Monday, December 28, 2009

The Truffle Food Night, part 3

Just when you thought you had opened every Christmas gift under the tree, Food Night went and hid one more in the back corner of the closet next to the Scrabble board you never use. Now, before you get too excited, our gift to you is more of the intangible variety. You can't really put this gift in your fanny pack to take over to Aunt Mable's New Year's Day pot luck. You can however use it as inspiration to make some fresh pasta for yourself, or to at least take a step in that direction by investing in that pasta roller attachment for the Kitchen Aid you've had your eye on. Worst case, you can use it to kill 10 minutes of your life that you'll never get back. So rip off the bow, tear open the paper, and enjoy Food Night's gift to you...

Fresh Pasta
reduced stock, tarragon, parmigiano-reggiano, black truffle

Looks fairly deece*, eh? Midday on Saturday, I made the dough for the pasta. Semolina flour, couple eggs, salt, olive oil, stir, knead, bang - pasta dough. So simple. I think making fresh pasta deserves it's own post, so I won't belabor the details here. Recently I've been trying to keep the fresh pastas relatively simple around here. Six ingredients - pasta, stock, butter, parmigiano, fresh herb, salt. But at Food Night, we gave those six a + 1. The Truffle.

* Deece. An abbreviated form of "decent", that though the magic of irony, means "yummy, fantastic, delish, and all-around super-duper" here at Food Night. But you, the dedicated and loyal reader, already knew that from post numero uno.

Let me first say the truffle was WAY harder to slice than I thought it would be. It wasn't as firm as a titleist, but it was close. I definitely used a little extra caution while passing it over the mandoline since it took more force than I thought to slice it. The texture of the exterior was absolutely incredible; all kinds of knobs, nooks, crannies, patterns, randomness, roughness, curves - it looked "important". Does that make sense? You could just tell this thing was something. If you are like me, you contemplate things like "Who was the first person to eat X, and why did he or she think eating X would be a good idea?", where "X" is something like sea urchin or tripe. I thought of the truffle along those lines before this one arrived on my doorstep, since it's basically a dirty hunk of fungus buried underground on the root of some tree. But once you see it, it is quite impressive. It has presence. You can tell it is... kind of a big deal.

Once it was sliced... wow. The aroma; the intricate, delicate, yet assertive aroma. Not to mention the texture, and the amazing color and pattern of the truffle's interior. Prior to slicing, the smell was somewhat muted, but that scent of what I thought a truffle would smell like was definitely there. And when I think of how a truffle should smell, lacking experience in handling actual truffles I unfortunately think of the often extremely pungent and slightly manufactured smelling truffle oil. A little dab will do ya there. But once sliced, the truffle released organic smells of fresh, wet potting soil and other delightfully earthy scents. And I mean that it the best possible way. Really, I do.

And so, the Six + 1 ingredient pasta came together quite easily. The dough - done ahead of time. The water - on to boil. The stock - reducing nicely in a nice wide skillet. The herb (tarragon) - diced and ready. All that was left was to roll out the pasta through the brilliant and utterly genius Kitchen Aid pasta rolling attachment. From there, the noodles were cut, a knob of butter tossed into the reduced stock, pasta plunged into the water for 3ish minutes, then into the sauce with the herb and parmigiano. Toss to coat, divide amongst the five plates, and top with more parmigiano.

Then, it was of course time to shave the truffle over each dish. Steaming hot pasta, topped with shards of black truffle, and a glass of profound wine. Thankfully, nobody lost consciousness. The dish was clearly a success. However, it was unanimous amongst all the Food Night attendees that... we needed another truffle. One just wasn't enough to properly truffle* five pasta portions. We definitely got the essence of it, but because of the relatively modest amount of truffle each person received, the dish was not as "decadent" as I had hoped. The truffle shavings tasted a lot like they smelled - very much like wet earth. Now, before you say "Well why didn't you just go dig up your backyard and toss a hunk of that in with your pasta", I'll tell you that 1). I currently have about two feet of snow in my backyard thank you very much, and 2). this was the coolest earth smell and taste ever. It was exactly what I've always wanted truffle oil to be; a flavor enhancer, but not a palate dominator. I think a few more shavings on each plate would have pushed the dish to another level.

* Yep, I just used "truffle" as a verb. Cool, huh.

Conversely, perhaps we should take a page from Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. They brought "Seinfeld" to an end while the show was still at the height of its powers because they wanted to go out on their own terms, instead of being shown the door. They wanted to leave the audience wanting more.

