Thursday, July 17, 2008 – Healdsburg, California

We started our trip with a stop at Imagery Winery to pick up a wine club shipment.  We like Imagery a lot, it has many interesting varietals.  Since it was lunchtime, we sat on their patio and had lunch.  Since it was our anniversary, we had a bottle of wine.

Picnicking at Imagery Winery 

Then we headed on up to Chateau St. Jean and tasted some wine on their back patio. 

On the porch at Chateau St. Jean

Later, we had a fabulous dinner at Cyrus in Healdsburg.  We’ve been there several times before and have never been disappointed.  John had Thai marinated lobster with avocado, melon and hearts of palm, sea bass with sweet corn and spring onions, mussel and saffron sauce, pompano with cannelini beans, trotters and crayfish glaze, and rabbit ballotine with agnolotti and chanterelles with an olive oil froth.  I had the lobster as well and also the sea bass but I also had a terrine of foie gras with lychee and tamarind and toasted crumpets and a crispy poussin with potato puree, haricots verts and morels.  We started with champagne and then had the sommelier pair wine with the rest of it.  It was great!  We also had amuse bouche, a cucumber gelee, some sort of popsicle palate cleanser and bunch of tidbit desserts (which we didn’t order.)  Even though the portions are not large at all, we were really, really full by the end.

It was a pretty perfect day.  Happy Anniversary John! Toasting our 36th

 

YOU CAN HAVE YOUR TORTILLA AND EAT IT TOO!

Do you ever feel like you are saying stuff and no one is listening?  Well, yesterday I had an experience of someone actually listening.  Last June, we took Ryan and Jon out to dinner at Don Jose’s Mexican Restaurant in St. George.  You can read my review here.  In case you don’t go back and read it, let me tell you that it was really bad.  But apparently there are new owners and the new owners obviously must have googled up their restaurant.  And what they found was my review.  So they wrote to me.  Here’s what they had to say –

“Just wanted to let you know that Don Jose Mexican Restaurant is under new ownership and would love to invite you back for a much better experience.
Changes were made with a lot of the recipes and the response has been very favorable.
We now have someone making fresh corn and flour tortillas. Margaritas were definetly a must so we obtained our liquor license in order to be able to serve Margaritas and a wide variety of beer. Last but not least all you can eat chips and salsa is served with your meal.
Changes have been made and for the better….. ”

Yay, for them.  I think we’ll venture back for a second try.

YOU SAY POTATO AND I SAY POTATO

TODAY’S WORRY

 I remember hearing a skit on “You say potato and I say potato” somewhere.  Was it Monty Python?  The person reading it just couldn’t understand why it was funny.  (He obviously had never heard the song.) It’s more amusing aurally than it is in script.  Anyway, tonight I made mashed potatoes. 

When I was a kid (Oh no, not another “when I was a kid” story), we had mashed potatoes every night.  I mean *every* night.  It didn’t matter what else we were having.  Hot dogs and sauerkraut?  Perfect with mashed potatoes.   Swedish meatballs and noodles?  Another fine fit for mashed potatoes.  Truly, anything could be washed down with a blob of potatoes.

My mother or father used to mash the potatoes when I was little.  Later my older sister would mash them.  Finally, it was my turn.  Just the right amount of butter and warmed milk.  Smash them with masher but then whip them with a spoon.  With a well made in them for gravy or, at my house, stewed tomatoes, they were what dinner was all about.

I’ve grown away from mashed potatoes.  I probably only make them once or twice a year for a holiday – turkey gravy and mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving, for instance.  But the other day I was talking to my hair stylist about my childhood and how we always had mashed potatoes for dinner.  And it got me yearning.

So tonight I made mashed potatoes to accompany grilled flank steak and broccoli.  I really salted the water heavily.  It’s amazing how much salt potatoes need when you boil them.  I used russet potatoes and threw in about 5 crushed garlic cloves.  After they were boiled, I drained them and mashed the garlic and the potatoes together over a low flame to evaporate any lingering water.  Some butter, a little milk, switch to wooden spoon for whipping and, viola, mashed potatoes.

They were so good and, obviously, they brought back memories of sitting at the family table years and years ago.

