Sunday, September 19, 2010

New Kids On The Block In The Willamette Valley

I was fortunate to be invited to an open house held yesterday at the Portland Wine Project, an urban cooperative winery much like the Carlton Winemaker's Studio. The purpose was to show off the wines of two "New Kids" in town, our own Vincent Fritzsche (Vincent Wine Co.) and Anne Hubatch (Helioterra). In addition, they were showing off a cooperative project that involves Vincent and Anne plus two others - John Grochau of GC Wines and one who for some reason has to remain nameless.

On to the wines:

Vincent Wine Co.
2009 Eola-Amity Hills pinot noir
2009 Zenith Vineyard pinot noir

The Eola-Amity wine is from Domaine Coteau and Walnut Hill vineyards and Zenith is, well, Zenith - owned by Tim Ramey (a local securities analyst in his other life), his wife Kari  and St. Innocent Winery. Zenith is in a saddle in the middle of the Eola-Amity hills right down the way from Bethel Heights, and has been a vineyard source for St. Innocent and others for many years, primarily under its former name of O'Connor Vineyard.

Showing the almost predictable heat of a warm vintage, these are nevertheless well-made wines from Vincent's second commercial vintage. I was especially taken with the Zenith. Predictably, it's the more expensive of the two, but it has a certain meatiness that I sometimes associate with the Pommard clone that it's made from. Showing lots of nice black fruit typical for the AVA. That's not to say there's anything wrong with the other wine, which is a very nice value for $24, but the Zenith is a clear step up.

2009 Willamette Valley pinot noir
2009 Vintner's Select pinot noir

These wines are from three vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills. People there must be very accommodating to new winemakers. Once again showing the typicity of the AVA, they show nice dark cherry and blackberry fruit, along with somewhat less heat than the Vincent wines (at least at this point). The Vintner's select is simply a barrel selection from the larger whole and, while an excellent wine, isn't as big a step up from the Willamette Valley wine as Vincent's Zenith is from his E-A bottling.

White Wine
Red Wine

Catchy names.

Good - no, GREAT values. The white is made from - I'm guessing now because I forgot to ask - primarily pinot gris with perhaps a bit of sauvignon blanc thrown in. It's lively and refreshing. The red is syrah, mourvedre and counoise, all sourced from Eastern Washington. This may be a value on the order of some of the better Southern Rhone and Languedoc wines from the 2007 vintage. Nicely meaty and chewy, it will be a fabulous wine to slurp around the old Weber for the next few summers if you're lucky enough to get some.

I also have a report on the Grochau (GC) and Boedecker wines but I'm tired of writing for now.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mmm . . . Bread Pudding

There are a million variations on bread pudding. Some of them call for artisan bread or "exotic" ingredients like Grand Marnier and citrus fruit zest, either orange or lemon, or perhaps cardamom and other spices such as nutmeg and/or cloves. I've seen recipes that have sauces, caramel or - in the case of bread pudding from New Orleans, bourbon. I say, if it sounds good, make it. This post isn't about the flavors anyway. It is, like many of my posts, more of a "how to".

Broken down to its lowest common denominator (you've probably noticed I'm fond of doing that), bread pudding is a custard surrounding bread cubes. Or, if you prefer, bread cubes soaked in custard. Then What's a custard? Eggs, sugar and milk, basically. Think crème brûlée, though pumpkin pie is a custard as well. In fact, bread pudding isn't so far off from French toast. It's just bread that's been cubed instead of sliced, and it's not browned in a skillet, but baked in a dish. It's still soaked in a milk/egg/sugar mixture.

So, how do we proceed? First thing is to cube some bread. How much? How much do you have? What kind? What kind do you have? You can see this isn't going to be precise. The only thing I'll say at this point is that the bread should be something with a little more chew to it than Wonder Bread, and it should be at least a day or two old. This is supermarket "French" bread. It was so stale I had to cut a tiny bit of mold off as you'd do with cheese. It was perfect.

