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

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 – 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

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

PBR and Caviar

Snack out like a rock star with affordable and authentic caviar. Wash it down with a can of beer!

It’s time for recipe number 3 of 7 in my countdown for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. If you’re checking your calendar you’ll realize that we still need two more recipes by Christmas. I will deliver on that, but it was challenging to find sustainably harvested sturgeon caviar for this dish.

Caviar (salted fish roe) is best served entirely by itself or with simple accompaniments that soften the saltiness without overshadowing the caviar taste. These sides can include blinis (small pancakes) or toast points, sour cream, and seived, hard-cooked egg. Some people go as far as to include capers, cornichons, lemon, red onion, pepper or herbs. The choice is yours, but be forewarned about criticism from caviar snobs. In truth, accompaniments of all sorts have been served with caviar for centuries.

Caviar’s flavor can range from subtly fishy to buttery or nutty, herbal, iodiney, and in some cases, very fishy. The palate development can be short or long. It is always a bit salty, although modern producers have managed to get the salt down below 3.5 percent. For the amount you will consume, this is less total salt than in many American meals.

Caviar also has a texture that contradicts its apparent soft look. Smaller grains have an almost poppy seed quality, while the large salmon roe are more surprising. You will experience how the roe explodes in the mouth releasing its nuanced flavors. Suffice to say, caviar may not be to everyone’s liking, but those who like it generally look forward to their next chance to taste it. And there may be another reason to eat caviar. As Brillat-Savarin wrote in his Physiologie du Gout:

…unanimous observations have demonstrated that it acts strongly on genetics, and awakens in both sexes the instinct of reproduction.

The shovelnose sturgeon, rebranded as the more appetizing hackelback sturgeon, plies the waters of the Mississippi River. Hackelback is an affordable caviar that compares favorably with Russian Sevruga. (Source: http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/)

What might be called “true” or “authentic” caviar is obtained exclusively from the sturgeon, among which there are many species. Generally the larger and lighter in color the grains, the more highly valued the caviar. However with salmonid roe (derived from various salmon or trout species) the rule is reversed, whereas the darker, smaller eggs are considered higher in quality.

A third group of fish roe, that of the lumpfish, is more of a novelty and better suited as a garnish, if you even purchase it at all. It is the cheapest of all roe and is often dyed into deep colors and may have preservatives added.

Current perceptions of caviar derive from a complicated history of royal families, issues of rarity among certain types, and taste preferences of disparate cultures. Hanging on to these traditions is one reason that sturgeons in the wild are on endangered species lists around the globe. So a new caviar ethic is in order, one in which you know where your caviar originated, i.e., that it came from a sustainable fishery (nowadays often a fish farm).

Considering that caviar was once so common it was served in Colonial American taverns instead of pretzels or peanuts, it seems fitting to pair it today with the quintessential blue collar beer: Pabst Blue Ribbon – PBR. This notion should agree even with those who hold conservative views about what to drink with caviar, seeing as ice cold vodka or frosty Champagne are traditional. I’ve simply substituted another very cold, bland drink. Do you like the irony of this suggestion as much as I do?

PBR and Caviar

Ingredients for Four

Time to Prepare: 30 min

  • 4 slices firm white bread
  • 2 tbls sour cream
  • 1 oz caviar (Hackelback Sturgeon,$30 at Whole Foods)
  • 1 hard-cooked egg, shelled and pushed through a sieve
  • 2 teas chopped chives
  • 4 cans cheap American lager packed in an ice bath

Preparation

Remove the caviar from the fridge, allowing it to warm up while making the toast. Toast the bread to medium toast, cut off the crusts, and cut each into four triangular toast-ettes. Place the sieved egg in the middle of the plate. Arrange the toast around the egg. Carefully place a dollop of sour cream on each piece of toast. The amount you want is about 3/4 teaspoon and should be equal to the amount of caviar you will place on top. Using a slim, non-metallic implement (I used the handle of a plastic spoon), place a wad of caviar on each bit of sour cream. The eggs stick together pretty well, so this is easier than it sounds. Sprinkle the chopped chives around the edge of the plate. Provide a knife for people to place egg on their morsel, if they so choose.

Serve immediately with very cold bland beer!

Get it on with caviar this Holiday season.

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.

On deck:

  • 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.

