Getting Cheese Delirious

Chèvre interior, blue mold exterior! Served with a refresher from Leuven!

I’ve got a serious case of ‘ants in my pants.’ Look what UPS just delivered for Friday’s cheese and beer event! He was smirking as he bounced down the stairs. Was it the fact that I was caught listening to SOMA-FM’s Underground 80s music at a volume sufficient for a block party? I wouldn’t know, because I was momentarily distracted by the lyrics…

A little something to make me sweeter
Oh baby refrain from breaking my heart
I’m so in love with you
I’ll be forever blue
That you give me no reason
Why you’re making me work so hard

Erasure was the one-hit-wonder, in case you must know. Kismet, synchronicity, or just the hollow-graphic nature of New Wave? Dunno. As an old friend used to paraphrase from a very different band in the 80s “Nous sommes des fromages.” Cheers! TPJ

Cheese and Beer Runup

With just a couple of days before our inaugural cheese and beer event in Lincoln, we received a nice writeup from Star City Blog’s beverage reporter Alexis Abel.

You can link to it here. Oh yeah, that fellow Cory was a trip – hope we see him on Friday!

If you live in these parts and haven’t gotten tickets yet. Do it while they last. Cheers! TPJ

A Convoy of Flavor Wheels

A couple of winters ago I made made my own maple syrup in Vermont. It started out more as a reminiscence of when my Dad would do it, tediously cooking down the sap over the two burners of a Coleman stove. Or maybe it was to relive the childhood smell memories of wood smoke and tree sugar forged in local sugarhouses. It is almost sugaring time again and that reminded me of something peculiar that happened when making that syrup last time.

It didn’t taste like maple syrup. It tasted wonderful, but nothing like what a New Englander would call essentially maple. Then I remembered the maple syrup flavor wheel I saw on the wall at Bascom’s, the place I’d bought the used sap buckets, lids, spouts, a razor sharp drill bit, and a hydrometer.

I saw that wheel from a distance and thought to myself, “C’mon, how many flavors can maple syrup really have?” I looked closely at it. There was mention of clove, smoke, molasses, forest humus, dried herbs, plastic, you name it. It wasn’t until I had that sap boiling – this was sap that only ran for two days before cold weather stopped the flow for anther few weeks – that I became aware of a corn-syrupy aroma. It was definitely corn. Then I discerned lightly toasted marshmallows, vanilla, and cocoa powder. Everything was clean. I hadn’t made candy or cake in any pots. It was the syrup made from the earliest runnings of sap from my trees that grew in a certain place on shallow soil atop slate ledges made of fossilized Lake Hitchcock clays, those clays made of the fine, fluvial residues of glacial till. I was befuddled – there was no trace of maple.

So here’s that flavor wheel, courtesy of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

The way my mind works, or doesn’t on a given day, naturally leads me to think about other flavor wheels. Sadly, the first thing to pop up was “whatever happened to Flavor Flav?” The rapper with big clock around his neck.

I don’t know if he likes maple syrup. Hard to believe, but true, I’ve met people who don’t like the taste of real maple syrup having been brought up on the artificial kind. Flavor Flav has all that gold dentistry. It’s called a grill in case you missed that one on TV.

 

Grillin' 'n chillin' with Flavor Flav. Take that Bobby Flay. (Source: http://www.themoderndaypirates.com)

Slightly more seriously, I began to think about all of the other flavor wheels out there. One I use regularly is Dr. Morton Meilgaard’s beer flavor wheel, though I admit that it isn’t as robust as I wish it were. It doesn’t list “deteriorating vinyl from the dashboard of an ’87 Buick driven by a four-pack-a-day smoker of menthols” or “burnt hair caught fire in the bunsen burner when she leaned too close to her lab partner.” But I’d say it is normally adequate.

There are flavor wheels for wine, cheese, tea, cannabis… all sorts of things. In fact, I’m inspired to start collecting as many flavor wheels as I can.

Here’s a good one for coffee, from gourmet-coffee.com.

And another fun one for chocolate from Chocolopolis. It is a little hard to read on the light background, however.

And the last one for today, also hard to read on a light background, is the Cognac Aroma Wheel from Cognac.com. It is arranged by season of the year. Ahhh. Cheers! TPJ

Orchestrating Successful Cheese & Beer Pairings

Cheese and beer go really well together. They have for centuries. They grew up hand in hand in small settlements where early people first harvested grains and domesticated milk-giving herds. That may be old news. The newsbreak, though, is that today we live in a global village ensconced in thousands of cheese and beer choices. We have limitless possibilities to pair artisanal cheeses with craft beer from any place, anytime we want.

