Monday, November 14, 2011

Ed Gets Chopped!

And now, a first in JLOS history, a guest blog!  Ed Scheid is a friend who shares a passion for home brewing, good wine, and of course great food.  He's also a fantastic photographer.  Check it out at his website, http://www.scheidphoto.com/

Recently, Ed's wife Christi threw down the culinary gauntlet:  Cook an original, delicious meal with secret ingredients she picks out, a-la Chopped.  Below is his recounting of the challenge, not to mention fairly detailed instructions on how to recreate it (way to give away your secrets, man).  Thanks Ed!
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Christi and I have pretty much become addicted to Chopped on the Food Network. If you are not familiar with it, it is a contest where four chefs compete against each other for $10,000. There are three rounds and after each round a chef is eliminated. The first round is an appetizer, the second is an entree and finally a desert. In each round the chefs are given four secret ingredients to use and they are typically ingredients that are pretty far apart on the culinary spectrum.

I'm not sure what got into the wife but she decided to toss me a challenge. I couldn't let my manhood be called out like that so I gladly accepted. She went out and bought my secret ingredients, two for an appetizer, three for an entree and two for a dessert. We decided to wave the time limits since A) I'm not a trained chef and B) our kitchen isn't even remotely equipped for such a challenge.

She went out and purchased her secret ingredients and here is what she came back with:

Appetizer:
  • Marcona almonds
  • Gouda goat cheese
Entree
  • Cornish Hens
  • Fresh spinach
  • Fresh cranberries
Desert:
  • Mini bananas
  • Whole Kona blend coffee beans
I'll admit that as soon as the challenge was presented the culinary gears in my head started to spin. All day yesterday I was thinking of different ingredients she might get and how I would prepare them. I probably had no less than a dozen recipes in my already figured out. Needless to say, it was all for not as she didn't come back with anything I expected.

The Appetizer

I figured Christi would get goat cheese since she loves it so much. Gouda goat cheese was a bit of a surprise but not too terribly different. A similar flavor but not crumbly. I like the almonds. They had a nice crunch and salty flavor. A salad instantly came to mind. For the first time I made my own dressing. It was a strawberry pomegranate balsamic vinaigrette. I decided to expand on the flavor of the almonds and candied them with brown sugar and bourbon. The gouda goat cheese is great by itself so I just shredded it on to baby spring mix greens. The tanginess of the dressing went great with the sweetness of the almonds and the creaminess of the cheese tied it together nicely.

Final dish: Bourbon candied Marcona almonds and Gouda goat cheese on baby spring mix greens with a strawberry  pomegranate balsamic vinaigrette

Bourbon candied Marcona almonds and Gouda goat cheese on baby spring mix greens with a strawberry pomegranate balsamic vinaigrette
 The Entree

I wasn't sure what Christi would have picked for a protein. I leaned towards fish but would have never expected she would have picked cornish hens. No big deal, they are just little chickens. The fresh cranberries worried me because of their tartness. I love raw spinach but wanted to try something different and cook it.

To add a third element to the entree I wanted to add a starch. Potato pancake came to mind but I didn't think it would tie in very well. Having some butternut squash on hand I decided to add sweet potato and make a butternut squash and sweet potato pancake. I seasoned it with cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar to give it that homey taste. To help bring together the pancake and hen I made a zinfandel cranberry applesauce.

I simply roasted the cornish hen with my typical poultry seasoning (fresh rosemary, fresh thyme, fresh sage, garlic salt, pepper and olive oil). I made a glaze of a cranberry and merlot reduction and glazed the hens about half way through cooking. I had to add a bit of sugar to the glaze since the cranberries were so tart. The glazed turn out awesome.

The spinach was a different story. I had never cooked with fresh spinach but I liked the idea. I kept it simple by wilting it in some bacon drippings, shallots and roasted garlic. I tossed in the bacon bits at the end. It was o.k. at best. I'll probably stick with raw spinach.

