Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Stuff You Should Be Buying At Trader Joe's

Truffegeddon dinner at La Toque's chef table was a tough post to follow, so I decided to take a completely different angle for this next one: my favorite cheap TJ's groceries, suitable for eating at home in front of the TV.

I have a short list of grocery products I get at Trader Joe's that consistently garner amazed compliments and urgent inquiries about their provenance.  One of my friends recently asked me to list them all out for her so she too can shop like a ninja there, and avoid the scores of nasty TJs products that lurk on the shelves.  It would take more time than I have today to list all of my picks, but here are seven of my most-loved and most frequently purchased staples, in no particular order:

1.  Kono Sauvignon Blanc ($7.99).  This is my go-to house wine, suitable for any occasion. It's an extremely racy, grassy, Sancerre taste-alike from New Zealand that pairs with practically any food you're having: Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Vietnamese... there's enough acid to cut through rich dishes, but also enough Marlborough-style fruit to round out more lean snacks. I love its jalapeno notes, and distinctive whiff of pipi du chat that makes you think you're drinking a much more expensive Loire Valley offering.  Buy this one by the case, seriously.  Though fabulous with most foods, this wine is particularly delicious when paired with item #2, below.

To know them is to crave them.

2. Roasted Gorgonzola Crackers ($1.99). These little miracles put the crack in crackers.  They're kind of like tiny Saltines, if Saltines were hexagonal and dusted in an addictive umami-rich cheese/onion/garlic/yeast/soy sauce powder. I don't care that they don't actually contain any roasted gorgonzola, these things are compulsively delicious, and the perfect aperitif to munch on with a cold glass of Kono. I can't eat fewer than 30 in a single sitting, which is probably why TJ's lists the serving size as 31 crackers. Pro tip: don't ever let yourself snack on these directly from the box.  Also, did you see the $1.99 price?!? You can't go wrong with these.

3.  Tarte d'Alsace ($4.99).  This grande dame of TJ's frozen pizza section has a shockingly delicious puff pastry-like crust, topped with shredded gruyère cheese, julienned ham, and caramelized onions.  I like to cook it directly on the oven rack (put a piece of aluminum on the lower rack to catch the runaway cheese and oil that frequently escapes and makes a huge smoky mess on your oven floor), and bake it about 2-3 minutes longer than the directions recommend.  This crisps up the crust nicely, yet still keeps it pliable enough to fold around a green salad.  One tarte serves two not-too-hungry people (not four, as the package claims), but you can always add a fried egg on top of each person's piece to round things out in classic French style.  It makes for a tremendous and très chic dinner in 15 short, effortless minutes.

4. Fennel ($1.99/2-pack).  Fennel is not particularly well-known in the US, but I'm doing my best to change that by feeding it to everyone I cook for.  I mostly eat fennel raw in salads (it's awesome in a salad for the Tarte d'Alsace at #3, for example) or crudité platters, but I also love it cooked.  Pasta con sarde is one of my favorite ways to eat sauteed fennel, and buying this two-pack is the way to go if you're making a big vat of that delicious fennel-spiked sauce.  TJ's has the best price in town. Sadly, not organic though.

5.  Port Salut Cheese ($9.49/lb).  This French cheese was originally created by monks in the dark and crazy days following the French revolution, as a way to sustain themselves during the chaotic anti-religious sentiment of the period.  Those savvy monks obtained trademark protection once they realized how amazing their cheese really was, and now we have Port Salut in nearly every grocery store in Napa -- but TJ's has it cheapest. Semisoft, mild, but with an addicting tang, this cheese melts well and can be used in pretty much any situation involving cheese. I love it with the aforementioned Gorgonzola Crack[ers].  I also like to use it in toasted cheese sandwiches with sliced apples, or Pumpkin Butter (another fantastic seasonal TJ's item).

6.  Arabian Joe's Thin Crust Spicy Spinach Pizza ($3.99 for 4 pizzas).  I bring these little pizzettas to the office for lunch a lot, and torture my colleagues with their delectable aroma.  The olive oil-rich dough is spread with plenty of spinach cooked with garlic, spices, and green onions, so they actually have quite an impressive nutritional value as well as an intoxicating scent and taste.  For years I topped these with a dab of TJ's stellar eggplant hummus, a slice or two of pepper-crusted roast turkey deli meat, and a handful of arugula -- which I then folded up and ate like a giant taco.  That is still one of my favorite ways to eat them, but I'm trying to branch out. They're fantastic on their own, really, and need nothing except a few minutes in the toaster oven to unleash their full depth of flavor.

