Monday, July 29, 2013

Awesome Muscles - California style.

I didn’t always like muscles.  For some reason, up until maybe six or seven years ago, I didn’t ever think of ordering them in restaurants and I certainly didn’t know how to cook them.  Then one day I couldn’t get enough.  I remember sitting in a restaurant in Paris, telling my husband that I want to eat muscles until I never want to look at them again, and since my wish was his command, he kept ordering and ordering and ordering until we started getting funny looks from the waiters. They came in cast iron cauldrons, fragrant with white wine and herbs, with huge charred croutons to soup up the juice.  Pure happiness under the heavy lid…   Fast forward to my recent trip to California and it was an entirely different kind of a dish.  Spicy with homemade sausage, heavy on the charred pepper, a bit sweet and fragrant from the spices, a completely different preparation, but still happiness on the plate. 
When I eat something I love, I immediately set to recreate it at home.  The memory of the taste will haunt me until the recipe is figured out, mastered and safely tucked into my file.  This is the best muscles I ever made and as close as I could get to the Californian version without kidnapping the chef.
 Spicy chorizo muscles
4 lbs of muscles scrubbed and de-bearded
1.5 cups of fresh chorizo ( see my recipe here.)  You can use the pre-cooked kind, just make sure to take off the sausage casing before chopping
2 tbs olive oil
2 cups of dry white wine
3 cups of chicken stock
1 large carrot shredded
1 medium Spanish onion shredded
2 celery stalks shredded
1 red bell pepper shredded
1 roasted red pepper shredded
5 garlic cloves minced
0.5 tbs of smoked paprika
2 tbs of unsalted butter
Chopped parsley or Basil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Thick slices of charred country bread to serve (see Note)
Note:  1) You may want to spread the bread olive oil and minced garlic mixture before toasting or grilling.
2) You need a large pan for this, big enough to fit all your muscles and allow you to stir them from the bottom up in the sauce.  I use a turkey roaster as it also has a lid.

In a large pan, heat the olive oil.  Brown the sausage until crispy.  Add the carrot, celery and garlic and sauté on medium-low heat for one minute.  Add all the peppers and sauté the vegetable and sausage mixture for another 4-5 minutes.  Add smoked paprika, salt and pepper and white wine.  Allow the wine to cook out for a few minutes, and then add the stock.  Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce to a simmer, cover and let it cook for 10 minutes.  Adjust salt and pepper seasoning before adding the muscles.  Once you add all the muscles, cook them covered, stirring occasionally so that they cook evenly – 5-6 minutes or until the muscles just open.  When most muscles have opened, turn off the heat, stir in butter and herbs, cover and let stand for 2 minutes.  Stir muscles one more time before serving with thick slices of toasted bread.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Travels and tastes - California's wine country ( part 2)

The next day, determined to stay in down to earth Sonoma and to visit some of the small family wineries, we set out early.  It was hot the previous day, but early morning didn't give any indication it was going to be any worse today.  As the day progressed the tasting rooms were pouring more cold whites than reds, the concrete coldness of caves and wine making rooms felt better and better and by two in the afternoon we regretted every sip of Cab Sav and Zin as the thermometer in the car registered at 108F.  It was time to get inside, cool off, and get a bite of food and No Wine!

A fish taco to beat the heat

We tried to make our way around the Sonoma square and check out all that was closed the night before, but our legs felt like lead and the intense heat broke us and forced us to grab a quick bite and seek relief back at the hotel pool.  By that evening we were so overheated, over-wined and just over-everything, that the thought of driving somewhere (especially back to Napa) for a fancy dinner made us sick.  So we blew off 3 sets of hard to get, coveted reservations and got take out BBQ at a little whole in the wall in Calistoga.  This little shop is so inconspicuous that we drove past it 10 times before we saw it, with no pretense to greatness they are truly are masters of BBQ. 
Buster's BBQ

Served the old-fashioned way, in greasy boxes, with a slab of toast and the best BBQ sauce on the side, Busters BBQ joint didn't disappoint. And this is typical California... great, absolutely mind blowing food everywhere, fancy restaurants, tiny joints, trucks, stands, supermarkets, you don't have to seek it or research it, you just have to eat it... everywhere, without prejudice for the store front or their price list.  The best food doesn't have to be expensive or complicated; it just has to be done with love and few choice ingredients.  And the wine...oh the wine...let’s just say, unfortunately it is very good, almost everywhere.