So why not get together with a few of your friends, or a few hundred of your customers, and orchestrate a perfect cheese and beer pairing?

Overture

Let’s begin with some precepts and traditions that leave your audience clamoring for an encore.

For cheese pairings that are not tied to a specific brewery or distributor’s line, it is best to select your cheeses first, then find the beers that harmonize. Fine cheeses are expensive, and at least in most places in America, selection is limited. If you have access to a huge variety of cheese or are planning on a tasting that pairs beers from a single source, say a brewery or a locality, choose a variety of beer styles to allow more flexibility in cheese selection.

The amount of cheese you serve depends on the event. If it is a course in a dinner, choose two or three cheeses and provide no more than one ounce of each cheese per guest. For full blown cheese and beer tastings you will want four to six varieties, serving between an ounce and an ounce and a half of each. A beer size of four ounces works well. You may also have some condiments, crackers, plain bread, and drinking water.

Cheese flights ready for the curtain to come up. (Source: ontolondon.blogspot.com)

There is a tradition in cheese tasting of working around the plate clockwise from the 6-o’clock position. Your guests may not be experts in cheese and may not recognize which cheese is which simply hearing the name of it. Starting at a set position allows everyone to stay together and pair the right cheese with the designated beer.

Just as with tasting a flight of beers, there can be palate fatigue. It is generally advised to move from mild, low acidity cheeses to blues or washed rind cheeses of greater intensity. Occasionally, the cheeses will be ordered more in relation to their milk type and age, putting younger goat’s and sheep’s cheeses first, then the older cow’s milk cheeses. The tasting order is really up to the planner where the judicious juxtaposition of textures, age, and rind can create exciting cheese drama. (Yes, I said that, cheese drama.)

First timers will benefit from a straightforward methodology for the tasting. Each should begin by getting familiar with the beer by sniffing and sipping some. This is a good time to recognize the major flavors in the mouth, including: grainy, toasty, malty, fruity, bitter, resinous, herbal and floral. More on beer flavor can be found at beersensoryscience, along with a nice version of the famous Meilgaard Beer Flavor Wheel.

After the beer has cleared the throat, place some cheese in the mouth. If the cheese has a distinct rind, start with some pâté from the center of the cheese, leaving the rind for a subsequent bite. Let that cheese soften on the tongue forming a paste. This only takes a moment, but it can be hastened by pushing the tongue upward until the cheese hits the roof of the mouth. Make a mental note of the principal cheese flavors and textures, which might include: creamy, buttery, nutty, sweet, tart, minerally, salty, musty, mushroomy, herbal or grassy. More cheese flavors are listed in this Italian cheese wheel, this French wheel specifically for Compté, and this source, too.

With the cheese soft on the tongue, add a sip of beer and notice how the cheese and beer combine in the mouth. At the very least there should be a happy balance between the flavors and intensities of both. Notice how the beer lightens the cheese texture and lifts it from tongue. Though we don’t usually eat this way, swishing the cheese and beer in the mouth enhances the reactions between the two and brings about a crescendo of flavor. In the best pairings you will observe harmonies, where the beer and cheese ennoble each other releasing hidden tones related to terroir and ingredients.

Providing a note card for people to jot down impressions is essential for commercial tastings. Casual sessions at home will benefit from this, too. It is common for a guest to enjoy a particular pairing and not be able to remember the names of a peculiar cheese or beer the next day.

Improvising

Cheese-beer tastings do not require a theme, although thematic pairings can be instructional. One approach is to have a “milk vertical.” Start by picking a type of milk, specifically, cow, goat, or sheep. Offer a range of cheeses made with that one kind of milk, working from the mildest to the strongest and saving blue mold and washed rind cheeses for the end.

You might pick all cheeses with a manufacturing similarity. For instance, bloomy rind or blue mold cheeses, or perhaps cheeses made by the cheddaring process. Cheeses could be grouped by texture, by region, or even a crazy, aesthetic theme. You might plate various cheeses that all have holes in them. On game day, say if you’re a Princeton fan, you could play off team colors with orange cheeses paired with black beers.

Generating Applause

Your cheese tasting can only be as good as the cheeses. You must find a reliable cheese monger and take the time to explore new styles. Most will happily give you a small taste of cheeses that interest you. Grocery chains may have the best price, but most of these cheeses will be produced by large factories and will typically be tamer in flavor. You want idiosyncratic cheeses from smaller producers that have been handled and sold by cheese experts.

Seek out local cheese producers. Their products haven’t suffered in transport, you can support local agriculture, and save a few dollars. As with craft beer, it is possible for artisan cheese makers to make almost any style they set their mind on. Absolutely first rate cheeses of many classic and emerging styles are now made in America. You just have to find where they’re hiding. Of course, finding treasured cheeses offers value to your guests, who can now purchase good local cheese instead of industrial imitations.

