Pantelleria vineyards honored by UNESCO

Bringing in the harvest of Zibibbo grapes on Pantelleria It’s a delight to learn that the United Nations has honored the grape growers of Pantelleria, naming the island’s viticultural technique part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. And here I thought it was merely heroic. That’s what the Pantellerians themselves call it.

Donnafugata Zibibbo vineyard About halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, the rocky island of volcanic origins is arid and scoured by ferocious winter winds that stunt even the olive trees. Typically, houses are cut into the rock to provide protection from the wind and the blistering sun. The grapes are grown on “head trained bush vines” (vite ad alberello, in Italian). Each one is planted in a depression and trained in a low, broad bush system with two to four branches. Vines are typically 100 years old at minimum, and the vineyards are terraced inside rock walls, as if each area was a cellar hole. Maintenance is minimal, as the winds tend to keep the vines pruned. Picking is all done by hand.

Zibibbo grapes set to dry on Pantelleria The main grape grown on Pantelleria is known locally by its Arabic moniker, Zibibbo. Genetically, it is the ancient Muscat of Alexandria—considered one of the oldest genetically unmodified grape varieties in existence. Tradition holds that Cleopatra drank wine made from it. One of the world’s great aromatic wine grapes, this strain of Muscat is found all around the Mediterranean rim.

Antonio Rallo Pantellerian viticulture is the model of small-plot vineyards. Of the island’s population of 7,679, about 5,000 inhabitants own a plot of land where they cultivate Zibibbo in the traditional way, handing down the techniques from generation to generation. The old vines produce grapes that achieve powerful sugar and acid levels as well as a spicy aromatic quality lacking in a lot of hot-weather Muscat. Although Zibibbo is a tasty table grape (albeit with a tough skin and big pips), most of the harvest is dried on screens to concentrate sugar and acid before being pressed to make a sweet passito wine.

Ben RyéThe Khamma winery, owned by the Rallo family of Donnafugata (that’s Antonio Rallo above holding a cluster of grapes), handles the lion’s share of the island’s harvest, drying and pressing each region’s grapes separately to create a final blend for Donnafugata’s Ben Ryé, possibly one of the greatest Muscat wines in the world.

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12 2014

Red Arrow big burger grabs headlines

Red Arrow - Newton Burger Old-fashioned diners certainly love their giant burgers. We wrote about the Miss Washington Diner in New Britain a few weeks back, marveling at the monstrous burger called The Monument. In a piece in today’s Boston Globe about the 24-hour Red Arrow Diner (61 Lowell Street, Manchester, N.H. 603-626-1118, www.redarrowdiner.com), we came face to face with the Newton Burger, presented above by general manager Herb Hartwell.

Red Arrow in Manchester N.H. In all fairness, the Red Arrow does serve salads, Jell-O, and other low-fat options, but the main clientele seems to gravitate to some of the heavier entrées. The place is known for its mugs of chili and its baked mac and cheese.

And its burgers. A burger on toast was on the menu when the Red Arrow opened in 1922, and there are some truly giant burgers on the menu today. The Newton Burger might be the ultimate cheeseburger, since instead of placing the ground beef patty on a bun, the kitchen stuffs it between two complete grilled cheese sandwiches — but not before dressing it with a scoop of deep-fried mac and cheese. The lettuce, tomato, and onion are window dressing. Didn’t you mother tell you to eat your vegetables?

Given its location in New Hampshire’s biggest city, the Red Arrow gets more than its share of campaigning politicians, especially during the quadrennial presidential season. The Red Arrow could save the country a lot of grief, trouble, and expense if they invited the candidates to a Newton Burger challenge.

May the best eater win.

Spanish orange & almond tart for Christmas

Holiday tart of almond, saffron, and Seville orange
Last year for the holiday season we made saffron shortbread cookies, and we were feeling bad that we didn’t have a new holiday cookie this year. We got to thinking about winter sweets and some of our all-time favorite flavors, and the two sort of came together.

Some of the quintessential tastes of Spain are almonds, saffron, and bitter oranges. Why not adapt our standard linzer tart recipe to reflect that different range of flavors? Instead of hazelnuts in the dough, we could use almonds. Instead of vanilla, we could use saffron. And in place of raspberry jam, we could use Seville orange marmalade. (OK, we know that the marmalade is more a Scottish than Spanish flavor, but it does use the bitter oranges of Andalucía.)

