Thursday, April 17, 2014

Local food... thousands of miles from home

Last fall, we had the glorious experience of touring France's Rhone Valley with a group of like-minded food and wine enthusiasts, including a registered sommelier from Oregon Culinary Institute. Eleven wineries... a half-dozen local markets... the valleys and mountains of Provence... it was a dream come true. And that doesn't even count the three days in Paris on the way there!

Julie began hyperventilating as we stepped into the market of St. Remy-en-Provence. Billed as the largest and best regional market in the south of France, it certainly lived up to its reputation. "Scott, get pictures of those mushrooms! Oh, look at those tomatoes!" It was a food stylist's dream.

We found stall after stall selling locally produced sausages, including many with truffles, walnuts, and even some with dried figs ground in with the meat and spices. All delicious, all beautiful.

The produce, the architecture, the light -- everything combined to make this an unforgettable day...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The ultimate sandwich...

The finished product

One of the things I most often enjoy when eating out, especially for lunch, is the classic Italian deli sandwich. Thing is, there are a lot of really bad deli sandwiches out there. So over the years I've thought about what I dislike about bad deli sandwiches, but it's a lot more fun, and more worthwhile, to think about what I like. And that meditation led, over the years, to the sandwich in the photo above.

  • Bread. It's got to be good. Blah bread fresh from the oven smells good when you walk into the shop, but I like bread with some texture, some bite, some character. I've determined that my favorite is the Italian classic called ciabatta. Typically baked in a flat rectangle, dusted with flour, it has a springy, chewy inside and a firm crust. Better yet, if you lightly brush the bread with a good extra-virgin olive oil before toasting it somewhat, the sandwich will stand up to what you put on it.

  • Meats. Notice the plural. Yeah, there's a certain purity to a really great pastrami on corn rye, with nothing on it but some hot mustard; but if you're talking Italian sandwiches, you need at least two meats, preferably three. I'm hooked on coppa at the moment; it's a dry-cured pork product, often rolled in powdered red pepper for a little extra bite. Genoa salami is my favorite, with a sour, salty tang and a nice texture. And something like mortadella is good for a base, though sliced cooked ham isn't bad either.

  • Cheese. Provolone is good; asiago is slightly better (but I just had it yesterday). Basically, milder meats need stronger cheese, and vice-versa.

  • Garnish, relish, or some kind of dressing. A little tangy mustard (on the meat side, please) is good, but I like something more like a tapenade (a French spread with chopped olives, peppers and vinegar). Lately I've been mixing roasted peppers with Kalamata olives and whole-grain Dijon; I might try adding capers, chopped artichoke hearts, and other salty, tangy vegetable products.

  • Crisp lettuce in a zesty dressing. I like romaine for its crunch and its body, but a mache blend adds a bit more flavor. In a pinch, use shredded iceberg; just be sure to up the balsamic vinegar, and maybe some fresh herbs, to counteract the blandness of the lettuce.

And that's how we ended up with the sandwich shown here, lunch for Kim and me on Tuesday of the Week Of Eating In. We split it and each ate half; frankly, we could have shared it with two more people, with a nice salad or some crunchy pickled Italian giardiniera vegetables. On the other hand, this exquisite work of culinary art cost about $7 to make lunch for two people. Can't complain.

If you really want to get a sense for how to make this, check out the Flickr set for step-by-step instructions, with illustrations.

Monday, February 22, 2010

This Italian twist on a French classic is easy and delicious

There's a direct lineal connection between the grilled cheese sandwiches I had as a kid and today's trendy pannini. The idea is pretty straightforward: pretty much anything tastes better if it's fried, and if it's Italian and fried, that's even better.

So a few weeks ago, I was enjoying a homemade croque monsieur. This classic French bistro standard is really nothing more than a ham and Swiss on the grill. I've loved them since I discovered them, quite by accident, in the early Seventies, in the Cafe Americain in Paris. (I'll have to tell that story later...)

And I started thinking... I love French cuisine (we have at least one French classic on the menu for later this week), but if I had to pick one variety of food to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Italian. (Or maybe Thai. It would depend on whether I had a better European market or a better Asian market.)

So it was a natural progression from sliced Gruyere and French Mandrange ham to prosciutto di Parma and Asiago cheese:

Croccanti Signore

Prep notes

  1. Both the prosciutto and the Asiago are so full-flavored, you don't need much. I used two slices of Asiago and three of the paper-thin proscuitto, and the sandwich was pure heaven. (And if you're concerned about the butter, using only two slices of Asiago, rather than four, cuts down the internal calorie count significantly.)

  2. We used a local bakery's "Italian deli bread" for this sandwich. It's a standard Italian recipe but baked in a loaf pan, suitable for making sandwiches. (Look around for the same idea, especially at Thanksgiving; this is the best stuff we've found for cold turkey sandwiches the next day.)

