Sonoma Cider stands out in heart of wine country

The 20 or so downtown wine-tasting rooms in Healdsburg are almost an embarrassment of riches. Sometimes there’s just too much of a good thing. That’s what the folks at Sonoma Cider thought when they opened Taproom (44F Mill Street, Healdsburg, 707-723-7018, sonomacider.com) in a former warehouse about a block south of the plaza last October.

There’s a no-nonsense air to the building that houses several 3,000-gallon and 6,000-gallon fermentation tanks, a bar with a giant screen TV, and a casual restaurant. Father/son duo David and Robert Cordtz launched Sonoma Cider in 2013. They take their cider seriously, but Taproom is free of pretense.

Cider on tap at Sonoma Cider Taproom“This is less upscale than wine-tasting,” says Taproom manager Kole Christen. “People can try something crisp and fresh. This is a place where people can cut loose. And,” he adds with a smile, “we’re open later than wine-tasting rooms.”

Many customers opt for a six-cider flight (shown at top of post) from the multitude of choices. Sonoma Cider’s basic hard cider starts with a blend of five apples grown organically in Washington State. Simply fermented, it’s called The Hatchet. It’s clean, refreshing, and apple-y. The same juice is blended with bourbon flavoring and fermented in bourbon barrels to produce The Anvil. It can also be sweetened with eucalyptus honey and fermented in whiskey barrels for six months to produce The Imperial. (At 10.3 percent alcohol, The Imperial could be classified as apple wine or apple mead.) The cider makers also blend the fermented juice with selected flavors (like blackberry juice) to create flavored ciders.

Delving into nuances


Cider glass at Sonoma Cider taproomHard cider is traditionally made from a blend of apples, but the folks at Sonoma Cider have been exploring the possibilities of single-varietal ciders. Their Gravenstein is tart and fresh, their Winter Banana light and spicy, and their Dry Golden Delicious bone dry and a little tart. With such distinct characters, they offer real potential for food pairings.

The single varietals are often made with Sonoma County apples. One of our favorites of this group was an old-fashioned orchard blend called Westcider. The orchard sits on Westside Road, southwest of Healdsburg. Fermented from a mix of Pink Permain, Winter Banana, Macintosh, Mystery, Crispin, and Baldwin Striped Gentlemen, Westcider has a balance of sweetness, fruitiness, and slightly ashen bitterness characteristic of good French ciders.

In addition to the taps of standard ciders, reserve ciders, and micro-releases, Taproom also crafts cocktails, many of them using Sonoma Cidery Apple Brandy. This 85 proof barrel-aged spirit is distilled from the same base blend of apples used in The Hatchet. Since the production facility had just received a fresh batch of juice, we did a taste test of juice, hard cider, and brandy—sort of vertical tasting of rising alcohol levels. The flavor is remarkably consistent in all three. It makes a good base spirit for cocktails, but it’s also smooth enough to drink neat or on ice. Unlike “applejack,” it has no added neutral spirit so the apple flavor is very pronounced.

Cider with food


Chef Josh Schauert at Sonoma Cider TaproomExecutive chef Josh Schauert has devised a menu to complement the ciders. “When I’m designing dishes, I keep the ciders in mind,” he says. “But this is not your typical bar food.”

He points out that pairing cider with meals is new territory in the restaurant industry, but relishes the challenge. Compared to wine, he says, “cider has a broader flavor structure.” That opens the door for more pairing options beyond the usual “red meat calls for red wine” mindset. Moreover, there are fewer preconceptions about what might be appropriate.

Schauert also finds lots of opportunity to cook with cider. “Cider has a very similar flavor profile to vinaigrette,” he says. “That makes it easier to cook with.”

His menu during our visit was Exhibit A. The seafood ceviche of shrimp, octopus, and salmon was marinated in Crowbar cider, which is flavored with habañero peppers and organic limes. The green beans accompanying baby back ribs are sauteed in garlic butter and deglazed with Apple Cider Brandy.

The brandy is also a key component in Schauert’s take on French Onion Soup. He caramelizes the onions in butter, then deglazes the pan with brandy before adding a housemade bone-broth beef stock. The sweetness of the onions and the fruity richness of the brandy make this winter warmer an surprisingly elegant soup for a casual tavern. By substituting large croutons for the conventional toasted baguette slice on top, he makes the soup much easier to eat. Schauert generously shared the recipe.

