Monday, January 31, 2011

A Taste of Switzerland

I’m on my way to Switzerland. That may sound exciting, but it’s for business, not vacation. I’m not a cold weather person, so I probably wouldn’t choose 20 degree weather for a vacation. But the good news is that I was able to fly business class. And an advantage of business class is the food. Most airline food these days (if there is any) is disgusting. Swiss Air has what they call “Taste of Switzerland.”

They describe their menu as a “gastronomic concept that brings you a taste of the various regions of Switzerland and their culinary traditions.” My dinner was created by Mattias Roock from the Kempinski Hotel, St. Moritz.

For the first course, I selected prosciutto with potato salad. It was nothing special, but it was edible, unlike much airline food. For the main course there was a choice of beef, chicken, salmon or pasta. I chose sautéed pumpkin gnocchi with porcini mushroom cream sauce, baby rocket and sun dried tomatoes. I’ve had pumpkin ravioli that was so sweet it should have been dessert. I was hoping this wouldn’t be sweet and my gamble paid off. It was a perfect main course and maybe the best gnocchi I've ever eaten. I don't think I've ever had it browned like this before.

The gnocchi was a fluffy pasta pillow with a dollop of pure pumpkin in the middle. The mushroom sauce was rich and earthy and even piping hot. They offered a Swiss Pinot Noir on the wine list, Von Salis Bundner Herrschaft 2009, so in my effort to eat and drink regionally, I chose it to go with the pasta. It was a reasonable choice, if not ideal.

There was a cheese plate offered for dessert with three large triangles of cheese served with fruit. This would have been a very European choice, but there was no way I could eat that much cheese after the pasta. So I chose a vanilla mousse with blackberry compote. It looked better than it tasted. But the box of Swiss chocolates passed by the flight attendant made up for it. My random selection of a rich creamy mocha version, more than made up for the mousse. How will I ever go back to economy class travel??!!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Comfort Food - Chicken Casserole

My friend Jack had a bicycle mishap and fractured his pelvis. I hope when I’m in my 80’s I’m still riding a bicycle every week like him. He does a lot of the cooking at their house, so I thought I’d help out and make a dinner while he’s at less than full capacity for a couple of weeks. A chicken casserole is comforting food when you’re stuck at home and not able to get around so easily.

Interestingly, the night before his mishap, they took dinner to another of our friends who had broken his hip. Jack’s wife, Elsie, insists that this bone breakage trend is not catching and I won’t break anything after preparing them dinner. I hope she’s right.

This recipe came from my former mother-in-law. She was a good Southern cook and I’m sorry I don’t have more of her recipes. She died before I was divorced from my ex, but I think I took her cooking for granted back then. I certainly remember it fondly now.

Chicken Casserole
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup
4 or 5 bone-in chicken breasts, boiled and reserve broth
1 stick butter
½ package Pepperidge Farm cornbread stuffing
½ package Pepperidge Farm herb stuffing
Salt and pepper

Melt butter and pour over the dressings in a large bowl. Mix to combine. Put half of the stuffing mixture in the bottom of a 9 x 13 casserole dish.

Remove chicken meat from the bones, shredding into bite sized pieces; put into large bowl. Add both cans of soup to chicken. Measure two cans of reserved broth and also add to chicken mixture. Stir to combine well. Pour chicken mixture onto stuffing in casserole dish. Salt and pepper lightly. Top with remaining stuffing mix. Bake at 325 degrees about 45 minutes or until broth is absorbed and stuffing is browned.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Guest Post By My Son: Carrots

We have undertaken the daunting task of cleaning out our attic. In over 26 years in California, we have accumulated a lot of “stuff” that needs to be sorted and much of it discarded. Larry is reticent to part with papers, so you can imagine how much can stack up in that time. Mostly, this is a miserable process, but there have been a few enjoyable moments as we’ve uncovered gems from the past.

