Friday, November 21, 2008

End-of-November market: apples, porcini, kale,...

This week's market looks almost like winter - the figs are gone, we still have grapes, but they are almost overripe, falling off the branch when you pick it up; we see the last of the tomatoes; peppers and eggplants are not as abundant as earlier in the season; on the other hand, there are various wild mushrooms, all kinds of cabbages and kales, and apples are at their peak. Oh, yes, and pomergranates, of course, but since I have this tree by the entrance, I am not interested.

So here is an omelette I made with sauteed porcini mushrooms, served with a salad of mixed greens (the stunning green and pink flowering kale is not just a nice accent, it adds taste and texture too) and walnuts. Salad dressing: juice of 1/2 orange, 1 tsp balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp red wine vinegar, 2 Tbsp EVOO, sea salt, pepper .

Cavolo nero is also known as Tuscan kale. Some recipes suggest cutting the center ribs out of the leaves, I left them in.

Pasta with cavolo nero and prosciutto
for 2 servings

2 Tbsp EVOO

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 bunch cavolo nero, washed, dried, and cut into thin strips

1/2 glass of cheap white wine

1 Tbsp pine nuts, dry roasted in a small skillet for a few minutes

4 slices of prosciutto, torn into pieces

salt, pepper to taste

5 oz spaghetti

grated parmesan, to serve

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large sautee pan, add garlic, cook stirring for a few seconds until golden and fragrant, don't let burn. Add cavolo nero, stir for a couple of minutes, add wine, reduce heat to low, cook for about 20 minutes, until soft. Add pine nuts and prosciutto, adjust the seasoning, keep warm.

Meanwhile cook the spaghetti in a large amount of salty water (the package usually says how many minutes to al dente). Remove spaghetti into the sauce, increase heat to medium, stir, adding some pasta cooking water if neccesary. Serve very hot, garnished with grated parmesan.
The hanger steak in this photo I marinated with a paste made from EVOO, salt, pepper, rosemary, oregano, thyme and parsley for two hours, then grilled over very hot gas grill 4 minutes per side, let rest, then sliced very thin and added lemon shallot butter on top.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Braised cabbage + very simple apple tart

Here is what happened with the leftover cabbages from the previous post:
I had 1 baby white cabbage, 1/2 cauliflower, and 1 kohlrabi (without greens) left, and they made a nice large serving of braised cabbage, to eat with Molinari brand Italian sausages, grilled on medium gas grill for about 15 minutes.

If you like crisper bacon, after frying it, remove the pieces with a slotted spoon to a paper towel, leaving the rendered fat in the pan, then add the bacon back at the end of cooking. I didn't bother, and the bacon pieces were soft (but not mushy).

Braised cabbage with bacon and white wine
for 1 serving
2 slices of bacon, cut into small pieces
1 baby white cabbage, cut into 8 segments
1 kohlrabi, peeled and sliced
1/2 cauliflower, separated into florets
1/2 glass cheap white wine
8 dried cherries
3 juniper berries, crushed
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
6-8 sage leaves
salt, pepper to taste
1 Tbsp minced flat-leave parsley, to garnish

Heat a deep sautee pan over medium-high heat. Add bacon pieces, fry until crisp. Reduce heat to medium, add cabbages, sautee in the rendered bacon fat for a few minutes, to color.
Add cherries, juniper berries, caraway seeds, sage, wine, salt and pepper; stir. Reduce heat to low, cover the pan, cook for 25-30 minutes, or until the cabbages are tender. Serve sprinkled with parsley.

And a very easy apple tart, made with crab apples from the farmer's market, and store-bought phyllo dough:

Preheat the oven to 400F.
Lightly butter a cookie sheet, line with 6 sheets of phyllo dough, overlapping the sheets, if needed, dot with a little more butter.
Wash apples, cut in halves, remove the centers (with a mellon baller or a teaspoon), slice into thin segments. Arrange the apples on top of the phyllo, leaving 1 inch border, if desired; dot with butter; fold the border over the apples. Bake for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine 3 tsp brown sugar and 2 Tbsp hot water in a small saucepan, stir to dissolve, bring to boil. A pinch of ground cinnamon can be added to the syrup, but the apples are so flavorful, really, they don't need anything. Spoon the syrup over the apple filling, reduce the oven heat to 325F, bake for 15 more minutes. Slice with a sharp knife or a pizza slicer, serve with your morning coffee, in the sunny garden.