DOODLING THE CHEESE

TODAY’S FOOD

This is actually more of an expose’ on a type of food. While we sitting around at lunch today, my brother-in-law, Gary, explained how cheese doodles are made. Have you ever even thought about what the basic ingredient in a cheese doodle is? I guess I always thought it was rice if I thought about it at all. But no, it’s potato! As the potatoes come down the production line some are shunted off for potato chips and other are destined for doodleland. The doodle potatoes are pulverized, shot through with air to puff them up and then either deep fried for a hearty crunch or baked for a delicate crunch. Then they are coated with the orange stuff which I am sure is not cheese. I am a fan of the hearty crunch and my sister is more of a delicate cruncher. So there’s your snack info for the day.

Note: No actual doodles were harmed during the investigation for this blog.

UPDATE
In an effort to make sure my facts were right, we shopped for Cheez Doodles (the actual correct spelling.) Cheez Doodles are a Wise product. These were not available in our local stores. We bought Cheetos instead. Cheetos are made out of corn! So I am not sure about the composition of Cheez Doodles. Gary said he saw the potato ingredient on Food Network. Does anyone out there have a package of Cheez Doodles to verify the ingredients?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

TODAY’S EXPLANATION

In the comments on my Turkey Lurkey blog entry, Mike said that she wanted to simplify her celebration. It made me think about why we do what we do for Thanksgiving. In many aspects I am all in favor of the simplification of life and probably for most people our dinner is totally over the top. I think what drives it is a desire to recapture something of my own Thanksgivings and a hope not to embarrass our kids from a culinary point of view. When I was growing up we always had the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, rutabagas, creamed onions and Indian pudding. As far as I can tell, John had no traditions. So it was important to me to continue my own set of culinary memories plus give John a sense of family and, I don’t know, for lack of a better term, food warmth.

As our children grew, it was apparent that they were definitely foodies. Some of my food became a little naïve for their tastes. Obviously, I had grown up in a season-driven, East Coast household. As my kids tastes developed, they were a part of a 90’s, fusion, West Coast kind of gastronomy. So I’ve tried to incorporate foods using traditional flavors plus modern twists. The chipotle sweet potato gratin is a new one I’m trying this year. It’s based on an incredible side dish we had at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Las Vegas. It’s really tasty and a new interpretation of an “old” ingredient. Last year, we had the Apple-Rutabaga soup from the Inn at Little Washington. It’s a great way to use traditional ingredients in a new way and definitely a winner.

I think Jon is doing something new with potatoes this year. Maybe next year we can try something new with the green bean casserole. The “death by broccoli” comes from a friend from the mid-West. It was an instant hit with the family when we had it nine years ago. The ingredient list (except for the broccoli) is totally evil but it’s so delicious that we allow ourselves to eat it once a year. Indian pudding is an old New England recipe that comes from a mouldering cookbook that my mother gave me many years ago.

So you can see every part of our dinner has a story. Tradition for us is the evolution of experience and experimentation. It would be so much easier if it were intelligent design but not nearly as much fun.

TURKEY LURKEY

THURSDAY’S GASTRONOMY

Thanksgiving is approaching and I’ll bet you have a turkey lurking in your refrigerator or freezer. I’ve always been afraid of frozen turkeys. What if you don’t get it thawed in time? Or what will happen to your friends and family if you leave it out on the counter to defrost? My mom always left it out to thaw and, horrors of horrors, even stored it in the fridge with the stuffing inside. We all survived.

At our house, though, turkey is not the main event. It’s really the sides that are the stars. At the barest minimum, we must have 2 greens, 2 oranges and 2 whites. And, of course, cranberry relish and crescent rolls. For a dessert, Indian Pudding with ice cream is a must. So this year to complement our sausage stuffing stuffed turkey thighs and gravy, Sarah will be making apple-rutabaga soup (Thank you Aunt Peg for this delicious new addition to our Thanksgiving), crescent rolls, and cranberry relish. Jon will be making green bean casserole and potatoes of some sort. John and I will be making the turkey, death by broccoli, creamed onions and chipotle sweet potato gratin. Oh, and the Indian Pudding and maybe rutabagas because we love them so much.

It’s really impossible to take more than a spoonful of everything without exploding but the leftovers are wonderful!

What’s special dishes do you have on Thanksgiving?

