Monday, November 30, 2009

Diving Gingerly Into the Holidays, Part 1: Ginger Nasties

It's official: The holidays are here. There's no denying the full-frontal holiday assault on our senses, our wallets, and our spirits. So rather than bah-humbug about it all, why not get into the swing of things with a good stiff drink? A festive cocktail makes things better in so many ways, don't you think?

This cocktail came to be in true Fare to Remember fashion: A group of good friends sharing good times while experimenting in the kitchen (or rather, the bar... but you get the drift). I wasn't there for the birth of these auspiciously-named "Ginger Nasties," but after hearing a rundown of the ingredients, I had to recreate the drink to confirm what I suspected to be true: this is one amazing cocktail; a lovely, festive libation for the holidays.

The starring ingredient is my friend Jill's homemade Limoncello. I suppose you could make it with commercial Limoncello products, but lucky for me, I don't have to. (I got a bottle of her famed elixir for my birthday - neener neener neener!) A warning: this drink is a bit dangerous. When I served it to my DH, he proclaimed "Ah! Ginger Lemonade!" Um... yes... but with a serious punch that you just won't see coming. So proceed with caution, drink responsibly, but damn! Mix this up!

Ginger Nasties
Contributed by Jill Jacobs (that's Ms. Jacobs, if you're nasty!)
  • 8-ounce cocktail glass, rimmed with sugar and filled with ice
  • 1 2-ounce shot of limoncello
  • Ginger ale, to fill the remainder of the glass
  • Crystallized ginger, chopped into small pieces and floated on top
  • Garnished with a sprig of mint

Diving Gingerly Into the Holidays, Part 2: Gingered French Chocolate Bark

This ginger treat is a snap! My good friend Carolyn showed up at my office cubicle one recent day with a little something something she had whipped up the night before... just because. It was a twist on Ina Garten's French Chocolate Bark - a treat so colorful and full of exotic flavors, that I had to succumb and give it a try. Rich chocolate, salted cashews, dried apricots... and the kicker, candied ginger, an ingredient she included instead of the dried cranberries specified in Ina's recipe. OMG. I immediately dubbed Carolyn's kitchen experiment a huge success (especially since she never deviates from a recipe), and am convinced that it's a perfect, festive goodie for the holidays. Carolyn assures me that is was super simple to make; indeed, there's only a couple of ingredients and only a couple of steps. So if you're looking for an outrageously unique treat with a lot of WOW factor to bring to your next holiday potluck or to package up as a homemade gift, give this chocolate bark a try. It's a treat that you - and others - won't soon forget!

Gingered French Chocolate Bark
Contributed by Carolyn Hindes (adapted from an Ina Garten recipe)
  • 9 1/2 ounces very good semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 8 ounces very good bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1 cup whole roasted, salted cashews
  • 1 cup dried apricots, chopped
  • 1/2 cup crystallized ginger, chopped

Melt the 2 chocolates in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water.

Meanwhile, line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Using a ruler and a pencil, draw a 9 by 10-inch rectangle on the paper. Turn the paper facedown on the baking sheet.

Pour the melted chocolate over the paper and spread to form a rectangle, using the outline. Quickly, while the chocolate is still hot, sprinkle the cashews, apricots and ginger over the chocolate, pressing to set into the chocolate. Set aside for 2 hours until firm. Cut the bark in 1 by 3-inch pieces and serve at room temperature.

Friday, November 27, 2009

So Thankful

Another Thanksgiving down. Another year where I vowed not to stuff myself until it hurts... another year where that vow got broken. Another year that I am thankful for so very much.

Our family's Thanksgiving Day observances are nothing short of spectacular. They are always a celebration, a time of abundance. Perhaps over-abundance. We are a fortunate bunch, keenly aware that our comfortable world is not the norm. But like all families, we are not immune to misfortune or tough luck. This year saw our fair share of health scares, financial uncertainty, job losses, splintered relationships, hardship. And yet.

We are thankful.

Personally, I am thankful for a husband who quite possibly couldn't love me more. And I'm even more thankful that he shows his love in both word and deed. I am thankful for my parents. That they are healthy, that they are a big part of my life and that they are continuing to set examples of how I should - and want to - live my life.

I am thankful for a job I love, a home that is my haven, pets that make me smile.

I am thankful for siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins. Grandparents.

I am thankful for friends. I know I have more than my fair share, and I am grateful that despite the years or miles, certain friendships will always endure.

I am thankful for silly things: The Furminator. Glee. Google Reader.

I am thankful for my talents, and equally thankful for the ability to continually learn new things.

I am grateful for a body that despite every attempt at breaking down remains strong.

