Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Olive Oil Tasting at Round Pond Estate

Who says that the Napa Valley is all about wine? True... wine factors pretty heavily in our way of life and it's the main reason people visit our little corner of the world, but it's not all that we've got going on. Case in point: I took my mom to a fabulous olive oil tasting at the Round Pond Olive Mill in Rutherford over the weekend.

Now I've done some olive oil tasting in my time (most memorable being the one I did in Mendoza, Argentina), but the Round Pond tasting was by far and away the best I've ever experienced. It started out with a walk through one of the estate olive tree groves, moved on to a tour of the state-of-the-art Italian mill, and then transitioned to a sit-down, guided tasting of their estate olive oils, vinegars and syrups. The tasting was then followed by a pretty lavish spread of gorgeous food, where we were free to try different combinations of the goods with complementary fruits, vegetables, cheeses and bread. (And don't despair - tastings of Round Pond's award-winning wines were also available... we can veer from the wine path around here, but we can't exit completely!)

I learned so much during the tour and tasting - but I won't divulge too much because you really should come and do the tour yourself! But a few nuggets:
  • Save the extra virgin olive oils for dressing salads or enjoying straight from the bottle as a finishing oil - just don't cook with it! Heat raises the levels of oleic acid in the oil, making it bitter. Use a virgin or regular olive oil to cook with, since you won't be paying the premium required to produce the low levels of oleic acids in the extra virgins.
  • It takes about two trees worth of olives from the Round Pond groves to produce one gallon of extra virgin olive oil.
  • Coughing when tasting olive oils is considered a compliment. (You cough when the oils hit the back of your throat.)
  • The best way to sample vinegar is to pour a few drops over a sugar cube, then suck on the sugar cube before it dissolves.
At any rate, the whole experience at Round Pond was stellar. Come up and give it a try sometime - I'll go with you!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Foraging Figs

Look at these beauties - I believe these are Adriatic figs - the tree from which I nabbed them growing in a ditch in a vineyard. Laden with fruit, the tree was the last thing on the minds of the vineyard workers harvesting the grapes. So, no harm no foul, I took home a stash. Since this variety is not as sweet as the Black Mission Figs that I love to eat raw, I broiled them with some honey to bring out their sweetness, and finished them off with a sprinkling of sea salt. It made for a sweet and savory breakfast. Thanks Mother Nature!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

This Chicken is Rockin'!

The amount of chicken breasts that I consume on a weekly basis can be staggering. It's my go-to protein - lean, easy to prepare, versatile. But at the end of the day, it's so very boring. Lord help me if I overcook it. There's really nothing worse than dry chicken breasts. Gack!

So recently, I veered from my rut and went for the chicken thighs in the butcher case. Thighs - with the skin! I had a hankering for something juicy, meaty, tender... and a chicken breast wasn't going to cut it. I even had in mind the way I wanted to cook them - similar to brick chicken on the grill, but done in the oven in a cast iron skillet. I envisioned them having a seared, crispy skin that would impart its flavor to the meat of the thighs, melding with the flavors of lemon, roasted garlic and fresh herbs. I was salivating at my vision for these thighs before a single ingredient ever hit the pan.

Proud to say this dish rocked. If it looks good in the picture, I can guarantee it tasted even better. You must try.

This is how you do it:
  • Preheat your oven to 400 degrees
  • You will need two cast iron skillets; one slightly larger to hold the chicken and the smaller one to weight and set on top (the second skillet will act as a clamshell grill, helping to cook the chicken thighs on both sides at once)
  • Line the smaller skillet with tin foil and weight with either a brick, or in my case, rocks!
  • Place the rock-filled skillet in the oven to get up to temperature as you prep the chicken and do the stovetop steps below
  • Peel the cloves from an entire bulb of garlic; smash lightly with the flat side of a wide butcher knife
  • Peel and finely dice one shallot
  • Coat the bottom of a cast iron skillet with a glug of olive oil; add the shallot and garlic cloves
  • Over medium/low heat on the stove, cook until the shallots and garlic are soft and caramelized
  • Remove the shallots and garlic and turn the heat up on the skillet to high
  • Lightly coat six chicken thighs with olive oil; sprinkle with kosher salt
  • When the stovetop skillet is piping hot, place the thighs skin-side down
  • Cook the thighs until the skins are seared to a beautiful brown color (approximately 7-8 minutes); remove the thighs from the skillet (leave any drippings) and remove the skillet from the heat (turn off the stove)
  • Return the garlic and shallots to the bottom of the skillet
  • Add a layer of fresh herb sprigs to the skillet; I used rosemary and lemon thyme
  • Return the thighs to the skillet, skin side up
  • Cut two lemons in quarters and squeeze the juice over the chicken; scatter the quarter rinds amongst the thighs
  • Add another layer of fresh herb sprigs on top of the chicken
  • Place the preheated second weighted skillet on top of the chicken-filled skillet; place the entire kit and caboodle back into the 400 degree oven
  • Cook for approximately 20 minutes until the thighs are cooked through
  • Eat up!

Monday, October 10, 2011

You Say It's Your Birthday!

It sure was! Today - the 10th - is my actual birthday, but I got the chance to celebrate for a couple of days - and will keep celebrating for even a few more! It's not really like me (the ongoing celebration) - but hey. Why not? Rand and I got to try a few new restaurants (new to us anyway) and I am happy as a clam with our choices. Both highly recommended: La Mar - a Peruvian fusion place on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and Eiko's, a modern Japanese hangout here in Napa. iPhone photos below (and I got myself the new iPhone as a present to myself! So hopefully, my iPhone photos in the future will be better!). I also had a chance to do some cooking over my self-made long weekend, so I'll have some new goodies to share with you in the coming days as well. So, little bit of exploring, a little bit of sticking close to home - a good birthday all around. Thank you everyoe for the birthday wishes. I think this aging thing is going to be ok!

La Mar
(Pictured above - pisco cocktails, of course! When at a Peruvian resto, it should be required that you have a drink made with Peru's signature spirit. Ran had the Pisco Sour and I had the Pisco Punch. Shown also are the amazing plantain and sweet potato chips with a trio of dipping sauces.)

Causa Casera: Artichokes, asparagus, avocado and tomato confit on top of yellow potato.

Cebiche Mixto: Yellowtail from Mexico, calamari and shrimp in an ají amarillo leche de tigre with cilantro, red onion, habanero, Peruvian corn and yam.

Almuercito Chalaco: Cebiche chalaco, empanada tamalito, y anticuchos de carne (mixed seafood cebiche, sweet corn empanada, grilled skirt steak skewers)


Eiko's bar/lounge

Hamachi bon bons (hamachi wrapped around snow crab with eel sauce and tobiko)

Chicken lettuce wraps

My sashimi plate

Ran's shrimp tempura bento box

Saturday, October 8, 2011

All in Favor of Fennel Say "Aye"

Aye! See those roasted veggies up there? That's fennel and cauliflower, roasted in anticipation of making a soup. I had visions of an earthy, silky, smooth soup, inspired by the rainy days we've been having. But you know what? These veggies never made it into a soup. They smelled SO good when I pulled them from the oven, that I pretty much ate them for lunch right there on the spot. The fennel was the real culprit - I was defenseless. My soup never even had a chance. If you think you're not a fan of fennel, try roasting it with a little bit of olive oil and kosher salt (high heat - 400 degrees - until it's caramelized). The licorice flavor and aroma of the raw bulb melt away, leaving a savory, rich morsel of goodness. So that's pretty much all I have to say - just try it. And next time, if I can avoid the temptation, I'll work on bringing you a soup recipe. But I wouldn't count on it...