Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ratatouille, Disney-Style

Anyone can cook.  Those three words define the Disney movie Ratatouille.  As someone with a love of cooking, it seems only natural that I would also love the movie about a rat who can cook in a famous and fancy French restaurant.  I have watched that movie several times, and, each time, I become particularly entranced with the scenes where the characters are actually cooking.  Now, I am not sure whether I am prepared to make Sweetbreads a la Gustauve, but I did decide to try making Ratatouille in the style that Remy did to win over the critic Ego.

It helps to have a recipe and I found a recipe for Ratatouille, Disney Style on Allrecipes.  This recipe begins with an immediate problem, one that is never addressed in the movie itself.  The recipe calls for the use of eggplants, red bell peppers, yellow bell peppers, and zucchini.  All of these ingredients will make a fine ratatouille; however, the key to the Disney ratatouille is ensuring that the individual slices are all the same size.  If you go back and watch the movie, as I did when I made this dish, the slices are identical in size.  This makes for great Hollywood, but it presents an obstacle in a real kitchen.  To overcome this obstacle, I cut the bell pepper slices in half and arranged them in a way that it appeared they were the same size as the eggplant. I also used two slices of zucchini in an effort to make it appear larger than it really was.

These modifications worked, to a certain extent.  However, the final product did not look anything like the ratatouille in the kitchen.  The end result was still a very eye-pleasing array of colors that could be somewhat stacked on a plate for service.  The dollop of marscapone at the end adds a richness to the dish that would otherwise be lacking.  

Recipe from All Recipes
Serves 4-6

1 can of tomato paste (6 ounces)
1/2 onion, chopped
1/4 cup minced garlic
1 tablespoon of olive oil
3/4 cup of water
1 small eggplant, trimmed and very thinly sliced
1 zucchini, trimmed and very thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, cored and very thinly sliced
1 yellow bell pepper, cored and very thinly sliced
3 tablespoons of olive or to taste
1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves, or to taste
3 tablespoons of mascarpone cheese

1. Prepare the ratatouille.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  Spread the tomato paste into the bottom of a 10x10 baking dish. Sprinkle with onion and garlic and stir in 1 tablespoon olive oil and water until thoroughly combined. Season with salt and black pepper. Arrange alternating slices of eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, red bell pepper, and yellow bell pepper, starting at the outer edge of the dish and working concentrically towards the center. Overlap the slices a little to display the colors. Drizzle the vegetables with 3 tablespoons olive oil and season with salt and black pepper. Sprinkle with thyme leaves. Cover vegetables with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit inside.

2.  Bake the ratatouille. Bake in the preheated oven until vegetables are roasted and tender, about 45 minutes. Serve with dollops of mascarpone cheese.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Casisano Colombaio Brunello di Montalcino (2003)

The rays of sunshine blanket the rolling hills with light, emphasizing the rows and rows of grape vines.  The warmth of the light is taken into every vine, leaf and grape growing on each rounded peak.  The green hills and vines seem endless, going in every direction, broken up with only the tan-colored, rustic farmhouses and sliced by brown, heavily worn paths. 

These are the images that my mind conjures whenever I think of the many different wines from Tuscany.  Those images are loosely based upon my personal experience of visiting two very spectacular vineyards in the Chianti Classico region.  (The vineyards are maintained by Marchesi di Frescobaldi and Marchesi d'Antinori.)  However, I suspect that the images of rolling hills, rustic  farmhouses can be found throughout Tuscany, even around the town of Montalcino, which can be found not too far from Siena.

Montalcino has a long history, one that most likely dates back as to pre-Roman times, when the Etruscans settled the area.  However, the first mention of the town dates to the ninth century, when a reference was made to a church built by the monks from Abbey d'SantAtimo. The first reference to the wines produced around Montalcino does not appear until five hundred years later in the fourteenth century.

The most prominent wine produced in Montalcino is the Brunello di Montalcino.  The wine is made with a clone of the Sangiovese grape known as the Sangiovese Grosso.  While the name would seem to suggest large grapes or berries (the word "grosso" in Italian means big), the grapes are actually medium to small in size.  The "grosso" may be a reference more to the aromas or flavors of the resulting wine, or, perhaps to the status of that resulting wine as one of the most valued wines from Italy. 