More coming at you! TPJ

Fried Smelts with Risotto and Other Surprises

(Source: lotussutra.wordpress.com)

As promised, the recipes for the Feast of the Seven Fishes are getting more and more ‘out there.’ I make no apologies. This is a lengthy post and requires a cook with more hands than Shiva. There will be more fusion and more difficulty from here on out. Be an armchair cook or pony up, source the ingredients, and “make it so Number One.”

This recipe is number 4 in our countdown from 7. At the outset I will say that fried smelts are a traditional element in the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Traditional is great, but smelts can nevertheless be difficult to find, for of course they must be fresh, silvery, lithe and odorless. But fortune smiled and I found them in a diminutive fish restaurant cum market in West Brattleboro, VT – a place called Gillies.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought some unpopular product from a fish counter and have had the proprietor eye me askance, for just a moment, then a smile emerges, then the animated conversation about what’s for dinner. This is what I call connecting. It is a genuine human feeling that there is a commonality between you and another human being. Let’s just say I feel blessed when these moments occur.

Lithe and luminous - fresh smelts ready for action! (Source: italianhandful.wordpress.com)

And so, this jolly, round man weighed up my smelts for all of a couple dollars. He said “this time of year…” knowing that only a phrase meant a paragraph. I said “fried up with mushroom risotto.” His wife, I guess, trundled in and said “we serve ’em at the restaurant with chips.” I’m thinking she meant fries, but there was no English accent. I bounded out into a bolt of sun that broke through the gray sky of the day.

There is so much to write about smelts. Truly. But not here. I already have an entire essay on smelts that I hope to use in the introduction of my first cookbook. Indeed I will likely draw further conclusions from this codex. My late-in-life discovery of the marvel of smelts is a personal idiom, one about the importance of trying new things, eschewing prejudice. I encourage you to find your own smelts, or beef tongue, or cross-dressing, or fascination with crochet. We expand ourselves by taking small bites out of fear.

Dredge in flour, fry ’em, toss ’em on a pile of spinach. No problem. But that’s not my plan. No, now I must find my other difficult treasures: the porcinis (Boletus sp.), Arborio rice, the fennel bulb, and whatever else weaves its way into my fascination. I make myself laugh… it is a wicked web we weave… when a complicated dinner we conceive. Even more so, because pairing a beer with fried fish and fries is simple. With this recipe I’m forcing myself to find an all-rounder that will match the fish, the earthy savoriness, the acidity of lemon and the sulfur of Brussels sprouts.

Fried Smelts with Earth Vegetables, etc., etc.

Ingredients for Four

Time to Prepare: 36 hours     –     Time to Eat: 10 minutes

Porcini Risotto

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1-1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • 3/4 cup onions, chopped
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • 3 cups homemade beef stock with marrow, see note
  • pinch saffron threads, crushed
  • 1/2 teas marjoram, dried
  • 1/4 cup pecorino romano cheese, finely grated
  • salt and fresh black pepper to taste

Note on beef stock: Sear 1-1/2 lb beef shank on all sides in 2 tbsp olive oil. Add 12 oz of low bitterness brown ale or porter and 2 tbsp barbecue sauce. Top up with 4-6 cups water and braise covered for several hours until everything falls apart. Cool enough to handle. Remove the shank bone, meat and any un-rendered fat, but push the marrow back into the liquid. Mash the marrow into the stock. Chill to solidify the fat, then discard the fat. Heat the stock to a low boil, skimming if required, and reduce to 3 cups. Keep warm for use in risotto. Note that for purists, the use of meat or dairy in a Feast of the Seven Fishes dish is forbidden.

Preparation of the Risotto

The risotto recipe is in a style called Milanese and this version is adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Rosso & Lukins (Workman, 1989).

In a small pan, heat the wine to boiling, add the dried mushrooms, then remove from the heat. In a heavy, straight-sided pot or cooktop-safe casserole heat the oil, add onions until soft, 5 minutes, then stir in rice for another 3 minutes. Adjust heat to medium-low.

With continuous stirring add 1/2 cup of the warm stock. When that liquid is absorbed, repeat with another bit of stock. You will be stirring gently like this for the next 30 minutes – do not let the rice sit in a pool of liquid. The classic way to know when you’re ready for more liquid is when the bottom of the pot comes into view during stirring. When half the stock has been added, switch to adding the warm wine-mushroom liquid. Stir in the crushed saffron and marjoram. Continue with the wine until all used, then finish with the stock. Taste for doneness. You want al dente with no pithy interior to the rice. A small amount of warm water can be added if you need to keep going. Milanese risotto should be creamy, but not runny, whereas risotto from southern Italy tends to be soupier.