Why unfortunately? Because despite the fancy of California, I love my North East wine country like no other...because good wines are few and far in between back home, it is unfortunate that my beloved country side has to pay the price in unapologetically imperfect wines. In my heart of hearts I will always be a New York girl, rooting for the home team, and I feel almost a sense of unfairness that the “planet California” gets it all... good food, good wine, good weather... at least their real estate is too expensive and the schools suck, ok I feel better now....

So back to the wine, I finally got a good sense of the region and will feel way more confidence in the wine store in front of California shelves now; I also got to try really amazing Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandels.  The most valuable discovery was how the same grapes from different vineyards compared and changed their nature with years.

I never got to experience these side by side tastings before...I also got a sense that I may know more than I think I do. Either that or I got seriously humored by the sales staff at almost every tasting room.  The comped tastings, the extra  pours of what is not on the tasting menus, the very generous pours in the first place and unprecedented personalized attention everywhere...either I am special or the sales folks make commissions of the wine clubs...something tells me it is probably the later, although I can still pretend to be the wine connoisseur, very few people I know will call me out as a fraud. 
Russian River valley and the coast
As we sucked on the BBQ ribs and took sips of great wine we had to contemplate the next and last day of our trip.  The weather forecast was optimistically promising temperatures of 102F, we knew we could not brave the heat and wine intensity in the valley and sitting in an air condition hotel all day was not an option, so I made a strategic decision to head for the coolness of the coast, passing through the Russian River valley on the way. 


If I had to do this trip all over again, this is where I would start and stay.  One day, when I come back, I will stay on the west side of route 101 and enjoy not only cooler breezes but wonderful redwood forests, peaceful Russian river, unreal Pinot Noir and eventually the breathtaking beauty of the coast.  This is the wine country that I love, small, family wineries, inexpensive tastings that are often comped upon your chit-chat with the sales folks. No tourists, no buses, no neon lights, the barrel rooms no bigger than my garage doubling up as tasting rooms. 

Winery dogs lounging around in the cool indoors and you get to step over them on your way to the bar...

Anticipating the heat we started out early and hit the wineries just as they were about to open, 10 am is kind of early to start drinking but I saw that some of the wineries open as early at 9 a.m.  I don't know about you, but at that time of morning I am still nursing a hangover from the night before. A lot of hard dedication and self-discipline goes into swallowing you morning coffee and bravely taking a sip of Syrah...

The most memorable tasting was at the Woodhead winery where not only the views we amazing but the Pinot Noir was astounding, crafted by the Russian winemaker, it was one of the best wines we tasted on this trip...

By the time the heat was biting at our heals we made it to the coast where I needed a sweater because the temperature dropped by over 35F. 

On the way, we stopped at a smoked salmon cart ( I can’t call it a truck or even a full fledge cart, just a slightly insane looking guys selling freshly smoked salmon out of a cooler).  I was famished so I tore right into it and arrived at the beach greasy in fish fat, spitting bones and scales, but it was worth trying. 

The view is breathtaking, the people are obnoxiously law abiding by loudly calling you out from across the street for illegally parking and happy California cows are grazing across the roadway enjoying a million dollar view of the ocean.  But the real winners here must be the dogs.  Allowed on almost all beaches, parks, trails, businesses, with every storefront spotting a bowl of water by the door, these guys are definitely enjoying life. 

Except the poor little dog kayaking in the San Francisco bay, he didn't look too happy. 
Where was I? Oh, the coast... as we drove down to Bodega Bay the real hunger could no longer be held back by bits of smoked salmon and the signs for fresh sea food signaled time for lunch.  We decided to forgo the clam chowder, as excellent as it must be, it was still relatively hot for such a hearty meal so I went for crab cake salad instead.  Now, did I mention before that the food is excellent everywhere, let me say it again...stupidly good food!

The crab cakes were one of the best things I ever ate, light as air, fresh dungeons crab meat dressed up with only a few simple ingredients... totally worth the mild allergic reaction later.  All in all, the trip to the coast was well worth it and not just for the cool air and the crab cakes...
Back home in Napa as we waited to be seated at Mustard's grill, both of us realized that even the air is starting to taste like wine now and we can’t take it anymore.  Another sip of it would make me ill so dinner went with Bloody Mary's and beer. 

