Friday, November 10, 2006

Grecian Holiday

I was invited to spend two weeks at my friend Gisele's house on the Greek island of Paros this summer. Gisele's family has a beautiful house up on the hills, overlooking the Mediterranean. She assured me that my two weeks would be filled with unbelievable food, perfect sunshine, hours swimming in the ocean, glasses of milky cold ouzo, and dancing to heart thumping Greek music in clubs until dawn. There was no possible way I could have resisted that kind of combination so I ponied up for the ticket and packed my bags.

I've always admired the Mediterranean people's magic touch with everything they pull from the sea, and I couldn't wait to see the Grecian take on their harvests from Poseidon's realm. The first restaurant that I got seriously acquainted with was called Lavadaki. A little taverna on a small secluded beach called Agia Irini, down the road from Gisele's house. Gisele had some business to take care of and planed on meeting me and two of our friends at the beach that afternoon. She gave us walking directions from the house and as she got into her dusty Range Rover, leaned out the window and yelled "Make sure you tell Tassos that you're friend's of Aphrodite!" A summer local since she was born, Gisele had been annointed with the name of the Greek goddess of love, desire and beauty. I walked down the road, wondering if I could have a Greek god's name what would I choose. Would it be Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, or Artemis, the goddess of wilderness and the vigin huntress of the gods? Bacchus, the god of wine, was probably not an option as he was a man, but that one was appealing too...

When we got to the taverna, I saw an old man sitting at a table outside the front door with a pipe in his mouth and a bottle of Ouzo set before him. He wore a Greek fisherman's hat, and under that peeked two tufts of white curls and a weathered face, the color of warm leather, punctuated by brilliant blue eyes. He eyed us with an enviable combination of indifference and curiosity as we approached the patio. I walked over and said we were there to have some lunch and that we were very thirsty too. I quickly realized he had understood not a word of what I had said, so I remembered my trump card and mentioned that we were friend's of Aphrodite and was his name Tasso? His face lit up at her name and his eyes crinkled in a smile as he stood up to shake hands with us. He started speaking to me in rapid fire Greek, and then it was my turn to feel the barrier of foreign language. He stopped and motioned for me to follow him, leading me to a wall with photographs of Gisele (Aphrodite) celebrating numerous birthdays at the restaurant and you could tell by his smile that Aphrodite's powers of beauty and making all desire her had won him over years ago.

I knew we were in good hands but the lunch that Tasso and his staff churned out from their kitchen and outdoor grill was truly outstanding -- things that a food lover's most prized vacation memories are made from. We ate there a few times each week and there was nothing better than after a swim in the ocean and a bit of lying in the sun, to walk up to a table and have our two charming waiters bring us dish after dish and carafes of cool white wine or bottles of ouzo and buckets of ice so we could make that delicious, milk, anisette concoction to quench our thirst and warm our bodies from the cool of the sea. We'd start with bread and various mezethes, little dishes of things for the table to share. Common mezethes are tatziki (cucumber yogurt dip), melitzanosalata (eggplant dip), htapothi sti skhara (grilled octopus) and my favorite, a fried cheese called saganaki. They're served at the beginning of a meal to enhance the taste of your drink, whether it's ouzo or wine, and more importantly, to help provide that social, communal feeling at the table which the Greeks are famous for. I witnessed families and friends sitting at tables for four hours, talking, laughing, eating and drinking. Not once did I see that lamentable and unfortunately common occurrence in American restaurants of couples eating at a table together in gloomy silence. For the main dishes, the standouts were the grilled squid and fish and we would always have a Greek salad to round out our meals. Sometimes we'd take a break mid-way through the meal (we could sit there for hours) and our waiters would cover our food for us while we would take a quick swim to revive our appetites and shake off a little of the ouzo buzz that would slowly sneak up on us. And then we would nap, have another amazing dinner (more on the dinners to come) and then we would dance in tiny bars and packed clubs until the sun came up over the waters that held our next meal.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Tru-ly Outrageous

So the latest feat of marathon, high-end eating I've conquered was in Chicago where I was fortunate enough to enjoy one of the more outstanding meals I've had lately. Definitely the most outrageous. The restaurant, Tru, is the brainchild of chef Rick Tramonto. I was turned on to him by my old chef and mentor, Henrique SaPessoa from Portugal. When I went to visit him last September, the only thing he wanted me to bring from the states was a cookbook from Mr. Tramonto. Henrique is one of the most genius chefs I know, and suffice to say, my interest in Mr. Tramonto was more than piqued after this request.