Our first thought was to make almond meal using toasted Marcona almonds since they are the classic snack almond of southern Spain. We did that, but by losing the skin of the almond, we also lost a lot of the taste. Moreover, toasted blanched almonds ground up into too fine a flour. The result was a perfectly edible tart, but one with a more crumbly crust and less pronounced flavor than we were looking for.

Back to the drawing board. In the end, it turned out that the much less expensive California almonds gave the best flavor and were the easiest to work with. We toasted them in a dry pan in the oven at 400°F for about 10 minutes, then ground them into fine meal in a food processor after they had cooled. This technique gives a good toasted almond flavor, and also makes the saffron flavor more pronounced. The strength of saffron will depend on what kind you are using. It’s not very Spanish, but we got the best results with “Baby Saffron” from Kashmir, using four blisters of the single-serving packs.

Slices of the finished tart go well with espresso or a flute of cava.

ANDALUCÍAN CHRISTMAS TART slice of holiday tart

Makes one 7 1/2-inch (19 cm) fluted tart (serves 6-8)

Ingredients

1/3 cup (66 grams) granulated sugar
1 generous pinch saffron (0.2 gram)
1/4 teaspoon (1.5 grams) salt
1/2 cup (1 stick, 114 grams) butter, softened
1 egg
2/3 cup (96 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) baking powder
1 cup raw almonds (150 grams), lightly toasted
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon (200 grams) Seville orange marmalade

Directions

In coffee or spice grinder, mix sugar, saffron, and salt. Grind briefly. Empty into medium bowl. Add butter and beat until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat to mix well.

In another medium bowl, place flour and baking powder. Whisk to blend. Grind almonds to fine meal in food processor. Whisk nuts into flour mixture. Add nut-flour mixture to butter mixture. Mix on low speed until all ingredients are incorporated.

piping lattice onto tart Pat 2/3 cup of the dough into bottom of 7 1/2 inch (19 cm) fluted tart pan with removable bottom. Place remainder of dough into cookie press or pastry bag fitted with a 3/8-inch fluted tip. Pipe around the edges to make side crust. Place orange marmalade into shell and smooth out until even. Pipe a lattice over top of tart.

Refrigerate tart for 30 minutes while preheating oven to 350°F. Bake tart until preserves just begin to bubble – about 35 minutes. Transfer to rack on counter to cool. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream to balance the bitterness of the orange.

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12 2014

Eat hearty at the Miss Washington Diner

NB06
Our story about New Britain, Conn., is in today’s Boston Globe (“Industrious city enjoys artful update”). But we didn’t have the space to write more extensively about the Miss Washington Diner (10 Washington St., New Britain, 860-224-3772, www.misswashingtondiner.com, breakfast and lunch $3-$11). Dan Czako, shown above, has been the owner of this early Fifties gem since 2011. Constructed in the optimistic postwar Modernist style, the diner has 24 stools lined up along the long counter as well as a clutch of booths. Czako is the head cook and a whiz at the grill. He’s big on hearty American meals at affordable prices. It’s the perfect combo in this working-class city.

Miss Washington Diner, New Britain, Conn. The Miss Washington also offers one of those great eating challenges. Czako calls it The Monument. It consists of four eight-ounce hamburger patties topped with four slices of bacon; layers of American, Swiss, and Provolone cheeses; two onion rings, A1 Sauce; and the usual burger salad veggies of lettuce and tomato. There’s also a pickle. Consume The Monument in 20 minutes and it’s on the house. Take too long (or leave some) and it costs $30. Many have tried, few have succeeded. Above, Czako shows off the Mini-Monument, which has only two-ounce patties. Even the Mini is a popular order for big, husky guys, and at $8.99 it’s a steal.

If you meet The Monument challenge, let us know!

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12 2014

Paul’s baguette makes elegant bread pudding

lemon poopyseed bread pudding made with baguette from Paul The poppyseed baguettes from the Paul boulangerie (see previous post) are a taste treat unto themselves. But like all great French bread, they are best the day they’re baked. We decided that the logical thing to do with stale poppyseed bread would be to make lemon poppyseed bread pudding. The custard does not have any strong additional flavoring (like vanilla extract) and we didn’t make a heavy sweet sauce to go on top. Compared to most American bread pudding recipes, this one is almost austere. The dish is really all about the toasted nuttiness of the poppyseeds, the aromatic freshness of the lemon, and the delicious wheatiness of the bread.