Stir in the cheese and salt and pepper, using caution with the salt because of the saltiness of the cheese. Cover the dish and keep lukewarm until plating.

Fennel-Burdock Dice with Brussels Sprouts

  • 2 tbsp finely, uniformly diced burdock root (Jap: gobo), see note.
  • 1 teas whole annato seeds
  • 1/4 cup purified water, acidulated with a splash of lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/4 cup finely, uniformly diced fennel bulb, white part only
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 cup brussels sprouts
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • salt and fresh black pepper to taste

Notes on burdock root. If unavailable you may substitute with parsnip and/or celeriac (celery root), but skip the annato infusion and add to the sauté with the fennel. Burdock (Arctium lappa) is a medicinal root that looks something like salsify, or, if you’ve never seen that, then like a three foot long brown, anemic carrot. It is most commonly used in sushi where the baby roots are pickled in orange dye and MSG – ick! It has a smokey, woodsy, faintly artichoke taste that is unique – yum! My preparation is designed to achieve the same thing without the unnatural additives. (Also, contrary to popular myth, annato is not just a colorant – crush some and smell for yourself.) This side dish embodies the three colors of the Italian flag, with the burdock/annato supplying the red. Warning: burdock is a stimulant that has a caffeine-like effect. Even handling it before bed last night kept me up most of the night! Who needs Red Bull?

Preparation of the Vegetables

Do not peel burdock, rather scrape the skin off with the edge of a paring knife or use a 3M pad. Cut into uniform fine dice (3 mm) and immediately submerge in the acidulated water to avoid discoloration. Grind the annato seeds in a mortar until you achieve an oily pigment. Now you’re ready to paint the Sistine Chapel. No, now add this to the burdock and liquid allowing same to sit in the fridge overnight.

Now, to get busy, sauté just the burdock (reserving the red liquid) in the olive oil over medium heat for 10 minutes, gradually adding the red liquid. Cook until the liquid is absorbed and the burdock is soft enough to eat. It is a fibrous root so let’s leave it with a little of that natural texture. Set aside.

In a clean pan, separate from the burdock, melt the butter and sauté the fennel until al dente. Meanwhile, in a small steamer, steam the Brussels sprouts for about 6 minutes, until the tip of a knife penetrates, but they are not mushy. Toss the Brussels sprouts into the fennel, then add the lemon juice, salt & pepper. At the last moment, stir in the reserved burdock and immediately plate beside the risotto, arranging to your heart’s content.

Fried Smelts

  • 1.5 lbs fresh, cleaned, beheaded smelts
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • salt & pepper to suit your taste
  • juice of 1 lemon

Final Assembly

Begin by heating the oil in a broad pan until it shimmers. Keep the temperature steady. Pat dry the smelts and check for things that might have been missed during evisceration. Coat the smelts with lemon juice, then dredge in the flour to which you’ve added the salt and pepper. This can be done in a baggie, Shake-n-Bake style. Fry the smelts in an uncrowded single layer in the pan for about 3 minutes per side.

Plate the smelts onto a mound of risotto. The burdock-fennel-brussels sprouts mix goes beside. Garish with a lemon wedge and some fresh, flat-leafed parsley. Due to the range of oily, nutty, woodsy, sulfury, acidic flavors, you are going to want a beer that is equally complex. I recommend the Italian beer Genziana, brewed in the style of a Belgian farmhouse ale. It employs gentian root (Gentiana lutea), the bitter and medicinal element in Angostura Bitters, and has a honeyish sweetness and flowery hop aroma backed by yeast-driven depth and a lingering bitterness. I found it to be excellent with this dinner. May you and your army of sous chefs enjoy! TPJ

Dinner is served!

p.s. Tasting notes for beers paired with this dinner follow.

Some beers that paired credibly with this dish.

  • Saison du Buff (collaboration between Stone, Dogfish, and Victory), 6.8%
    • beer itself: bitter, yeast aromatics, vulcanized rubber/sulfur, herbaceous
    • popped out fresh vegetable notes from the brussels sprouts et al, collaborated with the risotto, a little slick with the fried fish
  • Raison D’Être (Dogfish Head, DE), 8%
    • the beer: malty & sugary, cedar pencil shavings, warming, low yeast factors
    • really matched the risotto, softened the vegetables, and enhanced earthiness from the fish; a happy union, if not very surprising or synergistic
  • Maudite (Unibroue, QE, Canada), 8%
    • the beer: pronounced pepperiness, dried fruit, meaty yeast
    • passable but not exceptional, too much spice and alcohol warmth
  • Prima Pils (Victory Brewing, PA)
    • bright flor-herbal hop aroma, light grainy malt, crisp sweet/bitter finish
    • held up very well with all flavors and popped up the lemon flavors

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.