SONOMA CIDER FRENCH ONION SOUP


Makes 1 gallon
Prep and cooking time 1 hour

Ingredients


1/4 cup butter
3 lb yellow onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled/chopped
2 bay leaves
1 quart Sonoma Cider Apple Brandy
1 bunch fresh thyme
2 teaspoons dried oregano
3 teaspoons Worcestershire Sauce
2 quarts fresh beef stock
2 quarts water
salt/pepper to taste
croutons, toasted light brown in 425°F oven
2 cups mixed shredded Gruyère, cheddar, and jack cheese

Directions


Melt butter in stock pot. Add sliced onions and cook down to caramelize (about 15 minutes). Add garlic and bay leaf, cook until aromatic.

Deglaze pot with Sonoma Cider Apple Brandy, scraping fond (black bits) off of bottom of pot. Add herbs and cook until aromatic. Add Worcestershire sauce, beef stock, and water. Bring to low boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes until reduced about 20 percent.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with toasted croutons topped with mixed cheeses. Enjoy!

10

12 2017

Comstock embodies Sonoma wine country living

Merlot vineyards at Comstock Wines

The success of the 2004 film Sideways made California Merlot unpopular for a while. But the dip in that red’s reputation might have made helped clear the way for the winery and tasting room at Comstock Wines (1290 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-723-3011, comstockwines.com, tastings $20-$50). The photo above looks out the back of Comstock’s tasting room to old Merlot vineyards. (That’s a blue heron flying over the vines.) Many more vines were sacrificed to clear ground to build the winery, tasting room facility, and wine club residence. But not too many. Founded in 2012 using much older vineyards, Comstock still makes an outstanding Merlot that shows the restraint of the cooler Dry Creek Valley climate but bursts with black currant and violets.

pouring tasting at Comstock WinesCurrently producing about 6,000 cases per year, Comstock sells all but a few cases at the winery or to the 500 members of its wine club. (A small allotment goes to a few area restaurants.) By the way, all proceeds from the sale of the remaining stock of Comstock’s excellent 2012 Zinfandel ($42) go to aid the victims of the Sonoma wildfires.

Comstock offers a lot of tasting options. On the first Sunday of each month, visitors can opt for the Sunday Brunch White Flight ($40). Sips of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir are paired with your seasonal brunch bites. We caught the Wine and Pizza Pairing, offered the second Saturday of May and July-October or by appointment ($50, or $40 for wine club members.)

Pairing wine and pizza


We had always thought that pairing wine and pizza was our own little secret, not to be divulged in the polite company of wine folk. But Comstock is full-on Sonoma casual—and Healdsburg-based pizza oven company Mugnaini (mugnaini.com) has elevated the simple pie to high culinary art. The cooks at Comstock have come up with some inventive toppings that help bring out the characteristics of the wines.

pear pizza at Comstock WinesOur favorite combination was the 2015 Russian River Valley Viognier with a restrained pizza brushed lightly with peach-bourbon sauce and slices of ginger-soaked pears and topped with crumbled chevre. The Viognier shows orange blossoms and candied peach on the nose, and the slight tartness of the wine cut through any sweetness of the toppings.

Another outstanding pairing brought together a red pepper and prosciutto pizza with a glass of 2013 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley. The salty notes of the prosciutto were an especially good complement to the dark bramble fruit that dominates this Zin. The sweet red peppers accentuated the coriander, clove, and toasted spice notes of the mid-palate.

That’s definitely our idea of a pizza party! Visitors electing the pizza pairing, by the way, are invited to play on the winery’s bocce court after lunch.

Buy top foodstuffs at SHED, or sit and be served

exterior of SHED in Healdsburg

“This is a chef’s dream,” Perry Hoffman said as he surveyed the busy scene in SHED (25 North Street, Healdsburg, 707-431-7433, healdsburgshed.com), the self-described “market, cafe, and community gathering space” that opened in Healdsburg in 2013.