LEMON POPPYSEED BREAD PUDDING


Makes 6-8 servings

Ingredients preparing poopyseed baguette for bread pudding

1 tablespoon butter
6 cups (375 grams) 3/4-inch cubes of day-old poppyseed baguette
4 large eggs
1/2 cup (125 grams) brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
zest and juice of 2 lemons
3 1/2 cups whole milk
confectioner’s sugar for serving

Directions

1. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan. Spread bread cubes in it. Add the poppyseeds and crumbs from cutting up the bread.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Add milk and mix well. Pour the mixture over the bread cubes. Let stand, pressing down on bread occasionally, for at least 20 minutes or until bread is saturated.

3. While bread soaks, preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Have a large shallow roasting pan ready.

4. Place bread pudding pan inside roasting pan. Add very hot water to come about halfway up the sides of the baking dish. (Do not overfill, as bubbling water can flood the dish.)

5. Bake until a knife inserted in the center comes out almost clean, roughly 55 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.

26

11 2014

Paul brings real French bread to Boston

French bread - Nicolas Gautier of Maison Paul Boulangerie, Boston We’ve been known to drive from Boston to Montreal to get our fix of good bread, but even the Quebecois can’t make a baguette like the French can. Neither can we, and we frankly gave up trying years ago. Now we don’t have to. Whenever we get a jones for French bread, Maison Paul is now a 15-minute drive away. The famed French boulangerie began in Croix, near Lille, in the north of France in 1889. Some 125 years later, it has 600 locations around the world, with several spots in the Miami and D.C. metro areas, and now in Boston. On Friday, November 21, Paul started serving at Assembly Row in Somerville. The local flagship is opening in Boston’s Downtown Crossing in January.

French bread loaves baking at Paul in Somerville There are a lot of reasons why Paul’s baguette is so good (and so French, which is sort of the same thing). First, it is made with T65 flour, which is hard to find in the U.S., although King Arthur sells it in three-pound bags for $9.95. T65 is flour made with wheat that retains 65 percent of the chaff and germ. The protein content is rather low for bread flour (about 10-11 percent) but since the dough is proofed under refrigeration for nine hours or more, it develops very complex flavors and a stretchy texture. Second, it’s cooked in steam-injection ovens, which keeps the crumb moist while ensuring a perfect glaze on the skin of the loaf.

MaisonPaul3 Paul uses huge mixers with spinning arms that lift and stretch to mix the dough. But chef baker Nicolas Gautier (above), who will oversee all the Boston bakeries, and Thomas Crombez (a chef baker from Paris shown at right here) gave us a quick lesson in making baguettes by hand. In the tiny kitchen of the Somerville shop, they had us spill 500 grams of flour onto a wooden counter and measure out 300 grams of water. We used a little water to dissolve 10 grams of cake yeast in a cup, and 10 grams of salt in a separate cup. (Put salt and yeast together and the yeast will die.)

French bread dough cut into loaves at Maison Paul in Somerville We made a well in the middle of the flour pile and poured in half the remaining water. We mixed by hand, made another well, and added the rest of the water. When that was absorbed, we made a well in the center again and incorporated the dissolved yeast. As the dough began to develop, hand-blending turned to rough kneading. Finally we added the salty water and kneaded until the loaf was smooth and elastic and had the texture of an earlobe. This dough ball was set aside to proof (rise). It was enough to make almost three baguettes, each about 18 inches long (45cm, to be exact).

Thomas Crombez and Nicolas Gautier remove baguetts from oven at Masion Paul in Somerville The Paul bakeries proof their dough in trays and use an ingenious pneumatic dough divider to measure each baguette to a precise size, producing 10 baguettes per tray. (Before cutting, some trays are covered with poppy seeds on each side.) Each baguette is placed on a rolling cloth, five to an oven, and scored with a sharp knife to create the release points for extra steam. If you want to get fancy, you can use kitchen shears and snip alternating diagonals, then lift and twist the tips to create “ears.” (It’s a good technique for people who like lots of crust.)

French bread shows perfect crumb at Maison Paul in Somerville We then rolled the baguettes into preheated ovens (250°C, or 480°F) and cooked them for 22 minutes (21 minutes for loaves cut with ears to avoid burning the tips). To confirm that they’re done, Gautier explained, turn a loaf over and tap the bottom. It should sound hollow. Crombez carefully sliced a loaf in half lengthwise so we could see the honeycomb texture of the crumb—and observe that it gummed up if you don’t wait for the bread to cool a little before cutting. It was perfect, even before he brought out some French butter.