The production of Brunello di Montalcino is highly regulated.  The wine must be produced with 100% Sangiovese Grosso grapes grown within the region outlined by the rules governing its Denominazione di origine controllata or DOCG.  Once the grapes are harvested, they undergo a lengthy fermentation.  The fermentation can take place either in botte, which are large Slavonian casks that impart a little oak flavor to the wine, or en barrique, which involves the use of a series of different sized barrels.  With this latter method, wine from larger barrels is added to small barrels, where it continues to ferment and its flavors further concentrate.  This technique also tends to add a little vanilla flavor, along with the oak from the barrels.  Regardless of the fermentation technique, the wine is aged for at least two years in barrels and at least four months in the bottle.  If it is a Brunello di Montalcino, then it must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak, with at least six months in the bottle.  The wine itself can not be sold for at least five years following the harvest, six years if it is a riserva.  Whether it is a Brunello or a riserva, these wines are some of the most expensive wines produced in Italy.

Fortunately, I came across a "modestly priced" bottle of Brunello di Montalcino.  Normally, I do not buy expensive bottles of wine, because I am a firm believer that cost does not equal quality.  I still wanted to try a Brunello di Montalcino and, when I came across a wine that was about $50.00, I thought that was about right.  (Normally, bottles of Brunello exceed $100.00 and can easily be a couple of hundred of dollars.)

This particular Brunello di Montalcino was produced by Casisano-Colombaio.  If you check out their website, you can see many of the images that are conjured up in mind when it comes to Italian wine.  (Honestly, I wrote the opening paragraph before I checked out the website.)  This particular Brunello is aged three years in the Slavonian casks and six months in the bottle.  I decanted the wine for about forty-five minutes before pouring it into glasses.  When I poured the wine, I could see its dark cranberry color, which spoke of its age and its depth.  The wine has earthy aromas, hinting perhaps of the soil from which the vines grew and the grapes ripened.  Those earthy elements were accompanied by scents of red cherries and flowers.  These aromas provided only a glimpse of the taste of the wine itself.  I could easily discern the full ripe cherries, but there were also other fruit flavors in the background, such as raisins, plums and/or prunes.  There were some tannins in the wine, which provided a little astringency with the dryness of the wine, but, the tannins were far less than what I expected.  

When it comes to food pairing, this wine goes with a wide range of Tuscan dishes.  From Bistecca alla Fiorentina to any pasta dish made with a red tomato sauce, this wine would make a good pairing.  I paired this wine with handmade cavatelli, which was served with a homemade tomato sauce and meatballs made with pork and veal.

As I noted above, the Brunello di Montalcino -- this "King" of Italian wines -- can command a regal sum of money.  If someone was going to splurge for a wine, then a Brunello may be the way to go.  


Saturday, May 25, 2013

National Geographic Live: Beer from Where?

For the past five years, I have looked forward to one particular beer tasting.  The tasting is conducted by Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and editor-in-chief of the Oxford Companion to Beer.  Every year, the tasting has a different theme.  Italian beers.  Scandanavian beers.  Barrel Aged Beers.  Mini-Micro Breweries. The Power and the Glory.  With each tasting, I am introduced to beers that I never knew existed.  Beers like Cigar City's El Murciélago or Renaissance Brewing Company's Renaissance MPA.  And, with each tasting, I am introduced to new beers that quickly become some of my favorites, such as Birrificio del Ducato's Nuova Mattina and Brasserie Montagnes de Franches Cuvee Alex La Rouge.

This year marks the National Geographic Society's 125th anniversary.  The National Geographic has chosen the theme "a new age of exploration" for this particular anniversary.  Garrett Oliver has seized upon the potential of this theme as it relates to beer.  Together, National Geographic and Garrett announced that the beer tasting for 2013 will feature beers "from some of the most unlikely beer-producing places on Earth."

In advance of the beer tasting, I took a moment to peruse Garrett Oliver's Oxford Companion to Beer to see if there were any entries that could perhaps shed some light on some of the places that could be inclded in the tasting.  The Oxford Companion contains entries for countries like 

1.  Gisberga Trigo. This beer -- the Gisberga Reina de Aragón Trigo -- comes from the Spanish region of Aragón.  This region is known more for its wine than its beer.  Nevertheless, the brewers at Gisberga produce the Trigo in the style of an Iberian Farmhouse Wheat Ale.  After all, "trigo" is Spanish for wheat. 

