“Hoppy Hour” a great choice for beer lovers and valentines

Sampling a rare batch of "Blackout Stout" from Great Lakes Brewing

Sampling a rare batch of “Blackout Stout” from Great Lakes Brewing that has been aged in bourbon barrels. Outstanding! In the background are brewer Luke Purcell and regional sales manager Connie Tucci of Great Lakes Brewing Co.

If you’re still trying to think of something fun to do on Valentine’s Day, I have a suggestion for you. Last week I attended the first “Hoppy Hour” event scheduled by the Giant Eagle Market District in Robinson. Hoppy Hours are beer tastings intended to showcase various breweries, where you can sample selections from the brewery’s lineup along with food pairings that the menu described as “light bites” (but they were substantial enough that eaten over the course of the evening, they made a satisfying meal). This first event featured Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company.

For this event, we gathered at 6:30 at the bar (yes, a bar inside the grocery store—-how can you refuse to go grocery shopping now?) and the tasting began right there with a light malty Conway’s Irish ale and a mini shepherd’s pie. This was a great start and a favorite of mine, but the tasting had just begun.

Then we went upstairs where the event room was set up with five more tasting stations closely supervised by brewer Luke Purcell. At the first station we were greeted with a lager, Dortmunder Gold, and a slice of Hawaiian pizza. At the next station, a trio of French bleu cheeses was accompanied with a citrusy Burning River IPA. Next an amber lager called Eliot Ness with spicy smoked salmon on grilled sourdough bread. (As a baker and sourdough aficionado, I was interested to learn that the bread is made in house at the Market District every morning from scratch.) Gyro burger sliders were served with Commodore Perry IPA, a dry fruity IPA. For desert? Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, a bittersweet beer with hints of coffee and chocolate, the perfect match for a parfait of chocolate ganache and berries. I wasn’t crazy about the ganache, but I’d enjoy drinking the beer again.

Brewer Luke Purcell took the time to answer all our questions at the end of the tasting. And perhaps to keep the Pittsburgh crowd friendly, he pulled out a bourbon barrel aged stout. This beer is made in such small batches that it’s not even available for sale at this time, and maybe I shouldn’t be talking about it. I’m not a beer expert, but to call this complex beverage mere beer is almost demeaning. This beer was as sophisticated as a port or a well-aged bourbon. Great beer and a great evening.

If you’re looking for something different to do, the Market District will be hosting these beer tastings for several more weeks and the next one is a Valentine’s special. Ladies, your man will love it!

fruit cake

mix of fruit for blackcake

This is the mix of fruit we included in our fruitcake. Raisins, dates, prunes, maraschino cherries, and of course the wild pears that I foraged last year. You can see they are a bit discolored from the everclear, but it’s not so bad!

Now that the holidays are over, you may be sick of fruit cake. But I want to tell you about a very special fruit cake.

I didn’t realize this until now, but the making of this cake started in the fall of 2012.

Remember when I found those very interesting pears growing wild by a parking lot? The tree was very overgrown and the fruit was small. To this day I still don’t know if they were Asian pears or honey pears or some other variety.

I took the pears home. Peeled them and put them in everclear, without blanching them or any previous treatment. They preserved well. They had a great flavor and gave a nice amber color and a pleasant fruity taste to the everclear. But the pears turned dark brown. Picture a gallon-sized glass jar full of these discolored pears floating in yellow liquid, sitting on the kitchen counter. Not the most appealing sight in a food preparation area. You can imagine the kind of things my wife would say about this, but I was mostly pleased with my experiment and I refused to get rid of it just because it wasn’t pretty.

One day Laura mentioned to me how those pears would probably not be bad in a fruit cake. At first I thought this was probably another derogatory comment towards my pears. But Laura has an obsession with black cake, Jamaican fruit cake. And she has been wanting to make it for a long time.

