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Dec 15, 2007

Books: Alice Waters & Chez Panisse

Cover photo: Alice Waters & Chez PanisseFoodsters will probably want to read this book (Alice Waters & Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee; Penguin Press; 2007). While covering the history of the famous restaurant, from its 1971 opening up to 2006, McNamee offers an interesting look at certain aspects of the US culinary scene over the last few decades.

As a one-time Berkeley resident, I've eaten at Chez Panisse many times--mostly in the moderately-priced café--and I enjoyed getting a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant's history, the chefs that have come and gone (sometimes, as with Jeremiah Tower and Joyce Goldstein, moving on to wide acclaim), setbacks and triumphs along the way, and so on. I also enjoyed learning about the origins of the Slow Food movement.

What I missed, though, was a feeling for who Alice Waters really is. To use that old phrase attributed to Gertrude Stein when talking about Oakland, "there is no there there." I'm sure there's plenty of "there" in the flesh-and-blood Alice Waters. There would
have to be to have started Chez Panisse on a shoestring and a prayer and kept it right at the forefront of American cuisine for nearly four decades. McNamee gives us facts about Waters, but they never seem to amount to a real person. We learn of her delightful ways, but he carefully steps around anything that could be construed as negative. We all possess our little negatives; they're what make us human, after all. By ignoring Alice's, the author keeps her from being fully fleshed out. Thus, the book suffers from McNamee being a bit awed by, and overly-respectful toward, his subject.

Nonetheless: for many of us, this book is worth reading to understand more about the profound culinary changes that have occurred and continue to occur in the US.

Dec 4, 2007

Restaurants: Santé (Sonoma, CA)

Sonoma Mission InnHad a pretty amazing meal the other night at Santé, Sonoma’s only Four-Diamond restaurant. Located at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, the restaurant is committed to using local products and produce, particularly when they're organic and sustainable. That’s probably easier to do here in Sonoma, with its incredibly fertile soil, than it is most places; even a former city gal like me produces fabulous veggies in the garden without really knowing what I’m doing. But that’s another story.


Back to Santé. The kitchen is headed by Executive Chef Bruno Tison, who held the same position at the Fairmont’s famed sister property in New York City, The Plaza Hotel, and trained earlier with several of France’s master chefs, including Alain Chapel, Roger Verge, and Michel Guerard. Chef Tison’s culinary style can best be summed up by himself: “My cooking is heavily influenced by my strong classical background and the use of fresh American products.” Yes! 

BTW, Tison is beautifully teamed with Chef de Cuisine Andrew Cain, who also comes with tip-top credentials. The former Executive Chef at Sonoma’s St. Francis Winery, Cain served earlier stints at some of the country’s top restaurants, including The French Laundry, Citronelle, La Folie, and Michael Mina’s.

Santé’s dining room is spare and infinitely elegant—a fitting backdrop for the unfussy but gorgeous course presentations, each accompanied by a terrific Sonoma wine (thanks to the folks at Sonoma County Vintners). In a nutshell, this place is a knockout. If you’re visiting the wine country, it’s a must.
Here's a rundown of our meal:

Amuse-Bouche

First Course
“The Patch” Butternut Squash Soup
with Cinnamon Beignets & Crispy Sage
Paired with Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County 2006

Second Course
SonomaLiberty” Duck Confit with Frisée Lettuces,
Fines Herbs Vinaigrette & Persimmon Purée
Paired with Buena Vista Ramal Vineyard Pinot Noir, Carneros 2005 


Third Course
Sonoma “CK” Boneless Lamb Rack
Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Cassoulet
Rosemary Scented Jus
Paired with Hanna Cabernet, Alexander Valley 2004

A Tasting of Local Artisan Cheeses
Laura Chenel Chèvre “Fries”
Red Beet Relish
Bellwether Farms “Carmody”
Caramel Poached Granny Smith Apple
Pt. Reyes Blue
Sugar Pie Pumpkin Marmalade
Cinnamon Glaze
Paired with Pedroncelli Port, Dry Creek Valley 2002


Dessert
Vanilla Bean & Brown Butter Cake
Local Poached Chestnuts, Chestnut Ice Cream and Foam

