30 June 2008

Dinner Club: Summer grilling

For all the years we've been in our dinner club, we haven't hosted an evening in the summer. Our friends drive down in the dark winter months and we eat rich, red wine foods. With grilling season here, I was excited to plan a summer menu. Back in Buffalo, everyone grills with charcoal, not briquettes. Lump hardwood charcoal. When we first moved here it was hard to find, but now it's sold at Whole Foods and Menard's (our regional equivalent of Home Depot.) A 20 pound bag costs around $5.00 and it's the only thing to use for grilling. It burns hot and clean and its smoke is smoky - not chemical-laden and filled with fillers.

We started the evening with a light asparagus soup, no cream, just lemon to brighten it up. I grew up eating German potato salad and while we usually push for something new at these get togethers, I guessed that our friends may not have eaten as much as me. But, as a concession to trying something new and not using the recipe in our family cookbook, I found a very similar recipe from a 1957 Gourmet. Perfect, I thought - too old to have been fancified. I marinated a 6 pound pork roast for a day and a half with a lot of lime and a garlic/salt & pepper rub, along with a lot of fresh cilantro. The accompanying chutney/salsa was made with roasted red pepper, red onion, six stalks of rhubarb, diced into half inch pieces, and a grilled pineapple, also cut into bite-sized chunks.

I got the Weber grill quite hot, and cleared the charcoal from the middle; I put a drip pan at the bottom to keep the roast away from direct heat as much as to catch drippings. I put the roast on, closed the lid, and drank a beer. After about thirty minutes I turned it over and kept the lid off for a few minutes so the coals could heat up a bit more. Pork scares most people. They want to cook it until it's dead. Recommended cooking temperatures vary a lot. I cooked the roast until the internal temperature was 150 °F; I let it sit for ten or fifteen minutes, and afterward realized I should have removed it from the grill when it hit 145°F; the temperature continued to rise as it rested. Still, the meat was juicy, with just a touch of pink still in it.

I also roasted vegetables on my little Smokey Joe. I parboiled beans and radishes, and drizzled everything with olive oil, salt and pepper. A few diced zucchinis were added, and I grilled them in a basket while the roast finished.

The two wines I served with the pork were a Rosenblum 2004 Roussanne (Fess Parker Vineyard, Santa Barbara) and a Domaine LeFage, which uses Grenache Blanc as the primary grape, from the Cotes du Roussillon. Roussanne, a white Rhone varietal, fascinates me. If a peach was a citrus fruit, and you candied it, that's how I'd start a Roussanne. Then, I'd blindfold someone who's never left North America and put them on a plane to Bangkok. When the door of the plane opened in SE Asia, and they were smacked with a maelstrom of fragrances and smells, none of which were individually known or identifiable, but certainly agreeable, I'd capture that hot smell of the night and put it in the bottle, too. Roussanne also has a structure that lends itself to contemplation. When I drink a Roussanne, or a wine that's got a hefty percentage of Roussanne in it, the earthy minerality seems to push into the floral notes with heat and intensity. I find that Roussanne needs to be served warmer than most other whites. As it warms up a bit, all the floral qualities are expressed. Too cold, and it shuts down, again making it perfect for a summer evening when you're sitting around and the air temperature warms up your wine.

The char on the pork and the lime in the marinade were a worthy complement to the wine. I like the bone-in roast because the meat has more complexity. Unfortunately, a lot of pork is pretty one dimensional and bland. But a roast has the fat and the bone to improve both the texture and taste, and this one paired well with the wine.

A light blueberry tart with an almond crust finished the meal, and that's how we spent Saturday evening.

26 June 2008

When someone else does the cooking

Walking into the kitchen after getting home from work, I don't know what I'll see or smell. As often as not my wife is making dinner, and after I change out of work clothes and into shorts, the kids set the table, I assist where needed, and before long we sit down to eat. Our evenings are frequently active; usually one or more of our kids has practice or a game. It's summer - so soccer, swimming and baseball are regularly on our calendar.