We brought several loaves home, enjoyed one with beef stew, gave some away, and found ourselves with leftover poppyseed baguettes. See our next post for our take on Lemon Poppyseed Bread Pudding.

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11 2014

It’s always Thanksgiving at Hart’s

Hart's Turkey Farm story in Boston Globe The motto at Hart’s Turkey Farm is that “every day is Thanksgiving” at this family-dining fixture in Meredith, New Hampshire, on the west side of Lake Winnipesaukee. Truth is, the busiest days of the fall season are already over — the place was jammed over Columbus Day weekend. But they’re gearing up for the onslaught of diners (probably around 1,600) on Thanksgiving Day.

On a busy day, Hart’s serves more than a ton of turkey and 40 gallons of gravy. Most diners choose the turkey plate with gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and a choice of vegetable and potato. It is available in three serving sizes with either all white meat, or a mixture of white and dark meat. The jumbo plate can even be ordered with a spare plate for sharing.

We had fun writing about the Granite State fixture for the Boston Globe and hope you click your way over to read all about it. If you’re planning on visiting on Thanksgiving Day, be prepared for a wait of around 45 minutes. You can sit outdoors in the tented beer garden, watching TV until you’re called–almost just like home.

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11 2014

Yucatan tortilla soup goes bright with limes

tortilla soup with lime We thought we might be done adding versions of tortilla soup to our repertoire after our encounter with Loteria Grill at LAX, but then Cancun’s tourism office sent us a batch of recipes that included a classic sopa de lima, or “lime soup” and we headed back into the kitchen to perfect our own version of this chicken tortilla soup with a heavy dose of vegetables and tart lime juice. It’s definitely Mexican comfort food, but with a Yucatecan accent. We tweaked the traditional recipe to trim some of the fat and emphasize the fresh flavors.

SOPA DE LIMA YUCATECA
Serves 6-8

In the traditional preparation of this dish, the tortilla strips are fried in vegetable oil until brown. We prefer the cleaner corn flavor you get by toasting them in the oven, which also saves a lot of calories. The recipe calls for Mexican oregano (also known as marjoram), but Italian oregano can be substituted for a more herbaceous flavor.

Ingredients

8 corn tortillas
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 celery rib, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
1 large serrano pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
salt
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled
1 large tomato, peeled and chopped
8 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 green onions, finely chopped
3 limes, juiced (about 1/3 cup)
1 large avocado, peeled, pitted and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Directions

1. Set oven to 375°F. Cut the tortillas into 1/4-inch strips. Place on narrow mesh cooling racks and set racks in middle of preheated oven. Bake 6-8 minutes or until golden brown. Remove immediately and turn out on counter to cool. Depending on oven and rack size, you may have to toast chips in batches. Set toasted chips aside.

2. Place oil in a large saucepan and add the chopped onion, celery, carrot, and serrano pepper. Sprinkle with about a teaspoon of salt. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables have softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, bay leaf and Mexican oregano and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add the tomato and season lightly with salt. Cook, stirring, until the tomato is softened and has released its liquid and the mixture is nearly dry (4 to 5 minutes).

3. Add the chicken stock and chicken breasts and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a slow simmer and cook until the chicken is just cooked through (12-15 minutes). Remove chicken from the soup and set aside until cool enough to handle. Allow soup to continue simmering.

4. When the chicken has cooled a bit, shred into bite-size pieces and return to the pot along with the green onions and lime juice. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the chicken is heated through and the soup is piping hot. Season the soup to taste with salt and ladle the soup into wide soup bowls, with a handful of tortilla strips added to each bowl. Garnish with the avocado and cilantro and serve immediately.

11

11 2014

Summit cocktail gives Cognac real sass

Yoann Saillard mixes Cognac Summit cocktails I was surprised to learn at the Camus Cognac House that the French are rather tepid Cognac drinkers. Sales in France account for only a paltry 3 percent of the brand’s market. (America, by the way, is the leader, followed by Russia and Asia.)

Perhaps that Gallic lack of enthusiasm spurred the Cognac trade association to assemble mixologists to devise new cognac cocktails that might give the storied brandy a modern edge. One such concoction, the Cognac Summit, appears to have caught on and a great place to try it is at the Bar Louise at the Hôtel François Premier Cognac Centre. It occupies a gorgeous, newly renovated old building right in the heart of town.

Young mixologist Yoann Saillard (above) hails from Normandy and knows that region’s signature Calvados apple brandy well. But he has become a big fan of Cognac. “It’s a most interesting spirit,” he said. “It has all the complexity of wine. Lots of people drink it on its own.” Saillard, however, is a showman at heart and mixing cocktails is his thing. For the Cognac Summit he prefers VSOP, which has at least four years of aging. “This cocktail respects the Cognac,” he told me as he sliced ginger and limes and muddled them with the spirit in a chilled water glass. “All the flavors are equal.”

The resulting drink is refreshing and bright, with a peppery sass from the ginger, a fruity tartness from the lime, and bubbly effervescence from the soda. Here is Saillard’s version of the simple, soon-to-be classic Cognac Summit. He uses Fever-Tree Sparkling Lemon but Sprite makes a good substitute here in the U.S.

Cognac Summit cocktailCOGNAC SUMMIT

Makes one serving

Ingredients

3-4 large slices of fresh ginger
slice of lime
1 shot (40 ml) Cognac
sparkling lemon soda
cucumber peel for garnish.

Directions

Muddle the lime, ginger, and Cognac in a chilled water glass.

Add ice to fill.

Top with lemon drink.

Garnish with cucumber peel and serve with a straw.

03

11 2014

Learning to blend Cognac at Camus

Cognac grape vines “You cannot make a mistake,” Frederic Dezauzier assured my small group as we filed into a blending workshop at the Camus Cognac house. We must have looked intimidated by the sparkling clean room and the array of beakers and flasks waiting for us on an orderly workbench. I pushed memories of high school chemistry class out of my mind and concentrated on the four small glasses of amber liquid at each work station. “The best cognac is the cognac you prefer,” the former cellar master and global brand ambassador told us with a smile.

Founded in 1863, Camus is the largest Cognac house still in family hands. On a quick tour en route to the blending room, I learned that Ugni-Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche are the three white grapes (above) most commonly used in making Cognac and that they grow in the abundantly sunny rolling hills surrounding the town of Cognac here in the Poitou-Charentes region of southwestern France. cognac copper alembics at Camus To intensify the grape flavor, wine from the grapes is double distilled in traditional red copper alembics (right). Each distillation concentrates the flavors into only one-third of the original volume of liquid.

Although it’s often said that wine is made in the vineyard, Cognac is truly a product of the blending room. Each bottle has a mix of different grapes and different vintages artfully combined by a cellar master with a refined sense of smell and taste and years of experience. Nothing to be intimidated about here.

Frederic Dezauzier in blending room at Camus For our workshop, Dezauzier (left) had selected four XO Cognacs from grapes grown in four of the six zones strictly delimited for Cognac production. Together they make up the Cognac AOC, which stands for appelation d’orgine contrôlée, or “controlled area of origin.” Each distillate had been aged from 6 to 18 years and I felt a little more confident knowing that we had such good spirits to start with.

Dezauzier instructed us to first sniff and then sip each of our choices and to compare them to each other as we made our way down the line of glasses. Each was surprisingly different and Dezauzier described them with unpretentious good humor. The slightly salty yet sweet Fins Bois, he said, “was like a teenager, very enthusiastic and with a good body.” The delicate Borderies had a feminine quality and a floral hint of violets. More acid than the first two, Petite Champagne required longer aging to smooth out its masculine cedar aroma, which Dezauzier likened to a cigar box. Dezauzier was careful to be impartial, but I sensed that his heart belonged to the spicy Grande Champagne, which had been aged the longest and was redolent of cinnamon, dried fruit, and toasted almond.

labeling my own cognac blendIn the end I decided on a little gender blending. I took my beaker to the large barrels in one corner of the room and released the spigot to mix 200 ml of Petite Champagne with 300 ml of Borderies. Using a funnel, I poured my blend into my bottle. Each formula was duly noted in the Camus record book. I’ve yet to taste my bottle (which fortunately survived the flight home in my checked luggage), but I may have to amend Dezauzier’s pronouncement: The best cognac may be the one you make yourself.

For information on tours, tastings, and the Master Blender Workshop see www.camus.fr.

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10 2014