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Napa Valley calls, Part 1- The anticipation

As I write this week it is rainy, windy and I can’t tell whether it is going to be hot or cold in the next few minutes. A customer was in wearing a soaked sweatshirt and ball-cap from this little summertime squall. And I say, enough! For us there truly is light or in this case sunshine at the end of the tunnel. Lenore and Iare taking some time off just after Labor Day and heading for Napa Valley. For Lenore’s birthday this past May I gave her a night at the French Laundry in Yountville, CA!

We have rented a small cottage in that area and will be joined by friends and family from Seattle, Maryland, Brea, and Calistoga, California. When they heard we were going, they too expressed interest in the critically acclaimed, French Laundry. And no wonder. It is said that its chef-owner, Thomas Keller is serving up the best cuisine in North America. For me, to experience the best is like getting a super charged vitamin of culinary wisdom. It revitalizes my senses and reminds me where the bar is set. The commonly named restaurant resides in a building that was once a saloon and then brothel before emerging as a French steam laundry in the1920’s. At some point it was purchased and turned into a restaurant before Keller bought it in 1994 and created the destination it is today.

The impetus for my interest stems from my quest for well matched flavors, textures and comprehensive sensory dining experiences that leave guests satisfied and happy. For me, Thomas Keller does this like nobody else. Keller is more than a chef’s chef. He is to culinary what Picasso is to art. In an interview once, Keller was asked who his competition was. Alain Ducasse, Keller had stated without reservation. That was the first time I remember thinking this chef is a stand-out. Up to that point, Alain Ducasse had always been for me the Dali Lama of cooking. Ducasse became the first chef to own restaurants carrying three Michelin stars in three cities. Ducasse in his writings introduced me to the concept of exploiting a food product in every way to extract flavors. In any event when Keller named Ducasse, I knew I would follow Keller’s work as well. I thought of him as a peer then. Now I know he is the American version of France’s Alain Ducasse himself.

Of course to design a holiday around one meal is a little extravagant if not extreme. Hopefully by part two of this story, when I share the highlights of the trip, you’ll see why it is more than a meal to us.

Meantime, our wine country itinerary looks like this:
Day 1: We arrive in Calistoga in time to meet friends for lunch in Sonoma. Our first wine tasting tour is that afternoon at Chateau Montelena’s, where the movie, Bottle Shock was filmed. Dinner is in Calistoga with our friends who will pick the location.
Day 2, we head to Napa with stops at Jarvis, Franciscan, Heitz and more if we can. Dinner prepared by friends from Seattle is back at the cottage – al fresco with two more couples.
Our night to cook is Day 3 following a full day —sparkling wine flight at Schramsberg in the morning, followed by a picnic from the St. Helena Market somewhere close to the next wine tour at Hwy 12 Winery in Sonoma.
Day 4 we’ll have only one afternoon tour, Mondovi, with lots of free time to explore boutiques before lunch. And finally, day 5, the long awaited meal at the French Laundry.

And yes, it was truly an accomplishment to finally get these reservations. The French Laundry requires customers to call 60 days prior to the desired date. Each day they field some 700 requests. By the time I got through, I did not get my first choice, but didn’t hesitate to take the one offered. I aspire to enjoy such popularity! – can you blame me?

The night we are cooking at the house we are making whatever vegetables we discover in the St. Helena farmers market. Not knowing exactly what kitchen equipment and cooking might be, or what we might find in the market, we are planning a few recipes in advance that fits the occasion. That night is when all our friends and cousins will be there! Dinner for 10 it is up to now!


G–is for garlic!

Garlic, with its unique flavor and medicinal attributes is more than the runt of the allium family, it’s a contender! Its close relatives include the onion, the shallot, the leek and the chive. It’s characteristic pungent, spicy flavor mellows and sweetens considerably with cooking. A bulb (head) of garlic, the most commonly used part of the plant, is divided into many fleshy sections called cloves. The cloves are used as seed, for consumption (raw or cooked), and for medicinal purposes. The remaining stem and stalk is generally used when the plant is young and tender. When we pick and use the young stems early in its growing period, it helps the heads grow even larger.

The origins of garlic are debated but the consumption is not. China produces around 23 billion pounds annually which acounts for 75% of the worlds output. Gilroy, California purports to be the garlic capital of the world, despite growing only a meager 2% of the world’s crop.

To cook garlic the outer paper-like skin is usually removed and the individual cloves can be sliced, chopped, pasted or roasted whole. In my experience, removing the center sprout, although somewhat time consuming, can prove to be very rewarding. Any bitterness or sensativity in digestion can usually be midigated once the sprout, especially when even slightly green, is removed. My own capacity for digesting garlic is well tested and many times I use raw garlic I can still taste when the sprout was not removed. Most recipes ensure better digestibilty by partial or complete cooking. A happy medium I employ is cooking garlic with the main cooking of the dish, then adding a small amount of raw garlic at the end to increase its impact.

Medicinal garlic dates back to the Egyptians, where they believed it increased strength and work capacity. In the middle ages, adding garlic to wine and drinking it believed to protect you from the plaque. In World War I and II it was used tp prevent gangrene. Today because of their antioxidants, garlic is known to contribute to heart health by decreasing plaque build up in the arteries. And it is said to improve the immune system and protect against cancer.

As much as garlic may enhance health, storing garlic at room temperature in oil (even buttered garlic bread) can be fatal. Botulism spores are prevelent in the soil in which garlic grows and once place in an anaerobic atmosphere such as surrounded by oil and left at room temperatures, the spores reproduce leaving behind the botulium toxin. Of course, commercially made flavored oils have a retardant component to prevent growth of dangerous spores.

