Friday, October 12, 2012

Napa's New World Record

An excited toaster clinks away under the watchful eye
of the black-clad Guinness Book adjudicator.
Photo by Charles O'Rear; used with permission.
As of last Sunday, October 7, 2012, Napa Valley holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for longest relay wine toast.  FOUR HUNDRED EIGHTY-SEVEN (487) people from near and far lined up to clink glasses for the Napa Valley Wine Wave at Charles Krug Winery, shattering the 321-person record set last year in China in about 45 minutes. 

Unlike the more common group toast, where everyone raises their glasses together in a (mostly) singular clunk, a relay wine toast has rules and scripted moves for each participant.  The toast begins with one person at the end of the line pouring wine into the glass of the first toaster, who then turns to his right and toasts his neighbor (clink, followed by a sip), who then turns to his neighbor to the right and toasts him, and so on down the line of people until either someone messes up the CLINK-SIP-TURN routine (and you have to start all over again) or you run out of willing toasters. 

For ambitious record-challenging toasts like the Napa Valley Wine Wave, a Guinness Book of World Records adjudicator personally examines each toast to ensure its compliance with these standards.  Johanna Hessling did the quality control for us in that regard, but our fellow toast participants provided enough encouraging/threatening shouted reminders (e.g. "SIP! SIP!") that no one messed up even once.  It came close, though... and #236, I mean you.

Cool commemorative medal!
I was fortunate enough to be toasting from the #169 position, as an invited media guest.  Participant tickets to the event -- which included pre-toast wine tasting from a dozen premium St. Helena wineries, lunch items from two of wine country's best food trucks, live music, photo opps with a hot air balloon, passed hors d'oeuvres during the toast,  a cool commemorative medal for participating in the record-breaking toast, and a tax-deductible donation to several locally-oriented scholarship funds -- were $100 per person. 

Essentially, the Wine Wave toast was just this year's fundraiser theme for the St. Helena non-profits that have been raising money for local scholarships for decades. 

In the days leading up to the event, several bloggers openly wondered at or mocked the purpose behind the Napa Wine Wave, describing it as "goofy," or a "pointless exercise in hollow vanity."  My question for them: how is this event any "goofier" or less meaningful than any other fundraising party?  Fundraiser tickets are always more expensive than the cost of goods provided BECAUSE THAT'S HOW FUNDS ARE RAISED.  Gathering people together to toast and smile and drink wine together in an organized and purpose-oriented way is in no way less meaningful than gathering them together at a standard wine tasting, and letting them ignore each other and talk only to the group they came with.  And, a relay wine toast is no more ridiculous than the "Longest Sausage Chain" or "Most Toothpicks In A Beard."  It's quirky, sure, but it was also an appropriately themed excuse to bring people together and lift a glass of local wine in support of our community.

With the 487th toast complete, it was time
for speeches, certificates, smiles, and more wine.
This event drew an incredibly diverse group of people -- from folks in their 90s all the way down to the 5-year-old who toasted with water.  There were locals and visitors alike, corporate teams and friend group teams, industry folks and wine newbies... but everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves.  What was not to like? Music, food, wine, silent auction items, speeches about the community and what this event means for it, and an original group activity to bring people together in a non-threatening and festive way. 

Haters can hate, and surely will continue to do so.  But I for one thought the Wine Wave was a positive and memorable fundraiser for Napa Valley, and I hope our community does it again next year.  Lord knows we're all training for it year-round already.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Top Secret Oenotri Pizza Annex

Last weekend I had the great good fortune of wandering into pure Cru Wine Experience in Napa's West End.  This contemporary tasting room for  Mitch Cosentino's pure Cru wines opened in July in the Napa Square business complex on First Street, just across from the former AVIA Hotel (now Andaz)

"Purety" is a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend,
yours for only $22/bottle. Purety awesome.
With its comfortable leather seating, this place looks more like a wine bar than a traditional tasting room -- think leather armchairs, bar tables, tall barstools, and a flatscreen behind the bar.  The menu also lends itself to more of a wine lounge experience, letting you uncork any of the red and white pure Cru wines to drink there by the bottle (at retail cost!), and offering nearly all of them by the glass for $8-17.  Small $5 plates of mixed nuts, chocolate truffles, and my beloved Castelveltrano olives round out their offerings.  Since they're open from 11am-9pm Wednesday and Thursday, and from 11am-11pm on Friday and Saturday night, they're also an awesome option to consider once the rest of the tasting room world has shut down.