The beer pours a clear gold color, with a light, pearly foam.  The aroma gives hints of the citrusy hops used in producing the beer.  The brewers say that there are also spicy aromas of vanilla and cinnamon, but I had a little more difficulty finding those aromas in the beer.  The Triga has a light body, and a refreshing, almost wheaty zing of acidity.  The beer has an ABV of 4.8%.

The brewers suggest that this beer is best paired as an accompaniment to goat cheese, salad with vinaigrette, roasted vegetables, marinated fish, white fish with mild sauces, stews or paella.

2.  Saison de Caipira.  The next beer took us across the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil.  The beer was a collaboration between Brooklyn Brewery and Cervejaria Wäls.  Garrett explained the madness behind the beer.  He and the Wäls brewers decided to take machetes into a sugarcane field and personally cut the sugarcane that would be used to produce a beer.  The inspiration for using sugar comes form the Brazilian Caipirinha, the national drink made with cachaça, which is a hard liquor made from sugarcane. 

Garrett Oliver and the Wäls breweers harvested and used 700 kilograms of of sugarcane for their Saison de Caipira. The brewers also used a Belgian yeast during the initial fermentation and a Champagne yeast during the second fermentation.

The Saison de Caipira, described as Fort clara com cana de acuar, pours a very light color.  The beer has a light citrus and taste, along with a definite sugary sweetness.  That sweetness is not overwhelming and, in fact, it is balanced perfectly with the citrus in a very light and easy to drink beer.  The Saison de Caipira has an ABV of 6.5%, which if you are drinking this by the bottle as opposed to the tasting cup, could catch up with you very quickly. 

 3.  L'anjub 1907.  For our third beer, we return to Spain or, more specifically, to Catalonia.  This Spanish region is better known as the principal source of Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine.  However, there is also L'anjub, a brewery which takes its name from the Old Catalonian word for cistern.  L'anjub's flagship beer is an Iberian-style ale called "1907."  The name is inspired by the year in which flood rains overflowed the medieval water cisterns from which the brewery takes its name.

The 1907 is produced with Pils and Cara Pils malts, along with Citra and Amarillo hop flowers.  The brewers also use the local water which has what they describe as a "hard, tangy edge." 

Any hardness and tangy edge has definitely been smoothed over by the brewers during the brewing process.  The 1907 has a dark gold color, with what the brewers describe as having "tiny smooth, tiny bubbles that rise to a full fluffy head of cream colored foam."  The brewers also describe the beer as having aromas of "country orchard fruits and flowers."  I noted there were aromas of apricot and orchard apple, which also carried over to the taste of the beer.  There was also a sweetness to this beer, although much less than the Saison de Caipira.  This beer an an ABV of 5.5%.

As for food pairings, this beer can be paired in the same fashion as the Triga.  Possible pairings include seafood dishes, chicken, paella and soupy rices, mild cheeses and tapas as well as oriental fusion cuisine.

4.  Cucapa Runaway IPA.  Our next beer comes from a country that is well known for beer ... Mexico.  However, like the United States, much of that beer is mass produced swill.  Nevertheless, Garrett reassured everything that there is a growing craft beer movement in Mexico. 

Cucapa produces beers with whimsical names and labels like its Runaway IPA, which sports a label that resembles some street signs in the Southwestern United States.  For a country principally known for its lagers, this IPA is very much a standout.  The brewers used an indigenous two-row malt, along with four different hops.  Each hop varietal was used to impart a specific flavor to the Runaway IPA. The flavors that they sought were grapefruit, tangerine, lemon and lime.

The beer pours the perfect color of orange, which one expects from an India Pale Ale or even an Imperial India Pale Ale.  (The Runaway IPA has an ABV of 7.5%.)  There brewers definitely achieved their objective, as both the aroma and the flavor of the beer was full of different citrus flavors.  Picking out particular flavors, such as grapefruit or lime, was a little difficult at times, but I would attribute that to the fact that we were trying small samples.  If I could get my hands on a whole bottle, which I definitely would like to do, I think I could sense the different aromas and flavors much better.