Also important when home-canning garlic, even if in an acid soluition, one must be certain of the food safety precautions necessary. For most of our cooking with garlic the danger is midigated by one or or another condition that the prevents spores from growning.

Of the many of types of garlic there is sure to be a favorite. The artichoke garlic is a soft neck variety that is in most supermarkets and is easy to use with its 12 – 20 cloves. Most people are comforatble with this type since the cloves are generally the same size and therefore easily adapted to recipes. Another variety, Lorz Italian garlic, as found at the CBFM, is a surprisingly subtle variety with a twist. As it is eaten the intensitiy builds and subtle turns to pungent. Sicilaino is a variety known for its mellowness. It is most often used raw, and where crunch is a desired texture. It stars well in pestos and salsas.

Elephant garlic is very popular too. Many people think its larger size makes it stronger but the opposite is true. Actually it is less intense and sweeter than most other varities and although a single clove is larger than most bulbs, it takes much more to get the same effect. Likewise when wanting the milder impact it takes less to get there.

While arranging my thoughts on garlic I decided to check out some facts on the internet, particually the words of Harold McGee, my and many others personal source of cooking truth that we count on to answer obsurd and scientific questions on food. Like how to make garlic turn blue! None the less I did surf the internet and am struck by the many debateable topics on this simple but prolific veggie.

To press or not to press! To buy it pre-peeled or peel your own. To smash or chop? What strikes me is the strength of conviction of the people on either side of these questions. And I guess I have my own opinions too, but in the end it probably really doesn’t matter a whole lot in the enjoyment of a dish.

Quickly here are my thoughts on each question: To smash vs slice and chop—both important—I don’t believe the garlic becomes so much stronger when pasted but I do believe it disperses best when it is pasted, and I especially enjoy this for raw pestos. When chopped with a whirling blade of a food processor, I do notice increase in intensity and a strong undesirable flavor results. Slicing doesn’t seem to intensify the strength of flavor.

Purchasing garlic already peeled in brine is not happening for me, period, but I do believe there is a variety of peeled garlic that is out there that does save time and gives good results when it is purchased very fresh and not held refrigerated too long.

And on the point of using a garlic press, I don’t, but not because it isn’t a good way to handle garlic, it is just more time consuming for me first to find the tool, and then difficult to clean it, not to mention the waste—or perceived waste—I seem to throw away more than I use.

In the end, garlic is almost as common in cooking as its relative, the onion, but for me, the enjoyment the dish is enhanced in a way that makes garlic for me a more important and aboslute staple.

Below are some of our favorite recipes – Enjoy!

ROASTING GARLIC
3-4 bulbs/heads garlic
Method 1: Cut heads crosswise and place in shallow oven container of good olive oil. Season with salt and pepper if desired. Cover and back for 1 hour. Cool then squeeze out the garlic cloves.
Method 2: Peel and separate cloves. Place in pot and cover with a good olive oil; heat on medium low heat maintaining for 30 minutes or until cloves are completely tender. Strain, but reserve oil. Use as spread or in recipes requiring roasted garlic.
Always reserve oil roasted garlic in the refrigerated and promptly refrigerated any leftovers.

GARLIC BARBECUE SAUCE
4 TBS EVOO
1 bulb garlic, mashed
1 cup cider vinegar
½ cup soy sauce
2 cups ketchup
2 cups honey
1tsp dry mustard
½ cup instant espresso
as needed sea salt and black pepper
Method: place a medium sauce pan over moderate high heat; add oil; add the garlic and sauté gently until golden brown; add cider vinegar, soy sauce, ketchup, honey and mustard; stir well; add a pinch of sea salt and coffee. Bring to a simmer and simmer for 10 minutes.

GARLIC PULLED PORK
½ cup vegetable oil
2# pork butt
as needed sea salt, coriander and pepper
2 ea yellow onions, diced
4 bulbs garlic, peeled
1 TBS ground cumin
2 tsp thyme leaves
1 tsp ground mustard
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
Method: heat oil in large sauté pan; season pork with salt, pepper and coriander and place in pan as oil is beginning to smoke. Sear on all sides and remove pork; reserve. Remove excess oil from pan and discard. Place onions and garlic in semi dry pan and cook to coat with pork particles (“fond”) – cook until they are translucent and aromatic; add pork and mix to combine; add remaining spices – stirring to combine; cook for 2 minutes; cover 2/3 with water and bring liquid up to a boil. Cover with tight fitting lid or foil, and place in 400ºF oven. After one hour, remove and turn the pork pieces; cover again and cook for an additional hour or until pork is tender and begins to pull apart. Remove pork from oven. Utilizing 2 forks, tear “pull” pork apart. Simmer shredded pork, uncovered on moderate heat while stirring often for another 30-60 minutes. Adjust seasonings. Serve.

GARLICKY CHICKEN MUSHROOM SOUP WITH CRAB
2 TBS grape seed oil
2 tsp ginger, minced
4TBS garlic, sliced
24 oz chicken stock
1 TBS grape seed oil
1 cup assorted mushrooms
4 oz grilled chicken, diced
2 ears corn, roasted, hulled
½ tsp light sesame oil
4 oz crabmeat
2 TBS cilantro chopped
2 TBS green onion, minced
Method: heat first grape seed oil in large sauté pan over moderate heat; add ginger and garlic and heat till aromatic; add stock and bring to a simmer.
Meanwhile heat second grape seed oil in a large sauté pan; add mushrooms and sauté till they become glossy and slightly cooked; set aside. In the first pan add chicken and corn and heat through; add mushroom mixture and stir to combine; place soup in serving bowls and garnish with crab, cilantro and green onion.

Makes 4 servings

PS. I used this recipe in Maryland where the blue crab was king. I think I like it even better with Dungeness. Be certain to remove all the cartilage.