But as the title of this post may have given away, pure Cru also offers guests sitting in their comfortable leather chairs the sublime culinary stylings of Oenotri restaurant -- pure Cru's deservedly famous and perpetually packed Napa Square neighbor just fifteen steps away. 

That's right... you no longer have to reserve weeks in advance, or battle a barful of canny locals to sample the legendary pizzas, antipasti, and charcuterie from Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde.  Just score a seat at pure Cru during Oenotri's open hours, and you're good to go!  Obviously the restaurant's full menu is not available there -- and neither is any of their wine list  -- but you can enjoy enough of that Oenotri poetry to make a fabulous rustic Italian meal.  And, by another stroke of divine intervention, winemaker Mitch Cosentino happens to make several delicious Sangiovese-based blends under the pure Cru label that should pair outrageously with those pizzas and cured meats.

THIS IS HUGE, folks.  I'm completely obsessed with Oenotri's pizzas, but unless I can time it just right at the bar, I rarely manage to score one any time I want to.  But since pure Cru just opened recently, it pretty much always has seats available... at least for now.  This Oenotri collaboration is a new thing, and may put an end to that easy availability in a hurry.  Until it does, though, I plan to take full advantage of this top-secret Oenotri pizza annex, and I urge my loyal readers to do the same.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rooftop Brunching FTW!

Napa's newest restaurant opened this summer in one of the city's oldest buildings -- and instantly established itself as my new favorite brunch spot in town.

The Thomas occupies the space best known to Napans as Fagiani's -- the family-owned bar that was shuttered for nearly 40 years following the brutal and senseless murder of one of the owners in the 1970s.  Long before it was Fagiani's, however, the building housed a restaurant called The Thomas, and that original name is still visible painted in white on the exterior north wall. 

According to the Napa Valley Register, The Thomas restaurant rave reviews in 1910 for its excellent meals.  Thanks to AvroKO's tasteful renovations, that legacy is alive and well over a hundred years later -- and thanks to the new third story with its rooftop garden seating, The Thomas now serves the best brunch in Napa every Saturday and Sunday.

The restaurant's weekend menu is generously priced, and generously sized.  A tea-smoked salmon benedict with yuzu hollandaise ($14) comes with a serious hunk of fish -- no paltry, paper-thin slices of lox here.  We're talking a thick, succulent piece of medium rare fillet nestled under those poached eggs.  Gorgeous with some local Domaine Carneros or Schramsberg bubbly, both of which are poured by the glass.

See how it glistens!

If salmon's not your thing, or you're not in an egg mood, check out the truly unbelievable BLAT sandwich on thin-sliced 7-grain bread ($12).  This beast is at least a foot long, and stacked with six glorious pieces of pork, juicy slices of peak-of-the-season heirloom tomatoes, crisp romaine leaves, and probably an entire avocado.  In a word, sensational.

The epic B.L.A.T. -- just do it.

The Thomas also offers a good range of classic brunch dishes like French toast, cornmeal pancakes, a fry-up, and a burger, all of which have a fresh, modern twist.  The French toast, for example, is stuffed with bananas and house-made Nutella; the fry-up comes with meaty sauteed portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, and fresh pesto.  There's also a prix fixe option to consider: $22 for a main course of your choice, a brunch cocktail, and a hot breakfast beverage.  Below is a September 2012 menu to whet your appetite (the website only has the dinner menu as of the date of this post):

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Porc-ing Out At COCHON Heritage Fire

Butchering demonstrations.  Heritage pigs.  Foraged mushrooms. Wild fowl.  Whole roast beasts.  These primal, back-to-basics trends in ingredient sourcing have an event all their own, and it's coming to Napa's River Terrace Inn on Saturday August 25th, 2012.

Photo courtesy of COCHON Heritage Fire
COCHON Heritage Fire is the second-largest COCHON 555 event, focused -- as the name suggests -- on our delicious heritage in food and cooking.  Heritage Fire celebrates the old-fashioned breeds of pig, goat, sheep, and rabbits that are now making a comeback, thanks to their (re)discovery by modern chefs and consumers more interested in optimal flavor than optimal farming efficiency.

Demonstrations of traditional butchering techniques and wood-fired, whole-animal roasting will put these tasty heirlooms at center stage for the event, while foraging specialists, artisan food companies, craft breweries and family-owned wineries round out the feast among the vines on the banks of the Oxbow River. 

