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So much for my BIG SURPRISE. It’s a slider, or a whole bunch of them, what I had in mind for your Labor Day festivities. The simplicity of the dish is just to laugh at. There’s no recipe even needed. You get a pound of ground beef, ideally organic and grass fed, cut it in four even squares. Then those squares get chopped in half. And guess what, the meat is READY! Cook each little bastard for 3-3.5 minutes a side, having seasoned them previously with salt and pepper of course.

OK, let’s make it even EASIER, if possible. I found this video on youtube, where chef John from foodwishes.com reveals his dirty little secret of how to keep your mini burgers all identical and perfect.

Saw it? Got it? Let’s move on to all the additional goodies that come with the meat then.

First and foremost, you need a platform that will showcase and carry your slider. Traditionally it’s a small bun. There are choices after choices of various bread options at grocery stores across the board. You can also go the more adventurous and holistic route I took and make your own rolls.

But who’s got the time for baking on a Sunday night, when your Labor Day BBQ crowd is already popping the beer caps off the bottles?

Once the meat and bread are taken care of, focus your mind and heart on the works, as they call them. My sliders came in all colors and flavors as you can see, as I couldn’t decide on one theme. I sautéed leaks for one. Another mini burger got a bed of caramelized onions to rest upon. And the third one was planked in a pool of pesto. For the topping I chose Fontina cheese, as it melts like butter and tastes nothing like the plastic cheddar thingy they sell you at most of the groceries. It actually tastes like cheese, surprise-surprise. Also, only because I had it lying around, I sliced mango and grilled it for the heck of it. It made a lot of sense in the ned, and I didn’t know it till it was already made.

These are only a few ideas to get you started, but you know the sky is the limit. Using blue Stilton and sautéed portobello mushroom will change the entire experience of a slider. Different sauces, different vegetables–from pickled to raw to grilled ones, will make the slider your very own, depending on your selection. Even the bun os not all that important. You could serve the meat in a cup of bibb lettuce, and that would be wonderful, too. And so much kinder to your love handles!

Think outside of the box, break the rules, get of the old beaten path in order to experience something new, whether in life in general, or simply in your kitchen. My discovery of the world of food has been amazing thus far. It’s a rare thing that I truly love what I’m eating, whether I made it or someone else. (Yes, I’m that picky and discriminating.) But then, when I do find the food that speaks to my soul, it really equals an orgasm. Ask Jason, he’s witnessed both. So keep at it, cook away, look for what tickles you, try new things, explore, and never limit yourself by what you don’t know. That’s the point of learning. Stay open. And who knew half a glass of wine would get me that tipsy?

Happy Labor Day!

A glass of ruby red, full bodied, fruity, and very aromatic wine has been recommended by the authorities in the medical field. It’s good for you, in general. I won’t argue with that. I’m stepping on the breaks for a change.

Risotto is by no means a light dish, especially if made like the Italians from the North intended it to be. There’s no harm in enjoying it on an occasion though, as it is simply a velvety comfort on a plate like no other. Once you master the technique of making a risotto, you can start experimenting with other grains. I’ve tried it with quinoa and barley, and both grains were just as spectacular in the dish as their ancestor rice.

Below is my Prima Vera version with fennel, leek, asparagus and green peas. Know, however, that your risotto is limited only by your imagination. You can use mushrooms and squash, and meats, all the way to fish. I’ve seen sweet risottos made with fruits and berries. I’ve seen a Farro Risotto cooked with red wine in the place of the stock.

Go ahead, test drive it, play in your kitchen, challenge yourself, and have fun above all. The more JOY you add to your meal, the more flavor it will give you back.

BARLEY RISOTTO PRIMA VERA

Start with allocating the following items at your arm’s reach:

- 1 fennel bulb, cleaned & chopped

- 1 lrg leek, cleaned & chopped

- 3 cloves of garlic, minced

- 1 cup of frozen green peas

- 1 sm bunch of asparagus, bottoms snapped off

-1 cup pearl barley

- 1/2 cup white wine

- 3 cups veg or chicken stock

- lemon zest of one lemon

- 2 tbsp of mascarpone

- 1 tbsp butter

- 1/2 cup grated Gruyere

- salt and pepper to taste

- fresh thyme and tarragon, chopped

- fresh parsley, leaves picked

- olive oil

Making Barley Risotto is not much different from the traditional one, except it’s easier. You follow the same rules as with the traditional risotto, beginning with sautéing the veg. Start with the leek, then fennel and garlic at last, add fresh thyme and tarragon, salt and pepper, and stir occasionally until soft and translucent. Make sure you have enough olive oil in the pan to prevent any burning.

