Don’t Braise Me, Bro!

It poured rain, and got quite chilly in that raw, put-extra-layers-on way that is so inappropriate for the very end of May. So my vague idea for garden-stuffed summer rolls went right out the window (or would have, if there had been an open window.) Instead, I thought that some hearty beans would be about right, so I soaked some of the local black beans and went back to work. When I came in, wheels had turned, and what was going to be very humble got a tetch less so.

The freezer really put out this time; a bag of frozen mirepoix, a pint of lamb pho, and a lamb shank from the Easter leg all tumbled forth. A quick foray into the garden gave me a pile of herbs and our first turnip. My impatience with winter has really paid off- putting all this stuff in so early was a little risky, but the turnips (among other things) laughed at the cold and grew like crazy. Radishes are great, because they offer the first non-green color, but they’re small. The beets are a way off yet, so we’ll be contenting ourselves with these in the mean time.

So I took some of yesterday’s smoked duck fat and browned the shank in it, then added the mirepoix, garlic, turnip, herbs (fresh oregano, rosemary, chives, parsley, cilantro) red wine, beans, spices and broth and clamped the lid on the pressure cooker. Man, do I love this appliance. In 40 minutes flat the beans were tender, and the lamb fell off the bone when I looked at it. The flavors were rich and deep like it had sat in a 200˚ oven for six hours. While it was hissing quietly to itself, I steamed and mashed some sweet potatoes, then put the stew on top. There are so many other ways I could have spun this by using different pantry staples- Moroccan, Indian, Southeast Asian- but right down the middle worked pretty perfectly this time around.

Battle Of The Fats™

It cooled off after a pretty perfect Holiday weekend, and rain is coming. Good news for the basil seedlings I put in the ground today, and a welcome excuse to get all comforty with the cooking. Yesterday’s smoked sable got our smokerphilia fully engaged, so when asked about any dinner-related desires, the wife quickly pulled some duck breasts from the freezer and nodded expectantly at the porch. Luckily, on our trip to Vermont I had remembered to stock up on wood, so I was able to oblige.

The (local) moulard duck breasts come two to a pack, so I cut the smaller one off and packed it in a cure so it can become prosciutto in the near future. The bigger one, fat scored, and seasoned with lots of salt and pepper, went into a medium-vigorous smoker for about an hour. As always when smoking duck, I put a receptacle beneath the meat to catch every molecule of the sacred smoked fat. While the duck got its bacon on, I washed and sautéed a big bowl of spinach (and a few radish leaves) from the garden with a little onion, then puréed it with a dribble of heavy cream left over from yesterday’s mojito ice cream, plus a bit of Ultratex 8 to thicken it and keep it from weeping. I also made pommes écrasées with some good red potatoes, copious olive oil, salt, pepper, and chives. I so love potatoes this way, and properly made they have a profundity that rivals (or exceeds) any dairy-based preparation. And they’re healthier, too, though that angle was not so much in play this time around.

It’s important at this juncture to point out that a well-salted duck breast applewood-smoked to medium rare in under an hour is as close to InstaBacon as mortals can ever hope to come. It is just egregiously, wantonly, eye-rollingly wondrous in its smoky, salty splendor. And when buttressed by lavishly olive-oiled spuds and creamy, super-fresh greens, it’s a lipidinous tag-team beatdown on the pleasure centers of your brain.

