Zinfandel -- Batamt!

Years ago, I lived in the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles near what was called "the bagel belt" of Fairfax Avenue. Mostly Jewish, it was a friendly neighborhood with many grandmas who loved to stop me on the street to chat about their children and their childhoods, sometimes with harrowing tales of escaping Poland or Germany before Hitler's iron fist descended. Fairfax was and is populated with wonderful mom-and-pop restaurants, including the famed Canter's Deli with its Art Deco style, pink-bouffant waitresses and comfort food of matzo ball soup, mile-high pastrami sandwiches, and potato pancakes. My mother had Jewish friends and passed down her knowledge of cheese blintzes and chicken soup, and her love of the culinary tradition which encompasses foods from many countries. When Israel was formed after the second World War, Jews came from around the world to populate the new nation. From Greece, Turkey, Spain and northern Africa came Sephardic Jews bringing food from their homelands—such as stuffed grape leaves, baklava, and paella. From Eastern Europe came Ashkenazi with borscht, knishes, challah and kugel. From northern Europe, Jews brought bagels, pretzels and pickles. Local Middle Eastern food like falafel and hummus were folded into the mix. I was thinking about the mushroom barley soup I used to order on Fairfax when I made the following recipe. This barley pilaf has versatility: top with nuts for a vegetarian main course, serve without cheese for a flavorful and light side dish, or serve it as follows, as I did, with grilled garlic-y mahi-mahi, a salad and a fruit-forward, robust Zinfandel.
This week's recipe is a symphony of flavors: the savory umami taste of mushrooms, the nut-like taste and texture of barley, and the creamy, sweet taste of melted Gouda. It's delicious paired with a bold, spicy, fruit-forward Zin like this week's special 2008 Shannon Ridge Zinfandel, Ranch Collection.
1 cup pearl barley
3 cups water or stock
1 bay leaf
4 Tbsp. butter
8 oz. button mushrooms, sliced
2 cups spinach leaves, washed and dried
1 tsp. thyme
1/8 tsp white pepper
salt to taste, start with 1 tsp.
4 oz. grated Gouda
Wash barley, then put into a pot with water or stock and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then cover tightly and simmer over low heat for 40 minutes. Melt the butter in a saucepan and cook the mushrooms over medium heat, stirring to cook evenly. Add the thyme, pepper, salt and spinach leaves and turn the heat up to high. Stir continuously to avoid burning the vegetables, the heat should be high so the spinach wilts and the liquid evaporates. When the spinach is wilted, add the vegetables to the barley and mix completely. Taste and adjust seasonings. Put into a baking dish and sprinkle the Gouda on top. Put under the broiler to melt the cheese. Serves 4-6, depending on whether it is the main course or side dish.

Beet borscht is most common, but borscht can be made without beets.
1 lb. flank steak
1 bay leaf
1 onion, quartered
3 large ripe tomatoes, halved
1⁄2 medium head of cabbage, sliced lengthwise into fine shreds
1⁄2 cup Zinfandel
3 Tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. salt + more to taste if needed
1/8 tsp. pepper
Put the flank steak and bay leaf in a heavy pot with tight fitting lid and cover completely with water. Add the bay leaf, bring to a boil then turn heat down to simmer and cook for a 1 1/2 hours with the lid on. Check occasionally to skim off any foam and add water if needed to keep the meat covered. Add the onion, tomatoes, salt and pepper and continue to simmer for another 1/2 hour. Remove the meat so you can strain the broth. Chop it or pull it apart with two forks into bite sized pieces. Put the strained broth and meat back in the pot. Add the cabbage, sugar and Zinfandel and cook until the cabbage is tender, about 20 minutes. Adjust the seasonings and serve hot. This borscht will taste better the next day--put into a glass storage container, cool in an ice bath, then refrigerate overnight. Reheat in a pot or microwave and serve with whole wheat bread and sliced Gouda and a glass of the 2008 Shannon Ridge Zinfandel, Ranch Collection for a hearty meal.


