Wednesday, December 28, 2011

So many beers, so little time...

In a previous post I wrote that I feel we are living in the golden age of beer. Although I realize there has been a lot of good beer being brewed in the world for a very long time, not much of it was available to me when I first discovered my love for beer.

I grew up in a time when regional brands like Schmidt, Schaefer, Schlitz, Pabst, Piels, Rheingold and others of their kind dominated local markets. In my early adult years the mega national brands and their bottomless marketing budgets took over. Budweiser, Miller, and Coors seemed to own the market. Sure, you could still find a few imports here and there. I kind of remember Heineken always being around. Same for Bass Ale, Guinness Stout and Lowenbrau (before Miller bought the rights to brew it in the US).

There were probably a lot of good small brewers in local markets, like Anchor Steam in the San Francisco area, but since they didn't distribute nationally, I didn't know about them. I eventually started traveling in my work and discovered many of these gems.

In the mid-seventies a new term came into being in the United Kingdom - microbrewery. Basically, it referred to a limited production brewer which typically served a regional geographic area. If you've been fortunate to travel in Europe at all, you know that many towns, even very small ones, have a brewery that makes a beer that serves the local population. We aren't quite there is the US, but the microbrewery hit here in a big way over the past two decades.

A newer term, craft beer, seems to be an outgrowth of the microbrewery wave. For me, craft brewing implies a higher art form, designed to create beers from top quality ingredients, often in very small batches. There are literally hundreds (maybe thousands?) of craft brewers that have sprung up all over America. They are making a broad variety of styles and have been able to establish much better distribution networks than in the past.

Another advance for beer lovers is the increasing number of stores that allow you to buy single bottles, and sometimes even mix singles to make your own six pack. This let's us try an unknown brewer's newest release without committing too deeply. Finally, and this is absolutely one of my favorite advances, is the wide availability of "large" bottles sold as singles. these typically hold 22 ounces of beer but can run from 18 up to 26 ounces. These bottles are perfect for splitting with someone when you simply want to pair a particular beer with a meal. Cyn and I do that frequently.

We keep an old refrigerator in the basement for kitchen overflow. Somehow, it seems to have evolved into the "beer refrigerator" . Hmmm, wonder how that happened? Current stock.....

Current passion: IPAs, singles and doubles. Working my way up to triples but, for now, the higher alcohol content skews the taste too much toward a distilled spirit for me. Maybe when I grow up.....

P.S. To those of you that are following this blog - thank you very much. I hope you are enjoying my ramblings. To those of you that are reading but not yet following, I'd love to have you become an official follower. This is easily done by clicking on the "Join this Site" link near the top right of any of the blog pages and then following the instructions.

Finally, I'd really appreciate any comments you have to offer. At the bottom of each post is the word "comments". Just click on it and fire away! Thanks everyone.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

'Twas the day after Christmas....

.....and we spent most of this Meatless Monday in the car. Like many of you, we traveled to visit family this Christmas. In our case, it was Cynthia's family in central Connecticut -  a mere seven hour, 400 mile ride from our home in northern Virginia. I'm not complaining mind you, it's just that when I realized we would be on the road most of the day, I knew eating meatless would be a little more challenging (and probably less interesting). Turns out I was right.

Skipping to the bottom line, I managed to eat meatless. We diverted off the interstate long enough to stop at Marty's bagels in Orangeburg, NY, my go to place when I used to work in that area. A buttered everything bagel hit the spot, but I'll admit the egg and cheese on a bagel that Cynthia had sure smelled good.

 Further down the road we stopped at a diner in Pennsylvania. I love diners. Growing up in the New Jersey, diners were a routine part of my childhood. Our experience with diners in Virginia so far has been, shall we say, less than overwhelming.

This one was called Miller's on Route 15 south of Harrisburg. They served up a pretty nice bowl of french onion soup. It looked like the diners of my youth, was packed to the gills (we sat at the counter) and had the classic diner menu the size of the old Manhattan phone book (you remember phone books, right? Well, it was really thick). I added a grilled cheese, and there you go, meatless lunch.