The truffle definitely did that - it left all of us wanting more. And that is probably just the way it should be.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Epic Food Night, part 2

If you missed the eagerly anticipated and highly acclaimed part 1 of the recent Food Night, fear not. Through the magic of linking, I can send you there if you click here, or even here.

I mentioned previously that sometimes Food Night happens on a weeknight. That means, I don’t exactly have all day to grocery shop, cook, prep and whatnot. OK, yes, I have used vacation time at my day job to cook, prep, and grocery shop for Food Night, but that is beside the point. The point is that I didn’t really HAVE to do that, I just wanted to because cooking makes me happy. So in an effort to achieve that euphoria via cooking, and still hold a day job, there are two main concepts that I try to adhere to (for the most part) when it comes to the food at Food Night;

1). Prep in advance. Cook something that lends itself to doing at least some of the job ahead of time, without sacrificing the quality of the finished dish.

2). Simplicity. Use great ingredients, treat them simply, and get out of the way.

Of the four dishes served at the most recent Food Night*, all four fit into (1) and three fit into (2). The outlier was the venison. It’s not like the dish was rocket science or anything, but there were definitely more than a few moving parts it, so I think as a whole it falls outside the simplicity zone. Braising itself? Simple indeed. But that's another post. And today I’m going to focus on two of the simple dishes. Shall we begin?

* I think we are going to have to assign names to the various Food Nights, because I'm sick of saying "the most recent Food Night". And we'll likely need to refer back to Food Nights past at some point, so they should probably all have names. I was thinking we could go with something simple, kind of like how Larry David named episodes of Seinfeld. "The Contest", for example. So, from this point forward, we shall refer to the 12/12/2009 Food Night as....... "The Truffle Food Night". So let it be written.

avocado, pickled tomato, arbequina olive oil, Maldon sea salt

The fabulous Bar La Grassa was the inspiration for the pickled tomatoes, which were really the star of the dish. I had them as an appetizer on a recent outing there, and of course they were fantastic. I’m beginning to think Isaac Becker could cook a shingle or an old shoe and make it taste good. Maybe he'd even serve the shoe on top of the shingle and call the dish "Fiddler on the Roof"? No? Yeah, probably not. Anyway, I decided if I could still find little Minnesota grown cherry tomatoes at the store I’d attempt to pickle the dickens out of them. Thankfully, I did, because these little flavor grenades are immediately going into the “killer accompaniments” folder on my PC.* I’d never even thought of pickling tomatoes before!

* I know, I know, I’m sooooo not cool because I have a PC and not a Mac. But in my defense, I think I bought it around the time of iPod v1.0, so, the jury was still out for me at that time as to what direction to go. In hindsight, yeah, I probably zigged when I should have zagged. Whatever.

Pickled Tomatoes a la Grassa
1). Cut cherry or other small tomato in half through the equator

2). In a container that will fit the tomato halves relatively snugly, fill with white wine vinegar (but leave enough room for the tomatoes, I'd say I used roughly 7oz of vinegar), and add a tablespoon of sugar, and a couple pinches of kosher salt,

3). Stir to dissolve sugar and salt, then add a few strips of the peel from a lemon (meyer, if you have it), small pinch of saffron threads (again, if you have it), a dried chile or two, and some thinly sliced garlic. I had some fresh tarragon, so I tossed a good sized stem in there too.
4). Add the tomatoes to the brine, cover, refrigerate overnight.

And that’s it! Top creamy soups with them, toss them in salads, or with feta, or with goat cheese, or stick them on some lightly toasted baguette with some avocado, good olive oil and salt like I did. Drizzle the plate with more olive oil and some of the pickling liquid, and there’s your appetizer. I cannot recommend these little gems highly enough. Unfortunately, we are every so slightly past prime tomato growing weather here in the midwest. But how about trying this with fresh picked little sungold tomatoes right from the garden, hm? I’ll try to remember to post this recipe again next summer. That is of course is assuming we actually HAVE a summer next summer, unlike this summer which was decidedly unsummerlike. Let's move on to the next dish before I pack a bag and move to Fiji.

Crudo Duo
Zucchini, Hawaiian striped marlin

I think this was the most successful dish of the evening, and it was the simple melding of two great tastes that taste great together.* The first was the Zucchini Crudo that Michael Ruhlman posted about recently. He authored the new Michael Symon cookbook, and featured this zucchini crudo recipe in a recent blog post. I had occasion to make it recently, and was absolutely amazed that something that simple could taste that good. And if it is simple, and good, it is definite Food Night material.