P.S. I've tasted a few of the olives from today (I've been rinsing them and changing the brine once a week), and the bitterness is almost gone. Now I'll be packing them in jars with herbs, garlic, lemon, wine vinegar and olive oil, in different combinations. If anyone has a nice marinade recipe to share, knows a good way to preserve them, or has any idea how long they can be kept in the refrigerator, I'd appreciate your comments.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Another cabbage soup (or stew)

It's becoming really cold and dark here, the time for thick comfortable soups or stews. I don't know which one was this. I ate it with a spoon, so it's more like a soup.
It was inspired by the tiny white cabbages that I found on the market on Sunday.
They are super cute, and taste as sweet as they look. Other ingredients are kohlrabi, that look like green spaceships, and that my mom grows in flowerbeds for decoration (both the greens and the balb are good to eat) and cauliflower, and old favorite. If this were in Central Europe, this soup would deserve an accompanement of a baked pork shank or something similar. We eat light in California, so it's garnished just with bacon pieces and minced parsley. The vegetables were so fresh and naturally tasty that I decided against any spices, to show off these green gems as they were. Since the stock was already made with aromatic vegetables, the soup does not need addition of more than an onion.

Three cabbage soup
(for 2 servings)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium red onion, finely sliced
2 kohlrabi, balbs peeled and sliced and leaves thinly chopped
1 small head of cauliflower, separated into florets
2-3 mini cabbages, quartered, or 1/2 head of white cabbage, roughly chopped
2 cups beef stock
salt, pepper
4 strips of bacon, to garnish
1 small bunch of flat parsley, minced, to garnish

Heat oil in a deep sautee pan or a wide soup pot over medium heat, sautee the onion until soft and translucent. Add kohlrabi greens, stir for a few minutes to wilt. Add kohlrabi balbs, cabbage and cauliflower, stir, add the stock, cover, lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, until cooked.

On a dry nonstick skillet fry the bacon until crisp, remove to a paper towel and leave to drain the fat. Let cool. Wrap in a paper towel and crush with your hand or with a cutting board to crumble.

Serve the soup sprinkled with the bacon bits and parsley. Any medium-bodied red wine, or a bold Chardonnay, goes well.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Grilled Hanger Steak

I was very happy to find a hanger steak, aka onglet, at the farmers market, because this steak, that is similar to skirt steak, but much more flavorful, is never seen in the supermarket. It weighted just over a pound, a perfect size for two servings. The steak is shaped as a long narrow leaf, and has a seam running through the center. I carefully cut the seam out before cooking, using a sharp paring knife - my brother surgeon can be proud of me, I'm not totally hopeless! - and lightly pounded the meat with a rolling pin, to make it more uniform thickness.

There is a couple of tricks to know when cooking the onglet: first, don't overcook, or it can become very tough. This one I seasoned with sea salt and pepper, brushed on some olive oil, and grilled on my gas grill at 500F four minutes per side, then let it rest for some 5 minutes. The other thing is, it has to be sliced thinly against the grain, and the grain runs in a fan pattern from where the central membrane used to be, so you have to change the angle while slicing, and the slices come out different sizes.

Served with new potatoes, sliced, arranged in a buttered baking dish with salt, pepper, heavy cream, and shaved parmesan, and baked at 375F oven for 40 minutes, and a salad of assorted young mustard greens and wild arugula, my homegrown cherry tomatoes and pinenuts, mustard vinaigrette dressing. And a bottle of 2005 Bordeaux, of course.

Here is more stuff from the market, and yes, I have to decide what to do with a pumpkin again. This time it's an acorn squash. Also found tiny crabapples, like the ones that used to grow behind our country house when I was little, grandma would make jam from them, and dad attempted making wine, like with any other fruit. These will go on tartlets. They are firm, sour, and very fragrant.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Northern California ring of food: french bread and smoked salmon

While living in the City or on the Peninsula one mostly shops ethnic markets, here, in Northern Marin, the food shopping strategy changes: the ethnic markets are few, on the other hand, we are so close to the agricultural communities of Napa and Sonoma, that it's easy to find small, very warm and personal local producers within reasonable driving distance. Every time the weather is nice on a weekend and I feel like going for a ride, I look for local food sources that I would visit over and over again. I call this my "Northern California ring of food" - it could be "Sonoma ring", but my main source is Marin Farmer's Market, and it is, obviously, in Marin.

This Saturday trip was for bread and salmon.