The restaurant is very modern, sleek and opulent at the same time. However, we bypassed the dining room for a "secret" private room downstairs in the kitchen. Our waitress/cruise director of the night asked us if we had any food allergies or aversions. We clued her in on Mike's Brazil nut allergy and then were placed completely in the hands of Chef Rick. Our waitress warned us that we were in for something wild. I lost count after about 11 courses (each one had a wine, so I'd say lasting that far was impressive.) Every course after the first two amuse bouche utilized the same ingredient for the two of us, but prepared in a different way; so we got to share and experience twice as many things. I was quite impressed to say the least -- that's a hell of a lot of work and every plate came out flawless. I got a copy of them menu to post in all its glory:

French Onion Soup Spoon Gelée

Sashimi of Fluke with Ruby Red Grapefruit, Yuzu and Hawaiian Hearts of Palm Salad with Coconut

Purée of Cauliflower with Italian Black Pearl Osetra Caviar, Cauliflower Confit and Lemon Zest

New Zealand Langoustine with Thai Chili, Lemon and Watercress
Roasted New Zealand Langoustine with Baby Carrots, Turnips, Fennel and Langoustine Jus

Duck Bouillon with Duck Prosciutto
Veloute of Duck with Duck Confit

Atlantic Striped Bass "a la plancha" with Sea Urchin, Preserved Lemon, Uni and Citrus Jus
Grilled Atlantic Striped Bass with Razor Clams Casino, Bacon, Clam and Spinach Sauce (This was the star of the evening)

Farro Risotto with Braised Oxtail and Foie Gras, Fried Shallots and Red Wine Beef Jus
House-made Farfalle with Chicken Wing Confit, Bayonne Ham and Foie Gras Glaze

Roasted Prime Midwestern Beef Ribeye with Braised Beef Short Ribs, Glazed Pearl Onions and Crispy Bacon Lardons (this mammoth of a combination was mine and I think it was at this point that I thought I was going to die, but it was a good pain)
Grilled Prime Midwestern Beef Ribeye with Fondant Potatoes and Béarnaise Reduction

Then they wheeled in a cheese cart with 15 cheeses. Five goat's milk, five sheep's milk, and five cow's milk. The cheese expert told us about each one, and then we were instructed to pick four, along with a selection of breads, biscuits, fruit and nuts. I picked five and sampled all the side wares. Really thought I was going to die at this point. Either from gluttonous indulgence or sheer happiness we'll never know.

Then we had a palate cleanser of coconut-ginger-lime juice. Delicious, light and just what the glutton's doctor ordered.

Then the dessert(s)

My plate had a trio of:
Cappuccino Semifreddo with Spiced Tuille and Gold Flecked Sauce
Macadamia Nut Upside Down Cake with a Quenelle of Some Sort of Ice Cream (I was still eating, but not quite lucid at this point)
Bread Pudding with Honey Ice Cream

Mike's had a trio of:
Five Spice Crème Brulée with a Macerated Fig
Chocolate Molten Cake with Thyme Ice Cream Quenelle
Lemon Panacotta with Mixed Berries

Then they sent us two soufflés:
Chocolate Smores with Ghram Cracker
Cream Cheese with Raspberry Coulis

Then two of Gale Gand's whimsical mini root beer floats -- so good

Then we had a cart wheeled out of truffles and lollypops to choose from.

Then they had to wheel me out.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Aspen, where the truffles flow like...

I think I'm about to turn in to a truffle. There are worse things of course, and I never thought I'd get sick of the heady scent of such an exclusive gourmet treat. However, four days in Aspen almost did it. The snow was beautiful, the powder light and soft and there wasn't a patch of ice or crunch in site. No death cookies, as my cousin would say, referring to those little chips of ice that come off the combed lines of the groomed runs. There may have been no death cookies, but we came dangerously close to something else...Death by Truffles.

In our stay there, we had truffles or truffle oil at least once a day, and more than once, twice a day. Truffles are a rare fungi that grow underground in wooded areas of France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and closer to home, Oregon. They can be white or black. The main difference being that black truffles retain their aroma longer than white ones, but the white ones have a more intense, if fleeting aroma. Truffles are renowned for their musky, earthy and pungent scent, which, when mature, can be smelled from above ground by specially trained truffle dogs and pigs. Truffles are so precious, most truffle hunters go out at night with their animals, in order to keep the whereabouts of their truffle hunting grounds a secret.

Truffles vary in size from a walnut to that of a softball. The season for most truffles falls between September and May and they can command up to $500 per pound. A more inexpensive way to savor truffles is through truffle oil. In real truffle oil, left over pieces and shavings of truffles are infused in olive oil. Because of their potency, they really can transform regular olive oil in to something other worldly. Sadly, many truffle oils on the market are artificial, and though they deliver something similar to real truffle flavor, they aren't truly authentic. However, a drizzle on pizza, soup, salad or roast chicken is a wonderful way to experience somthing close to the delicate yet intense flavor and aroma of truffles without breaking the bank. If you do have a chance though, I recommend breaking the bank on them at least once in your life.