The other day I came home and saw a big bowl of bun (rice vermicelli) noodles soaking, a basket of assorted greens, and Meaghen was getting ready to cook salmon. She makes excellent sauces and this one had a soy/sugar base, so when she cooked it the edges got brown and sweet. Just cooked through, we put pieces of salmon into our bowls filled with noodles and greens. Spoon a little nuoc cham (a typical dipping/spooning sauce made with varying ratios of: sugar, water, fish sauce, rice vinegar, lime juice, minced garlic, and minced chili pepper) over it all, say grace, and eat! A delicious summer meal, quickly prepared, and infinitely adaptable.

21 June 2008


All day in bed, the shades drawn, weak and exhausted. At three o'clock my wife brought me a big glass of ginger ale, the cubes rattling in a big plastic Twins Fan Cup reminding me of Yahtzee! in the way illness skews the time-space continuum and events from decades ago come alive. At five o'clock I ventured downstairs, tired, worn out. I opened the freezer and saw a container of beef broth. I popped it into a pan and thawed it out, bringing it to a slow boil. A few scoops of rice left in the rice cooker and I was all set. Nothing for the stomach like ginger ale followed by broth and rice. A little salty, too. I picked a few leaves of arugula, dropped in some hot chilis, and I was soothed, body and soul. Broth settles, cleanses, nourishes. Alone in the house, hunched over a bowl of rice soup, my elbows working to prop me up. Two bowls later, I rose from the dead, Lazarus-like. I shuffled to the couch and fell into its softness, legs extended and propped up. A ceiling fan turned slowly, just enough. My head on a cushion, seeing flecks of green and sunlight outside, in the other world, the non-sick world. Me, I let the soup do its work. It moved through my body, every cell, every pore, replenishing lost liquid, salt, and bone-marrow nourishment.

What do I know about being sick and getting well? Make your own stock and always have some in the freezer.

10 June 2008

Chambers Kitchen

Except for an apocalyptic meltdown in an Indian restaurant in Iowa City when our firstborn was an infant, our three kids are excellent dining companions. We’ve been eating out since they were born, and now, with all of them in elementary school, we go everywhere with them. We eat a lot of phở in the Twin Cities, but we also try other places. Last winter (which just ended!) my wife and I went to Chambers Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis, and but for the ice bar in the center courtyard, where ice cubes weren’t needed, we didn’t know we were in Minnesota. We shared an excellent meal and, in the chic setting, had to be reminded that middle-aged parenting excludes us from the beautiful crowd.

Still, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s place is pretty swell, and it took my wife a little time to convince me that we wanted to go there after a full day in the garden, landscaping and doing early summer house chores. But, after a shower and a change into cleaner shorts, we headed up. Thankfully she convinced me – this meal was better than the first!

With kids, we typically dine at restaurants on the early side, when the crowds are thin and the kids aren’t ravenously hungry. That’s part of dining out with kids – knowing their needs and not expecting miracles – like expecting them to eat three hours later than usual.

We settled into the downstairs restaurant with its oh-so-soft leather seats; I sat for half the meal with my arm draped on the top of the seat so I could feel the leather against my skin. From the light, gallery-whiteness of the upstairs lobby and bar, the restaurant is cool, mod and post-industrial.

What we liked best is hard to say. Go there and eat the food yourself because words aren’t very filling, and rarely do they have much taste. If I could eat words that tasted like food I’d write about the slow cooked, sashimi-grade salmon with maitake mushrooms because the pages would flake like softened or melted shale and you might be in awe of the translucent red and pink of the fish flesh which swam some short time ago in waters still possibly clean, cold, and well oxygenated. Why shale? Like salmon, it’s of the earth with its own identity, and you might think shale is hard and brittle the way some people think salmon is a piece of well done crumbly flesh that tastes vaguely like fish. In this dining experience, though, the words of the fish were flesh and our forks pulled at the pieces, paying homage but savage still. We ate with restraint, tasting slowly, letting the chef’s own vision and order of things arrange our mouths and senses in a new way.