One of my dear salsa dancing partners, Jed (when not busy dancing, surfing, or playing in a band) runs a French-style Wild Flour bakery in Freestone, CA. It's a small village more or less in the middle of nowhere, an hour drive from where I live, but it's on the way to the ocean, and everyone driving on this road stops to get their bread and maybe have a coffee in the charming garden. I just had to check it out, so this Saturday morning I went. This was the longest trip I ever made to have breakfast (the longest trip for dinner was a whole-day sailing in the Grenadines from Union Island, in a storm, to catch our dinner reservation in Firefly on Mustique), and it was well worth it. I had a delicately scented lavender scone with a seriously strong double espresso, and, of course, a baguette to take home.

Everyone hates the supermarket sourdough bread, because it's, right, sour. Some time ago I got so dissapointed by it that I tried to bake my own. In the process I have learned that "sourdough" does not have to be sour at all, the word means that the bread is made with wild yeasts from the air, instead of the commercial type used in other breads. This is how all the bread was made before refrigeration made commercial yeast available. If made carelessly, it can become very sour, but it doesn't have to. The bread I was trying to make came out quite tasty, but I couldn't get the crust right. I still keep the culture, but now I only use it to make pizza.

Now the problem is solved, since what Jed bakes had wonderful sweet and complex flavor and right crust, crispy and fragrant. And I can get it in just two hours, instead of all day's baking, and see my dancing buddy in the process.

From Freestone one can continue on Bodega Highway to Bodega Bay (remember the seafood shop from one of the older posts?), or take the fittingly named Bohemian Hwy, running through Californian farmland dotted with holistic spas and yoga centers, and then through the redwoods to Jenner, CA, where Russian River meets the ocean.

On Hwy 1 outside of Jenner there is a roadside stand, where Greg would sell you his smoked salmon, and, if you are being nice, may be would read you some poetry, tell a story, or recommend a few books to read.

So there will be no cooked dinner tonight: the salmon served with French bread, some cheese, an apple from the garden, and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc are my dinner.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Fall menu: vegetable stew

This simple stew is based on classic ratatouille, but I learned it from my grandma, who, while being a natural intuitive cook, was born and raised in a Russian village, so the recipe that she got from one of her lady friends she called "soup ritatoole". This was not correct, but did sound like a song for us, kids, to dance to: soup, soup, ri-ta-toole, tap-tap-tap, clap-clap-clap...
It isn't really a soup, it's a very moist stew , and I like reduce some of the cooking liquid and spoon it over the meat that I serve with it.

This time I used cherry tomatoes from my garden, they grow faster than I eat them, and some of them get overripe and crack - these I use for cooking. A good practice would be to use San Marzanos, but these grow so slowly, I just get one or two a week.
I don't peel the tomatoes, but I fire-roast and peel the peppers. I know, most people would do exactly the opposite - let them. The eggplants here are japanese cherry variety, I bought them for their good looks, and will never do it again. Inside their cuteness, they consist mostly of seeds. Fat Italian eggplants rule. This stew benefits from lots of garlic, so if your garlic tolerance is even higher than mine (unlikely!), add some more.

The beauty of this dish is that you eat as much as you want hot (here it's served with pork loin chop, seasoned with salt and pepper and sauteed in a little olive oil), put the leftovers in a jar, top with a splash of red wine vinegar, and refrigerate for up to a week, serving cold as an appetizer or to garnish meat.

Fall vegetable stew
makes 2-3 servings

1 small or 1/2 large red onion, sliced in 1/2 inch half-rings
4-5 garlic cloves, sliced
2 Tbsp olive oil
large handfull of cherry tomatoes, halved
4 small eggplants, sliced
2 bell peppers, fire-roasted, skinned, seeded and sliced
a few olives
a few sprigs of fresh herbs: oregano, parsley, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf (easy on the last two)
1/2 glass white wine
salt, pepper, sugar (optional) to taste
2 tsp red wine vinegar

Heat the oil in a deep sautee pan, add garlic and onion, cook stirring over medium heat for several minutes, until soft and translucent. Add eggplant, cook until almost cooked. Add tomatoes, peppers, olives, herbs and wine. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring once in a while. Adjust salt, pepper and optional sugar.

If not serving immediately, add vinegar and refrigerate.

Home curing olives, wish me good luck.

For the last few days the employees and visitors of our business park were amused by the sight of a woman in a nice office attire, high heels and all, sometimes with a laptop bag tossed to the side, picking olives from the trees decorating our driveway. Well, may be they took it as a sign of the economy going down, and were not amused at all. I just couldn't let these beautiful olives go to waste, and I had always wanted to try to cure my own.
Right, there must be a harder way to do it.
Anyway, I have picked 6 pounds.