A Paean to Cast Iron

Sing a song of praise for humble cast iron! My cast iron Dutch oven was on the bottom of a thrift store shelf with a lowly $10 price tag on it years ago. I've hauled the heavy thing through countless moves and it has rewarded me with wonderful stews, beans, tender pot roasts and corned beef and cabbage (back in the meat eating days), and even produced fluffy cakes with crispy bottoms and centers filled with warm berries. My cast iron skillet was also a thrift store find and makes great fajitas and chili rellenos. I've even found three cast iron cornbread pans that make cob-shaped mini-loafs. Like a good chef's knife, my cast iron an essential basic for any kitchen. The Dutch oven can be baked for hours or put over a low flame for long simmers without burning because it spreads the heat evenly throughout the pot. The skillet is great for searing and deep frying for the same reason--no hotspots or burn areas. A few tips for cast iron:
  1. Buy it at a thrift store--it's nearly indestructible, so unlike other cookware, it is rarely damaged. You don't need to spend $200+ on enameled cast iron (though it's nice!)
  2. Dirty surface: if the surface of the used cast iron is cruddy--or yours gets food built up due to improper cleaning--recondition it! (see Lodge instructions)
  3. NEVER use soap. Use a scrubbie or Scotch pad, with warm water, to remove food then heat on the stove to dry it thoroughly. This will also sterilize it, as the cast iron will heat up to over 300 degrees (on high BTU stoves, like a Viking, it can be 500-600 degrees or more if left too long). The highest Servsafe minimum internal temperature to kill pathogens is 165 degrees for 15 seconds.
  4. Seal it: let it cool after heat sterilizing it and oil it completely--I use olive oil and a paper towel--don't forget the top and sides of the lid. The thin film of oil keeps water out of the metal, preventing rust.
  5. No acidic food in cast iron as it will react and may turn the food black--make your spaghetti sauce and marmalade in stainless steel.
    Cast iron is better and greener than Teflon; Teflon can leach into your food.

This week's Online Grapevine weekly wine discount special: the highly-rated California 96 Point Sonoma Chardonnay calls for something special. Try this quick-and-easy but flavorful recipe of jumbo shrimp marinated in lime and cilantro, then quick seared with Poblano chilis, onion, green beans and squash. 
8 jumbo shrimp in shells (about 1 1/3 lb.)
1/4 cup olive oil + 4 Tbsp.
juice of 2 limes
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/4 cup orange (or tangerine) juice
2 yellow crookneck squash, with seeds removed, cut into strips
2 poblano chilis, seeded and cut into strips
1 small onion, cut into slices
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup green beans
The shrimp cooked in the shell will be tender and not dry out during cooking. They are a bit messier to peel and eat, but worth the effort. Carefully cut the shell along the back of each shrimp to reveal the vein--remove it, then wash the shrimp, drain and place them in a glass bowl with 1/4 cup oil, lime juice, cilantro, oregano and orange juice. Mix well, cover with lid or plastic wrap, place in refrigerator and let marinate for at least four hours, stirring occasionally so the shrimp is evenly marinated. Prep the vegetables so the pieces are similar in size. In a heavy skillet (cast iron works best), heat the 4 Tbsp. of oil over medium, add the onion and garlic and cook for a minute, stirring. Turn the heat up to medium high and add the other vegetables, turning over with a spatula continually to cook evenly. They will char in places but cook until just "al dente" then add the shrimp. Continue cooking and turning until the shrimp just turn evenly pink. Do not overcook. Serve with hot tortillas, refried beans, guacamole and this week's 96 Point Chardonnay.


Posole and a crisis of morality

Mist had spread a sheen over Santa Barbara early Monday morning when I went for a brisk walk. Bright bits of confetti were caught in the cracks of the brick sidewalks, leftovers from the weekend, when the streets were throbbing with mariachi music and throngs of people munched Mexican food and smashed cascarones--confetti-filled eggs--on each other's head. I managed to crunch one on my 6' 5" boyfriend only with the help of a passerby, who unexpectedly grabbed his arm so I could grind the cascarone into his hair (retailation for the broken shells and paper littering mine). My assistant was laughingly rewarded by a retaliatory egg on his head--and so it goes during Fiesta. For three days, spirits are high. Tourists and locals alike crowd State Street for the equestrian parade Friday at noon. Hint from a local: the central part of State Street is jammed cheek by jowl--see the parade from where it begins on Cabrillo and not only will you be able to see, but you can usually find a fence or curb for a seat! Also, eat at the Our Lady Of Guadalupe Catholic Church on 227 N. Nopal for "comida autentica". They have music during Fiesta and great food, in fact, I'm ashamed to say that I "sinned" at that church against our warm bloodied friends. I don't eat pork for compassionate reasons, and went to the Church's Mercado with the purest of intentions--thinking of having a cheese tamale or bean burrito, but the smell of the posole was beckoning, and when its aroma reached me, I was a goner. Toothsome, nutty hominy, strings of flavorful pork in a luscious broth redolent of oregano--how could one not want some? I'm ashamed to say that it was so good that I went back again. My daughter joked (sarcastically) that at least my vegetarianism is for moral rather than health reasons, and so I was just breaking my moral code by eating posole. I'm not perfect--but at least I'm honest! I used to make posole prior to attempting to be vegetarian. It's simple to make:
Pork Posole:
2 lb. pork roast
2 Tbsp. oil
2 cloved of garlic, minced
1 onion, minced--in two parts
1 bay leaf
2 cans white hominy, drained
2 Tbsp. oregano--plus extra for garnish
1 tsp. chili powder--or more if you like it hot
salt and pepper to taste
juice of 1/2 to 1 lime, optional
chopped cilantro, optional
In a Dutch oven, heat the oil, then sear the pork roast on all sides. Add the garlic and 2/3 of the onion, and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover the roast with water, add the bay leaf and cover tightly. Simmer for at least an hour and a half, turning the meat now and then. The meat should be falling apart. Use a long handled fork to separate it into chunks. Add the oregano and hominy and simmer another half an hour with the lid off to reduce the broth. Season with chili, salt, pepper and lime. Sprinkle with the raw minced onion and cilantro if you like. Muy sabroso!