Final dish: Cranberry merlot glazed cornish hen with butternut squash and sweet potato cakes, zinfandel cranberry applesauce and bacon and roasted garlic spinach

Cranberry merlot glazed cornish hen with butternut squash and sweet potato cakes, zinfandel cranberry applesauce and bacon and roasted garlic spinach
 The Dessert

Ahhh... dessert!!!! Mini bananas? Easy! Coffee beans with bananas? New to me! The first thing that came to mind was banana pudding. But how to pair the coffee beans? I know! Coffee whipped cream! To make sure I got the pudding right I actually referred to a recipe. Desserts aren't as forgiving when it comes to measuring. I used Alton Brown's banana pudding recipe (or at least 95%) of it. Basically it's vanilla pudding but I mashed up half of the mini bananas and mixed them in. To add another layer of flavor I took the other half of the bananas and mixed them with some caramel. I finely ground the coffee beans and added them to the whipped cream. I layered each of the elements in a wine glass and sprinkled in some Godiva milk chocolate. All I can say is that it was banana coffee love in a glass.

Final dish: Banana pudding with caramel bananas and coffee infused whipped cream

Banana pudding with caramel bananas and coffee infused whipped cream
Verdict

All in all I think I rose to the challenge. Every dish except the banana pudding was my own recipe and new ones at that. The only misstep was the spinach but everyone, except grumpus August loved the meal. I can't image the stress the chefs feel actually competing. I'm just a dude who likes to cook and I felt like I had to be on top of my game. Every meal I cook makes me appreciate the people who do this for a living even more. Now how do I spend that $10,000!!!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Archeress, Parts 8, 9

A double feature tonight!  There's finally going to be some movement to this story, and I promise the finish is near.  Two microcfictions, one click.

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Discovery  (Part 8 of The Archeress)
Exhaling slowly, she released the bow string.  The arrow flew true, on the breath of the Gods.  She closed her eyes in silent grief as the bolt sped over the heads of the crowd, the welled tears wetting her cheeks. 
Then she felt it—the wind wavered.  She would never have felt it had she not shut out her sense of sight for an instant.  The Gods had abandoned her.
The arrow took him in the chest, but off target.  As he fell, she knew horror as his eyes followed the shaft to its origin.  And they locked with hers.

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Egress  (Part 9 of The Archeress)
She stood, frozen, an instant too long.  He collapsed to the stage, the crowd’s applause changing to screams.  One of the stage guards looked up…and saw her. 
Barked orders could be heard as she turned to the hatch, slinging her bow over her back.  As she opened the hatch, a shaft of daylight burst into her hiding place, further exposing her position.
She was startled by this.  Had she forgotten to close the outer door on the rooftop cupola covering the hatch?
Boots thumping on the ladder broke her thoughts.  She leaped through the hatch, and closed it behind her.

Previous Installments:
Part 1:  Preparation
Part 2:  Infiltration
Part 3:  Eyrie
Part 4:  Patience
Part 5:  Stirrings
Part 6:  Action
Part 7:  Decision

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Eat This! Autumn Seasonal Beer Pairing

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a food blog, but not because I haven’t been cooking.  Just been waiting for an appropriate topic to cover here, and I think I’ve got it here.
The idea of pairing wine with food is a well-established culinary topic that everyone knows about, if few really understand.  But there’s no question that an excellent wine pairing can truly enhance a dish, unlocking portions of the flavor profile that would remain hidden if eaten alone, and magnifying the portions that are already present.  No arguments there.
However, it’s only been recently (like within the last 5-10 years) that the same type of attention has been paid to pairing beers with food, especially in the U.S.  For this I blame the big, yellow-fizzy macrobrews that were the only thing that most people for decades knew as “beer.”  These days the country has truly rediscovered its glorious, immigrant-driven brewing past (which was all but wiped out by Prohibition), and the availability of interesting, innovative, and rare artisan brews is widespread.  This offers a great opportunity to the modern amateur chef…can I craft a menu with craft beer specifically in mind? 
Well of course the answer is yes…you can find a beer that will pair with literally any dish, from burgers to foie gras.  But making the connections when there are literally thousands of possibilities is the difficult part.  Brewing aficionados will even go so far as to tell you that pairing beer properly can be more difficult than pairing wine because of the vast variety of styles that are completely different from one another, while one red wine shares a lot of the same baseline characteristics as most other reds.  (This is of course a matter of opinion…don’t think I’m some sort of uncultured rube.  Well, not for that reason anyway.  If you must think of me as a rube, focus on my incomprehension of musical theatre instead.)
Anyway, all of this is leading up to a meal I recently prepared for a group of friends.  The dinner was actually done as a charity event for outreach programs in my wife’s church, a type of dinner known as Dining For Dollars.  Everyone buys a ticket for a limited number of seats at the table, and my wife and I cooked.  Five courses following a theme of autumn seasonal flavors, with a specific beer paired to each.  We actually held a test run of the dinner a few weeks ago...some of the photos are actually from that occasion, but mostly the same stuff. 
Let’s talk about it!
Course 1:  Appetizers