Now they are washed, covered with brine (1 cup of kosher salt, 8 cups of water) and cheesecloth to keep them submerged. I'm planning the release around the end of November, but since I didn't crack them (I like whole olives better) it may take even longer.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What to do with a pumpkin - Part II

Here is what happened with the other half of that Kabocha squash from my previous post. I got the idea of vegetable flan from James Peterson's Essentials of Cooking. The flan can be made of almost any vegetable puree, of a mixture of vegetables, or even of the leftover vegetable soup. Spices can be added as desired. I actually like the taste of this little squash so much that I only added garlic.

To make the puree of squash, you have to bake it first: cut it in half, remove the seeds and fibers with a spoon, dress with some salt, pepper, and olive oil, wrap in aluminum foil and bake at 400F until soft, about 30-40 minutes.

Flan of Kabocha squash
serves 2

1/2 Kabocha squash, baked
2 eggs
3 Tbsp of heavy cream
2 garlic cloves, minced
salt, pepper
1/2 tsp butter

Preheat the oven to 375F. Pour 2 inches or hot water into a roast pan, set in the oven for the water bath.

Scrape the flesh out of the squash, add eggs, garlic and heavy cream, puree in blender. Season to taste.

Butter two ramekins (or heat-resistant bowls or cups), pour in the mixture. Place the ramekins on the water bath in the oven, make sure that the water reaches a little over half-way up the sides of the ramekins. Cook until the flan is set, 30-40 minutes. Serve in ramekins, or invert on plates and tap gently to release.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Oysters and White Wine

The good thing is that I live within a short drive from several oyster farms, supplying oysters to San Francisco restaurants and stores, and my birth month has an "r" in it. Not that it matters much in Northern California - the Pacific water here is so cold all year around that the oysters can be grown anytime - but the "r" months are the traditional oyster season, and it feels nice to honor the tradition. The bad thing is, it's also the flu season, and I managed to get the bug just a couple of days before my birthday party at the oyster farm. Well, at least I was getting better by the time of the party, and already could feel the smell and the taste again, just had to be careful not to get too cold. On a warm sunny day like this, and wearing a heavy scarf and warm socks.

My friends and I like to go to Tomales Bay Oyster Company because it is somewhat protected from the ocean breeze, so it's usually a bit warmer here than on other farms, and it has picnic tables and barbeques.

They grow Pacific oysters on floating trays right in front of the beachside picnic area, and sell them by the dozen at a counter on the dock. The oysters range in size from extra-small (delicate flavor, best for eating fresh) to jumbo (for the grill).

On a rare warm and sunny Saturday the place gets very busy, so it's hard to find a table, and there's a line to the sales counter. Whole extended families come, with the kids, dogs, coolers of beer and wine, marinated meat for the barbeque, and all their photo and video equipment.

We were lucky to get a weathered wooden table next to the office, where a huge oyster-colored cat was sunbathing on the front porch, lazily waiting for us to open and offer him an oyster.

Once you have a table, go buy a bag or two of the freshest oysters you can get anywhere. My friends are experts at opening them by now, and all have their own favorite oyster knives and Kevlar or silicon gloves. Bay Area geeks are serious about their gadgets, be it electronics or cooking utencils. In truth, all you need to open an oyster is a screwdriver and some caution, but it's fun to show off all the gear.

Now it's just a squeeze of lemon, and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Crisp New Zealand wine works best of all, although Australia or Coastal Sonoma are all good.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Fall menu: what to do with a pumpkin

Now it's the California fall market at it's best:
the late summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are still there, and at the same time we get all the fruits - many types of melons, grapes, figs, peaches, nectarines, pears and apples, - wild mushrooms, and, unfortunately, the tempting, but mostly useless decorative stuff like Indian corn and winter squashes. You buy them because they look good, and then you never get to cook them, and toss them before Christmas.

Well, the basket of fruits that I got will go to my birthday picnic to be eaten with cheese and wine, and I withstood the temptation to buy the colorful corn and ornamental peppers, but I just couldn't leave without a squash.

So I handled various exotic looking gourds, put them together, imagined how pretty they would look in my living room, in a basket, next to pale orange roses, on a bed of fallen leaves, and then I thought how I will have to through them away, dry and dusty, two month from now. Waste of food. I just don't eat squash.

Fortunately, a compromise was easy to find. Japanese Kabocha squash, although it doesn't look like much, is a kind of winter squash that really tastes good, and is of manageable size. So I put down the tastless ornamental stuff , and got one of these.