I can't attend this year's star-studded event, and this makes me very sad indeed because the party will feature the Grand COCHON winner Jason Vincent from Nightwood in Chicago, as well as this year's "King of Porc" John Stewart and Duskie Estes (of zazu farm + restaurant, and the Black Pig Meat Company), and COCHON Napa winner Lars Kronmark of the CIA Greystone.  Tim Goodell (Food & Wine Magazine's Best New Chef) and many other outrageously talented chefs and food producers will team up to produce the day's delectable menu.

Stemple Creek (in Marin County) and Belcampo Meat Company (in Oakland) are supplying the heritage animals this year, and Dave the Butcher of Marina Meats in SF will host the butchering demonstration.  Peter Jacobsen of Jacobsen Orchards -- which supplies The French Laundry with premium Yountville-grown produce -- will guide the "Team Toast," with Dave's able assistance. 

Last but certainly not least, Todd Spanier, the "King of Mushrooms" (and truffles), is bringing his foraged funghi and charming self back to wine country, adding an earthy element to the Fire feast.  (Fun fact: Todd is the godson of the language professor who taught virtually my entire family how to speak basic Italian.  Turns out Todd now lives fifteen minutes from my brothers, but I never met him until we ran into each other at the inaugural Napa Truffle Festival.  Strange world, this.)

How will you wash down all this meaty, fiery bliss?  Magnolia Brewing, Anchor Brewing, Anchor Distilling, Templeton Rye, and a slew of family-owned wineries will be there to help.

Tickets for the afternoon feast are $150 each, and avaiable here.  Tickets cover you, your food and your libations from 3:30 to 6:30pm -- but keep an eye out for the after-party afterwards at Restaurant Cuvée, just next door. 

Follow @cochon555 on Twitter, and check the website and Facebook page for updates as they happen.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Portlandia, I Love You

THE wings.
Every time I visit Portland, I have to rethink my decision not to move there.  Partially this is because I always manage to visit during their glorious summer, but mostly it's because of the city's incredible food and beverage culture. 

I never cease to be amazed at how much creative deliciousness is available, all over the city, at every price point.

On my most recent visit last week, I was struck by the popularity of "drinking vinegars" -- something I had only recently discovered thanks to the "Spring Shrub" cocktail at Goose & Gander.  In Portland, these fruit vinegars aren't just at cutting-edge temples of mixology; you'll find them at the downtown farmer's market and neighborhood Thai restaurants, among many other places. 

One of the tastiest beverages of my trip (an extremely competitive field) was the non-alcoholic tamarind vinegar soda at Pok Pok Noi.  Tart, savory, and refreshing, this was the ideal pairing for the restaurant's famed Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, Spicy style.  The punchy acidity made me think I was sipping a cocktail and should ease up on my drinking speed, but no matter how fast I drank or how many I had, I was going to be fine biking home.  And in Portlandia, that's essential.

Tamarind Som.
The Pok Pok restaurant group calls its vinegars "Soms," and now distribute 16-ounce bottles of the standard flavor assortment online.  Another Portland company called Blossom Vinegars proudly hawks its own interesting selection of drinking vinegars at farmers' markets around town.  Think blueberry-basil, and apple-jalapeno vinegar.

Why is wine country behind trend on this? With so much olive oil, grape juice, and culinary talent, you'd think we would be leading the infused vinegar movement.  But Portlandia is leagues ahead of us here.

Discovering the Sahagun Ka-Pow "coffee bar" in a random cafe also humbled my Bay Area food snobbery.  As you can see from the picture, this thing looks like any other premium dark chocolate bar, but it's made entirely of coffee beans, sugar, and cocoa butter -- no cocoa mass at all.  The interior texture reminded me of a Kit Kat with its crystallized honeycomb of crunchies, but the flavor was pure coffee -- Extracto Roasters' Ethiopia Sidamo Adem Chilcho coffee, to be exact. 

In brief, it is absolutely delicious.  And, naturally, highly caffeinated. One bar contains just a bit less caffeine than a shot of espresso. 

We need more of these things in California.  And also, THIS:

"And it's delicious!"


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Candy Cap Bread Pudding Recipe

Chef Todd Humphries of Kitchen Door generously agreed to share his recipe for candy cap bread pudding, an insanely delicious dish that is on Kitchen Door's menu every day.  WARNING: May be habit-forming.
Photo by Ashley Teplin.

