Category Wine

Modernist Dinner, a post-mortem

Last night, I made dinner for a group of friends, in lieu of my usual July party celebrating moving to the island.  The change in format was stimulated, primarily, by the publication of Nathan Myhrvold’s magnum opus, Modernist Cuisine.  I was an enthusiastic early adopter, preordering the book last winter, and Myhrvold and his team really delivered.  It’s a rich vein of modern culinary knowledge — the Escoffier of the early 21st century, without a doubt.  My friend (and superb chef) Madden Surbaugh described it as “a post-graduate degree” in the culinary arts, and he’s right.

My goal in planning this dinner was really to try techniques.  I had no preconceived notions about what I’d make, but I started making lists of recipes about two months ago, after Nicole and I went to Napa and did Three Nights of Keller, and later when Scott, Nicole, and I made the pilgrimage to Chicago for Alinea and Aviary.  My method in planning the dinner was suitably nerdy on several fronts:  I treated it like a research project, and had a lab notebook, and being a software guy, the lab notebook was in the form of a wiki.  I kept notes on recipes, techniques, ingredients, possible menus, and so on.  It was fun to see how things evolved.

I tried a number of dishes that never saw the light of day.  I was taken with a “shrimp terrine” dish by Ideas in Food, but since several guests were allergic to shrimp, I turned it into lobster.  But I was also taken with Chang’s ramen from Momofuku, and ended up trying to make lobster meat “noodles” by tossing lobster tail chunks with Old Bay and Activa RM, vacuum sealing, and rolling it into a flat sheet.  After an overnight chill, I cooked the sheets at 55C and chilled, before cutting into fettucine.  This worked fairly well, although the noodles were definitely fragile (I didn’t want to use enough Activa to ruin the flavor or texture).  The noodles, served in an english pea dashi (kombu, shittake, english pea pods, bonito flakes), absolutely sucked.  They had the texture and feel of bad imitation crab.  The moral of the story is don’t do this!.

I won’t bore everyone with the full list of failures, partial successes, or things that “worked” in a technical sense but simply yielded nothing terribly interesting.  I will say, do not bother coring out and stuffing asparagus spears.  It’s not worth it.  Unless you have asparagus with a serious obesity problem, you can’t get enough tasty stuffing inside before they split and explode for anybody to really notice.  It’s an interesting idea, and if it had worked out would have elicited that “wow, cool” surprise noise that every chef is hoping to hear from their diners….but it didn’t.

What works:  tapioca maltodextrin.  Make dry caramel.  Now.  Make parmesan nuggets, or bacon powder, or….hell, grab a tasty dairy or fat and spin it with TM and serve it in some interesting way.  I happened to have a sheet of apple cider sea-salt caramel that had gone all brittle because I’d prepped it too far in advance, so I needed a new presentation than what I’d originally planned, and I remembered that Grant Achatz had done a “dry caramel” powder, and it worked.  Boy, did it work.  It wasn’t what I’d planned, but it was a happy accident, and something I’ll be doing again, especially early in a meal with savory and smoky elements, like the dehydrated double-smoked (house-cured) bacon I paired it with.  Get some TM and start screwing around.  Seriously.

Also:  low-acyl gellan.  After some futzing with other gelification agents, I was wary.  I clearly need more practice with methocels, for example, before I’m ready to unleash something on unsuspecting diners.  But low-acyl gellan:  brilliant.  Sherry vinegar gel cubes to serve with oysters were a breeze.  Measure carefully but then, it just works.  It exhibits a first-order phase transition when the liquid cools below the magic temperature — one second it’s a liquid, the next, it’s a semi-brittle gel, boom.  Stable and still tasty after storage in the fridge, it’s forgiving and completely within reach of cooking at home.  Highly recommended.

What I hated:  working with transglutaminase.  I did the “Checkerboard Sushi” from Myhrvold.  Twice.  The first time, I destroyed way too much nice maguro and hamachi from Mutual Fish when the “slurry” got gloopy (which it does in about ten seconds), and I ended up with blobs between the fish slabs.  You have to work fast with Activa.  What they don’t tell you, is that “fast” means “superhumanly fast.”  The second time, I dusted the slabs through a tea strainer.  It didn’t bond nearly as well and the resulting slabs were fragile, but they looked great and tasted great, and that’s what counts.  It just limited me on presentation possibilites, where a full bond would have been more robust for draping or whatever.  But I hated working with the Activa.  I have a full bag of it, and will probably do it again, but it’s certainly not something I’ll whip out for my own pleasure and use in the kitchen.  Too much hassle and fuss.