7.  Espiral Vinho Verde ($3.99).  This dubiously-priced Portuguese wine is a summertime staple for pool parties and barbecues.  It's a vinho verde, so don't expect buttery richness or 15% alcohol -- think vodka tonic, with a lot less alcohol -- and calories, if anyone cares.  This 7% alcohol wine is light, effervescent, and built for all-day drinking in the sun.  (Not that I ever do that, of course....)  Pour it over ice and add a few slices of lime to make it more festive, Argentine tincho-style. Another wine to pick up by the case when it's in stock.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Truffegeddon, Or How We Set A New Truffle Eating Record At La Toque

Chef Ken Frank of La Toque is a man who loves his truffles.  For 31 years, he has been serving a seasonal Truffle Menu at the peak of the Périgord black season in January and February.  He has lent his culinary talents to the Napa Truffle Festival every year since its inception, serving countless meals laden and larded with these incomparable black diamonds of the food world.

And so, when Ken told me and my truffle-loving dining partner that we had just set a new record for highest per capita truffle consumption in a single meal at La Toque, we could not believe it.  Until we went back through the photographic evidence of our gluttonous rampage.
A proud moment, indeed.
Ken began the truffle gavage with a gift (NO commercial transaction took place) of one of his favorite ingredients, seared to perfection and served with a bacon-wrapped date and aromatic confit orange slice.  Oh yeah, and truffles.  Pairing such a rich item with bacon sounded like it might be gilding the lily, but it really worked -- a seamless interplay of lusciousness, punctuated with smoke and meat and natural fruit sweetness.  Not pictured, to protect the innocent.

Next, we dove into a course of soft-yolked eggs nestled in a raviolo with some truffle slices, which was then bathed in a "sauce" of housemade truffle butter (some of which turned up again later in the meal, spread on the toast accompanying our truffle cheese). These free-range eggs came from Ken's own hens and had been stored next to black truffles for some time, so that the eggs themselves took on the truffle aroma.

Looks like pepper, doesn't it? Nope. That's all truffe.

Departing from the scheduled Truffle Menu, we then enjoyed a special piece of salmon with parsnip puree and braised leeks.  The raw salmon filet had been inlaid with black truffle slices, then slow roasted to succulence and showered with a not insignificant amount of julienned fresh truffle shavings.  Key word: earthy.

View from my post at the Chef's Table.

Ken's dayboat sea scallop with lobster sauce americaine was also truffled up to the max, with a layer of shavings actually inside the scallop, as well as lavishly strewn over the top.  I really liked the surprising combination of rich tomato lobster sauce with black truffle -- umami-rich, but with enough acid to keep it bright.  The scallop, for its part, was absolutely perfect.

Look at that gorgeous sear! The interior remained perfectly cooked, tender and sweet and juicy.

And then, the dish of the night.

Parmesan chawan mushi with oxtail, yellowfoot mushrooms, and truffle soup below.
And that subtle garnish on top.
Never in my life have I seen bigger black truffle shavings. More importantly, however, this dish was outrageously delicious.  Digging below those truffle paving stones, and past the gorgeous golden parmesan custard, you found chunks of tender braised oxtail and earthy mushrooms suspended in a consommé-like broth, scented with more black truffle.  I would never have guessed a chawan mushi dish would be my favorite truffle vehicle, but it was.

Because of the delectable wine pairings that were going on, I don't remember the exact order of the dishes that followed, but here they are:

Ravioli stuffed with seared chicken foie,
 and tossed in a pistou-like sauce with white beans.
This is the point in the meal where we started
eating the truffle shavings like
potato chips.
Boned-out chicken wing stuffed with truffled French-style
farce -- but you aren't really looking at the chicken, are you?

Here's the toast I mentioned earlier. Below that spectacular paving job is the rest of the
housemade truffle butter used in the egg raviolo dish.
La Toque makes its own truffle cheese in season, using young Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery. Ken says the younger ones are best because the flavor is still mild, and won't overwhelm the subtlety of the truffles the way a more pungent, aged version would.  Personally, I think the truffle-shingled toast he served with this cheese course could have stood its ground against most things, but this preparation really let the truffle shine like the star that it is.

And, the money shot.

After such an indulgent and eye-popping feast, Ken sent us off with an elegant and understated truffled mascarpone cannoli with roasted hazelnuts and chocolate accents -- just the right amount of sweetness and cream.  Well-played, sir.

A new record.  A glorious meal.  A gauntlet, thrown.  And all in the name of charity (the Napa Humane Society, to be exact).