* Are you kidding me with that commercial??! You of course noticed that one of the participants in this culinary Big Bang event is walking down the street eating peanut butter. Out of a jar. With her FINGER. And did you see the size of their iPods?! They were huge! I bet they only held like 512MB of music back then. Prehistoric.

The second component to the dish was... raw fish! Who doesn’t like raw fish?! Of course the genius part about a raw fish course at a dinner party is the cooking time. As in, there is no cooking time! Obviously there is some effort that is required, but that effort can be made before your guests arrive. The fantastic fishmongers at Coastal Seafoods steered me towards this gorgeous Hawaiian Striped Marlin, which just so happened to cost HALF as much as the sushi grade tuna I tend to buy. $6 got me all I needed to use this in a dish for five people. About an hour before people came over, I cubed up the fish, tossed it in some stuff that sounded good like olive oil, soy sauce, cilantro, green onion, sesame, pickled chile, a little dash of this Rick Bayless smoked chile sauce I like, and plenty of lemon zest.

This dish was a snap, provided you have one of these (which, you do have, don’t you?). Slice and toss the zucchini with salt 10 minutes before serving. Then arrange the zucchini on the plate, dot with some of the marlin, a drizzle of good olive oil and a couple flakes of Maldon, and there you go! And if you had some pickled tomatoes in the fridge (check) toss those on the plate too. Some pickled red onion?* Sure! But definitely finish the plate off with a drizzle of good olive oil, and a couple flakes of Maldon.

* I make these pickled red onions frequently. Find the recipe, which takes all of 5 minutes to throw down, here from the brilliant David Lebovitz. The work great on a multitude of things, but I absolutely cannot imagine tacos and carnitas of all kinds without these little gems now.

This was such a great dish, and one that came together without one of mankinds most important discoveries. Previously when I looked at zucchini, I'd shrug my shoulders and think “I dunno, grill it?”. And I’m usually wasn't all that jazzed about the results, either. But through the wonders of a simple yet effective naturally occurring substance, the previously uber-blah zucchini just found a spot in the Food Night rotation.

Salt. It’s not just for your margarita glass anymore.

(Still to come; Posts starring "The Venison" and "The Truffle"...)

Monday, December 14, 2009

An Epic Food Night, part 1

Every Food Night is an occasion we look forward to with great anticipation. Of course they are all unique and fun and provide us with an opportunity to sample and discuss some really great wines. However, the Food Night that came together Saturday December 12th was completely off the charts. Epic, even. The food turned out great (after MUCH consternation about the leanness of the venison), and the wines were absolutely special. That's the only word I can come up with; special.

In today's post, I'm going to focus on the wines of Food Night. I've been stressing out about how I can possibly organize and detail what transpired at Food Night in some logical and (somewhat) succinct manner. I thought about just beginning at the beginning, cranking out around nine thousand words, and then twenty eight days later I'd be done with that post, and you'd spend your entire day reading a rambling, unorganized, meandering diatribe that would probably end up being the last Food Night post you ever read. And we certainly don't want that. You deserve something a little more focused and entertaining as you sip your morning coffee.* I'll absolutely throw out some photos (above) of the food that I made to hopefully wet your appetite for the soon to follow food related posts. And heck, I'll list out the full menu too. But I really think you will be thankful for this more organized approach. Really. Trust me. I've been doing this for a week now. I know what I'm doing.**

* I'm sure that's how you start your day, right? Shower, drive to work, coffee, check for Food Night updates. And Food Night has no problem playing second fiddle to your morning coffee, or other bevie of choice. Clearly, that is the priority.

** I do not have a clue what I'm doing.

Enough preamble. Let's get started with the menu and wine list from Food Night!

avocado, pickled tomato, arbequina olive oil, Maldon sea salt

Crudo Duo
zucchini, Hawaiian striped marlin

Fresh Pasta
reduced stock, tarragon, parmigiano-reggiano, black truffle

Braised Venison
fingerling potato confit, pickled red onion, meyer lemon sour cream

When we discussed the wine possibilities for the evening, lots of us focused on Northern Rhone, figuring the funky, gamey nature of a lot of those Syrahs would play well with the venison. And in general, at least from my recollection*, we do tend to have more European wines at Food Night because that is where the preferences of some of the participants lie. Not so, this time. Out of the ten (that is not a misprint.... 10) wines we sampled, six were domestic, like this gem...