Researching pairings is key to finding the best combinations. Here a flight of mostly goat's milk cheeses are tasted with three different styles of wheat beer: German hefeweizen, Belgian witbier, and American wheat beer.

If holding a professional tasting for a paying audience, you must conduct trial tastings. What people are paying for is not just some cheese and some beer. We’ve probably all been let down by ill-rehearsed food-beverage events. Guests deserve to be entertained, educated, and wowed. Time permitting, trial tastings are even a good idea for a home pairing.

Trial tasting can allow you to discover where the cheese and beer you thought would surely match… simply don’t work. While each is good on its own, together they somehow get metallic or ammoniac or sour. Just as one pale ale differs from the next, cheddar is big universe, from young, bland and rubbery to grassy, nutty, crumbly, minerally, sharp and quixotic.

There is no substitute for knowing your audience. If hosting a casual tasting among friends there’s no need to be formal. Set out the cheeses on a nice wood or stone surface, provide cheese knives, and a little sign with each cheese name, milk variety, and place of origin. You may find that even in the most casual settings your guests will want to jot down their favorites for later, so provide a pen and paper.

In a more commercial environment, make sure you’ve done your homework on each cheese and each beer. Anticipate audience questions and be an authority. Know the manufacturing basics for each cheese. What type of milk? Pasteurized or raw? Special finishing with white mold or washed in beer? What season of the year was it made? Who makes it, a nunnery in the Pas de Calais or an old woman in the Alps or a huge factory in Lille? Understand why this cheese is special. Know why you chose it and rejoice in the complexity and balance of the beer pairing that you have chosen.

And there’s one last thing, that little three-letter word: fun. Any two persons’ tastes will differ as much as two blue cheeses. There is no absolute answer. Approach your cheese and beer pairing with a healthy attitude of discovery and you will excite and inform while the ancient and magical rhythms of cheese and beer do the rest.

Cheers, TPJ.

p.s. If you are in Nebraska, don’t miss the Cheese & Beer – Far & Near tasting. Friday, March 4, 2011, 6 pm at the Derailleur Tap Room in the Bricktop, 1427 O St., Lincoln, NE. Tickets are $45 and on sale now. Here’s the poster for the event and more details on the pairings are found here.

Cheese and Beer ~ Far and Near

It has taken long hours in planning, scheming, and tasting, and now we’re just two weeks away from an awesome event: Cheese and Beer ~ Far and Near.

From the Press Release:

The Derailleur Tap Room at the Bricktop pairs their exclusive craft beer selection with handpicked cheeses from around the world. Cheese and Beer – Far and Near is a guided tasting designed to astound Nebraskans with exciting flavor combinations.

Five substantial portions of cheese with snifters of fine beer will be provided. The fascinating origins of traditional cow, goat, and sheep milk products will be described for cheeses from Nebraska, Massachusetts, England and France. Special ales and lagers from sought-after breweries in the US, Belgium, and Norway will be expertly matched to the cheeses and interesting facts of each beer’s production, ingredients, aromas, and flavors will be given.

The cost is $45.00 per person for the event, expected to cost upwards of $65-70 in larger cities. Tickets go on sale at the Derailleur Tap Room at the Bricktop at 4 pm on Friday, February 18th. Tickets are limited to the first 50 persons and are expected to sell out quickly.

For the past several weeks, Craft Beer Manager Jason McLaughlin, organic cheese maker Krista Dittman, and I have been tasting various cheeses against special beer selections. We’ve been looking not only for solid pairings, but pairings with synergies that release hidden flavors and liberate nuances. If you’ve ever added a few drops of spring water to a single malt whisky, or combined vanilla with lobster, you know what we’re talking about.

As a preview, I thought I’d list the courses in general terms. Maybe as we get closer I’ll provide more specifics, but that might take some prodding!

  • French abbey cheese, pasteurized cow’s milk, lightly washed rind, served with an abbey quadrupel from Belgium.
  • Artisanal chèvre log, blue mold exterior, paired with a Belgian witbier.
  • Rustic Spanish cheese, raw ewe’s milk, quite surprising with a Belgo-IPA and side condiment.
  • ‘Swissy’ farmstead cheese, raw cow’s milk, with a malty, nutty doppelbock.
  • English farmstead cheddar, raw cow’s milk, dances with a resinous American double IPA.

Jason and I will MC the event. He will describe the beer we’ve chosen, after which I’ll outline the cheese and guide the pairing of the two. We also have two special guests: Marty Wells from The Saucy Cook and Krista from Branched Oak Farm.

