visit to San Francisco 4 years ago.  Portland is a vast wasteland for Chinese food, but I digress.

Ton Kiang had excellent ha gow and siu mai and fabulous squid, though the potstickers left a bit to be desired and the selection was a little limited. Chicken and duck feet were absent (not that I'd eat them, understand) as were many tofu and rice noodle dishes I'm used to seeing, and the service was a little spotty. We had to ask about 5 times to get baked pork buns and the final item - sesame balls.  But I gotta tell you, the sesame balls (jin doy) were absolutely the finest I've ever had. It helped that they were hot out of the fryer, I guess.

More to come . . . stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Off To California - First Update

This morning I endured the Transportation Safety Administration security checkpoint so I could hop on an uncomfortable Horizion regional jet for a flight to Oakland, where I'm being picked up by my daughter who lives in Sonoma.  Lots of activities are planned for the next few days and I'll keep the blog updated, hopefully including pics of the dinner for 24 we're having Sunday at Napa Valley Wine and Cigar.

I'm just glad the 450-pound Sumo wrestler who kept crowding me at the security checkpoint didn't end up as my seat mate in those narrow CRJ seats.  Pretty lumpy on climb-out and on the approach to Oakland.

Simply astounding how much fruit is still hanging on the vines, and so far I've only driven through Carneros on the way to my daughter's after another fun visit with Carrie and Mr. Mac 'n' Cheese at Napa Valley Wine and Cigar.  Turned out to be a nice day here in NoCal.  More to come.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Latest Update On Harvest in the Willamette Valley

Everybody's scrambling to get as much fruit in before it starts raining tonight, but it's going to be a tough go. There are only so many skilled bodies around to pick. If push comes to shove, there will be some white grapes left out in the rain, but that's okay.  A little botrytis doesn't impact chardonnay and pinot gris in the negative way it does pinot noir, though it looks right now as though it's going to be next week before we get another dry spell.

There's been some reduction in yield from the generous estimates that resulted from the huge clusters - mostly due to dehydration - but there still seems to be a spotty shortage of fermenters.

What I saw and tasted yesterday looked really good, so let's see how things go in the cellar.  We may have another nice year for Oregon pinot noir.

Looking southeast from the deck at Bethel Heights.  It was a beautiful day!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Willamette Valley Harvest Update

We've had several consecutive days of partly cloudy to clear skies with temperatures in the upper 60s and nights in the 40s, and it's forecast to remain like that through Sunday - albeit with a slight risk of frost Sunday morning.  Other than the frost, that's just textbook weather for fully ripening the fruit and adding complexity.  The longer the grapes get to hang on the vine without developing extra sugars that lead to higher alcohol, the better.  The seeds and stems begin to brown and the flavors deepen. Hopefully, I'll have some more pictures over the weekend.  I'd like to get some fermentation shots if I can, plus shots of a press in operation as well as some sorting line pics, but for now we'll go with what we have.

Yesterday I wandered about in some areas that aren't too far out of town.  The first place I visited hadn't picked any of their estate vineyard so I got this shot of the grapes hanging on the vine.

One thing that was readily apparent was that there is a reason this winery, which shall remain unnamed, has little or no reputation for producing memorable pinot noir, and it's their vineyard practices.  Pinot noir requires low crop yields to have the intensity of flavor most of us are looking for, and most vineyard managers thin the crop down to one cluster per shoot.  Any more than that and the vine is over-worked and the fruit won't fully ripen, especially in our somewhat marginal climate where the option of allowing the fruit to stay on the vine well into late October (or even November) isn't generally an option - unlike many spots in California.  Asking the vine to ripen too many grapes is a bit like trying to boil water with the burner on simmer or trying to pull a 5000-pound trailer with a SMART car.  Uphill.

In addition, this year's crop is larger than normal to begin with.  The clusters are huge.  I realize there's no reference point in the picture so you'll have to just trust me when I tell you that the two larger clusters are probably 50% larger than normal, and that was what we were told over the Labor Day weekend when we visited Doug Tunnell at Brick House.  He'd weighed some clusters as he always does to estimate the size of his crop, and they were running about 50% above average.  But I digress.