We got home in the middle of the afternoon, picked up Jack and Cooper (yeah, yeah, I know, gratuitous pictures of the dogs)

and realized we hadn't thought about dinner. Neither one of us felt like doing anything complicated so we resorted to something we don't often use - frozen food. If you've never tried it, Amy's Organic offers a line of frozen entrees that are both tasty and reasonably good for you. I settled on a  Mexican entree that included a cheese enchilada, refried beans and corn.

 We added a nice big salad and called it a day. Not the most exciting Meatless Monday menu, but it did complete two full months since I started this journey.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mac and Cheese - for Grownups

Who doesn't like mac and cheese? The ubiquitous dish borders on having the same level of appeal as hot dogs, hamburgers and apple pie. Kraft, for one, has made a fortune on it. There are plenty of other "prepared" versions out these these days, like Amy's organic, which actually isn't bad. But nothing beats a homemade, from scratch version. Yup, that's what we had for Meatless Monday last night. It wasn't, as the saying goes, your grandfather's mac and cheese.

First course, was a simple salad using romaine, radicchio and from our cold frame a mixture of the baby Red Cardinal spinach, Bright Lights swish chard and a mesclun mix. Red and yellow peppers, cucumber, a couple of green olives and dried cherries finished it off.

If you've been following along, you know I haven't given away many recipes. I'm going to try to do a better job of that going forward, so here goes.

Let me start out by saying we like spicy. Not spicy in the sense of so hot that the flavor of the food is lost, but enough heat to enhance the flavors. The basic recipe comes from Cook's Illustrated New Best Recipe book and is listed there as "classic macaroni and cheese". Fair enough, but we weren't looking for classic. Here first, is their recipe, I'll list the modifications later.

  • Cook 1 pound of pasta until tender, drain and set aside
  • In a dutch oven, heat 5 tablespoons of butter over medium high heat until foaming
  • Add 6 tablespoons of all purpose flour, 1.5 teaspoons dry mustard and 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper (optional) and whisk to combine
  • Whisk until the color deepens and is fragrant. (about 1 minute)
  • Whisking constantly, add 5 cups of milk gradually
  • Continuing to whisk, bring to a full boil to thicken the mixture
  • Reduce heat to medium and simmer, whisking occasionally until it thickens to the consistency of heavy cream (about 5 minutes)
  • Off the heat, whisk in 8 oz shredded monterrey jack cheese and 8 oz shredded sharp cheddar until fully melted
  • Add the pasta and cook over medium low heat, stirring constantly until the mix is steaming and heated through
  • Transfer the mixture to a broiler safe 13x9 baking dish and cover evenly with bread crumbs. Broil until the bread crumbs are golden brown (about 3-5 minutes)

Nice huh?

Well, we made a few modifications along the way.

We split the pound of cooked pasta in half so we could make a "non-spicy" version for friends.

Our cheeses were 8 ounces of sharp cheddar, 7 ounces of monterrey jack and 1 ounce of asadero.To this we added 8-10 grates of fresh nutmeg. We added 1/2 of this cheese mixture to 1/2 of the pasta for the non-spicy version. 

To the remaining cheese mixture, we added 1 can of drained Ro-Tel tomatoes and green chillis, two tablespoons of adobo sauce and 1 chopped chipotle pepper. Of course we added the optional cayenne pepper from the original recipe also. 

For our half of the topping, we used 1/4 cup seasoned bread crumbs which were mixed with two tablespoons of butter, 1/4 cup pecorino romano cheese and 1/3 cup panko.

The rich creaminess matched with the flavorful heat is wonderful. It's not for everyone, but if you like spicy, this may be your new favorite way to enjoy an American classic.

We chose one of Cynthia's favorites beers to compliment the dish, Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout, creamy and dark, but not too heavy.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Well, that was better, way better....

The other day I wrote about a meal I had out that was disappointing. Last night I had a business dinner that more than made up for it. The restaurant is called Brabo and is located in Old Town Alexandria in Virginia. There were 24 in our party, so they prepared a limited menu offering especially for us. I understand why restaurants do this for large parties but it seems there is always something on the full menu that I want that isn't on the limited menu.