Next add the barley, and toss everything around, allowing all kernels to bathe in those flavors. Toast the grain for about 2 minutes, once again stirring and watching not to burn anything.

Splash some wine into the pot, thus deglazing the bottom. Add about two-thirds of your heated stock and stir. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat, cover the pot leaving just a small gap, so the barley can breathe, and leave it be. Come back once in a while to stir, and check on your grain. If it gets too dry, add more liquid. You may not need, however, the entire 3 cups of stock to cook the barley.

About half way through the process add the green peas and asparagus (cut in 1 inch long pieces), stir and cover again to finish cooking.

When the barley is fully cooked, but still slightly chewy, turn off the heat and add your butter, mascarpone, Gruyere and lemon zest. Mix about letting everything get incorporated evenly into the dish. Taste, fix the seasoning and serve immediately.

Dress with fresh parsley leaves.

If you’re feeling lost in my ramblings, take a look at another dish, my Butternut Squash Risotto, and note all the similar steps it takes to accomplish this Italian classic. Think of it as your light in the tunnel, or better–your GPS through these pages full of recipes scattered across the board.

Your efforts will be ten fold rewarded with the first forkful of your homemade meal in your mouth. Guaranteed.

Remember my recent interview with Stefan Richter I posted on these pages just last week? Little did I know the article would open the gates to some SUPER KEWL STUFF like making ice-cream with liquid nitrogen.

Ok, so maybe it’s not that titillating and super-duper-exhilarating to you. In America you kids get to play with such cool things at your high school lab. However, in post-communistic Poland, where I pushed myself three levels up the educational ladder, there were no funds for such excess. We had books… lots of books, literature, graphs, exercise books, and then physical education. We shared one projector between many classrooms and we lacked props and toilet paper in the restrooms. It wasn’t that bad. We had electricity.

Um, where was I? The interview, yes. Having read the post, Jason Fullilove, an executive chef of Da Vinci Restaurant in Beverly Hills contacted me inquiring if I would review his fancy joint. I hesitated because, let’s be honest, I’m no food critic. I like food, love making it (the food, too), and I’ve been trying to build a career out of that art form as well. Does that mean I have the right to tell people where to spend their hard-earned dollars on food? Yes. No? Maybe.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough to do a quick search. I found Jason Fullilove’s bio along with a description of his new high-end food court in the world-famous Beverly Hills. There it was in black and white, clear as the day, bright as the sun in the morning sky, in the chef’s own words:

“We focus on seasonal ingredients purchased locally, modern cooking techniques – like liquid nitrogen – and hyper modern cuisine to increase the flavor and experience.”

LIQUID NITROGEN. Hello! Instantly, I wanted to get into Jason’s kitchen to play chemistry assistant in his food lab so I could blog about it later. I was sold. Well, to be perfectly honest, he had me at his name. JASON. FULLILOVE. And a chef at that. It just doesn’t get any better. The food MUST be amazing at this place, I thought. I grabbed my Jason The Life-Partner and off we went to Da Vinci.

We were seated at the Dean Martin booth, as the rat pack member apparently was a regular at the venue back in the 70’s.

Dean Martin's Booth at Da Vinci Restaurant in Beverly Hills

The place is proud of its history, for its history is dense and curvy. The owner, who mooned over the main floor throughout the evening, eagerly shared stories with us. I would gladly pass them on to you if it weren’t for the excellent choice of wine we were offered at the table: KENWOOD JACK LONDON 30th ANNIVERSARY, CABERNET SAUVIGNON, SONOMA, 2006 – $13/glass. After the second serving of god’s nectar certain details just didn’t sink in.

Chef Fullilove (I can’t get enough of saying it out loud. Admit it, you’re smitten, too!) came out of his kitchen to greet us and shortly thereafter disappeared behind a pair of SQUEEEEAKY doors adjacent to our booth. Minutes later THE SHOW BEGAN.

Just as you’ve seen a million times in various animated cartoons, a river of crisp white plates appeared floating in a single file line from the kitchen chambers, through the SQUEEEAKY door, around the corner, and straight onto our table. Ok, maybe it was a waitress carrying the dishes, but to me it seemed just as magical as the moving pictures on a TV screen when I was five.