I found the following essay in a box of my son’s papers. It was written nearly 20 years ago when he was 12. I remember the incident he describes vividly. I have written previously about the struggles of raising a child to be a healthy eater and apparently my efforts did not go unnoticed. I don’t know if my methods were good or bad, but  they made an impression.

I am certain I never saw this essay at the time and I’m happy to report he received an A+ for his paper. Matt has graciously agreed to a guest post and allow me to reprint his essay from his childhood for your enjoyment.  And coincidentally, while visiting them this weekend, I enjoyed watching Matt attempt to get his son Isaac, who is now 6 months old, to eat carrots. Check out his reaction below!

By Matt Huff

In this essay, I am going to tell my story of the carrots. It was about five years ago when I was seven. This story is going to tell about my battle at the dinner table and how I learned to like carrots.

It all started about five years ago. One summer evening while I was watching TV, I heard that dreaded phrase, “Matthew, go wash up for dinner please.” This didn’t exactly make my day because I was in the middle of watching a cartoon. I unwillingly got up to wash my hands.

After I had washed up, I went into the dining room. I looked at my plate and almost fainted. On it was chicken, rice, and CARROTS! I sat down in my chair. We proceeded to eat. Of course, since I thought carrots were gross, I skipped them and didn’t eat them. After my parents and I had finished, I nonchalantly got up to throw them away. “Sit back down, Matthew. You didn’t bother to touch your carrots.” Nuts, caught in the act. I sat back down.

I just sat there and looked at my carrots. I was not going to touch them. My mother said that I was not going to leave the table until I had eaten some of them. I just stared at them. I think one of them had eyes and was looking back at me. Half an hour passed. Anther half hour went by. I had been sitting there for an hour and a half. It was 7:45. My absolute favorite TV show was to come on at 8:00. No piece of food was more important than my TV show. I reached out my hand onto my plate. I picked up that wretched piece of carrot and put it into my mouth. Yuck! It tasted as bad as … wait a minute, it tasted good! How in the world could an orange ugly looking vegetable like a carrot taste good? I picked up my carrots and went to watch TV. I munched on them for the rest of the night.

The moral of this story is to try all kinds of different foods. I was stupid to not try the carrots. I wasted an hour and a half of good TV time. After I tried the carrots I loved them. I still do. Now I’ll try almost anything because who, knows, I might like it. I think everyone else should do the same.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

HOT Soup for Cold Weather

A spicy noodle soup is good for a head cold or cold weather. Fortunately, I’ve managed to avoid any head colds so far this season, but there’s no way to avoid the cold winter weather unless it's a tropical vacation. 

I didn’t make the soup this week to cure anything and the weather has even warmed up a little. I just wanted some good, spicy soup. The original recipe was from Bon Appetit magazine, but I’ve made a few changes and also made it even hotter than the original. You could tone it down some by reducing the number of chiles or leaving them out all together.

Spicy Curry Noodle Soup

2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp shallots, chopped    
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 Tbsp Thai yellow curry sauce
1 Tbsp curry powder
2 tsp chili garlic paste
1 can light unsweetened coconut milk
5 cups low salt chicken broth
2 ½ Tbsp fish sauce
2 tsp sugar
1 cup snow peas, trimmed
2 red-skinned sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
2 large handfuls dried rice noodles
1 lb boneless chicken breast, thinly sliced
½ red onion, thinly sliced
½ cup scallions, thinly sliced
¼ cup cilantro
4 red Thai bird chiles, thinly sliced with seeds
1 lime, cut into six wedges

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots, garlic and ginger; stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium low and stir in curry sauce, curry powder and chili garlic sauce.  Add ½ cup coconut milk. Stir until thick and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add remaining coconut milk, broth, fish sauce, and sugar. Bring broth to a boil. Reduce heat and keep warm.

Cook snow peas in pot of boiling water until bright green, about 20 seconds. Using strainer, remove peas from pot; rinse under cold water to cool. Set peas aside in a bowl. Bring water in same pot back to boil. Add sweet potatoes and cook until tender, about 7 minutes. Using strainer, remove sweet potatoes from pot and rinse under cold water to cool. Set aside in a bowl. Again, bring same water in pot back to boil and cook noodles until tender but still firm, about 6 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold water to cool. Transfer to another bowl.