  3. Use real butter. Just get over it. Margarine doesn't cook right, doesn't melt right, and doesn't taste right in this application. You don't have to use a lot, just enough to give the bread a golden crust and to help transfer heat into the sandwich.

  4. Start by cooking the cheese side down. This will help melt the cheese, which helps hold the entire sandwich together. Enlarged to show texture

  5. Cook about two minutes per side, on medium-high heat. When you've cooked both sides for about two minutes, cook another minute on each to make sure the cheese is fully melted.

  6. Condiments: I like a hot Dijon mustard (or a whole-grain) on the ham side. Nothing needs to go on the cheese side, as the cheese will melt into the bread. If you have some tangy chutney (and don't mind a little cultural cross-pollination), a dab of chutney on each bite of sandwich is magnificent.

Best of all, the basic technique used in this sandwich is applicable to all kinds of combinations. Try thinly sliced rare roast beef with Muenster cheese, or turkey and pepper Jack. Vegetarian? Spread an herbed goat cheese on one side and thin slices of roast (or pan-sauteed) eggplant on the other. And if you're vegan, leave off the goat cheese, add a roasted pepper, and use extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter. (I may do that later this week anyway, it sounds too good to pass up even for a confirmed omnivore like me...)

Time-shifting in the kitchen

Time-shifting has become so commonplace that you may have trouble recalling just what that once-groundbreaking term originally meant. Coined in the early days of programmable VCRs, the term referred to setting your recorder to capture a TV show while you were out doing something else—assuming you could figure out how to program your VCR, of course. With the advent of TiVo and menu-driven digital video recorders (DVRs), nobody has to endure the shame of that blinking "12:00" any more, and time-shifting is something most of us take for granted.

But how do you time-shift in the kitchen? As we were preparing for the Week of Eating In, we started by looking at all the things that, in the past, might have prevented us from cooking. There's something every day, right around dinner time.

So we fell back on a saying I coined while working on my first book back in the early Nineties: One day spent thinking before you start working saves five days spent working before you start thinking. It's true for books; it's equally true for dinners.

My brilliant and adorable wife drew a grid on a sheet of paper and sketched in the times of our conflicts. With this visual aid to help us, we figured out who had time to cook what, and when—a task we usually leave till 4:30 or so on the day. And the result was at least semi-miraculous: we came up with awesome things to cook, and a schedule that permitted us to cook, serve, and eat together every day this week.

Tonight's meal will be carnitas: a classic of Mexican cuisine that I've enjoyed for 30+ years. I first tasted this treasure in Mexico City in 1978, at a time when virtually no U.S. Mexican restaurants served it. It starts with a pork shoulder roast like the one shown at the top of this column; you simmer it in seasoned liquid for hours, a simple back-burner task. The house smells wonderful all day with the aromas of dried chiles, cumin, garlic, bay leaves, onions, and one of our special additions, a bottle of beer to the cooking broth. Best of all, this $8.84 pork roast cost about what a single combination plate of carnitas would set you back at a local Mexican restaurant.

And even when factoring in the sides (sliced avocado, corn and flour tortillas, chopped lettuce, grated cheese, and salsa), you can't beat the value. Especially considering that this nearly seven-pound pork shoulder will make enough to have a huge feast for four this evening, at least one lunch for the rest of the week, and probably still fill a freezer bag to be turned into another great meal at some future date.

We'll post photos of the finished product, of course, but for now, dinner is in the big Le Creuset and I'm wondering how soon I can start in on lunch...

Friday, February 19, 2010

The challenge for "Eating In" won't be the cooking...

I'm getting excited, and just slightly nervous, about the upcoming Week of Eating In on HuffPost. Which is a little silly.

I started totting things up and realized that I've been cooking for myself for more than 40 years, for my wife for more than 30 years, and for my family for more than 20. Whether it's following a recipe, adapting one to my own tastes (or to what's actually in the kitchen at the moment), figuring out how a favorite restaurant makes something I love, or simply going off on my own, I've been doing this for years.

Lamb shanks braised in garnacha with mushrooms

The challenge really comes down to why we get suckered into the whole fast food/dining out loop in the first place. And the answer: the illusion of saving time.

Like so many people, we've got a rich (read hectic) evening schedule. Two kids, and in addition to never-quite-overlapping karate lessons, the actress in rehearsal for our community theater's next performance, and her brother the sax player is performing in a jazz-band concert on Thursday of the Week of Eating In.

Usually, when the sax player is performing, he stays after school to help set up the stage and we bring him a #2 combo, ketchup and pickles only, with a pint of carbonated high-fructose corn syrup. It's so appealing: drive past the static-laden loudspeaker, hope that they got it right, pay at the window and arrive at middle school with a greasy paper sack.

But not this week. This week it'll be something "more chock full o' love than anything that comes from a store," in the wise words of Lamar from Chunk the Raccoon. It's still February, even though El Nino has been warming (and more important, drying) the skies over Portland for some time now. Chili? Chicken soup? Or given how much my kids like Asian cuisine, maybe a steaming bowl of Japanese udon noodles with thick slices of kamaboko (fish cake) and roast pork? Maybe a meatball sandwich?