The next step is to make a custard, which is easier than it is with crème brûlée since there's no heating of the milk and we're using whole eggs. For every cup of milk (I used half and half, actually), beat 2 eggs with 1/4 cup of sugar until it forms the ribbon (see the crème brûlée post from a month or so back for details). A standard loaf of "French" bread will take about 3 cups of milk, so let that be your guide.

Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla for every two eggs, a big dash of cinnamon (maybe 1/2 teaspoon) then whisk the milk into the eggs. Pour the mixture over the bread cubes and add raisins to taste (this is about a half cup and I would have liked more). Stir it all together, pour it into a baking dish that will just hold it, and bake in a 350-degree oven until it's puffy, lightly browned and fully set. You can butter the dish or not, and you can dot the top with butter or not, depending on how your waistline's tolerance for butter is running.

There's your finished product! Serve it warm, not hot, with whipped cream if you like. Be careful, though. If you turn your back it will disappear unless you live alone.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

You Heard It Here - Guam May Capsize!

Note the very emphatic "I'm a little teapot" gesture with the hands indicating that Guam is in the process of rolling over like a dead fish. Note the Admiral's quiet yet sincere effort to keep from asking this guy what kind of moron he has to be if he's asking these questions.

Seriously, how do people like this get elected?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Crème Brûlée Demystified

Everyone loves crème brûlée. At least I think everyone loves it. What's not to love? Silky, vanilla-infused custard. Crackling, caramelized sugar crust that gives off a sound like a snapping twig when you plunge your spoon into it. An almost other-worldly reaction to the first bite and a profound sense of regret when it's all gone. It's all good.

What surprises me, though, is that so few people make crème brûlée at home, opting instead for ordering it in restaurants where it all too often suffers because of the constraints - mostly related to being able to serve it on demand - placed upon a kitchen that doesn't take its dessert program seriously. My hope is that you'll take this opportunity to follow along and learn to make your own. After all, it has all of four ingredients and is within the capabilities of a mature 10-year-old, but for some reason it intimidates the hell out of people.

Let's begin at the very beginning. Crème brûlées is nothing more than a custard which, at its most basic, is milk or cream sweetened and thickened as it cooks with eggs or egg yolks. Pudding is essentially a custard. So is flan. So is chocolate mousse unless you're using gelatin and so is ice cream; so if you can make any of those things you can make crème brûlée. In fact, crème brûlée is easier than ice cream because you don't have to cook the custard on top of the stove, which can be more than a little tricky.

Begin with egg yoks, sugar and vanilla. For each two servings you'll want two yolks, 1/4 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanila extract. I realize it's fashionable to use vanilla beans but they're expensive, and I've never figured out how it is that every recipe - no matter how many servings it's supposed to make - calls for one vanilla bean. So, given that variable, I use vanilla extract instead.

There used to be a product called vanilla bean paste. Maybe it still exists but I don't see it at retail any more. Nielsen-Massey made it and someone made it for Trader Joe's (probably the same people). It had little flecks of vanilla bean in it and it had less alcohol than vanilla extract, making it ideal for something like crème brûlée. I'm too lazy to look, so perhaps you can find it somewhere, but I do know that Trader Joe's discontinued it about 3 years ago. Too bad.

To start, beat the egg yolks and the sugar in a bowl until they turn from bright yellow to a pale yellow and form what's called "the ribbon". This is when you lift your whisk out of the mixture and it forms a smooth "ribbon" as it flows back into the bowl. This picture and the next one (of the cream going in) are reasonably good depictions of the color before and after beating. This should take about a minute or so.  Add the vanilla and whisk to combine. Note: if you have a bowl with a pouring lip or a big Pyrex pitcher, use it. It will make your life much easier in a few minutes.

In the meantime heat 1/2 cup of heavy cream per egg yolk in a saucepan. Use medium heat unless you're watching it like a hawk. You don't want it to boil over. In fact, despite what other recipes tell you, it shouldn't boil at all. It should just get hot enough to where there are little frothing bubbles at the edge and the middle is starting to squirm a little. This is called "scalding".  It keeps a skin from forming on the cream, which you would then have to strain out. Most recipes call for this step and I have never had to do it.

Now, SLOWLY pour the hot cream into the egg/sugar mixture in a very thin stream, whisking constantly. It helps if you have one of those non-skid bowls, but you can also roll up a kitchen towel, curl it into a circle and put your bowl on it. This will keep it from skating across your counter. The reason for going slowly is to prepare the eggs for the heat of the cream. If you dump the cream in all at once you're going to have scrambled eggs.

After you've added the first half cup or so of cream you can pour much more quickly. Just keep whisking as you do. When everything is combined, pour the mixture into 6-ounce ramekins (this is where the pitcher or the bowl with the spout comes in handy), alternating the pours among the ramekins and whisking between pours so that you don't get a big blast of sugar and egg in the last ramekin. The stuff tends to settle.

Put the ramekins in a large pan and fill it with boiling water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This is to keep the temperature steady in the oven and to keep the custard from over-heating. Water won't get any hotter than 212 degrees no matter how long it boils.

Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on your oven. The edges will be fairly set when you jiggle a ramekin but the middle will still look underdone. If you're in doubt, let them bake a little longer. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool in the pan until they've reached room temperature and refrigerate until serving time.

When you're ready to serve, it's time to caramelize the tops and not before. This is where restaurants often run into trouble. They caramelize the tops and store the desserts in the refrigerator. This causes the caramelized sugar to absorb moisture from the custard and lose its crunch. You have to wait until the last minute, but you'll also need to make a trip to Home Depot, Lowe's or Ace hardware for an uncommon kitchen tool, the BernzOmatic torch.

Don't think for one minute you're going to go to Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table or some other kitchen shop where they'll sell you a small torch especially designed for the job ahead. The only thing it's going to be especially designed for is failure. They're powered by butane like a re-fillable cigarette or cigar lighter and, while they create a flame, it's not nearly hot enough. By the time your sugar is caramelized the custard has warmed, ruining the dessert.

While it may look unwieldy and a bit like going squirrel hunting with a cruise missile, you need one of these bad boys. This one has automatic ignition which is handy, but it does cost extra. Unless you're askeert of lighting one manually with a sparker, a match, a lighter or the burner on your gas range, save your money.

Okay, so now it's time to do the deed and create a caramelized sugar crust. Simply sprinkle some regular table sugar on top, completely covering the custard. I know people who swear by Turbinado sugar or raw sugar or the stuff they sell as "granulated cane juice" or some such, but I always go back to regular, granulated sugar.

One thing, though. As underpowered as the little kitchen torches are, you'll need to be careful with one of these because they ARE powerful. Don't hold it too close the dessert or you'll incinerate the thing, and by all means be careful where you put your fingers. You can't just set the ramekin on the counter because the torch will flame out if you invert it too much, so you'll have to hold it - even though I'm not holding it in the picture because of logistics but the torch flamed out right after the picture was taken.

If holding the dish scares you - and this is really the only part where a ten-year might have a tough time with the making of crème brûlée - get an asbestos or other flameproof glove to hold the ramekins in. Keep the torch a good distance away as I'm doing here, move it constantly, and even twirl the dessert to spread the sugar around as it melts. Let it cool until it has formed a crust and, voila . . . crème brûlée!

Enjoy! Oh . . . crème brûlée goes really well with a sweet dessert wine with some acid. Sauternes is ideal, but anything with a lot of residual sugar and some acidity like a late-harvest riesling will work.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Wow, Spring Is Really Here!

I've been noticing and remarking on blooming things for a while now but the totality of it all just hit me. Spring is here ahead of the calendar and boy is it early!

I saw my first blooming daffodil about two weeks ago, obviously an early variety. The crocuses were about a week before that. Now all the daffodils are blooming at least two weeks ahead of schedule, along with the redbud and other pink and white-blooming ornamental trees . . . and the cherries - the real, edible ones. I've seen a slug of camelias in full bloom and early rhododendrons are out with others not far behind. Since the traditional peak of rhodie season is Mother's day (also the day to plant tomatoes and beans) anyone who arrives just for that should plan on getting here earlier.

The tulips are well up and should bloom soon, though someone told me he'd seen some actually in bloom. Either way, they'll bloom soon enough that they'll probably beat the Wooden Shoe Tulip Fest outside of Woodburn, OR, which begins on March 25 (Hint: don't try to go on a weekend. The line of cars looks like the closing scene of Field of Dreams, except it's not dark. Go on a weekday if you can). It's worth seeing at least once if you're in the area because it's REALLY impressive. 40 acres of flowers are nothing if not impressive.

I've even seen magnolia trees in bloom and it's way early for them. Willow trees are about half green and most other trees are showing at least swollen buds. The pieris are blooming and . . . geez, I'm having trouble accessing my internal hard drive where I've stored all this information, but I know there's more. In any event, I saw my first bee of the year this morning and I may have seen a robin on someone's lawn, but there was someone tailgating me so it was too tough to slow down and get a better look.

So what does this have to do with Duck Juice, you ask? Well, as lovely as this warm winter has been (the December dump of snow nothwithstanding) and it's 65 today, there's a scary side. What if the grapevines bud out (normally an April thing) and then we get a sudden, late frost or freeze? Disaster! The tender shoots will get damaged, severely limiting the crop.

Won't happen, you say? Hah! It's supposed to (maybe) be mixed frozen precipitation down to the valley floor with snow levels at 1200 feet on Monday (which is what they said on December 29 we got a sudden dump of several inches of snow that snarled traffic for hours), and below freezing Monday night. That won't be great for the flowering plants and trees but at least, except for the cherries, none of those things produce a crop that people depend upon to make a living.

So what's to do? Keep your fingers crossed, Duck Juicers. Keep 'em crossed.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A lump of coal.

I'm as conscious of the environment as the next person. I cringed yesterday when, at the Fred Meyer Fuel Stop on 164th in Vancouver, the auto shut-off on the nozzle allowed a few milliliters of gasoline to overflow my fill tube and release themselves into the environment.

I'm always re-directing Tracey's recyclables from her garbage to the proper place. I don't think we ought to be dumping paint thinner into our rivers. Hell, I'm concerned about runoff from chemical fertilizers finding their way into the entire Willamette Valley river system so I appreciate farmers who are growing organic or - in the case of vineyards, are LIVE certified, but this is too much.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not up to speed on the emissions from burning coal vis a vis burning oak logs (Nostrana, Ken's Aritisan), but there's a place in NE Portland that wants to install a coal-fired pizza oven like they have in New York City and New Haven, Ct. The neighbors (and the usual suspects) are screeching like owls.

C'mon. Just how much harmful material can a small, coal-fired oven produce over the course of a few hours a day? How many hoops are these people going to have to jump through with the city's building inspectors like Cathy Whims of Nostrana had to jump through for what is essentially a fireplace?

Tracey lives in Camas. Ever been there to enjoy the "Eau du Camas" from the pulp mill? It's lovely.

I say bring on the coal-fired oven.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chain of Fools - the Wine List Version

As I stated in my main post below, I avoid chain restaurants like I avoid poisonous snakes, grizzly bears and people who haven't bathed lately, but I found myself in a regional one last night for Happy Hour.

I should have taken copious notes, but the following wines stuck out for their complete lack of reason on the price points. 

Columbia Crest Two Vines Cabernet and Chardonnay - $26/$6.50 on the wine list, routinely available in the supermarket for $5.99.

Red Diamond Merlot - $28/$7 on the wine list, routinely available in the supermarket for $6.99.

Only fools order wine off the wine list in chain restaurants, even if they've made the mistake of going there to begin with. Just sayin'.

True Wine Connoisseurs - Episode 14

Eric and Will are a little rough with the language, but not only is this entertaining they give a big shout out to all my pals at

Chain of Fools

Like many of us, I generally avoid chain restaurants in the same way I avoid poisonous snakes, grizzly bears and people who haven’t bathed lately. Last night, in the midst of some other drama that has contributed to my relative silence on this blog and that I may or may not detail at some later date, I had the occasion to visit an outpost of a regional chain of seafood restaurants.

They used to be owned by a Portland company and were called Newport Bay before they and their siblings were acquired by a Seattle oufit a couple of years ago. The new owners have remodeled, gussied up the décor, renamed them Newport Seafood Grille and made the menu more frou-frou.

What they haven’t done is improve the execution in the 8 or 9 years since I’ve been there. If anything, it has taken a step backward. The quality of the preparation seems to have an inverse correlation to the complexity of the recipe, a common theme at chains and certainly one that I mention to Portland visitors who want to visit one of the McCormick and Schmick’s stores that are touted by almost every guide to Portland restaurants imaginable. "Just don't order anything with a sauce. Stick with simple preparations," is my usual mantra.

I wasn’t hungry enough for a full meal but I was hungry, so I plopped myself in the bar, ordered a beer and perused the Happy Hour appetizer menu - items from two dollars to five dollars. Given that my life has been so hectic lately and my eating habits have been reduced to a lot of cheeseburgers, I decided I needed something green. I figured my digestive system, which has been severely out of whack and protesting for the past week in ways you don’t want to know about, would appreciate the effort. What to have?

Well, it was simple, at least at first. They offered an iceberg wedge with tomatoes, red onion and blue cheese dressing. Perfect! Retro as it is, it’s something I love and it’s almost impossible to screw up. Amazingly enough, they almost managed the task. 

Tomatoes? Hah! It's January, so I certainly wasn't expecting a big, juicy slice of Brandywine or Cherokee Purple, but c'mon. I didn't even get a decent chunk of Roma, having to settle for a few measly dice of what looked like Roma, and "dice" is being kind. Picture four or five little 1/4-inch squares interspersed among the wisps of thinly-sliced red onion that had probably been sliced and oxidizing since Sunday, judging by the pungent aroma. But hey, the iceberg was cold and crispy and the blue cheese dressing was pretty good, so what did I want for a lousy three bucks? So far so good.

Next up? Something a bit more challenging, the "red crab and seafood cakes". I've heard of blue crab, stone crab, Dungeness crab, rock crab, snow crab, king crab, "the crabs" and fake crab (surimi), but "red crab" isn't something with which I'm familiar. And "seafood"? What exactly is that? Could be anything from perch to pollock to plankton. So I asked my server who, in a surly fashion, replied "Red crab is like Dungeness and seafood means fish." 

Oh, sure. I get it. Either you don't have a clue or you're trying to blow smoke up my nether regions. Fine. They're four bucks, I'll roll with it. Mind you, a larger portion with a fancier presentation (one hopes) is on the regular menu for $8.50, so it's not like this is some special item they thought up just for Happy Hour. 

I should have ordered the sliders, even though they're burgers. They couldn't have been as bad as these patties of mush. Although crab cakes are generally browned in hot fat (oil or butter) these things were not brown, though someone had made an effort. In fact, I've seen Brits in January with better tans. They were greasy, they were tasteless and the only texture they had was delivered by the large chunks of under-cooked celery interspersed among the puree of miscellaneous, unidentified seafood and bread crumbs. In fact, oddly for a restaurant meal, they were severely lacking in salt, but I don't like to salt food at  the table (it's disgusting) so I didn't bother. 

Worse, they sat on a big, gloppy pool of what was supposed to be a roasted red pepper sauce of sorts. Pale pink, cold and almost tasteless, it only added to the sensation of greasiness in the cakes, caused mostly by the sautéing fat congealing as it hit the cold sauce. Accompanied by a slim wedge of lemon and not even a sprinkling of parsley to make them at least look good, they had all the appeal of a couple of hockey pucks. Still, I was hungry enough that I ate them, but if I'd made them at home I think the cat - the one I don't have - would have turned her nose up at them. 

Okay . . . dessert. Let's keep this short and put it this way: By scraping the frosting off a Hostess chocolate cupcake, inverting it and spreading some Smucker's raspberry jam and Hershey's syrup around the plate, I could make something that tastes just as good. If I were to put the jam and syrup in squeeze bottles it would look just as good. Just sayin'. 

So, dear peeps, todays lesson is that only fools go to chain restaurants if they're expecting food beyond what they can get at Mickey D's or BK. Stay away, stay very far away.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Just for fun!

A year of fail in review. Funny stuff! Sorry, I tried to embed the video but it didn't work. Guess I need tech lessons.