Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Navarro Nirvana!

Winebottles1220_2Have you ever had a hand-crafted, premium grape juice?  I reckon the vast majority of you think "hand-crafted, premium grape juice" is an oxymoron (or that I'm a moron for even raising the question).  Whatever the case, it exists...and not in the same way that Bigfoot or Chupacabras exist.

Now before you click to another site, give me a minute to explain.  The grape juice I'm talking about is light years from the shelf-stable, electric purple stuff you see in plastic jugs or the oh-so-effervescent "sparkling" grape juice found in Champagne-style bottles.
On a trip to California wine country this past fall, a meal at one of my favorite restaurants unexpectedly revealed an untapped world of grape-based pleasure.

A little more about the trip.  I was in Sonoma for a few days to meet with wine makers from Benziger (stay tuned for an upcoming post on what this family's doing in the area of biodynamic viticulture), Kunde Estate, J Winery, and Imagery Estate Winery.  (It's worth mentioning that all of these wineries are producing some outstanding wines.)

Anyway, on my way back to the airport in Oak-town, I decided to pamper myself before the long flight east to Birmingham with a quick bite at the Café at Chez Panisse.  (Note: If you don't know about Chez Panisse and its founder, Alice Waters, read up -- as soon as possible -- on her and what she's done for American cuisine.)

I know this sounds odd, but I really wasn't in the mood for wine.  I stick to water before and during flights -- call me a geek or maybe it's just my inner runner, but I try to practicing good hydration.  I didn't have long, so I ordered a plate of olives and an amazing salad of baked Andante Dairy goat cheese with fresh garden lettuces (and I mean, like, still-warm-from-the-garden fresh).

As I sat there nibbling on bread and feeling the weight of being a table for one, I quickly realized I was the only person in the building without a glass of wine.  Feeling my anxiety, the server stopped by and again asked if I'd like to see the wine list.  I reckoned my hard and fast rule on hydration could be put on hold for the experience of dining at Chez Panisse, so I gave a nod and the list was in my hands lickety-split.

I dreamingly strolled down the list...and what a list it is.  And there at the bottom was "Grape Juice" -- specifically, grape juice from Navarro Vineyards, the well-respected winery in Philo, CA (in the Anderson Valley in coastal Mendocino), which produces, among other things, absolutely quaffable non-alcoholic wines.  I spied their Gewurztraminer, which sounded like just the right match with my salad.  I ordered a glass on faith -- I mean, how bad can anything be that Chez Panisse supports, right?  Well, I can safely say the Gewurztraminer was a true revelation.  Crisp, complex, floral, balanced...everything I look for in the varietal, but without the alcohol.

Navarro Vineyards was all I could think about on the flight home, so when I touched down, the first thing I did was check out their website, only to find out they make an incredible non-alcoholic pinot noir as well.  Go figure.  These folks do it right.  I ordered a few bottles of each ($11/bottle).  You can't imagine how liberating it was to order something from a California winery, not have to worry about Alabama's ridiculous shipping laws, and have the "wine" delivered to my front door.  A hollow victory, I know, but it felt good.

A week or so later I was having a bite at Chez Fonfon (the best way to spend the lunchtime hour in Birmingham) and ran into the restaurant's renown chef/owner Frank Stitt, who cut his teeth in the Chez Panisse kitchen.  I told him about my meal at the Café and how my eyes were opened to the world of Navarro.  He knew about Navarro's grape juices and gave me a reassuring smile.  I guess I'm not crazy after all.

Monday, February 4, 2008

I'm a Food Geek

I’m not one to follow recipes – I cook by feel, taste, and, most of the time, by what inspires me in restaurants and in the kitchens of my friends.

I freely admit to being a food geek, so I’m not the least bit embarrassed to say that I own a pocket-size notebook, which I find perfect for jotting down all sorts of details and sketching out plate presentations.  Even if I forget my oh-so-handy notebook (which is about half the time), I find something to scribble on, whether it’s a cocktail napkin or valet ticket.  It’s the way I get things down.  It’s the only way I can remember.  I have friends who can recite every detail -- with mind-boggling clarity -- from a meal they enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) 10 years earlier.  I can’t.  Call it a curse.

Why am I telling you this? Because this “notebook” method only gets me so far when I take the ideas back to my kitchen.  And until recently, I just plowed through my notes, whipped up the dishes, and patted myself on the back when I got it right.  So a few months ago I devised a plan to hang on to a few tasty crumbs when recreating dishes at home.  I use my computer and digital camera to help keep track of things.

While I’m plating, I take a quick, low-resolution digital image – nothing fancy.  This provides me with all the visual cues I need to later jot down everything that happened in the kitchen.  It’s amazing how much I can remember with the help of a simple picture.  With that locked in, I sit down at the computer the next day and make a few notes about the procedures and how things came together.  This allows me to nail the recipe over and over again, as well as add ideas about how I’d jazz things up or twist something a certain way the next time.  I realize this is not rocket science, but you might try this or develop your own system for storing and keeping your favorite recipes.  I think you’ll find it allows you to move beyond simple recipe cards. 

What's your secret to hanging on to your favorite recipes?

Have a tried and true recipe your friends and family love?
I’ll use a fun little dish from Standard Bistro – a solid restaurant a few ticks south of Birmingham – that I tried to duplicate at home to demonstrate how this works.

What follows are my actual notes based on the picture (left) taken in my kitchen just before serving my family:

Sweet Potatoes, Spinach, and Caramelized Onion (served under grilled pork chops)

• Small dice on sweet potatoes – toss in olive oil, herb mix (also used fresh thyme), s&p – bake in single layer at 350˚ for about 1.5 hrs. (check at 1 hr.) – sprinkle with kosher salt – set aside.
• Cook bacon (I used 4 slices); remove bacon and reserve drippings. (Use bacon in “bacon breadcrumbs”)
• Caramelize sliced onion in bacon drippings (add olive oil, if needed).
• When ready to serve, reheat onion – add minced garlic – add sweet potato cubes – add spinach.  Adjust seasoning.

Serve With:  Grilled or roasted pork chops and steak

Bacon Breadcrumbs (served over the roasted asparagus)
• Process bread in food processor to fine crumble; remove and set aside.
• Process bacon in food processor to pretty fine crumble; remove.
• Stir breadcrumbs (1 Tbsp. At a time) into bacon – you want there to be a good balance of breadcrumbs to bacon – season with salt and pepper.

Breadcrumbs would also be good with:  top mac & cheese casserole, potato gratin, grilled or roasted asparagus