This one was a little loose and free, so I hesitate to call it a “course,” but it was still an interesting opportunity to introduce the guests to the concept of examining the way beer pairs with food, while giving everyone a chance to mingle and get to know each other.  It was essentially a buffet-style spread of light, finger fair to roughly fit the theme.  Apples, pears, table grapes, as well as a variety of cheeses to cover a range of the palette, from a soft, “fragrant” Chaumes to hard aged cheddar.  A couple of dry Italian sausages rounded it out, a Sopressata and a red-wine salami, and various crackers and sour dough bread. 
The pairings for this course were fairly easy, since you just need something that can lightly accent all the different flavors without overpowering any of them.  In this case I chose Duvel blonde and a very nice kolsch from Reissdorff. 


The Belgian Duvel is dry and faintly floral, with a very slight bitter finish and virtually no malt.  I found that it worked beautifully with the fruit, and was still light and dry enough to cut through the heavy flavors of the meats and cheeses.  The Reissdorf kolsch is an excellent example of an admittedly wide-open style, on the malty side with a fair amount of body.  To taste it after the Duvel is to immediately recognize it as a very different beer, and yet it worked equally well with the food.  I was not as impressed with the match to the fruit, but it was a generally good pairing to the heavier appetizers.
Course 2:  Fall Salad

The first formal course was a complex little salad to highlight the season and touch on all the major flavors.  A bed of baby greens was accented with candied walnuts, dried cranberries and creamy Gorgonzola cheese, with a fresh-made raspberry vinaigrette.  Thus, one small plate contains bitter, sweet, salty, and sour elements, all pulled together by the subtle vinaigrette…an interesting pairing challenge.
The pairing chosen (after much deliberation) was Jolly Pumpkin brewery’s Calabaza Blanca.

This is a challenging beer for newbies especially, but a delightful surprise with the salad when first tasted.  It’s a Belgian “biere blanche,” literally white beer, wheat/barley malt spiced with coriander and orange peel and aged in oak casks.  It is one of the most complex tasting experiences I’ve ever encountered, running through several iterations from sip to swallow.  It starts with attention-grabbing tartness, not unlike a lambic or other sour ale, but this quick fades and is replaced with a dry spiciness that mellows as it finishes.  On the whole, the perfect way to draw and blend the various flavors of the salad without overpowering and engulfing any of them.
Course 3:  Smoky Squash Bisque with Crème Freche and Bacon

For the soup course, I’m going to the safety of a recipe I’ve presented here before, with a small aggressive twist.  The soup is a relatively simple combination of butternut squash, mirepoix, chicken stock and chipotle chile.  I used bacon at the front end (aromatics sweated in bacon drippings) and the back (rendered bacon as garnish), with the crème freche to smooth the whole experience out and add a bit of needed fat.  What results is a warm, hearty and savory soup, with a strong presence of heat from the chiles. 
The pairing chosen would seem to be fairly obvious, Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale.

