Friday, November 27, 2009

Emmo's First Thanksgiving

OK. So, I've obviously had Thanksgivings before, and have even had quite a few Thanksgivings on my own before... but this was the first Thanksgiving where I actually cooked traditional food. A couple hiccups aside (the beauty of cooking just for yourself is that nobody else really has to know the details of such hiccups), it went pretty well. There were two things I had in mind for this meal. First, I had to prep all of the ingredients to be able to do The Sandwich afterward. Second, I needed both stuffing (because it's the best non-sandwich part of Thanksgiving) and straight-from-a-can Green Bean Casserole. It's far from sophisticated and goes against everything I feel strongly about in terms of food, and I know you could easily make a fresh version, but damned if I don't crave the barely-homemade canned version when Thanksgiving rolls around. The first step, of course, when cooking a large, complicated meal involving lifting heavy containers with your bad back, is to first create a large obstruction in the middle of the kitchen (for a good reason, of course):I'll probably resurrect my recipe blog later to post the approximate recipes (so that I can have an easy on-line reference for myself next year), but here are some pics in the meantime. Cranberries as they start cooking:Brussels sprouts (blanched, then tossed in sautéed shallots and bacon). Here they are finished:
as components cooking:and looking all gorgeous pre-dressing with shallots and bacon:Stuffing (like my mom taught me), with fresh cornbread:and fresh herbs:combined with the rest of the classic ingredients to be just what I was craving:Pan gravy for the turkey and stuffing:That non-gourmet staple, Green Bean Casserole:
And, finally, the turkey. There was a gap in the skin, so I used metal skewers to "sew" it together:and it came out pretty darn well:Here's the final spread (minus that embarrassing casserole):
and a plated version:Honestly, by the time I finished all of the work I was barely hungry enough to make a dent in that plate, but what I could eat was mighty tasty. This year I'm making the sandwich (turkey, cranberry sauce, brie, and arugula) on fresh-baked rosemary focaccia like god intended. My dough is rising right now, but I'll post pictures of that (hopefully awesome) reward for all this work tomorrow.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Back in the Saddle Again...

After almost two months of not being able to cook (due to pain management issues and limitations on what I was allowed to lift), I finally made it back into the kitchen this weekend. After a fun morning buying real groceries (instead of just veggies for the rabbits), I spent a lovely afternoon in the kitchen, blasting great music, cooking yummy food, and realizing just how much the inability to do just that had been bringing me down. I kept things fairly simple because I wasn't sure how my back would hold up, but it's been a joy to get to eat fresh delicious food again rather than selecting from the assortment of dishes I had frozen in preparation for my hiatus from the kitchen. For dinner I made Maple-Mustard Pork Tenderloin with Caramelized Apples. This is a dish I always start craving when fall rolls around, and it never disappoints.
While I was ecstatic to be back in the kitchen, Pedro was not nearly so happy. I suspect he was hoping that this whole "cooking" thing was just a phase I'd been going through and that it was a thing of the past. He was back huddled in the corner (with some company from Rico this time), prepared for impending death. Someday he'll learn that he never actually dies when I cook, but in the meantime he is a pitiful little guy every time I turn on the stove. Such the cute little dork, that one...
For lunches at work I made what I refer to as Emily-Style Chicken with Bok Choy. This is basically chicken marinated in assorted "Asian" ingredients (which vary depending on what I have on hand that day) and grilled, with a side of bok choy dressed in oyster sauce with a few drops of sesame oil and a bit of chili-garlic sauce.
The secret of making this dish for future lunches during the week is that you don't cook the bok choy, just wash it and toss with the sauce, then package it up with the chicken. When you heat your lunch with the lid slightly ajar, the bok choy steams just enough by the time the chicken is warmed through that it's pefectly cooked and still has a nice crispness to it. I can't tell you how amazing it was to have fresh, crispy veggies in my lunch after so long getting by on delicious-if-not-so-fresh reheated frozen dishes. Good stuff.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sommelier Smackdown!