It's about 3 pounds, and, if you manage to cut it - use a very sharp heavy chef's knife and a lot of caution - has bright orange flesh with a wonderful nutty flavor, and a handfull of fat, delicious-looking seeds that I never managed to roast right. This time I was trying to turn them half way through roasting, burned my hand, and spilled the seeds in the 400F oven. The few that I saved were not yet roasted, so were very hard to crack, but tasted great. The rest burned, filling the place with awful black smoke.
So, cut the squash in halves, scrape out the seeds with a spoon, and discard.
Remove the skin, cut the flesh into 1 inch slices, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast at 400F until tender, about 30 minutes, turning once. Cover with aluminum foil to keep warm.
Then we can use the roasted squash in a variety of ways. Here, I offer a salad and a soup. For the soup I used one of my "boullion cubes" - home-made chicken stock that I freese in small plastic containers, - and the fire-roasted peppers that I make every time I buy pepper, and then keep in olive oil with some balsamic vinegar for up to a week. The salad in the photo is served with slices of a roasted duck.

Warm salad of Kabocha squash with walnuts
for 1 serving:
1/4 roasted Kabocha squash, cut into bite-size pieces
a handful of mixed salad greens
1 Tbsp walnut pieces
1 Tbsp dried sour cherries
1 Tbsp crumbled blue cheese - optional

2 Tbsp Olive oil
1 tsp Balsamic vinegar
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt, sugar, pepper

Arrange the squash pieces over the greens, scatter the cherries, walnuts, and the cheese (if using) on top. Wisk the dressing ingredients together. Dress and serve.

Fall Colors Soup
for 1 serving:
1 Tbsp grape seed oil (or vegetable oil)
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/4 lb roasted Kabocha squash
1 large red bell pepper
1 cup chicken stock
2 Tbsp heavy cream
1 Tbsp minced herbs (parsley, chives, basil) to garnish

Place the pepper on a hot grill, under a broiler, or on top of a gas burner, and roast, turning, until the skin turns black and blisters. Put in a covered dish or a paper bag and let cool. When cool enough to handle, remove the pepper, peel off the skin and remove the stem and seeds.

In a deep large pan, heat the oil. Add onion and garlic, cook until soft but not colored. Add the squash, the pepper, and the stock. Bring to a slow boil, cook for about 10 minutes. Take off the fire, let cool slightly. Puree in a blender (make sure to hold down the lid. If the soup is hot it would try to blast the lid off and spill).

Pour into a soup pot, heat up over low heat (don't boil), stir in the cream, serve, garnished with the herbs.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Salmon with mushroom sauce

Here starts the fall menu. I know that asparagus does not represent the fall, but I love the combination of it's color with the salmon so much that I got imported asparagus and included it anyway.

The sauce here is composed of white, chanterelle, giant oyster, and shitake mushrooms. Any mushroom combination would work, but the chanterelles really make it delicious.

The salad on the side is mixed greens with heirloom tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

Sauteed salmon with mixed mushroom sauce

Serves 2

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 Tbsp butter

1-1/2 cups sliced mixed mushrooms

1 shallot, minced

3 sprigs of thyme, leaves only, stems removed

1/2 glass of white wine

3 tbsp crème fraîche

salt, pepper

1 Tbsp peanut or vegetable oil

2 wild salmon fillets, skin removed

salt, pepper

Heat the olive oil in a sautee pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, the butter, thyme leaves, and some salt and pepper. Sautee until all liquid evaporates and the mushrooms turn golden. Add shallot, reduce heat to medium-low, cook for a few of minutes without coloring the shallot. Add wine, reduce to about 1/3, add crème fraîche, reduce some more, keep warm.

Season the fillets with salt and pepper, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat, cook the fillets for 5-7 minutes per side. Serve the sauce over the fillets, with or without steamed asparagus, or, for a more appropriately seasonal dish, with boiled and lightly mushed potatoes.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Learning to Stir Fry

I got a small stir fry pan! I wouldn't call it a wok - it's Calphalon stainless steell, not the traditional carbon steel that turns black with use - but it's small enough to fit into my kitchen, it has a metal handle (that's one reason why I didn't get an authentic wok, everything in the Chinese store has plastic handles that I don't like), it's easy to clean, and, it turns out, one can use it to stir fry!

The common sence would tell me to get a cookbook and to try to follow a few recipes, to get the idea, and then start improvising. But no, I'm not like this, only the lusers (short for 'lame users' in old hackers slang) read the manual, the real gurus just do the thing. So my first stir fry experiment is an improvisation. It turned out eadible, and I will probably even repeat it, with some variations - it has to be a little different every time, no fun otherwise.

