Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wine and Cheetah

I’ve been searching for some time for a red wine I like and can enjoy without getting heartburn (a problem for me only when I drink red wine) or a skull-splitting headache (another red wine side effect, and we’re talking after only one or two glasses). Then there’s also my mysterious allergic-like reaction to some red wines. I can’t pinpoint the grape or the style, but at some tastings, most recently when my brother and I checked out Napa Valley in January, I'll get a sudden tightening in my chest, flush and feel light-headed. It passes after a couple minutes and no, it’s not that I’m getting tanked.

In any case, while part of me is happy to stick with my beloved Rieslings, the off-dry and the semi-sweet but not the syrupy, and the occasional bottle of mead, I feel given my profession I need to understand reds better (a side note: I can drink port without any of the aforementioned problems, and suffer no ill effects from tempranillo, though I don’t really like the taste). So the search... journey... quest... thing has continued.

Until now.

From now on, I will only drink reds that have a cheetah on the bottle.

Last week, I stopped by one of the bigger liquor stores (as you might imagine in Ski Podunk, where I live, there are many of them) that offers a discount to employees of Bullwinkle Ranch and other locals. I like them for the discount, but also because they carry my rum (Gosling’s Black Seal Black Rum) and silly girly drink (South Africa’s Amarula... like Bailey’s only better) for reasonable prices.

I was buying a bottle of Dr. Loosen Riesling when another bottle caught my eye. I’ll admit it was the name that first lured me: Herding Cats. Is that a reference to the act of herding cats or to cats that herd? I wondered. For $8.99, I decided I’d try it, mostly because it was a Merlot/Pinotage blend, which I had never tried, and it was a wine from South Africa, which I’d also never tried.

It was delish, and I was able to drink it over the course of a week without a moment of agitas or slipping into momentary anaphylactic shock.

When I made my weekly stop yesterday at Rocky Mountain Moonshine (real name), I saw they had another brand from South Africa, also featuring cheetahs on the label and costing less than $10, even before discount. So I tried Sebeka’s Shiraz/Pinotage “Cape Blend” and liked it even more.

Both wines tasted, to me, anyway, medium-bodied in a good way, and very, very jammy, especially with blackberry. Sebeka had a little more body to it, but Herding Cats was in no way watery. And, a big thing for me, neither had that nasty tannin mouthfeel that I equate with sucking on wallpaper paste or eating shoe polish.

So, while I don’t claim to be a wine afficionado by any means, and some have dismissed my preferences as pedestrian (including some close friends! You know who you are!), The Pastry Pirate officially endorses West Cape cheetah reds for enjoyable drinking with no nasty side effects.

And if either Sebeka or Herding Cats wants to send me a case to help spread the word, well, that’s fine, too.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Funny Thing About Food

This weekend at Bullwinkle Ranch Resort was a busy one, with a wedding for a hundred-plus people, the restaurant completely booked every night and, perhaps most importantly, an intimate dinner for a dozen or so people in what I call the Hobbit Cellar... it’s a private dining room with a round wine barrel door frame right out of Hobbiton. The dinner was hosted by the owner of Bullwinkle Ranch. Yeah, the guy who signs our paychecks.

For the dinner, I trotted out my much-loved (by me, Chef and Delilah, anyway) fennel granita as an intermezzo. For the dessert, because the owner and others at the dinner are reportedly huge hockey fans, I created the Bullwinkle Ranch Hat Trick, with a "hockey puck" of layered chocolate-hazelnut sponge, soaked in Kahlua and layered with an espresso-chocolate ganache, dipped in pate a glacer (a chocolate product you can use for dipping or writing... I make it by melting one pound chocolate and stirring in two ounces canola oil), the size and shape of a hockey puck with the ranch’s "brand" piped on top. With it I made a pate a glacer hockey stick on each plate with caramel "action" lines to suggest movement and added a quenelle of vanilla ice cream.

