Blog of an aspiring foodie

Archive for April, 2009

First beer . . .

Posted by beer_chris on 28-April-2009

I was thinking yesterday about the first beer I ever really developed a brand loyalty for, and how that has affected my beer tastes over the years. I’m not talking about the swill that we all buy in 224 packs as high school students (‘The Beast’, anyone?) but rather that first beer that we’re willing to pay a little more for.

For me, this beer was Icehouse. My first exposure to this was at a party at a friends beachhouse on West beach in Galveston. I was always used to drinking some swill like MGD or Natty Light – but this friend of mine had a 12 pack of Icehouse. He extolled the virtues of the higher alcohol brew, and I was hooked. It was so cold – and it only took a couple to get a buzz. What a winner. On top of that, it was made at some special place called the ‘Plank Road Brewery’. That sounded crafty and nice. Add that to the craze around that time with ‘clear’ things, and the related Ice brewing craze and I was in. I felt not only trendy, but popular. For a couple of years (until I discovered Shiner Bock  of course) I paid a little extra to get myself a sixer of Icehouse prior to every party I went to and mocked those who didn’t ‘know better’.

Of course, I can count on zero fingers the number of Icehouse brews I’ve had in the past 10 years – but I still have a fascination with ice brewing. It’s a German technique (I think) that basically takes a beer in the secondary fermentation stage and lowers the temp down to a  point where the beer turns to a slush. Water is removed by straining out the ice – with the alcohol (C2H6O) left in solution. This increases the ABV and makes the beer taste ‘crisper’ (generally) because of the lower temps.

I’ve read some homebrew journals about how to do this with all kinds of styles, including barleywines (yikes – bordering on home distillation). I recently did this with a schwarzbier, and the results were really fantastic. The already crisp dark lager became really nice, if not a little bit strong.

I’m sure I would have loved it when I was in college.

A basic (and highly simplified) timeline of my beer obsessions:

1993: Whatever I could get my hands on

1994: MGD/Icehouse

1996: Shiner Bock (bottles)

1998: Shiner (draft)/ Saint Arnold Amber

1999: Guinness draft cans

2001: Saint Arnold Brown (began homebrewing??)/Saint Arnold Christmas

2003: Lagunitas IPA (first dedicated beer fridge ‘acquired’ 🙂

2004: Second beer fridge acquired – lambic (yum)/kegged homebrew

2005: Third beer fridge acquired/Elissa IPA

2008: Rogue Chipotle (GAWD I love this)/Southern Star Pale

2009: Southern Star Blonde (latest fascination)

PS – I know now that the Plank Rd Brewery is now just a tool of SABMiller. Just sayin’

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A short little Voice review (crosspost with HouCH Yahoo! Group)

Posted by beer_chris on 18-April-2009

My wife and I in for an early reservation at Voice last night before heading over to opening night for ‘Rigoletto’ at Wortham. A couple of notes – we only did one course since we were running late (arrived at 6:15, curtain at 7:30), so I don’t have much to report on.

This is my second visit – previous was with a larger group (~8 ppl). I’ll wrap that previous experience in here a bit to flesh out the report 🙂 Since we were in a bit of a rush and I’m limiting my C2H6O consumption, we were pleased to see Honig Cab by the glass – we met the vintner at a Honig wine pairing/lunch during our trip to Napa last month.

It was a nice start. We actually both drank it throughout our meals.

The menu was noted as ‘Spring’, and there were a few noticeable changes since I was there in early March. My memory is failing me, but there previously was a risotto appetizer that is no longer there. Adds include a lobster item and a charcuterie plate. Our server mentioned that the tuna app had been changed slightly – in his opinion, for the better. He didn’t elaborate – but I ordered this back in March and was overwhelmed by the amount of yuzu.

The app special was a bouillabaisse – I *almost* asked if I could get an entree portion.

The menu (I don’t think) had any mention of sous vide preparations. I asked our server about this, and he said that many of the mains and the veggies are still sous vide, but they just were not mentioning it anymore on the menu. Something about being more casual. I guess removing French words = casual in Texas.

Wife is a steak eater, so ordered the filet (rare). On my last trip to Voice I ordered the same dish off of the late winter menu, and one of the issues with it was that the plate had not been warmed, so the celeriac puree and house sauce was cold when it reached me. Because I was with a larger group (and because my filet was absolutely perfect) I had not mentioned it that time, so I took the opportunity to ask our server this time, just to make sure it didn’t happen again. He gave a strange answer – that because I was at a larger table that’s probably why it happened (shrug) – BUT he was adamant that it was unacceptable and that he would mention it and make sure it didn’t happen again.

Low points: Steak was medium rare, not rare as ordered. Since we were in a rush and the wife likes medium rare better than rare anyway (it was me who convinced her to order it rare), we kept it to ourselves.