I used a top sirloin steak from Safeway that was flavorful, but, like most meat cuts in this store, cut in such a way that I had to trim off a lot (the trimmings go into the freezer in a marked plastic bag for future stocks), so as a results I probably had a little over half a pound of meat.

Stir fried steak with bell peppers
serves 2

2 Tbsp peanut oil
2-3 large garlic cloves, grated
1 in of gigger root, grated
1 star anise, litely bruised
1 kaffir lime leaf, cut into thin strips
leaves from 2-3 sprigs of oregano and thyme, stems removed

1 top sirloin steak, trimmed and cut against the grain into thin 2-inch long strips
salt, pepper

1 yellow onion, peeled, cut in half, and thinly sliced
1 each small red, orange, and yellow bell peppers, cored and thinly sliced
handful of white mushrooms, quartered
4-5 asparagus stems, hard part removed, cut into bite-size pieces

1 tsp each soy sauce, fish sauce, rice vinegar, toasted seasame oil
a few basil leaves, to garnish
1 cup steamed white rice, to serve

Heat the stir fry pan over high heat. Turn on the kitchen fan. Add the oil, immediately add the aromatics, swirl and cook for about 30 seconds.

Add the steak, cook, stirring to brown on all sides. Remove the steak to a plate.

Add more oil if needed, add the vegetables, cook stirring untill soft and browned in places, a couple of minutes.
Add back the meat and the meat juice, stir to warm up. Adjust salt end pepper. Remove the star anise.

Mix the sauces, vinegar, and seasame oil, add to the pan, stir to mix. Garnish with basil leaves.
Serve over rice.

Why white wine? - No reason, I just was feeling like it this time. I would actually serve a Zinfandel with this dish.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sierra Foothills Wine Country

Hi, there! The cat did not fly away, she's just not been cooking too much recently, so there are no new recipes for now. However, the days are getting shorter, the weather is going to cool down next week, so I won't be able to survive on salads and wine, cheese and figs much longer. Cooking posts are on the way!

And today the sky is blue, the sun is bright, and the grapes are ready for picking, and we are going to visit one of the lesser-known California wine regions (I actually went over the weekend, but just got some time to post today).

If you love to explore the wine country, to see it develop, to discover new interesting styles and meet people who produce them, but are tired of the showy atmosphere, crowds, and heavy, hard to drink wine styles that are becoming features of Napa and the more popular part of Sonoma counties, then Sierra Foothills is one of the good options for you. Out of several wine producing counties in the Foothills, the most easily accessible, and, as a result, more developed are El Dorado and Amador counties, and this is where we are going.

The foothills have volcanic soil, and climate is similar to Northern Italy, so it's especially good for groving Italian varietals - Barbera, Sangiovese, Primitivo - and Zinfandel, but the local winemakers experiment, often very successfully, with other grapes, from Rhone varietals to Tempranillo.

Wines are produced in small batches and few of them can be seen outside of the region, tasting rooms are cozy, the visitors are few and mostly local, and it's not unusual to talk to the winemaker on his way from his tractor to the office.

The biggest, closest, and my favorite is Boeger Winery, with it's cute fairy tale buildings, garden, and vineyard, located in a beatiful valley a few minutes out of Placerville. We first discovered the place with my ski buddies six or seven years ago, when we were opening the season in Sierra at Tahoe and had to leave the slopes early because of a heavy storm. So we made it to the tasting room that is open till 5 pm, collected the snow from the top of the car, and brought it into the tasting room. One of the friendly tasting room ladies took the snow from my hands, made it into a ball and tossed in the middle of the tasters. Winter fun began.

At that time I was impressed with their Tempranillo, but this time I thought that the Milagro, the reserve Tempranillo blend, is the best. Sauvignon Blanc and Barbera are also worth trying.

Other places from this trip, worth visiting for various reasons:

David Girard - for their luxurous grounds and estate, and for beatiful Coeur de Terroir blends

Gold Hill - for the peace and quiet, and the picnic area with the view (the wine on the photo on top is Boeger Sauv Blanc, but the view is Gold Hill)

Young's - for the artsy landscape, complete with a lake and a boat, music and wines with artistic labels

Bella Piazza - magnificent castle and grounds, great Barbera

Dobra Zemlja (no site yet) - the old man Croatian owner and winemaker is a character and makes the best Zin and fortified wines, and, the staff say, drinks most of it himself. The stuff are a family, the cellar is in a cave with frogs, the place is hard to find but worth it

Sobon - the ambiance of an old farm, figs, walnuts, cats, farming museum, several types of Zinfandel from vines over 100 years old.

