Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fresh Tracks? Oh yes.

While the overall amount of snow has not improved much since my last foray into the mountains back on the 11th - the quality is another matter entirely.

Earlier today I hiked to the top of the Alpine lift at Bridger. When I say "hiked", I mean I walked up on two booted feet. Which tells you a bit about the base situation on the hill - firm. However, spread atop all this firmness (24 inches, at least) was about 2"-4" of new, fairly decent snow. All of this snow starts about 500' above the base of the mountain.

This new snow, on top of a solid base made for some very nice turning. My only regret is that I didn't turn around and head up for another 45 minute hike - all which nets about five to ten minutes of actual downhill skiing.

Of course, early season earn-your-turns skiing is more about the whole experience, rather than simply "shredding the gnar." The hike up is a great workout. The mountain is empty and quiet. The risk of getting taken out by an out-of-control novice snowboarder wearing a Nascar jacket is low. Mountain facilities are limited to wooded areas for "freshening" and apres-ski burgers and beer are hard to come by. Although, sitting in a chair atop a motionless ski lift taking in the view is a great way to enjoy your power-bar and water.

Opening day is scheduled for the 12th. "Sick" day? Maybe.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Never. Eating. Again.

So far, no amount of perfectly-pulled shots from a vintage Olympia Cremina espresso machine seems to be able to counter-act the serious lethargy brought on by the, oh, let's say 20,000 (give or take a few hundred) calories that I have consumed the last couple of days.

I think we achieved our goal eating constantly and doing little. "What is your favorite holiday?" was a question that circled the dinner table the other night; and while I was certainly smitten with my five-pound plate of turkey (dark and white), mashed potatoes, yam hash, green beans (both of these had bacon in the dish), pearl onions in Swiss-cheese sauce and gravy on damn near everything...whew...I said that Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday for reasons that extend beyond the goodness that was on my plate.

I said so, because other than a couple full days of cooking, you don't really have to "do" anything...just be grateful for all the stuff on your plate. I was and I am. Thanksgiving takes me (an presumably others) back to the rosiest of childhood memories. I can hear my Father's electric knife carving off the bird - and the huge skillet of gravy coming together on the stove and once the dinner hit the table, everything tasted like ambrosia and everone seemed to appreciate the moment around that dinner table(s).

On this Thanksgiving, even though some bit of turkey tried to kill me, by momentarily hanging up in my esophagus (eck!), Thanksgiving is great because it makes you so thankful in fact, that you don't really want food ever again. Maybe just a feather and some privacy?

I think I know what it's like to be one of those huge snakes in a National Geographic that just swallowed a whole suckling pig.

I am also thankful for vegetarians, and that we have vegetarian friends who are coming over for dinner tonight. I could handle some vegetables that are prepared without the flavor-enhancing additives of bacon or dairy.

Come to think of it - any holiday that can make you thankful of vegetarianism or damn near anything or anyone is pretty great. See, Thanksgiving IS my favorite holiday.

Celery stick, anyone?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I love it a latte, part II

The object: a 1980's Olympia Cremina lever espresso machine. It's brown and chrome and a beautifully simple machine.

This latest segment of my latte obsession is taking place deep in the Absaroka mountains of Southwestern Montana. We are staying with some friends in a cabin at the literal end of the road along the West Boulder River. Our goal on this trip, is to eat constantly - with a Thanksgiving theme - and to occasionally do some work on the guest home where we are camped.

We brought a ridiculous amount of food and equipment with us. Prior to departure, I was assured that the cabin owner had some sort of espresso machine - some sort of machine it is. Google Olympia Cremina and you'll get the idea. It's minimalist - with no arrows, icons, words or instructions. Thank goodness we have Internet access at the cabin, or I would have been pumping out tepid and sad small bitter shots of near-espresso.

After a few hits on YouTube I was off and "pulling." The shots are getting a bit better - there is actually a bit of crema and the temperature is decent. Unfortunately, my modern - and user friendly - Cuisinart pump-driven machine is going to feel like driving a really nice late model Camry after driving around the Tuscan countryside in a 1968 Alfa Romeo.

I have had plenty of coffee for now and the Cremina and I are going to take a break. Turkey and all the usual goodness awaits after a day of staring at the mountains and occasionally messing with the dinner bits.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I love it a latte

Now that simply making damn good espresso drinks thrills me no more, I've become somewhat obsessed with banging out sexy latte art - you know, making little hearts and flowers and anime characters in the foam?

So far, my latte art has a "modern" sensibility to it. That is to say that it really doesn't resemble anything. Unless of course, you're into amoeba and other formless, single celled organisms. Which, as I look at the beverage in front of me, is a damn fine example of amoeba latte art.

