Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cooking with Carla Hall

My wife purchased a Groupon to attend a cooking class with celebrity Top Chef contestant Carla Hall. At the time I think both of us were pretty busy with work and I said, "Sure, cool, that sounds fun". By the way, did I mention the class sold out in 3 hours? The other day...finally in January of 2011, we attended the event. Wow, what an honor!

Chef Carla Hall is a pretty down to earth lady who is a chef caterer (Alchemy Catering) and got her recent notoriety from Top Chef Season 5. As we drove to the event I said to Meghan, "As a caterer, how did this lady get discovered?" It wasn't like she was some hot shot molecular gastronome making sprays, foams, and pollen dusts with a bustling resume under the most famous Michelin Star Chefs...Meghan said, "I guess probably because her food tasted good".

Bingo! Chef Carla Hall apparently on a whim auditioned for season five, and made it to the big dance of up and coming chefs. And she was no slouch, making it to the finale and just missing the championship by a few mis-steps. In our opinion, she probably should have won. The gal has chops and is now featured on "Top Chef All Stars". She has gone from this familiar quirky and often hilarious down to earth character on season 5, to a favorite in our home. Watching her lights up the room and always brings a smile to our faces. She is real, and like a lot of the chefs on that show, she cooks with love and inspiration.

When you watch Carla, and you meet her, she always talks about adding love to dishes. She talks about ingredients like they are cherished children, saying that when you add the perfect mix of elements, the dish has "BADOW!"...and how the perfect restraint and combination of love will make that dish have feathers like a Peacock...oh yeah, and when you make a great dish..."Dance around, strut...literally, shake those Peacock Tailfeathers!".

The setting for this little "Cooking Class" was in her catering building. We dressed to cook and get dirty...but delightfully found out she was serving us a four course dinner with wine tasting menu, only to demonstrate and explain how she did each dish. Very very candidly answering questions about her experience on the show, her life's work of cooking, and showing us about her dishes while her sommelier paired those Peacocks with some really great wines. My regret of the night was not photographing the first dish of Smoked Coho Salmon, best Tartare I think I have ever had. Meghan HATES smoked fish and said, "Wow, best ever, I would eat that every day".

The dishes were delightful, healthy, and pretty darned simple.

1) Smoked Salmon Tartare on bagel round, paired with Fume Blanc, Chateau St. Jean

2) Fennel and Winter Greens Salad with Molten Goat Cheese and Champagne Vinaigrette, paired with Oak Grove Chardonnay, Oak Grove 2009 (8 bucks a bottle...holy smokes, it was so damned good with notes of toffee, caramel, and vanilla).

3) Pork Tenderloin Medallions with Rot Vegetable Ragout, paired with D'Autrefois Pinot Noir, 2009

4) Butterscotch Mousse with Almond Tuile and Salted Almonds, paired with Offley Ruby Porto

Note per note, gosh it would be such a long blog. Everything was wonderful, and it all sounds so simple doesn't it? We looked at the menu and said, "Really, is that it?" Pictures, tastes, and smells overran the titles of the dishes much like anything Chef Carla does. Carla is a really normal and nice lady who isn't showy and traditionally a "Diva Chef". But she can cook, and everything she made was ridiculously flavorful. And that's what we loved about was like a reincarnation of Julia Child...

Normal person who adores cooking, doesn't have any fussiness, and everything they turn out inspires you to cook more, and often because you walk away saying, "We're normal too, it's accessible, it's just love, add the love, make the Peacock, shake your feathers!"

Chef Carla embodies the reasons why we cook, and we thank her for inspiring us and giving us all those little hints on how to make our food have daily "Badow!"

Friday, January 7, 2011

2006 Jelly Jar Zinfandel and THE BURGER

We make burgers, and I blogged about it. And tonight, we have made a burger to rival Laurent Tourondel. Balanced with a very important and wonderful Zinfandel, best we have ever drank named "Jelly Jar" from Napa.