Here is a brief retelling of our exploration of Aspen through truffles:

At Ajax tavern there are two lovely truffle dishes. The first is an enormous plate of perfectly cooked french fries topped with shaved parmesan cheese and truffle oil. A perfect way to treat yourself after a long day on the slopes. They smelled so delicious that the table next to us kept looking over at our table and finally broke down, asking us what smelled so good. We offered them a taste of our plate (it was more that enough for three) and after trying ours, they proceeded to ordered two for their table. We also had a go at Ajax's raviolis filled with goat cheese and beets, drizzled with truffle oil and sprinkled with crispy sage. Delicious, light and heady at once.

Cache Cache Bistro, an small and ambient French restaurant in the middle of town (with a very charming maitre d' who discovered a table for us despite our lack of a reservation) offered up more truffle delights. Our table tried a beet salad with goat cheese, wilted leeks and lemon-truffle vinaigrette which was again, wonderful and light. Cache Cache also does a double time truffle appetizer: sea scallops with poached egg, black truffles and truffle butter sauce. It manages to be both glorious and simple all at the same time.

Our last, and most memorable culinary adventure occurred at The Ritz's Willow Creek Bistro at Highlands. Executive Chef Mathew Zubrod and his team prepared a nine course chef's tasting menu for us that explored Aspen's lavish culinary character while paying homage to local farmers and straight forward composition and flavor. Zubrod, recognized by the James Beard Foundation as one of America’s Great Hotel Chefs, loosened up our palates with a tasty amuse bouche of minature grilled cheese filled with (of course) truffles and Saint Andre Brie. Over the course of two hourse, he went on to dazzle us with seared foie gras over honey crisp apple matchsticks and the most meltingly tender braised short ribs I've ever had, accompanied by trufled mac n'cheese, to go along with our (I swear) unplanned general theme. Other highlights included a champagne poached morsel of lobster tale and a flawless composition of locally grown micro greens accompanying a terrine of goat cheese, red peppers and confit of beets. The pastry chef finished us off with a text book perfect pistachio ice cream profiterole.

Chef Zubrod is in the middle

Aspen is an extravagant town with a duly deserved reputation for wonderful skiing, great food and no end of fun. There are a multitude of fabulous restaurants to choose from, and from there, a seemingly endless menu parade of culinary indulgences to decide upon. Other treats not to missed that I discovered are the blackened tuna at Kenichi and the Patron Silver margaritas at Little Nell's bar (does après ski get any better?) Luckily there's plenty of skiing to be had and dancing at the Caribou to balance it all out.

Truffle Roasted Chicken

1 organic, free range chicken
1 black truffle or 1 Tbs. truffle oil
chicken stock and white wine (optional)

Heat oven to 450 F. Rub chicken with salt and freshly cracked pepper. Slice truffle in to thin slices and gently place under skin covering breast. If using truffle oil, place a half teaspoon under skin on each breast and massage in, and rub another 2 teaspoons over the whole bird. Heat roasting pan in the oven for 5-10 minutes and then carefully place chicken in the hot pan. Roast one hour without basting. Let the bird rest 15-20 minutes before carving.

If you want a sauce, deglaze the hot pan with with a quarter cup of white wine and a half cup of chicken stock, stirring up all the brown bits from the bottom and simmering for a minute or two over the stove until slighlty thik and golden. Remove from heat and whick in one tablespoon of cold butter. Serve on the side or over the carved chicken.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Wild Boar Dinner Party

My friend Nat is a hunter. When I was over at his house watching the Super Bowl I opened the freezer to get some ice for my drink and had to maneuver around a rigor mortise quail just lying there. He had some boar meat in his freezer from his last hunting trip, and asked me if I knew what to do with it. I told him to take it out of the freezer and bring it over. He arrived with about over three pounds of wild boar meat (a loin and a rump roast) as well as 6 perfect little quail. I marinated the boar for two days in a mixture of rose wine, garlic, onions, herbs and spices, and then seared it over the stove. After I took it out of the pot, I made a savory fruit compote by adding a couple sliced yellow onions and a whole lot of chopped dried fruit (apples, apricots, plums, pears and peaches.) I let it stew for a couple minutes to release some juice and then I added a couple cups of white wine. Then I poured the compote into a big roasting pan and put the boar on top. I threw the whole thing into a 325 degree oven and let it bake for about an hour and a half, until the meat was medium. It was good, though I'll admit a little tough. Served with a green salad and the compote it worked out pretty well though. I'd love to try again with some other wild game. Maybe make some sausages....? Venison? The quail I stuffed with some wild rice and dried apricots and then wrapped each one in a piece of bacon and threw them in an oven for the last 20 minutes of the boar's cooking time. I love eating quail. For some reason it makes me feel like an old French man, picking the meat off the little bones with my teeth.... Dessert was fresh berries with meringues, whip cream and dulce de leche. Learned that one on Argentina and it really is muy bueno.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Patagonia's Chef Leyes

While in Argentina we traveled down south to El Calafate, in Patagonia, for New Year's and some glacier trekking. We stayed in a beautifully situated, small hotel called La Cantera, just a drive away from some of the coolest glaciers on earth. I really recommend checking out the hotel's new website (there's a link below) to see just how beautiful the place is.

