Fetish The Watcher 2005 Barossa Valley

This is one of those typical Aussie Shirazes that is getting more and more of my wine dollar. I paid $15 for this wine at The Wine Library. What I got for my money is an extremely well-made wine, tasting of dark fruits and hints of something spicy. There is ample structure, so I am going to hold on to a few bottles (if I can) to see how it ages. Once again, great weather that allows full development of the fruit beats centuries of practice at making wine from unripe grapes (France, if you weren’t sure). Just in case you weren’t sure that this is a keeper; the bottle and label are gorgeous, so if you don’t want to drink it, you can give it as a gift (to me). And I won’t even mention the name.

Butter And Beer: One Good, And One Not So Good

We had one of those “oh damn, what the hell are we going to eat tonight?” evenings. Actually, it worked out surprisingly well, but it wasn’t without a few bumps in the culinary road. The highlight was the incredible French butter. We Americans, until recently, have been used to butter being either palatable, or rancid. The French, until recently, have had slightly higher expectations. We are catching up, but some of that progress can be credited to imported butter, mainly from France (if you knew me , you would appreciate the pain that praising anything French causes me).
Isigny Ste Mére Beurre D’Isigny Extra-Fin butter is  just…spectacular. It tastes of  nothing but butter! Amazing stuff. The texture, the  flavor,  it’s all perfect.  When I look at an eight-ounce log of butter and think, “I hope my wife doesn’t like it, because I want to finish it tonight,” I know I’m in trouble. Luckily the bread (Whole Foods baguette) wasn’t great, or my cardiologist would have gotten a call this evening. The cheese was good too, and the sautéed chicken breast in my famous barbecue rub was good, but the rub had too much cumin, so it wasn’t great. Blah, blah blah. The butter was the star of the show. The beer? A Belgian blond that was a bit too sweet, but still drinkable. But the butter! Wow. And making butter seems moronically simple. Churn cream. Package. Sell. I guess they massage the cows, or let them stay up late and talk with their friends. Who knows, but whatever the frogs are doing, it works.

What The @%#&! Brussels Sprouts?

I don’t know what to say. The fabric of the universe has been torn. Brussels sprouts are good. Yes, you read that correctly. They are good. Now, I roasted them in olive oil, salt and pepper, then sautéed them in bacon. But still. Brussels sprouts?

Even the kids ate them.

OK, I lied. They tasted them and didn’t throw them up onto the table. And one of them even sneaked some of the bacon from the pan. And as we all know, it was tainted with the taste of…Brussels Sprouts!

What’s Good, And What Isn’t?

I got slapped around a bit, in a good-natured way, by another, funnier, blogger. I was trying to walk the fine line between telling him that his taste in coffee sucks and making the point that at a certain quality level, everything is about personal preference. I was wishy-washy, and he called me on it. But it got me thinking about personal taste versus objective quality. Tommy (the blogger) used the fine example of steak. Peter Luger makes good steak. Arthur’s Tavern? Not so much. Although it is a fun place, at least the one in Hoboken. And his point was that if you are going to recommend a steak house to a bunch of friends who like food, you aren’t going to send them to Arthur’s, you are going to send them to Brooklyn, to one of the temples of steak.

But what about obviously well-made foodstuffs that just aren’t good…to me? My father loves French wines that, while well made, taste like pencil shavings and dirt. But that is the style, so who am I to criticize? Actually, one of my favorite hobbies is poking fun at all things French, so maybe that isn’t a good example. How about pizza? I love pizza — every style, every oven, every dough. But if I want thin-crust, bar pizza, I’m going to Kinchley’s Tavern. Are there other places that make a good bar pizza? Of course. And I am sure that someone will argue that my taste in bar pizza is infantile and un-American and that I probably wet the bed.

So what is my point? I am not sure. I think that quality and personal taste intersect somewhere, but that there is obviously a place where stuff is just crappy, and no amount of personal taste can overcome lousy quality. Does anyone remember Set Theory? That would help.

Oh, and as long as we are talking about objective quality; MP3s are awful, when compared to CDs. Their only advantage is the compression that allows you to put lots of music in a small space. But the sound quality is really pathetic. I just listened to the same song twice — once recorded as an MP3, and then the original on CD. Try it, you’ll be amazed.

It Worked! (I’m Still Not A Chef Though)

And it was fun too! The end result was a nicely crisped chicken, with absolutely spectacular roasted potatoes and carrots (yeah, I caved and added something healthy).  I cleverly used duck fat instead of oil, because I have a pint of the stuff from my Thanksgiving multiple-duck-roasting. Duck fat has a fairly high smoke point, and it adds a bit of flavor. And I think that the cast iron really helped the process; it is so big and heavy that the temperature barely dropped when I put the chicken into the pan.