And no, I didn’t have my camera around, but Chef said it was well-received. Actually, when I asked the following day about it, he gave a thumbs-up and then proceeded to recount in great detail how everyone reacted to the food he made. That's about the most feedback I get from him on my stuff (he is a chef, after all), so I won't complain. And he did have reason to brag.

For the main course, he created a rather delicious venison tenderloin-within-a marinated pork tenderloin with sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts that was so frickin’ tasty. I know because he set aside a portion for me, possibly after hearing me lament to Delilah, at 8 p.m., that I hadn’t had anything to eat since my breakfast of a large cameo apple more than 11 hours earlier.

In any case, before I got to taste this creation, I was at my station trying to plate my hockey pucks, finish the day’s to-do list and make some Lebkuchen* dough for a wedding next week that has a German theme.

*Lebkuchen is a German cakey spice cookie that the groom apparently is obsessed with, even if he doesn’t quite seem to know what it is... apparently every time he meets with the Food and Beverage staff he describes it differently, including "shortbread cookie covered in chocolate" and "spice cake." I’m making traditional German Lebkuchen and he can kiss my monkey if it’s not what he had in mind. Lebkuchen dough has to be made three or four days before you bake it, and then kept at room temperature for several more days, which is why I was rushing to make it a week ahead of time.

As I am making the Lebkuchen dough, aware that Chef has just sent the entree to the cellar, Delilah comes racing back to where I work, her face red and tears in her eyes.

I figured Chef had made one of his comments, or the guys on the line were giving her a hard time, but when I asked what was wrong, to my surprise she said "It’s so pretty!"


"It’s so pretty! I’m sorry, I just get real emotional about food!" she added.

Turns out she was talking about having helped plate the venison and pork entree, and was overwhelmed by its visual beauty and gastronomic perfection.

"Do you ever get that way about food?" she asked, in full-on foodie freakout mode. "Am I crazy to feel that way? It’s just so pretty!"

I looked at her, bawling, nose red and running, completely beside herself. And I have to say, while I haven’t gotten misty-eyed about food, there have been things I’ve made (the Maelstrom cake, cardamom brown butter ice cream, Stilton and walnut scones with chive creme fraiche... hell, any scone I’ve made) where I sit back and look at it with tremendous pleasure and satisfaction and, beyond the product itself, a feeling of self-worth that I’ve only experienced elsewhere with my fiction writing, as if to say to myself "this proves you can contribute on a positive way to the universe, even if it involves obscene amounts of butterfat."

There's also a weird cheap thrill I get in the kitchen, almost a primordial high, thinking about the long line of people from the first hunter-gatherer to figure out if you smash certain seeds and mix them with water you could make a paste and bake it on a heated rock and have bread to people like Antoine Careme, the storied Renaissance pastry chef who made entire buildings out of sugar for royale fetes. It's hard to describe, but I feel like I've joined a long line of people capable of melding creativity and practical chemistry to take raw ingredients and turn them into a commodity that is both useful and artistic (well, maybe not the caveman bread, but you get my point).

I love to write, don't get me wrong, and I loved being a journalist, but I always felt that as a member of the media I was reacting to what other people were doing. Now I'm one of the doers, and I like it.

So no, I told Delilah. She wasn’t crazy to feel that intensely about food. Also, she was in the right profession.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chef's Balls

A belated happy St. Patrick’s Day and Ides of March, if the latter can be celebrated, to all. On the 15th, I warned a couple people in the kitchen "Beware the Ides of March" and got blank looks. Chef overheard this and walked over, as concerned as I was that these kids today don’t know the reference.

"Do you need a hint?" he asked one of the interns, a feisty Southern girl I’ll call Delilah.

Delilah nodded. Well, I just happened to have a tournee knife in my hand. Chef looked at me, I looked at Chef, and without thinking I growled and faux-stabbed him repeatedly in the chest.

"E tu, Brutus?" he moaned and did an impressive swooning fall, all six-feet-three-inches of him, into the arms of a stunned sous chef, who happens to be a foot shorter than him.

While I believe we both deserve Academy nods for the impromptu performance, it didn’t help Delilah at all. Another intern, who apparently has read something in his life other than a Facebook profile, shouted "Julius Caesar!"

