So, I was in Chicago. And after doing some touristy things like going up in the Willis (fka Sears) Tower and downing a martini at Gibson’s, I met up with my cousin at one of his newest work projects: Fatpour Tapworks. And as people who know me might have expected, I promptly ordered the least inexpensive beer on the list. But I was confident that 750 milliliters of sour stout from one of my favorite microbreweries was totally worth it.
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The Chilaquiles Challenge: Plato Auténtico en Gualala versus “Spa” Breakfast in Wine Country.
Forget the poetry and the restaurant review. This is a straight-up challenge of one dish versus another, based on only one standard: mine. I love chilaquiles. Have for years, ever since I discovered them on a breakfast buffet at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico. Yeah, that’s right. And I’ve since moved on to learn that sometimes they’re more like a casserole, sometimes they’re more like nachos, and sometimes… rarely, but sometimes… they’re not even that tasty.
On your left, a reasonably priced lunch plate from a local taquería in Gualala on California Route 1. On your right, a breakfast plate priced twice as twice as much from a Sonoma, CA restaurant run by the hotel next door: The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa.
Normally, if I were a betting woman, I’d put my money on the Gualala plate. Authentic Mexican food is usually an outstanding and tasty value, and spa food is usually overrated. But I loves me a soft fried egg, some avocado, and triangular tortilla chips. The red sauce on the Fairmont plate was not as spicy as the Gualala which (for someone who can’t tolerate a lot of heat) was just about at my limit by the time I’d finished eating most of it. The loose sour cream drizzled amply over the pile of food on the authentic plate seemed just right and what I was expecting, while the dollop of crème fraîche atop the perfectly plated Fairmont dish was, well, too perfect.
They were both very tasty in their own respective classes, but in this particular case, the spa food won me over. It was just as tasty as the authentic chilaquiles, if more dolled up and polished. I mean, if you’re going to do spa diner chilaquiles, this is how to do it, folks. And I just preferred the egg to the chicken (on the Gualala plate), the triangles to the strips, and the portion, which was a little smaller and didn’t create as many soggy chips. Now, for value, you can’t beat the Gualala plate, and so I won’t be eating the chilaquiles at The Big 3 anytime again soon, if ever. But the bar has just been raised, amigos. I want fried egg and avocado on all my chilaquiles from now on. And don’t even try to push non-triangular shaped chips on me.
During a visit to Portland, OR, I felt way too Midwestern uncool to take photos of my food while dining with my cousin and his partner in some very foodie sorts of restaurants. However, at Mextiza, I did manage a photo of a cocktail (which, actually, I was encouraged by my dining companion to snap).
This is the Remolacha: Basil, beet-infused mezcal, brown sugar, lime, topped with soda. It is the tastiest liquid beet-flavored beverage you will ever have. Earthy, yet refreshing, and it pairs perfectly with the Lomita al Pastor that was on the menu that night. Succulent roasted pork tenderloin on a pepita/tomatillo-sort of mole sauce (no cocoa in this version), served with perfect cebolla roja asada, white rice, and a side of corn tortillas. It was exactly the kind of food I would expect to find on a Rick Bayless menu, and certainly just as tasty as anything I’ve had at Frontera Grill. And if it were really this easy to get vegetables, I’d drink a Remolacha every day.
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Butternut squash ravioli. Seasonal. Timeless. Certainly tasty. In fact, I had already decided to write this post when I stumbled upon an irresistible impulse-buy in a grocery store check-out line: Cook’s Illustrated Modern Classics: America’s New Favorite Recipes. With a beautiful, simple, tasty-looking photo if (or rather, a photo of tasty-looking) Squash Ravioli with Sage and Hazelnut Browned Butter Sauce. What more affirmation do I need?
I’m sorry to disappoint any of you who were looking forward to my testing of America’s Test Kitchen’s sure-to-be-solid rendition of this “modern classic”. While I agree that much of the beauty in delicious food is simple, high-quality ingredients used in technically accurate exercises of culinary basics… oh, hell. Sometimes the best basic cheeseburger isn’t enough. And when I want butternut squash ravioli, I want a burger with three kinds of cheese and onion strings and caramelized shallot and garlic special sauce and avocado and grilled vegetables and bacon-glazed brisket (that’s a thing, right?).