Return broth to simmer. Add chicken and cook until chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add sweet potatoes and reheat.

Cut noodles with scissors if too long and put in serving-size bowl. Top with snow peas. Pour soup mixture over noodles and peas. Scatter red onion, scallions, cilantro leaves and chiles over soup. Serve with lime wedges.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Winter Market

Sunday morning was blanketed with a cold damp fog. Not a great morning for being outdoors. But we hadn’t been to the farmers’ market in quite a while. The winter market is very different from summer. We found a parking place in no time. It was very chilly and not at all crowded. About a third of the vendor spots were vacant.

We didn’t make many purchases, but there were definitely beautiful fruits and vegetables available even though it's the middle of winter. It’s nearing the end of mandarin season, but every sample I tasted was sweet and juicy. I was almost sorry that we still have some from a Christmas gift and I didn’t need to purchase any. One of my favorite things about the farmers’ market is all the vendors who have samples of their produce cut up for tasting. I’ve gotten spoiled by it and will rarely buy fruit that I can’t taste first.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Winter Friday

The sun finally came out this afternoon. After several cloudy or rainy days, the sun was a lovely sight. I worked at home today, cozy in my Guitar Hero flannel jammies (compliments of my friend Sue two Christmases ago), working on projects, answering emails and joining conference calls. By afternoon I was anxious to go outside for some fresh air. Should I get dressed? Was it worth it? I decided to throw on jeans, but I didn’t replace the top half of the pajamas.

The air was crisp and damp from the overnight rain. It was glorious to enjoy a little of the winter sunshine. In 20 minutes I only passed a couple of cars, an empty school bus and a walker who didn’t even look up at me. I guess I could have stayed in my flannel jammie pants. But I just can’t bring myself to adopt that fashion trend so popular with high school girls of wearing flannel pj’s as everyday attire.

It may be sunny, but it is still definitely winter and our menus reflect that. I tried a new recipe this week combining two of my favorite wintery vegetables, butternut squash and sweet potatoes. It is adapted from Bon Apettit magazine.

Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Puree
Non-stick vegetable Oil 
3 Tbsp olive oil, divided
1 butternut squash, peeled and seeded, cut into cubes
2 yams, peeled and cut into cubes
½ c beef broth
1 tsp Ras el Hanout*
Salt and pepper

1 onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 tsp sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray large baking sheet with cooking spray. Place cubed squash and yams in a bowl and toss with 1 Tbsp olive oil. Then place cubes on baking sheet and cook in oven until tender 45 minutes to 1 hour. Mash with potato masher until smooth. Stir in broth and Ras el Hanout. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat remaining 2 Tbsp oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onions, pepper and sugar. Saute until onions are golden brown and tender, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Stir ¾ onion mixture into vegetable puree and reheat. Top with remaining mixture to serve

* Ras el Hanout is a Moroccan spice mixture that can be purchased or you can use this streamlined recipe from Bon Apettit. I didn’t have the ready-made version, and I had all these ingredients so I made my own.

Ras el Hanout
Mix the following in a small bowl:
2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
¾ tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp ground mace
½ tsp ground allspice
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp crushed saffron

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

About that Tagine...

I finished the seasoning process for the new tagine in time to use it for dinner. For my first test run, I selected one of the recipes that came with the tagine; a simple stew of chicken, fennel, onions and lemons. You’ll notice there’s no recipe included here. There’s a reason for that.

The recipe called for a whole, cut up chicken. There was no way that was going to fit in this little tagine. I put bone-in chicken breasts on the grocery list and could only fit in two, cut in half, along with half an onion, the two fennel bulbs quartered and most of a sliced lemon. The recipe also called for 1 ½ cups of chicken broth and ½ cup of water. 
No way. 