5.  Dragon Extra Stout.  From Mexico, we turn to Jamaica.  The beer was not Red Stripe, although it was brewed and bottled by Red Stripe.  Rather, the beer is the Dragon Stout.  This heavy Stout -- packing an ABV of 10% -- is known by the locals as "Spitfire."

The Spitfire is brewed in the style of a Foreign Extra Stout, which is a style brewed in Ireland or England for export to places in the New World, like Jamaica.  The beer is dark brown, almost cola in color.  It is a malt driven beer, with a sweet, molasses flavor and little to no hop presence.  There was also a burnt sugar character, as well as some caramel in both the aroma and the flavor of this beer.

Overall, this beer provided an interesting change in style from the lighter and hoppier beers that we had tried to this point.  However, I think that the other beers, especially the Cucapa Runaway IPA, were far better than the Extra Stout.

6.  Colorado Vixnu.  There seemed to be some deja vu to this tasting.  After trying a beer from Jamaica, we found ourselves back in Brazil to try the Vixnu from the Cerveja Colorado. The "Vixnu" is named after Vishnu, the Hindu deity responsible for the maintenance of the universe.

The brewers have their own challenges with maintaining the balance of a beer that, while brewed in the style of an Imperial Pale Ale, also has a sweetness from the use of Rapadura cane sugar.  In the end, I think that the brewers achieved that balance between the tart, citrus flavors of the hops and the sweetness contributed by the sugar cane.  The principal aroma and flavor from this beer is grapefruit, although the sugar cane makes it seem as if someone sprinkled a little sugar over the fruit. 

With an ABV of 9.5%, this beer does have a little booziness in the background, but it gets lost a little with the nice interplay between the hops and the Rapadura cane sugar.
7.  Sagra Bohio Especial.  For some reason, the pictures of the next beer -- the Sagra Bohio Especial -- did not come out.  This is unfortunate because this beer was definitely one that I wanted to keep in mind.  The Sagra Bohio is an imperial stout, with an ABV of 10.5%, produced in the Spanish city of Toledo.  What makes this stout truly stand out is the smoke character in both the aroma and the flavor.  The smokiness provides a very good contrast to the other aromas and taste elements in the beer, including bitter chocolate, licorice and espresso.  

8.  Olvisholt Lava.  Our next beer was a first for me ... a beer from Iceland.  The beer is called Lava, and it is brewed by Olvisholt Bruggus.  The brewers operate a dairy and sheep farm, but they also brew the Lava, which is an imperial smoked stout.  The label shows Hekla, an active volcano as it looks from the brewhouse door.  The beer itself is brewed with six different barley malts, one wheat malt and the Fuggles hops.

The smokiness of the Olvisholt Lava can be clearly contrasted with the previous beer, the Sagra Bohio Especial.  The smoke, which was present in both the aroma and the flavor of the beer, was reminiscent of peat moss.  While that may turn off many drinkers, I actually found it interesting and enjoyable.  It was reminiscent of some other smoked beers that I have had, like L'Abri de la Tempete's Corps Morts. As for other aromas and flavors, the Lava displays the most common element in an imperial stout ... chocolate.  There is also a little sweetness, but not as much as in some of the other beers that have been part of this tasting.

9.  Cucapa Green Card Barleywine.  The last beer takes us back to Mexicali in Baja California, where Cucapa brews the Green Card Barleywine.  This beer is the first barleywine brewed in the Mexico and it was also the best beer of the night. 

There was some debate over the style of barleywine.  Garrett thought the Green Card was more in the vein of an American barleywine, which is known for having a more hop-focused character to it.  Personally, I could sense some hops, but I thought that, overall, the Green Card resembled more of a British barleywine, which is more malt-driven.  Regardless of the style, this was a very good barleywine.

The beer pours a dark, boozy brown, with an off-white foam that was quite persistent.  There was definitely some ripe, sugary fruits like plums in the aroma of the beer.  These fruit were also present in the flavor of the beer, wrapped by the alcoholic warmth that comes with a beer sporting a 10% ABV.  This beer was the best way to finish the tasting.