Candy Cap Mushroom Bread Pudding
Yield: 1- 13x9 pan
      • 6 cups heavy cream
      • ½ cup dried candy cap mushrooms
      • ½ cup brown sugar
      • ½ cup granulated sugar
      • 1 teaspoon salt
      • 2 whole eggs
      • 4 egg yolks
      • 2 teaspoons vanilla
      • 1 ¼ loaves brioche
      • ¼ cup dried currants
      • ¼ cup dried golden raisins

    1. Measure cream into a sauce pot and add dried mushrooms.
    2. Heat until just simmering. Let infuse for 1 hour.
    3. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, yolks, both sugars, and salt.
    4. Add cream infusion and vanilla.
    5. Strain through a very fine strainer, set aside.
    6. Remove all crust from brioche. Slice into medium sized cubes.
    7. Layer half of the brioche in the 13x9 pan, sprinkle over half of the currants and half of the raisins.
    8. Add the rest of the brioche and top with remaining currants and raisins.
    9. Pour custard over brioche. Gently press down on the top to ensure that the custard has soaked into the brioche well.
    10. Cover with foil and place pan in a larger pan with water coming half way up the side of the 13x9.
    11. Bake at 350 for 1 hour, rotating half way through.
    12. Remove the foil and brown top of bread pudding for 10 min.
    13. Cool bread pudding completely, preferably overnight, and slice into 12 portions.
    14. Reheat in oven to serve.
For extra candy cap goodness, serve with Todd's recipe for Maple Anglaise Sauce... also made with mushrooms.

Maple Anglaise Sauce
Yield: 1 pint
      • 1 ¼ cup heavy cream
      • ½ cup whole milk
      • 1 tablespoon dried candy cap mushrooms
      • 6 tablespoons maple sugar
      • ¼ teaspoon salt
      • 4 egg yolks
      • ¼ teaspoon vanilla
    1. Measure cream and milk into a sauce pot.
    2. Add dried mushrooms.
    3. Heat until just simmering, infuse 1 hour.
    4. Combine yolks, sugar, and salt in a medium sized bowl.
    5. Reheat cream infusion to a simmer and temper into egg mixture.
    6. Return everything to the pot and stir constantly over low heat with a rubber spatula until thickened, but not curdling.
    7. Strain through a very fine strainer, add vanilla, cover surface with plastic and cool completely before use.
Why are we putting mushrooms in dessert? Check out my earlier post about candy cap mushrooms.

Maple-Flavored Mushrooms, And The Man Who Cooks Them

Though Todd Humphries has been cooking with candy cap mushrooms for years at his restaurants in Napa Valley, few people outside the area are familiar with these unique little funghi.  Candy caps (lactarius rubidus) are tiny bronze-colored mushrooms that grow wild in Mendocino, the Oakland Hills, and mushroom-friendly places north. 

Their claim to fame?  Candy caps smell and taste uncannily like maple syrup.

The (Mushroom) Man.
Photo by Ashley Teplin.
I sat down with Todd at his Napa restaurant Kitchen Door to learn more about these strange little beasts and their many delectable possibilities.  For those who don't know, Todd Humphries is the ultimate mushroom chef of Napa Valley, who not only cooks them in shockingly delicious ways, but also gets up pre-dawn to forage his own in the cold, damp wilds of northern California.

During his Martini House days, Todd used to offer seasonal all-mushroom tasting menus spotlighting beautiful and arcane varieties most people will never see again.  I was lucky enough to discover candy caps at such a dinner, just a few days before Martini House closed (check out my article on for pictures and full report).  Fortunately for me and other candy cap lovers, Todd now runs his candy cap mushroom bread pudding on Kitchen Door's menu every day of the week... and he graciously agreed to share his recipe with you, my loyal blog readers.  You're welcome.

No one seems to know how or why the maple aroma and flavor is present in these mushrooms, but it's unmistakeable.  Fresh candy caps have a fainter maple scent than the dried versions -- which quickly dominate any airspace they're exposed to -- but can still be distinguished from similar-looking mushrooms by the milky fluid they exude when punctured (hence the Latin name "lactarius") and the rough cat's tongue texture of the cap. 

Fresh candy caps are very fragile and highly perishable, but also delicious to cook with if you have the opportunity, Todd says.  He recalls serving a rouget dish at Martini House with a curry reduction sauce and fresh candy caps sauteed in butter, where the mushrooms' spice and sweet aromatics complemented and amplified the sauce in a truly unique way.
The Kitchen Door candy cap bread pudding. They also
sell it to go, so you can ravish it in the privacy
of your own home.