After I stacked up all the ingredients, maybe 1/3 cup of broth fit in the bottom. I decided it might be a good idea to sit the whole thing on a cookie sheet in the oven since I had a feeling that between the broth, the juices from the chicken and the lemon, there might be an overflow issue. Was there ever!  I suctioned out several cups of liquid with a basting syringe around the lip of the tagine while it was cooking. I still managed to get liquid all over the place.

The recipe said to cook at low heat for an hour. What is low heat? What kind of recipe is that? Since the temperature for seasoning the pottery was 300 degrees,  I thought maybe I shouldn’t go too much higher than that. I chose 325. After an hour, the chicken was nowhere near done. I turned the heat up to 350. We were hungry.

In another half an hour, two of the breast halves tested done with a thermometer, so we decided to eat. The other two – well, I’ll put them in the microwave later. The onions were okay and the fennel was still raw. The seasoning was actually pretty good. Prior to putting in the tagine, the chicken had been seasoned with turmeric, olive oil, a lot of salt and white pepper.

I served what was edible with couscous and saved the dinner by opening a bottle of our favorite Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains chardonnay.

After dinner, Larry decided to do some research on tagines. Maybe Santa should have done some homework, too. Larry found an article from an author who claimed to have extensive experience with tagines. She said if you don’t have one, don’t bother. Just use a Dutch oven. My current inclination is to agree. But I won’t give up quite yet. I’ll try a couple more recipes being mindful of the volume, time and temperature restrictions. Maybe I’ll still find out what’s so magical about that cone shaped lid.

Monday, January 10, 2011

More Kitchen Gifts

We got quite a few kitchen and cooking-related Christmas gifts this year. Larry kept begging for this mini-donut maker. I just couldn’t see the point. He insisted he could find other uses for it besides making donuts. I guess Santa heard his pleas because it showed up under the Christmas tree.

So far it looks like I was right, that this is a useless tool and just occupies space in the kitchen. Larry has tried making several different recipes of donuts and they were all terrible. If you’ve ever gotten decent donuts from this thing, please let me know how!

Now I’m hoping the gift Santa brought me will turn out to be more useful. I got a tagine. I had mentioned I might like one, referencing the new one being made by Le Creuset. But that’s not what mine is like. I guess Santa prefers more authentic. My new tagine is clay and a little smaller than I had expected.

Before I could use it, the tagine needed to be seasoned. I soaked it for 24 hours in cold water, air dried it for two hours and then baked it in the oven for two more. Only, I forgot the olive oil. So I had to start the baking part over again. Then I cooled it off, rubbed it with olive oil and started the two hours in the oven over again. Hopefully, I’ll get the seasoning process completed in time to use it and try a tagine recipe for dinner!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Short Ribs with Chocolate and Rosemary

This is another good recipe for the cold, dreary weather we’re having. No rain lately, but it stays cloudy all day. I only want to eat comfort food. I’ve adapted this from my vast collection of Bon Appetit magazines:

Braised Short Ribs with Chocolate and Rosemary

1 ½ oz pancetta, diced   
3 lbs bone-in short ribs
1 onion, finely chopped
1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
¼ c carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry red wine
1 can low salt chicken broth
1 can diced tomatoes, drained
(I used fire roasted because that’s what I had on hand)
1 Tbsp Italian parsley, chopped
1 large fresh thyme sprig
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp shaved bittersweet chocolate
1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped

I always have a terrible time deciding what wine to use in a recipe. I rather randomly selected Night Harvest California Merlot that we had received from our Sunset wine club. Since I had never tasted it, I had to go on the description on the bottle. It was fine for the recipe, but I didn’t like it well enough to drink it with the meal. But Larry did, so it didn’t go to waste.

I used my new microplane that I got for Christmas to shave the chocolate. And I wore the safety glove. What a dream cooking gadget! And no shaved fingers – only very fine chocolate with very little effort. How did I mange without a microplane for all these years??!!