*See, this is a huge reason why I wanted to start the blog; to keep a tally on exactly what we've tried. I'm going to even start a running post or document of some kind here to keep track of the counts for various countries. I know, I think it's going to be awesome too! Moving on to the wines of the evening....

United States
Calera, Rosé of Pinot Noir

Calera, Jensen Pinot Noir

Calera, Selleck Pinot Noir

Rock, Hudson Vineyard, Carneros Syrah*

Joseph Phelps, Le Mistral (Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah), Monterey*

Freemark Abbey, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley*

Clos Mogador, Priorat*

Carruades de Lafite, Bordeaux (Pauillac)*

Chateau De Fieuzal, Bordeaux (Pessac-Leognan)*

Joseph Drouhin, Clos des Mouche (Cote de Beaune, Burgundy)*

The *'s in the above wine list indicate that these wines were tried blind. We've probably had a dozen undocumented Food Nights and amazingly this was the first time we'd tried anything blind. As we learned from experience working at Haskell's, there is no better wine education than to taste good bottles blind in a setting with someone who really knows wine. Blind, as in, a glass of wine is handed to you, and without having any idea what it is you have to name the country of origin, the varietal(s), and the vintage. This really doesn't work terribly well with say $8 wine. But last night, Alex* really went crazy and brought some astounding wines for everyone to try blind. The results, were impossibly cool.

*I should really work on a post that introduces you to the "players" at Food Night. Until then, what you need to know is that Alex is the C.W.O. of Food Night. Chief Wine Officer. Alex knows his wine, and actually he knows YOUR wine too, and he's disarmingly unpretentious about the whole thing. Honestly, the reason why the results of this maiden Food Night Blind Tasting were so cool was because Alex has taught all of us a ton about wine by sharing his knowledge and his bottles.

Let's talk about the bottles we tasted blind.

Blind Bottle #1

Everyone initially thought it was grenache, or certainly Spanish wine of some kind. But it had low tannins, and lofty jammy fruit, and a really cool nose. I thought it lacked that white pepper sort of thing that I get out of most grenache, so my final guess was 2004 California Syrah. Tyler and Tom both went with Spanish grenache, but the year they guessed escapes me. I know, huge error on my part, I hope you'll still be able to sleep tonight.

The Bottle; 2003 Joseph Phelps Le Mistral . 57% Syrah, 36% Grenache, the rest small amounts of other varietals. So, I kind of, um well, I kind of nailed this one. Tyler and Tom also were also basically right on here as well. Just not as right as, you know, me.

Blind Bottle #2
I took one whiff and said "This is Burgundy". But before you roll your eyes at the author, know that while Tom and Tyler were in agreement with me, they actually whittled it down to the exact freaking town in Burgundy where the wine came from. You might ask, how is this possible?! How can so much wine knowledge be concentrated in so few people?! Maybe they born with it? Maybe it's Maybelline?*

* Answer; No. It is not Maybelline. Don't ask me where I came up with that one either. I remember commercial tag lines. What can I say. I'm every every advertising big-shot's wet dream. The answer is actually that we've all tried quite a few bottles of wine, and if you are interested in wine like we are, you learn a few things along the way. And actually, the better quality the wine, the easier it is to pick out what it is (and, what it ISN'T) blind. Of course there are exceptions, and books are probably written about this, so, I digress.

Back to Blind Bottle #2, Tom said it was a 2005 Cotes de Beaune (pronounced "bone"), while Tyler said 2005 Pommard or Volnay (which are both in the Cotes de Beaune). I had no idea what plot of land it was from, other than I was sure it was Burgundy, and was pretty sure it was 2005. This would probably be a good time to state the obvious and say that Alex, Tyler and Tom are all very, VERY well schooled in French wine country knowledge. Not only do they know the aromas, the tastes, the textures, they know the towns, where they are, what they are near, how big and/or famous and/or reputable the towns are, etc. Perhaps you think possessing this knowledge is even more impressive than recalling the tag line from a make-up commercial. And I would tend to agree with you.

Anyway, while we discussed the possibilities for this bottle, I was asking the guys questions about were exactly the town of Beaune was located in the Burgundy region of France, culminating in this classic, age old question; "How long is Beaune?". Now, the fellas diligently did their best using wine glasses, knives and other objects on the table to illustrate to me how things were situated in Beaune. But as the follow up questions pertaining to the "length of Beaune" kept spewing forth, one guest finally broke down and said what needed to be said. (And there was much laughter.)