The executive chef/owner of Brabo is chef Robert Weidmaier who is originally from Belgium but has been in the Washington, DC food scene for quite some time. More about him here. Since I hadn't been there before, I of course checked out the menu online in advance. My first impression was that is was pretty basic, but that there was a broad enough selection to suit most tastes. Turns out, I grossly underestimated what I was looking at online.

The first hint that I got that I was in for a good night was the beer selections. Not a overly large number but,clearly someone spent some time building the list. I settled on what turned out to be a very good Belgian ale (why not, if the chef had roots there....) called Urthel Hop-it. It was very hoppy as the name should imply but with that distinctive back note of fruitiness so common in beers from Belgium. At 9.5% alcohol by volume, it was not meant to be messed with. One before dinner and one with thank you very much.

Our choices of appetizer were arugula & frissee salad with balsamic shallots, parmesan cheese and sherry vinaigrette, a veloute of roasted chestnuts served over a small duck confit ravioli and lardons of bacon or seared Maine scallops with squid ink polenta and broccoli rapini. In a moments of less than clear lucidity, I orderd the salad, which was actually wonderful. However, the person next to me had the veloute and raved about it. On the other side of me were the scallops, and although they are not my favorite seafood, he had everything he could do to not lick the plate clean. He did however, sop up every last morsel with the house made bread.

Our main offerings were roasted northern rockfish with potato gnocchi, oyster mushrooms and baby broccoli, roasted Amish chicken breast with cippolini onions and honey glazed carrots or a Fell's Point Bistro filet with Belgian frites and a green peppercorn sauce. I opted for the rockfish since it from local waters - and I wasn't disappointed. The fish itself was cut and cooked to perfection. The potato gnocchi were a nice surprise but didn't overwhelm the fish at all (I secretly wanted more) and the mushrooms and broccoli were cooked to just the right texture. Others had the chicken or the filet - everyone seemed happy, but I think the fish was the right choice.

Finally, there were three desserts offered but, since if you are following along you know that dessert isn't my thing, I didn't really pay a lot of attention. I had ordered one of them to be polite and took a few bites of something very chocolatey - it tasted very good. I can hear the dessert lovers screaming right now, sorry.

All in all a wonderful meal. I will go back sometime and look forward to having access to the full menu offering. There's a braised pork shank I have my eye on......

It should be noted that two doors down from Brabo is Brabo Tasting Room, a smaller and less formal bistro spot with what looks like a wonderful menu also.

Sorry there are no photos, it was a business dinner and I didn't know if others would like me flashing pictures while we ate.

Update: Thanks to my work colleague Shawn, I now have a picture of the rockfish. Guess she was less inhibited than me. Thanks Shawn!
Brabo by Robert Wiedmaier on Urbanspoon


P.S. To those of you that are following this blog - thank you very much. I hope you are enjoying my ramblings. To those of you that are reading but not yet following, I'd love to have you become an official follower. This is easily done by clicking on the "Join this Site" link near the top right of any of the blog pages and then following the instructions.

Finally, I'd really appreciate any comments you have to offer. At the bottom of each post is the word "comments". Just click on it and fire away! Thanks everyone.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Penne alla Vodka - with a couple of twists...

Since I started Meatless Mondays back in early November, I've tried to not take the easier routes (salad, pasta, etc), particularly for dinner. If you been reading along, you've seen that my wonderfully supportive wife has gone out of her way to create some spectacular vegetable dishes over the past six weeks. This week I wanted pasta, one of my favorites to be specific, penne alla vodka. So, there I was at work all day, dreaming about the creamy and satisfying vodka sauce I was going to have for dinner. Well, I got something different and I think it may have been even better!

Before I tell you about the pasta, I should mention that we started out with a traditional insalata tricolore, consisting of arugula, radicchio, endive and a ice size piece of gorganzola in our homemade balsamic vinegar dressing and Mexican squash (also known as pipians) that had been sauteed in olive oil and shallots then browned lightly with butter, bread crumbs and pecorino romano cheese.

Here is what the pipians look like before cooking. Smaller than a zucchini, and slightly milder in taste. We have several wonderful international markets in our area with all kinds of produce from all over the world.