High points: Microgreens (arugula?) on steak and seasoning was absolutely perfect. Sauce was the same – as I remembered it, just anough of a counterpoint to be pleasant without overwhelming the nice beefy flavors of the filet. Also, the plate had been pre warmed 🙂

I ordered the special – a duo of lamb. Braised lamb shank (1) and roasted rack (2), served on a smoked mash and sauced with the braising liquid.

Low points: Rack was downright fatty. I had some really ‘chewy’ parts, and had to trim off a lot of gristly pieces.

High points: The good parts of the rack were really good. Like the filet, it was seasoned perfectly with hints of everything in the tableau. Not too much rosemary, not too much sage – but I could tell it was all there. The braising liquid had been reduced down and is something I could eat as a soup. It was GREAT, just salty enough, with those subtle sweet flavors that make lamb so darn tasty concentrated down.

The braised lamb shank is probably the single greatest lamb dish I have ever eaten. It was served in a very carefully trimmed thick slice, and looked almost like a terrine. I was able to cut it with my fork, and it was at that perfect place where the meat still could be cut into pieces but was so tender that it melted in my mouth. Swirling the last bits of this in the remaining braising liquid/sauce and chasing it with my Napa Cab made for a really nice endpoint to the meal.

The dessert menu has changed significantly. Server mentioned that there was a new person ‘doing’ the pastry. Are these being brought in? We skipped it because by that time it was 7:10 and we were getting to be desperately late for the performance.

Like my last trip, there were some low points – and they were surprisingly basic ones (cold plate, meat not cooked quite to order) – but the high points were clearly ‘higher’. Bottom line for me after two visits: I can echo what most others seem to say. Voice isn’t perfect, but when it’s good, it’s *really* good.

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Alice in Napaland

Posted by beer_chris on 7-April-2009

I remain weeks behind on the posts that are rattling around in the old noggin. Blame a combination of travel, laziness and above all Twitter, which has started to eat my time whenever I sit down in front of this fine AMD powered machine in my home office.

However, I wanted to run down the menu I prepared during our trip to California before it completely evaporates from my mind. It was a really nice meal, and I was pretty happy with how it was pulled off.

First, a little background on why I was even cooking in California. Jaime’s friend Susan has 5 sisters, and her family typically takes a big vacation together somewhere at Spring Break, since a few of the sisters are schoolteachers. This year, the clan chose the Napa Valley, and rented a pretty large home in Santa Rosa. Susan invited Jaime and me along and offered to let us stay in the rented home gratis – as long as I cooked a meal for everyone. With husbands/boyfriends/friends this total came to 14. I was a little intimadated, but figured that I could find any necessary inspiration/ingredients in the lovely area we were staying.

I couldn’t have been more correct on that.

Jaime and I arrived on a Wednesday, and spent that day tooling around San Francisco going to some of the absolute coolest bars/brewpubs I’ve ever seen. We hit Santa Rosa pretty late, and so got up early on Thursday with a couple of missions – get our shopping done for dinner that evening and have lunch at the CIA. Using the trusty interwebs, I found what I imagined would be a fantastic little weekday morning farmers market in downtown Santa Rosa, and so we headed over that way to get some inspiration for dinner and pick up some awesome early spring produce.

Turns out the ‘market’ was actually a food pantry at a VFW hall, with long lines of (mostly) elderly people waiting for their share of a huge box full of onions and potatoes. Fresh, to be sure, but not quite what I had in mind. We went back to the rental car, me feeling more than a little dejected. How could I call myself a food lover and not even be able to find a fresh market in Napa valley, for goodness sake? Lacking wireless Internet, I turned to the only resource I had left – the friendly lady in our Garmin – for some help. We’ll call her Alice. I asked Alice to find me a produce market and a few places popped up. We headed into town and promptly failed two more times. First place was a dentist, next place was some type of holistic healing center (the type that advertise ‘colonic irrigation’ on big signs outside). Definitely not what I was after.

At this point I was nearly at the point of cursing Alice out, and felt like we might end up back at Trader Joes (not a bad thing, of course, but still somewhat of a tragedy in a place not but 25 miles from the gardens at French Laundry).

I widened the search 50 miles and came up with two listings for a place called ‘Andys Produce’ – one of which Alice noted was a roadside stand. This sounded more promising even than colonic irrigation, but it was a good 25 miles away. No matter – Alice, Jaime and I were on a quest for fresh produce, so we headed out.