My main impression of Amador Shenandoah AVA was that there are more winaries per mile than in Napa (and no traffic!), more appearing every year, and many of them are interesting in some way, so I'm coming back soon for sure.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Play with your food - deconstruction of the Olivier salad

I have missed the nouvelle cuisine and am not excited by molecular gastronomy, but I love to play with food all the same. This dish is a joke that only those who grew up in Russia would appreciate fully. Here I take the most common and mundane party dish, and re-work it in the style of nouvelle cuisine.

Olivier salad is a Russian potato salad that during the hungry Soviet past absolutely had to be served at any party. If it wasn't, the guests would ask where salad Olivier is, as if the dinner was impossible without it. The salad consists of a huge bowl filled with finely diced boiled potatoes, pickles, hard boiled eggs, canned peas, and either chicken meat left over from making a soup, or bologna or any cold meat. The salad is dressed flooded with en enormous amount of mayonnaise from a jar. It is the FOOD - heavy, filling, cheap.

So, here is my take on the classic:

Salad of potato with pickle and fresh small peas, balsamic truffle mayonnaise dressing
For 4 servings
1 chicken breast, marinated with herbes de provence and olive oil, then grilled and sliced
1 egg, boiled 9 minutes, cooled in ice water, peeled and sliced into rounds
1 gold potato, cooked, cooled, peeled and cut into round slices
2 small kosher pickles, julienned
1/2 cup fresh or frozen small green peas, cooked about 5 minutes and drained
small bunch of garlic chives

For the mayonnaise
1 egg yolk
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp black truffle oil
sugar, salt, pepper to taste

With a hand mixer in a bowl or in a food processor, break down the egg yolk, mix with the vinegars, then, mixing all the time, add the grapeseed oil a drop at a time. Mix in the EVOO and the truffle oil, adjust the seasoning. Put the mayonnaise into a squeeze bottle.
Squeeze a circle of the mayonnaise onto a plate, arrange the ingredients into a pyramid on top, decorate with ribbons of mayonnaise, scattered peas and chives.

The next time I'll be fooling around with this recipe, I'll replace the boiled potato with a little round potato flan made with an egg and sour cream, for better texture.

Seared Duck Foie Gras

The European vacation I was planning this year didn't happen, and I'm not too sad about it. One thing that I really miss (besides seeng my family) is fine French food.

Fortunately, I am not the only food-curious one out there, and a foodie friend who was looking for fat duck liver for a long time, ever since they banned the imported goose foie gras in California, and he was worried that duck liver may follow, finally found it, and very close to home, too - in Sonoma, at . They only do mail-order, but the packaging is so good that it isn't a problem. The liver comes vacuum-packed, an a foam insulated box, with a couple of ice packs added.

The liver that my friend brought me was the size of a small duck, so we cooked a half of it for two good size entrees, and saved the other half for later. The liver stays fresh refrigerated for a few days.

Of course I couldn't resist and tasted a small slice row, and it is heaven. It's even better pan-seared, with green salad, caramelized onions and Fuji apples and sel gris. Cooked according to the instruction on the Artisan's website, complete with the stovetop fan. Oil is not needed - the liver releases so much fat that after 30 seconds it's floating in fat. Care should be taken not to overcook it, or it will just melt completely. It behaves not unlike ice cream, and when cooked, has similar texture. So I cooked the 1 inch slices exactly 30 seconds per side in a very hot pan. The fat that's left over in the pan smells as sweet as the dish itself, and can be saved either for sauces of for frying.

The other half we cooked the same way and served with sauteed figs and champagne grapes, a great combination too.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

It's This Time of the Year

This is the time of the year that gourmets live for. On the market, the supply of figs is steady, several types of grapes appeared, heirloom tomatoes are everywhere, and 'regular' tomatoes are real cheap, both sweet and hot peppers are abundant.

Pictured here are champagne grapes (they don't make champagne from these, they are called so because of their delicately sweet taste) and very ripe Mission figs - add a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and you got the taste of California.

And here are Shady Lady tomatoes ($1/lb!) getting ready to be slow-roasted. I lined a roasting pan with aluminum foil, sprayed it with olive oil and evenly spaced tomato halves in the pan. Then I am going to season them with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, drizzle some more olive oil on top, and roast at 250F for 2-3 hours. Results later.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My Version of Salade Niçoise

When it gets so hot that one doesn't feel like grilling, a good dinner salad is a good solution. Light, colorful, with bright tastes of fresh garden vegetables, and big anough to serve as an entree. It does require some cooking - you still have to boil the eggs and the potatoes, and sometimes I like to fire-roast and peel the bell peppers - but you don't have to watch the cooking, just time it, so go sit in the garden while the hot stuff is boiling on the stove.