To the point: This a photo of my favorite butternut squash ravioli. It offers a lot of autumn flavors without requiring pasta making. Handy, since I’m rarely in the mood to make fresh pasta or clean up from making fresh pasta. Mostly, you have to get over wanting the squash inside the ravioli. So, pick your favorite fresh, cheese-filled ravioli. If I’m at a store that carries it, I buy local. Make it. Let’s also assume that you’ve already diced and roasted some butternut squash for just such an occasion (believe it or not, I often have this in my fridge in the fall). Make a brown butter sage sauce, remove the crispy sage, and use the oil to toast crushed red pepper flakes and sauté thinly sliced local hardneck garlic until golden (I like Greek Blue, Korean Red - for kick, and/or multi-purpose Spanish Roja). Finish the sauce with a little cream and golden balsamic or good sherry vinegar. Toss in the pasta, plate, and top with toasted walnuts and/or hazelnuts, pine nuts, crispy sage leaves, a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil, a scratch of fresh nutmeg, a pinch of smoked paprika, and as much parmesan or romano as you care to grate.
Okay, so maybe that sounds like a lot of work. But I’ve been really sad about the offerings of this dish found around Madison this season, and I’m venting my annoyance through one finishing touch after another. Really, I suppose, it’s the execution in the restaurant dishes that’s been lacking; also, the cubes of sweet, caramelized, roasted butternut squash on top (and boiled, undercooked cubes of squash do not count). And while over-the-top gourmet burgers seem to be going strong around here, pasta dishes have certainly trended the other way. I’m okay with that. Except when it’s autumn, and all I want is tasty butternut squash-on-the-outside ravioli. That I don’t have to make.
While everyone else is probably blogging about their heritage-turkey-fresh-cranberry-gluten-free-stuffing-locavore Thanksgiving feasts, I’m eating shrimp scampi. Why? Well, because it’s one of my favorite dishes and because I can. (And I’ll drink chocolate milk whenever I damn well please.) Also, because I spent the entire autumn season bouncing among some of the best harvest-oriented pairing dinners I can imagine. I’ve had three months of Thanksgiving for local foods, Wisconsin chefs, craft beer, wine, and spirits. So here’s my list of foodie gratefulness (certainly not all-inclusive):
So, thank you to all the people and all the places that make being a Wisconsin foodie intellectually challenging and gastronomically satisfying. I wouldn’t be who I am without you.
Kyle of Sushi Muramoto gives the Wisconsin Old Fashioned an Asian-fusion twist in his Wisco Moto cocktail. I ordered this drink exclusively for the candied kumquat garnish. I drank this drink because it was tasty. Yeah, that’s how I roll.
And if you have no idea what a Wisconsin Old Fashioned is, read a top-notch description from this guy writing from the beautiful, trendy city of Portland, Oregon (and that’s pronounced “OR-eh-gun” to you Wisconsin folks). Sure, he’d rather class it up with some fancy cherries instead of the bright red maraschinos that are the staple garnish of kiddie cocktails everywhere in this state. But, hey - I love fancy, and the first comment on the article sums up why I’d order a drink anywhere that Jeffery Morgenthaler runs the bar, even though I’d never heard of him prior to landing on his Brandy Old Fashioned post:
"This is, for me, the best representation of hospitality in bartending. A tacit acknowledgement that it’s not all about you, and you are here to give people what they want, made with the best possible ingredients and methods." - Donald Kenney
And if any of you are out in the Madison, Wisconsin area, I’m sure Kyle will make your Old Fashioned however you like it. Cheers.
I don’t like mushrooms. They’re sometimes styrafoamy when raw, slimy when cooked, or chewy like clams (without the satisfaction of clam chowder), and generally weird tasting. Not quite meat, not quite vegetable, and definitely not pretty. So I often tell people that I’ll eat mushrooms… if I can’t tell that they’re there. On the other hand, earthy, savory, umami-like flavors are some of the best flavors I can imagine in food, drink, and combinations of the two. So where does that leave me?