The Bottle; 2005 Joseph Drouhin Clos des Mouche, Cotes de Beaune, Burgundy.

Blind Bottle #3
One of the most complex, most aromatically astounding wines I've ever tried. The only other bottle in my tasting history I can compare it to from an aromatic standpoint is the 2002 Chateau Margaux. I know. Heady stuff. But I'm not kidding. In the end, ALL of us guessed Priorat, and Tyler even nailed the varietals, cabernet and grenache! I don't think I can even describe the utter ridiculousness of how good this wine was, so let's just reveal the bottle.

The Bottle; 2005 Clos Mogador, Priorat.

Blind Bottle #4
It is said the the Pauillac region of Bordeax produces wines that have a lot of "pencil lead" or "graphite" characteristics about them. This wine immediately exhibited those characteristics, so all of us said Bordeaux. Tyler even went so far as to say that the wine tasted almost like (ahem) "sucking on a pencil", in a good way of course. Not the... nevermind.

The Bottle; 2003 Carruades de Lafite . This wine is the "second label" of Lafite Rothschild, which is one of the five First Growth Bordeaux chateaus. This means that the juice in this bottle was the stuff that wasn't quite good enough to go into the chateau's best label, which is one of the five best Bordeauxs in France. An awesome bottle to add to our tasting rolodex.

So yeah. Not a shabby little lineup of blind wines. And how about your Food Night crew absolutely crushing and nailing every single bottle?! I told you the results were impossibly cool. And we haven't even talked about the other six wines yet! Relax, I'll spare you all the gory details, but I do want to say a couple words about Calera wines. One of the best wines of the night was the Calera Rosé. This $18 Rosé is fairly available here in the Twin Cities, and is hands down the best Rosé any of us have ever had by a long shot. It has a gorgeous color, something darker than usual, yet still very elegant. I'd love to show you the color, but, um, yeah, I was a little tardy with the camera as you can see. My bad (tapping my chest). It is soft and round yet still vibrant and fresh, with lively acidity, and is a breeze to pair with food (it was absolutely phenomenal with the somewhat bold flavors of the Crudo, pictured here). Really amazing stuff for under $20. Oh, and anyone who tells you that you should only drink Rosé in the summer is cracked. Last I checked, there was no season on good wine.

And while we are talking about Calera, I may as well tell you that you could probably go ahead and call Calera the Official Winery of Food Night. We've intentionally not opened bottles of Calera Pinot Noir next to other VERY expensive high end bottles because Calera so thoroughly destroys damn near everything else that is opened along side of it. It's like the mercy rule in Little League. But once you smell a Calera Pinot Noir, you'll know. As I sat at my kitchen table writing the previous post, two bottles of Calera were decanting next to me. Their singular perfume literally filled the air around me, which only served to heighten the anticipation for that evening's Food Night. With Calera wines, it doesn't matter what year, what vineyard site, what score some wine magazine or website gave it, if it was raining acid rain in buckets at harvest... whatever. Josh Jensen makes brilliant wine. Every year. Period.

If only everything in life was so predictable, right? One thing I can predict, are posts about the actual food we had at Food Night (imagine that!). Coming shortly, to a computer near you.

One last wine note, I promise. The 2005 Chateau De Fieuzal Bordeaux. Robert Parker gave it a somewhat modest 90 points, but his description of the wine was too tempting to pass up; smoke, black truffles, crushed rock (?), fresh mushrooms and cassis. And it was tremendous, but we got more dried fruits out of it than earthy notes. And actually, Parker's review of the wine a year before he wrote the above tasting notes indicated notes of plum and fig, which was totally on the mark with what we experienced. Note that this wine is quite closed down, and we actually opened it the night before Food Night, poured it into a decanter, poured it back into the bottle and then let is sit overnight. Then about 6 hours before we drank it, I poured it back and fourth from decanter to bottle a few more times, and let it sit in the decanter for the remaining time before consumption. I did sneak a sample of it before decanting, and the acids were sky high, but calmed down after the decanting process. This stuff can be had for under $50 as well, and is a great bargain in my opinion at that price.

Finally, I have to give an e-shoutout to Alex. The reason these Food Nights are so over the top is because of the wines. When you think about it, that only makes sense. I'm just some dork with an electric stove and a very narrow, modest culinary skillset. On the other hand, these wines we get to drink out of Alex's stash are crafted by truly brilliant winemakers from grapes grown on the best terriors in the world. I say that literally and without exaggeration.