Nov 21, 2007

The Versatile Turkey

When it comes to Thanksgiving dinner I’m a perennial guest—much happier bringing a dish or two to somebody else’s home, pitching in to assist the day’s (usually frantic) head chef, and helping to clean up afterward.
Nonetheless, I always keep an eye out around now for a medium-sized turkey—15 pounds, say. November turkeys are inexpensive, and I like transforming a big bird into the basis for future meals: slices of turkey breast; a rich soup broth; and a generous amount of Pulled Turkey Breast (which, when tucked into a roll and topped with coleslaw, is a healthier, dead-ringer version of the luscious barbecued pork sandwich found in the south).
Once the bird is defrosted, I remove as much skin as possible—discarding it—and carefully carve out the breast. I’ll need 4-½ to 5 pounds of meat (mostly breast) for the turkey pull. I remove the loins from the breast, wrap them tightly, and plop them into the freezer for a future meal. Then, if I don’t have quite enough breast for the pull, I’ll carve out a bit of thigh or leg meat and add it to the pull pile. I place that meat in a bowl, cover with wrap, and store in the fridge until I’m ready to make the turkey pull (you’ll find the recipe below).
Back to the turkey—or what remains of it, anyway. It now lacks a breast and, probably, some thigh and/or leg meat. It's perfect for a broth. I find that browning meat lends a rich complexity to a broth, so preheat the oven to 400º. Remove and discard as much skin as possible from the turkey. Place the meaty carcass on a rack in a roasting pan. Insert the neck, liver, and gizzards into the cavity. Brush with canola oil, salt & pepper to taste. Cover. Place in the oven for about half an hour, and then remove the cover. Continue roasting another half an hour, or until the meat has developed a nice brown color. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
When the carcass can be handled, get out your deepest stockpot. Carefully dismantle the carcass, arranging the pieces in the bottom of the pot (leave the meat on the bones—you definitely want the bones in there). Add enough cold water to cover the dismantled carcass, a large onion, 2 bay leaves, carrots, celery, garlic cloves, whole peppercorns, and some kosher salt. Bring just to a boil, and then allow to simmer for at least 2 hours. Turn off the heat and allow to cool completely. Strain into a large container. The turkey meat that’s been simmering still has plenty of flavor, so put aside likely-looking pieces before discarding the rest of the strainer’s contents. You can now make your favorite turkey soup, or else store the rich broth and meat in the freezer for future use.
The Pulled Turkey Breast, below, is a fabulous standby. I keep it in the freezer in portions, so that it’s always ready for unexpected company. To serve it in a traditional way, whip up a simple coleslaw (or buy one at your local deli). Place the Pull on a sliced onion or kaiser roll, top with coleslaw, and dig in. Health-nuts like me might prefer using a 100% whole wheat bun and topping with simple shredded cabbage. Serve with dark greens like swiss chard or kale; and black beans, black-eyed peas, or corn on the cob. A dark beer goes great with this.
Pulled Turkey Breast
2 large onions, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup dark beer
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup ketchup
4 TB Worcestershire sauce
2 TB Tabasco
1 tsp red chili flakes
2 tsp each salt and freshly-ground black pepper
4-½ to 5-lb turkey breast, skinned
Combine all ingredients except the breast in a heavy saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce to a mild simmer, and allow to cook 15 minutes. Add the turkey breast, cover, and cook at the barest of simmers for about 2-½ hours. Turn off heat and allow to cool.

Transfer the breast to a cutting board. Shred the meat, discarding bones. Stir shredded breast back into the sauce. Heat it again and simmer, covered, for another hour or so. Season to taste with salt & pepper; and add additional Tabasco if you like. Keeps exceedingly well in the freezer.

Happy Turkey Day, everyone!

Nov 19, 2007

Pairing Heidsiecks

Champagne Charles HeidsieckLast week I attended an unusually fine wine pairing hosted by Champagne Charles Heidsieck. The event was held at Myth, an eclectic French/California Cuisine restaurant near San Francisco's Jackson Square, where Chef Sean O'Brien created four outstanding dishes to complement the four wines served. Here's the lineup:

Amuse-bouche
Champagne Poached Oyster with Kaffir Lime and Uruguayan
Osetra Caviar
with Peeky Toe Crab Salad
with Melon, Mint and Champagne Gelée

Paired with Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve

First Course
Mushroom and Nut Dusted Seared Scallops
with Maitakes, Vanilla Butter Sauce and Smoked Sea Salt
Paired with Charles Heidsieck Blanc Des Millènaires 1995

Second Course
Roasted Lobster with Braised Fennel, Bacon, Quinoa,
and a Citrus Tarragon Sauce

Paired with Charles Heidsieck "Champagne Charlie" 1981

Dessert
Swirled Yogurt and Pomegranate Sorbets with almond Macaroon,
Champagne Quince Cream and Rose Petal Gelée

Paired with Piper-Heidsieck Rosé Sauvage by Viktor & Roff

A couple of notes from this exquisite meal:
  • I'd never tasted a champagne older than...well, let's say a decade. "Champagne Charlie," at the ripe old age of 26, was a revelation. This wine has been aged to absolute perfection, along with other great vintages, in the Oenothèque at the House of Charles Heidsieck in Reims, France. It possessed a beautiful golden tint in the glass, and in the mouth offered a rich, balanced complexity.
  • The meal's most memorable moment--for me, at least--was when I held, side by side to the light, glasses of Blanc des Millènaires 1995 and "Champagne Charlie" 1981. In one glass the wine was see-through, with bubbles streaming rapidly upward; in the other, bubbles proceeded topward in a stately, gold-infused procession. I'll leave it to you to figure out which was which.
  • The Rosè Sauvage, which contains a high proportion of Pinot Noir vinified as red wine before its addition to the blend, is packaged in an upside-down manner as if to announce its audacious qualities to the world. The fresh red fruit, heavy on cherries, made it an excellent accompaniment to dessert.
  • I was intrigued to learn that Heidsieck's extensive chalk cellars in Reims had been originally dug by the Romans about 2000 years ago--they used the chalk for building, liming the soil, and I believe it served some artistic purpose as well.