 A final birthday wish upon the tallest and tastiest lemon merengue tart I ever seen and our trip was over.... but not before one more special tasty treat...
I picked this place for breakfast before the long plane ride home not for practical reasons.  First it was about a 40 minute detour from the ride to the airport, second, I saw the chef on the Next Iron Chef completion and having heard of her elsewhere wanted to eat her food and just eat somewhere I can be star struck if I glimpsed the chef.  This place showcases to the world what Californian farm to table cuisine is. 

Zazu restaurant and Farm -  you could drive by it and not even give an old shaggy building a second glance, if you park, you might just walk past the front garden of herbs and veggies mistake it for an unkempt  flour bed, you may miss the golden plum tree in the parking lot... but then you will be missing a lot.  The place sits 40 at most and serves brunch Sundays only.  Their menu for dinner and breakfast changes daily and features literally 3 or 4 dishes, usually pork and bacon oriented.  They are known for it and raise the pigs on their farm, hence the French country decor sprinkled with pig centric accents.  The food is simple to the bone and focuses on fresh seasonal ingredients sourced from their farm.  In fact it is so good that for a while there I kept eating long after full just to savor another byte. 

Dutch baby is a baked pancake that is custardy on the inside and crispy soufflé - like on the outside, served with the sweetest strawberries and bacon, it is practically sinful.  The brunch dish called "Spudorama" features 5 ingredients - a mountain of baked potatoes pan fried to an even golden delicious crisp, melted cheddar cheese on top, a scoop of freshest sour cream, a sprinkle of scallions and a fried egg on top.... that is it... it is so good, that you are still tasting it hours later unwilling to give up the memory of a perfect bite. 

With the last bite our trip was now really over and our dream house picked...our California wine country experience was now done... and here is what I know, everyone who will ever visit here will have an experience they crave.  The nature lovers will get the views and the forests, the parks and the hikes, the health consciences will get the bike trails and the running paths, the picky will get driven to private wine tastings in stretched limos with a personal sommelier, the adventures will drive or hike away from the crowds and follow the not-so-beaten paths, but all will one day come back for more... I set out to eat and drink and to get some culinary inspiration and that is what I got.
I will come back again to California in a few years, but not before I visit my beloved Finger Lakes a few more times, just to remind myself where my heart truly lays.  I guess when it comes to the wine country I will always be in a New York state of mind...

Monday, July 1, 2013

Travels and tastes - California's wine country ( Part 1)

By the time you get out of San Francisco International, deal with rental car mayhem and out-of-city traffic, you have no choice but to head north for the wine country.... All this stress warrants a drink or two and as you are heading further from the cool bay breeze you start to catch a glimpse or two of the vineyards in the hills, until they are all you see, left and right, up and down and all the way to the horizon.  Neat rows of curly grapevines, rolling with the hills and valleys, bordering the winding roads, even before your first sip, the sight alone can do wonders for your stress level.

Keep going and depending on your interests you can experience this wine country from many different angles all generously spiced by beautiful views, friendly people and good food...
Napa valley
Calistoga is a sleepy little town on the top of the Silverado trail, which is the home to a hot natural spring.  There is no shortage of  spa hotels which will happily stick you into a hot mud bath, massage your every inch and bathe you in the mineral water of every temperature desired...  Besides the mud, Calistoga is home to a charming 3 block main street, with good food, charming coffee shops (serving better coffee than 99% of coffee houses I have been to), shops with the strangest hours and a great little farmers market. 

Calistoga Coffee Roastery

Unfortunately I did not make it to the really famous Chef's market in Napa, so a glimpse of this sleepy town's fair had to do; it was everything anyone ever wants from fresh produce to local honey...

