DAMN I wish I had taken pictures, but Ryder and I didn’t allow ourselves a lot of extra time or bring a commis with us when we cooked at Fisher Vineyards’ Napa property for their Cellar Selection dinner last Sunday night. Ryder snapped a few of the canapes, I’ll post them if they came out looking good.
The setting was ur-wine country–an old plank barn on the valley floor, doors thrown open to view the vineyards as the sun set over the Mayacamas range, a string and flute trio barely covering the droning of the short-track racecars over at the fairgrounds in Calistoga. We were a good country mile away, they’re just that loud. Everyone sat at a king’s table right in the barn, on the gravel floor. By the NY strip course, we were cooking in the dark . . . Most of the menu is Ryder’s inspiration:
CELLAR SELECTION DINNER
September 4, 2011
BARBECUED KUSSHI OYSTERS With Sweet Corn and Fresno Chile Butter
FORNI-BROWN GARDENS PADRON PEPPERS Ambrosia Melon and Prosciutto San Daniele
GOLDEN TOMATO GASPATXO with Garlic Blossoms and Gremolata
Schramsberg, Blanc de Blanc, Sparkling
GRAVLAX OF SACRAMENTO DELTA KING SALMON
Horseradish, Rye, Pink Pearls Apples, Armenian Cucumber, Dill
1999 Whitney’s Vineyard, Chardonnay, Sonoma County
2009 Whitney’s Vineyard, Chardonnay, Sonoma County
SEARED PORK BELLY
Poached Farm Egg, Black-eyed Peas, Tomato Jam, Marjoram
2005 Wedding Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County
GRILLED NEW YORK STRIP OF PAINTED HILLS FARM BEEF
Salt-baked Onion, Parisienne Gnocchi, Broccoli Rabe, Sauce Bordelaise
2008 Coach Insignia, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2007 Lamb Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
PLEASANT RIDGE RESERVE COW’S MILK CHEESE
Black Mission Fig, Pepperonata, Pain de Campagne, Sunflower Seed
1998 Coach Insignia, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
1994 Lamb Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
DARK CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES
I banished tomatoes form my thinking and lo and behold, Barney Welsh called to say that he could have them by Wednesday last. Allelu.
They’re on our BLT served on house-made basil bread, on our cheeseburger, and today on an heirloom tomato salad with crispy house-made mozzarella, balsamico spheres, fino verde basil and extra virgin olive oil:
When we were deciding how to serve the tomatoes this year, Goose (or Ryder, I can no longer recall) said, “Everyone does homemade mozzarella, but how come no one does FRIED homemade mozzarella?” Well, now we do. And it’s as good as you’d expect. There’s a fine line, isn’t there, between clever and stupid.
If you want to know all the varietals we serve, call Barney, he’ll get a good laugh out of it. At you, not me.
We’re only going to put them on the menu when Barney over at Forni-Borwn Gardens has them ready, and he’s still more than a week out . . . a lot of cool, foggy mornings here in the valley this summer. The rains better hold off till Halloween or we’re going a lot of despondent vintners. Cooks can always move on to hard squash and turnips.
While tomatoes aren’t ready, it IS prime time for summer squash and eggplant, and Ryder, our Chef de Cuisine, came up with a killer riff on ratatouille and rice that is the only vegan and gluten-free option on our menu: eggplant involtini with saffron-tomato arancini, red pepper glaze, and squash ciambotta.
The preparation is so intricate that it would take 1K words to explain, but the natural sweetness of the vegetables, the creamy-crunchy of the arancini, and the perfect acid-sugar balance of the peeled sun gold tomatoes (which ARE ready) makes for a satisfying meal.
A few other mentions:
–Can’t wait to eat at La Condesa in St Helena when it opens, same goes for R Reddington’s pizza place in Yountville. And French Blue (SH).
–Why the heck don’t the 49ers appease their fan base and acquire Tebow from Denver? He’s obviously not wanted there, and I don’t think even Harbaugh can convince Alex Smith that he’s a winner again. I’m not even a 49er fan and I think this should happen. Coupla the A Smith games last year were flat-out unwatchable.
–Let’s just say my expectations for the UNC football season are low. Let’s skip right on over to bball season where we’re preseason #1 with good reason(s).
I’m just a dumb country boy, and I get my hipster fill after ten minutes in SF’s Mission district–is that individual wearing a scoutmaster’s uniform as an ironic statement about retro-Smallville, faux-military plumage, or just on the way to a weekly meeting? And it doesn’t take much longer to become inundated with Italian food. The restaurant names generally end with a vowel and are Italian-esque words of nebulous origin, and each seems to be a lesser cousin–of the same bloodline, but short a couple of chromosomes–of the long-reigning champ, Delfina.
OR SO I THOUGHT. I’m wrong a lot of the time, and most recently when I was taken to dinner at a Sardinian restaurant waaayyy out in the Mission called La Ciccia. The hostess nearly hugged us when we walked in. The room was dim, with no tattooed staff or exposed ductwork in sight. Capital letters on the bottom of the menu forbade cell phone and computer use, and the long wine list–one page of 4-point font–was all Italian.
The gentleman waiter paced our dinner perfectly, and whisked away a too-maderized bottle of Cannonau he had recommended and replaced it with a bright Nero d’Avola. Standout dishes were the sardines, gnochetti with pork bagna, and sea bream with tapenade. I am always impressed when hot food is served HOT, and ours was scalding.