It's a wine we have dreaded drinking, because we only had one, and it was our first trip to Napa. And we knew it would just taste like beautiful music. And it did...the name is derived for when the wine maker's ancestors made wine in jelly jars...but as you know, Zinfandel tastes like an amazing jar of Blackberry jelly.

The Burger...Whole Foods Local 85/15 Ground Beef, Spanish Herbed Goat Cheese (the silkiest we have ever sampled), Over Easy Egg, Bacon (Burger pan fried in Bacon Fat), Brussel and Alfalfa Sprouts, and fresh Onion Bun pan toasted in Bacon Fat...

Take any of that away, and the burger is no good. The melding of great ingredients, perfect ingredients, paired with a perfect Zinfandel...

Like us, just like us...And we say adieu to a wonderful montage, and bonjour to more saveur.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Home Revolution...

Locavore, Local, Stop the Corporate Giants! I'm inspired to write this after watching "Beer Wars". As a home brewer it piqued my interest because I absolutely have gone ape shit over beer. I guess at 17 I started saying, "In a year, I can vote and die for my country in war, hell yes, I can also imbibe."

As apey as I go over home cooking, eating at wonderful establishments, and experiencing food revolution innovation...I totally support whole hog, righteously fully, the craft brew movement. If you watch the documentary your blood will boil at the savagery and monopoly Anheuser Busch, Miller, and Coors has put on the little man brewer since prohibition. Due to their monetary success they have bought up the board just like the winner in the game Monopoly. It's the American Dream I suppose.

However, those companies have stood for mediocrity. Their flagship beers SUCK...and they really have survived on buying up the little man. Their actual beer ideas are poaching of great craft and regional breweries. I sit here with a Dogfish Head 90 minute ipa savoring the flavor of a righteously well made beer. As Carla Hall would say, "It was made with love, you can taste the love". Thank you Sam Calagione for your well thought brews!

So many of us, including myself say we as Americans live in post modern Rome. The calm before the giant collapse. Like so many others I feel America is in it's twilight. I hope it's not the case however. In two-hundred years we have lived the "American Dream". And in humanity, I think our corporate success first and dreams last culture is beginning to fail us. Is it the time of rising for small businesses with actual organic and soulful ideas? Whole Foods is cornering that market when you shop at their establishment. Whole Foods = you support small, you are an individual, and you have a mind of your own to take down corporate food...and I feel it's catching on.

Listen, I home brew and cook at home with my wife because we too have love to give to our ingredients. Isn't it time you do the same?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Going Bamboo for Christmas

The 2 weeks preceeding our Christmas vacation were pretty brutal. Aside from working almost 2 and a half weeks straight, my cousin ended up in the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit with a Traummatic Brain Injury. Meghan's sleep schedule and work schedule were erratic. Then she got into a small fender bender while I was away tending to my family. I've never seen her more at her wits end regarding an absolute emotional collapse. Suffice it to say, Fort Lauderdale was to be a huge break.

When our wheels touched down our spirits lifted. Warmth, sunshine, and the freedom of not having any responsibility except for grabbing our Rent-A-Car and heading to our B&B was liberating. They say it takes 3 days to find vacation mode. We hit our stride on day one.

Immediately after check-in, we walked to a great little beach bar named "Aruba". On the beach, next to the pier, live steel drum music in the background...heaven. And moreso...Shot of Johnny Walker Red, Corona...feeling great. Time to eat? Why yes, plate of Conch Fritters and the Lobster Salad Sandwich.

The sandwich needed salt, and needed something more than untoasted boring wheat bread. It needed a little more texture. I would even add Bacon. But the fritters...oh, the fritters...totally deceiving. On the outside, they were really dark brown...I thought they were burned. But on the inside, moist, doughy pillows of savory goodness with a right fine amount of conch. A couple more Coronas, and the walk back with a big stinky cigar had me feeling the vibe.