The vodka sauce was prepared in a (mostly) traditional way. Tomatoes (Muir Glen fire roasted), fresh garlic, crushed red pepper and vodka. Most vodka sauces call for heavy cream to be added. Cynthia decided to lighten the dish by replacing the cream with a dollop of ricotta cheese that had been mixed with roasted garlic and a little pecorino romano and just a little nutmeg Finally, although not standard, some vodka sauces are finished with peas for both color and texture. I actually love what the peas bring to this dish.

In a final twist, we used edamame in place of the peas. The mild taste and slightly crunchier texture of the edamame was a very nice addition to an already tasty dish. A fine chop of fresh basil finished the plate and Viola!

If you're interested in the very traditional penne alla vodka recipe, Epicurious has a good one here.

Ooops, I think I forgot to mention the Layer Cake Primitivo we shared with dinner. It's a very affordable old vine zinfandel that we keep on hand at home at all times.


P.S. To those of you that are following this blog - thank you very much. I hope you are enjoying my ramblings. To those of you that are reading but not yet following, I'd love to have you become an official follower. This is easily done by clicking on the "Join this Site" link near the top right of any of the blog pages and then following the instructions.

Finally, I'd really appreciate any comments you have to offer. At the bottom of each post is the word "comments". Just click on it and fire away! Thanks everyone.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Life is full of disappointments....

Ever go to a restaurant for the very first time, have a really good meal, and then go back and be utterly disappointed? Yeah, I hate that - and it happened last night. I'll admit that the time between the first visit and the second was more than a year, so there could have been major changes in anything from the suppliers to the kitchen staff, but the differences were significant.

The restaurant in question is Ciro Ristorante in Aldie, Virginia, about 30 minutes from our home. We met our dear friends, David and Suzanne there expecting a repeat of the very nice experience we had more than a year ago.

Things started out well enough when we were greeted by the owner who personally seated us and spent time talking with us. The restaurant is clearly family owned and run.

My first course was the Juliano Salad, described on the menu as mixed greens with walnuts, goat cheese, crispy pancetta and black berries in a house balsamic. Well, all the ingredients were there, but the blackberries had no flavor (not surprisingly so far out of season and certainly from somewhere south of the equator), the pancetta was cubed, not shaved thin, and cooked until it was overly chewy and the walnuts were candied. Don't get me wrong, I like candied walnuts, I just wasn't expecting them. To be fair, the dressing was tasty, the greens were fresh and the goat cheese was fine.

Not the most awe inspiring presentation either huh?

OK, the main course was coming to the rescue, right? Good veal, cooked right can be a beautiful thing. Done right, you shouldn't need a knife to cut it. Let's just say that this wasn't the best cut of veal I've ever had. It wasn't awful, it just wasn't great. Tough enough to require a knife and breading that was a little gummy. The Marsala sauce was tasty enough and the mushrooms were fine. It was served with a linguine that was nothing to write home about.

Although I didn't eat it, Cynthia and Suzanne shared a cold seafood salad that was offered as a special that contained baby octopus, calamari rings , mussels and, supposedly, baby shrimp which turned out to be missing in action. Both noted that the lemon based dressing was overdone to a point of making it difficult to enjoy. I believe Suzanne felt strong enough to point this out to the waiter. Cynthia told me later that the octopus was rubbery.

A few pluses: the wine was good and affordable (a nice Montepulciano) and the portions were generous, Cynthia and Suzanne enjoyed the berry cake dessert they shared.

Might it have just been a bad night? Possibly. Will I go back anytime soon? Well.......

Ciro Ristorante Italiano on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Best Homemade Bread, Ever

We love good bread, and why not, it's really just solid beer, right? OK, maybe the alcohol content isn't there in bread, but I digress.

We don't bake a lot of bread at home. When we do though, we have a favorite recipe. It makes a loaf that is super crunchy on the outside and almost creamy in the middle. We first stumbled upon the recipe  in Mark Bittman's Dining and Wine column  in the New York Times. He attributes it to Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC. Here is the best part - there is no kneading required!