Silica gel packets and a food dehydrator — wonderful tools.  A food dehydrator that isn’t circular and takes a rectangular tray would be even better. I sense one in my future.

And if you don’t have an iSi cream whipper, stop reading now and go to Amazon and buy one.  I used this dozens of times in the course of a couple of days, it’s perhaps the handiest tool I have for doing modernist dishes.

I’ll probably have more notes in the days to come, especially as I review my lab notes.  But get in the kitchen and play around!

Recent Food and Wine

I’m slammed at the moment getting ready for an academic conference in a few weeks, so I haven’t had time to much lately outside work and research.  But I did manage on Friday to take the afternoon off, and go to lunch with a regular group of friends at Nell’s.  The group as a whole has met for 20 years, and I participate when I can (which isn’t nearly as often as I’d like).  Phil cooks us lunch and we have the restaurant to ourselves. 

Yesterday was "Great 1980’s Wines" as a theme, and the group dug reasonably deep and came up with some good stuff.  My 1988 Raveneau Vaillons Chablis to start was slightly oxidized and we’ve all had better bottles; you win some and lose some.  Highlights were the 1980 Jaboulet La Chapelle, which was mellow, pretty, but with some spice and weight left, the 1988 La Chapelle (superb), and a slightly advanced bottle of the 1989 Aldo Conterno Barolo Cicala (absolutely superb, despite being a little mature for its age). 

Probably the wines of the day for me were the 1982 Montrose Bordeaux, of which I still had a bit left and am sipping on while I write this a day later.  Incredible — beautiful Bordeaux nose, but lacking the brutality and tannins of the 1970 and 1990 Montrose, the latter of which probably won’t be ready to drink in my lifetime. 

Tonight I’m having dinner (paella!) with another group of friends, and I’m bringing some old Spanish wines to go with the dinner, and a special appetizer.  I don’t have the bottles in front of me here, but there are two 1976 Riojas, and a 1970 Marques de Riscal Rioja.  I’m planning to finish things off with a 1910 Solera Pedro Ximinez sherry — a bunch of it hit the market some years back at very reasonable prices.

But the exciting thing for me will be an appetizer — a small slab of thinly sliced Jamon Iberico "reserva" — the fabled pinnacle of serrano hams, aged 24 months and only recently imported into the United States.  I’ll let you google for the going rate on a whole leg of Jamon Iberico, but let’s just say that you can fly to Europe and eat it cheaper, probably.  I have 4 precious ounces of the stuff, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with folks (and saving a little slice for Madden at Steps) tonight.

Then it’s back up the island to hunker down for a few days and bang out some simulation results.  I’m doing most of my numerical work on Amazon EC2 clusters these days, so I don’t have to worry about where I am or whether I have computers available, which is sweet.  I’ll post more after the old Riojas and the Jamon Iberico…

Remembering Marc

My friend Marc Olson died two weeks ago.  Although his funeral was well attended by family and friends, the process of remembering and honoring those who pass doesn’t stop there.  Marc and I knew each other for about a decade, brought together by a shared love of wine and food and cooking, but we also worked in the same business (once even at the same company, briefly) and our conversations over the years ranged widely. 


The picture shown here (Marc is on the right) is from our first trip to France together, in the autumn of 1999.  Marc, myself, and Peter Glidden met up in Lyons and drove down the Rhone River, eating terrific food, drinking amazing wine, and getting to know winemakers.  In the picture, we’re standing on a hill on the west bank of the Rhone River, looking across to the Hermitage hill and vineyards, where the Rhone makes a bend and exposes the steep rocky vineyards to wind and sun, causing the Syrah to struggle and thus gain complexity beyond that normally seen in southern or especially domestic wines.  Hermitage was Marc’s "home" in the wine world.

This trip was our first visit to the cellars of Jean-Louis Chave, the incomparable maker of Hermitage, St. Joseph, vin de Paille, and now the Mon Coeur Cotes du Rhone.  Our first dinner together on that trip, at Le Beau Rivage in Condrieu, was terrific, but merely a taste of things to come.  While staying at Les Florets in Gigondas, we nearly plunged our mini-van off the narrow, steep road leading up the Dentelles de Montmirail, and had to be pulled back onto the road.  The car was insured, but its cargo of wines was not, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. 

