What Foods Go With A Chill In The Air?

I have never understood what makes some foods worthy to be eaten during the summer but shunned during the colder months. I am a big fan of grilled steak, and I have, on occasion, grilled during snow storms. And one of my favorite dishes is braised chicken with root vegetables, a recipe that I invented (invented?) and of which I am quite proud. But my lovely wife will have the vapors if I so much as whisper “root vegetables” between June and August. What’s the big deal? In reality, since most people are more active during the warm months, we should eat more substantial fare, otherwise we will waste away from lack of fuel. And to respect our more sedentary lives during the dark, cold winter, we should all eat bean sprouts and lean turkey until Memorial Day.

Duck Redux

So, the big duck roast was last night, and it went swimmingly. When I wrote about the superiority of duck compared with turkey, I also mentioned that I was unsure which cooking technique I would use. I went the low-temperature, then high-temperature route, not out of any strong feelings about its advantages, but because I timed the meal badly, and this method helped me salvage it. I roasted the duck for about one hour at 275°F, then let it rest for about 45 minutes. I returned it to the oven for another 30 minutes or so, but at a rocking 450°F! The low-temperature roast rendered a surprising amount of fat, and the high-temperature roast crisped the skin and rendered even more fat. The meat was perfectly cooked, incredibly moist, and didn’t have that unpleasant layer of fat that sometimes remains when I don’t roast the duck correctly.

Unfortunately, my sister and her life partner brought a great baguette (and an excellent Sonoma Pinot Noir, but that is for another post) with which I soaked up most of the fat and crispy bits from the bottom of the roasting pan. Perhaps that is why this morning I felt like drinking drain cleaner.

A Corked Wine

I have been fairly lucky. I drink a lot of wine, and I have doing it since about 1980 (yes, I was legal). So the odds are that I would have come across dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of corked bottles. The industry assumes that about 3%-5% of all bottles have detectable TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole) contamination. Through a combination of luck and a relatively insensitive palate, at least when it comes to TCA, I have had to discard just a few bottles. I usually will cook with bottles that are mildly corked, and many bottles have such a low concentration of TCA that only some people can detect —  and be offended by — the chemical. It has been described as the smell of wet dog, soggy cardboard,  or just plain musty. It is also suspected of subduing the flavors of wine, so even if you can’t taste it, it will change the drinking experience.

I opened a Dutton-Goldfield, 2004 Dutton Ranch, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir a few nights ago. I had high expectations for this wine, and when I first tasted it, it didn’t occur to me that it was corked. I was just really, really disappointed that a wine from a good winery and from an excellent vineyard would be so…crappy. Then I realized what had happened, and I immediately forgave Mr. Dutton and Mr. Goldfield their transgressions. The best news is that I e-mailed the wine store where I purchased this wine, and they promptly responded that they would be happy to replace the wine, or give me credit. They even offered to pick up the bottle. I was impressed.

Turkey? Not So Much.

Turkey is boring. It is the Soylent Green of the food world. Right up there with bologna and that mystery meat they served you at school. So, the arrival of Thanksgiving, with its attendant turkey-gorging imperative, doesn’t thrill me. But I have found a remedy for this obsession with large, boring, flightless fowl roasting. I cook duck. But not just any duck. I have happily co-opted my friend Jim’s recipe for roast duck. Actually, it is more like a guideline, because he really is a chef and assumes that I know what I am doing in the kitchen. It begins with rinsing the duck and scrubbing it with kosher salt, inside and out. Then, and this is the weird part, he insists that the duck be aged in the refrigerator for several days. Now, I am quite familiar with aging beef and have attempted it several times with varying degrees of success, but aging a duck? Of course, it works wonderfully, and when I figure out the best way to roast it after this bizarre aging process, I will faithfully report back. I am torn between low temperature for a while and then a quick high-temperature blast to crisp it up, or a high-temperature roast that requires constant attention because of all of the quite flammable duck fat oozing from every pore of the duck! They both work, but which is better? I’ll give you my impressions on Sunday, after I eat the duck that sits peacefully in my refrigerator.

Pesto And Vodka — A Bit Of A Ramble

I used commercial pesto on the pasta last night. I know, I know, it’s so easy to make, why didn’t I just whip up a batch? Because I AM NOT A CHEF! Sometimes I feel like eating out of a jar or a can or a package. And I’m willing to bet that most people who consider themselves cooks will, occasionally, pop open something made in a factory. I used De Cecco Pesto alla Genovese, which I found at a very nice local deli. It had an interesting minty quality, no doubt because of the variety of basil used. Basil and mint are in the same family, so this wasn’t a surprise, but I like the less minty variety that I am used to cooking with.