Heat large heavy pot over medium heat. Add pancetta and sauté until crisp. Transfer pancetta to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle ribs with salt and pepper. Brown ribs in drippings in pot on medium-high heat until brown on all sides. (Note: I’ve never had pancetta make enough drippings to be able to do this. You’ll probably need to add more oil.) Transfer ribs to plate.

Add onions and next four ingredients to pot. Cover, reduce heat and cook until vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Add wine, boil uncovered until liquid is reduced by half, about 5 minutes, scraping up browned bits. Add broth, tomatoes, parsley, thyme, bay leaf and pancetta. Return ribs to pot and cover. Simmer
1 ½ hours.

Then uncover and simmer until rib meat is tender, stirring occasionally, about another hour.  Transfer ribs to plate, discard bay leaf and thyme stem. Spoon fat from surface of sauce. Boil sauce until begins to thicken, about 8 minutes. Reduce heat, add chocolate, cocoa powder and rosemary; stir until chocolate melts. Salt and pepper to taste. Return ribs to pot. Simmer to rewarm, about 5 minutes.

Originally I had planned to serve the short ribs with polenta. But I still have leftover potatoes and crème fraiche from a dish I didn’t make at Christmas, so I made crème fraiche mashed mashed potatoes instead. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dinner at Ubuntu in Napa

Ubuntu in Napa has been our favorite restaurant since it first opened in 2007. We don’t eat there often, so it is always with great anticipation that we look forward to a meal there. We haven't dined at Ubuntu since the original executive chef, Jeremy Fox, departed for other adventures, so I wasn’t sure if it would still live up to my expectations on this New Year’s Day visit.

We need not have worried; we were not disappointed. The new Executive chef, Aaron London, continues the tradition of creating magical vegetarian dishes with such depth and complexity of flavors, that even a confirmed carnivore will never miss the meat. We even tested that premise on a previous trip and our friend had to admit we were correct!

Squash Soup Shooter
Before we were even settled at our table, we were treated to a lunga de Napoli squash and squash oil soup shooter amuse bouch. The squash oil was made from soaking the squash rind in olive oil. The flavor was as rich as the color. We were off to a wonderful start.

The restaurant says “Our mission at Ubuntu is to bring to our customers a bounty of local biodynamically gardened produce handled with care and skill by talented artisans and chefs providing an unparallel experience connecting our customers to the bounty of the earth.” The evening’s menu consisted of a selection of nine seasonal small plate vegetarian dishes meant to be shared.

We had only dined at Ubuntu in the spring or summer and had never experienced the winter menu. Many of the ingredients we had never even heard of before!  We decided to start with only three selections and maybe leave room for dessert.

Squash Salad
Vadouvan spiced lunga di Napoli squash and torn brioche salad, brioche bread crust “gravy”, pine nut pudding, pickled Fuji apples, chervil.  This was our first choice. A delightful wintery salad with a gravy made of who-knows-what (all vegetable for sure) that we really enjoyed. I’m not even sure if the squash was cooked, it was shaved so thinly.

Long gone potato pillows
They deliver the dishes sequentially as they are listed on the menu and our next selection was a simple plate of blackberry leaf and potato pillow with Oregon truffle red choi, loopy sunchokes, goat’s crème fraiche, and Midnight Moon cheese. This one didn't look so great in a photo, but trust me, it was delicious. Can you tell by the empty plate?

Grits and beignets
Our third course was Arbuckle grits cooked with goat’s milk whey and finished with sharp cheddar goat’s milk ricotta and fennel frond beignets, salsa negra, local matsutakes. I had no idea what half these ingredients were, so I was going on blind faith here. I don’t usually eat grits and had no idea what matsutakes were. I was guessing mushrooms. But I have been badly deceived before when I thought something was a mushroom! (see The Heat Goes On). No bad surprises here. Rich flavorful mushroom, indeed, and the salsa negra was thinly shaved mushrooms with some other spices I couldn’t identify. The fennel frond beignets were the biggest surprise of the evening. Not typical beignets, New Orleans style, but light, airy cornmealy little puffs and not too fennelly. Who knew you could eat fennel fronds!!?? They were our favorite component of the evening.