When we had the tasting dinner, Lio and Sharon brought a 2001 Ormes De Pez which we did not get to. So tonight, on the heels of their dinner on Sunday where I had a few sips of some decent Bordeaux, I opened it up to try to figure out how I feel about that region; my opinion has continued to decline lately in favor of more transparent wines from the Northern Rhône and Burgundy (among other places.) Now this is good wine; they use older barrels from Lynch-Bages, which has long been one of my favorite Bordelais properties (a 1985 was the first “real” wine I ever had, in 1992, when I lived in Provence- it’s always a fifth growth that drinks like a second) and Ormes de Pez is made by the team at Lynch-Bages. It’s silky and integrated, with a lovely balance between the fruit and a rocky, leathery austerity. For all of its significant pleasure, I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a reason that Bordeaux (and by extension, Cabernet Sauvignon) is so often the gateway wine that gets people hooked, and the baseline that people use to compare other wines: it smells and tastes like Wine. Not like ass, or feet, or strange angelic ass-foot incense, or anything else- just wine. And for all of the complexity and subtle, elegant layers of flavor, Bordeaux is always just wine. It never gets up into the hallucinatory, multidimensional sensuality where great Burgundy lives.

Good Bordeaux is wonderful, and the grapey, winey places that it hits are deep and satisfying. And with age, they go somewhere special indeed. But they’re too easy, in a way; what gets me excited is the shifting, holographic, fleeting and unknowable near-divinity that unfolds with a great Burgundy or Barolo. There is an aching ephemerality and other-worldliness to those (and some other) wines which Bordeaux just doesn’t show me; it is very much of this world. I still love it, but it’s not my passion. I’m glad I have some socked away, but I won’t be buying any more.

Away Games

We had a pretty delightful weekend, and managed to stumble into three consecutive dinners at other peoples’ houses- a refreshing inversion of our normal M.O. We went to Vermont for a couple of nights, and the first night we had grilled venison with polenta and salad (we brought everything from home.)

The next evening we headed over to the beautiful new house of some family friends for a terrific meal: grilled halibut and shrimp with an intense chimichurri sauce and a nice array of supporting dishes. I forgot the camera, which is a pity because it looked great too. We had some Cali chards, then a Muscadet that another guest brought- it cost less than the one we had last week and was even better. Wish I had written it down. We finished off with a 2001 Sirius that we brought, which is pure decadent pleasure.

We came home on Sunday, and that evening we walked over to our new friends’ house for a lovely dinner on their deck (and a tour of their unbelievable indoor pool which is almost finished.) Lio grilled some local sausages, and served a wild turkey (his friend had just shot it with an arrow) in a truffly sauce. Being a sommelier, he naturally had a few bottles lying around, and we worked our way through a 2005 Jadot Nuits-Saint-Georges, a brilliant 2003 Les Cailloux CDP, a 2001 Priuré-Les-Tours Graves, and a 2001 Baron d’Arques. The 1999 La Poderina Brunello I brought was sadly a little corked, which gave the many French people in attendance no end of pleasure- it just confirmed what they all take as a given.

Next up, yesterday John and Debi threw a potluck party at their new place by the river (Milo and I had been there the day before for a bit to help get the firepit ready) so I smoked two sides of sable and made mojito ice cream with fresh mint, lime, and rum. I also grabbed a 2000 Beaucastel on the way out the door, since the CDP the night before had reminded me once again how much I adore Châteauneuf.

Other highlights included the supernaturally luscious White Barn rosé- made per the maker’s instruction by pouring a bottle each of his Grenache and Viognier into a carafe- and the typically sublime combination of flavors on a plate that always happens when this crowd gets together. Milo, typically on the ball, took a strategic seat right next to Danny, the Grammy-winning bringer of watermelon (and guacamole.)

There’s nothing quite as nice as a break from cooking and entertaining for a little bit; it was a particular treat to have these three meals line up so perfectly.

To Market, To Market

Another breakfast post- of sorts, anyway- since I went to a nearby Farmer’s Market on Sunday and loaded up on some interesting things. There was a joint selling various bird-related products, so I got some of their pheasant sausage and a variety of eggs: pheasant, wild turkey, and chicken.

The floor is the nicest part of our kitchen.

The sausage, honestly, wasn’t that great. Somewhat oddly spiced- sort of Indian, sort of Italian- and too lean, it had trouble figuring out what it was. But the leftovers were not the worst companion a feta omelet made with turkey and pheasant eggs ever had. There was also some bitter greens pesto from the very last of the overwintered plants: curly endive and treviso. Their replacements are coming in strong, and I needed the bed space for cucurbits, nightshades, and basil.