Enter mushroom risotto. Specifically, my own home-made mushroom risotto, where I have complete control of the flavors, textures, and accompaniments surrounding these questionable fungi. Through the polite sampling of a Northern Italian acquaintance’s mushroom risotto, I learned that there are many things to love about this dish, if they’re done the way I like them.
1) Use dried mushrooms to up the earthy/meaty flavor. One of the reasons stovetop beef ramen noodle soup tastes so good is the powdered dried mushrooms in the seasoning packet. Dried porcini mushrooms smell a lot like beef ramen seasoning.
2) Don’t use regular, flavorless button mushrooms. Portabellas and shitake mushrooms (for example) have meatier flavors and make it worth the weird texture that is bound to happen when you cook them.
3) Use chicken stock, not veggie stock, and make the risotto al dente. Overcooked risotto is just as slimy as overcooked mushrooms.
4) Add more earthy flavors: minced rosemary and earthy red wine (such as 2009 Field 3 from Botham Vineyards). Toss in toward the end of cooking so the flavors are still fresh. Drink the rest of the wine with dinner.
5) Finish with truffle oil. White truffle oil makes everything sexier. Trust me.
And so once a year, I buy mushrooms on purpose to cook up one of the most comforting and grounding dishes I can make. And I always have at least one guest - I love this dish, but seriously, I’m not getting seconds of anything with mushrooms in it.
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Who turns down an invitation like this? Welcome to my Pork Belly Potluck, sponsored entirely by winnings from the Slo-Pig Meat raffle hosted at Death’s Door Distillery and friends who were willing to bring cheesy potatoes, tabouleh, fried rice, and other delicacies to my home in the hopes of scoring some tasty bacon and a refreshing beverage.
I’ll spare you the details of the raffle and cut to the chase: Pork belly is damn tasty. I’ve had it slow-roasted, braised, and even sous vide. When I had the good fortune to win a choice of cuts from the heritage pig Chef Dan Fox had butchered before my very eyes, I barely hesitated between the chops and the belly. Everyone cooks chops. Not everyone (in America) cooks pork belly. But what to do with it? Given that I don’t have a way to cook things in a temperature-modulated water bath at home, I was stuck with the time-tested methods of braising or slow roasting. And given that all my chef acquaintances advocated the slow-roasting method, the choice was easy.
While researching recipes for inspiration, I learned that Brits and Aussies make a fair amount of pork belly, but Americans (or at least anyone not using metric measurements and cheeky slang) appear to leave preparation of this amazing cut to the restaurants. No matter; I can do conversions. I based my method on this recipe and my spice rub on a variety of recipes and suggestions from chef friends. A little brown sugar, coriander, fennel seed, Chinese Five-Spice powder, fresh thyme, kosher salt, black pepper, olive oil… you know - this and that.
And the magic of it is: Slow roasting is so easy. Really. I recommend slow roasting everything you ever eat as long as your oven isn’t a fire hazard in my apartment building. And do the high-heat thing after the meat is roasted to crisp up the skin. The skin is almost the best part. Think Bacos® without the annoying fake bacon flavor. Even my guests who don’t normally eat chunks of fat were raving about the crispy-fatty skin bits. All the more reason to score the skin finely - you get the most rub flavor in the meat and the crispiest bits. And to get the most our of your pork experience, pair it with a solid semi-dry Riesling. That evening, I was test-driving Selbach 2010 incline and Loosen Brothers 2010 Dr. L Riesling. Good choices for semi-dry Mosel Rieslings, but my favorite semi-dry is still the one my boss makes at Botham Vineyards.
As for the after-dinner cocktail? Turns out none of us really like milk. So that was kind of a bust. However, the more liquor you added to it, the more tasty it became. Thus, a Maple Whiskey Milk Punch became a Maple Whiskey-Brandy-Bourbon Milk Punch. And thus we (and by “we”, I mean “I”) became seriously inebriated by the end of the evening. Damn good thing I was hosting.
So many Merlots have a weird piney-turpentine-retsina-like quality that I just can’t get past. But this one, recommended by one of my favorite professional barkeeps, Marko at Bistro 101 in li’l ol’ Mount Horeb, is just berries, earth, and cocoa. Perfect for an autumn evening in Wisconsin.
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