 I cried at the site Padrone peppers and heirloom tomatoes missing my little NYC markets, I guess I was pathetic enough that the nice farmers stuffed my pockets full of business cards offering to ship me anything I wanted...
Calistoga is as charming as Napa valley will get as the rest of it reminds me more of Disney world than a wine country.  All they are missing is the 9pm parade down St Helena Highway, with fireworks spelling "Drink wine here!" in the night sky, and they will be all set.  The huge commercial label wineries, with castles and parking lots filled with bus tours, the dog and pony attractions the manicured grounds... I wanted out, to say the least.  Silverado trail offers a bit of a break, with some of the smaller charming wineries, out of the way from the bus loads of senior citizens and bridal showers but with majority of the wineries offering tastings by appointment only and at $40 a flight, I was a bit put off as well.  There were exceptions of course; Dutch Henry winery was small, charming and welcoming, complete with a lazy dog, beautiful wines and sales woman who showered me with food and wine bar recommendations that could fill a week. 
There was a huge winery with a beautiful view which offered $50 tastings by appointment only, but since we showed up a few minutes till closing they were gracious enough to let us take pictures and poured us a complimentary taste of almost half the glass. 
Tasting room of the only Port winery is dacorated in dollar bills

A tasting flight at the wine bar

The town of Napa is cute and small and offers a great variety of wine tasting bars were you can order a tasting flight customized to your taste, but all the shops close between 4 and 5 pm and the streets are deserted except for a few open bars and restaurants.  Same is true for St Helena, where we wondered the streets killing time between the closing times of wineries and dinner... charming store fronts, interesting galleries, promising antique stores... all closed. 

 Must be a nice life, to own a store out there, open at 10 am -  close around 5 p.m., when do these stores make money, beats me...
We had dinner at Cook in St Helena, which was pretty delicious with the most outstanding dish being the muscles in spicy broth. 

 The sauce was good enough to drink, thickened with bread, spicy roasted peppers and tomatoes slowly cooked for a long time... delicious, especially souped up with a crusty crouton...
I wanted to check out the town of  Yountville, where all the famous restaurants and shops are so that is where we headed the next day. Again, I was hugely disappointed by the atmosphere of polished asphalt, not a grass out of place on the flower beds and the air of exclusivity. Even the Bouchon bakery was nothing special; I guess it is geared towards the ones who have never had a decent croissant. As Napa valley irritated me more and more I missed what I love most about the wine country I have been to in the East.  The farms and vineyards, the tall unkempt grasses, the small country feeling tasting rooms where I am not afraid to leave a fingerprint on a polished counter.  As I searched the Google maps for the most scenic route out, I made a little mistake... I did find a scenic route through the mountain and over to Sonoma, but I found one that was miles and miles of the most winding narrow road, no internet signal for navigation and most unfortunately no wineries.  The route was in fact so scenic that my driving husband coursed out loud, wondered whether I planned this as training before our upcoming Amalfi coast drive and loudly wondered how people live out there in the mountains.
Sonoma Valley
By the time we got to Sonoma valley, we were a bit shaken by the ride but determined to make the best of the remaining tasting hour.  This time I was not disappointed, the wineries immediately felt smaller, homier, and much less pretentious. 

We sampled delicious wines at Gundlach Bundschu, got a whole bunch of recommendations for same wine style wineries which we may enjoy, got an approving node to poke our head into their caves which were technically closed and finally felt like we were on the right track, deciding to spend the next day in Sonoma valley.

Inside the caves tasting room at the Gundlach Bundschu

That night we walked around the little town of Sonoma, which is built like a Spanish style mission town of a square with a park in the middle and many courtyards hidden in the borders.  Again, everything was closed but the bars and restaurants and we wowed to come back during the day the next day to check out the shops and the Cheese Factory. We had dinner at Girl and the Fig, which was exceptional. In a recent and true California way, chefs like the one at the Girl and the Fig are creating a food revolution. These restaurants are tiny, the menu changes constantly based on season and market and the selection is limited to4 or 5 main dishes, a few appetizers and a small desert menu.  The wine lists are hand-picked to match the food and the servers are well versed in matching you and your order with a perfect wine. By keeping the places and menus small with limited hours these places can manage imaginative and delicious dishes without through the roof prices.  I was so impressed with the simple, fresh French cuisine at the Girl and the Fig, I even bought their cook book, now if it also came with a garden, a farm and good weather....

Dinner at the Girl and the Fig... I am still thinking of how the spiced Walnut Ice cream was made

The next day, determined to stay in down to earth Sonoma and to visit some of the small family wineries, we set out early....
To be continued......