And finally, I am thankful for a Thanksgiving Day feast that was absolutely 100 percent "Fare to Remember":
  • A gathering of close to 30 loved ones, complete with the youthful energy of half a dozen rugrats under the age of 5.
  • A beautiful Bay Area day, fall colors all ablaze.
  • An appetizer spread that could have sufficed as a feast all on its own.
  • A 7-rib prime rib roast. Again, the biggest I've ever seen.
  • A bone-in spiral cut ham. Why not?
  • Fresh abalone, plucked from the rugged Sonoma coast only the day before.
  • All the traditional fixins - mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, gravy, whipped yams, green beans, Caesar salad... many produced in duplicate for the vegetarians among us.
  • Decadent Williams Sonoma croissants.
  • Eight different kinds of pie.
  • Leftovers.
I sure hope your Thanksgiving was every bit as memorable, but if you'll excuse me, I've got a bit of digesting to do!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown

It all started with this, a gift from my lovely friend Carolyn:

That's right - a fried chicken kit that had been available through Williams-Sonoma for a limited time created by none other than Chef Thomas Keller. It was, apparently, the ingredients for recreating his legendary Ad Hoc fried chicken, an every-other Monday night staple for Wine Country locals and in-the-know tourists. So since The Colonel isn't giving up his secret blend of eleven herbs and spices any time soon, Keller's kit represented the best chance I was going to have for making ridiculously good fried chicken from scratch.

But first, a little research was in order. For although I am a Napa Valley resident, well aware of the lure of the fried chicken Mondays up in Yountville, I had yet to make it to Ad Hoc to partake in the deep-fried ritual. I knew that before I made the kit version, I had to try the real thing.

The kit sat in my pantry for months before the perfect opportunity presented itself. Carolyn's brother Ted was in town for a few weeks, and Ted knows from deep frying. He lives in Texas (by choice), the home of Deep Fried Butter. He owns a turkey fryer. Puts it to use at least once a year for a "Fry Party" during which anything and everything gets a dunk: chicken wings, cheese, battered squash and mushrooms, bacon/cream cheese stuffed jalepenos, Monte Cristo sandwiches, bacon, battered fish, Twinkies, pickles... and that's just a partial list. He's as close to a deep fry expert that I'm ever going to rub elbows with, so I had to take advantage of his proximity. I booked a coveted spot at Ad Hoc for four (Carolyn, Ted, Randall and myself), and we blocked out some time the following weekend to prepare the homemade version. A fried chicken smackdown was in the making.

Ad Hoc is one high on my list of favorite Napa Valley restaurants. For those of you not familiar, it's Thomas Keller's take on fairly casual, family-style meals. According to its website: "The building at 6476 Washington Street was originally intended to be a very different type of restaurant. While we were designing it we thought we'd experiment by opening a temporary restaurant and calling it Ad Hoc, which literally means, 'for this purpose.' The idea for Ad Hoc was simple - five days a week we'd offer a four-course family-style menu that changed each day, accompanied by a small, accessible wine list in a casual setting reminiscent of home. We wanted a place to dine for our community and ourselves. The decision to change over the restaurant, however, was taken out of our hands by our guests. The response was so positive, we simply couldn't close. So, in September, 2007, we decided to stay open permanently and now we're serving dinner five nights a week as well as Sunday brunch."

While Ad Hoc reservations aren't as difficult to obtain as those for Keller's other joint up the street (a little place by the name of The French Laundry. You may have heard of it.), fried chicken night is a hot ticket item. I was lucky to get seats for our four butts without resorting to begging, shameless name dropping, or settling for the 9 p.m. reservation. It's a good thing, because I don't even know who's name I would drop. That would have been embarrassing.

So we get there without incident, ordered up some champagne (did you know that sparkling wine is the perfect accompaniment to fried foods? I wouldn't steer you wrong!), and dug in for Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown Round #1. The menu that night was as follows (notice I did not take a moment to record the actual menu - the inadequate descriptions are my own, not theirs, and the photos were surreptitiously taken with my little camera since I can't imagine pulling out my big, conspicuous camera when patronizing a restaurant):
  • Salad of Belgian endive, spinach, pears, goat cheese and damn good homemade Green Goddess dressing
  • Fried chicken with sides of herbed white rice (maybe Basmati?) and some sort of baked black bean/cauliflower/tomato/greens combo
  • A cheese course with some variety of mild white cheese and a huckleberry chutney, served with toast points made with probably more butter than flour (that's a good thing)
  • Two kinds of chocolate chip cookies (bitter dark chocolate in shortbread, plus a take on the standard milk chocolate variety) served with homemade vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce
Of course everything tasted great, and we had a fantastic time. Admittedly, I was a little taken aback by the choice of side dishes... no mashed potatoes? No collard greens? I guess I wanted a very stereotypical fried chicken dinner, but hey - this was Ad Hoc. What did I really care? It was all going to be good. But the whole point of this long-winded description is to get to the chicken. Was it phenomenal? Of course. It was probably the most moist fried chicken I've ever eaten, every bite juicy enough to send dribbles down my chin. The golden, crispy batter on the outside was perfectly cooked; I only had one piece that I found to be even this side of what I'd call greasy. And flavorful... oh-so-flavorful. One thing irked me however: there wasn't a single drumstick served on our platter. How in the world do you have a fried chicken dinner without the drumsticks? I'm a breast girl myself, so I wasn't sad about it, but really - no drumsticks? I don't get it.