We gathered dried and preserved fruits, my pears included, and we made black cake. Well–sort of.

burnt sugar on the stovetop

Burnt sugar. This is not nearly black enough for blackcake, but this is as far as I could make myself go! Maybe next time I’ll be able to burn it real good. Or maybe I will put my wife in charge of the sugar. ;-)

Black cake calls for very dark, burned sugar. That’s what makes the cake black. And I just couldn’t do it. I started the sugar like I have many times for flans or other preparations, but in this case it has to go beyond to the dark side and it has to be very dark and bitter. I have seen this happen by mistake multiple times. Thick smoke permeates the kitchen and your innocent preparation turns into Napalm in front of your eyes. A rookie pours water on it and then it takes over your kitchen! Years of training kicked in and when the caramel was to a “safe” darkness I pulled it away from the heat. I just couldn’t burn it. It wasn’t dark enough for the Jamaican version but it made a very nice looking “regular” fruit cake.

We kept it in a can for three months, like you do, turning it periodically for the moisture to code evenly.

A few weeks ago we tried it for the first time. It was tasty! Laura was pretty pleased with the results, even if it’s not as dark as she was hoping for.

I was glad my special pears were put to good use. It was a fun project. And I don’t have to hear any more complaints about the big jar of pears on the counter.

a slice of fruitcake--our first attempt at Jamaican "black cake"

A slice of fruitcake–a classic holiday dessert, often mocked, but this one is pretty tasty. It’s our first attempt at Jamaican “black cake.” It was delicious–fruity, tender, soaked in alcohol–what’s not to like?! Happy holidays to me. :-)

refresh dinner

Chef David Bulman

Chef David Bulman of Pittsburgh’s Verde restaurant on Penn Avenue. (I knew him before he worked at the French Laundry!)

Chef David Bulman from Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina was getting ready for Restaurant Week here in Pittsburgh. And I had the chance to preview his tasting menu on Sunday. Four courses, a palate cleanser, and dessert. The chef worked with talented bar manager Hannah Morris to create pairings to complement each dish. The pairings were masterful, bringing new dimensions of flavor and enjoyment. Verde prides itself on its encyclopedic collection of tequila and mescal, so no Verde menu would be complete without them.

Ceviche and Agua Fresca got us off to a great start. Chilled tortilla soup with a glass of Diseño Torrontes was one of my favorites. A twist on the classic combination of potato and chorizo combination with chipotle aioli followed. The pairing: Del Maguey San Luis del Rio crema de mescal. (Many people find mescal too smoky. If you’re one of these people, please give this mescal a try–you won’t be disappointed.) Then a Mahi-mahi taco with a cerveza preparada—a beer cocktail. And then came the masa “ñoquis” with braised goat. And when I thought I couldn’t absorb any more, a smooth avocado sorbet, a perfect palate cleanser. And the final course, Coco y Lima dessert, was paired with Agavero Damiana infused tequila. This was my favorite course. Yes, I have a sweet tooth, but that’s not the only thing that made this my favorite. In the wrong hands, lime and coconut can be a disaster that tastes like suntan lotion (not that I’ve ever eaten suntan lotion, I can only imagine). But done right, the combination is a bite of paradise, a refreshing tropical vacation for the palate. And this was done right. A sip and a bite and I was in paradise.

It was a great meal and Verde’s staff will spoil you. If you told me that Jeff Catalina could assemble another front of the house staff as expert (and good looking!) as the one at Tender Bar in Lawrenceville, I wouldn’t have believed you.

When you go to Verde, drop me a line and let me know what you think.

Buen provecho!

 

tortilla sopa

This tortilla soup was a popular favorite. Twenty garnishes meant that each mouthful was a different, magical combination.

 

"ñoqui" (gnocchi) made from corn flour

Delicious “ñoqui” (gnocchi) made from corn flour

coco y lima postre

My favorite course was dessert–an expert treatment of two tricky flavors: coconut and lime. This was served with Agavero Damiana infused tequila–the perfect ending to a wonderful meal.

 

Duck!

a delicious meal: duck confit and potatoes cooked in duck fat

a delicious meal: duck confit and potatoes cooked in duck fat

Duck season is over, but it seems like duck is everywhere–on sale at the grocery store, in recipes in foodie magazines… maybe it’s because Duck Dynasty is so popular, but for whatever reason duck is more readily available to the everyday cook.

Duck has always been part of a good game menu. To many people the classic preparation of duck confit has become a sort of sacrosanct ritual. Like these traditionalists, I take confit very seriously–a recipe that both preserves and develops flavor is a beautiful thing–but I don’t think you need to make the preparation overly complicated.

Confit intimidates people because the cooking time is long, and the risk is that you could end up with a dry or greasy bird. At home I use a “quick” method that perhaps breaks some traditional rules, but has always given me good results.

I start by breaking down the bird. I remove the wings, thighs and legs (in one piece) and the breast, also in one piece. I keep the bone in the wings, thighs and legs, but debone the breast. I save the ribcage in the freezer to make stock at a later time.

Then I season the meat with thyme, garlic, lemon zest, juniper berries, salt and black pepper. Sometimes I even use a little rosemary and savory. Duck is very flavorful–you could just season it with salt and black pepper and not be disappointed. If you season it the night before and let it sit in the fridge overnight, it’s even better.

Keep in mind that the whole cooking time is about 6 hours.

I start the cooking process by putting the duck pieces skin down in a sauté pan and rendering some fat, about a tablespoon, at medium heat. After I have a little more fat than I need in the pan, I use it to coat the bottom of a baking dish and turn the duck to give it a little color. Then I place the duck in the baking dish skin side up. I deglaze the sauté pan with a little white wine–sherry wine works well also–and pour the juices over the duck. And it’s ready for the oven at 200 F for 5 hours and 30 minutes.

Now, let me make sure you understand, with this preparation everything will be fully cooked. Still very moist, but well done. If you want your breast to be cooked medium-rare, this is the wrong method.

After 5 hours and 30 minutes, I take the duck out of the oven and pour all the fat into the large sauté pan where I will cook my potatoes.

Then I increase the oven temperature to 400 F and put the duck back in to crisp up the skin while I cook the potatoes in the duck fat.

I hope you’ll give duck a chance. It’s worth it.

Buen provecho!

season the duck with thyme, garlic, lemon zest, juniper berries, salt and black pepper

season the duck with thyme, garlic, lemon zest, juniper berries, salt and black pepper

duck pieces cooking in pans

Put the duck pieces skin down in a sauté pan and cook at medium heat until you render a tablespoon or so of fat. Use this to coat the baking pan.

turn the pieces over to brown both sides

turn the pieces over to brown both sides

deglazing the pan with wine

move the duck pieces into a baking dish, and deglaze the pan with white wine or cooking sherry

pour the pan juices over the duck pieces in the baking dish

pour the pan juices over the duck pieces in the baking dish

potato slices cooked in duck fat

Ahhh, what could be better than potatoes cooked in duck fat!

Christmas powder cookies

polovorones, traditional Spanish powder cookies

polovorones, traditional Spanish powder cookies

For anyone who enjoys a little baking, making holiday treats is one of the best traditions of this time of the year. Making that special cookie or sweet for our loved ones can be very fulfilling and fun. But it can also be tricky: lots of people I know have special dietary requirements, so sometimes I have to consider gluten-free or vegan options as well as allergy issues when I’m choosing a recipe.

A Christmas favorite of mine from Spain (of course!) can be vegan, with just a few minor ingredient adjustments. A traditional cookie, “polvorones” get their name from their fragile, powdery consistency (“polvo” means “powder” in Spanish). Versions made with lard (“manteca”) are called “mantecados,” but this traditional recipe calls for olive oil, so these cookies would be called polvorones. For these cookies, you only need a few ingredients, just flour, olive oil, sugar, cinnamon, sesame seeds, and lemon zest.

In Spain, these cookies are usually made a little thicker, but I decided to go thinner for the American version.

Polvorones

Ingredients

2 cups flour

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon mixed together
  • sesame seeds to taste (about 1/4 cup)

Instructions

First of all you must bake the flour to dry it–probably something that you have never done before. For this you’re going to place the flour in a sheet pan and put it in the oven at 300° for 25 minutes. Let it cool down completely before moving on.

Mix the sugar, olive oil and lemon zest until smooth and creamy.

Then add the flour slowly, just until is mixed in. Don’t overwork it. And that is it–your dough is complete!

You can let it rest in the fridge for a few minutes or work with it very quickly, while the dough is cold. As the dough gets warm, it becomes soft and hard to work with.

Roll out the dough to a half-inch thickness and using a cookie cutter, cut the dough in all kinds of fun shapes and put it on a baking tray. Mix sesame seeds with cinnamon and sugar and sprinkle thickly on top of the cookies. Bake for 12-15 minutes at 400°. Watch them carefully to be sure they don’t get too dark. How long you bake them depends on the thickness of the cookie. Let them cool down on the tray. You won’t be able to pick them up until they have cooled down.

This can be a delicate and very tasty Christmas addition to your cookie tray.

Buen provecho!

toasting the flour

toasting the flour

polvorones call for just a few ingredients

polvorones call for just a few ingredients

Mix just until combined--don't overwork the dough!

Mix just until combined--don't overwork the dough!

polvorone cookie dough

Here you see the consistency of the polvorone cookie dough.

making polvorone with a cookie cutter

Choosing which cookie cutter shapes to use is part of the fun. Cut quickly--try to keep the dough as cool as possible and work it as little as possible.

polvorone cookies on the baking sheet

Polvorone cookies on the baking sheet. You can top with sesame seeds alone, with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, or with a mixture of all three!

good food is good baby food

pancetta wrapped chicken breasts for dinner

Pancetta wrapped chicken breasts. It can be tricky to cut thin slices of pancetta suitable for wrapping the meat. I would love to have a slicer for this. My wife doesn't understand why we need a slicer. I asked her to cut the pancetta for this recipe. Now we will see who wants the slicer.

Almost every week, we have chicken for dinner at least once. It is an easy choice for weeknight meals because it cooks up fast.

Last week I got a little fancy: I pounded the chicken breasts flat, stuffed them with goat cheese and fresh herbs from the garden, wrapped them in pancetta from Parma Sausage in the Strip, and cooked them up on the stovetop. It was good. My only complaint is that the pancetta is a little too salty. It has a great flavor overall, but next time I use it I might soak it first.

Anyway, you might ask me what the babies ate for dinner that night. They ate the same thing, of course! No chicken nuggets here. Some people are surprised that our daughters eat grownup food, dishes with flavor and texture. Is it because we don’t offer them “kid food” like chicken nuggets, or simply their natural tendency? I don’t know the answer. I just enjoy sitting down to a meal with my family at the end of the day, sharing the same food together. It is very important to me.

Recently we finished reading Pamela Druckerman‘s “Bringing Up Bébé,” a book that talks about different approaches to parenting in America and France. Everybody is reading this book. Among other things, it talks about picky eating. Americans might tend to see it as the child’s individuality, just personal choice. French parents would think the child is missing an important experience by not learning to appreciate that food. French parents would probably think chicken nuggets are child abuse! I am not sure what the author would think of Spanish culture, but I remember having meals with multiple courses and eating the same foods as adults.

My friends Rob and Sarah told me that their first son ate everything from goose liver to artichokes–before kindergarden. Once he was in kindergarden, he only wanted pizza and nuggets. Peer pressure!

 

goat-cheese stuffed chicken breast wrapped in pancetta

Goat-cheese stuffed chicken breast wrapped in pancetta. On the left, the "grownup" preparation, and on the right, the "baby food" preparation!

A season for cider

trying Crispin cider

I have to admit I was a little dubious about any hard cider that comes with the suggestion to "serve over ice!"

I was born and raised in Asturias, a region of northern Spain that is very similar to where I live now in western Pennsylvania. Apple orchards are a common sight in both of these landscapes. In Asturias, hard cider is one of the most popular and commonly enjoyed alcoholic beverages, but not in Pennsylvania, nor (as far as I know) anywhere in the U.S.

Hard cider is starting to develop a following in this country, but is still viewed by many as an inferior choice to beer. Maybe because of different marketing strategies, I find that many hard ciders in this country have many other ingredients other than just fermented apple juice, which is basically the main ingredient in fine European hard ciders. A good example is Crispin Hard Cider, which offers the suggestion of serving over ice–a bizarre idea bordering on sacrilege for someone raised on Asturian sidra! This beverage contains hard cider, filtered water, apple juice concentrate and natural apple essence. As a sweet apple flavored drink, well, it’s not bad. It’s probably a drink that would be enjoyed by many, but it’s not hard cider, not my kind of hard cider that you would drink as you would a beer. This Crispin cider beverage reminds me of an appletini or dessert drink–something like granny smith sorbet, not hard cider. But who knows–maybe it’s an encouraging sign to see more ciders on the market, even if they don’t necessarily match my idea of what hard cider should be.

Farnum Hill semi-dry hard cider

Farnum Hill semi-dry hard cider, a great choice for our Thanksgiving feast!

Now, a good American hard cider is made in New Hampshire at Farnum Hill. Farnum Hill ciders are–in my modest opinion–great hard ciders. I have much to say about Farnum Hill, but for this entry, I will just say that Farnum Hill Semi-dry cider was my choice for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, and it was a great pairing to our harvest feast.

Buen provecho!

best when shared: rabbit with pears

Sharron Peterson

Before I begin, let me say that I love Thumper as much as anyone. My memories of him frolicking with Bambi in the grass are very vivid. So let me assure you that I understand why many of you are wary of wary of the Hare. However, rabbits have been considered a viable protein source all over the world for centuries. One might even call rabbit Europe’s “other white meat.” So, today, I ask you to set your visions of the Easter Bunny and talking rabbits aside as we give credence to this wine friendly, versatile meat.

Let’s begin with some Rabbit Food History.

According to Rabbit records, our consumption of the hare dates at least as far back as the Phoenicians (3,000 B.C.), whose sailors discovered rabbits.

The Romans later used rabbit meat to feed their soldiers, and even developed enclosed wall areas called “leporaria” to keep wild rabbits ready for eating. In the Middle Ages, Monks kept “leporaria” and began breeding for weight, color and even flavor profile. By the 16th century King Henry VIII took to hunting them for sport (yes, he was a little nuts). And his daughter Queen Elizabeth kept “rabbit islands” where the little critters could run free and flourish. This is actually how Coney Island got its name: the Dutch named the island “Conyne Eylandt” which translates to “rabbit island.”

There are still rabbit islands today, but most rabbits in this country are bred for pets. Which takes us back to our original topic – rabbits as food.

One common misconception is that rabbit tastes like chicken. Well, it doesn’t–it tastes like rabbit! Rabbit is considered a “game” meat and offers a savory, softer flavor profile than chicken. It is low in fat and can be chopped, fried, diced, sliced… prepared any way your hopping heart desires. Rabbit is a white meat and well suited for spring, summer, autumn, or even winter. Because of this versatility it pairs well with many red and white wines.

For example, let’s take a look at Chef Daniel’s rabbit and pear dish.

Chef marinates his rabbit in a flavorful mixture of salt, pepper, garlic, and calvados. The seasoned pieces are sauteed and served with pear, rutabaga, and turnips. What a scrumptious combo! In order to pair wine with this dish, I look at the most dominant components: garlic, its fried preparation, salt, and pear.

In order to stand up to the garlic and the fried preparation, we must choose a wine with enough acid to “cut through” these qualities. Also, we need a wine that will neither accentuate the salt nor overpower the delicate flavors of the pear.

My Choices
Reds: Oregon/ French Pinot Noir or a nice Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhone Valley

Whites: Alsatian Riesling or a white Rhone such as Marsanne or Rousanne

All of these wines are known for their vibrant fruit flavors yet have enough of a backbone (acid) to stand up to the garlic and fried preparation.

So, there you have it. Prepare Chef Daniel’s Rabbit and Pear dish, choose a wine and remember that food and wine is best when shared!

rabbit with pears

Picture recipe for rabbit with pears

Picture recipe for rabbit with pears

I always have the urge to cook rabbit for Easter. Once again I was not allowed to, and I had to wait until later on to do so. Last fall I canned pears from our pear tree, and I thought they would taste great in this dish.

This recipe is actually quite simple, and despite the many steps it’s easy to cook. You can substitute fresh pears or even store bought canned pears, since I don’t have that many more left to give you.


ingredients

  • 1 rabbit
  • 1/4 cup calvados or brandy
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • black pepper to taste
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 medium size turnips cut into cubes
  • 1 rutabaga cut into thick strips
  • 1 shallot minced
  • 1 tsp. chicken bullion
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 fresh thyme sprig
  • 1 fresh oregano sprig
  • 3-4 pears canned/fresh
  • 6 oz. baby spinach
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Make a paste with the garlic cloves, calvados, salt and pepper–I like to use my mortar and pestle for this. Rub the paste on the rabbit pieces. The butcher can break down the rabbit for you or if you feel adventurous, you can do it yourself–a rabbit is very similar to a chicken in this sense. Let it marinate refrigerated for at least a half hour.

While the rabbit marinates, peel and cut the rutabaga and the turnips. Reserve the rutabaga in water.

Heat up 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large dutch oven or pan, and lightly brown the turnips. Remove from the oil and reserve.

Flour rabbit, add 2 more tablespoons of olive oil, and brown the rabbit. Remove the rabbit and set aside. Saute shallot in the rabbit oil, then deglaze the bottom of the pan with the pear liquid and white wine. Mix in the chicken bullion at this point.

Return rabbit to the pan. Sprinkle the thyme and oregano over the rabbit.

Rinse and place the rutabaga and turnips over the rabbit. Salt and pepper. Cover and cook until the rabbit and vegetables are fork tender, around 15 to 20 minutes. Mix in the pears and cover for 5 more minutes to warm them up. If you are using fresh pears add them right after the turnips.

Wilt spinach in a separate saute pan and arrange in the center of the plate with rabbit, turnips, rutabaga and pears. Drizzle the juices from the pan over the rabbit and serve.

See the wine pairing for this recipe at best when shared: rabbit with pears.

Buen provecho!

desarme

desarme, a traditional October stew

Picture recipe for desarme, a traditional Asturian stew

Maybe because of this time of the year, or perhaps because I can eat it anytime–fish is on my mind. Salted cod to be more specific, which brings me to this recipe.

Salted Cod with Garbanzo Beans and Spinach, known in Asturias and probably all of Spain as “Desarme,” is one of the most typical salted cod recipes of the Asturian region, and a dish that brings me back with every bite. Every year in October, Asturias celebrates war triumphs of the past with this dish. Desarme itself is a culinary triumph. It’s called “desarme” because it supposedly was so good that it “disarmed” opposing forces: they laid down their guns to enjoy a bowl of this soup. This dish reminds me of how good something so simple can be, anytime of the year. Enjoy!


ingredients

  • 1 pound dry garbanzo beans
  • 1 pound salted cod
  • 1 pound frozen spinach
  • 1 onion small diced
  • 1 slice of bread (preferably from a few days old baguette)
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 Tbsp. Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)
  • 1/2 cup of parsley
  • olive oil

Soak the garbanzo beans in plenty of cold water over night. Follow the salted cod directions for soaking and preparation. Some salted cod might require an overnight process.

Drain and rinse the garbanzo beans. You could use canned garbanzo beans, but I wouldn’t recommend it for this recipe. They don’t make as good of a stock for your soup.

Cover the garbanzo beans with warm water. The garbanzo beans should be below the surface of the water by at least two fingers of water–about an inch and a half.

Pour a tablespoon of olive oil onto the water, add the bay leaves and bring to a boil. Cook your eggs until they are hard boiled. Cool and set aside.

In a sauté pan add two tablespoons of olive oil. Fry the bread on both sides, remove from pan and put in a food processor. Lightly toast the garlic cloves making sure they won’t burn, and add to the bread. Add the parsley.

At this point the garbanzo beans are probably boiling. Reduce to medium heat and skim off the white foam from the surface of the water.

Add a little extra oil to the same pan where you cooked the bread and garlic, and sauté the onion. Add the pimenton to the onion and mix in for a few minutes. Pour the sauteed onion mixture in the garbanzo pot.

Remove the egg yolks from the eggs and add to the food processor. Add a half of a cup of the garbanzo stock to the food processor and blend until you have a creamy paste.

Once the garbanzo beans are tender, tear the cod into small pieces with your fingers and incorporate into the soup.

Stir in the bread and egg yolk paste into the soup and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add spinach. Allow it to cook for at least ten more minutes for all flavors to come together.