Okay, so maybe there is hope for the next generation.

Other than staging famous death scenes and gettting quizzed on obscure Star Wars references (Chef learned I am as big a SW geek as he is... problem is, he is more into the prequels than I am, so he’s always picking my brain about the movies I know least. He also read all the books, which I never did), I spent most of the week training Delilah on baking and pastry basics (she’s a culinary kid) and futzing about with new menu items, including our most recent addition to the restaurant experience: mignardises.

I am so into mignardises, which are the bite-size after-dinner treats traditionally brought to the table with the check. Yes, I did all the usual production, making ice cream and bread pudding and flourless chocolate cake and cinnamon rolls and yadda yadda yah, but I love those damn mignardises, in part I think because I try to use up leftovers, so it becomes a game for me.

We always have a lot of egg whites on hand, which Chef sometimes uses in bulk for making a consomme raft (when making consomme, adding proteins such as the whites draws impurities together into a disgusting yet efficient "raft" of goo that you can then remove, leaving behind the crystal clear liquid), so I’ve been making swirly meringue cookies, French macaroons with almonds and pistachios and baby tuilles.

I’ve also done port and chocolate cookies, lavender shortbread and fennel shortbread, the latter using the delicate tops of the fennel bulbs which the cooks discard. One day I’ll remember to bring my camera to work and take some pictures.

Chef had the best leftover idea: taking scraps of cake, soaking them in boozy simple syrup and pressing them into sheets to use them as the basis for petit fours. First I used leftover poundcake scraps soaked in rum syrup, topped with a thin layer of boysenberry jam and an even thinner layer of homemade marzipan (hell yeah, I'm making my own marzipan), then cut into one-inch cubes and dipped in pate a glacer (a kind of dipping chocolate you make by combining eight parts melted chocolate with one part canola oil).

The second time I made them, I used chocolate sponge scraps soaked in a mix of Kahlua and espresso, topped with chocolate ganache (think fudgy frosting) before getting the pate a glacer dip. In both cases, after dipping I piped the resort’s "brand" on top. And when I say "brand," I mean it in the old-school way: the same symbol they brand all their livestock with.

When one of Delilah’s baking projects, brownies, turned out badly, Chef suggested we make rum balls from it. Emphasis on rum. He kept tasting the brownie scraps and telling her to add more rum, even past the point where all I could taste was alcohol burn. To be fair, we stock a brand of dark rum that I abhor, but still. Good God.

Outside of the kitchen, Wiley and I were able to get out on a couple long free-range (off-leash) walkies this week, when I did remember my camera:

The Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, viewed from its western edge. I can't wait for the snow to melt enough to get deeper into there after seeing photos of the many lakes and craggy peaks within.

I call this one "can you hear me now?"

You know how much I love dire warnings (in case you can't read it, it says "DANGER KEEP OUT; SWIFT COLD WATER GOES UNDERGROUND DOWNSTREAM; CERTAIN DEATH IF ENTERED"):

Post-walkies, Sir Smalls shows off his new favorite toy: a camo stuffed dog we call Loofus that matches his boss camo bandana.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

RIP - Rest In Purring

Some sad news for those of you who knew my former cat, Volodya. He passed away in his sleep a couple days ago at my mom's house, where he had been living for years. When you look at the different ways to go, dying in your sleep on a comfy bed in a warm house has to be at or near the top of the list, but he will be missed.

Volodya was born somewhere in the greater DC metropolitan area in late 1992 with health problems: a crooked spine that gave him a quizzical look and membranes covering his eyes. He was found alone in the snow and taken to an animal rescue group. An operation solved his eye problems, but his head remained slightly cocked, as if he was amused at everything around him.

I adopted him as a friend for the dearly departed Kosmo, who was just a few months older than him. The two of them got along, though I suspect Kosmo always envied Volodya for getting to ride in the cabin, and not in stowage, when all three of us moved to Moscow in 1994.