Perry Hoffman of SHED in HealdsburgHoffman knows what he’s talking about. His grandparents founded The French Laundry restaurant in Yountville. Hoffman grew up working beside his grandparents and parents in the family business. After Thomas Keller purchased the restaurant in 1994, Hoffman worked in several other kitchens until he became chef at étoile restaurant at Domaine Chandon in Yountville in 2007. Three years later, he was awarded his first Michelin star. When étoile closed in 2014, SHED was just gathering steam. Hoffman jumped at the chance to embrace the more casual side of California cuisine.

That same year, the James Beard Foundation honored SHED with an award for restaurant design. Much has been made of the architect’s use of steel and glass to create the dramatic, light-filled space and of the clever use of denim as insulation. But design is only a starting point. Within those glass walls, SHED celebrates all things edible and the power of food to bring people together.

DIY or chef-made food


Coffee bar at SHED in Healdsburg It’s safe to say that a foodie can find everything he or she could need or want at SHED. There’s a coffee and juice bar (right), produce from 20 farms, a pantry with products from about 600 makers, a small flour mill, a bakery, a housewares department, and a larder with cheeses, smoked fish, charcuterie, and housemade pickles. Cooking classes and other events take place on the second floor.

We weren’t able to sign up for a cooking class, but we got plenty of new ideas simply by grabbing a table in the cafe and ordering lunch. Food is prepared in a big open kitchen with a wood-fired oven. The menu changes daily and always emphasizes the best of the season. In mid-November, that meant such dishes as Brussel Sprout Gratin with pickled cauliflower; Golden Acorn Squash Salad with cranberries, bee pollen and honey; and Petrale Sole with shiitake mushrooms, eggplant and greens.

“This is different from fine dining,” Hoffman acknowledged, “but we can do good food.” That’s an understatement.

Hoffman kindly shared the recipe for one of our favorite dishes, Wood Oven Roasted San Marzano Tomatoes with goat cheese, rosemary, and roasted oranges. (The recipe calls for tangerines, but a thin-skinned sweet orange like Cara Cara also works.) Now we have to find an acceptable substitute for the dense, crusty olive bread that was served on the side. You can order the olive powder—a favorite vegan umami punch—from SHED Pantry. Or you can make your own by dehydrating well-drained Kalamata or Niçoise olives on a baking sheet in a 250°F oven. It takes three hours or a little more for the olives to become dry, crispy, and ready for pulverizing.

roasted San Marzano tomatoes at SHED in Healdsburg

ROASTED SAN MARZANO TOMATOES
WITH TANGERINES AND DRIED OLIVES


Serves 6

Ingredients


2 lbs fresh San Marzano tomatoes, each cut into 3 rounds
4 tangerines, seeded and sliced into half moons retaining skin
10 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 cups of chopped yellow onions
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
4 bay leaves
1 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of goat cheese
1 tablespoon olive powder (from SHED Pantry or homemade)
sweet alyssum and fennel flowers to garnish

Directions


Set oven to 450°F.

In an ovenproof dish (SHED uses ceramic cazuelas), add tomatoes, tangerines, garlic, onions, rosemary, bay leaves, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Bake 40 minutes.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with goat cheese, Return to oven and bake for another 5 minutes.

Remove from oven and garnish with olive powder, sweet alyssum, and fennel flowers and serve with toasted bread!

06

12 2017

Aptly named Bella fashions lovely Zinfandels

Bella's caves sit under Lily Hill vineyard

Coming up the driveway to Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves (9711 West Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 866-572-3552, bellawinery.com, tastings $15), two things are immediately evident. The wine caves tunnel into the side of the hill, and the vines planted above them in the Lily Hill vineyard are squat and gnarled and twisted. Like so many vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, they represent old-growth Zinfandel. In fact, much of the vineyard was first planted in 1915. Although Bella has a few plots of other grapes, mostly for blending purposes, the winery focuses on handcrafted small-batch Zinfandel. It also purchases some grapes from equally obsessive growers.

[Barrels in caves of BellaBella’s Zinfandels often earn mid-90s scores from Robert Parker, and it’s easy to see why. These opulent wines are undeniably powerful but they are also exquisitely balanced and nuanced. Bella ages them in a mix of French and American oak, but the cooper’s hand is light on these wines. Only about 20 percent of the barrels are new. As a result, the wood and wine marry well during bottle aging before the wines are released.