Because of the perishability factor, though, most candy cap dishes in restaurants are made using dried mushrooms, which also have the strongest maple flavor and that slight hint of spice.  It takes 10-12 pounds of fresh mushrooms to yield one pound of dried, so dried candy caps tend to be pricy propositions.  Fortunately, they are potent little buggers and a little goes a long way.

Dried candy caps can be pulverized into a powder to use in pancakes, cookies, or spaetzle, but most commonly Todd uses them whole to infuse cream or milk for desserts (think panna cotta, anglaises... and bread pudding).  He recommends either a cold soak in the liquid overnight, or a slow, gentle warming of the liquid -- but boiling liquids, as in a reduction, seem to muddy the flavor somehow.  Another tip from the pro: don't try to rehydrate dried candy caps and use them whole like you would dried porcinis.  The texture just doesn't work. 

The maple flavor infuses warm liquid at an astonishing rate, as I discovered when playing at home with some dried mushrooms.  My 10-minute candy cap syrup proved a very interesting cocktail mixer for Calvados and fresh lemon juice, and Todd tells me he has seen other candy cap syrups on the market -- as well as candy cap-infused oil out of Oregon.  I'm thinking that would be amazing on crostini toasts with cheeses or charcuterie.

Curious to get your hands on some, for your own experiments?  Try Connie Green of Wine Forest Mushrooms, who supplies Kitchen Door and many other amazing restaurants on a wholesale basis, but also now operates a retail pantry store online.  

And please let me know about your delicious concoctions by commenting below.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Napa's Cocktail Renaissance

"The Franklin"
Until recently, it was hard to find a delicious alcoholic beverage in downtown Napa that wasn't wine. The number of full liquor licenses was very strictly controlled, and many were owned by establishments with what can be most charitably described as subsistence-level drinks.  Downtown Napa had about three options for a truly well-crafted cocktail, none of which had spacious bar areas.

No more.  The downtown revival of the last few years has ushered in a cocktail renaissance for our little wine-soaked town, thanks to the fine people at Morimoto, Oenotri, Eiko's, and Norman Rose Tavern.

Norman Rose originally opened with a beer and wine license, but has recently acquired the right to serve it all forth.  And so they do, at lunch as well as dinner.  Their menu includes hyper-local superstars like "The Franklin" (named after their cross street), a thirst-quenching marvel of Zaya rum, grapefruit bitters, Aperol, grapefruit juice and lime.  Sophisticated but approachable, it is wine country style in a highball glass. 

Eiko's and Morimoto offer more exotic refreshment, with both their cocktail menus and the usual denizens of their lounge.  Morimoto's nighttime bar scene delivers some of the best people-watching in town, but also a solid menu of asian-inflected cocktails that change seasonally.  Eiko's plays the liquid nitrogen game with its frozen caipirinha (served as a super cold alcoholic sorbet) and shakes up a slew of options with names like Dragon Cosmo, Sumo-jito, and the like, but my go-to in their sexy lounge space is a simple gimlet made with Skyy Ginger vodka and fresh lime juice.  Classic, refreshing, and spectacularly good with sushi, I am hard pressed not to order it every time I'm there.

The summertime heat is winning the battle with our office air conditioner... must be time for a drink.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fava-less Fava Dip 4-Evah

I love the look and flavor of fava beans, but the amount of work required to extract them from their pods inspires me to leave them off my shopping list, every time.  Fortunately I discovered a few years ago that pre-shelled frozen edamame beans make a great substitute, and bring much the same happy spring feeling to dishes and dips -- especially in this Mediterranean-inspired dip recipe, which has become a household staple.  If you're lazy AND cheap, rest assured that frozen edamame is also very inexpensive -- just slightly over $2 per 12-ounce bag at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.

Edamame dip photo by Aida Mollenkamp on flickr.  I don't top my edamame dip
with sesame seeds, but I do enjoy it with whole wheat & flax pita chips like these.

I love to eat this lemony, garlicky dip while it's still warm, but the flavors actually improve if you can save some to eat the next day -- a big if, if you have friends like mine.  It's great with pretty much any kind of cheese, but my favorite combo is to top it with thin shavings of sheep cheese or truffle cheese (TJ's truffle cheese is a great option, if you're there).  You could also drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the top, for another classic Mediterranean presentation.  Use it on sandwiches, crostini, crackers, or just your fingers. 