This is a high energy event that will last about an hour and a half. Come with an appetite and be prepared to be wowed. There will be cheese drama. Yes, that’s what I said cheese drama!

Cheers! TPJ

Chocolate, Cheese & Beer – Recap

It has been too much lately, reading the exploits of my friends who only seem to frolic, never work. My old buddy Rodrigo reportedly has some sort of high-tech job, but all I see on Facebook are videos uploaded from his surfboard-mounted digital movie camera. Another friend, Phil, now living in Oregon goes snowboarding down Mt. Hood when he’s not doing… Come to think of it. What does he do?

Though I have been known to strap on snowshoes, I’m not too keen on drowning in the surf or ending up a crumpled pile of fleshy bones after suffering the effects of gravity. This week I goofed off in my own way. I cooked, I brewed, I ate, I laughed.

I even got in an argument with a drunk guy and called him by a piece of digestive system anatomy… to his face. I’m opinionated, but I rarely share that epithet in mixed company. We made up. He bought me beer. What will our next meeting bring?

It’s Sunday now and I’m basking in the success of being in my own, indefinable way, the champion of un-work.

Here is my nugatory rundown of the week.

  • Monday I ate lunch and contemplated Tuesday.

  • Tuesday was the day for the chocolate and beer. I kept my fingers crossed that chocolates would come from Lincoln’s Chocolatier Blue and they did! The beers were a variable bunch provided by a local distributor. By his own admission, the rep stated he hadn’t much experience with chocolate and beer – and it showed. But the deeper message that was planted in my brain had to do with the biases inherent in distributor-chosen selections. I feel a bitch session coming on that I’ll have to post in my Gripefruit section very soon! However, there were two delicious pairings, both with Weyerbacher beer (Easton, PA):
  1. Belgian-styled quadrupel Quad with the holiday spice chocolate (“You got your apricot in my custard!” “You got your cloves in my peaches!”)
  2. Rum Soaked Currant praline with Weyerbacher Tiny (“Bing, bang, bada bing bing bang.”)

  • Wednesday I brewed my traditional Baltic Porter,  a dark, potent lager that will cold condition towards perfection (what, can’t I aim high?) for a couple of months. Thanks to my new book Yeast (White and Zainasheff, Brewers Publications), my yeast cell counts were (say it like Carl Sagan) in the “billions and billions.” Within six hours of pitching the fermenters were rollicking and spewing stuff that only a homebrewer could love.

  • It was also a good time to save some spent grains from the brewing. I had an idea, actually I thought it to be a revelation, that I could make pumpernickel rye soft pretzels. The trick to using spent grains in bread is to purée them in a blender with some warm water. Otherwise you end up picking coarse grain husks from your teeth. The recipe included stone-ground rye flour, molasses, caraway seeds and a few standard bread ingredients. I won’t post a recipe here, not because the pretzels weren’t good – they were delicious – but because a black pretzel has a rather unappetizing appearance. Judge for yourself…

  • While the infamous pretzel dough was rising I met up with beer maestro Jason to try out a few more of our cheese pairings. We had settled on certain cheeses but were still searching for the specific beers to knock it out of the park. We settled on a date (March 4) and number of tickets to sell (50) and we are sure to sell out early. There is a practical size to a cheese-beer tasting; even this one will have 250 measured portions of cheese, the same number of beers to dispense, plus accouterments. Then everything has to be at the right temperature. I hope we’re getting prep help the day of…
  • Thursday rolled around and there were still pots and pans to clean from beer and pretzel operations. I put off the cheese making to Saturday. But I did stick with the plan to attend a six course beer dinner at a Greek restaurant called The Parthenon. If you read my previous thoughts on beer dinners, you know that I believe it is a good idea to have some moderate strength beers in the mix so you don’t turn into a “pod of beached whales by the fourth or fifth course.” What I failed to estimate were the portions of food. The first course of spice-rubbed chicken drumsticks pressure-cooked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, sitting atop couscous flavored with lemon juice and blanched almonds was huge. What would pass for a chicken tagine entrée in some Moroccan restaurants was more food than an entire upscale beer dinner. By the fifth course, we were slung over the back of our chairs, our arms akimbo and eyes at half mast. Awesome, filling, soul-warming food. Then the soup bowl sized crème brulée, redolent with vanilla seeds. It had the consistency of melting ice cream. Here’s a similar recipe with a discussion on the key ingredient: vanilla bean paste. Oh mercy. Yes, if you’re wondering, we ate the whole thing.
  • Friday, is it Friday yet? Coasting just a bit. I spent most of the day researching an article for All About Beer magazine. Something about ancient beers and their cultural and ceremonial importance. Now, that is work. Sorry. Didn’t mean to mention the “w” word. I was trying to convince you that I am really just a professional goof-off. Back to being indolent… I made a batch of cider. Although I follow my own recipe, I’m going to let you in on a guilty little secret

  • Saturday – the Day of the Satur. I pause to imagine I know what a Satur is… some sort of man-beast mythic creature. Perhaps the body of a cow, a chalky green hide of lizard scales, angel wings, and man’s head that looks like Wallace. Or maybe I was channeling my inner cheese god. This day was for blue cow’s milk cheese in the British tradition, i.e. Stilton.