A standard tasting at Bella samples six wines for $15. We tasted two wines each from 2013 and 2014, then a 2015 and a 2016. Every one of them was excellent, but three stood out for their strong expression of their individual vineyards.

2013 Maple Annie’s Zinfandel

Although 2013 was a great year for Zinfandel in the Dry Creek Valley, viticulturalists had some challenges. The end of the growing season turned very hot, and dry-farmed Zinfandel vines shut down. Bella supplemented its Zin grapes with Petite Sirah and Carignane in some of its wines that year, as both varietals develop intense ripeness in the heat. But this small bottling relied entirely on Zinfandel berries from a special block in the Tom and Tina Maple’s vineyards on the Dry Creek Valley bench. The Maples hand-tended the block, removing more foliage than usual to get intense ripening before the extreme heat hit. The wine is spectacular. It bursts with a bouquet of black cherry and blueberries. It is full and juicy in the mouth. Eucalyptus and sweet red cherry linger on the palate. It sells for $48.

2014 Big River Ranch Zinfandel

The Big River Ranch vineyard is an Alexander Valley benchland property overlooking the Russian River—a warmer district than the Dry Creek Valley. The Zinfandel vines here were planted in 1906, making them some of the oldest surviving Zin vines in the Alexander Valley. (The region grows such great Cabernet Sauvignon that many growers have ripped out the old Zinfandel vines.) The concentration in 2014 was so intense that the wine is almost opaque. The spicy nose (root beer and anise!) gives way to big round fruit without tasting jammy. Tannins are soft and silky. The wine is priced at $45.

New plantings on Bella's Lily Hill vineyard

2015 Lily Hill Estate Zinfandel

The Lily Hill vineyard, much of which arches above Bella’s wine caves, was first planted in 1915. Some blocks (as shown in the photo immediately above) are more recent, dating from 2001. A few of the blocks within the vineyard also have old Syrah and Petite Sirah vines. In 2015, Bella incorporated 2 percent each of these grapes with 96 percent Zinfandel in a field blend before fermentation. The resulting wine has the herbal and dark fruit nose of old-vine Zin. It comes on with a mouthful of black cherry and bramble fruit and finishes with a smoky taste of toasted coriander. At $45 it’s steal for lovers of powerful, balanced Zinfandel.

04

12 2017

Kokomo Winery lets grapes do their thing

Kokomo tasting room
The small red industrial building on the Timber Crest Farms property that houses Kokomo Winery (4791 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-0205, kokomowines.com, tastings $10-$25) is deceptively modest. The winery was founded by Erik Miller in 2004, who named it for his Indiana hometown. The vineyards date much, much farther back. Some Zinfandel plantings on the estate are more than 150 years old. Partner Randy Peters, a fourth-generation grape grower, has tended other vineyards here since 1974. He grows about 70 percent of Kokomo’s fruit in all three Healdsburg appellations: Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, and Dry Creek Valley.

We say the building is modest because the wines are anything but. Miller’s philosophy of winemaking is terroir-driven. “The special thing about wine is that it showcases a particular piece of land showing the nuances of the soil, climate, elevation, and, above all, a sense of place,” he says. He parses the wines by varietal and vineyard, which results in small runs of exquisite wines with distinct personalities. The total production of about 8,900 cases sells almost entirely to the winery’s wine club and at the tasting room. In other words, to taste these outstanding wines, you need to visit.

Sampling a bit of Kokomo


Kokomo sparklingWe started with a hello glass of sparkling 2013 Blanc de Blancs—a pure Chardonnay from the Peters vineyard. Crisp and full-bodied with nice toasty notes on the nose, it was an exemplar of California sparkling. We weren’t surprised at the quality. It’s a consistent medal winner and scores in the 90s from the various wine publications.

With limited time, we sampled some still wines that demonstrated Kokomo’s range. The 2016 Sauvignon Blanc from the Timber Crest Vineyard confirms the wisdom of letting great fruit do its own thing. The grapes were picked at different ripeness levels to capture both acidity and tropical fruit. The wine was fermented and aged partly in acacia wood, which affords the micro-oxidation of oak without imparting the flavor of wood. It is a great sipping wine and very complementary to a local brie we nibbled alongside it. Retail is $22.