My vibe was the ghost of my last trip with my parents, six years ago to be exact. It was and continues to be a great memory. I was starting to date Meghan, my grandfather stayed with us in probably his last trip to Florida, and I feel like my parents finally started settling into a relaxation mode on vacation. Look, relaxation with mom and dad installs housework, yardwork, and then fixing dinner. It's something I cherish...but laying on the beach...not their forte. And finally, dad and I lounged on the opposing lawn chairs with Margaritas in hand for 20 minutes...or maybe 30. Listen, that's a HUGE step. I think mom even lounged by the pool while I painted. Suffice it to say, my relaxation mode hit its stride because I remembered all the great memories, and seized the moment with my new crew. Six years ago, I dreamt about dating Meghan. And there I was...married to the love of my life, hand in hand with her on the beach, same B & B Villa, same sun, same crystal blue waters, and seafood, mmm, seafood.

Each day of our Christmas was wonderful. Mary Ellen said, "This is the least stressed I have been for Christmas". And I would have to agree. We were on vacation and we officially went bamboo never leaving our place except for Christmas Eve and our jaunt to South Beach. On our last day, I spoke to my Uncle Rob on the phone and said, "I'm so sorry we didn't hang out more (we actually hung out three out of our 6 nights). We really enjoyed ourselves with you." And he replied, "Oh man, I can't believe you hung out so can be the pits, we were just so happy to see you guys."

In a time where Christmas can just get ridiculous with expectations and ostentatious presents, it doesn't surprise me that people give up on the holiday. I think it's our innate need to please...we give, and we give, and at some point when we can't give anymore. Exhausted, we become embittered. The next thing you know, you're so goddamned bitter, the magic of Christmas is lost. This year for me, Christmas was losing its magic. Call it working too much, call it a shitty year, call it cold winter depression. We weren't ready to celebrate, we weren't able to give anything more than what we had. Yet there we were, becoming recharged by the warmth and sun of Florida, and the hospitality of family who enjoyed us just for stopping by. Christmas was re-invented. Sometimes, you just gotta go bamboo.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Stone Crab...

Listen...this is something I just DON'T GET! In Florida they go NUTS for "All You Can Eat Stone Crab". Nuts I tell you. See that little bugger? There's no harvesting of the full on crab...nope. You dive down, or trap em up, pull a claw off, and send em' back to Davie Jones's Locker. They regenerate their botched claw while living as "The One Armed Man I Tell Ya"(sorry for "The Fugitive" reference), and live to give another claw at another time.

Great idea, especially for all the hippie tree hugger PETA types. Our first encounter with the ole' Stone Crab was on the Ambergris Caye in Belize. Fresh off the reef, crabbers would chug in on their little Jon Boats with a 5 gallon bucket toppled with meaty claws. Served on some Jasmine Coconut Rice and Peas, lime, and butter...can't be beat. Claws...meaty, tender. But the Floridians and their ways astound me...

Served on Ice, pre-cracked, with mustard sauce...

Dood...I tried...and immediately asked for warm butter. And I ate about four pounds worth of claws..they weren't bad...and I needed food to soak up the beer. My uncle however wrote to my dad and said, "I'm not sure Matty likes the Stone Crabs" guesses he could tell I wasn't a fan of the mustard.

Listen, they were fine. And I love seafood. But to go this crazy over ice cold claw meat? I don't get it. The chilled claw has no flavor except that of the warmed butter. And there is no more crab to pick...imagine if you ate Maryland Blue Crab and all you got to eat was a cold claw...

My suggestion, and it may IRK the traditionalists, but I suggest you serve em hot, uncracked, and with plenty of clarified butter. Mustard is for Hot Dogs and Pastrami Sandwiches...not crabs. And another thing...cracking the crab is part of the journey. You ask anyone who "picks" Maryland Blue Crabs...and they will tell you it's a religion. It's an drink beer (and you can't drink more than three because you get too engrossed in picking crab while salivating), you conversate, and you get all giddy at the treasures of lump meat you excavate from the cavernal labyrinths of esteemed crab.