So on behalf of Tyler and Tom, thanks Alex - you really outdid yourself this time.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tuber Unicinatum

It arrived Thursday, right on schedule. The "very special guest ingredient" of tonight's Food Night. Tuber Unicinatum. The French Burgundy Black Truffle.

Just look at this orb of goodness, and all it's funky textures and curves and....

Maybe some sense of scale is necessary. Here it is positively dwarfing $.01...

That, my friends, just happened! Shake and Bake!

I don't know if I'm more nervous, excited, fascinated or awed by the mere presence of this culinary diamond in my kitchen. I seem to have snapped more pictures of it than most people do of their first born child. Not sure what that means, but I'm sure it's perfectly normal.

Food Night did not see it fit to take out the requisite loans required to procure an Italian white truffle at $260/oz. I think I would have been shaking like a leaf* while trying to shave it on my handheld mandoline, and would have probably sliced off a finger (or two), which would have significantly altered how I grip a golf club, not to mention greatly upset my dear Mother who serves as the unofficial Chief of the Mandoline Police. (Love ya, Mom).

* For you Top Chef watchers, I'm sure you recall how Jen was shaking like a polariod picture as she was serving Thomas Keller and friends during the Bocuse d'Or elimination challenge a few weeks back. Yeah, she would have looked positively comatose compared to me trying to slice a hunk of fungus I paid $260 for.

So, at Food Night we are going to be slummin' it with the mere $40/oz French Burgundy Truffle. You'll notice that the D'Artagnan link indicates they are "out of season". I called last Friday to check the price of the white truffles (because the website says "call for pricing"... never a good sign for the consumer), and the fine gentleman told me they were $260/oz. After a LONG pause to collect my thoughts and organize my priorities in life, I went ahead and had him send me one black truffle. When I went back to the website a few days later, bang... out of season. See you next September.

Food Night dodged a MAJOR bullet there. And we can't wait to share our good fortune with you fine readers. Check back soon for all the details on tonight's Food Night!

Friday, December 11, 2009

It's all downhill from here

We may have peaked here at Food Night before we really even began.

This arrived at Food Night HQ yesterday... and there was much jubilation...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Accidentally Great Risotto

Risotto is a tricky one to tackle at a Food Night. Normally, risotto involves standing over a pot of simmering rice goodness for some time while constantly stirring. I've never found it to be a very guest friendly dish, because if I start the dish ahead of time and try to magically "pause" it in the middle... it just never comes out right. It ends up overdone, underdone, too dry, too brothy, too something. I know this is my shortcoming, and thousands of restaurants make very good risotto every day using the pause button, but I'm just not there yet. Another thing is, making risotto is a calming process for me. The slicing and dicing of ingredients, having a sip of the wine I'm cooking with, the rhythmical stirring of the pot, it's all very relaxing.

At the end of a long week, I often like to relax and wind* down by doing a little cooking on Friday night if at all possible. However, sometimes a balance needs to be struck between cooking and... being social. For example, this past Friday was movie night. So in the interest of both scratching that cooking itch AND leaving the house on Friday evening to go see Meryl Streep's Sandra Bullock's alleged tour-de-force performance in The Blind Side**, I decided to try to execute a satisfying risotto in a reasonable amount of time (reasonable to me in this case was 90 minutes, give or take. Not anything rushed, but not an all night thing either).

* Attempting to spell the word "wind" in that scenario took approximately 10 to 15 minutes of back and forth "e" or not to "e" debating. Wind. That is what blows across the flat earth here in the upper Midwest. It's what I cannot play golf in. It's what rustles the leaves in the trees. I was utterly convinced that "wind" (pronounced wine-d) MUST have an "e" on the end of it. I must be channeling my inner Dan Quayle or something.

** Very enjoyable movie, made even more enjoyable by the three cans of Surly Bender that were sitting in the seat next to us. You mean that's never happened to you? You've never gone to the movies only to find some beers from your refrigerator went to the same movie at same theater at the same time and sat in the seat right next to you? Hmm, sorry about that. I thought Bullock was actually very good, too. My expectations for her were admittedly low however, as I haven't seen a Sandy Bullock movie since this mess that even Keanu Reeves knew to avoid.