  • Saturday night it snowed again. A fair dose. After an hour and forty minutes of shoveling against the drifting snow, icicles on my eyebrows, I returned to the warm interior. No hot chocolate tonight. I have invented a new hot toddy that appeals to my woodland upbringing, my Scottish heritage, and, well, a desire to consume alcohol. I call my drink Woodsman’s Fly Dope because of its memorable aroma. First I make a big mug of strong tea using Lapsang Souchong tea. The tea has a huge pine/juniper smoke aroma and flavor. It brews a deep rust-colored tea with substantial body. So much body, in fact, that a wee dram of Scotch whisky is needed to lighten it up just a bit. The smoked tea and the peaty Scotch merge. Wisps of campfire memories wend their way through your skull like the figments they represent. Sleep will come, and dreams will weave my week into one confusing mural.

So, Rodrigo and Phil, right back atcha!

Cheers, TPJ.

Chocolate, Cheese & Beer – What a Week!

What a Bohemian week it will be… I’m reminded just how cool Lincoln-town really is.

Thankfully a homebrewing homie turned me on to the Nebraska Beer Blog, maintained by a guy named Nick Spies. He keeps up on all the area events, of which there are many. I’m already in training for Omaha’s Extreme Beer Fest coming up next month.

Tonight I’ll be at one of the area’s best package stores, The Still, for a chocolate and beer tasting. It remains to be seen what beers and what chocolate. The distributor conducting the tasting is from Omaha, so the chocolates may not be coming from Lincoln’s newest treasure: Chocolatier Blue. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. CB’s chocolates rely on Italian dark chocolate and fresh, local fillings from organic cream to roasted filberts to pears and bay leaf… world class pralines and I can ride my bike there!

Exceptional cream is blended with organic butter and 70% dark chocolate for a rich ganache then encased with a dark chocolate shell. (Courtesy: Chocolatier Blue)

Then tomorrow, after an early start on brewing (I’m cooking up a baltic porter by double decoction), I’ll be heading out to Bricktop. Bricktop is a dance club at night, run by a cool guy who escaped from Patchogue, Long Island.

Bricktop owner Dave loves 80s music, beer, girls, and of course, the Huskers.

In the early evenings, before the doom-tah-doom-tah-doom-tah starts, the place is called the Derailleur Tap Room and caters to beer connoisseurs. DTR’s beer master of ceremonies, Jason McLaughlin, and I are planning a cheese-beer pairing event in the near future. We’re going over a few of the pairings with beer fresh from the taps.

I’ve been studiously developing pairings with imported cheeses sourced from The Saucy Cook and some local gems from nearby creamery Branched Oak Farm. Beer can pair magnificently with cheese – uh – much of the time. It is not as forgiving as some beer apostles may lead you to believe, however. Some of my attempts to date have brought out a stark metallic note in the cheese or accentuated oxidation in the beer. But many of the pairings exhibit dramatic synergies that release hidden flavors in both the beer and the cheese. Stay tuned for the specific pairings!

One cheese I know we will feature is this lovely sheep's milk cheese from the French side of the Pyrénées: Ossau-Iraty. Sweet, nutty, semi-hard with slight vesicles.

Thursday morning I’ll be making cheese – this time an enriched cow’s milk blue. I’m shooting for something like Saint Agur. Mine will be whole, vat pasteurized cow’s milk with some whole cream added. The blue mold (Penicillium roqueforti) is introduced during the acidification (the first step in cheese making) and will take off after the finished cheese is pierced with a sterile pick and matures for two to four months in a cool conditioning room.

The "melts-in-your-mouth" enriched cow's milk blue from france - Saint Agur. (Source: http://www.relishcaterers.co.uk)

Then in the evening I’ll be attending a six-course beer dinner at the area’s renowned Greek restaurant, The Parthenon. Thankfully we will not have to choke down salty, husky Greek beer. I look forward to meeting whoever masterminded this dinner because they have had the good sense not to choose a lineup of big beers. All too often, when strong beers are served at this sort of thing I have seen a group otherwise eager beer lovers turned into a pod of beached whales by the fourth or fifth course. Beers of modest strength with a good depth of flavor are what you need. That’s why I’m looking forward to the main course: grilled leg of lamb with ancho chile marinade and saffron orzo, served with Sprecher Black Bavarian-styled lager.