One thing's for sure: if we bring the saxophone player a meatball sandwich, we'll make damn certain he eats it before he gets into his concert outfit...


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It doesn't get much more local than this...

So the Huffington Post is issuing a challenge for the last week of February: can you avoid eating out for an entire week?

This will actually be pretty easy for us, as we came to the conclusion last year that eating out—even if you stick to "cheap" restaurants and fast food—costs a lot, and makes us all feel queasy after a while.

It's seductive, the lure of the drive-through. It promises the zipless snack: order a Number Three, tell 'em what size, pick a drink, and pay at the window. But for us at least, too many days of greasy food left us feeling thick and full of grease ourselves.

And a number of things started changing. First of all, it was rejuvenating to get back in touch with the creative side of cooking. I've always enjoyed the act of changing ingredients into a meal, the subtle alchemy of spices and seasonings, the application of heat to turn raw eggs into an omelette, to turn white onions into brown soup. It can be a challenge to make something, day in and day out, that all four of us like; one doesn't like spice, the other doesn't like cheese, so we eat a lot of Asian food because everybody likes rice and soy sauce. (We must be one of the few non-Asian families in North America who keep a vase full of chopsticks in the middle of the kitchen table, just like at a pho restaurant. Which is where we got the idea.)

Even on my own for a week or so last summer, as Kim took the kids down to visit a fair subset of the grandparents and cousins, I made a point of making something extraordinary. One of my Flickr sets includes a photo essay of how to get those perfect diamond-shaped grill marks on a steak, just the way they do at a restaurant.

So with the Week of Eating In just around the corner, I'll be updating this blog with our menus, and of course with an emphasis on locally available produce, meat, and naturally, beer and wine. That's one of the great advantages of living in suburban Portland, Oregon: getting really great local beer here is like asking for a nice sparkling wine in Epernay. You're soaking in it!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The wine manager at our local grocery store once reminded me, "And don't forget, your lovely-and-talented REALLY likes rosé."

She didn't have to remind me. Kim and I have both been fans of good, well-made rosé wines since June of 1994, at least. That was the anniversary that we flew her mom up to watch the girls, packed a picnic basket into the MGB, and took off to the Santa Cruz Mountains for our 15th anniversary.

The first night out, at the Davenport Inn a few miles north of Santa Cruz, we toasted the sunset with a bottle of Randal Grahm's then-unique "Vin Gris de Cigare," a pink wine made from Rhone varietals (grenache, syrah, cinsault, mourvedre). It was... dry, crisp, delicate, but tasted great chilled as we watched the sunset on the veranda outside our room.

The problem at that time was finding other wine-like rosés. Most pink wines, back then, were still of the "blush" variety, made by wineries trying to get back some of the return on their red grapes in a market dominated by white-wine drinkers. (As far as I'm concerned, wine is red; if it's white, it should have bubbles.)

Randal later introduced a Ca'del Solo rosé some time later; we once did a cross-tasting and came to the conclusion that while the Vin Gris de Cigare was a better wine, we enjoyed the Ca'del Solo more. It was a little fruitier but still not sweet; the vin gris was more austere, more (surprisingly) like a white wine, while the Ca'del Solo had more body, more fruit, and was also a better choice for serving with more highly flavored foods. Since we tend to match rosé with barbecue, a fuller-bodied wine is usually a better choice.

But apart from Bonny Doon and some French rosés (Provence and Anjou being fairly reliable), we were basically stuck.

Until recently.

Fortunately, our wonderful wine lady, Roberta, likes to talk with us and has been looking out for good, dry, fuller-bodied rosés with less residual sugar. Lately we tried two of our favorites, and better still, they're both local.

In between paragraphs, I'm sipping the last few milliliters of a 2007 Elk Cove rosé of pinot noir, from my neighbors in Gaston. (Gaston is at the western end of one of my favorite sports-car roads in the world, and a charming place to visit on its own.) It's got a lovely coppery color, a nice acid balance but a good amount of fruit (even to the point of being a little sweeter than I normally like, but not objectionably so). We're having it as a summertime refresher after dinner, a simple supper of our fresh, local bacon and a spinach salad. It would have been good with dinner, too, and in fact would be good with something spicy—a curry would be an awesome pairing with this wine.

And for all that... the Evesham Wood is one of the best wines I've tasted lately. And not just the best rosés, one of the best wines. It's got fabulous body, with all the usual tempranillo goodness of complexity, depth and richness, but in a lighter color suitable for chilling. I had a bottle recently, and was thrilled; sadly, I bought the last one in Roberta's stock, so I'll have to head down to Salem (about 30 miles from us) to the vineyard.

Because, considering that the tempranillo grape is originally from Spain, I want to make paella this summer and serve the Evesham Wood with it.