Fiesta! Old Spanish Days in Santa Barbara

Along the California coast, there are many beautiful spots, but perhaps none as beautiful as Santa Barbara. We are the only south facing coastal town, protected from Pacific storms by the Channel Islands and blessed with near perfect weather. Stringent building codes have preserved and fostered Spanish and Mediterranean architecture, giving us white-washed walls, red-tile roofs, bougainvilla shaded porticos, wrought iron balconies and colorful tiles. One of the most creative architects of our time, Jeff Shelton, has tweaked the traditions with a whimsical, Dr. Seuss-like twist to create marvels like the Ablitt House and Andaluz.

We're a city that loves to parade and celebrate with many festivals and events: Solstice parade (like L.A.'s famed Doodah), French Festival, Greek Festival, California Wine Festival, the International Film Festival, and many more...including this week's Old Spanish Days Fiesta with free Spanish, Flamenco and Mexican Folkloricó dance performances, professional rodeo, Mercado de la Guerra food and craft booths and live entertainment, Mercado del Norte carnival rides, bazaar, live dance music and margarita bar, and Friday's Desfile Historico Parade which is one of the largest equestrian parades in the country. Our kids' favorite part of the Fiesta is buying cascarones: the confetti-filled eggs families sell on the street to be smashed onto parents' and friends' heads with a satisfying crunch and cascade of confetti. State Street is alive with music and the hustle and bustle of the crowd, snacking on tamales and tacos, with bits of paper in their hair and the sidewalks covered with egg shell bits. Great fun!
This week's Touring & Tasting Online Grapevine wine special has a choice of wines to pair with Mexican food, as well as regional American cuisine, like pork chops and collard greens!
I was thinking about what might measure the basic knowledge of a cook. I think skills would include knowing how to cook fish properly, making good bread, a fluffy souffle, knowing how to stir fry, to make hollandaise, béchamel, and marinara sauces with homemade pasta, and cooking pork chops so they are tender and moist. I generally don't eat meat, but cook it for my carniverous family. I remember from my meat eating days that a good pork chop is still tender and moist, not dry and chewy. Marinating for at least 4 hours in something acidic like lemon or orange juice, vinegar, wine or yoghurt will soften the protein. Salt or soy sauce (which has salt--up to 1030 mg in a tablespoon) will help retain moisture in the meat.
2 thick cut pork chops
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
4 Tbsp. olive oil in two parts
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
Mix the soy sauce, garlic, 2 Tbsp. of olive oil and the vinegar in a glass or ceramic bowl (metal will react to the acid in the marinade). Marinate pork chops for at least 4 hours in the refrigerator, turning occasionally to marinate both sides equally. Spread 2 Tbsp. of oil over the surface of a cast iron skillet and heat over medium flame until oil is sizzling. Sear the pork chops all over, including the sides by holding them with a long pair of tongs. Sealing the meat completely will keep the moisture in. Then turn the heat to low, cover with a glass lid, flipping and rotating the pork chops so they brown evenly. If you have an thermometer, you can cook the chops until the internal temperature hits 145 for 15 seconds, often the chops will be slightly pink on the inside and nice and moist. If you have no thermometer, you will cook the chops until the pink disappears, to be sure you have killed any possible Trichinosis or salmonella. The residual soy sauce on the chops will reduce and make a nice brown glaze.
2 strips applewood-smoked bacon
1 large bunch collard greens
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
In a Dutch oven or heavy pot with a tight fitting lid, cook the bacon until crispy. Remove and let cool, then chop into 1/4" pieces. With a paper towel, remove half the bacon fat. Chop the greens into 1/4" strips (including the stems) and sauté in the bacon fat, stirring to coat the greens with the fat and wilt the greens. Add enough water to cover the greens halfway (about 1 1/2 cups), stir in the bacon and put the bay leaf in the water. Cover tightly and simmer for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally to cook the greens evenly. You would like to end up with about 1/4" of liquid at the bottom of the pot--this is the "pot likker" which is delicious sopped up by corn bread. Add water, if needed to maintain this bit of liquid at the bottom, or uncover as the green simmer in the last 1/2 hour of cooking if the water is not evaporating enough. Salt and pepper to taste--a good guide is to start with 1 tsp. of salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper, stir well, taste and add more if needed. Serve hot with your nicely browned, moist pork chop, corn bread and the exquisite Rhone-style 2006 Ledgewood Creek GSM.