One course after another we ploughed through the feast, starting with a basket of fresh, house-made bread. Let me just pause here for a moment to honor each slice with a minute of silence, as I haven’t enjoyed bread this much since leaving my motherland in Europe close to a decade ago. Chef Fullilove explained to me that the secret to such voluptuous texture and round flavor hides in the amount of time the starter is given to develop, about a month.

We tried and tasted, smacked and swallowed, chomped and chewed through all 175 courses (or so). The festival seemed endless; hence I decided to narrow it down to what we thought were the highlights of the night.

Heirloom Beet Salad w/Humbolt Fog Goat Cheese & Pistachio Vinaigrette

It was more than just a Beet Salad. It was a summer romance you wish could last through winter.

Grilled Asparagus w/Chick Pea Puree & Blistered Teardrop Tomatoes

If you’re anything like me, when you hear Chick Pea Puree, your brain automatically turns toward the Middle East in search of pita to scoop your hummus. You could not be more surprised with this appetizer – it tastes nothing like hummus. It also came with deep fried cherry tomatoes. Their skin was crisp like a chip, while the tomato itself took on a flavor metamorphosis I had never witnessed before. Enticing.

Pan-Roasted Sablefish with New Potatoes and Crab Hash

Perfectly crispy skin covers the most velvety and delectable flesh of this white fish served over new potato and baptized with crab hash. Oh, so luxurious.

At that point, after three additional, house-made pasta dishes (and you know what pasta does in your tummy – EXPLODES!), Jason and I were rapidly reaching the critical point of saturation. Secretly, we slid our hands under the veil of the tablecloth and loosened our belts and buttons hoping to find more storage.

Then we heard a drum-roll and the Royalty arrived.

Colorado Spring Lamb Duo w/ house-cured Lamb Bacon & Fennel Puree

I can’t even begin to describe the perfection of this dish. It’s an ode to lamb embellished with house-cured lamb bacon. The meat cooked perfectly – it melted in our mouths. Each bite was silky and rich, ecstatic and comforting. Chef Jason’s dish bequeathed the lamb a second, and who knows if not better life. I will never forget that first bite. Absolutely brilliant!

When the waitress arrived with the desserts, she had to pull us out from underneath the table where we had slid unable to sit upright any longer. When supine, there seemed to be less pressure put on the walls of our four-chambered stomachs.

Meyer Lemon Panna Cotta with Butter Cookie Crumbs

Decadent and delightful. Impeccable presentation.

The night was spectacular. Not only were we served a superb meal of the highest quality (and well beyond our storage limits), but also, and maybe most importantly, it was a celebration of food in general. It was a feast reminding me of my European roots. Not once were we rushed through the courses. In the end, we spent almost THREE hours at the restaurant being allowed to savor and indulge. The chef himself joined us at last and tasted his own sweet creations. I felt home.

The very next day, I went back to snoop around (with chef’s Fullilove’s permission) Da Vinci’s kitchen. He let me take a few pictures of liquid nitrogen in action. Before my very eyes, with the excitement of a six-year old (that would be me), Jason Fullilove made a batch of Mango and then Green-Tea Ice-cream.

Liquid Nitrogen freezing mango and cheese

Mango in Three States of Being after a treatment using liquid nitrogen

The high pitched squeal you heard last Monday, circa 3:30 pm, was me not being able to hold the excitement inside any longer.

Boy, did we have fun at Da Vinci. Thank you, Jason Fullilove. You truly are full of love and it shows in every dish you create. Bravo!

Every year about this time, the flu comes around and does its damage. Consequently, there’s a lot of sniffling, coughing, sweating, and pill-popping happening. This year we got the swine variety, and everyone and their mothers lost their minds, following shameless media propaganda. I almost got worried for a second myself, but thank god, Jason grabbed my shoulder just in time, span me around, shook me up with his manly might, and spoke to my senses.

“Woman, where’s your reason? Every year the flu takes down a few thousands of people. Those usually are the folks of older age, and with pre-existing illnesses. For those poor souls any kind of flu, some times even a cold could be deadly.”

Thus the man convinced the woman, and the sun shone again, and the birds chirped lightheartedly at the sight at dawn.

I’m not trying to dismiss the lethal potential of the flu. I’m not a doctor, so my opinion is rather vulnerable. However, I don’t think there’s a reason to panic. Several of my friends fell victim of the virus. They felt like shit for about a week, with fever of 103 degrees, and violent vomiting tormenting their bodies. Not fun. Still, doctors let them go home with no medication prescribed, as those were in short supplies and thus reserved for pregnant women, children and others with life-threatening symptoms. None of the people I know, that have gone through the piggy flu, had had any complications. They simply did what one does with a regular flu – let it wear itself out, while drinking lots of fluids, resting and watching Oprah.