Anyhow, knowing we were going to attempt to recreate this wheel in a mere six days, we got talking to our rather adorable waiter who was more than happy to supply us with the recipe from the kitchen so that we could compare/contrast it with the ingredients in the kit. Apparently, the brine recipe is no trade secret - call em up, they'll give it to you as well. Actually, I'll give it to you right here. We were told that they brine the chicken for 12 hours. The fact that we failed to get the coating recipe is a mere oversight on my part - I'm sure they would have given that to us as well. At the very least, here's what goes into a Thomas Keller chicken brine (it's a restaurant quantity recipe; I have no idea how you'd pare it down for a family-sized meal... but at least you can get an idea of the ingredients):
  • 5 lemons, halved
  • 24 Bay leaves
  • 1 bunch flat leaf parsley
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • 1/2 cup clover honey
  • 1 head of garlic, halved
  • 1/4 cup peppercorns
  • 2 cups Diamond Crystal salt
Fast forward to the following weekend, and our little group plus one (neighbor Gail also joined the fun) found ourselves in Carolyn's kitchen ready for Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown Round #2. Now to compare: the packaging for the kit reads, "Ad Hoc's signature lemon-herb brine and savory coating mix for making crispy, golden fried chicken." The brine ingredients were different from the restaurant version's ingredient list, but not too far off:
  • Salt
  • Granulated sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Whole peppercorns
  • Honey powder
  • Garlic powder
  • Parsley flakes
  • Citric acid
  • Bay leaves
  • Thyme
And a little insight to the coating lies in the packaged ingredient list:
  • Flour
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Salt
  • Paprika
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Black pepper
I followed the instructions to a "T." I brined our two organic 3.5-pound birds for 12 hours (the brine itself smelled divine). When the time came, we double-dredged the chicken: buttermilk followed by seasoned coating, rest, repeat. The dredging got a little ugly. Let's just say that our coating didn't go on in a smooth, even, thin layer. There were some clumps and bumps, and there wasn't quite enough of it to double dredge all of our various parts and pieces. But the majority got two layers, and even those pieces that only got one dip in the pool were well coated.

As for the frying, piece of cake! With Ted at the helm, we got the oil up to temp in a deep dutch oven and dropped in our chicken two or three pieces at a time. Ted's method for determining doneness was simply to pull the pieces out when they were crispy and golden, a method that proved to be fail proof.

This time around, I got my stereotypical fried chicken dinner. We had a spicy jicama slaw, smashed potatoes and braised Swiss chard, and washed it all down with yet more champagne. Dessert was one of Carolyn's awesome creations - a grapefruit zabaglione served over fresh berries. For the second time in a week, I was stuffing myself with an incredible meal, the centerpiece of which was deep fried. My body wasn't very appreciative (on both occasions, I felt terrible the next day), but my taste buds were on cloud nine.

So how did the homemade kit version compare with Keller's own? The verdict was divided; there was no clear winner in the Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown. Everyone agreed that both versions were delicious and extremely moist. The brine absolutely worked its magic in both instances. Randall and Carolyn preferred the restaurant version (Randall: better coating; Carolyn: better citrus flavor); whereas Ted and I both preferred the make-at-home version for the same reason: thicker, extra-crispy coating (if you think along the lines of KFC's original recipe vs. extra crispy, our version of Ad Hoc fried chicken was of the extra crispy variety. See dredging issues mentioned above.) Gail, our Smackdown #2 interloper, was just happy to be there and loved every bite.