I've made risotto ever since I first started to get interested in cooking as something other than a hunger suppressant. Risotto is a blank canvas, ready to accept whatever flavor combinations you dream up. Red wine risotto with sausage and tarragon? Sure! White wine risotto with mushrooms and carrots? Of course! Risotto with bourbon, rabbit and caramelized onions? Go for it! (and let me know how it turns out). It can be a fridge declutterer, a leftover user-upper, a semi-quick weeknight dinner, or the centerpiece of a really elegant meal.

Before I give a brief run down of how this risotto came together, I will say that I can be a bit of a Nervous Nelly when it comes to my food. I'm often not sure it's any good until it's done, and even then I'm not sure until someone other than me actually likes it. This dish, was different. It was the perfect storm of ingredients that I knew were going to work as soon as I got home from the store.

Ahhhh the store - I had a grocery dilemma thrown in for good measure, too. See, I had it in my head that risotto was going to be what's for dinner, but time was a factor. I didn't really have time to leave work and fly way past my house to get to Kowalski's and their killer cheese department to grab the usual parmeggiano reggiano, then retrace my steps back toward the house by which time I'd really be pressing my luck to make a leisurely risotto and be on time for the movie.* The store that is on the way home simply doesn't cut it when it comes to Parm. They put strangely shaped triangles of parmesan into these waxy, oily vacuum sealed pouches which seem to vacuum and seal all the flavor and freshness and texture right out of the cheese. Ish. But again, TIME. There is no time! No time for Home Depot, certainly not for Bed Bath and Beyond, and definitely not for the extra 30 minutes it would take for a Kowalski's run. So, I stopped at the store on the way home, hoping for some inspiration.

* On time for the movie for me means about 20 minutes after the published showtime. Sure, I'd like to see some previews....... but not 20 minutes worth, geez.

Then, BANG, it happened. As I wandered around the store feeling sorry for the waxy, oily parmesan, I saw it... Goat Cheese. Who knew? I enjoy goat cheese as much as the next person, but I'd never used it in risotto before since I'm such a parm-a-holic. So I grabbed some goat cheese, a hot Italian sausage from the meat counter, and a rotisserie chicken (why not... it'll get used at some point in the near future if not tonight). But what really set the dish off was apple. A freaking APPLE. Peeled, and diced into pea-sized pieces, added at the end.

Risotto technique undoubtedly will get it's own post at some point, but I'll just throw out the basics here. I sauteed some shallot in butter, and after a minute added some fennel thinly shaved on the mandoline. Then added the rice, some more shaved fennel and uber-thinly sliced garlic, and the white wine (and plenty of it, pictured here. Probably a 1:1 ratio of wine to rice, at least. I used Helfrich Pinot Gris, which is absolutely fantastic stuff for under $15, find it at Haskell's). After the wine, ladle in stock*, slowly, maybe 1/2 or 3/4 cup at a time, while stirring constantly. As I was "stocking the risotto", I took the sausage out of the casing, broke it up, sauteed it, and kept breaking it up into little pieces until they were crispy. Ditched the fat in the pan from that, deglazed it with some shallot and wine, and dumped that deliciousness into the pot of simmering rice.

*Stock. There is nothing that will improve your cooking faster than to make your own stock. It's magic. And it's a whoooooole different post, which I cannot wait to write because it really, really, REALLY is the truth. I'm not here to lecture, or to cause trouble, I'm just here to do the Super Bowl Shuffle. No wait. I'm hear to tell you that if there is one thing that the old Food Night blog is 100% certain about, it is that stock is magic. And I DEFINITELY am not talking about anything that comes out of a box or a tin can. To be continued.

To finish; I stirred in a pat of butter and the goat cheese, another splash or two of wine until the desired creamy consistency was achieved. Stirred in a little dark meat from the chicken, the crispy sausage and some fresh parsley, and the apple.

Good times ensued. And the beauty was, I knew as this dish was coming together that it was going to be exceptional. Which again is really, really rare for me unless I'm making toast. Goat cheese, sausage, fennel, apple. The rest (shallot, chicken, parsley, etc) is really optional and completely up for debate. It's risotto - a blank culinary canvas. Just be sure to go a little heavy on the wine. Wine is your friend in risotto. I also can't overstate how good the apple was from both a taste and textural standpoint. Each bite with apple was like getting blindsided (ever so gently blindsided, mind you) by a crispity, crunchity palate pleasing flavor surprise. An apple. The simple* things sometimes really do make the difference.

*There's that word again, "simple". Food Night loves simple things.