As that tasting came to a close, I was left thinking about what was the best beer.  The finalists were the Cucapa Runaway IPA, the Ovisholt Lava and the Cucapa Green Card Barleywine.  Ultimately, I think that the barleywine was the best beer of the night.   I am definitely going to keep my eyes out for bottles of that beer, and the others that we tried, because it would be great to see if my impressions carry through the entire bottle or if they change as the beer warms and over the time it takes to drink them.  

Until next time,


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gordon Ramsay's Tomato Risotto

There are many tomato risotto recipes out there on the Internet and I am sure that they are all very delicious.  There is only one tomato risotto recipe that I have ever wanted to make.  It is a recipe by Gordon Ramsay, the award-winning chef.  He has dozens of restaurants around the world and a total of nine Michelin stars (hence my description of Chef Ramsay as an "award-winning Chef"). 

Many people may not know about Gordon Ramsay's restaurants, such as the Fat Cow in Los Angeles, or Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea.  Instead, they may have learned about Chef Ramsay through television shows like Hell's Kitchen or Kitchen Nightmares.  I must admit that I am an avid fan of both shows and, it is through hours of watching these shows that I began to learn about the Chef.  While the shows are enjoyable and informative (as these shows teach viewers what not to do if you own a restaurant or are trying to cook a dish), I really did not learn much about Chef Ramsay's own cooking.  For example, if you watch Hell's Kitchen, you can see a bunch of highly motivated people try to reproduce Chef Ramsay's recipes for Beef Wellington, but you don't get to see how the recipe is made.  You only see a brief glimpse of someone trying to prepare the dish and the end product: a dish that often times elicits a profane response such as "its fucking raw" from the Chef.

I have always wanted to prepare a recipe written by Chef Ramsay and, recently, I decided to make his recipe for Tomato Risotto.  It was part of a special dinner that I had planned for my beautiful Angel and wife, Clare. Although I had prepared risotto in the past, this recipe differed in significant respects.  First, it did not call for the use of wine.  Many risotto recipes call for a use of a cup of white wine after you cover the rice in the hot oil.  That is the first liquid that gets absorbed into the rice.  Second, this recipe called for the use of mascarpone cheese.  I really liked the use of the cheese because it added to the creaminess and richness of the dish.   Finally, I liked the incorporation of sauteed tomatoes, because the skins offered a little crunch (note: I used the potato masher rather than the sieve).  It is definitely better to have the crunch come from the skins than the risotto.

Recipe by Gordon Ramsay
Serves 4

2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
200 grams of arborio rice
500 mililiters of chicken or vegetable stock
50 grams of unsalted butter
250 grams of cherry tomatoes
100 grams of marscapone cheese
25 grams of parmesan cheese

1.  Prepare the rice.  Heat the oil in a large frying pan, add the rice and stir well to coat the grains in the oil.  Bring the stock to a boil and add 1 ladleful of it at a time to the rice, stirring well after each addition, until the liquid has been cooked but still al dente.  This will take about 15 to 18 minutes.

2.  Prepare the tomatoes.  As you prepare the risotto, heat the butter in a small saucepan, add the tomatoes and gently cook for about 10 minutes until soft.  Pass through a mouli or coarse sieve; alternatively mash with a potato masher.

3.  Finish the dish.  When the rice is cooked, fold in the mascarpone, Parmesan and the tomato mixtures, adjust the seasoning and serve.

In the end, this risotto dish may be a "go-to" dish when entertaining guests.  It is a very delicious dish and relatively simple to make.  For those reasons, I will definitely be making it again, although I am not sure I would make it for Chef Ramsay even if given the opportunity.  After watching all of those hours of Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, I would fear what Chef Ramsay would have to say about my cooking.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Beersell Kind of Morning ...

It is interesting how bad news can turn into good news.  During the summer of 2009, 3 Fonteinen Brewery of Beersel, Belgium -- which is known for its Geuze and Lambic beers -- suffered a catastrophe.  Its equipment was damaged and the brewery was in a bind.  The brewery had to sell its beer ... and there were buyers.  One such buyer was Birrificio del Ducato, an Italian craft brewer located in Emilia-Romagna.  The Italian brewers drove to Beelsel to purchase three 18 month old Lambic barrels full of beer.  They brewers headed back on a journey that was, in their words, "long and hard," making their way through Belgium, France and Italy.  They only stopped for gas.  Time could not be wasted, because they were on a mission.