Pre-Cracked, Cold, Mustard?

I must be missing something.

South Beach

For the 27th of December, my wife wanted to head to South Beach for her big birthday. It's a snappy drive from Lauderdale by the Sea, so we all said, "Shoot, why not", hopped in the rental and drove down.

Couldn't have been a better day to go...not too crowded at 10am, a cinch in parking, and quite the pleasant walk through Ocean Drive (which is "The Strip"). Biggest gripe were the countless restaurants hocking their wares, begging for you to come in....ugh... But big in culture, panache, and soul.

I myself had a great time poaching a few local hand rolled Dominican cigars. We absolutely fell in love walking through Espanola way and I ducked into a great little french cafe named "A La Folie" for a "Snack". The girls were shopping and Meghan kept asking me to look at all the things she was about to try on...low blood sugar and all, I said, "Look, I need a coffee, I'll be right back". 5 Minutes later sitting down, I called her and said, "Dood, gotta come in here for a treat". She was totally annoyed I didn't wait up...I laughed.

The Cafe Au Lait was served in a huge soup bowl...I looked around, bemused and bewildered, and saw people just picking up their bowls and drinking. Reminded me of a time at the dinner table with my Uncle Paul eating soup...I went to drink the last of the broth from the bowl and he interjected, "Matty, gotta ask the chef if you can pick up and slurp"...

I intended to walk in for a quick cafe au lait and pastry, but the pastries were in the I settled for a Crepe Normande. Known for their apples and Calvados in Normandy, this crepe gets it's chops from the tart sauteed apples and Calvados creme sauce. Honestly I had two or three bites and savored. The girls came in from shopping and were delighted to share this delightful bite.

With snacky hunger sated and lunch hunger closing in, we checked out a couple of quaint art deco hotels for future stays and debated where to eat.

BLT Steak by Laurent Tourondel, at Hotel Betsy caught our eye. You might recognize this chef from such shows as "No Reservations" as "One of the Best Burgers in America". Guilty from not venturing to his establishment sooner (we live 40 minutes from his place in DC) we settled for a go.

Beautiful setting...a little too chilly to sit out despite the glass heaters outside. We settled on a few morsels that plain out rocked our worlds.

Heirloom Local Tomatoes with Bermuda Onions, Russian Tarragon Dressing, Gorganzola, and Charred Onion Compote with Micro Basil....a superb combo...try a silky Goat cheese if you don't like Gorgonzola...but I insist you try it first.

Gruyere Popovers...they actually hand you the recipe when they bring out the treats...that could be our next holiday bread for the table.

Potatoes Au Gratin...really good with three cheeses, but nothing to really get excited about.

BLT Wagyu, no Kobe...straight up Angus cooked Medium Rare (the way God wants your meat to be). Perfect bun to burger ratio...and by far one of the best burgers I have ever laid hands on.

Sure, we should have gone to a down home dirty old local joint...but have you ever had those days where you just don't want to plan all that hard to find the "hard to find out of the way place?" I have an App on my iPhone called "Best New Chefs" from Food and Wine Magazine. Literally, I let the phone use my location, and I clicked on the button, "Locate Near Me"..... And 0.2 miles away popped up BLT Steak.

Call South Beach what you will....flashy, showy, pompous, shallow. There is not ENOUGH money to have down there. You make 100 million dollars on a 5 year basketball contract? You aren't wealthy my are doing okay, and you could be poor if you don't watch yourself. Great place to play and visit, and I would go back for a day or two anytime. It's honestly a wonder of culture, people, and food. My senses were just vibing off the energy and I felt hip. Where's all the sooped up Guido's from "Jersey Shore"?...lemme at em'!...on second thought, leave me alone, I'm a prepster for life.

We got out in the nick of time around 4pm, just as the traffic heated up...we dodged it all, and I smoked a great Torpedo Cigar on Lauderdale Beach to celebrate. Ah, a freshy, rolled on the thighs of a beautiful Cuban least that's what I think they said...