Friendly reds


Erik Miller’s wife Kimia calls the 2015 Pinot Noir from three different vineyards her “five o’clock wine.” Very soft and delicate, it has rose notes on the nose and a touch of black pepper in the mouth. It finishes with a full, food-friendly acidity. Retail is $44.

Kokomo erik millerZinfandel is so variable in the Healdsburg region that Kokomo produces four different variations. (The photo at right, courtesy of the winery, shows Erik with a bottle of Zin.) We tasted the 2015 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley. Made from a blend of grapes from two vineyards, it showed the intense concentration of fruit grown in the third straight year of record drought. The nose is full of black fruit and cocoa. The tannins are exceptionally smooth, making this full-bodied red a great food wine. Retail is $36.

Cabernet also has several local expressions, and we were delighted with the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon from Ruth’s Vineyard in the Alexander Valley. This version is silky and elegant. The nose shows pronounced notes of eucalyptus and those giant blackberries that Californians call boysenberries. The new French oak comes through in the mouth but full Cabernet fruit dominates, evoking hints of black currant. Spectacular!

02

12 2017

Honor Mansion delights as wine-touring base

Honor Mansion exterior
We arrived at Honor Mansion (891 Grove St., Healdsburg, 707-433-4277, honormansion.com) in the late afternoon. After an early morning flight from Boston and a drive from San Francisco to Healdsburg, we must have looked as tired as we felt. But assistant concierge Ruth Brambila knew just what we needed. Even before we checked in, she offered us fresh-baked peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and told us to pour a couple of glasses of wine from the bottles of red and white sitting on the buffet in the breakfast room. “In an hour, we’ll be laying out cheese and crackers and appetizers,” she told us. Some evenings, local winemakers even join guests for informal tastings.

Honor Mansion Vineyard Suite 1Less than a mile from Healdsburg’s main square, Honor Mansion is a quiet retreat after a day of travel—or a day of wine tasting and sightseeing. Innkeepers Steve and Cathi Fowler purchased the property in 1994 and opened their hostelry with a couple of guest rooms in the late 19th century mansion at its heart. In addition to five rooms in the mansion, the property now includes seven suites and a private cottage on four acres of grounds. The photo above right shows one corner of a spacious Vineyard Suite, set next to some Zinfandel vines.

Most important meal of the day


Honor Mansion Santa Fe Bake on plateFirst thing in the morning, all guests find their way to the mansion’s breakfast room for a buffet breakfast that gets the day off to a good start. There’s a different hot dish every day, along with fruit, scones, and other baked goods including an incredible cinnamon walnut bread from Costeaux French Bakery (see upcoming post). We were especially fond of the fluffy baked-egg dish called Santa Fe Bake. The inn served it with sun-dried tomato sauce, applewood smoked bacon, and cheddar green chile scones. Many of the guests’ favorite recipes are compiled in the Honor Mansion Cookbook. Ruth graciously agreed to let us share the recipe for Santa Fe Bake, which is on the plate in the photo at right.

SANTA FE BAKE


Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients


8 eggs
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 chopped onion
1/4 cup (half of 3-ounce can) diced green chiles
3 tablespoons chopped sun-dried tomatoes preserved in oil
1 1/4 cups shredded cheddar and jack cheeses, mixed

Directions


Set oven to 350°F,
Place ingredients (except for cheese) into blender jar. Process briefly to mix.
Spray an 8×8 pan with pam and pour mixture into the pan.
Sprinkle cheese over the top.
Bake at 350°F for 1 hour.

SUNDRIED TOMATO SAUCE

Ingredients


15 ounce can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons chopped sun-dried tomatoes preserved in oil
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons sugar
1 rounded tablespoon pesto

Directions


Combine ingredients in pot and heat.

Cut Santa Fe Bake into squares and arrange on a platter. Serve with Sun Dried Tomato Sauce on the side.