On the way, I started to feel a bit better as I saw a short delivery box truck with ‘Andys Produce’ emblazoned across the sides and back. A website was even listed. Not only was the place real, it was downright connected! We pushed on, guided by Alice’s confident directions. About halfway there, Alice directed us off of the main highway and onto a small two lane road. This turned out to be one of the more beautiful driving trips of our vacation. We tooled through various vineyards in our cherry red Impala, impressed by the fields of bright yellow mustard and occasional dairy farm. Finally, we came up on a junction, turned left, and there it was – an oasis in asphalt wilderness – Andys Produce Roadside Stand! I could see the displays of citrus and beets sitting out front, and it turned out to be quite a store inside. We picked up some really lovely local cheeses, 3 or 4 six packs of local (and other west coast) beers and a bevy of excellent and very fresh produce. The menu really began to come together:

  • Appetizer of local farmstead cheeses with a fresh baguette and sopressata and mortadella
  • Spinach salad with fresh strawberry, ‘mellowed’ red onion and 25 yr basalmic vinegar
  • Roasted cabbage
  • Grilled pork tenderloin in a spicy rub with blood orange sauce
  • Asparagus sauteed in butter with garlic and lemon zest

The asparagus were absolutely amazing, huge (as thick as my ring finger) but extremely tender and not at all woody. Even the bases could have been eaten without peeling. The blood oranges were equally as fresh – some were the variety I know (Moro) and some were another variety, but the juice of both was nice and sweet with that floral quality that sets blood orange apart. I knew I had to use them. The strawberries were on special at Andys, and were beautiful (as you might imagine in March in northern California). We had to find an application for them, and so decided on a simple spinach and strawberry salad, with just enough of a nice basalmic vinegar over top to break the sweetness. As I picked over the fresh bunches of spinach, a lady and her father struck up a conversation with us, as they could hear Jaime and I discussing various menu options. Turns out the woman’s father was a trained chef, and they were at Andys doing much the same thing we were. Now *thats* the California experience I was looking for when we left the house that morning – find a wonderful fresh market, find inspiration from the ingredients you find, chat up a local chef in the process.

Perfect 🙂

Andys had a large selection of organic foodstuffs, including spices, flours and grains, dairy and eggs, but they did not have a huge meat selection. As we checked out, we chatted up our cashier asking her if there was a butcher shop nearby, as we had decided on the pork tenderloins to pair with a blood orange sauce. She asked our sacker, who sullenly replied, “I don’t really know <dramatic pause for effect> since I’m a vegetarian” (Again – how much more Californian can you get???) Luckily our new friends from the produce department were behind us and recommended a little store down the road that had a nice meat counter. Ironically, it was called ‘Fiesta’, but had nothing to do with the ‘Lower Food Prices’ chain in Houston.

As we loaded up the Impala and drove off, more than one set of hands was waving goodbye to us, and I couldn’t help but feel that we had completely turned the day around.

We headed to Fiesta, which turned out to be the name of the shopping center and not the store. We went in and picked up some Kona coffee and bought about 4 good-sized pork tenderloins and 4 lbs of some really nice house made chicken and spinach sausage they had in the case.

I also went in search of a nice aged basalmic vinegar. It was while doing this that I learned that California law requires that basalmic vinegar be labeled as a product that contains lead – there was a giant sign on the vinegar display warning me about this. Unfazed (and a little confused), I picked up my condiment and we went about our way. We headed back to the house, dropped off everything and promptly went to lunch at the CIA. It was lovely (and the topic for another post), but it put us about an hour behind. On the way home we stumbled on a giant liquor store, and ended up getting a magnum of  Roediger champagne. We arrived back at the house at around 4 PM – with everyone scheduled to arrive back from their day in Napa at about 7:30 PM. Jaime and I got to work. I broke down 6 cabbages, prepped, washed and tore 5 bunches of spinach, juiced and zested 8 blood oranges (without a reamer! It was hard work!) washed and evened out 6 bunches of the lovely asparagus, prepped the cheese and meat plate and got the rub on my tenderloins. Jaime cleaned the strawberries and chilled the champagne. Somewhere in there I minced some shallot, and sliced some red onion thinly and put it to soak in some lemon juice – this mellowed onion got tossed into the spinach salad (and was fantastic – thanks Nigella Lawson for teaching me this).

When everyone arrived back at the house we got the appetizer plate out, and I was just about ready to start cooking – about a half- hour behind. I got some ‘helpers’ to mince garlic, tend the asparagus and reduce/whisk my blood orange sauce (I cheated and made a light roux before adding the orange juice). I focused on grilling the tenderloins and sausage on the lovely outdoor grill. Jaime worked the room and kept the champagne flowing.

We had our 5 course dinner for 14 ready only 30 minutes past target time (8 PM instead of 730 PM), and got to enjoy the absolute pleasure of having shopped, planned and cooked the entire thing ourselves. It was the ULTIMATE Napa valley experience, and is something I won’t soon forget.

Thanks Alice!

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