Although named after Vlad the Impaler ("Volodya" is Russian for "little Vlad"), Volodya was a lover, not a fighter. He was a very kneady cat, and loved to stand on you and methodically knead your arms and chest while purring at jet-engine volumes. He also enjoyed sitting in the kitchen sink, and playing fetch with a toy made of glittery feathers.

Volodya tolerated the arrival of Wiley in 1995, but remained a conscientious objector when the two dogs rough-housed. Although they never hurt him, they enjoyed licking and gumming him, and Volodya never protested. But when I stepped out of the shower one day to find Kosmo and Wiley playing tug-of-war with Volodya, I decided it was perhaps best to send him to a calmer environment. Volodya moved in with my mom soon after, and it was there that he spent the rest of his days in pampered comfort with his close feline friend Lucky, the equally mellow canid Shadow and an assortment of other adopted cats and dogs.

Today while hiking along a snowy trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness with Wiley, now 13 but still up for a game of tug-of-war, I heard a low rumble overhead. Maybe it was a prop plane, hidden in the clouds, or an avalanche deep in the mountains, but I like to think it was Volodya, comfortable on his new perch, looking down with a purr.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"The Salad Pirate" Doesn’t Have Quite the Same Ring...

I’ll get to the salad day in a minute, but first: the motion-activated paper towel dispenser we have above all the hand sinks at work is branded as an "Intuition Dispenser." Am I the only one who finds that very, very funny?

Another random aside (the best kind!): I mentioned Wiley and I saw mountain lion tracks a couple weeks ago on the back road behind our apartment where I let him off-leash. We’ve also seen lots of mule deer on the ridge above the road, with their thick winter fur and cute, skull-like faces (they have white markings that, from a distance at least, look like skulls to me). Well, a couple days ago we saw what happens when the mountain lion meets a mule deer. We found a deer. Pieces of it. A leg, random viscera, part of the rib cage and a clump of fur. It was a little sad, but I was also happy the mountain lion got something to eat, because apparently the snow has been unusually heavy this year and a lot of wildlife is starving because of difficulty finding their food source, whether it’s deer trying to get down through the snow to the grass or mountain lions trying to get the deer.

Wiley, for his part, was curious but a little afraid of the carcass clumps and kept his distance. He did that thing where he stands squarely but stretches his neck forward as if trying to get closer without actually, you know, getting closer, until one or both of his front paws come up and he trips on himself, gets embarrassed and walks away with a cat-like expression of "what are you looking at?"

In other Wild Kingdom news, last night Wiley and I also saw another fox just happily walking around the parking lot without a care in the world. Wiley cried a little, like when he sees a dog and wants to be friends but fears losing his gangsta cred. The fox was too far off for any interspecial interaction, though.

Okay, now to the subject line... This weekend we’re starting to serve mignardises in the finer dining restaurant... those are the little sweets like petit fours that are sometimes brought with the check. So I’ve been doing all kinds of little stuff that will keep (so I don’t have to make it every night), including French macaroons (the flat cookies made with egg whites and almond flour, not the American macaroons which are haystacks of sugar, whites and coconut). I love macaroons, but was worried the altitude would have a negative impact on the recipe I had. Surprisingly, they came out great, though they baked in about half the time, even at a lower temperature. I’m still figuring out the altitude thing. Some recipes need no changes, some need to be baked at a lower temp, others at a higher one, some need less leavening or more eggs... no disasters so far, but it is a constant challenge.

Last weekend, the finer dining restaurant (where I am physically located) was fully booked, plus we had a wedding reception for 37 people in the adjoining hall. I was busy prepping desserts when Chef came back and told me to do the salad course for the wedding. Huh. I’d helped him plate salads for a wedding once before, so I knew the ingredients, but it was still a little "uhm, okay...." to find myself tossing great piles of bibb lettuce with vinaigrette, salt and pepper, arranging the leaves just so on 37 plates and then garnishing with radish, blue cheese and candied walnuts.

It’s a beautiful day and this is my only one off from work this week, so I’m headed back out into the sunshine with Mr. Cute-tastrophe to see what other deer parts we might find!