Yesterday, I took my espresso maker to work. Hey, some people bring their pets or children to the office and neither of these have ever made me a macchiato after lunch. In these ugly economic times with lay-offs in the air, I am not above making an emotional plea to stay on board. As the self described office coffee bitch, I was slinging out latte's and americano's like a drive-through Starbucks in the suburbs. This either made me everyone's new best buddy...or it made me look like a distracted coffee-craving slacker. Uh-oh...

More latte art research:

Examples from Seattle coffee house Vivace:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Carbide studs of happiness

Winter, as defined by cold (9 degrees this morning) and snow (still on the ground and on some roadways in the form of ice) has arrived in Bozeman. Fortunately for my bike ride to work, I have these:

When praying to Our Lady of Perpetual Verticality, it's best to sound like you mean it; and I can tell you that as these little crunchers move along dry pavement, few will doubt that you do. The weight penalty is pretty big - this is the bicycle equivalent to wearing ankle weights, but the traction payoff is huge.

Part of me enjoys the whole hard-core winter bike commuter thing simply because it justifies specialized gear - studded tires, extra-bright lighting, hats, gloves, etc... Also, it's really great when all the fair weather trail people go off to their nice warm gyms for the winter. Less people, less off-leash dogs, more solo freeze-your-ass-off-in-the-dark-and-cold riding. This is why God made Patagonia jackets, right?

On these winter commutes it's just me and the stars - and the occasional freaked out deer illuminated in the blueish glow of my headlight; all to the prickly soundtrack of carbide on the occasional patch of dry pavement.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sunday Dinner

It is Sunday night and the Über Skillet is coming out for duty: Heir Skillet is a 16 inch, weapons-grade-cast-iron-cooking-mo-sheen. This pan puts a really nice sear on just about anything that goes in it. Tonight's mission: Pan roasted chicken with pesto and spaghetti squash.

For the pan roasted chicken:
A couple of thighs and drumsticks, bone-in and skin on, generously salted and peppered are laid skin side down in a medium-hot skillet with a bit of oil. I cooked them for about five minutes to brown. After I resisted the urge to "check" the chicken by prodding/attempting to flip/tong-ing or otherwise molesting the birdy-bits, I added some rough-chopped mushrooms, garlic, some herbage and put whole skillet in to a 350-degree oven. I gave it about 15-20 minutes to cook - depending on the size of the chicken bits. Once the chicken is cooked, I pulled the pan out, removed the chicken and mushrooms, poured off a bit of the fat in the pan and then de-glazed with a bit of white wine. Once the wine reduced a bit, I put the mushrooms back in, along with a spoonful of pesto to heat.

For the pesto, I used 1/2 cup each of: fresh basil, walnuts, grated Parmesan, and olive oil - all pulsed in the food pro. The spaghetti squash was simply roasted ahead of time in a hot oven and "shredded" and kept warm in a sauce pan.

To serve, I put down a spoonful of squash as a base, along with a piece of chicken and topped with the now warm pesto and mushrooms. The Über Skillet did a great job as usual.

For the record, I love cooking chicken this way - skin on, and pan roasted. It almost always turns out moist - and with a deliciously looking roasty-brown skin. I have all but sworn off boneless/skinless chicken breasts for most applications. As for variations on this theme, I have also made the dish with artichoke hearts and a buerre blanc - as well as traditional pan gravy.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Poached Eggs and Astronauts

I have great respect for those that can poach an egg freestyle - no special little egg-shaped pans. Just a pot of hot water and the egg. The poached egg is my current white whale in the kitchen. On the surface, it seems fairly simple: bring water to simmer, add a bit of vinegar, slowly drop in egg, cook for a few minutes...enjoy.

For each one of these steps a zen-like focus and calm is required. Move too quickly and you'll have yourself a nice starter for egg-drop soup. Today, things went pretty well for me. The water was a nice temp, the eggs held together pretty well. They looked pretty nice on top of my little version of huevos rancheros. The whites were cooked and the yolks were perfectly custard-y.

Just like NASA and it's Gemini mission that practiced the fundamentals of a lunar voyage: rendezvous, docking, etc... These "practice eggs" of today are just that until I am ready to graduate to the next level: the Apollo mission of poached eggs: crispy poached egg. Mentioned in my post of some days ago - the poached egg that had been coated in bread crumbs then gently fried. Oh yes. Did I mention that sucker was served with pork belly?

Both the Apollo mission and a crispy poached egg are fraught with peril: miss your rendezvous, spin off into space, bust the yolk at some point in the process and it's over; de-oribt too steep? Burn up in the atmosphere, water too hot? Egg drop soup! Houston, we have a problem.