The same stand also had ground pheasant, and nearby someone was selling ground pasture-raised veal. Since the sausage had been a letdown, a night or two later I figured I’d make my own. So I combined the two meats and spiced them up with garlic, fresh herbs, wine, vinegar, pimentón, and cumin to make a sorta chorizo mixture, then formed it around wooden skewers. A bag of beautiful fat shiitake also got skewered, and marinated in some soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, red wine, and agave nectar, and grilled alongside.

I shaped the brochettes into squared-off logs so they would sit nice and flat on the grill for easier cooking. We made rice. I picked and spun a salad- the buttery lettuces are rushing in to replace the early arugula- and we got out a pot of good brown mustard. Out on the porch, breathing the breeze, savoring the flavor, sipping rosé, we reveled in the bounty of our region. Our Farmer’s Market opens next week.

A Number Of The Beasts

So that smoked/grilled/raw chicken broth (plus a couple of lamb chop bones from a restaurant meal) became the basis for a minestrone that may be in the top three of all time. The other ingredients were all fine, but the broth was just so damn intense and deep. And before you gasp in horror at my hoarding of bones from restaurants, remember that I paid for these damn lamb chops and therefore have the right to extract every molecule of flavor and nourishment from them that I can. Any other horror-related spasms you may be feeling are owed no doubt to the fact that the last post was number 666 in the history of this blog.

This version of the soup consisted of pressure-cooked navy beans combined with the broth, cubed Japanese yam, carrot, herbs, kale, sorrel, and the last two (yes, TWO) slices of bacon. And it was a beautiful day so we ate out on the porch.

So the moral of the story is, if you don’t already, grab all the bones from your guests every time you grill/smoke/etc. They get simmered again, so it’s not gross. And the flavor cannot be beat.

That is all.

Happy Accident

Before we move on to the spoils of that miraculous broth, here’s what followed the chicken- it sprang Athena-like from my forehead the minute our neighbor brought us a big slab of river trout just before dinner time. It reminded me that I had no plan at all, and that it was in fact time to make dinner. So I did. True story.

First, there was broccoli in the fridge- we’re not quite at the buy-no-vegetables part of the year- and an enticing combination of fresh mozzarella scrap and a couple slices of bacon. I took the leftover nettle polenta and spread it on the bottom of a gratin dish, covered it with broccoli, and in turn covered that with bits of cheese and minced bacon (I only used one slice, saving the other for something else.) Into the oven it went.

And then, once the broccoli was mostly done, the fish, dusted with salt, pepper, pimentón, and panko, went in as well. While rummaging in the fridge, I saw the rest of some mayonnaise that had broken- I had been using it for salad dressings- and grabbed at it alll excited-like. With some capers, some herbs from the garden, and a few pepperoncini from the bottom of a jar all whisked in, it made for a pretty decent tartar-esque sauce type thing. Sometimes falling backwards into dinner is the best way of all.

They Eat Chickens, Don’t They?

Having the grill out on the screened porch means that even when it’s bucketing down rain in a torrential fashion we can still enjoy those flavors which evoke sunny, carefree afternoons with the frolicking and the skipping and the frisbees and such. Though I have recently been informed that the grill is no longer welcome on said porch and needs to be trundled out to sit next to my studio until winter. Clearly my wife hates America.

Spatchcocking chickens makes them oh-so easy to grill, and they cook in half the time a whole one needs. It also allows one to save the raw back and combine it with the grilled bones to make an extra-flavorful broth later on. If, say, one has also (hypothetically) recently smoked a couple of chickens for an orgiastic wine dinner, then all of the above can be brothed together into a smoky, grillicious profundity of a stock that promises to elevate (again, hypothetically) a humble risotto into the stratosphere. But I’m getting ahead of myself- that will be a later post.