30

11 2017

Wine country wildfires skipped Healdsburg

Vineyards and olive near Healdsburg

We had planned to visit Healdsburg in California’s Sonoma County long before the terrible wine country wildfires broke out in early October. We settled on the town because it sits at the junction of the Russian River Valley, the Alexander Valley, and the Dry Creek Valley wine regions. Among them, they produce some of California’s leading Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. The Russian River Valley subregion of Chalk Hill is also famed for its Chardonnay. And where there’s good wine, there’s also good food.

After seeing the dramatic news coverage of the wildfires, we considered canceling. But prevailing winds spared most of the area around Healdsburg while scorching other parts of Sonoma and Napa. Healdsburg pitched in by housing and feeding the firefighters who finally got the blazes under control. Lodgings also gave temporary shelter to some of the people who lost their homes.

The vast majority of Northern California wineries received little or no damage. The photo at the top of this post shows some post-harvest vineyards and a pre-harvest olive tree. (That’s morning fog hovering over the Dry Creek Valley—not smoke.) Around Healdsburg, nearly 98 percent of the grapes were picked before the fires began.

We decided to go, and saw only a little fire damage on hilltops during the 70-mile ride north from San Francisco airport. As we explored the countryside around the town, we encountered one lush vineyard after another with big healthy leaves changing colors. The spectacle gives our New England fall foliage a run for its money. The vineyards, by the way, helped save the region from even worse damage by acting as firebreaks.

Wine posters at Sonoma Wine Library in Healdsburg

Healdsburg is wine central


Centered around a green town square with a cute gazebo, the town of Healdsburg makes a rich base to explore wine country. As the vintage posters at the Sonoma County Wine Library (139 Piper St., Healdsburg, 707-433-3772, ext 0416) above indicate, California has long been the “Wine Land of America.” But the posters also hark back to an era of generic blended wines—long before the California specialization in high-grade varietal wines. And they certainly predate the marketing of Sonoma County wines with their specific geographic areas noted on the bottle.

wine tasting room in HealdsburgBecause it lies at the convergence of so many different wine terroirs, Healdsburg is practically an open-air enoteca of Northern California wine. If your principal interest is a quick education in the potential of the Russian River, Alexander, and Dry Creek AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), you can park your car at one of the inns, B&Bs, or hotels and explore on foot. There are more than 20 winery tasting rooms in the blocks immediately surrounding the town square. Branch out a little and you’ll find another dozen or so within walking distance.

We sampled some of the wineries in the surrounding countryside and had some great meals in town. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reporting on Healdsburg as a wine tourism destination. Stay tuned.

For details on attractions and lodging in the town, visit www.Healdsburg.com.

28

11 2017

‘Stir Crazy’ makes simple, fast, tasty Chinese

Stir Crazy Front Cover US

Rarely does a new cookbook so readily insinuate itself into our weekly menu planning. Stir Crazy by Ching-He Huang (Kyle Books, $24.95) is the latest volume of make-at-home Chinese cooking by the prolific Taiwan-born chef and host of Cooking Channel shows. The subtitle—“100 Deliciously Healthy Stir-Fry Recipes”—speaks volumes. The recipes for two servings include estimated prep and cooking times along with calories and grams of carbohydrate, protein, and fat.

Few dishes exceed 400 calories per serving, yet every one is a satisfying one-dish meal, especially if paired with rice or noodles. It’s no secret how she keeps them in nutitional bounds. Wok cookery uses very little oil, and cooking times are brief. Most ingredients are readily available in most supermarkets.

Once we embraced the book, we did have to change a few habits. First, we stocked up on a few seasonings we don’t usually keep on hand—oyster sauce, fish sauce, toasted sesame oil, and an upgrade to our usual soy sauce. Ching mostly uses peanut or canola oil; we found a grapeseed-canola blend with a little higher smoke point. After trying some wok recipes in conventional frying pans, we relented and bought a good wok at C-Mart in Boston’s Chinatown.

Once we were appropriately equipped, it was surprisingly easy to incorporate some of these recipes into our menus. Ching uses somewhat larger portions of meat than traditional in most Chinese cooking. Beef might be 4 ounces for two servings, chicken is almost always 7 ounces. (We suspect that the original British edition of the book gives those measurements as 150 grams and 250 grams, respectively.) What has so far impressed us is that Ching’s proportions produce perfectly balanced flavors.