Edamame "Fava" Dip

1 12-oz bag frozen shelled edamame (already removed from the pod)
2 medium lemons
1 medium garlic clove
2-3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or more to taste (I prefer a grassier style for this recipe)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
fresh ground pepper

1. Set a pot of water large enough to hold the entire bag of edamame on the stove, and bring to a rapid boil.
2.  While the water heats, zest the lemons (if desired), and extract their juice.
3.  Using the side of your chef's knife, mash the garlic clove with a pinch of coarse salt and grind it into a paste.
4.  Once the water is boiling, throw in the edamame.  Cover the pot, bring the water back to the boil, and cook for a few minutes until soft (usually about 4 minutes total from time you put in the edamame).  Drain edamame in a colander, then place them in a food processor.
5.  Add the lemon juice, lemon zest (if using), garlic paste, some freshly ground pepper and the salt, and process to a coarse paste, scraping down the sides with a spatula as necessary.
6.  Add the olive oil while the machine is running, stopping periodically to scrape down the sides and taste for texture and seasoning.  Add more olive oil if you want a creamier texture, and adjust salt and pepper levels to your taste.
7.  Feast.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Home Is Where The Pork Is

My brother's pulled pork changes lives.

People who claim not to like pork will put away half a pound before coming up for air.  Lifelong pork aficionados have to recalibrate their rankings to accommodate this new upstart.  Even severe sensory integration afflictions are powerless before the slow-smoked succulence that my brother creates.  And they all back for more.

This is why my brother has taken to smoking two seven-pound pork shoulders at a time, even if the expected crowd is relatively small and the pork is preceded by a sausage sampler course and several marinated tri-tips.  Though no one thought they had room after the onslaught of the first two meat rounds (and their accompanying sides), the revelers assembled at our family's house last weekend still pounced on the pork bowl like starving vultures the instant it appeared.

The ravening beasts descend.

My only claim to fame associated with this miraculous porcine power (other than my relation to its creator) is that my Vietnamese cabbage slaw recipe has become the condiment of choice.  Whether in a pulled pork taco, slider, or full blown sandwich, this slaw provides just the right amount of crunch, tang, freshness, and redeeming nutritional value to help you put away that extra helping of pig.  It is, in a word, indispensable.

Like the pork, this slaw must be made in vast quantities to appease the hungering hordes -- but unlike the pork, I'm authorized to share the recipe.  And it doubles easily.

Vietnamese Cabbage Salad

1. Combine the dressing ingredients in a mixing bowl big enough to whisk, and whisk together:
  • 1 medium size garlic clove, smashed and minced as small as possible
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2-3 tablespoons of sugar, depending on your taste
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce, or according to your taste
  • 3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • a generous showering of freshly ground black pepper
  • (optional) a pinch or two of minced chili pepper, or a dash of hot red pepper flakes, or sriracha, or... whatever spicy goodness you've got.
The dressing ideally should sit for a bit (30 minutes or more) before you dress the salad to let the flavors blend, but it's not essential.  If you're just eating this salad on its own, without something outrageously rich and fabulous to flesh it out, add a couple of tablespoons of neutral oil to the dressing to compensate.

2. Mix the salad ingredients in your serving bowl:
  • 4 cups (approx 1 10-oz bag)"angel hair" shredded green cabbage 
  • 1 cup (about half a bag) julienned carrots
  • 1/4 cup julienned red bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup julienned fennel
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 12-20 fresh mint leaves, torn or chopped
3. Toss the salad thoroughly with the dressing, et voilà.


Friday, May 4, 2012

More Italian Magic

Last week I had dinner at Alex Italian Restaurant in Rutherford's Rancho Caymus Inn (the original La Toque space).  The name pretty much says it all -- owned by husband and wife Italians Alessandro and Alessia, and a quintessential Italian establishment in a land full of Cal-Ital.  Chic, sleek decor and luxurious leather seating, lots of Italian wines, and of course a menu full of the regional specialties of Liguria and Emilia-Romagna set this place apart in Napa Valley.

The dish of the night for us (and this was a tough race with many worthy contenders) was the octopus salad with shaved celery, olives, red onions, fingerling potatoes, and Ligurian salsa verde.  Ecco la:

Never in my life have I eaten octopus more tender -- and I've eaten a lot of great octopods in my life.  Check that awesome sear on the tentacles!  Between the crusty char on the outside and the supple, almost creamy meat inside, this thing was divine even before it encountered the fresh crunch of celery and the brightness of the herb pesto.  I see this becoming an automatic order every time I visit. 