Rainy days seem appropriate for gathering nettles; they have such a dark green smell and taste that evokes wet Earth. I snipped a pile of tops- they’re already pretty tall, and getting woody- and washed them, then beat them into some of the superlative local polenta from WHF. Our woodland nettles are softer than the field ones, so they disintegrate beautifully under the whisk. Add a grate of some hard local cheese rind (no idea what it was) and a pat of cultured butter, and you’ve got yourself some haute-rustic grits to undergird the bird in fine style. I mixed up a sauce from our last plum jam (that didn’t fully gel, making it an excellent ingredient) some tomato paste, a little leftover BBQ sauce from last time, vinegars, maple syrup, and old red wine from the fridge and slathered the chicken with it once on the grill, and once just before serving.

To top it off, we caught a bit of fortune from the hard times that have descended upon all of us; a local wine store is closing, so I was able to score some things at a steep discount, among which some of the Mas de Gourgonnier rosé from Les Baux, right over the Lubéron from my old neighborhood in Provence. It’s organic to boot, and at $12 a bottle instead of $18 it tasted even better than usual.

Blessed Excess

John and I arranged a wine tasting for my next article, and we used the occasion to have a dinner party. I’m not going to write about the wines we tasted, partly because it was for the article and partly because after we did the tasting- during which we dutifully spat- we drank our way through a positively stunning lineup of juice (of which we did not spit out even a little bit.)

John made white bean crostini with pumpkin seed oil and I made a spanakopita, but using a combination of nettles, garlic mustard, lamb’s quarters, spinach, and oregano, all of which are going off like crazy right now. I steamed and chopped the greens, drained off the liquid, and beat in an egg, panko, and crumbled feta. We had both of these during the tasting. John also brought incredible sablefish (aka black cod) marinated in sake and miso à la Nobu (but without the sugar.) We broiled it up and ate it with a roasted beet salad I had made.

Sadly, the first great wine of the night was oxidized: a 2000 Michel Coutoux Chassagne-Montrachet 1er cru “La Maltroie.” Undaunted, we moved on to a 1990 Fiorano. We had a 1992 with him last summer, and it’s an amazing wine with an equally amazing story. It evolves in puzzling and fascinating ways over the course of the evening, aging backwards from an almost sherry-like profile early on to a softer, rounder, more youthful profile later on. The last white was a 2002 Domaine Chèze Condrieu, which was elegant and powerful, and even better for the fact that I just scored 6 of them for half price from a place that’s closing.

For the reds, I pulled two chickens out of the smoker and we had them with slow-braised cabbage. First up, a 1999 Bruno Clavelier Chambolle-Musigny 1er cru “La Combe d’Orveaux” that was still a baby, though it woke up some over time. Next was a 1999 Chapoutier Saint-Joseph “Les Granits” that was just beautiful- an excellent example of the sublime contrasts between elegance and power, fruit and dirt, Heaven and Earth which a great Syrah can hold in perfect equilibrium.

Because one of our guests is a sommelier, we blind-tasted him on a real stumper: a 1987 Orion. Nobody unfamiliar with Thackrey’s wines ever guesses California, especially if they have any age on them. And this had gone to an impossible place so rich, sublime, and still young that our guest was convinced it was a 2000 Margaux. Just incredible; it makes me determined to hold all my Orions for at least another decade before I open them (though they are so damn sexy in their youth that it’s easier said than done.)

We followed with a 1979 Drouhin-Laroze Chambertin Clos de Bèze that was sadly over the hill- just sort of dried up and tired out. A shame. But the 1989 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle was perfect, and somehow tasted both old and young at the same time. Wines like this have so many layers and change so subtly in the glass; they’re positively operatic in the way they unfold over the course of a few hours. They cost about as much as going to the opera, too, so there’s that. I’d been saving this one for quite a while to drink with John, and I am glad that I did.