Here’s one of our new favorites.

beef and spinach fried rice

BEEF AND SPINACH FRIED RICE


If you have some cooked basmati rice to hand, this dish is incredibly quick to make. If you want to make it carb-free then omit the rice and add some add some broccolini or Chinese cabbage to make the dish go further.

Preparation 20 minutes (includes cooking the rice)
Cooking 6 minutes
Serves 2
cal 429 carbs 43.7g protein 19.4g fat 20.7g

For the beef


4 ounces beef sirloin, fat trimmed off, sliced into thin strips
knob of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
pinch of sea salt flakes
pinch of ground white pepper
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

For the fried rice


2 tablespoons canola oil
1 garlic clove, crushed and finely chopped
7 ounces spinach leaves
1½ cups cooked basmati rice (¾ cup uncooked)
1 tablespoon low-sodium light soy sauce
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
pinch of ground white pepper

Directions


Combine all the ingredients for the beef in a bowl, then set aside.

Heat a wok over high heat until smoking and add 1 tablespoon canola oil. Add the garlic and stir-fry for a few seconds to release its aroma, then add the spinach and cook for 5 seconds. Add in the cooked rice and toss with the spinach for 30 seconds.

Push the rice to one side, then heat up the center of the wok and pour in the remaining canola oil. Add the beef and let it brown and sear for 10 seconds, then flip it over. Stir-fry until all the beef has coated the rice, then season with the light soy sauce, oyster sauce, and toasted sesame oil. Sprinkle with some ground white pepper and serve immediately.

CHING’S TIP
Work quickly so the spinach doesn’t become mush.

Reprinted from Stir Crazy by Ching-He Huang, published by Kyle Books. Photography by Tamin Jones.
Here’s the link to buy it on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Stir-Crazy-Deliciously-Healthy-Stir-Fry/dp/1909487678

26

11 2017

Portage House crafts riverside heartland cuisine

Portage House in Jeffersonville, IN

Chef Paul Skulas may not hail from Southern Indiana, but he grew up close enough in northwest Ohio. Post-Marine Corps, he honed his Southern chops by training at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, North Carolina, and working with “Big Bad Chef” John Currence in Oxford, Mississippi.

Paul Skulas of Portage HouseFurther stints in Louisville led him to join restaurateur Alex Tinker in launching Portage House (117 East Riverside Drive, Jeffersonville, IN, 812-725-0435, eatportagehouse.com). We don’t usually pry so much into a chef’s background, but Skulas has a palate and an approach to Midwestern fare that seems very much his own. Southern Indiana and north central Kentucky both have rich farm country, so it’s not surprising that so many restaurants in the area draw on local sources for their provender. Portage House is no exception. About 80 percent of the beef, lamb, chicken, and pork comes from Hensley’s Homegrown. (The Broadbent country hams come from Lyon County in western Kentucky.) While oysters and some other fish have to be shipped in, Skulas also works with regionally farmed catfish.

Big Four Bridge in distance from Portage HouseThe building now occupied by Portage House was a private residence until two years ago, and it’s a safe bet that the occupants loved to sit on their front porch and watch the boats on the Ohio. The spot is literally within walking distance of the Big Four Bridge, as seen in the background of the photo at left. The location is wont to give diners of a philosophical bent thoughts, as Thomas Wolfe called it, “of time and the river.” Surrounded by the country bounty of Southern Indiana and the urban bourbon across in Louisville, the view from the patio of the Portage House is truly epic.

Ratcheting up Midwestern cuisine

watermelon and cauliflower at Portage House

It’s probably a good idea to arrive hungry for dinner at Portage since the portions are generous and the entrée prices are mostly under $20. (Steaks can push that envelope a bit.) Seasonality changes the menu often, of course, but our timing (just before Labor Day) was perfect to get the end of the lush part of summer and the first long-ripening crops of fall. Two starters prove that point. The tangy salad of cubed watermelon, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, and a herb vinaigrette spoke of the summer heat in the fields. The roasted cauliflower with a lemon caper vinaigrette and chili flakes teased up with the promise of autumnal brassicas. The just-picked cauliflower was crisp and sweet—entirely devoid of the skunky quality it picks up in storage.