So there you have it, a Smackdown where both sides come out ahead. This chicken is good no matter how you choose to enjoy it. Thanks Mr. Keller for not one - but two! - evenings of Fare to Remember.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

So Long Tomatoes, See You Next Year

Even now, as I look out the window and watch the colorful fall leaves swirl in the wind and the barely-there spittle of rain stipple the sidewalk, I can't believe it's over. Tomato season, that is. Summer? I can take it or leave it. (Probably because here in Napa Valley, Autumn is the coveted season. Gorgeous temperate days; cozy sweater-wearing, fireside-lounging nights; harvest, color, evening's slanted golden light .... mmm. I'll take Fall any day.) But what I will miss - perhaps more than stone fruit, plump berries or 100-degree temperatures - are fresh tomatoes.

I'm not discriminatory - I love tomatoes of all shapes, sizes and varieties. The uglier the heirloom, the quicker it winds up in my market basket. So as I find myself straddling the divide between tomato glut and tomato drought, I've shored up the pantry for the winter ahead. Sauce, salsa, soup... I've got a few goodies stashed away that capture that summer-fresh ripeness. But my favorite preservation method, hands-down, is slow roasting them in the oven.

Slow, oven-dried tomatoes have an amazing concentrated flavor that I find irresistible. It's a method that works really well with Roma tomatoes; they're the right size and sturdiness, and they pack a wallop of intense flavor when perfectly ripe. Lucky for me, Randall brought home a bounty of the red beauties from the last day of this season's Napa Farmer's Market.

There's not much to it. Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise, lay them in a single layer on a baking sheet, dribble them with some good olive oil and a sprinkling of Kosher salt, and put them in a 200-degree oven for a nice long, warm nap. I let mine roast for about four hours - maybe longer, depending on the size of the tomatoes. I roast them until they are just this side of completely dried; I like them to still be a little plump. Once removed from the low heat, I just let them cool before loading them into canning jars and covering them with a layer of good olive oil. I don't even bother heat-sealing the jars (at least this time around, since I only wound up with four small jars) - I've just stored them in the fridge, and it will be all I can do to not eat my entire stash before month's end.

The oven-dried tomatoes are an amazing addition to salads, awesome when tossed with pasta, or a great base for tapenades or spreads. I use them just as I would use sundried tomatoes - the possibilities are endless. So I'm set for a little bit - I don't have to let the delight of vine-ripened tomatoes go just yet.

And speaking of vine-ripened tomatoes, I wasn't the only one enjoying the summer's finest. My mom's garden back home in Salt Lake apparently was overflowing this year (see all the pictures she sent me below); she's still harvesting the last of her tomatoes and has been stockpiling them as well. Here's her method for making tomato puree that is the base for her off-the-charts good tomato soup; she freezes the puree in quart-sized Ziplock bags (thanks mom, for the great instructions!).

Tomato Puree and Tomato Soup
Contributed by Judy Angell

This base freezes well, up to a year, and when I need a fresh tasting marinara, soup, juice, or anything else using tomatoes, I pull out one or two bags depending on how much I need. It always tastes like it just came from the garden.
  • Gather and wash tomatoes.
  • Put in 8-quart pot with lid on to slowly cook over medium to medium-low heat (add about 1 cup of water so the bottom tomatoes don't burn)
  • Clean the garlic shallots; chop and put in pot with tomatoes (My mom grows garlic shallots in her garden, pictured below; regular shallots will work as well. Add to taste.)
  • Cool when all is cooked
  • Ladle cooked mixture into blender; puree
  • Pour puree through a small wired strainer into another eight quart pot to catch seeds and small pieces of tomato skin
To make tomato soup, here's where you can go wild and crazy:
  • Start with a base of the tomato puree
  • Add to it what you like: noodles, rice, meats, variety of vegetables (celery and onions chopped fine are my favorites)
  • Simmer 20 minutes
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • For an extra zing, add one to two tablespoons of sugar (this is the real secret that gives the soup just a little extra uniqueness)
  • Serve hot with a dollop of sour cream and cheese crackers

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fare to Remember in Sonoma: The Fremont Diner

You know me. If I find a memorable spot for a meal, I'll share it with you. But this one... well, I've been tempted to keep this place to myself. But alas, I'm afraid the cat's pretty much out of the bag by now judging by the increasing number of cars in the parking lot, so what the hell. Get yourself to the Fremont Diner. Now.

It used to be a dive. It used to be Babe's - a dilapidated shack on the two-lane highway between Napa and Sonoma. I never stopped there - not once - despite a daily commute that took me right on by, twice a day. Apparently no one else did either, because Babe's fell into shuttered disrepair.

But this past year, the place went through a transformation. The weed patch parking lot gave way to a lovely crushed granite patio, complete with picnic tables and colorful umbrellas. The weathered and tilting building got a facelift and a fresh coat of whitewash. The place had some bustle, some activity. I eagerly watched the transformation, and hoped that the finished project would be a worthwhile place to grab a snack or maybe, just maybe, a spot to get a decent cup of coffee on my way to work.