When pairing beer with spicy food, I find it’s best to go with a malty brew that allows the heat to dissipate from your tongue slowly, without short circuiting it entirely.  Since capsaicin (the chemical that makes chiles hot)  is alcohol soluble, that helps too, although too much and your body actually reacts the wrong way by opening up pores and letting the heat in too far.  Okay, maybe some of that is bullshit, but this imperial pumpkin ale works fantastic with the soup.  It’s not spiced so much that you can’t even taste the pumpkin, and is high enough alcohol content (around 8%) that it helps with the mouth-burn.  Squash notes still very present in the soup tie directly to their cousins in the ale, and everything just…works.
Course 4:  Porchetta and Boulangerie Beans with Potatoes and Leeks

The main event, and far and away the most difficult of the dishes to prepare (it should be that way, shouldn’t it?).  Porchetta translates from Italian as, roughly, “whole roasted pig,” and this recipe tries to recreate that with boneless pork loin and skin-on pork belly.  An earlier test of the dish revealed it to be pretty bland and fatty (fatty, really?  The hell, you say.)   This was solved quite handily by brining the pork belly for two days before assembling the porchetta, using Fergus Henderson’s recipe .  The result was a flavorful and moist (and yes, fatty, but in a good way) roast, accented by the fennel, garlic and orange worked into the roll, surrounded by that awesome, cracking skin. 
How about a couple more pictures, huh?

The roast is rustically sliced and served on a bed of boulangerie beans and potatoes, with leeks as a beautiful addition.  This is a version of a very classic French peasant dish—basically their version of Boston baked beans in terms of culinary anthropology.  And let me say this one thing:  I love leeks.  Leeks are just the bees’ knees.  Leeks are what onions could be if they’d just get off their ass and apply themselves.  And leeks with butter could win the Democratic presidential nomination (but not the Republican one…too “elitist,” like arugula).


The pairing here is another one that could be considered obvious, at least from a cultural and geographic consideration:  Saison DuPont
Yet another Belgian style (it wasn’t supposed to be the theme, that’s just what fell out), saison is a farmhouse ale, meant to be a table beer served with traditional “home-cooking.”  Crossing some national boundaries serving it with an Italian main course, but it fits pretty perfectly.  It’s actually cheating a little bit, because saisons will pair well with just about anything savory—heavier stuff like this, but also seafood, salads, you name it.  It's also one of my personal favorites.  The flavor profile is very complex but not as easy to separate out like our friend the Calabaza served with the salad, which suits the dish well. 
Course 5:  Dense Chocolate Tort with Salted Caramel Sauce

I will take no credit for the dessert course.  My wife, who happily cedes most of the cooking duties to me, takes great pleasure and pride in her desserts, and this one clearly reflects that.  The flourless tort is made with Irish butter, two different types of chocolate, and what I can only assume is some sort of black magic.  It is a bittersweet dream to behold.  The caramel sauce is made with a red sea salt from Hawaii that is one of her little secrets (sorry, babe, but the truth must be told).  Oh, and she also likes to do sugar art, as you can see from the photo above.  Amazing.
Such an amazing dessert deserves an amazing pairing that won’t total overpower or destroy it.  And yes, of course you can drink beer with dessert—stop thinking like a yellow-fizzy.  Southern Tier Crème Brulee Imperial Stout was the hands-down favorite.

Chocolate can go well with a lot of stouts and porters, or other malty styles, without much trouble.  But this beer, with its creamy texture and burnt-caramel notes, seemed designed specifically for this tort.  It’s made with dark caramel malt, real vanilla bean and lactose sugar, producing and incredibly smooth and mouth-heavy stout.  Creamy, stable head on top enhances the nose as well.  If you could make crème brulee drinkable, this is what you’d end up with.
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So that’s the meal.  It worked so well that I think I’m going to do it more often, with different themes.  Maybe a nice grillout with great summer ales and crisp IPA’s.  Or a meal of reconstructed Cincinnati favorites—Skyline, goetta, and Graeter’s anyone?—with the best of the reborn Cincinnati brewing scene for accent? 
Anyone have suggestions?  And if you want any of the recipes described here, just let me know and I’ll send them your way.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Book Review, One Second After, by William Fortschen