Nothing better on a Sunday morning than warm bread right out of the oven. The biggest challenge is usually giving it enough time to adequately cool before attacking it. Here is what you can expect

Seriously, it will look exactly like the picture. One note: after two or three tries we changed one thing in the recipe - we tripled the salt. The flavor of the bread improved dramatically and the texture, both in and out, remained the same. You can find the recipe here

If you try it, I'd love to know what you think..

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I ate what and liked it? Tofu? Really?

You can probably tell from the title of this post that I haven't been the biggest fan of tofu. I've tried it many times, in many forms and just can't get past the texture. Yes, I know there are various grades of firmness available, but none of them have worked for me. OK, maybe a few pieces in a good hot and sour soup, like at P.F. Chang's, but that's where I've typically drawn the line. Well, last night, at least for one meal, that might have changed.

Cynthia tells me that I need to give her some latitude for supplying an appropriate amount of protein in our diet on Meatless Mondays and that one of the better options is tofu. Lovers of this coagulated soybean curd will tell you it has a "subtle flavor" that works well with many spices and flavors. I'm pretty sure that dried Elmer's glue would fit that description also but the nutritional value just wouldn't be there. Cyn informed me we were out of Elmer's anyway, so, tofu it was. She insured me it would not be the dominant ingredient.

Our dinner started out with a very nice asparagus dish, simply blanched and covered in hazel nuts that had been chopped, lightly toasted in butter and shallots and just a dash of campaign vinegar. Yum.

Next course - stuffed peppers. One of my favorite comfort foods. However, these stuffed peppers were not only vegetarian, they were vegan.The stuffing consisted of crimini mushrooms, onion, garlic, the pepper top trimmings, long, hot Thai peppers, carrots and Lundberg wild rice blend.

Ah, yes, there was also tofu. There were 12 ounces of extra firm tofu, cut into small cubes which had been simmered in 1/2 cup of a "special sauce" - a tomato based curry sauce with sherry, crushed red pepper and garlic. The tofu, as it always does, absorbed the flavor of the sauce. After stuffing, the peppers were baked at for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees (covered) and then an additional 10 minutes uncovered. Don't tell anyone, particularly Cynthia, but I really liked it. I'm planning on eating the leftovers for lunch on Wednesday when, as is the case for most leftovers, it will probably be even better.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

A $48.00 Roast Chicken? Yes, and it's worth it.

Just about a year ago, I traveled to San Francisco on business. I was only going to be in town for one night, so I wanted to take my business colleagues out for a really good meal. I consulted with my personal restaurant concierge (Cynthia will just love me referring to her that way) and, after some research, she suggested Zuni Cafe. Oh, she also told me what I had to order. It seems that the restaurant is famous in certain circles for its brick oven whole roast chicken for two.

There were three of us at dinner that evening, so my job was to convince one of the other two that we had traveled all the way across the country to eat chicken. It wasn't easy. As you probably know, San Francisco has a great food culture and Zuni is no different. There are a lot of more interesting things on the menu than chicken, but I twisted Patrick's arm a little and told him to trust me. It also didn't hurt that the two ladies at the table right next to us were being served their chicken just as we were asked for our order. The menu states very clearly that the expected time to prepare this dish is "approximately one hour" since each chicken is roasted to order. So, we settled in, enjoyed our appetizers and had a couple of Anchor Steams. About 65 minutes later this arrived at the table.
The perfectly roasted whole chicken was served with a warn bread salad with scallions, mustard greens, dried currants and pine nuts. There wasn't any other accompaniment. None was needed. Juicy, flavorful and filling.
If you're in San Francisco, looking for a great, uncomplicated meal, find a friend and give it a try.

ZUNI Café on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Monday night out and about

So, it turns out the restaurant is called Villa Mozart, not Cafe Mozart as I wrote yesterday. It also turns out that it's a great little restaurant. Good food, very reasonable prices and an atmosphere that said "we know what we're doing and don't need to be pretentious about it".