While we were there, the Executive Chef, Juan Pablo Leyes, was kind enough to let me watch him prepare some wild hare for that evening's menu. (I wondered if it might have been the one that our driver massacred on the way to the glaciers that morning, but it showed no real signs of trauma, except for being dead.) Chef Leyes is an incredibly talented young man and I watched as he deftly boned, marinated, stuffed and cooked the hare (liebra) with a mixture of seven herbs, butter, various vegetables and a yummy bottle of rosé. The charming play by play was brilliant and I'll try and figure out how to post the video I took. When you see everything that this guy accomplishes, in such a remote outpost of one of the most untouched southernmost parts of the world, you will never feel justified again while complaining that Whole Foods was out of (fill in the blank.)

I wish Chef Leyes all the luck and success possible; and if any of you happen to venture to his part of the world, make sure you ask him to take you out on the town bar dancing and bar hopping. Just don't plan on coming home until the sun comes up. And if you can't find a taxi, just hitch a ride in the back of the local baker's truck. And try not to sit on the croissants like I did.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Argentine Assado (not for vegetarians)

I don't eat red meat that often at home in the states. Not because I don't like it, but because I find that it's rarely very good. Unless you pay an arm and a leg, you're probably going to get some choice cut (sounds good, but it's far from the best cut available) that is tough and bland and relies way too much on a marinade and/or sauce. However, when I'm traveling in countries like Portugal and Argentina, I eat red meat all the time. It's wonderful there. Rarely marinated and often just sprinkled liberally with salt and cooked over a wood burning fire, steaks, sausages, ribs and chops take on whole new dimensions cooked this way.

In Argentina, it's known as an assado. Often a cow will be butchered specifically for an assado, and every part of the animal will find it's way to the grill. Blood sausage is always there (yes, it's good), numerous cuts of beef including flank, entre cote, loin, short ribs, sausage, kidneys and so on, and many times there's also pork, chicken or goat. At my aunt's house, one of the ranch hands would come over in the afternoon and start a wood fire on the ground. The fire is always started close to the grill, but not under it and is shoveled under the grill or "parilla" as needed. So essentially there are two fires going and this way they can add more heat to the meat as needed. In one instance I saw them use a wheelbarrow on its side to contain the burning wood right behind the grill. Some people have more formal set-ups with large grills built into an outside stone table with cranks to raise and lower the meat. Not once did I see a stainless steel uber grill like we have in the states, not even a Weber.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Apricot Jam, Argentina Style

Here's the first of my posts about my wonderful stay in Argentina. I ate and saw so many delicious things, I'm just going to go in chronological order to present them all.
The day after arriving at my aunt's ranch, a half an hour outside of Argentina's second largest city, Cordoba, I went for a walk to strech my flight cramped legs. I stumbled upon an old orchard of apricot trees growing by a pond. Right now it's summer there, and the apricots were just beginning to ripen. I managed to pick about 2 kilos, enough to make a big pot of jam. Serendipitously, I had brought with me (as airplane reading material) Jeffery Steingarten's book, "The Man Who Ate Everything" (an excellent and highly entertaining read) and one of the recipes in it is for apricot conserves. I didn't use quite as much sugar as the recipe called for, but I really liked the technique of carmelizing the sugar and adding the apricots in two parts, keeping the second addition more intact. I also didn't bother with canning the jam, as there were so many people there we went through it fairly quickly. This is my slightly ammended recipe:

Apricot Jam

4.5 lbs ripe apricots, halved and pitted
3 1/4 c sugar
1/4 c water
2 Tbs lemon juice

Put half the sugar and the water in a large sauté pan over high heat. Cook, stirring often, until the sugar reaches the thread stage (230 F.) Add half the apricots and cook, stirring constantly until the fruit starts to get mushy. Add the rest of the sugar and stir until it dissolves, then add the rest of the apricots and cook until they start to get mushy, but before they begin to break down. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice. Put in jars (it should yield about 4 1/2 pints) and use it soon, or can it.

Summer's bounty on display at a fruit vendor's cart in downtown Cordoba