Alex's executive chef Nick Ritchie helped Michael Chiarello open Bottega, but left Yountville to open Alex with the two Alexes last year.  You can watch him preparing his octopus salad in this video from the Napa Valley Register.

What to drink with this thing of beauty? We had a remarkable Grechetto from Sergio Mottura's porcupine-ridden Poggio Della Costa vineyard in Civitella d'Agliano, and la vita was very dolce indeed.

Sexy candelabra! And porcupine label.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Oenotri Poetry

This is an ode to Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde, the visionaries behind Oenotri in Napa's West End. Every time I go, I wish I went more often. Since the menus change every day, the only way to be sure you're eating everything they do well is to go and eat there every day. 

For those of you who have not yet visited Oenotri (pronounced OH-no-tree or oh-NO-tree, depending who you ask -- the poem below reads better with OH-no-tree), and for those of you who can't run in today for a fix, check out Food & Wine Magazine's April 2012 article for more pictures and the story behind these guys. 

Pizza with housemade pepperoni
Before we had Oenotri

No pizza could comfort me

Unseasoned crust with no char chew or crackle

Cheese that lacked soul and doubled as spackle.

Sirloin steak panino with caramelized onions, arugula,
tomato brodo for dipping.

Before we had Oenotri

We had no panini

Your thinly sliced steak, caramelized onions and rocket

Taps into our cravings like plugs into socket.

Shaved asparagus with guanciale and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Before we had Oenotri

Pity eaters of veggie

Who made do with grilled boiled fried and sauteed

With boring and mainstream seasonings made

Before we had Oenotri

We drank without destiny

Missing Schiava, Cortese, Falanghina e più

Needing Shot In The Dark and Stiff Dickle rescue

But now we have Oenotri

And so ends this poetry

For Napa is tastier, funner -- far more exciting

Than ever before you boys flicked on your lighting.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Unofficial Hunger Games Dinner Party

With the movie premiere less than two weeks away, we gathered to test our knowledge of Hunger Games trivia, discuss our favorite scenes and characters, and -- most importantly -- to sample a few of the recipes from The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook by Emily Ansara Baines.  This was no recipe testing dinner party, however, and everyone modified their book recipe at least a little to suit their level of laziness or personal preference.  After all, cookbooks ultimately are meant to inspire -- not to direct.

"The Effie"
Mission accomplished.  Our hostess kicked the evening off with "The Effie" cocktail, an original creation blending vodka, strawberry lemonade, and sparking wine into an appropriately effervescent and colorful libation.  We toasted, naturally, with her signature line: "May the odds be ever in your favor!"

Given Effie's potency, we snacked steadily on basil-wrapped goat cheese (the very first food mentioned in the books), "Peeta Chips," and an array of other non-HG related cheeses while the meaty main dishes were finishing up on the stove.

Garlic-herb goat cheese wrapped in fresh basil leaves: Prim's offering to Katniss the morning of the Reaping.
And then the Games really began.

Our clever hostess had prepared napkin parachutes filled with nuts and fruit (and wine infused chocolates -- hello, we live in Napa) to keep our strength up in the arena, setting the scene for our battle royale.

She had also made place cards with quotes from the series, challenging us to recall the identity of the quoted speaker. It was pretty hard to answer while shoveling food into our faces, but somehow we made it through without choking.  On the menu:

Pork Chops For The Victors

OH: "I would eat anything coated in this breading."
Who wouldn't? Basil, rosemary, Parmesan cheese, and plenty of salt.

Lamb Stew With Dried Plums

Despite the pressure  of this being Katniss's favorite thing to eat, the recipe did NOT disappoint.
Tender meat, savory-sweet with prunes and ginger ale, but full of veggies as well
(though we left out the zucchini ). Faaabulous with mashed potatoes. And pork chops.

I'm Not Bitter Greens Salad
Baby chard, kale, and spinach tossed with roasted Anjou pears, nuts,
and cranberries in a lemon-honey vinaigrette. A must to balance the
meaty richness of the rest.