That mission was to blend some of 3 Fonteinen Brewery's Lambic with Del Ducato's Nuova Mattina or "New Morning."  The Nuova Mattina is a Belgian-inspired Saison brewed with spices, ginger, coriander, green peppers and chamomile.  Standing on its own right, the Nuova Mattina is an amazing beer.  In fact, it is my favorite beer brewed in Italy.   The brewers at Birrificio del Ducato had greater designs with that beer ... namely, to blend the Nuova Mattina with the 3 Fonteinen's Lambic.  The blend is 82% Nuova Mattina and 18% 3 Fontenien's Lambic.  The blended beer is then aged for at least 18 months in the bottle before it was released upon the public.

The brewers at Birrificio del Ducato believed that they created a beer with a "surprisingly citrus nose of leather, cellar and animal with hints of dried flowers and honey."  They claimed that, "lasting and sapid in the mouth," the "sour finish" of the Beersel Mattina will "always makes the lovers of this blend smile." 

The Beersel Mattina pours a surprising nice orange color, with a rather thin foam.  The aromatic elements include some sour or tart fruit, along with some yeast-like ethers.  These aromas are definitely the work of the Lambic beer, because it is far different from the scents of flowers, grasses and pepper that feature so prominently in the Nuova Mattina.   I am not sure I would go as far as saying that the beer has a nose of leather, cellar and animal, but there is a little citrus wrapped up in that tartness.  

As for the taste, the Beersel Mattina demonstrates how a smaller amount of a stronger beer (the Lambic) could so dominate over the rest of the beer (the Nuova Mattina).  The body of the beer is substantial, but not overwhelming.  There is definitely a tartness, a funkiness, that some people might describe as a little barnyard.  For me, it is more like sour cherries, Brettanomycess yeast, and some wood.  The tartness or sourness is up front, but it eventually gives way to some more easily recognized citrus flavors, like lemon or orange.  

When it comes to pairing a beer such as the Beersel Mattina, that could be quite a feat.  The "barnyard" or funky flavors of the beer are hard to match with the flavors of food.  However, one website provides some recommendations at least when it comes to cheese.  The recommendations included cheeses like Gouda, Romano and blue cheese.  

My beautiful Angel found this beer at a beer store in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Given its history, I fear that there are not many bottles out there.  If you come across one, and you like sour beers, this is worth a try.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Andalucian Asparagus

It is spring time and, of course, thoughts turn to all of those wonderful vegetables that happen to be in season right now.  One of those vegetables is the asparagus.  This vegetable has been around for centuries.   The earliest reference to asparagus can be found on an Egyptian frieze that dates back to 3,000 B.C.  

Fast forward to recent times, and I can say that I was never a big fan of asparagus.  I never ate it as a child or even as an adult.  I have only begun eating the vegetable in recent years.  Although my favorite way to prepare asparagus is to grill the vegetable, I have been looking at other preparations.  

I recently came across a recipe for Andalucian Asparagus, which is apparently a homage to the way the vegetable is prepared in southern Spain. The asparagus season is a very important one in Spain, and its availability leads to dishes like this one.  The recipe calls for using the thin asparagus, although the ones I used were a little more on the thicker side.  The recipe also calls for removing the crust from the bread used to make the topping; however, I did not want to waste that crust.  So, I just left the crust on the bread.

Recipe from The New Mediterranean Cookbook at 295
Serves 4 to 6

2 pounds of young asparagus
1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves peeled
12 blanched almonds
1 2-inch slice of crusty country-style bread, 
     crusts removed, cut into cubes
1 tablespoon very good quality sherry vinegar
Sea salt

1.  Prepare the asparagus.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Trim the asparagus, rinse and set aside.

2.  Prepare the topping.  Heat half the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat.  Add the garlic, almonds and bread and saute, stirring occasionally, until all the ingredients are nicely browned, about 5 to 7 minutes.  Do not let them burn.  Transfer the almonds, garlic and bread cubes with a slotted spoon to a food processor or blender.  Add the vinegar and about 1/2 teaspoon salt and process briefly until the mixture is a coarse meal.  