But our best evening was at the end of our trip, with dinner at Beaugraviere, in Mondragon.  Beaugraviere, a classic French country restaurant run by chef Guy Jullien, makes a particular specialty of truffles, and at the time had the most spectacular wine list I’d ever seen.  Each of us, as wine enthusiasts, was given a weighty novel-sized book, with each page listing a different producer, with a long list of the vintages available.  Marc, Peter, and I read in silence for minutes, each compiling a list of likely candidates.  Most of the bottles hadn’t moved since their purchase or release, meaning that old vintages from the 50’s, 60’s or older would still be in pristine condition.  Our choices, to complement Jullien’s cuisine, were the 1978 Guigal La Landonne to start, the incomparable 1961 Jaboulet La Chapelle, and an incredibly rare bottle of 1929 Chave Hermitage.  The three of us couldn’t believe our luck in having such an amazing ending to our trip.   After the restaurant closed, we sat and shared the last of our wines with Jullien, who broke out an amazing and rare oddity — a sweet marc (or grappa) made by Chateau Rayas in 1945 but never commercially released.  A perfect end to our trip together. 

Given busy lives and responsibilities, we didn’t see each other as often as we’d have liked, although oddly enough my moving to San Juan Island and Marc’s plane crash earlier this summer brought us together much more lately than otherwise would have been the case, and I’m grateful for that.   Several times lately, I’ve found myself reading something and thinking, "I should send this to Marc."  But our conversations are done now, and Marc lives now in the memories of his friends and family.  These will be memories of energy and exuberance and a passion for life.  None of us who knew and loved him will easily or quickly forget how he brought all of these qualities into our lives in abundance.

Vieux Telegraphe 1995

Last night I opened a half-bottle of the 1995 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape, to have with dinner, partially to celebrate the holiday, and partially to celebrate the fact that my allergies had abated sufficiently that I could actually smell something. No clue why the pollen count has been so bad lately, but last night was a welcome respite and a great bottle of wine. The 1995 VT is the wine which convinced me to start collecting, a little more than a decade ago, so it has a special place in my cellar. The wine is superb, but not the dense or massive wine one expects in the greatest years. But given the tendency of Chateauneuf producers lately to make high-alcohol, highly extracted wines, I actually find older wine and second-tier vintages to be more my cup of tea. The 1995, and often VT in general (apart from the massively cough-syrupy 2003, which I couldn’t stand on release), have a balance and elegance which is missing when — to be frank — producers fight to achieve high Parker scores.

The 1995, upon opening, had herbal notes on top of a deep tarry or leathery funkiness, all overlaid on a background of dark cherry, the “signature” of this vintage and wine I’d come to expect from drinking a good deal of this after release. After an hour in the decanter, the leathery component had largely gone, leaving a deep red fruit and slightly herbal quality. In the half bottle, the aging curve may be a little faster, with a slight bricking to the color, but otherwise I don’t see any signs that the wine needs to be drunk up soon. I haven’t touched my full bottles of this vintage yet, and I expect to start doing so little by little over the next five to ten years, depending upon how it ages. But I still have 1988, 1984, 1983, and 1982 in my cellar, all second or even third-tier vintages, and most of them are elegant and lovely. If you’re interested in an older, more elegant, less massive style of Chateauneuf, Vieux Telegraphe continues to be a good bet.

A gourmet weekend on San Juan…

Last weekend, a long-time group of friends came up to the island and we spent all of Saturday cooking. I’ve been cooking with this group at least since 1997, but this was one of the first times we’ve all made dinner together in the same kitchen — normally each person or couple makes something and we come together at someone’s house for dinner. But since the logistics of everyone coming north gave us a whole day together, we were able to do something a bit special.

Before everyone arrived last Saturday, I’d put together a tentative menu, including five dishes that were either straight from, or derivations of, dishes from Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook. I’d pre-made and reduced duck stock to a demi-glace, made chive, shallot, and basil oil purees which could be strained and used for service, and reduced balsamic vinegar and PX sherry into a thick glaze. So after everyone got to the island and we went to the Farmer’s Market for last-minute items, we were ready to cook.