Since it was Monday, my selections were limited to meatless selections - and my dinner companions didn't let me forget it as they ordered the likes of a beautifully prepared carpaccio and a calamari appetizer that everyone raved about. Another appetizer that we shared was simply called Fungi, but to say it was "just mushrooms" wouldn't be fair. Here is how if is described on the menu -  Soft yellow polenta soufflĂ©, Oregon wild mushrooms, truffled fontina cheese fagottino. This I tried - this I would go back for.

I stuck with an arugula salad which had generous shavings of Grana Padano cheese and dressed simply with EVOO and balsamic. Interestingly, it was served with what they described as a mushroom tart. Seemed more like a mushroom egg custard to me, but what the hell, it was tasty.
For my main, I opted for a rye pasta ravioli stuffed with mountain cheese, baby leaf spinach, and topped with  chives and Grana Padano shavings.
 The rye pasta added an interesting texture (slightly more firm than regular) and taste (earthier) to the dish. The sauce was a very light butter/olive oil combo.

Those of you that know me, know I don't eat dessert very often. However, when the waiter mentioned they had a house made apple strudel, I couldn't resist. The pastry was flaky and light, the apples were firm and crispy and the vanilla ice cream was perfect.

All in all a very pleasurable meal. If you are in the Fairfax, VA area, this place is worth a try.

Oh, I forgot to mention, it didn't hurt that the wine we drank was Lodali Rocche Costamagna Rocche Dell’Annunziata Barolo DOCG ’05.

Villa Mozart on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Could be interesting....


Tomorrow is Monday. Of course I will go meatless, but it will be the first time since I started this that I will be eating dinner out. I have a work related dinner tomorrow evening at Cafe Mozart. Fortunately it is an Italian restaurant and there should be lots of meatless choices.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Dinner: It's all about the sides....

I actually love turkey. I particularly enjoy a fresh turkey sandwich on a crunchy ciabatta roll in the evening following Thanksgiving dinner. I do however, realize that turkey is basically a blank canvas that needs a strong supporting cast. That's why at our house on Thanksgiving, it's all about the sides. This year, there were eleven.

Some were pretty traditional like mashed potatoes, corn and my own guilty pleasure, Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce. You know, that sweet jellied can shaped slab that your grandmother served. Cynthia won't go near it - I think it's the greatest stuff since sliced bread. Oh, those other things are pickled beets - not my favorite.

Then there were the vegetables, lots of them.
The oven baked sweet potatoes had just a hint of cayenne, dried chipotle, maple sugar and Vietnamese cinnamon (who knew?) to kick them up a notch. Wait, no one says that, right? The brussel sprouts were cooked with a little crispy bacon and some apple cider vinegar to brighten them up a bit. I'm pretty amazed to admit that I'm starting to like brussel sprouts. Go figure. The green beans were lightly steamed and then finished in a fry pan with brown butter, winter savory and green (immature) garlic pulled up from our garden this morning.

The carrots and parsnip were both oven roasted in EVOO and sea salt. The carrots were topped with bronze fennel tops and the parsnips with purple top turnip micro greens straight from our cold frame.
What's Thanksgiving without stuffing you say? Well we had stuffing made from red pepper, mushrooms, butternut squash, onion, parsley, sage, rosemary, carrots, celery, turkey stock, spicy sausage, bread and chestnuts. The stuffing was oven baked to get all those little crisy edges that make it so good.

That's ten, right? Number eleven was one of my favorites. It was a scalloped leek, shallot and onion casserole topped with bread crumbs and extra sharp aged chedder. It's up there a few pictures back next to the mashed potatoes.

Tried a couple of new beers to top everything off. The Chatoe Rouge is an Oregon beer in the style of a black lager. Interesting. Somewhere between a typical lager and a stout. Good- not great. The other was from one of my favorite brewers, Dogfish Head in Delaware. This particular style was made in a small batch and was purported to be a continuously hopped imperial pilsner. Wow, never expected to hear that string of words together. My Antonia was actually very nice and worked well with all the rich foods. Hoppy, not like an ale, but still good.

Aren't you glad I didn't bore you with another perfectly roasted turkey picture?

Pea on this, Pea on that

Peas have a reputation.  And it ain't good - starchy and a weird color, very often the color of something a babe has recycled. But in fa...