Trout at Portage HouseOne of the lighter entrees on the menu—amid the bratwurst, pastrami-cured duck leg, bbq chicken thighs, and ribeye steak—was a whole roasted trout, shown here. What so delighted us about the dish was the exuberant arugula, cucumber, and red onion salad that covered the fish. The crisp and piquant vegetables made a perfect counterpoint to the slight crunch of the trout’s breaded skin and soft, sweet flesh. Moreover, the fish was adeptly boned without disturbing its symmetry.

24

11 2017

Chocolate and bourbon make best of friends

Erika Chavez-Graziano offers bourbon balls at Mesa in New Albany

We were glad to see Andy Embry behind the counter at the cookware store and demonstration kitchen Mesa (216 Pearl Street, 812-725-7691, mesachefs.com) in New Albany. Mesa offers an ambitious schedule of cooking demonstrations led by local chefs. We had signed up for the bourbon and chocolate tasting program that is usually offered once a month, according to Mesa owner Bobby Bass.

Embry had been remarkably engaging and knowledgeable when he guided us through the Evan Williams center in Louisville (see this post). And he had offered some good pointers on tasting bourbon. So we were curious to see how he approached pairing bourbon with chocolate. His partner in the demonstration was Erika Chavez-Graziano, founder of Cellar Door Chocolates (cellardoorchocolates.com), which has three shops in Louisville.

“Chocolate brings out the sweetness of bourbon,” Embry told our group as the tasting began. We each had three small glasses of bourbon and three of Chavez-Graziano’s confections in front of us. “Take a bite of chocolate and let it melt in your mouth,” Embry advised. “Then take a sip of bourbon and let the flavors blend in your mouth.”

Whiskey tastes with chocolate

Bernheim Wheat and milk chocolate


We began with Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. At 90 proof, it was the lightest and the softest of the Heaven Hill whiskies. Embry and Chavez-Graziano had paired it with a 38 percent milk chocolate truffle. Embry prefers milk chocolate with bourbon. “It pairs better because it is smoother,” he said. “It brings out the best in bourbon.” The milk chocolate was light enough that it didn’t step all over the toffee and spice of the wheated whiskey

Elijah Craig and salt caramel


Next was Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon. This is one of our favorite bourbons. The nose has sweet fruit, fresh mint, and vanilla notes. The taste is woody with a hint of nutmeg and smoke. It’s one of those bourbons with a pronounced “Kentucky hug” in the finish—warming all the way down. Pairing it with a bourbon-barrel-smoked sea salt caramel gives the caramel a slight toasted note, while the caramel accentuates the wood and spice in the whiskey.

Henry McKenna and cinnamon truffle


Finally, we tasted Henry McKenna Single Barrel with a cinnamon truffle. The McKenna is bottled in bond with the barrel number on each bottle. The nose shows caramel and vanilla, while the taste is a swirl of oak, toasted spices, and honey. The cinnamon in the truffle plays especially well with the sharp spices in the whiskey.

Make your own bourbon balls


Chavez-Graziano is a self-taught chocolatier who is so serious about her craft that she imports and roasts her own cacao beans. She participated in the tasting with great enthusiasm, but also managed to make a batch of bourbon balls to share with the group while Embry was talking.

Erika Chavez-Graziano makes bourbon balls at Mesa in New AlbanyShe began by melting chocolate and cream in a double boiler behind the counter. For best results, she said, use couverture chocolate rather than compound chocolate. Couverture contains cocoa better, while compound chocolate substitutes another oil.

For every pound of chocolate, Chavez-Graziano adds one-half cup of whipping cream. She also stirred in a little sea salt and a generous splash of bourbon. Then she removed the pot from the heat and set the mixture aside until it was cool enough to roll into small balls. For the final touch, she rolled each one in dark cocoa powder. Do not use Dutch-processed cocoa, she told us, because the processing alters the flavor by removing the natural acids.

Chavez-Graziano passed the tray of truffles to all the guests. “The most selfless way to express love to people,” she said, “is to feed them.”

We were only sorry that we had finished our bourbon.

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11 2017