In the end, this dish turned out so well I put risotto back on the map for future Food Nights. To go with the risotto, I opened a 2000 Barde Haut Bordeaux from St. Emilion which was out of this world good for the small price I paid for it. I can only imagine how good this dish could have been with a Barolo or Brunello or some other Food Night caliber Italian wine.

I suspect we'll find out soon enough.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Here goes nothing!

Greetings, and welcome to “Food Night”. To get right to the point – Food Night is a small gathering of friends that make it a priority to get together and share some simple but (hopefully) well crafted cuisine and some fantastic wines. Often times Food Night happens on a Friday or Saturday, but sometimes we break it out on a random Tuesday or Wednesday. After all, life is too short to make weeknight meals an afterthought. The enjoyment of sharing the company of friends and acquaintances old and new, of making food to share with friends, and of bringing bottles of exceptional wine to the table to share should not be reserved for Saturday night alone. That’s why any night is fair game for Food Night.

Here’s what happens at food night; I make food, my guests bring wine, and happiness ensues. Pretty simple formula. The food I make is crafted with one eye on the budget*, and the other on taste. And where do taste and cost effectiveness intersect? Simplicity. Simplicity will be a recurring theme at food night, and one that we will explore more later. For now, suffice to say it is much easier to create good food from good ingredients (imagine that).

* The Budget. There is no formal budget here at Food Night. I'm a regular guy, with a regular job, and a plethora of regular bills to pay, so I’m not spending hundreds of dollars to feed my friends. In fact, not counting what I already have in my pantry, it’s not uncommon for me to spend $50 or less to create 3 or 4 courses that will feed 4 people.

A brief note about the wines that we have here at Food Night; most do lean towards the spendy side. We aren't talking stratospheric dollars or anything, but most probably cost more than the typical bottle that is purchased on the way home from work on a given night for most folks. To be clear, great wine doesn’t have to be expensive, and all expensive wines certainly are not great. What I think tastes like gold, you might think tastes like gasoline. But really, there is only so much to say and/or discuss about a wine that is one dimensional or blah or "eh". And the wines really serve as the basis for most of the conversation at Food Night; comparing bottle X to bottle Y, reminiscing about bottle Z we had two Food Night's ago, etc. One of the most enjoyable things about Food Night is hearing what everyone else thinks of the wines for that particular night, predicting who will like what, and being blown away by a relatively unknown bottle that comes out of nowhere to steal the night. The beauty of Food Night is often in the unknown, the chance that tonight your wine universe will be turned upside down by a bottle you never saw coming.

The goals of the blog from both a food and wine perspective are to document, and to (hopefully) entertain a little while tossing out some opinions, recipes, techniques, favorite products, favorite wines, and who knows what else. And if you, the like minded brilliant reader, have any thoughts, comments, suggestions, feedback, complaints, be sure to chime in. We’d love to hear from you.

Incidentally, nobody here at Food Night is a professional photographer by any means, but there will certainly be photos on the blog (they will just not look like this or this). Whatever direction the blog takes from here is somewhat up in the air. My personal hope is that it will be somewhat informative and entertaining to at least one person who does not share my last name, but let’s just see what happens.

Let’s get down to business, since what would the Food Night blog be without… an actual Food Night! I’m excited to say that the first blogged Food Night is fast approaching! I fully intend to come up with a catchy phrase to announce the impending arrival of the next Food Night*, but for now… I’ve got nothing.

* Perhaps something Jack Buck style (“And we’ll see you… tomorrow night!”), or maybe Walter Cronkite style (“And that’s the way it is…. then recite the date of the next Food Night), or maybe even Ron Burgundy style (“I’ve just been handed an URGENT and HORRIFYING news story, and I need ALL of you to stop what you are doing, and listen!”). Who knows. If you have a suggestion, by all means throw it out in the comments!

Before I announce when the first Food Night will be, as an added bonus for your blog reading pleasure, I have procured one special "secret" ingredient for the occasion. I've never worked with this ingredient before, and could not be more excited to smell, see, touch, fondle, smell, caress and smell it. Yes, I said fondle. Should be deece.*

* Deece. As in, an abbreviated form of “decent”. At Food Night when we talk about something being “deece”… we mean it’s special. It’s great. It’s yummy, fantastic, delish, and all around super-duper. If something is “real deece”… then it’s almost too good for words. Thanks in advance for playing along.

Next Food Night; December 12th, 2009.

Initial menu thoughts; Tom’s venison, raw white fleshed fish (possibly ceviche’d… if that’s a word... and even if it's not), fresh pasta.