Wow. So, the wine shop on the corner of my street has a monthly event called Sommelier Smackdown. I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into, but I recruited my friends Joe and R to join me for the November Smackdown. (Someone was too stupid to remember her camera, so luckily we were still able to get some pictures with Joe's iPhone. The room was pretty dark, so apologies if the food pics aren't high-def enough to make you drool...) As I said, we didn't entirely know what we were in for, but I think it exceeded all of our expectations.
The basic premise is that you have 4 courses, each paired with two wines - one from each of the two dueling sommeliers (that's Kate, the defending champion, on the far left and Mike, employee of the wine shop and challenger, next to her in the picture below).
Here's how it works: A chef (Ian, above on the right) prepares each course at the front of the room.
The sommeliers taste, then head out into the wine shop to find a wine (or beer) that they think would be the perfect pairing. They are limited by a $20 per course budget, with an additional $20 to use at their discretion to splurge on any given course (or a couple courses).
While they pour the wines and explain why they chose them, the chef plates the rest of the food and sends it out to the audience. You taste, you vote, you discuss. At the end of the night the winning sommelier is announced and is invited back to face a challenger at the next Smackdown. The menu of the night was referred to by our chef as "Strange Asian Fusion." Everything across the board was quite good, and each of the three of us had a different course that was our least favorite (which I think is a good indication that there was no crappy course, just some less awesome among the generally quite tasty selections).
First up was a fried dumpling filled with Gouda and apple and served with a dried fruit compote. (Picture, below, taken after we all had dived in...) The Gouda was almost imperceptible, but is probably what contributed the nice savory background to the apple filling. This was R's least favorite. I thought it was really good, and enjoyed the challenge with which it presented the sommeliers. Kate went with the Evolution White from Sokol Blosser (which happens to be one of the wineries I like to visit when I'm in Oregon), and it was absolutely beautiful with the dish. She got all of the votes from our small group. Mike told us that he believes that the dish shouldn't be sweeter than the wine, and I whole-heartedly beg to differ. His pairing was a Willi Haag Riesling, which was sweet and very grape-juicy. If you tasted it with just the (sweet) compote then you could see what he was thinking, but with the savory-sweet dumpling it was no good. First round to Kate.
The second course was duck! Yay! Ian talked about this dish as a salad version of a Bánh Mi, which was a mistake (in my opinion) for the two of us in the audience who know and love Bánh Mi. It was a salad of pickled daikon, crispy duck (duck confit that was then lightly battered in cornstarch slurry and deep fried), cilantro, cashews, and baguette slices. This was Joe's least favorite course, and I was a bit let down just because of the flavor profile I was hoping for from the description. When you put together the perfect duck-y, cashew-y bite, though, it was damn fine salad. Mike talked to the three of us after the course about how this salad (and salads in general) was tough to pair wines with for that very reason: You don't have an even distribution of flavors, so some bites are strong on pickled, vinegary elements, some are strong on fatty duck and cashews, some are really well balanced. Kate faced (or, rather, hid from) this challenge by pairing with a Hefeweizen from Munich, while Mike went wild with a Four Vines Old Vine Zin Cuvee from Paso Robles. Kate's pairing was fine, if too safe for my taste. It didn't compliment the dish, but it never fought it and didn't risk clashing with those vinegary bites. I have Zin issues, but Mike's Zin was fantastic. It clashed with some of the bites, but was awesome with those "perfect bites" where you balanced all of the salad components on your fork. He got our votes for that daring and for how well his wine complimented the perfect bites. Plus, his wine just rocked in general. This round went to Mike by one vote.
Third course was Penne with Black Bean Garlic Sauce, Smoked Chicken, and Truffled Pecorino. This was my least favorite, but I still enjoyed it. In some ways it was the easiest pairing, but it was a bit tricky because cheesier bites matched the wine differently than less cheesy bites. Kate went with an absolutely fantastic Catena Malbec from Argentina. This was probably our favorite wine of the night. I felt like it really called out the anise flavor accents in the dish, which was an effect I didn't particularly enjoy. It paired a bit better with the cheesier bites. Mike went with a Campi Nuovi Sangiovese. I thought the finish on this wine paired perfectly with all elements of the dish, but the wine itself was not something that you would ever drink on purpose. All three of us felt that his pairing was better, but the Malbec was the wine that came home with us at the end of the night. Kate kicked Mike's ass in this round, with half of his votes coming from the three of us. Heh.
Finally, just... wow. The pork belly. This was unreal. I realized I had never had pork belly before, which is a crying shame. Mmm... So good. It's an extremely fatty dish (R and I were not able to finish the fatty portion (which you can see in the bottom picture), and were both a bit queasy thinking back on it later, but I have no regrets), and that makes the pairing somewhat tricky. Kate paired with a Cossart Gordan 5 year Madeira, which was awesome. We'd all cooked with Madeira before, but never knew it could be so delicious to just drink. The sharp alcohol cut the fat, and the pairing was beautiful. Mike paired with a Quinto do Coa Duoro Tinto. It was really nice and balanced well with the flavors of the meat, even if it didn't cut the fat as well as the Madeira. He got my vote, but my friends were part of the 3-vote majority of the crowd that went with Kate, so she'll be back next time (in January) to take on a new challenger.Oh, and the organizer baked us M&M cookies for dessert, since the chef wasn't in the mood to do a dessert course as one of his four courses. Hee. All in all, it was a lot of great food and a whole lot of delicious wine in a really unique and fun setting. Can't wait to go back...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not-So-Great Stuff

Thursday was 6 weeks after surgery, and as of next Thursday I'm officially allowed to move around like a normal person and lift more than 5 pounds. Yay! In part, it's these restrictions that have kept me from being able to cook in approximately forever (thus making this culinary blog even less culinary than it usually is...). The rest of the reason is that I've been having issues with my back ever since the surgery, to the point where I've missed almost a month of work between recovering from surgery and dealing with my back issues. The "pain scale" is how doctors have you quantify your pain, and it looks like this when put in chart form:
For almost a month now my back has been at around a 5 most of the day, then shooting up in the 8 or 9 range if I do anything other than sit in a reclining patio chair all day. This has been getting pretty frustrating, but in the last couple weeks I've figured out how to make my back stop hurting: Turn off my cyborg parts. I've tested this several times, and the results are consistent. My back feels OK. I turn on my cyborg parts. A couple hours later my back is at a "6" )even though I've just been sitting in a reclining chair for those two hours). Once it gets bad it stays bad for a few days (and, being me, I keep testing it just to be sure). This morning I woke up with my back feeling pretty darn OK, which I think is only because I haven't turned my cyborg parts on since I ran my last pain-inducing test on Wednesday.

My choices right now are to (a) leave my cyborg parts off, which means my ankles are in constant pain but my back is mostly OK, or (b) turn my cyborg parts on, which means most of the pain in my ankles is masked but the pain in my back gets so bad that I can't function. Obviously I'm going with (a) at this point. Hopefully when I see my surgeon on Monday he can give me some better option (c), because the two options available to me now are frankly pretty crappy. And with that, I'm off to snuggle a fat bunny.

UPDATED 11/16: The guy who programs me gave me a new program to try, but it seems to cause the same problem. There's no good option (c). Just waiting for my back to heal (with physical therapy and muscle relaxants to speed it along, which I was already doing) and hoping we can find a program that doesn't cause these problems. Just have to be patient... which is one of my least favorite things to have to be...