3.  Saute the asparagus.  In the oil remaining in the pan, saute the asparagus over medium low heat until the stalks change color and start to become tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. (You may need to add another tablespoon or two of oil.)  Remove the asparagus and place in an ovenproof gratin dish.  Bring a cup of water to a boil and pour it over the asparagus.  Then sprinkle the almond-bread mixture over the top.  Bake for 15 minutes or until the asparagus is thoroughly cooked and most of the liquid has boiled away.  Serve immediately.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Owning a Full Sail

Recently, a very good friend brought a bottle of the Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout  from Full Sail Brewing over to the Savage Boleks' household.  He picked up the bottle because it is an independent, employee-owned brewery. (We both have devoted our professional careers to working to further and protect the rights of employees, individually and through labor unions.)   Back in 1999, Full Sail divvied itself amongst its forty-seven employees.  The move, which turned Full Sail Brewery into an employee-owned enterprise, is a move that the brewery believes to be one of its proudest moments.

But that is not Full Sail Brewing's only accomplishment.  Full Sail also has its own award-winning water treatment plant.  It also distributes spent grain to nearby farmers, uses sustainable filtration system, packages its products in recycled paperboard, and supports hundreds of charities and events throughout the year.  Clearly a long list of accomplishments for a relatively small brewery.

Turning to the Bourbon Barreled Aged Imperial Stout, this offering from Full Sail displays some of the best characteristics of wood-aged beer.  Obviously, aging beer in oak barrels imparts some wood aromas and/or flavors to the beer.  The key is what barrels to use.  When brewers use bourbon barrels, they are often looking to add some more sophisticated flavors such as vanilla, caramel, toffee, or cocoa.  The brewers at Full Sail used those bourbon barrels to great effect with this Imperial Stout.  The beer itself pours a dark, inky black, which is as dark as night.  There is an off-white foam that develops as the beer is poured but it recedes and gives way to the blackness of the beer.  As the beer is brought to the nose, there is a clear sense of strong roasted malts and provides a foreshadowing of the alcohol content in the beer.  Each sip of the beer presents a roasted, almost coffee flavor, that is paired with chocolate and cocoa powder.  The use of the bourbon barrels is done very well.  While the alcohol makes itself present in the aroma, it is much more subtle or subdued in the flavor of the beer. 

My friend bought this beer at a local beer and wine store.  Full Sail has done a lot to increase its distribution in recent years and its beers -- like this Imperial Stout -- can be found at beer stores with larger selections of craft beer. Many thanks to the very good friend who brought me this beer ... you know who you are.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Steak Gaucho-Style with Argentinian Chimichurri Sauce

They stood with with their wide rimmed hats buffeted by the wind, which also worked its way around their woolen ponchos and beat against the loose, baggy bombachas.  They stood their ground, watching over the herds of cattle who quietly grazed on the pampas.  They are the gauchos, the cowboys of the Argentine, Uruguayan or Southern Brazilian plains.

This dish is inspired by the cooking of the gauchos.  Out on the open plains, the principal food that they ate were the cows that they herded.  However, they had no way to store or preserve the meat.  This meant that they had to cook all parts of the cow as soon as possible over an open fire and eat it with the same dispatch. 

This food tradition was aptly portrayed on an episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, which is one of my favorite food shows.  Andrew was visiting Buenos Aires to explore the Argentine meat culture.  Of course, he sampled dishes such as achuras (cow innards) and chinchuhlines (small intestines).  Andrew also visited the Bamba Chica Ranch, where he learned about the lifestyle of the Argentine gaucho.  Andrew tells the story in his expert style:

"The gauchos started working on this about 12 hours ago, butchering a 9-month-old calf, removing the organs and then butterflying the entire carcass over the coals.  From here on, it looks simple, but there is an art to managing this fire.  The wood is going from the pile over here onto the fire over here, where it will burn down as coals, as the coals become the right color and temperature, they get spread underneath the animal.  In the end, they'll use more than a ton of wood to cook this asado con cuero....  After about ten hours on the grill, it's ready to go.  So in true gaucho style, grab a knife, a hunk of bread, and throw some elbows to get a piece of your favorite cut."

What could be better than having a knife, a hunk of bread and your favorite cut of meat?  I looked for a recipe and found the Steak Gaucho-Style with Argentinian Chimichurri Sauce recipe on Food Network's website.  In any event, I did not have that expertly maintained fire to cook this dish.  While I could have started a charcoal fire using my smoker, I decided to go with the easier, more straightforward route ... my gas grill.  Although some of the authenticity was lost, the grill still worked perfectly.  I will definitely make this recipe again, and again, and again!