CULINARY BOOT CAMP

YESTERDAY’S EXPERIENCE

For Christmas last year, Ryan and Jon gave John a certificate for a half-day class at the California Culinary Academy (CCA) in San Francisco. John and I decided to do this together and yesterday we participated in a class called California Cuisine.

We arrived at 9 am and were treated to a continental breakfast while we registered and mingled with the other cooking enthusiasts. We received nifty logo aprons and caps to wear during our class. After we finished the class, we would all meet again in the dining room and eat the wonderful things we had made. But wait a minute, the other classes are bread, sauce, soup and pies. Who’s going to make the main course for at least 80 people plus instructors and student helpers? You guessed it – California Cuisine.

We are broken into two groups and eleven of us follow Chef Mike into the kitchen. We each have a cutting board and knife and a set of instuctions. We get a short talk on cleanliness and safety. Also a knife demonstration. Then we are let loose. We must find the ingredients and make the food for forty people and have it ready by 1PM. It’s now about 10. We are supposed to take turns doing all the dishes. Tim, a young guy from San Jose State, and John and I are a team. Here’s what we are making.

Ahi Tuna Napoleon

Slow Roasted Beet Salad served with Hazelnut Vinaigrette and Goat Cheese Moussiline

Cold-Smoked Atlantic King Salmon served on a bed of Yukon Gold Potatoes and Topped with an Orange Slaw

Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb with a Date Reduction, Pesto Mashed Potatoes, and Tourned Squash

Braised Mussels and Shittake in Tomato Mint Broth

And the idea is that each team will have a turn making all the dishes!

Well, Tim, John and I started on the roasted beets. We dashed into the supply room and found the stuff we needed and implements to prepare it. I made the vinaigrette, John cut up beets but then, Tim was assigned to start working on the slaw that went with the salmon. I get handed a bunch of shitake mushrooms to slice, this is for a salmon sauce. Soon we are losing track of what we are doing. John misreads the instuctions and spends quite a bit of time cutting potatoes into 1/2 inch dice when it was supposed to be 1-2 inch dice. Then I am given the prep for part of the ahi. In the flurry, Tim squeezes an orange but doesn’t take the segments out first. John and I peel two more oranges and segment them. We are not sure what dish we are doing them for. Then hurry, hurry, it is time to change stations and start working on the racks of lamb.

Okay, wipe the boards, turn them over, and french the bones of the racks of lamb. I am falling behind! John works on my lamb. Next peel potatoes! John will do the medjool date reduction, Tim handles the pesto for the mashed potatoes, I chop up some mirepoix. Then I am off to the grill to sear the lamb. Then into the oven for 10 minutes. In the meantime, quick! chop up some chives for something! Get the lamb out!

At this point, Chef Mike is saying we can’t be late with the food. Come, watch a demonstration for cold smoking the salmon. Who made the sauce for this? Beats me. But I know I chopped up some stuff for it. I make the orange slaw for the salmon dish. John comandeers the mussels and basically makes that all by himself. (He is very proud of this.)

Now, assembly and presentation. I cut up all the racks of lamb which have also been spread with a mustard, breadcrumb, rosemary mixture. It needed some oil in it or something because it is very pale. Go get the giant pot of mashed potatoes. Artfully, arrange the potatoes and separated chops on three platters. Turn the squash for this with John and another guy. Put the sauce on. Slice the salmon. We need garnish on the salmon! No one used the friggin’ chives I cut up, so I garnish the salmon with that. People are making the ahi Napoleon; we never worked on that at all. John’s beautiful mussels adorned and we are done. It’s shortly after one.

Then we ate it all. I tried the Ahi Napoleons, they were great. The lamb I cooked was medium rare and good. The mashed potatoes were good too. Smoked salmon, very tasty. Beets were stacked with goat cheese on a spring salad, yum. Didn’t try the mussels since I’m not a fan but John says they were excellent. Also had a piece of bread (needed salt) and a small piece of tart (excellent crust.)

We had a great time but did we learn something new? Well, we learned that when eleven people who don’t know where anything is and are expecting more direction are thrown together to make food for 40, it gets a little chaotic. The other California Cuisine class had one or two people assigned to each dish and they made it from start to finish. That might have worked a little better.

John and I drove home and slept for 2 1/2 hours.