But the best part was the atmosphere. Table spacing kept the noise level suitable for conversation, soft surfaces muted the offensive jokes before they could be overheard, the ambient light had the ladies sparkling. White tablecloths reminded us we were in a Restaurant, not a bar/club/pizzeria. Old world dining, old fashioned, and you know what? Civilized and pleasant for that reason.
And before anyone else points it out, yeah yeah, La Ciccia is at 30th and Church, which may not even BE in the Mission, depending on who draws the map.
BIG BIG thank you to Chef John Besh, my former boss and the biggest thing going in NOLA (owner of five? six? restaurants and counting) for telling the Food Network that our Steak Frites is “The Best Thing I Ever Ate“!
I sure hope the bon temps are roulezing for you, Chef!
By now you know we camouflage a lot of Southern food with Bay Area ingredients, none more so than in the two dishes we put on the menu last night. This is a grilled pork loin (brined with rosemary and brown sugar) served over peach coleslaw with corn griddlecakes, green tomato compote, and black pepper gravy–not a milk- or roux-based gravy, but actually a sugo, an Italianate meat sauce made with fresh ground pork shoulder, browned off, then deglazed with wine and dozens of slow reductions of veal stock, all subtly infused with thyme, garlic, and bay leaf.
The green tomato compote I made up as I went along with fresno chiles, shallots, brown mustard seed, ground clove, salt, sugar, and cider vinegar. I was happily surprised when I tasted the finished product–it tasted exactly like my grandfather Albert Graham’s pickle chips! Something about the ratio of vinegar to sugar was right on the money.
This combination (of pork/cornbread/cabbage/sweet and sour) may not hit home for everyone, but I would eat these ingredients (with the addition of baked beans) in some form for my last meal, were I forced to choose one (about which see a provocative passage in [the otherwise forgettable]The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte, concerning the oft-greasy choices of real-life-fictional death row inmates, based not upon socioeconomic tendencies or even upon favorites, but upon proximity to their prisons of available restaurants).
Now for a shorter sentence. And a photo.
The other item is peach-driven as well: peach ice cream with pecan-dark rum-brown sugar caramel and pecan sandies. The pecan sandies are based on the french sable (picture an accentegue, sah-BLAY), or “sand” cookies, known for their almost-shortbread crumbliness. The peaches are Red Haven peaches from Josh Anstey over at St. Supery (check out their Sauvignon Blanc).
Lots of menu changes this weekend. We tasted the first good sun gold tomatoes today; those went on a pizza with mozzarella, roasted shishito peppers, and fresh basil. Watermelon is here, and we are compressing the flesh with nam pla and pickling the rind. Those are served with blackened hamachi and cucumber-sake gelee, avocado puree, and puffed rice:
The second, and more dependable, crop of black mission figs has also arrived. We are roasting them in a 500-degree pizza oven as part of a panzanella with pepperonata, goat cheese, pickled fennel, and arugula:
This might be the first salad we’ve ever served whose appropriate accompaniment may well be a syrah or zin with just a hint of RS . . . well, it takes all kinds.
Also new on the menu is a boneless petaluma chicken a la plancha all’arrabiatta with handkerchief pasta, borlotti bean puree, and broccoli rabe. We bend a lot of brainpowed in this kitchen toward making chicken exciting and enticing. Handmade pasta usually goes a long way in that regard.
Allez Tom Danielson!
When I moved out to Napa Valley for the first time in 2000, a waiter I worked with invited me over to his house for a barbecue. I was homesick for Southern food, North Carolina chopped barbecue in particular–and the thought of this guy having a pit smoker at his apartment blew my mind a little bit. So imagine my disappointment when I showed up salivating for coleslaw, hush puppies, vinegar sauce, and white bread, only to find M____ on the porch of his apartment, grilling Hebrew Nationals over match-light briquettes, with ketchup and yellow mustard at the ready.
Here’s the point: a grill is a grill. When you cook food on a grill, it’s a cookout and nothing more. BARBECUE is not an event, not a spice, not a cooking apparatus, but a quasi-religious means of transforming animal flesh, usually pork but sometimes beef (if you’re in Texas), that is full of heritage and tradition and patience. Don’t be one of the Philistines who misuses the word “barbecue”—to my ears, it’s akin to pouring wine for a guest and saying, “Here’s your fruit juice, bud.”
Summer finally arrived over the weekend. 96 in the shade in Calistoga on Tuesday and about 128 on the hot line over the stoves. I think I drank a gallon of water while cooking lunch. No one sat out on the patio that day . . .
With the heat, hopefully we’ll taste the first great peaches of the year soon. Yellow corn is already very good, but I’m yet to taste a ripe tomato. We have two different fried green tomato dishes, one each for lunch and dinner. Very crispy, very exciting.
Tim from K&J orchards brought in great Rainier cherries last weekend, along with Katy apricots. Most apricots benefit from cooking, but these went straight onto our fruit plates at breakfast and cheese plates in the evening. Barney Welsh is bringing us strong, springy genovese basil so intense it almost tastes like cloves. And we’re getting in calendulas, pansies, and cornflowers to sprinkle on our Forni-Brown Gardens salad.
This is my favorite time of year to eat at work–almost every day it’s a salad of Forni greens, corn, pickled red onions, and chili-lime vinaigrette. It can only be improved by the onset of cherry tomato season. And a peach for dessert.