A lot of energy has been expended in the last decade discussing—and arguing—about how best to defend our nation against attack from unknown threats.  September 11th changed the way a lot of Americans thought about not only our security, but about our uniquely “American” lifestyle, and how it plays to the rest of the world.  Some of the more radical have suggested that our pampered, affluent existence contributed to the sentiment behind the attacks, a few even suggesting that we deserved it.
 William Forstchen’s One Second After, while clearly told from a very conservative and classically patriotic viewpoint, tends ironically to reinforce those views.  The book is a work of speculative fiction, examining the aftermath of a massive and sudden EMP attack on the United States in the present day.  Set in Black Mountain, NC, a small exurb of Asheville, the book’s central character and sole point of view is John Matherson, ex-Army colonel and professor of history at the tiny Christian college in the town.  His life is bucolic and uneventful, though touched with melancholy over the death of his wife some years before and the ongoing struggles of his younger daughter Jennifer, who suffers from Type 1 diabetes.  
 It is during Jennifer’s 12th birthday party that the disaster occurs, though no one will fully realize it for some time.  Initially considered just an annoying power outage, signs that something larger has happened begin to trickle into John’s consciousness:  every car on the freeway has stopped in place; there are no contrails in a sky normally crisscrossed by air traffic; several mysterious fires burn on distant mountainsides.  Most worrisome of all, no radio broadcasts can be heard, even on an ancient Ford Edsel radio.
Matherson, remembering some of the research he’d participated in as a professor at the Army War College, begins to suspect we’ve been the target of an “asymmetric strike.”  Gradually the townspeople begin to realize that something terrible has happened, and things begin to turn much darker.
And darker. 
And, oh GOD, even darker.
Listen, if you’re a person who likes to sleep soundly and worry-free at night, just…just don’t read this book.  I’m not going to go into details about events in the book, because I’m not a spoiler reviewer.  But suffice to say that living in our society after the lights—and 99.9% of all vehicular transportation, and communications, and any semblance of sustainable modern medicine—have gone out is not pleasant or leisurely.  The world rediscovers the Dark Ages, and fast.  Like within weeks.  The consequences of the attack and its impact on society are dire and coldly logical in their conclusions.  Perhaps pessimistic, but to my mind not implausible.
As readability goes, One Second After is really quite good, if a little clunky and prone to data dumps.  A tendency to over-explain jokes and characters’ penchant for launching into long, improbably well thought-out monologues runs through the novel from beginning to end.  However, Forstchen focuses narrowly on one place and set of primary characters, which moves the story along briskly and is seldom disorienting.  He thus avoids a trap many post-apocalyptic novels tend to fall into by trying to tell the entire story of a global disaster.  The devastating impact of the event is felt at the local level—much like every single other thing in the country from now on, because globalization dies the instant the EMP strikes. 
Unfortunately, there is a big downfall, and it is one of message.  Forstchen, through Matherson and several other “realist” characters, repeatedly makes the point that the current generation is “the most pampered in our nation’s history,” citing such softening factors as cheap and easily accessible drinking water, widely-prescribed antidepressants, and ADD-inducing electronic devices.  No one seemed to realize these were so ingrained in our culture until faced with the reality that they were suddenly and permanently gone.  While this is certainly true enough, the same characters, sometimes in the same breath, also complain a lot about how the nation turned a blind eye to the risks involved in living such a life, until it was too late to do anything about it. 
This criticism is frustrating, because none of the characters, even the knowledge-font Matherson, offers any real preventative solutions that could have been taken.  Some vague discussion of “hardened” devices in use by the military is bandied about, but very little else.  Instead, the novel tends to mistily glorify the pre-solid state technology of the Greatest Generation—hardly a real option for most of us.  The novel is meant to be a warning for us to do something before it’s too late, but what?  Without offering possible solutions, Forstchen ends up sounding a bit like Abe Simpson, shaking his fist at the whippersnappers on his lawn, who should be using rotary telephones and medicating with bourbon, like in his day.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars