Monday, June 18, 2018

Fried Chicken with Honey-Butter-Rosemary Dressing - Summer's Perfect Food

Last year I had the good fortune to interview chef Wes Whitsell in the kitchen at ManuelaBesides the interview, I video taped Wes demonstrating his signature crispy fried chicken. 

The recipe is easy and quick to prepare. For a dinner the other night when my wife was out of town, I wanted a meal that didn't take too much effort so I fried four chicken legs, made some onion rings and, to balance all that crunchy fried flavor, a plate of sensible salt-boiled carrots rounds and broccoli florets. Delicious!


The Fourth of July is coming up. The fried chicken will be perfect for our picnic, delicious even at room temperature.

Here is the original article, interview and video. Enjoy!

The food is great at Manuela. No question about that, but besides great food, there’s a cool, easy vibe in the bar, dining room and outdoor patio.

Manuela’s casual atmosphere was created by chef Wes Whitsell. The restaurant, like his look, is country-urban. His t-shirt, jeans, a turned backwards baseball cap and an apron fits easily with his hip version of a country café and bar, LA style. Outside the restaurant, he built an organic herb and produce garden to supply the kitchen. He left room for a chicken coop, with a dozen+ chickens whose eggs are served in the restaurant.


Diners make reservations in advance or decide to stop by on the spur of the moment. A lot of people see Manuela as they walk between the galleries at the Hauser & Wirth art complex on East 3rd Street between South Santa Fe and South Alameda Streets. There’s art inside the restaurant as well. In fact, yes, that is a large Mark Bradford canvas in the dining room. The aerial view of Hollywood is for sale so while you eat, you can buy the art.


With as many as fifty items divided between Raw, Cured & PickledSupper and Vegetables, the food at Manuela draws on many traditions but the beating heart of the menu is country. Pimento cheese, country ham, chow-chow, biscuits, deviled eggs, cast iron cornbread, hushpuppies, collard greens, pork sliders, fries and mashed potatoes with gravy are a through line. If you had a picnic, you would do very well to bring Whitsell’s food to your afternoon at the beach. 


This is country cooking with healthy, quality ingredients and fine dining plating. Having lived in Lebanon and France and cooked in some of LA’s most noteworthy restaurants (Gjelina, Blair’s and Osteria La Buca), Whitsell informs his cooking with his superior palate. Take a bite of almost any dish and you’ll experience a pairing of savory, sweet and heat. He cultivates relationships with farmers, dairies, fishermen and ranchers. Follow him on Instagram (manueladtla) and you’ll see how much he loves high quality ingredients and how far he will go to procure them.


When I had a tasting, I ordered his olive oil fried duck egg with melted ramps and anchovy aioli on grilled sourdough. The bottom of the egg had a thin crust, the bright yellow, sunny side quivered. Cutting into the center of the egg released a torrent of yolk that shared its sweetness with the ramps and soaked into the grilled bread.


Ask for the grilled avocado, which you will definitely want to do, and marvel at the beauty of a single, perfectly ripe avocado arriving on a plate, cut in half with grill marks on the soft flesh. The avocado meat has been flavored with crème fraiche, sea salt and Aleppo chili. One mouthful and you’ll give yourself over to its savory tasting of creaminess and heat.

Whitsell elevates familiar dishes and ingredients by adding an unexpected element. He takes the comfort-food-familiar flavors of a baked potato, sour cream and chives to another level when he flavors fingerling potatoes with freshly grated horseradish, crème fraiche and dill. 

He is a master of meat (chicken, elk, pork ribs), seafood (Santa Barbara spot prawns, ahi tuna, California king salmon) and vegetables (beans, peas, cauliflower, turnips, carrots, kale and potatoes). Jars and crocks line the kitchen shelves because he loves pickling and fermenting.  He serves plates of pickled vegetables and uses fermented elements (jalapeno, mustard seeds, radicchio) to spice up his dishes. 


Rough textured greens like collards and Savoy cabbage that most chefs roast or boil, Whitsell serves raw. He massages them with kosher salt to coax a softness from their otherwise stiff leaves. To make his Cole slaw, he puts shredded savoy cabbage leaves into a bowl and sprinkles on kosher salt. His fingers go to work, pressing and squeezing the leaves together with the firmness of a Swedish masseuse. In a matter of minutes, those stress-stiffened leaves have relaxed enough to accept some friendly seasoning.  He adds a sprinkling of red onions, pickled jalapenos and mustard seeds, shredded carrots and a hit of apple cider vinegar. Delicious.

The skillet and the bubbles

For his video, Whitsell shows the step-by-step process for making crispy fried chicken. His favorite and mine. 

Two essentials to making great fried chicken: using a heavy duty cast iron pan (and, in my opinion, a carbon steel pan made by de Buyer) and getting the cooking oil to the correct temperature.

The tricky part of the process is cooking the chicken not too fast and not too slow. If the oil is too hot, then the outside will be crispy and the inside will be uncooked. That is why Whitsell recommends making a test piece to help gauge the heat and the time it takes to cook the chicken properly. 


Pour 1” of oil into the skillet, which should reach half way up the side of the chicken pieces. Heat for about 5 minutes. When the test piece is placed in the oil, the bubbles should come up the sides but not over the top. If the bubbles envelop the piece, the oil is too hot. On the video, Whitsell shows exactly the bubbles he looks for.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Spicy Honey Butter

There are many secrets to his recipe. Most importantly, brine the chicken and then marinate the pieces afterwards in buttermilk. 

A cook's tip: if buttermilk is not available, you can make a substitute by measuring out a 1/4 cup of milk or half and half and adding a teaspoon of white vinegar. Allow to sit 15 minutes. The milk will curdle. Add the curdled milk to the amount of milk you need. Mix, refrigerate and use as the marinade. 

Whitsell prefers on-the-bone dark meat to breast meat.

When you make the brine, it should taste like ocean water.

Given the time it takes to brine and dry the chicken in the refrigerator, do all the prep a day or two ahead. Bread and fry the chicken just before serving.

For Whitsell, quality ingredients are essential. That’s why he tracks down Sonoma flour from Grist and Toll, a local mill, and organic buttermilk from Clover Sonoma because he likes their taste and believes they are healthier.


Lower each chicken piece into the pan slowly to avoid hot oil splatters.

Make sure there is a lot of space between the pieces in the frying pan and move the pieces around as they cook for even browning. Work in batches.

Brining & Drying Timeovernight - 2 nights

Prep Time: 15 minutes if using pre-cut chicken, 30 minutes if cutting up a whole chicken

Cooking Time: 20 minutes

Resting Time10 - 15 minutes

Total Time: 45 - 65 minutes + Brining/Drying Time: overnight - 2 nights

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 whole chicken or 1 whole chicken cut up, washed, pat dried

¼ cup kosher salt (for brine) + 2 tablespoons (for the flour dredge)

2 cups buttermilk, preferably from Clover Sonoma

2 cups all-purpose white flour or,  preferably, Sonora flour milled by Grist and Toll

1 teaspoon freshly ground cracked black pepper

4-6 cups peanut oil depending on size of cast iron pan

Directions

Brine whole chicken overnight or 6 hours for cut up chicken.

Remove from brine, pat dry. 

If using a whole chicken, after brining, cut off legs, thighs and wings. Filet the breasts off the bones and cut each breast in half. Wash and pat dry each piece. Reserve the bones to make stock or freeze if not using immediately.

Lay the chicken pieces skin side up on a piece of parchment or non-stick paper on the bottom of a cooking pan or baking sheet. Do not cover. Refrigerate overnight.

Mix together flour, kosher salt and freshly ground, cracked black pepper. 

Put 1 inch of oil into the cast iron or carbon steel pan. The oil should reach half way up the chicken pieces. If needed, add more oil. Place on a medium to a medium-high heat for about five minutes.

Place the chicken pieces into the buttermilk or work in batches.

Take one piece of chicken at a time out of the buttermilk. Shake to remove excess liquid. 

Place each piece into the seasoned flour. Pat seasoned flour over the entire surface, making sure all the meat is covered. 

Shake each piece to remove excess flour. Lay onto a clean cooking tray or baking sheet. 


As the dredging progresses, “flakes” will appear in the flour. That is a good thing. The flakes will add crispiness to the chicken.

Use one piece of chicken to test the oil’s temperature. Chef Whitsell suggests using a quarter of a breast. 

As you slowly lower the test piece into the oil, the bubbles will rise up onto the chicken. The bubbles should not envelop the piece. If that is what happens, lower the heat a small amount. 

Once you have browned the test piece successfully, start frying your chicken.

As you add pieces to the pan, the temperature of the oil will lower. Raise the heat to compensate. 

Work in batches. Don’t crowd the pieces. Leave an inch or two between each piece and the sides of the pan so they cook evenly.

As the pieces are frying, move them around in the skillet for even cooking. Be careful not to knock off any of the crust.

Roughly speaking, each side should brown and cook through in 5-6 minutes, so that’s a total cooking time of 10-12 minutes.

After the pieces are browned and cooked through, let the chicken pieces drain on a wire rack, which is on top of a baking sheet for easy clean up.


The chicken should rest uncovered 10-15 minutes so all the oil drains off and the juices collect back inside.

Spicy Honey Butter

As Whitsell says, “As if fried chicken wasn’t rich enough,” he adds a layer of sweet-heat by drizzling spicy honey butter on each piece.
While the chicken is resting, make the honey butter.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield 4 servings

Ingredients

½ stick sweet butter

2 tablespoons honey

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 large thyme sprig

3 whole dried cayenne peppers

Directions

Drizzle honey onto sweet butter in a small skillet over low heat. Season with salt, dried thyme and cayenne pepper.

Stir frequently to prevent burning.

Just before serving, pour melted honey butter over chicken pieces.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Eat Twice - Quick and Easy, Vegetable-Chicken Congee-Style Rice Bowl

We've all been there. One hand holds the refrigerator door open as we stare into the brightly illuminated emptiness. We're hungry. We want something that doesn't take much time to prepare.

Where are all the great things to eat? What happened to the chicken and dumplings we made a few days ago? Oh, yeah, we finished that off at lunch. What about the brown sugar pork ribs that were so delicious? The crispy fried chicken? The roasted artichokes? Oh, yeah, all gone.

We could make a salad, but there's no Little Gem lettuce, no arugula, not even Italian parsley. We meant to go to the market. There just wasn't time.


But all is not lost. There's a container of steamed rice we brought home from a meal at the Chinese restaurant. There aren't any leafy greens in the vegetable bin, but there are a few things from last weekend's farmers market. A carrot, an onion, an ear of corn, a dozen English pea pods, a few mushrooms and a bunch of kale.

To make what I have in mind, we need homemade stock. A quick look in the freezer and, yes!, there's a container of chicken stock we made with the left over chicken from the Peruvian restaurant. Maybe our prospects aren't so bleak.

Eat Twice

The key to unlocking this deliciousness is repurposing or more specifically re-imagining what was served up for one meal that can be magically transformed into another.

One of my favorites is a richly flavored rice dish that uses freshly cooked rice or, in the spirit of Eat Twice, rice brought home after a meal at our favorite Vietnamese or Chinese restaurant.

The dish is a cousin of Asian congee, traditionally a soupy, pale white, savory morning bowl of boiled rice mixed with a protein. The version I want you to try is vibrant, colorful and richly layered with flavors and textures.

Use farmers market vegetables to give the dish a crisp freshness. Homemade stock braises the rice to create a comforting creaminess (without using cream).

I always use a mix of vegetables, especially shiitake mushrooms, onions, carrots, broccoli, corn kernels and English peas when they are available. For my pescatarian wife, I use homemade vegetable stock and add tofu or freshly deveined shrimp.

For me, I love a mix of cooked chicken and chopped up shumai, those wonderful pork filled dumplings served as a dim sum dish, or bbq pork sparerib meat cut off the bone and chopped into bite-sized pieces.


I also like using broccoli leaves. At the farmers market, many people peel off the leaves and leave them on the table. With the farmer's permission, I scoop them up, a treasure waiting to flavor my dishes. The stems should be cut into thin rounds. The leaves should be shredded. They are delicious.

In the summer, I use a medley of warm weather vegetables like corn and English peas. In colder weather, I rely on squash, sturdy leafy greens like kale and broccoli.


Vegetable and Chicken Congee

Convenient and versatile, left-over rice may feel dry to the touch but introduce a hot liquid and the grains plump up and return their former deliciousness.

Use any kind of rice you enjoy except wild rice.

If using freshly cooked rice, the time needed to cook the rice will be much less so add the rice to the simmering broth at the last minute so the grains do not absorb too much liquid and become soggy.

Use any vegetables you enjoy.

Homemade stock is preferable because it will be lower in sodium content and you can control the quality. And, it is less expensive than store bought canned or frozen stock. 

For a vegan version, use vegetables and vegetable broth.

For a spicy version, include 1 cup finely chopped kimchi.

Yield: 4

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 15-20 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

4 cups cooked rice

4 cups stock, preferably homemade

2 cups cooked chicken meat, deboned, roughly chopped

6 leaves kale, washed, pat dried, stems removed, cut into a small pieces or 6 large broccoli leaves, stems finely sliced into rounds, leaves shredded

1 cup broccoli stems and florets, cut into small pieces

1 cup corn kernels (when available)

1 large carrot, washed, peeled, cut into corn kernel sized pieces

1/2 cup shelled English peas, washed (when available)

1 medium yellow onions, washed, peeled, root and stem ends removed, cut into corn kernel sized pieces

6 large shiitake mushrooms, washed, pat dried, tip of the stem removed, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 teaspoon sea salt, ground fine

Pinch freshly ground black pepper

Pinch cayenne powder (optional)

Directions

In a large sauce pan, heat olive oil over medium flame. Add all vegetables. Sauté until lightly brown.

Add stock and chicken. Stir and simmer 10 minutes to combine flavors.


Season with sea salt, black pepper and cayenne (optional).

Add rice. Stir well to combine all ingredients.

Simmer. The cooking time will depend on the rice. If freshly cooked, the time is probably 5 minutes. If the rice needs reconstituting, probably 10 minutes.

Be careful not to overcook because the rice will become soggy.

Serve hot with enough liquid in the bowl that the rice is "wet".

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Eat Twice - How Repurposing Can Change Your Life - Rotisserie Chicken Becomes Chicken & Rice Soup

It all began with my grandmother.

I was probably seven when she gave me my first cooking lesson. Caroline lived in Manhattan in a small studio apartment on 110th Street near Amsterdam, around the corner from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She slept on a pull-out bed that folded back into a sofa. Her kitchen was the size of a small closet.

My grandmother was a good cook. Mainly she served classic Jewish dishes. Boiled chicken, matzo ball soup and gefilte fish were some of the dishes I remember her making. When she taught me how to cook, she emphasized thrift. Nothing should be wasted. Not a drop nor a scrap should be thrown into the trash.

When she made scrambled eggs, after I cracked open the egg, she taught me to run my finger around the inside of each half of the shell to remove all of the egg white. When I accompanied her to the grocery store, we would shop at several until she found the best price for whatever it was she needed.


Those lessens are ingrained into my cooking-DNA. Which brings me to lunch last week.

My friend Dean and I tried Pollo A La Brasa (764 S Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90005, (213) 387-1531), a well-known fast-food, rotisserie chicken, Peruvian cafe in K-Town (Koreatown west of Downtown LA). We ordered quarter chickens (a thigh and a leg) and chose as our two sides white rice and black beans. Each plate cost less than $8.00.

A giant rotisserie filled up the back wall of the cooking area. More than forty whole chickens secured on spits, rotated above a blazing wood fire. A thick sheet of glass to keep the smoke out of the dining room raised and lowered  when the cook removed a chicken.


When our food was ready, we carried the plates back to the table. The sweet aroma of the wood fire lingered on the charred skin, beautifully flavored with a mix of dry spices. We tore pieces of moist dark meat off the bone and mixed them into the rice and creamy beans. When we needed more spice, the giant squeeze bottles of green and red salsa on the table were nearby and each plate of food was accompanied by a small container of pico de gallo. The tiny bits of tomato and chilies added a fiery top flavor.

All of this is to say, lunch was fantastic. This was  our first time at Pollo A La Brasa. We will return!

But that isn't the point of this post. Not entirely.

The point is this. When we had finished our meal, Dean still had rice on his plate, along with the bones and skin of the chicken. If my grandmother Caroline had been with us, she would have said to Dean, "Take that home and make soup."

Since she wasn't there, I gave voice to her long-ago lesson. I asked for a take-away-box, scooped up what he hadn't eaten and we headed back to his house.

Just so you know, my friends and family are used to this behavior from me.

I take home sourdough bread from restaurants to make bread pudding, croutons and oven roasted bread crumbs. If we are invited to Thanksgiving at a friend's, I'll ask if I can take home the turkey carcass to make stock. If my wife, who is mostly a vegetarian, orders a roasted vegetable plate at a restaurant and she doesn't finish everything, I'll take that home to make a vegetable soup or stir fried vegetables with rice.

Dean always laughs at my "odd" behavior. This time I wanted to show him how to transform restaurant left-overs into a delicious second meal.

At his house I showed him all we needed was 4 cups of water, the chicken bones, two leaves of black kale, two scallions and one shiitake mushroom.

The bones simmered for ten minutes to create the stock. The vegetables sautéed in a small amount of olive oil in a second pot. We added the stock to the sautéed vegetables and simmered on a lower flame for ten more minutes. We added a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

To complete the dish, we placed a mound of the cooked white rice into the center of a bowl and poured in soup and vegetables. Dean tasted his soup. "Wow," he said, all smiles. "That's good."


And, there it was, a lesson in how to Eat Twice.

The restaurant had done half the cooking, providing steamed rice and smoke infused chicken that we turned into stock. We had added a few fresh ingredients and created an entirely new dish that borrowed flavors from the first but became it's own meal.

Easy. Frugal. Delicious. Grandmother Caroline would have been proud that her grandson learned her culinary lesson so well.

Chicken-Vegetable Soup with Rice

You can prepare this dish from scratch using raw chicken by first roasting the chicken pieces in a 350F oven for 45 minutes.  Allow the pieces to cool, then remove the meat and reserve to make chicken salad, pasta with chicken or shred and add to the soup and rice.



The cooked chicken you use can come from your own kitchen, in which case this is a strategy for repurposing left-overs.

The recipe is for one serving. If you have more bones or left over pieces of chicken, then the serving size will increase accordingly and the other ingredients should be increased proportionally as well.

Instead of kale leaves, you may use any greens you enjoy. A cup of washed spinach leaves, Savoy cabbage or Swiss chard leaves, roughly shredded would be good.

You can also add corn, carrots, celery, roasted tomatoes or grilled Japanese eggplant.

For this dish, we used the rice from our meal. We could as easily have used cooked pasta in the soup. 

Yield
1 serving

Time to prepare: 5 minutes

Time to cook: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

1 cup chicken bones and skin or bones from 1 thigh, 1 leg and 1 wing with skin

4 cups water

1 shiitake mushroom, washed, pat dried, stem end trimmed, thin sliced

2 scallions, root end trimmed off, washed

2 kale leaves, washed, center stalk removed and discarded, roughly shred the leaves

Pinch of sea salt to taste

Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

Directions

Cut off the green part of the scallions. Slice the white part into 1/2" lengths, set aside. Roughly shred the green part.

Use two pots. In one combine the chicken bones and water. Bring water to a rapid boil on a high flame. Reduce the liquid by 1/3.

In the second pot while you are making the stock, heat olive oil over a medium flame and sauté the scallion green parts, shiitake mushroom slices and shredded kale until softened not browned. Set aside.

Place a small strainer over the pot with the sautéed vegetables and add the stock, capturing the bones and skin in the strainer. Pick through the bones for any bits of chicken meat. Add the meat to the stock. Discard the bones and skin.

Add any additional chicken meat if desired. Simmer the stock with vegetables 10 minutes. Taste and season as desired.

To serve, place a mound of cooked rice on the bottom of a bowl and pour in hot soup and vegetables.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Tasting of Italian Wines in Century City

The 2018 Vini d'Italia tour was an invitation-only gathering to sample wines from some of Italy's best small-production wineries. After Philadelphia and Austin, the last stop was Terra, Eataly's rooftop dining room in the revitalized Century City Mall.


Marilyn Krieger works for the Winebow Group which organized the tour.  She said that the event was an opportunity to enjoy premium Italian wines distributed by Leonardo LoCascio Selections (LLS) and to talk with the winemakers. The wines we would taste that afternoon would evoke the location of their cultivation and the winemaker whose palate guided the creation of that year's bottling. Each wine was unique. Each winemaker had a story to tell.


I understood completely what Krieger meant. I love visiting vineyards and enjoy meeting winemakers, like Shawna Miller at Luna Vineyards in the Napa Valley and Mélanie Weber in her vineyard overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland.


The wines served at the afternoon event traversed Italy.


Four rows of tables stretched the length of the large dining room and outside on the covered patio where winemakers and representatives of vineyards from all over Italy poured their vintages and talked about their wines.

To stimulate the palate, a table was set with fine cuts of charcuterie, rough-hew chunks of aged Parmesan, small plates of calamari fritti in a spicy marinara sauce, crusted mashed fingerling potatoes heavily seasoned with flake salt, pasta with fennel sausage and spring salads with burrata, English peas and fava beans.


Some of the wines poured that afternoon were not yet available. Those would be shipped in the fall, available for the holiday season. And, many were so prized, their small productions would sell out before their release dates.

For me, the best adventure as a travel and food writer is to visit wineries as I did in Napa and Switzerland, to spend time with winemakers, explore the area around the vineyards and enjoy the fruit of the vines.


At the Vini d'Italia event I did the next best thing. I traveled from table to table, criss-crossing Italy from north to south and along the way tasted a Brunello, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, Barbera, Chianti, Barolo and a Soave Classico. Every wine was unique. Every winemaker had a story to tell.

I wish you could have been at the event. At the very least, look at the website and check with your local wine shop. Maybe you will find one of the wines we tasted. I hope so.


I look forward to enjoying the wines in a restaurant and seeing them in wine stores and I look forward to visiting the wineries in Italy to complete the experience.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Love At First Crush, One Woman’s Love Affair with Winemaking

California’s Napa Valley is home to some of America’s best wineries. The valley is also well-known as an incubator of women winemakers. Shawna Miller is one of a group of talented women who have pursued a winemaking career in the valley.



Growing up in a small Virginia town along the Appalachian Trail, Miller spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking and helping her grandmother tend the large garden that fed the family. In the summer they ate what they grew and canned the rest. During the wet, cold winters they happily survived on the food they put up in the pantry, including jars of huckleberry and blackberry jam, tomatoes and green beans.

She never thought about grapes or wine

Studying forestry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia, she graduated with a degree in forestry, which was a natural fit for a woman who had grown up trekking along the Appalachian Trail. That’s also where she met and married Zak who shared her love of biology. To see the world and build up their resumes, they picked up jobs wherever they could. After a stint with the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida, a friend invited them to work a harvest in New Zealand. That work-vacation changed their lives. 

Near Margaret River in Western Australia they worked at the Cape Mentelle Winery Miller, tasted the different varietals and loved the taste of the different grapes. She learned that each grape had a different temperament. Each had to be picked at exactly the right moment. Pick too soon or wait too long and the grapes would yield inferior wine. 

Now she and Zak were hooked. They pursued harvests in California, New Zealand, Australia and Chile. They experienced firsthand how soil and climate, terroir, created very different wines. The Indian Ocean breezes that swept across the grapes at the Cape Mentelle Winery yielded wines very different from the ones she came to love in hot, dry Napa.

Taking classes at the University of California, Davis Extension, Miller wanted to learn the science behind raising grapes and making wine. But there wasn’t time to get a degree in enology.

Her graduate work would be done in the fields and in the labs where her background in science got her jobs measuring fermentation levels. 

To become a wine maker, she had to master more than chemistry. Wine making is part science, part art. 

Even if a wine is made entirely from one varietal, the grapes grown in one part of a vineyard can be markedly different from those harvested from another area. Blending together those different flavors is an art that must be developed by a winemaker. 

Today as the winemaker at Luna Vineyards, she oversees the production of a collection of well-regarded, affordable wines. 

Luna Vineyards

What distinguished Luna Vineyards in its early days was the choice to produce Italian-style wines. When Michael Moone founded the vineyard in the mid-1990s, he wanted to produce wine modeled on the Italian wines he loved. He planted Pinot Grigio (white) and Sangiovese (red) grapes and blended the wines in a way that set them apart from the largely French style wines produced in the valley’s other vineyards.



Balancing work and a family

At times in their marriage, Miller’s husband Zak has worked half a world away at a winery in Chile. But now with Zaira, their little girl, to raise, Zak stays closer to home as an assistant winemaker at Domaine Carneros.

As harvest time approaches, they put the call out to their parents. When the grapes are ready to be picked, Shawna and Zak  will be in the fields from before dawn until well into the night. Someone needs to be home with Zaira. 



In the days before the harvest begins, Miller walks through the vineyard. The fat clusters of grapes hang heavily on the row upon row of well-tended vines. If the weather cooperates and no pests damage the grapes, she could have a very good year. She is always hoping that with luck and hard work, this year’s vintage could be one of the winery’s best.

Harvest – exciting and nerve wracking 

With a last look at the refractometer that measures the sugar level of the grapes, Miller makes the call to the vineyard manager, “Ok, let’s take it.” And that’s when the real drama begins. 

The grapes are ready. Miller is ready. But during harvest time there is more work than workers available. Sometimes when she calls she is told there isn’t a crew available. The grapes won’t be picked for days. 

During that waiting time she is at the mercy of the weather. If it gets too hot or if it rains, the grapes will be pushed past their prime and a vintage that could have been great will be less so. 



At moments like this, all Miller can do is watch and wait. She busies herself, making sure the lab is ready and the fermentation tanks are clean. Finally, when the crew is available, it’s all hands on deck. Time for their parents to babysit Zaira. 

Fermenting and then blending

What makes one wine different from another? Of course the quality and the variety of the grapes make a difference, but so too does the palate and skill of the winemaker. 

Depending on the wine making style, the maturing wine spends time in stainless steel vats or in oak barrels. When Miller believes the wine is ready, she begins a series of trial blends that are like rough drafts. Making several blends, she and her team will sample and rate each, comparing that year’s wine with ones they liked from years before. Like the best chef, she will mix and combine until she has the flavor she loves. At that moment, she will call in the bottling crew.

During the year there are moments when Miller can take a break to spend time with her family. As all-consuming and as hard as the work can be, having time with Zak and Zaira is absolutely essential.

And then it’s time to start the process all over again. In spring the leaf buds poke through the dark wood. In the heat of the summer, the vines need to be tended, the grape clusters are thinned and the plants monitored for pests. And in the fall there is the harvest when so many moving parts have to work together to give Miller what she needs to make great wine.

At the end of the day, even with all those stresses Miller counts herself lucky to have a career she loves and to be living with her family in a valley that produces beautiful wines.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Ultimate Comfort Food: Chicken & Dumplings

No matter the time of year, there is a need for comfort food. Winter cries out for hot soups and hearty stews. Fresh produce that had been lost during the cold months is celebrated in the spring. Summer's bounty calls for salads, fresh fruit and bbq. Fall reminds us we are mortal as we say goodbye to fresh produce in a last celebration of corn, figs and leafy greens.

Through all the seasons, I enjoy chicken and dumplings because its rich broth is nourishing. Adding a heap of farm-to-table vegetables brightens and the sweet succulence of braised chicken and wholesome dumplings adds depth and umami to the dish.

What is more, this hearty, flavorful dish is inexpensive and easy-to-make.


The basics are straightforward. Fresh chicken. A handful of favorite vegetables. A cup of white flour. A bit of half and half. A cube of butter. Homemade chicken stock. A few seasonings.

Simmer. Cover. Uncover and serve! Easy-peasy.

Farm-to-Table Vegetables, Chicken and Dumplings

Use a good quality organic chicken and buy farmers market produce when available. 

If you have dried whole shiitake mushrooms, use them. They add a distinctive flavor, different from the delicate flavor of thinly sliced shiitakes.

Use vegetables you love. And lots of them. English peas. Squash rounds. Kabocha chunks. Roasted sweet potatoes. Green beans. Kale. Shredded cabbage. Chopped turnips. My preference is to tilt the balance towards the fresh produce, plating great mounds of vegetables with a leg and a wing or two pieces of breast.

The dish can be covered and served the next day or divided into smaller covered containers and frozen for up to three months.

Yield: 4 servings

Time to prep: 15 minutes (if you already have chicken stock) or 1 hour (including time to make chicken stock)

Time to cook: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes - 2 hours, 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 whole chicken approximately 3 lbs, preferably organic, cut apart as described below
1 medium yellow onion, washed, ends trimmed, outer skin removed, cut into 1/2" pieces
1 cup green beans, washed, ends removed, cut into 1" long pieces
1 cup broccoli florets, washed and cut into 1" pieces or broccoli leaves, washed, shredded
2 cups shiitake mushrooms, washed, stem end trimmed, thinly sliced or 2 cups dried whole shiitake mushrooms, washed
1/4 cup Italian parsley, leaves only, washed, finely chopped
1 garlic, peeled, finely chopped (optional)
1/2 cup celery, washed, ends trimmed, cut into 1/2" pieces (optional)
4 cups homemade chicken stock, as described below
1 large carrot, washed, trimmed, peeled, cut into 1/2" thick rounds
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne powder (optional)


Dumpling ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour, white
2 tablespoons sweet (unsalted) butter, cut into fine bits
1 scallion, washed, ends trimmed, green and white parts finely chopped or 2 tablespoons Italian parsley, leaves only, washed, finely chopped
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
1/2-1/3 cup half and half, cream or whole milk


Directions

Break down the whole chicken by cutting off the legs, thighs, wings and breasts.

Place the carcass into a large pot, cover with water and simmer covered for 45 minutes. Strain through a colander, reserving liquid in a bowl. Let the carcass cool and remove the meat.

Use what stock is needed for the dish, reserving the rest covered in the refrigerator for up to three days or in the freezer for up to six months. The meat pulled off the carcass can be added to the braise or submerged in stock and frozen for later use.

Separate legs from thighs. Separate the three parts of the wings, adding the wing tips to the stock pot. Cut chicken breasts into three almost equal sized pieces. If removing skin from the parts, add to the stock.


In a mixing bowl, add flour, cut up butter, scallion (or Italian parsley), baking soda, sea salt and black pepper. Using a fork, mix well. Slowly add milk, stirring until thickened. The resulting mixture should be like thick batter. If the mixture is too runny, add a tablespoon of flour. Cover and set aside.


For the braise, in a large pot, heat olive oil and sauté the chicken parts. Use tongs to turn the parts until each piece is browned on all sides. Remove and set aside.

Sauté the onions and garlic (optional) in the pot with the chicken fat and oil until softened. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add chicken stock. Return browned chicken pieces to the pot. Stir and simmer 20 minutes.

Add vegetables.


To make the dumplings, use two soup spoons to create small rounds of dough. Drop each dumpling into the simmering liquid. Make room for each dumpling so they do not touch because they will expand as they cook. Add all the dumplings and cover.

Adjust the heat so the stock simmers but does not boil.

Cook 30 minutes and serve immediately. Place several dumplings into each bowl, adding a protein and a good helping of vegetables with several tablespoons of gravy.

Serve hot.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Mixologists Declare Dutch Jenever as the Next Big Trend in the U.S.

Jenever’s clean, bright taste is perfect neat or in cocktails.

If you visit Amsterdam, you will be advised to do as the Dutch do. No matter the weather, rain or shine, jump on a bicycle and explore the city. A necessary part of the Dutch experience is to stop in a neighborhood bar for a sandwich and a glass of jenever (or, genever, as it is variously spelled, and pronounced “yin-e-ver”).

You will happily greet the waiter who delivers jenever to your table in its traditional tulip shaped glass. As you sip, the jenever will give you “Dutch courage” to go back outside to continue your adventures.


For hundreds of years, jenever was the favorite drink of the Netherlands. When the English and Dutch fought a war in the 17th century, the English soldiers remarked about the fierceness of their opponents. That fierceness seemed to have something to do with the drink they shared before battle. Soon the English were drinking jenever as ardently as the Dutch and when they returned home, they wanted more of the same.

They called their creations “gin,” a reference to jenever but gin was made in a very different way. Because gin is better known, jenever is sometimes incorrectly called “Dutch gin.”

The Basics

Both use juniper berries as an aromatic, but jenever is distilled from malt wine made with rye, corn and wheat, while gin is distilled from grains. That malty base gives jenever a quality similar to whiskey or scotch. 



To be called a jenever, the spirit can only be produced in the regions specified as AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée), which include the Netherlands, Belgium and a few areas in France and Germany. In 2008, two sub-categories were created that differentiated a “young” (jonge) and an “old” (oude) jenever. The names refer not to age but to the percentage of malt wine and sugar in each. Following the historic practice, old jenever must have at least 15% malt wine and no more than 20 grams of sugar per liter. Creating a more modern and lighter distillate, young jenever may have no more than 15% malt wine and no more than 10 grams of sugar per liter.

A few jenevers are exported to the U.S. and they are prized by mixologists.  The best way to enjoy the great variety produced by Dutch distilleries is to go on a jenever-bar-crawl in Amsterdam.

A Walking Tour of Amsterdam’s Jenever Tasting Rooms
Walking along the canals, visiting museums and hanging out in coffee shops, you will want to visit several of Amsterdam’s jenever tasting rooms called proeflokaal. Many of those family-run bars are in historic rooms with ancient wood paneled walls, cooper pots used in distillation and shelves lined with dozens of types of jenever. 

For my tour of Amsterdam, after I crossed tourist-popular Dam Square in front of the Royal Palace, I walked down a narrow pedestrian walk-way lined with centuries old stone buildings that all but blocked out the bright blue sky overhead. Finally I reached Wynand Fockink (Pijlsteeg 31, 1012 HH Amsterdam,+31 20 639 2695), a 17th century tavern with a retail store in one small room and a bar in the other. 

Wynand Fockink feels like a setting you’ve seen in a Rembrandt painting with low ceilings and long wooden shelves, sagging with age and the weight of a great many liquor bottles. No mixed cocktails are served here. The bartenders offer customers tastings of their old, young, spelt, rye and superior jenevers in traditional tulip shaped glasses.

Another destination for that old school experience is the charming, historic, 19th century building housing Proeflokaal A. van Wees (Herengracht 319, 1016 AV Amsterdam, Netherlands, +31 20 625 4334). The tasting room serves sixteen types of van Wees jenever. The young jenevers have a light, bright flavor. The old jenevers, of which there are many, have flavors varied by the choice of botanicals and the length of time spent in oak casks. Some of those jenevers are aged as long as fifteen and twenty years to create flavors similar to brandy or fine Scotch. 


The Van Wees Distillery (Van Wees distilleerderij de Ooievaar) originally opened in 1782, may be the oldest, continuously run jenever distillery in Amsterdam. Fenny van Wees, the current owner and distiller, took over from her father who followed his father into the business. Now her daughter, Nikki Swart, has joined her. Their small batch jenevers are sold in bars around Amsterdam and exported throughout Europe, although not as yet to the U.S. About her release, the Miracle of Amsterdam (Mirakel van Amsterdam), she uses phrases commonly employed to describe fine wines and exquisite whiskeys. 



“It smells like honey, straw, vanilla, lemon, cardamom and other sultry scents, as if you’re wandering around through a warm eastern countryside. Tasteful and yet absolutely charming and elegant. In my opinion a female jenever, made by a female.”

For a completely different experience, a must-stop on a jenever tour of Amsterdam is the House of Bols (Paulus Potterstraat 14, 1071 CZ Amsterdam, +31 20 570 8575). The design style is modern, bright and colorful. In the Mirror Bar, the décor is fun and exciting as guests gather around the long bar to watch mixologists ply their trade. Guests can also join a workshop in cocktail mixology and have tastings of Bols’ liquors and jenevers as well as take a tour of the distillery and experience the varied aromas and flavors used in creating spirits in the Hall of Taste. 

Jenever in the U.S.

Making an appearance in Michelin-starred restaurants and bars around the country, jenever appeals to mixologists who like its distinctive flavors and its ability to play nice with other ingredients.  

Leo Robitschek at New York’s Nomad Bar (1170 Broadway, New York 10001, 212 796 1500) uses jenever to build complex flavors in his cocktails. To make the Dr. Walnut cocktail, he mixes Bols Genever 1820 with Amaro Ciociaro, Royal Combier, hazelnut liqueur, lemon juice, egg white and shaved walnuts. For a completely different experience, Bols Genever 1820, pisco and cachaça are combined to create a high-octane base in the Sakura Maru cocktail, flavored with sheep’s milk yogurt, lemon juice and agave. 

At San Francisco’s Mint 54 (16 Mint Plaza, San Francisco 94103, 415 543 5100) in Union Square, Jacobo Rosito uses a light touch when he creates jenever cocktails.  His New Era cocktail, a riff on a Moscow Mule puts Bols 1820 Genever front and center in a light mixer of St. Germain, lime juice, Fever Tree ginger beer and a few dashes of Angostura Bitters. For his Smokey Old Fashioned, he accents Bols Barrel Aged Genever with Lapsang Souchong syrup and bitters 12.  


Rosito says that those two cocktails are now the most popular at 54 Mint. For an after dinner digestive, he recommends Bols Barrel Aged Genever, which he happily admits he loves neat as his own end-of-the-evening treat. Rosito declares enthusiastically that jenever will become the new trend in the U.S.

Cesar Cerrudo at Mercado Modern (301 N. Spurgeon Street, Santa Ana, CA 92701, 714 338 2446)
also benefited from a visit to Amsterdam. Cerrudo riffs on classic cocktails using Bols genevers. With a nod to Amsterdam’s Red Light District, for his Red Light Negorni he uses Bols Genever, Pisco Viejo Tonel Acholado, Galliano L’Aperitivo infused with strawberries, lavender infused Carpano Antica Vermouth, Fee Brothers Rhubarb bitters, Fernet Vallet and clove smoke. His customers enjoy the way the genever interacts with the pisco, giving his Negorni a distinctive flavor profile.


By inviting mixologists to Amsterdam, Bols familiarized Rosito, Cerrudo and many others with jenever. As bartenders become better acquainted with jenever and demand increases, expect small batch distilleries like Wynand Fockink, Van Wees Distillery, Zuidam and others to make their distinctive jenevers available in the U.S. When that happens, jenever’s clean, bright flavors will compete for the attention of loyal mescal, gin and whiskey drinkers. And that will be a good day for everyone who loves quality spirits.

Fried Chicken with Honey-Butter-Rosemary Dressing - Summer's Perfect Food

Last year I had the good fortune to interview chef Wes Whitsell in the kitchen at  Manuela .  Besides the interview, I video taped Wes demon...