My own weapon against the virus is my will power. At the slightest scratch in the back of my throat I simply say “Naha! It ain’t happening. I am HEALTHY and FLU-FREE”. (Say it fast five times in a row.) I block the concept of getting sick out of my consciousness. I’m not even kidding you, twenty-four hours later I barely remember I was coughing the day before. Works like magic every time. You should try it, too.

On most days I have an appetite of a small horse, which once again proves I’m a picture of health. I made a pot of BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO, for instance, and we destroyed it with Jason in two days over 3 meals. Part of the “problem” was Risotto itself – its symphony of flavors, the sweet juxtaposed against the savory, the heat, the comfort, the rainbow across the sky, the BUTTERflies…

Butternut Squash Risotto

Before I move on, I want to test if you’ve been paying attention. Does the post read a little funny today? Does my English “sound” Polish all of a sudden? Wonder why? I haven’t gone mad, and yes, I’ve been taking all my vitamins. I simply needed to let my editor (Jason) off the hook for a few days or so, as his work turned into a circus on wheels. Jason has been putting in 16-20 hr days. Yes, you’ve heard me – twenty hours just yesterday. He’s already doing more than an average person is capable of, so understandably I am on my own for now, and you just have to deal with my accent.

If you’re feeling a little under the weather these days, BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO is an ideal meal to quickly boost your energy levels. Chicken soup is so last season. What you need to know about Risotto is that the dish requires some loving, as you can’t really dump the rice and veggies into a pot and walk away. You need to tend to it, gently stir the rice around, sprinkle with spice, love, and fairy dust, and whisper sweet things into the pot’s ear. Know it will all come back to you in a bowl – the food made of love. What BETTER nourishment than that?

Let’s get the ingredients ready:

-       Butternut Squash

-       6 cups of chicken broth (1.5 carton)

-       4 oz diced pancetta

-       1 onion

-       6 cloves of garlic, minced

-       3 tbsp BUTTER

-       1.5 cups Arborio rice

-       0.5 cups of white wine (the kind you’d enjoy drinking)

-       big pinch of saffron

-       1 tbsp dry marjoram

-       1 cup Monterey Jack Cheese (grated)

-       1 cup fresh dill, roughly chopped

-       salt + black pepper to taste

-       1 tbsp olive oil

Preheat an oven to 400˚. Cut the squash in cubes. Spread them in one layer on a sheet pan, sprinkle with olive oil, salt, black pepper, and some dry herbs (whatever you’ve got – marjoram, Herbes de Provence, oregano…). Shove the pan into the oven for about 25 minutes or until soft.

Cutting up Squash

Heat the chicken broth in a pot and keep it on over a very low heat. Throw pancetta into a separate pot, let the fat render, and then add the BUTTER. When it melts, toss the onion into that pool of yummy fat. Sprinkle all with salt and pepper, add the marjoram, and mix them together. Let the onions sweat for a minute or two to release their sweetness and fuse in with the herbs. Your minced garlic is next in line – into the pot it goes. Stir once more.

Here comes the rice. Chuck it into the same pot with the onions and cracklings, incorporate with all the flavors, and cook for a moment letting the rice kernels toast. Now pour in the wine and let it grab all the bits of flavor off the bottom of your pot. Reduce the heat to low.

The fun part begins with the first 2 ladles of the heated chicken stock you’ll add to the rice. You need to stir it almost non-stop as the liquid gets absorbed. With your free hand, season the dish with salt and pepper as you go. Every few minutes you’ll add another 2 ladles of the broth, and continue to stir. Keep going until all stock is gone, and the risotto is cooked.

Roasted Butternut Squash

Before you turn off the heat completely, add the roasted squash, your grated cheese, and fresh dill. Now, kill the fire. Give it two or three more stirs until the cheese melts and binds the dish together for the rest of its days. Your BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO is ready to serve. And it should be… served immediately.

In the end, your throat is warmly coated, your belly is fed and comforted, and your right bicep is twice the size of your left gun. It’s a win-win every way you slice it. And really, what’s BETTER than BUTTER? Particularly when it’s sweet and savory, not BITTER.

I’ll go take my vitamins now.

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