Those hopes have pretty much been blown out of the water. This place rocks.

In all of it's retro shabby-chic-ness (complete with rusting antique truck parked outside), the people behind The Fremont Diner are turning out fabulous diner fare with somewhat of a Southern flair, all with the freshest local ingredients possible (purveyors and sources always listed on the menu). They're open for breakfast and lunch, and even though there are standard offerings (their already-famous "whole hog" BBQ, biscuits and gravy, fried pies or fried green tomatoes, for instance), there are daily specials based on what's fresh (the soup of the day is always a treat).

The Fremont Diner is not a joint to visit if you're looking for "health food" per se - even though there are a couple healthy options. But honestly, go for the diner classics if you're making the trip: burgers, BLTs, grilled cheese and the like. I recently splurged on a cheeseburger there as a special treat (I can't even remember the last time I had a diner cheeseburger!) - and it was "all that." It looked like a burger you would make at home - fresh ground beef, hand-formed patty, dripping with juice and super moist. Theirs is a simple presentation (you have to ask if you want things like lettuce, onions, tomatoes) - but that's because the burger is the star - no need to pollute it with accoutrements. But if you do get accoutrements... they are stellar. House made pickles and pickled onions; light and crispy onion rings; perfectly crisp bacon. Mmm.

At any rate, The Fremont Diner's food and the ambiance are winners. I've been several times now, and I will continue to go back and obviously recommend it to others. I hope you can see from the few pictures I took (mostly with my iPhone) that it's as cute as a button - a throw-back to diners of old without being kitschy or trite. And I can't say enough about the food.

But... (don't you hate it when there's a "but"?) there is room for improvement. Granted, this place is young, still finding its pace. But if I ran the world, here's a few things that I'd change or make better (here's where the marketing pro in me rears her ugly head):
  • Signage. The signage for The Fremont Diner is terrible. They got some new signs when they opened, but they are too small to be readable from the road, and of such poor design that even up close they're pretty illegible. Bummer. And there's still some random signage left over from the days of Babe's... huge mistake, in my opinion. But I think the powers that be at The Fremont Diner know their signage is inadequate - they've taken to putting out sandwich boards on the road. Better, but it just adds to the hodgepodge. Blow it all away and start from scratch, that's what I say.
  • Website. Seriously, no website? There's plenty of reviews on Yelp and Chowhound, and they even have a Facebook fan page (of course I'm a fan), but no website to call their own. Huh?
  • Hours. The Fremont Diner's hours appear to be what you'd call "flexible." The signs say they open at 7 a.m., but I'm often driving by at exactly that same time and rarely, if ever, is the place anything but dark. For that reason, I still have yet to stop in for that highly anticipated cup of coffee to go. Which is a shame - I hear that their coffee is pretty darn amazing. Another beef about the hours - they're closed on Sunday. The owners must have pretty strong moral grounds for not capitalizing on the weekend Wine Country traffic that flows past the diner in a steady stream. I respect that. But selfishly, Sunday is the only day I ever have the time or the inclination to go out for breakfast, and if you've read much of this blog, you know that I'm on a quest to find a good breakfast place in my neighborhood - and this could be it! So I have yet to try their amazing-sounding breakfast items. It's a source of great sadness in my heart.
  • Hospitality. Now this is a minor issue, and something I only experienced once in the several times I've been there, but as the saying goes, you only have one chance to make a first impression. On my very first visit - a lunch date with my mom, where I had talked up the place based on its online reviews alone - we were greeted (or not greeted, as the case may be) by the most sullen teenager perhaps this side of high school detention. Our inquiries about the menu were met, literally, by blank stares. When we did get an answer, it was generally "I don't know." What kind of dressing comes with the salad? "I don't know." Is there a soup of the day? "I don't know." Are you open on Sunday? "I don't know." She didn't know? Seriously? This was the face of the business, and she didn't have even the most basic knowledge of her job. Perhaps it was the first hour of her first day on the job - I have no idea. But if that's the case, you still don't shove a greenhorn to the wolves and hope she survives. I haven't seen that girl since, and every other experience of mine at the counter has been warm, hospitable, cheery and efficient. But based on that one experience alone, I don't know that my mom is eager to give The Fremont Diner a second shot. Lucky for me, I was.
So there you have it - a flat-out shameless plug for one of the newest destinations in my neck of the woods. If you've been there, leave me a comment and let me know how your experience compares. At the end of the day, I love the place. Although there's some room for improvement, I expect that The Fremont Diner is just going to keep refining and thriving. I'm excited to be along for the ride!