For appetizers, we began with a traditional pissaladiere, the Provencal onion tart, served with my fresh tapenade, crostini, and Oregon Country prime beef tenderloin pounded out into carpaccio with shaved parmesan and drizzles of bright emerald green basil oil. This was served with a non-vintage Paul Bara Rose champagne for toasts, and then the new vintage of Tempier Bandol Rose 2006, which is a superb wine. James Peterson’s pissaladiere recipe is a bit odd, and I’d recommend not following him on the pizza dough crust but going for traditional pastry instead.

The first course was grilled red snapper filets, served on a bed of sauteed rainbow chard greens tossed with garlic and shredded sorrel (the latter was from a mention in Olney’s Tempier cookbook), and topped with one of three relishes: piquillo peppers and nicoise olives, straight piquillo peppers with smoked paprika and sherry vinegar, and chopped shallots and lemons marinated in sherry vinegar. All went well with the grilled fish. I served this dish with the 2005 William Fevre AOC Chablis, decanted for 4 hours and nicely open.

Between courses, a quick palate cleanser of vine-ripe tomato sorbet with chive oil drizzle, in little espresso saucers.

The main course was Keller’s duck roulades: thin breasts of duck, skin and fat removed but otherwise raw, rolled up in blanched chard leaves and rolled in plastic wrap for poaching. A disk of the poached breast, still wrapped in the chard, is placed on top of a smooth sweet white corn puree with white corn kernels, and drizzled with the duck reduction, and topped with root vegetable and morel mushroom “brunoise” tossed in the reduction. The dish was frankly amazing. I’m definitely doing this one again. Other than the duck reduction and a bit of obsessive straining on my part of the various items, it wasn’t much work. I served this with the Tempier Bandol Miguoa 1994, decanted for 3 hours and very sweet and open. A terrific bottle of wine.

Before the salads and cheeses, I served a single chilled shot of tomato “consomme” with a smoked paprika and sun-dried tomato salt rim. The consomme is made by allowing chopped tomatoes and a chipotle pepper to drain through cheesecloth for 24 hours, catching only the free-drip liquid. It’s the essence of tomato flavor, and very tasty chilled.

Thomas Keller’s deconstructed Caesar salad was next — Parmesan custards on a crouton and balsamic caesar dressing, topped with a parmesan crisp and a twist of chiffonaded romaine lettuce tossed in dressing. A terrific dish. I served this and finished the main wines with the Verset Cornas from 1985: fully mature but immensely complex and deep. I love this wine, and thank goodness I have a bit more in the cellar. Wow.

The final “cheese” course was the deconstructed carrot/raisin salad: shredded carrots, seasoned in a reduced carrot juice and spice mixture, on a bed of golden raisin puree, with slices of Roncal cheese on top, and carrot powder on the rim of the plate. The carrot powder is made by microwaving shredded carrot for 45 minutes until dessicated and then grinding. This was particularly cool since almost everyone over a certain age has had carrot raisin salad, and this is that childhood experience taken to a new level.

For dessert, fresh island strawberries with the balsamic drizzle, and a trial run on my friends’ wedding cake. This was served with the Pierre-Bise Coteaux du Layon 1996 Rochefort “Les Rayelles” which I thought was a bit tired, but still had good fruit and OK acidity. Nothing like it was a bit younger, I’m hoping it’s a phase.

Pics of some of the food on my Flickr site…

The Great Seattle Madeira Tasting

Back in January, Roy Hersh hosted a Madeira tasting here in Seattle, bringing together 15 people (including myself and friends Chuck Miller and Marc Olson) to taste some of the oldest and rarest Madeiras in our collective cellars. Peter Reutter, a Madeira expert from Germany, joined us, as did guests from Canada, Silicon Valley, and Washington, D.C.

The wines ranged from sercial to moscatel, with a smattering of terrantez in the mix, with ages ranging from the 1827 Quinto de Serrado Bual, through 1927, with an average age of 133 years old.

Our host, Roy Hersh (who runs For The Love of Port), just finished his article on the event (with pictures and tasting notes), and I recommend it highly if you’re a fan of these special and rare wines, are interested in getting into Madeira, or are just curious about what old wines such as this are like.

The Great Seattle Madeira Tasting – For The Love Of Port