I dumped some carrots, lemon, celery and onion into the cavity of a 4-pound chicken and then tied the legs together. I couldn’t be bothered with stitching the cavity closed, so I just tucked the skin under the legs and hoped that the stuffing wouldn’t fall out. And don’t forget my creeping pomposity. I used that weird Hawaiian pink sea salt, both in the cavity and on the exterior. I also sprinkled some fresh thyme around, mostly as an afterthought. I used small Yukon Gold potatoes that I had peeled and soaked in cold water for a few hours. I was hoping that the water would leech out some of the starch and help crisp the potatoes, and it seemed to work. The potatoes were too big left whole, so I quartered them, which worked out to be the perfect size. I also peeled and split some carrots and cut them into two-inch pieces. I soaked them in cold water as well, but also added some brown sugar and a bit of salt. Why? I have no idea. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The pan was just smoking when I put the chicken in, and the sound of the skin hitting the hot duck fat was lovely.  I made sure that the chicken was nice and dry before I dropped it in; I hate getting splattered with hot fat. It browned fairly quickly, maybe two or three minutes on each side. If I make this dish again (and I think I will) I will brown the chicken for a bit longer. As I browned the chicken I heated up a non-stick pan with a pat of butter and some canola oil. When it was hot I tossed in the potatoes and carrots. I wanted to season them (a bit of salt, pepper and thyme) and coat them with fat before I put them into the cast iron pan, mostly to minimize the mess; they filled the pan and it would have been difficult to toss them in the fat. When the chicken was nicely browned, I picked it out of the pan, tossed the potatoes and carrots in, slapped the chicken back into the pan on top of the other stuff, and put it into a 450°F oven for about an hour. I flipped the chicken after 50 minutes, mostly to crisp up the bottom. The potatoes and carrots didn’t stick at all; they just got nice and brown and crispy. The chicken was juicy, but the legs were a tad overdone. Nothing terrible, but the skin had begun to pull away from the ends.

This was enjoyable and amusing to cook, both because I had no idea what I was doing, and the technique was interesting. The best part was the potatoes and carrots. When I try this again I’ll have to spend more than three seconds contemplating the seasoning, but the chicken was worth the trouble.

P.S. I forgot that I deglazed the pan with the stuffing and some red wine (and butter, of course). I then scrunched it through a chinois and made a beautiful sauce. It even tasted good, but it didn’t really go well with the dish. Maybe white wine and lemon would have worked better.

Roast Chicken (With A Twist)

Not of lemon, but of technique. Recently, I watched our chef friend cook a chicken, and I thought that I could steal and then modify his method. Not really, because he roasted it whole, then carved it into pieces and continued roasting, and he knew when each piece was done without the benefit of a thermometer. I have fewer skills, and even less talent, so I will be less confident of the process and the end result.

I want to try browning a whole chicken in my large, cast iron skillet then roast it at some outrageous temperature until it is crispy. I’ll manage the risk of a fat fire by layering the pan with potatoes, which should soak up the fat and taste pretty good by the end. Of course, I will need to truss the chicken, which means that my wife will get at least one mouthful of string (bondage is not one of my skills), but that is a price I am willing to pay, if the end result is crispy and juicy. Actually, I have no idea whether this is a standard technique that I just never saw or read about. But that is half the fun of cooking — trying new stuff and being, hopefully, pleasantly surprised at the outcome. I can’t imagine that it will be awful; it just might not be worth the trouble. But if I am wrong, and it is awful, I still have some of that great ragu I made the other day.

See the results here.

One Thousand And One Nights — Of Ragù

For his birthday dinner, a sixteen-year-old, who shall remain nameless, requested spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, Caesar salad, and my justifiably famous molten chocolate cake. Of course, I was insulted and hurt that he didn’t want my roast duck, or pasta with shrimp and arugula, or any of dozens of dishes that actually are interesting. He did choose an excellent dessert, so he will be allowed to survive another year. He got what he requested, but I wasn’t going to eat meatloaf balls and red sauce. I was going to make Pasta alla Bolognese, served over whatever flat pasta I could find (my cooking skills do not include making fresh pasta). What could be easier? I had forgotten how long it takes to make this dish and how much attention it requires. But I was hell-bent on eating something better, and besides, I already had bragged to my wife that she would love this dish.

Pace, Marcella Hazan, but your recipe for ragù (the meat sauce for the dish) is a pain-in-the-ass. It is also very, very good on a cold, snowy night, with a glass of full-bodied red wine. So I am happy with my ragù recipe. But the little food nerd sitting on my shoulder whispered in my ear, “What about the recipe calling for veal? Or pork? Or Pancetta? Or Prosciutto? Or mushrooms? or…” There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of recipes for this simple meat sauce. And they all look good. The basic idea is simple, and the various recipes play around with the ingredients to accommodate the tastes of the cook. They just take a long time. Try one of these recipes. You will be happy with the results. A word of advice: Make a double batch. It freezes well, and the extra time investment is minimal.

A Reader Writes (about the glass situation)

I have one of these. I received it as a Hanukkah gift. I progressed through the following stages:
1) not understanding how to hold it,
2)understanding how to hold it but feeling too awkward to use it in front of guests,
3) using it while mocking it in front of guests,
4) realizing just how damn effective it is, and the final stage:
5) feeling smug and superior to all the losers holding stemmed glasses.
The only downside is that, as the ad claims, it does accentuate the flaws that might go unnoticed if one were to consume the wine from a jelly jar or straight out of the bottle. Still…makes a great holiday gift.

Creeping Foodie Pomposity

First it was salt. Then it was a snooty, wine-snob tasting glass that, unfortunately, works really well. It was a gift from my sister and her life partner, so I would never criticize its function if it were crappy. I just wouldn’t say anything. But this thing really works! It is awkward to hold, and difficult to pick up without defeating the purpose of the design (it keeps the warming effect of your hand to a minimum), but the shape concentrates the aroma of the wine as you drink, so you get a blast from both taste and smell. But I earned my wine stripes while drinking from $1 glasses, or more frequently, glasses that were given to me by wineries, back in the old days when wine tasting wasn’t like going to Disneyland. So I feel like I am betraying my roots.

When I appear in my kitchen wearing a monogrammed, double-breasted chef’s jacket, and a toque — somebody shoot me…please!