Katniss's Craved Cheese Buns

Super savory with sharp cheddar, Old Bay, and garlic power.
Also ridiculously quick and easy to make.
Capitol-Grade Chocolate Cake
with fresh raspberry ice cream

The BEST chocolate cake I have eaten in years. Super moist, tender, chewy,
and packed with real chocolate flavor. Capitol-grade indeed, though unmistakably from District 12.

The spectacular success of every one of these recipes resulted in several unwanted pregnancies (of the food baby sort), and quarts and quarts of leftover lamb stew, which no one seemed too upset about.  We can always put it up in cans for our next revolution.

If you haven't already, get out there and read the Hunger Games trilogy.  It has something for everyone -- suspense, action, human suffering, a love triangle, and plenty of gore for young and old.  Be warned though that they are completely addicting... I read the entire first book in a single sitting, the same day I got it.  Don't make plans following your acquisition.

The movie inspired by that first novel premieres March 23, 2012.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

K + L = Killer Lunch

I visited downtown Sebastopol for the first time today, learning about the organic business community-to-be at the old Barlow Apple Factory location. The site is still under construction -- and still in the throes of the local permit game -- but developer Barney Aldridge says the complex should be up and running by this September, with several tenants already in place and several more moving in this July. Since talking about development projects is hungry work, Barney, a prospective yoga studio tenant, and the charming Kosta Browne boys (who will be moving their production facility and opening a tasting room at The Barlow) all sat down with me at K&L Bistro on South Main Street for some sustenance.

Karen and Lucas Martin run this bustling little rockstar of a restaurant, delivering international flavor through local ingredients and a decidedly French technique. Grazing through most of the appetizers, our group managed to hit the gorgeous grilled Monterey sardines, spicy tuna tartare with sriracha and avocado, salt cod gratin, and the absolutely delectable steamed pork buns with Hoisin sauce, scallions, and Asian slaw. These porky little beauties were so nice we had them twice, accompanied by some bright and sassy Dutton Goldfield Dutton Ranch Chardonnay.

My favorite single item of the lunch, however, was the outrageously French wild mushroom omelette with green salad.  The thing was textbook: pale, tender and juicy egg exterior folded into the classic torpedo shape, barely concealing a cornucopia of earthy wild mushrooms, fines herbes, and gruyère.  Pure bliss with the DuMol pinot noir we'd broken into.  

Vive la succulence!

An omelette and a glass of wine was one of Elizabeth David's favorite dinners, but I think it's just as perfect for lunch.  Well done, K&L.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Flowers For My Valentine

Nothing says "I love you" like fresh flowers on her opakapaka. 

Chef Perry Hoffman knows what he's doing in this department. These hand picked blooms bring colorful whimsy and tenderness to a succulent opakapaka filet, served over green garlic puree with a medley of braised cardoons, sunchokes, and slivered picholine olives.  The dish is the second course of the Sweetheart Menu being served at étoile today in honor of the holiday. Don't miss the unfiltered Newton Chardonnay pairing with this... one of the most dynamic pairings I've had in a while.

Other heart-melting delights from the prix-fixe menu include an enticing Dungeness crab salad with Moro blood oranges, Miner lettuce, and curry pickled crones; a well-endowed Liberty Farms duck breast with wild mushrooms, shaved asparagus, duck sausage and pickled onions; luscious La Tur cheese served with heirloom beets and chervil; and a three-way of Valrhona chocolate mousses doused in vanilla marshmallow fondue.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Best New Brunch Dish You Haven't Tried

It’s time to share the first must-eat sleeper hit of 2012: brunchtime biscuits and duck confit gravy at the Ledson Hotel’s Centre du Vin.  

The Centre du Vin just started serving Sunday brunches towards the end of last year, so most people haven’t discovered it yet… which means no wait list, and your choice of seating on the pretty sidewalk terrace or inside by the elegant fireplace (awesome for rainy winter mornings).  Though most of the brunch menu is frenchy-french classics like quiche, omelettes, crêpes, truffle hollandaise and the like, you must not miss the delectable franglais of freshly baked biscuits swathed in confit-infused gravy.  The delicate strands of ducky goodness are magic.  Irrestistibly delicious magic.

The Centre du Vin chef confided that he eats one of these for breakfast every Sunday, but that hardly anyone else orders the biscuits. What?!? Help restore the chef's faith in humanity - and keep the dish on the menu - by following his tasteful lead!

Centre du Vin is on the Sonoma Square at 480 1st Street East (between East Napa & East Spain Sts.), in downtown Sonoma.  Brunch is served Sundays only.