By now we were on a roll, so we grabbed a Pleiades XII (my last one) to mess with our French friend some more. As before, he was at a loss and just stunned when we told him that this is the humble field blend by the same genius behind the Orion. Oh Pleiades, is there anything you can’t do? At this point we were deep into the cheese: Stilton, Roquefort, and a local blue that I can’t remember the name of. We tried the oxidized white with them, as well as another oxidized local strawberry-rhubarb wine, and neither one did much of anything, so we were forced to pop a 2000 Domaine des Perdrix Nuits Saint-Georges 1er cru “Aux Perdrix” that I’m pretty sure was quite delicious.

There is no more enjoyable bottomless pit than the pursuit of an understanding of wine. And to have such companionship on the journey makes for a good trip indeed. (No prizes for guessing that the sommelier is the one with the French flag wristband flashing gang signs with a glass in his hand.)

The funny part is that this picture doesn’t even have all the bottles in it:

A Rhetorical Question

Is there anything in this world that makes a better breakfast on a chilly spring morning than fingerling potatoes sautéed with home-cured guanciale, wilted fresh-picked garlic mustard, ramp pesto-crepinette gravy reheated with lamb pho to thin it back to liquid, and a couple of fresh local eggs on top, baked until set, and garnished with parsley from the garden?

Die Zauberflanken

I have never been much of a fan of the greeting-card industry’s manufactured holidays, though I have always understood that other people feel differently and thus tried to act accordingly. But Mothers’ day sucks. All of you who have living Mothers should feel free to celebrate, or not, as you choose. But for those of us who do not, it’s a great big thumb in the eye and I hate it. Even though my wife, who is also a Mother, is wonderful and expertly exemplifies the most exalted attributes that the vocation requires in abundance, I’m still pissed off.

Having said that, the profound changes that spring works upon us are in full effect, and I’ve regained some of my desire and imagination in the kitchen. The perfection of the ingredients- despite, or even because of their limited selection at this point- has gotten me all a-flutter because the flavors are so pure and intense that cooking becomes more a question of curating or editing than just technique. It’s all just variations on a theme of green right now, and it’s wonderful. And gardening helps to connect me to some powerful memories.

I had much bigger ambitions for this meal, honestly, but they bumped into the reality of the day and didn’t fare so well- much, say, like a rickshaw might against a garbage truck. So it became one meat-and-potatoes course with a gorgeous salad on the side instead of the three-course extravaganza I had originally imagined. I even went on the internets and found a RECIPE for DESSERT. But to no avail.

What we did have was a pounded elk flank stuffed with treviso-curly endive pesto (garlic, parmigiano, olive oil) and asparagus then wrapped in bacon, tied, and stuck with rosemary branches to hold it all together. I took some fingerling potatoes and slowly cooked them in the iron skillet with a mixture of duck and bacon fat until they were tender, then added asparagus slices for 30 seconds or so, then removed the mix to a bowl, seasoned it, and kept it warm. I heated the skillet up a little and browned the roulade pretty hard all around, then covered it and turned it a few times to finish cooking. It was a little tricky to get the meat just right and the asparagus tender, but it worked. Next time, after I pound and season the flank steak I will cook it sous-vide and then roll it up so I have a little more control over the finished textures. But for a flank, an elk flank even, it was quite tender and very tasty. While the various things were doing their various things, I took some red wine, added a little 5-spice, pimentón, BBQ sauce, and agave syrup and let it reduce a bit. When everything else was ready, I whisked in some butter, and got distracted so it broke (I should have brushed it on the plate for better visual use of the brokenness.)

We began the day with lemon-vanilla French toast and bacon with maple and mulberry syrup, for which I opened a nice sparkling Vieux Pressoir Saumur rosé. We had another glass of this while I was getting everything ready, and then moved on to a Pleiades XV, which like some of its siblings had a faint trace of fizz. It’s still C’s favorite wine, and the XVIIs are on their way. So there’s a sliver lining, etc.

It still sucks.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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