The grouper played with a Mediterranean style and Asian ingredients. The floral notes of coriander balanced a light cayenne pepper coating, and together with the napa cabbage – almost kim chee-like, cucumber and red onion, it was a summer-fresh presentation. The kids also loved the thick Berkshire pork chop sitting on a bed of crisp, juicy tender, plant-based yummy vegetables that kids love. An awesome blueberry soufflé with fresh fresh bright grapefruit and a wee bit of ice cream/mascarpone-like white cheese delight and we were really set.

What do good restaurants do? They remind of, sometimes jolt us, into recognizing the contradictions between our mammalian need for food and our ordered and structured cultural traditions that put food into a framework. The restaurants I enjoy feed me by giving me history, poetry and politics along with my meat and three. It’s easy to be dismissive and critical of restaurants that try to be great restaurants, and we sometimes get mixed up between pretentiousness and creativity. Memorable meals, like this one, give a chef the opportunity to tell a story with food, to weave together cultures and traditions, nourishing us, bringing us together - to celebrate, to eat, to remember.

06 June 2008

Rieslings galore!

I've been reading Wine Blogging Wednesday posts for a long time and decided I'd start participating in it when I saw the recent theme of "Old World Riesling." Well, I travel for work and so do some of my wine drinking friends, so I didn't get started when I thought I would. But, a week or two ago we got together and drank four beautiful examples of what this grape can be.

We started with a Toni Jost 2005 Bacharacher Hahn Kabinett, my second one in three days! Just beautiful, but not typical. A real lively acidity with a clean profile of apricot, peach, and melon. We circled back to this wine at the end of the evening and for some it was their favorite. We ate an onion tart with it and the sweetness and creaminess of the caramelized onions proved to be a great balance to that bouncy acidity. I think this wine will be stellar in another half dozen years.

Next, we opened a Markus Molitor 2004 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spatlese. A clean mineral nose, with a very full mouth feel, and as the balanced acidity and fruit and alcohol moved around on our palates, lychee, hard candy, and honeyed fruit dominated our taste buds. An effortless wine, with a strong current of underlying acidity. Dan, the wine's first proponent, said the finish disappointed him after awhile, and when we gave our end-of-the-evening evaluation, pronounced the wine the weakest of the tasting. My guess is that the wine was in a closed phase, and that with more time in the bottle the structure will announce itself again. But, what began as a seamless wine seemed to have less focus when compared to its kin.

After the spatlese we weren't ready to move on, so we opened another kabinett, this one a Schloss Saarstein 2005 Kabinett. God, what a nice bottle this is! Everyone loved the stoniness, and oily/petroleum nose of this wine and felt it was a beautiful example of a riesling.

Our final bottle of the night was a Donnhoff 2005 Schlossbockelheimer Felsenberg Riesling Auslese Gold Cap. A stunning bouquet of fruits that deny winter’s endless grip on us Minnesotans! Peach and golden apples were fragrances we all noticed. No, we didn’t “notice” those smells. We nearly swooned. “Aaaah,” one of us said, and “Oh my God, I believe in You now!” was an oft-heard response to this wine’s sheer beauty. When we poured the wine the room filled with near silence, all of us just breathing, softly inhaling the gorgeous nose to this wine.

On a very interesting note for all of us, we drank from Williams-Sonoma generic white wine glasses for most of the night. But, I also have two varietal-specific late harvest riesling glasses. We brought them out for the Donnhoff and the difference between the two types of wine glass couldn’t be more pronounced. Each of us was quite honestly stunned by the ability of the varietal-specific glass to focus the wine. The nose was more concentrated as was the wine when it was delivered onto our tongues and into our mouths. Each of us became a convert to varietal specific glasses at that moment. I look forward to tasting my way through different glasses and different wines.

The Donnhoff wine was packed with rich glycerins, thick and lively with a sea-foam richness of acidity. Rather hidden was a light touch of botrytis, something I hope will emerge more as the wine ages. A little spice on the endless finish, and all of us were pretty speechless with the wine. It’s why we get together to taste and drink wine. We put wines into a context and when a real beauty comes along we recognize it and enjoy it.