Larry decided on a cappuccino, but I ordered dessert. I loved all the squash we’d had so far, so I ordered chioggia squash sorbet with Fuji apple cooked in caramel, hazel nuts, cranberries with bread cubes cooked in olive oil. It was a very light, yet seasonal dessert and I definitely could have eaten more.


The evening ended with one final amuse bouche – did I say how much I love an amuse bouce??!! Small spoons of candied orange and fennel. A perfect tiny sweet ending to a perfect evening.

Orange fennel finish

Friday, January 7, 2011

Simple Soup Supper

Winter is the season for soups and stews. I could eat them every night. But when my son was growing up, he wouldn’t eat anything with multiple ingredients. That meant no soup, stew or casseroles. This soup was the only exception. Not only would he eat this potato cheese soup, he would ask for seconds and wipe the bowl completely clean with his bread. It has long been a favorite of every child who has every dined at our house.

The recipe is very close to the original as published in The Silver Palate Cookbook. We usually served it with fresh French bread and a salad or fruit such as sliced apples.

Potato-Cheese Soup 
(4-6 servings)

4 Tbsp butter
2 c onions, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
6 sprigs Italian parsley
4 c low salt chicken broth
2 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
Large bunch dill, chopped
Salt and pepper
3 c good quality sharp cheddar cheese, grated

Melt butter in a soup pot. Add onions and carrots. Cook over low heat until vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes. Add parsley, broth and potatoes and bring to a full boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes.

Add dill; remove soup from heat and let it stand covered, for 5 minutes.

Pour soup through a strainer, saving broth. Transfer the solids to a food processor. Add some of the broth and process until smooth (in batches if necessary).

Return pureed soup to the pot and add some of the remaining broth until soup reaches desired consistency. Return to low heat and gradually stir in the grated cheese. When the cheese is melted and the soup is hot (not boiling), salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

I've been meaning to submit something to Kahakai Kitchen's Souper Sundays roundup since I first read about it, but this is the first time I've remembered. So check out her weekly blog event of soups, salads and sandwiches for some great recipes.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chocolate Delights

Even though I didn’t have time to prepare any elegant desserts for Christmas dinner, I still wanted to have something decadently chocolate to end the dinner. It just isn't Christmas without chocolate. 

So I searched for someone local who made their own chocolates and found Dolce Bella. Battling Christmas Eve afternoon traffic to their café and shop was almost as stressful as trying to make something myself at the last minute. But after tasting their samples, I knew I had made the right decision.

I selected 24 chocolates of different flavors – hazelnut, lavender, dark chocolate, habanero chili, Tahitian vanilla and several others. The rich dark color and interesting shapes were all very inviting. My plan was to serve everyone a chocolate with a glass of Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Port at the end of the meal. 

Well, the stress of the day affected my focus, and I completely forgot the chocolates. I remembered them after half the guests had already departed and others were on their way out the door. So much for my elegant idea. The good news is that Larry and I are still enjoying these exquisitely rich chocolates and port, one bite and one sip at a time, on ordinary days. This way I get to try all the chocolate flavors and extend the holiday mood!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wrapping Up the Weekend

Our New Year’s weekend retreat in Napa turned out to be more about food than wine. It was cold, rainy and blustery on Saturday morning as the New Year arrived, so we started out late. We stopped in Yountville at Michael Chiarello’s Napa Style shop and browsed for a while, then headed across the street for lunch at Hurley’s. It was the perfect place for a warm fireside lunch of butternut squash and pear soup for me and Mediterranean beef skewers for Larry. I also ordered a cheese plate to go with my soup.  It was such a mellow morning, I forgot to take photos! We learned later if we had driven a little further north, we would have encountered snow in St. Helena. But instead, we headed south to visit two of only six wineries open in the valley on New Year’s Day.