For Friday? I don’t know, might make a cider. Or if my venison connection comes in, it could be venison sausage with juniper and allspice.

Cheers! TPJ

Last Year’s Highlights – Everyone is Doing It!

It’s true, everyone is doing it, but as I looked through my photo folders a smile crept across my face. So, here, with little to no narrative, are some of my happiest moments in the past year.

Chillin' with Nevada friends - JD on his game: Asian beef skewers on the smoker.

Drinking my last bottle of the extinct Roman Dobbelen Bruinen from 1996. It was right there with coffee and bitter chocolate, caramel, and a powdery, slightly lactic finish. Superbe.

Discovering cool beer fests with cool people, like Big Dog's Peace, Love, and Hoppiness fest.

Fried green tomatoes. 'Nuff said.

Sitting beside Charlie Papazian when his phone rang in a room full of beer judges. That would be a no-no.

Watching someone taste her first ever malted milk shake in an old school diner.

Chocolate...

Attending cool beer dinners, like this "sibling rivalry" event with Janet and Peter Egleston, owners of the Northampton Brewery and Portsmouth / Smuttynose Brewing, respectively.

Dining in Chicago during the World Beer Cup. Fried egg on arctic char hmmm...

Watching Miranda eat my wine grapes.

No resolutions except this one – live, love, and laugh in 2011. Cheers, TPJ.

Lobster off the Hook

Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces

Here it is, the massive, freaky effort of molecular gastronomy to be made by the adventurous chef or dreamed about by armchair cooks. Molecular gastronomy? you wonder.

Well, to be clear, the meaning of this term has mutated significantly in the 20 years since its introduction. It can mean anything from the use of industrial gels to create new textures to the abandonment of classical cooking techniques to using biochemistry to explain or predict interesting aroma synergies between disparate foods.

I like Harold McGee‘s definition the best. He calls molecular gastronomy the scientific study of deliciousness. McGee, along with Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas (who ran a SF Bay-area cooking school) and Nicholas Kurti (an Oxford physicist with a passion for cooking), are generally considered the founders of the movement. They presented their first workshop in Erice, Sicily in 1992.

It is well-known that lobster and vanilla are sympathetic flavors. Blueberry and vanilla also work well together. As it so happens, on a desert hike long, long ago, the idea popped into my head that all three could be combined in the same dish. Sort of the mathematical distributive property applied to flavors. But it took me until this year to accomplish the dish.

From the perspective of molecular gastronomy, foods that complement each other often contain similar aroma and flavor compounds. Blueberry’s fruitiness comes from esters like 3-isopropyl-butyrate and its woodsy note from benzaldehyde. Vanillin, the principal flavor compound in vanilla beans, is 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde. Real vanilla carries with it anther 170 flavor compounds, many of which are also esters. Our body detects similar chemical structures in receptors specific for certain molecular configurations. You can read a primer here.

The real question is why do vanilla and lobster pair well. A study of lobster tail meat by gas chromatography identified 47 aroma/flavor compounds. Among the major constituents were 3-methylbutanal (chocolate, malty) and 2,3-butanedione (buttery). You can see that these are vanilla-compatible flavors.

Due to the complexities of this recipe, I ask your indulgence in not writing out the recipes for all the components and sauces. Instead, I’d rather describe the dish to you, show you a picture, and call it quits for today. Okay?

Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces

Since one of the sauces is like a bisque made from the lobster carcass, you have to poach the lobster first, reserving the shelled meat for the finish. There were plenty of good one to two-pound lobbies available. After poaching, I cooled the lobster, removed the claw, thigh (?), and tail meat, and kept it away from Dave’s cats.

The shell and lesser legs were broken up and a salmony-colored sauce was prepared with shallots, butter, saffron, a tomato, a shot of cognac, cream, tarragon, salt and crushed white pepper. The sauce was sieved and kept warm for assembly.

The second sauce was for dressing the asparagus spears. It was a reduction of blueberries and pinot noir with some balsamic vinegar added. The third sauce was based on a beurre blanc and had to be made right at the end.

Next I put together the blueberry vanilla ravioli. Most people will opt for using wonton wrappers, but if you have an Atlas pasta machine as I do, you really should roll your own. The filling was equal parts of mascarpone (sweet Italian-style cream cheese) and ricotta. I found a brand of ricotta – Calabro – with no extra additives and it was worth the few extra cents! Supple and buttery like my homemade ricotta. To this I added an egg yolk, the seeds scraped from a Tahitian vanilla bean, and a pinch each of salt and white pepper. After dispensing the mixture onto the pasta dough I added a fingerful of wild blueberries from Maine. The reserved egg white helped stick the top and bottom layers of pasta together.