On deck:

  • No. 3 – PBR and Caviar – (Russian-White Trash Fusion) Dine like a rock star, served with ice-cold cheap beer.

We’re more than halfway there – How’s your Christmas shopping going? TPJ

Ceviché Mixto – Raw yet Refined

Number 5 in our countdown in the Feast of the Seven Fishes, though this dish alone could have seven fishes in it! Ceviché, cebiche, escabeche and similar terms refer to a seafood salad made with mostly or entirely raw seafood pickled in lime juice. It is typically served as a first course, the acid and spice jump-starting digestion.

As with many food terms the etymology is disputed. I prefer to accept that the term derives from siwichi, the Quechua name for the dish. After all, it most likely originated in the Andes where this language predominates.

Hot and fruity, the ají amarillo chili is a key Peruvian ingredient. (Source: laperuanavegana.wordpress.com)

Years back I was dining in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. Dinner was at a Peruvian restaurant named Machu Picchu. It was one of those dinners that you never forget – it forms an immovable stepping stone in your life experience.

There they served three versions of the dish. Opting for the ‘mixto’ I was served a heaping portion of spicy, citrusy wonderfulness with sea bass, octopus, and probably abalone. The traditional piquancy in this dish comes from the ají amarillo chili and tiny sour limes called limónes verdes, or more commonly, simply limónes. Many dictionaries will tell you this term means ‘lemon,’ but in South America is refers to a tart green fruit that looks a Key lime, but is tart as a lemon. I’ll provide you with an alternative on case you can’t find true limónes.

An aternative for limónes (left) is a mixture of lime, lemon, and Valencia orange (right).

Alas, unable to find several of the traditional ingredients I have persevered to create a recipe with available foods that I think captures the delight of this dish.

I am also not immune to the idea the certain foods, like abalone, and to a lesser degree octopus, are not sustainable seafood products. You can check out recommendations from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

Ceviché Mixto

Ingredients for 4 Servings

  • 2 pounds of fresh seafood (not counting shell weight), could include: firm white sea fish, salmon, shrimp, calamari, octopus, scallops, or other bivalves such as mussels or clams
  • juice of 12 limónes verdes, or substitute, as follows:
    • juice of 2 regular limes
    • juice of 1 lemon
    • juice of 1 Valencia orange
  • 4 ají amarillo chilis, substitute 2 habaneros
  • 4 serrano chilis, or add more!
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 onion, slivered into very thin rings
  • salt and cayenne pepper, to taste
  • 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • leaf lettuce or shredded cabbage garnish

After par-cooking, sea scallops can be sliced into two "coins," then again to make "half moons."

Preparation

You will improve the texture of the dish by par-cooking the shellfish or octopus. For sea scallops (the large ones), heat in butter for 2 minutes per side, remove, cool, and quarter. For clams or mussels, steam in their shell for 4 minutes, cool and shell them. For octopus, poach in boiling water until firm and opaque, about 2 minutes. For salmon or white fish, such as sea bass, swordfish, shark, or red snapper, simply check for bones and dice raw. Cut any par-cooked items into similar sized dice, except for mussels or clams, which you will keep whole. Keep cool while preparing the dressing.

Make the dressing by squeezing juice from the fruit and removing any seeds. Toss in the chilis, finely chopped, the garlic and the onion. Allow to meld for a minute, then taste for piquancy. Add a little salt and cayenne, stir, then try again until dressing borders on being too salty and too hot for your taste. This will be just right once the fish is added.

When you are about 15-20 minutes from serving the dish, combine the seafood with the dressing. Add the chopped cilantro and toss gently to coat everything. Keep cool until plating in a wide glass or a plate. Slice the avocado and dredge in the remaining dressing. Place lettuce and avocado around salad. Dig in! A dish like this will go well with a cold pilsner that has some hop character, including Tecate or Heineken, Singha, or your go-to German pils. You might also try the national cocktail of Peru, the Pisco Sour. ¡Salud¡ TPJ

Ceviché Mixto con Chili Habanero.

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.

On deck:

  • No. 4 – Fried Smelts – providing I can find them (Italian, with a mushroom risotto and fennel side salad), served with an Italian saison-styled beer.

Thanks for following along – more soon. TPJ


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