Raymond Vineyards was our first stop. We really enjoyed seeing the wineries and other shops decorated for the holidays. We purchased two bottles of Raymond’s Eloquence dessert wine on sale for the ridiculous price of $15. Last time I think we paid $30. Next we headed for a new destination, Hagafen Cellars. They have a number of award-winning wines, so we thought it would be worth checking out.

I think everyone else in Napa Valley had the same idea. The tasting room was a zoo! There was no opportunity to ask questions or learn about the Hagafen wines. They just went around pouring the wines as fast as they could keep up. That's great if you just want to drink, but I'd go to a bar for that kind of atmosphere. We'll have to return another time to really experience Hagafen Cellars. 

A highlight of our trip was dinner at our favorite restaurant, Ubuntu. That merits a separate post of its own. Sunday, we took a different route home, making a leisurely drive through the Carneros Valley. Our intent was to stop at Artesa Winery, but they were closed for renovation. Our final stop was at what used to be Folio Winery, but is now transitioning its name to Michael Mondavi Family Winery. They have a lovely new tasting room and a variety of wines to try available for sale at reasonable prices, distributed under a variety of brand names.

We ate far too much fine food, but enjoyed every morsel. Now it’s time to return to everyday life and the pleasures of cooking  at home.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Eve Dinner - Part 2

Our dinner at Cuvée in Napa continues. After our Meyer lemon granita intermezzo, we were ready for our third course. I was actually pretty full by this time since I’m not used to eating this much. But we had a long way to go yet. 

Third course:
We both selected the Harris Ranch Strip Loin – prepared  with potatoes three ways, black trumpet mushrooms, mustard greens, grilled leeks and tangy tomato conserva. The three types of potatoes included thinly fried strips, small roasted chunks and a potato/garlic cream. We had gambled that the Grgich Hills Estate zinfandel would pair well with the beef and the bet paid off. The spicy tomato conserva proved to be the perfect component to work with the zinfandel. Tomato conserva is a very concentrated tomato paste and this was very dense and concentrated with an intense spicy flavor.

CHOCOLATE and lots of it - a trio of chocolate treats. My favorite was the hot chocolate with a small lemon-filled donut. The chocolate was so rich and thick it almost qualified as pudding, but was still drinkable. I saved this one for the finale. There was also a flourless chocolate torte topped with strawberries in pinot noir sauce and whipped cream, as well as a mocha pot du crème. It was all wonderful.

Our reservation was early, and we hoped to have a quiet, relaxing dinner and avoid any crowds. We dined at a leisurely pace and were sitting in front of a roaring fire in the cozy hotel lobby by 10pm. After all that food and wine we didn't last to see the new year arrive.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Eve Dinner - Part 1

Our New Year’s Eve dinner at Cuvée came with the package at our hotel in Napa. When I checked the menu before the trip, I was pleasantly surprised at the interesting choices. The weather was miserable, so we were glad the restaurant was within walking distance of the hotel.

 Carpaccio of Ruby Beets
First course:
Larry selected Carpaccio of Ruby Beets – salad with house pickled onions, pancetta, pecans, and chevre drizzled with a maple-mustard cider vinegarette
Mizuna and Baby Romaine
Judy selected Mizuna and Baby Romaine – organic lettuces with gingerbread croutons, dried cranberries, roasted onion rings, pumpkin seeds, dry gouda and honey-laced warm cider dressing.

But before our first course even arrived, we were served a half bottle of champagne and an amuse bouche of endive, prosciutto, roasted apple and goat cheese with mizuna and walnut vinegarette. I love restaurants that serve amuse bouches!
Amuse Bouche

We had decided to take our own wines for the evening since Cuvée's by-the-glass selection was rather limited. Trying to guess at what would pair with the various courses was challenging. We selected Grgich Hills Estate 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay to accompany the first two courses and ultimately decided to purchase a half bottle of Grgich Hills Estate 2007 Zinfandel for the third course.