Recently, in fancy restaurants in the States it became fashionable to make a vegetable salad with fresh blackened tuna on top and call it niçoise. This is a way it's never made in Nice and around. The tuna has to be canned, it has exactly the right texture that carries the dressing well and provides contrast to the vegetables. And it's bistro food, after all! Canned tuna in olive oil is generally better quality than tuna in water, and you also get the oil for the dressing.

The yellow bell peppers and heirloom tomatoes that I planted in containers grew very flavorful, but rather small. This is why the recipe calls for a whole pepper and 3 tomatoes per serving.
I had my homemade anchovies cured in salt, so I had to do additional work of soaking and filleting them, but I like their taste and texture much better than of the canned anchovies in oil.

For the lack of Niçoise olives I used Gaeta. Please, please, if you are reading this, don't buy pitted olives! They are mushy, tastless, and they are taking over the market! It is becoming increasingly difficult to find olives with pits. Well, I still have my Greek and Persian grocery stores.

The nasturtium flowers are from my garden and are used just for the show. Actually, their taste compliments the salad well too.

The other ingredients that are sometimes added are green beans, cucumber, onions and garlic.

Salade Niçoise
for each serving:
2 small potatoes, boiled, peeled and quartered
1 egg, boiled for 9 minutes, peeled and quartered
4 anchovy fillets
4-5 leaves of lettuce, torn or cut into squares with a very sharp knife
1 small or 1/2 large red or yellow bell pepper, cut into long thin slices
3 small or 1 large ripe tomato, sliced
1 can tuna in olive oil (or in water), drained, oil reserved
8-10 small black olives, with pits

for the dressing:
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp EVOO + oil from the tuna
salt, pepper, (optional) sugar to taste

On a large plate, arrange the lattuce, scatter the tomato and pepper slices. Mound tuna in the center. Arrange egg quarters on the sides, place an anchovy fillet on each. Scatter olives on top.
In a small bowl mix the mustard with the vinegar. Slowly wisk in the oil. Adjust the seasoning.
Pour the dressing over the salad.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Honest Simple Persian Food on the Peninsula

Most people, when they think of Castro Street dining in downtown Mountain View, picture the blocks between the railroad and El Camino, where you can see a Thai family listening to nuevo flamenco playing in an Indian restaurant or locals dancing salsa to juzz music and chasing tapas down with a mojito in Cascal. It's all about show, entertaining, and 'fusion' cuisine, not about taste. As long as the interior decor is interesting, plates are fancy, the waiters are attentive and napkins folded nicely, noone cares if the tomatoes are underripe (even in the middle of the summer, right next to the farmers market full of perfect ripe tomatoes, cheap) or the soup comes somewhat cold.

Dont't take me wrong. I love fusion cuisine, in fact, what I cook at home is mostly fusion. And I believe that dining should be entertaining. But the flavor comes first. And what makes a flavor are the quality of ingredients and balance in putting them together (that comes naturally in classic cuisine, but has to be carefully thought of in fusion), and I saw these two essentials sacrificed more than once here.

For no-frills authentic flavor, cross El Camino. You will see a thick column of smoke coming from a corner of an old building. It's called Rose International Market, and it's a persian grocery store.

The smoke is produced by a hole on the wall, facing the parking lot. The hole contains a large smoking grill and three guys (Mexicans, of course) busy filling orders for kabobs and grilled vegetables. You go inside to order and to get a bottle of water or a yogurt drink from the fridge, and a number. Your order will be ready in about 10 minutes, and you pick it up from the hole and sit at one of the plastic tables on the sidewalk to eat (or get a takeout). Don't forget to order vegetables or other side dishes and the yogurt dip - they are not included automatically. A bunch of fresh herbs (mint, cilantro, parsley) comes with the order. For-here orders come on a plastic tray lined and covered with lavash bread to keep warm. The part of lavash that is under the meat absorbs the juices and becomes a treat. Tear a piece of bread and wrap meat, herbs and vegetables in it. Plastic forks and knives are available but not required.

Pictured here are grilled vegetables, two orders of kubideh, chicken kabob, and lamb liver. Everything fragrant with mediterranian spices and done to perfection (the liver was a bit overcooked to my taste though). A good-size lunch for two, relatively hungry.
Price: $

Cross El Camino back to the "official" part of Castro for an excellent espresso at Spica.