Here's a preview: we're about T-minus two weeks on launch. That is to say my 7 to 9 pound hunk of side meat (pork belly) will be available - and ready to pair with the elusive crispy poached egg. Until then I'll be practicing in the cosmodrome of my kitchen - and enjoying every bit of it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Homemade Ricotta - a pledge

Easy, easy, easy.
  1. Empty 1/2 gallon whole milk into saucepan
  2. Add dash of salt
  3. Bring to boil - stir occasionally
  4. Add 3T lemon juice
  5. Simmer two minutes until curdled
  6. Pour into cheesecloth-lined strainer
  7. Drain for one hour
  8. Devour or keep in fridge for a couple of days
I followed these steps last night and added the fresh cheesy goodness to a lasagna.

I will not buy ricotta from this day forth.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cafe breve with your baklava? Yes please.

Weekends rule. No really, I get up, fire off the espresso maker for the first round - a double americano, with lots of room - then hit the Bozeman paper. The caffeine and a thin, small-town newspaper keep this activity brief. Next up, the main course: homemade baklava and a cafe breve.

Why cafe breve? Latte? Too milky. Americano? Too anano-coffee. Espresso with just a bit of steamed half and half? Oh yes.

Baklava: Fifty layers of butter, almonds, walnuts and syrup infused with the flavors of cinnamon, citrus, and honey.

Take that, Cornflakes and Sanka!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bacon and Wine Pairing?

Seriously. I was forwarded a note today from a writer who is fishing for suggestions of wine pairings for bacon. The mother of all pork products, bacon is smoky, salty, chewy, crispy, porky goodness. I think they were kidding when they sent it to me.

Make no mistake friend, bacon is no joke.

I immediately fired off a sincere response. That is what they were looking for, wasn't it? In my view, nothing quite says "I'm a friend of bacon" like a Northern Rhone, such as a syrah-driven St. Joseph or Croz Hermitage. These wines, and their earthy-funkyness along with a fruit-n-tannin balance that is, in my view, just right for smoky swine.

Which brings up another point: bacon's origin. No, not the first time Thog the caveman first put fire to pig, but rather where on the pig the bacon comes from: the belly.

If bacon is the mother of all pork products, then pork belly is, uh, the mother of all bacon. It is also nearly impossible to find in unadulterated form in Bozeman. "Side meat" as pork belly is also known is best roasted, skin-on. When done properly, the pork belly eater gets the whole package: crispy pork skin, tender pork meat, all infused by the flavor of the fat that slowly rendered out during the cooking process.

One of the best presentations of pork belly I have had was in Missoula, MT, at a place that sadly no longer exists: 515. The chef, Paul Myers, who had just been nominated for a James Beard award prior to closing, made a dish he casually referred to as "ham and eggs." The dish contained a generous slice of roasted pork belly (crispy skin, tender pork, etc...) atop a sweet onion puree along side a bit of lightly-dressed frisee - and topped with a crispy hen egg. The egg had been poached, then (presumably carefully) rolled in bread crumbs and fried - just enough to make the outside slightly crispy, but still yielding a deliciously gooey yolk upon fracture.


Okay, back to the whole question - wine pairing for bacon. I'll have to do some more "research" and get back to you on that.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Not bad for...

To make the most of an extra day off, I headed up to Bridger to (a) hike up and see how much snow there is and (b) depending on the findings of (a) attach skis to feet and (c) make the first turns of the season.

As it turns out, (a) and (b) went well and to my surprise so did (c). Now, as a western skier, I would call the conditions "firm" with the occasional death-rut. The snow surface felt and sounded like somebody sprayed frozen stucco all over the hill. The soundtrack being played by my bases and edges was definitely that of the "early season" or maybe "July".

Considering I had to hike up the first 500' vertical just to get on to snow, not a bad day, indeed. Attached is the daily photo from the BB site:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Another really horrible dinner...

I can tell already that I am going to need to get a small camera and keep it with me at all times.

Here is a re-cap of Friday's dinner without pictures:

Tuna tartare on a crispy won ton chip with avocado-wasabi-lime-mustard puree, garnished with tobiko and chives. White bean soup with kale. Hand-cut steaks as big as phone books topped with compound butter. Gruyere potato gratin. Creamed spinach. For desert: Humboldt Fog cheese with a roasted red grape and rosemary compote.

The wine standouts...St. Joseph, Neyers Syrah and a Banyuls that seemed as if it had been made for a singular pairing with the Humboldt Fog/grape thing.

It all sucked.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

You've gotta start somewhere...

So, I suppose this is it. Now, I've just got to go back and upload about 30+ years of stories and images. Stay tuned.