Pulling it all together. I boiled water for the ravioli and the asparagus. While those were coming up to heat I began the third sauce, a butter sauce called beurre nantais after the French city of Nantes. White wine (I used the delicious Montevina sauvignon blanc) and white wine vinegar are reduced with shallots until you are left with a sticky, acidic mess. A couple tablespoons of cream are stirred in just before it dries out. Finally butter, lots of it, is whisked in gradually. The result is a luscious off-white, airy sauce. It must be served right away.

Dropping the ravioli and asparagus into their respective water, I plated onto warmed plates by first making a spider web with the lobster sauce and the beurre nantais. The asparagus was laid out like spokes radiating from the center of the plate and the ravioli arranged on top, in the center. The reserved lobster meat, momentarily reheated in a little melted butter, was placed onto the ravioli and the blueberry reduction sauce drizzled around and over the asparagus tips. A few stray blueberries and chopped tarragon completed the presentation.

Experiments in the science of deliciousness.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes 2010 – Final Tally

  • No. 7 – Bacalao con Patates Dulces (Spanish-American salt cod and sweet potato casserole), best served with a hoppy American ale
  • No. 6 – Moules à la Normande (French-style steamed mussels with creamy bleu cheese finish), serve with a semi-sweet hard cider (check out Farnum Hill).
  • No. 5 – Ceviché Mixto (Peruvian cold seafood salad with chilis and citrus juice), served with a cold pilsner or the Classic Cocktail: the Pisco Sour.
  • No. 4 – Fried Smelts (Italian, with a mushroom risotto and fennel-burdock side salad), served with an Italian saison-styled beer.
  • No. 3 – PBR and Caviar (Russian-White Trash Fusion) Dine like a rock star, served with ice-cold cheap beer.
  • No. 2 – Cedar Plank Salmon (Nouvelle Native American) First, cut down a cedar tree…
  • No. 1 – Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces – A massive, freaky effort to be made by the adventurous chef or dreamed about by armchair cooks.

Cheers and Happy Holidays! TPJ

[Ed. TPJ has been under the weather, literally and figuratively – hence the delay. The dish was prepared before Christmas, in case it matters. Many thanks to Neighbor Dave for kitchen privileges and reader BR for suggesting the Seven Fishes thread.]

Cedar Plank Salmon with Chanterelles

Eastern Red Cedar - handsome, fragrant wood - killer of apple trees. (Source: botit.botany.wisc.edu)

While immersed in recipe selection for my Feast of the Seven Fishes I had the opportunity to cut down three “cedar” trees (Juniperus virginiana) for my neighbor Deb. The trees provided me with some aromatic firewood for future seasons. Felling them also planted the seed for the enclosed recipe, number 6 out of 7 in my countdown for holiday season fish dishes.

The trees had been planted there in the 1960s by Barnacle Bob, the former owner, and were now tall enough to block much of the light on that side of Deb’s house. Old crusty told me a cockamamie tale about how he “rescued” these three trees from NYC’s Central Park. Maybe he did, maybe not. Fact remains, this locale is within the natural range of the specie, and they could well have arrived by most any other natural means.

I was delighted to cut these trees down, since they harbor an apple-damaging blight called cedar-apple rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae) and are dangerously close to my orchard. In the springtime, when the apples are leafing out, spores from growths on the cedar tree travel to nearby apples trees and disturb both leaf development and later, the fruit. Since I continue against all odds to attempt an organic orchard, this is one of the more bizarre steps I’ve yet to take.

As I suspected, when I began cutting into the wood, I noticed its perfumed, purple-stained heartwood. This was the wood made into hope chests and closets. It’s commonly called Eastern Red Cedar, but really a juniper. It was smelling that fragrant wood that caused plank salmon to fall on my conscious thoughts. I’ve often cooked this way, usually on a barbecue and usually with riven sheets of Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) that have been first soaked in water.

Cooking salmon on planks combines grilling and smoking techniques. (Source: greatlakesgrilling.com)

Some say it is likely that plank cooking was in use by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest long before colonists arrived. Author Hilary Stewart reports how some coastal tribes called themselves “people of the cedars.” Their entire culture revolved around the myriad uses of the tree. Others contend that the technique is Scandinavian in origin. To me, it doesn’t seem worth arguing; many cultures would have used similar methods when there was an absence of pottery or metal cookery. In earlier times, wood smoke could add flavor when there were few imported spices or herbs.

Of course those earlier peoples ate salmon. I imagine that a fish from the Pacific Northwest would be most appropriate and I am particularly fond of sockeye. It’s flesh is a deep red-orange tone with the finest grain and texture of any salmon. It possesses an earthy, piny note that works well with cedar.

I prefer salmon from a sustainable wild fishery to avoid perpetuating the pesticides and dyes commonly used in “grocery store salmon.” Wild salmon fisheries are threatened by a range of issues, including pollution from cities and riverside fish farms, over-harvesting, and migration-interrupting dams. The ethical choice of “what’s for dinner?” is not without consequence. The most vocal proponent of restoring salmon waters in the lower 48 states is Save Our Wild Salmon, and I encourage you to see what they’re up to. This recent video release from Skip Armstrong sums up one of the many watersheds being contested. Ultimately I end up purchasing far less salmon than my love for it would otherwise dictate.

As for the other ingredients, you will see that there is an undertone of pine-scented ingredients. I roasted the potatoes with sage, sautéed the squash with thyme, and used rosemary in the balsamic reduction. I served the Scots pine ale Alba to top off my homage to an evergreen forest.

A feast of simple foods infused with various evergreen aromas.

Cedar Plank Salmon with Chanterelles

Ingredients for Two

Time to Prepare: 60 min

  • a cedar plank 4×8 in, minimum (you may have to cut down a cedar tree)
  • 10-12 oz salmon fillet
  • 1 teas olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/2 teas shallots, minced
  • salt and white pepper
  • 2/3 c high quality balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 c pomegranate juice
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 spring fresh rosemary
  • 3 medium red potatoes
  • 2 teas olive oil
  • 6 leaves fresh sage
  • salt and black pepper
  • 3 oz fresh chanterelle mushrooms
  • 1 teas butter
  • 1 small zucchini
  • 1 small summer (yellow) squash
  • 1 teas butter
  • 1 spring fresh thyme
  • salt and black pepper

Preparation

If the cedar plank is dry, soak in lightly salted water for 30 minutes. Place the salmon skin side down onto the plank, coat lightly with olive oil, and season with garlic, shallot, salt & pepper. Set aside in a cool place.

In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, juice, sugar, garlic, and rosemary. Bring to a low boil then lower the heat to slowly reduce. While this is taking on the consistency of honey, carry on with other preparations.

In just a few minutes of cooking the cedar aromas penetrate the salmon and the fish cooks to a delicate state.

Slice the red potatoes about 1/4 inch thick with the skins on. Brush with oil and season with sage, salt & pepper. Arrange in a shallow pan and roast in the oven at 450 deg for about 10 minutes, turning once. When you open the door to turn the potatoes, place the entire plank and salmon into the oven. While these two items are finishing you have about five minutes for the veggies.

Set two small skillets on the heat. In one cook the squash in a tad of butter, seasoning with thyme, salt & pepper. The squash can be cut into 1/4 inch thick rounds or into sticks. In the other you will simply cook the chanterelles in a little butter. Cook the mushrooms al dente, removing them before they wither and go flat.

Onto warmed plates arrange the sliced potatoes. Remove the salmon from the plank and place a portion onto the potatoes. Plate the squash and chanterelles beside the potato/salmon, then drizzle the balsamic reduction around the plate and onto the salmon and potatoes. Serve with a piny, resinous beer like Alba, Racer 5 IPA, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, or most any beer from Southern California’s Green Flash Brewing Company. Wine drinkers can go with the surprising Brut Rosé from Roederer Estate (thanks Otto for the suggestion), or a pinot noir from Oregon’s southwest corner.

The Countdown

So far:

  • No. 7 – Bacalao con Patates Dulces (Spanish-American salt cod and sweet potato casserole), best served with a hoppy American ale
  • No. 6 – Moules à la Normande (French-style steamed mussels with creamy bleu cheese finish), serve with a semi-sweet hard cider (check out Farnum Hill).
  • No. 5 – Ceviché Mixto (Peruvian cold seafood salad with chilis and citrus juice), served with a cold pilsner or the Classic Cocktail: the Pisco Sour.
  • No. 4 – Fried Smelts (Italian, with a mushroom risotto and fennel-burdock side salad), served with an Italian saison-styled beer.
  • No. 3 – PBR and Caviar (Russian-White Trash Fusion) Dine like a rock star, served with ice-cold cheap beer.
  • No. 2 – Cedar Plank Salmon – (Nouvelle Native American) First, cut down a cedar tree…

Coming soon:

  • No. 1 – Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces – A massive, freaky effort to be made by the adventurous chef or dreamed about by armchair cooks.

Life is to be enjoyed and enjoyment is all the more savory if toil is required! TPJ

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