TOMATOES

TODAY’S MEMORY AND A RECIPE

What are the most perfect foods of summer? Which ones, in the dead of winter, do you long for? And I am not talking about their pale counterparts that you can find in the grocery store in the middle of January. Since I grew up in New Jersey, they have to be tomatoes and corn. You know, New Jersey is the garden state. It must be true, it says so on the license plates. Too many people only think of NJ as the Turnpike, the smelly corridor between Philadelphia and New York City. However, lots of small farmers still grow produce. Lots of people still grow tomatoes in their backyards.

When I was growing up, my father was an electrician and, later, head of a savings and loan. (I’ll write about this someday.) We had a backyard that I thought was enormous when I was a kid but in a visit during my adulthood realize was fairly small. Every spring it was always a fight to see how much of my mother’s gardens would become part of the vegetable patch. Most years my father won a little more space. He grew pole beans which I think were some kind of lima bean. He grew green beans and cucumbers. But his great pride was his tomatoes. He set up 6 foot cages for them and planted the little seedlings in the middle. By the end of the summer, we had a veritable tomato forest. Giant tomato plants brimming with tomatoes. There were more than we could ever eat. We gave them away by the bagful. They were the most delicious tomatoes ever – good acidity and some sugar. While they were growing, my dad paid way more attention to those tomatoes than he did to us. He would come home for lunch everyday either in his overalls or in his suit and commune among the tomatoes. Even lay in the dirt to carefully fertilize them.

The very yummy best dinner we could have was lots of corn on the cob from the local farm stand and fried tomatoes – not green, but fully ripe. The fried tomatoes were a mess to make. Dipped in flour, egg and seasoned breadcrumbs, topped with a little sugar and fried in butter. When I make them now, maybe I use a little parmesan too but I don’t think it was in the original recipe. They are heaven to eat.

Another standard during the tomato season was ham, lettuce and tomato with mayonnaise on a hard roll (this may be known as a Kaiser roll or bulkie to you.) Every Saturday, there was always a trip to the deli to get the ham and rolls.

These days when I feel guilty about eating anything but reduced calorie bread and lite mayo, skinny little pieces of some turkeyish deli meat and never frying anything, I like to think about all the delicious pleasures of those home grown tomatoes.

Baked Eggplant Parmesan

One of the items that Costco used to carry was Michael Angelo’s baked eggplant parmesan. It was quite good and you could eat half of it and still stay on your diet. On the WW plan, it would only cost you about 5 points. A good deal for that much food. But it disappeared from the Costco shelves. Not willing to let go of one of my favorite foods, I contacted Michael Angelo’s to ask what happened. Apparently, there was a contractual dispute with Costco and Costco discontinued carrying all Michael Angelo products. The baked eggplant parmesan was made only for Costco so it was totally no longer available.

Just recently, at my local grocery store, they started carrying Michael Angelo’s baked eggplant parmesan in single serving size. Hurrah! I thought. But they changed the formulation to include ground chicken in it (for some unknown reason) and that not only upped the calories but really upped the fat content. It still makes a reasonable dinner size-wise and calorie-wise (390) but the fat is now 18 grams, which is a lot. Why, oh why, Michael Angelo’s couldn’t you leave a good thing alone?!?

Sweet Potato Gratin with Smoked Chiles

When we were at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Las Vegas, we had a great sweet potato gratin. I found the recipe on line and made a few minor adjustments. It’s kind of high in fat but really tasty.

Sweet Potato Gratin with Smoked Chiles
Adapted from the recipe by Bobby Flay, Food Network

2 1/2 cups heavy cream (I used 2 cups and it was fine)
1 tablespoon chipotle puree (use only 1 chipotle pepper from a can with adobo. They’re really hot)
3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced thin (or 2 big ones)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the heavy cream and chipotle puree in a small bowl. (I put some of the cream in the food processor and the chipotle pepper and whizzed it around then added the rest of the cream) In an 8 by 8-inch baking dish, arrange a fourth of the sweet potatoes. (Use the thin slicing disc on the food processor to slice the potatoes) Season to taste with salt and pepper and pour a fourth of the cream over it. (Salt and pepper each layer, I also added some freshly grated nutmeg.) Repeat with the remaining potatoes and cream, forming 4 layers.

Bake for 1 hour or until the cream has been absorbed and the potatoes are browned. (I had to bake this more like an hour and a half) Remove from the oven and let sit 10 minutes before serving.