I’m not terribly fond of champagne, but I have to admit it paired well with both the amuse bouche and also Larry’s first course. Our chardonnay selection was too light for my salad. The combination of the gingerbread croutons and rich cranberries overpowered the wine. This was an amazing salad and if I can figure out how to do the croutons, this will definitely appear on my holiday menu next year.

Sonoma foie gras
Second course:
Larry selected Seared Sonoma Foie Gras – bronzed foie, butter roasted chestnuts, chestnut puree, maple brown butter emulsion with pumpkin chutney, brioche and cranberry.
Judy selected Caraway Cured Salmon – house cured king salmon topped with winter salad of fennel, apples, toasted hazelnuts, preserved lemon, celery leaves and a swirl of yogurt and grain mustard.

Caraway cured salmon
The chardonnay was not robust enough to stand up to the rich flavors of the foie gras, pumpkin and cranberries in Larry’s second course. This was the first time either of us had ordered foie gras, so we didn't realize just how rich it would be, especially with this preparation. On the other hand, the chardonnay was perfect for the light citrusy flavors of my salmon.

Meyer lemon granita

The first two courses were followed by in intermezzo of Meyer lemon granita with micro-basil as a palate cleanser. Very refreshing, it paved the way for the third course. Stay tuned for the next installment to read about the rest of our excellent New Year's Eve dinner.

New Year in Napa

Until about three weeks ago, we had planned to spend New Year’s weekend painting the kitchen - part of our refresh from last spring that never got done. But then I got the idea that we could use a relaxing break after the hectic holidays. Paint the kitchen or wine tasting in Napa? How hard is that to decide?

The River Terrace Inn, where we stayed last trip, was having a holiday special that included dinner for only a little more than the regular room rate. The deal was done. And here we are.

The vines may be dormant this time of year, but all the valley is decorated for the holidays. Everything looks beautiful, like an enchanted wonderland. Our first stop of the day was one of our favorite wineries, Cakebread Cellars. In warm weather, the tasting meanders through their fabulous gardens, but when it’s freezing (49 degrees is freezing when you’re used to balmy Bay Area weather) like today, it’s all confined to inside the winery. No matter, we always enjoy their wines.

My first experience with Cakebread wine was in 1997. I was attending my company’s sales meeting in Boca Raton, Florida. Our team was celebrating a successful product launch and took a dinner boat cruise for the evening. As we were boarding, the bartender was closing up from the previous party. He informed us he was required to pour out the leftovers before he could serve us. Then he said there was no way he could discard this bottle of wine. “So I’ll pour a glass for you and you, and one for me. And now I've poured it out,” he said. “It will be one of the best chardonnays you’ll ever drink.” And thus began my love of Cakebread Chardonnay.

We grabbed a quick lunch at the iconic drive-in that used to be Taylor’s Refresher, but now has a new name, Gott’s Roadside. The name may have changed, but my California Chicken Sandwich and onion rings were as tasty as ever.

Our  next stop was Grgich Hills Estate Winery. We are familiar with their wines, but have never stopped at the winery for the tour or tasting. Mike Grgich is a legend for his role as the winemaker at Chateau Montelena whose chardonnay won at the Paris Tasting in 1976 and put Napa Valley wines on the world map. Now he is well known for his biodynamic farming techniques. We enjoyed the tour and wines and were glad we had a two-for-one coupon since the tour is $35/person. We purchased this cute box of tiny 50ml bottles they call a tasting kit for $30. It includes tasting notes and food pairing suggestions for each wine. The kit includes their Violetta late harvest white wine that sells for $85 a bottle.

Our last stop before heading to the hotel for a nap was St. Helena Olive Oil Company. They offer a wide selection of olive oils, vinegars, specialty salts and spice mixes, all available for tasting.

We have good reason to celebrate this New Year’s Eve. My last check-up resulted in a “suspicious” outcome, which created a certain level of anxiety.  The doctor said this next check would be telling – either the suspicious area would disappear or manifest as real. So this weekend, I would either be preparing mentally for another surgery or celebrating the disappearance of suspicion. Thankfully, I learned yesterday it is the latter. All clear. Happy New Year!