If there are any toxicologists in my vast audience, perhaps she would like to respond to this post with some comments about estragole, which is found in basil (among many other plants) and is a carcinogen. I’m not worried, just curious. My guess is that I would have to eat pounds of basil every day for any real risk.

Just in case you thought that my cooking failure was limited to dinner, we ran out of cold vodka for martinis and had to mix. And not just any mix, but two different brands made from different carbohydrate sources! We blended cold Stolichnaya, which is a Russian wheat vodka, with Luksosova, a Polish potato vodka. With great success! I think that blending is the next step in vodka production — there is already a high-end vodka that is a blend of rye, wheat and potato vodkas. It is called Ultimat, and it is very good, and obscenely overpriced.

I did redeem myself as a cook by making the kids a great dish of sautéed pork chops over rice with mustard sauce that they licked off their plates when I wasn’t looking.

The Spotted Pig

I usually try to avoid restaurants with buzz or joints that once had buzz but now cater to the B&T crowd. But The Spotted Pig was just too tempting to pass by. And I am very, very happy that I gave in to the temptation. The place was a bit surprising-looking. I was expecting a more elegant space, but it looked like a typical neighborhood bar. And of course, that’s where we ate, at the bar. The tables, except for one booth (and, probably, the upstairs, which was closed for renovations), are all small and looked uncomfortable. But the bar…ah, the bar. We snagged the corner, so the three of us could chat and share bites (I was accused, fairly, of not sharing). The bartender was attentive, seemed to know the food, and mixed what looked like an excellent vodka & tonic. Unfortunately, we stuck to beer, so I was unable to verify my suspicions. Rest assured, I will remedy my ignorance as soon as possible. They have a few beers on tap, including two cask ales, one of which we tried, but we did not like it as much as the Brooklyn Brewery Local 1. They also offer a nice, albeit small, selection of bottled beers. But on to the food!

We started with some deviled eggs and chicken liver toast. The deviled eggs were very good, but how exciting can they be? The chicken livers are another story. Fantastic! The best! Even better than my grandmother’s chicken livers. They were incredibly rich, with a great texture — almost smooth, but with the barest hint of chunkiness. My only complaint is that the toast was not quite crispy. But I would order this dish again, and again.

Our main courses were tough to pick, and one of my fellow diners made a tactical error, which she realized immediately. A Cuban sandwich may be a good idea, and The Spotted Pig executed it well, but the dish can be had in thousands of places, and many of them will do a great job of it. To make up for this lapse in judgment, she also had “sheep’s ricotta gnudi with brown butter & sage.” I really have no idea what it was, other than an absolutely delicious concoction of cheese and butter stuffed into something that reminded me a bit of gnocchi. Whatever it was, order it. We also had a prosciutto and ricotta tart that was very good, but not exciting. I had an excellent cheeseburger with shoestring potatoes. It was perfectly cooked (and rather large), with a nice portion of Roquefort on top. The cheese was sharp and salty, and they didn’t overseason the burger, so the flavors meshed well. This was a quality job. I judge restaurants by a few things, one of which is the burger situation, and I heartily approve of The Spotted Pig’s.

This place is a keeper, although I have been told that it is a madhouse for dinner. So go, preferably for lunch, but be prepared to wait for dinner.

Mauritson 2002 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel

I am usually happy with zinfandels, at least at some level. Oh, sometimes they are over the hill and have lost their fruit, or they are too soft and unstructured. But there is almost always something interesting going on in the glass. Not last night though! Yes, it was probably too old to expect much from a five year old zinfandel, but there just wasn’t anything there. The fruit, whatever may have existed when this wine actually tasted like something, was gone, and I mean completely gone. To be fair, it wasn’t overwhelmed by any particular flavor. Obviously it was (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away)  a well balanced wine. The tannins were soft, and there was a bit of acid, but not much else. I missed that distinctive peppery flavor that many zinfandels exhibit, and it didn’t even have the telltale clove flavor that some badly made zinfandels will sometimes have.

This wine came well recommended by a reputable wine merchant, and it even has a nice, understated label. How could this be a bad wine? Where did I go wrong? I feel so…betrayed.