Recipe adapted from Food Network
Serves 4

Ingredients (for the Chimichurri Sauce)
1 cup lightly packed chopped flat leaf parsley
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves (optional)
2 tablespoons shallot or onion, minced
3/4 cup vegetable or olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar, or red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons lemon juice

Ingredients (for the steak):
3 tablespoons salt
2 1/2 pounds sirloin steak, 1 1/2 inches thick
2 baguettes, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick slices

1.  Prepare the chimichurri sauce.  Place all chimichurri sauce ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until well chopped, but not pureed. Reserve.

2.  Grill the steak.  Season the steak with salt and pepper.  Place the steak directly over a hot grill and grill until the outer portion of the meat reaches the desired degree of doneness.

3.  Slice the steak and serve.  Remove the steak from the grill and slice long strips from the outer edges of the steak. Instruct guests to pick up a steak slice from the cutting board with their fingers, place it on a slice of baguette, spoon chimichurri sauce over the steak, and enjoy.

4.  Repeat, if necessary.  If the remainder of the steak is still too rare, return the steak to the grill, and grill until more of the steak is cooked. Remove and repeat the slicing and serving procedure until steak is consumed.  Spoon chimichurri sauce over the remaining steak.

Obviously, this dish calls for a pairing with an Argentinian Malbec wine, such as the Bodega Luigi Bosca Malbec.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Black Ankle Vineyards Chardonnay (2011)

Chardonnay has become a worldly grape. Although the grape was first cultivated in the Burgundy region of France, Chardonnay vines now stretch beyond the borders of the French Republic, across the European continent and around the world, reaching out to the United States and as far away as Australia. 
Despite the seemingly omnipresent nature of the grape, there are definitely regional differences when it comes to Chardonnay wines.  For example, in the Chablis region, winemakers produce Chardonnays that have a sort-of "goût de pierre à fusil" or gunpowder flavor, which is simply a reference to the mineral elements in the wine's flavor.  These Chablis wines are also aged in stainless steel, never touching the side of a toasted barrel.    By contrast, in California, many winemakers followed a trend of aging their Chardonnay wines in barrels, lending flavors of  oak and vanilla to the wines. 
In Maryland, the winemakers seem to plot their own course between Chablis and California.  Take, for example, the Chardonnay wine produced by Black Ankle Vineyards.  The vines grow on north-facing slopes of decomposing slate that is laced with veins of quartz.  After the Chardonnay grapes have been harvested and the juice is extracted, the winemakers blend the Chardonnay with just a little Muscat and ferment the wine for six months in French oak barrels (of which 40% are new).

The Black Ankle Chardonnay, which is produced with 96% Chardonnay and 4% Muscat, pours a clear, fresh and light golden color.  The winemakers describe the aromas as having elements of smooth pineapple, lemon custard, and honey.  I could definitely sense the pineapple and honey.  As for the taste, the winemakers describe the Chardonnay as complex and well-balanced on the palate, with flavors of lemon, white cake, peach, and mineral supported by light oak flavors and a lingering citrus finish.  I think that the citrus was definitely in both the front and the finish of the wine, with the lemon and some grapefruit.  There are definitely other fruit flavors, such as the peach suggested by the winemakers.  And, there is definitely a little oak from the aging of the wine.  This wine is nothing like an oaked Chardonnay from California.  Instead, the winemakers expertly keep the oak flavors far in the background.   In so doing, Black Ankle strikes out its own path between the gunpowder flavors of the Chablis style and the buttery oaky style of some Californian Chardonnays.

The absence of the buttery, vanilla oaked character makes this Chardonnay very food friendly.  So friendly that it could be paired like a lighter wine, such as a Viognier or Pinot Grigio.  This wine goes very well with any seafood or vegetable dish.  On this particular occasion, I paired the Chardonnay with my version of Maryland crabcakes and the pairing was perfect. 

Only 170 cases of this wine have been produced, which means it is difficult to find.  If you come across a bottle, it is definitely worth a try (and a second one, and a third one, ...).  I purchased this wine at the vineyard and have not seen it at any wine stores.