In the vineyard pictured, there were two clusters on most shoots, sometimes three.  The vineyard is fairly old, dating back to when the vines and rows were customarily planted on wider spacing than is common today, so that will reduce the yield per acre, but the fact remains that they're asking the individual vines to work too hard - which was proven when I tasted a couple of grapes.  This is a west-sloping vineyard which ought to ripen a little sooner than most, but these guys weren't there yet. Still a little tart with green seeds.  I hope they ripen before the rain starts next week.

Back to the harvest update, crush operations were in full swing there, with fruit coming in from other vineyards. Here's a trailer full of picking bins packed with pinot gris.  If you haven't been out to the valley to see pinot gris, you're probably surprised that the grapes are so dark.  I know I was the first time I saw them.

Not to worry, though.  The clear juice will get pressed off those dark skins and go right into the fermenter, producing a lovely, aromatic golden-hued wine.  I don't know the people at this place so barging onto the crush pad wasn't an option, but I would have loved to stick around until they pressed these babies because freshly-pressed pinot gris juice is positively one of the most amazing things you'll ever put in your mouth.  Ah well . . . maybe next time.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More taco truck!

This one is called Mexico Lindo, and it's at the northwest corner of 185th and TV Highway along with two other trucks.  Handmade tortillas and excellent carnitas.  Tacos are $1.25 each!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Seared Ahi with wild mushroom/ginger/garlic butter

Perfect with the NV Brick House pinot noir.

For two servings:

12 ounces ahi
8 ounces (or more) wild mushrooms of your choice - I used shiitakes and chanterelles
1 Tbsp. grated ginger - a medium ribbon Microplane is magic here.
1 large minced clove of garlic
1 tsp. sesame oil
1-2 Tbsp. soy sauce
2-3 Tbsp. heavy cream
Sesame seeds
Scallion tops

Bear in mind - if you use more mushrooms because you like them, or because you're serving more than two people, you'll need to adjust the quantities of the other ingredients.

Saute the mushrooms in 2-3 tablespooons of butter over medium to medium-high heat depending upon the BTU output of your cooktop.  Lower the heat and add the ginger and garlic and slowly saute until cooked through, about a minute.  Add the soy sauce, sesame oil and a couple grinds of black pepper, but no salt. Simmer to blend the flavors and set aside.

Heat a cast iron skillet to almost smoking and sear the ahi that you've rubbed with a little olive oil and seasoned lightly with salt and pepper, about 30 seconds to a minute on either side.  While it's searing, reheat the mushroom mixture and swirl in a couple tablespoons of butter off the heat to thicken it.

Slice the ahi and serve on a pool of mushroom butter, sprinkled with scallions and sesame seeds.  Serve with your favorite green vegetable - I usually like green beans, snow peas or sugar snap (edible pod) peas, but I had the asparagus in the house and it was fine.  I like to serve this dish with Calrose short-grain "sticky" rice.  This just happened to be the Niko Niko brand from Sun Luck.

Thank you to Neil Stuart, former chef at San Diego's Cafe Pacifica, for inventing this dish and where this was the only thing I ever ordered.  There's a more elaborate version of the recipe in Neil's book, Pacifica Blue Plates, which I believe is still in print and available from Amazon.  It involves not only the ingredients above but a small amount of one of Neil's pantry staples, a teryaki sauce made from scratch. It has mostly the same ingredients in it so, since I don't make this very often, I just don't bother with making a batch of teryaki and keeping it around.  This simplified recipe is close enough to the original that I'd be hard pressed to tell the difference.

Oh . . . this was frozen-at-sea ahi I bought for $6.99 per pound at a local Asian supermarket, Uwajimaya.  It was fine.  Unless you're having a really special occasion or showing off for guests, there's no need to spend $20 or more per pound for really high-grade ahi.  On a Monday night the frozen stuff is perfectly acceptable and much easier on the wallet.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ancho-Coffee Short Ribs, The Finished Product

I didn't take any more pictures of the process, but here's the finished product served on cheddar cheese creamy polenta with roasted Brussels sprouts.

I thickened the sauce (after removing the congealed fat) with a little roux since reducing it would have been inadvisable because the flavors were already really intense.

Friday, October 2, 2009

One of the great things about Portland - taco trucks

This is one of my favorites, Lindo Michoacan between 33rd nd 34th on Division.

What's Wrong With THIS Picture?