Soupe de la Semaine: Chicken Noodle Soup with Basil and Spinach

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The Warhol print was probably tastier.

I realize that I tool on Campbell’s soups a lot — probably more than they deserve, especially since I am descended from Campbells on my Mom’s side (not particularly unusual for someone of Scots heritage). And while Clan Campbell were a prolific lot, it’s likely far more Campbell has passed through my alimentary canal than was ever in my bloodline.

In my youth, their ubiquitous cans were a staple in our pantry. I was especially keen on Scotch Broth, Vegetable Beef, and Beef with Vegetables and Barley. I NEVER liked their Chicken Noodle, since it always got served to me when I was sick. The association has stuck for decades. But in a strange twist of fate, I find myself making soups for an ill friend, so I decided to revisit my childhood chicken soup trauma.

There’s nothing wrong with chicken in soup; Tom Kha Gai is an all-time favourite. And Mexican chicken soups aplenty with tomato and chili and cilantro show up happily, and not infrequently, at table. But my challenge was to attempt to concoct something that was at once chicken noodle soup and not chicken noodle soup. A Zen kōan of a soup, so to speak. In order to achieve this aim, I needed to isolate those elements of trad North American chicken noodle soup that failed to delight me, and simply Marie Kondo them away.

ISSUE #1: The Broth
Typical canned chicken noodle soup features a briny broth with no more point of view than a real estate agent trying to sell you a house. I wanted a stock that would echo our more trad notions wthout being shackled to them.

ISSUE #2: Carrots
Love me carrots, I really do. But not here. There’s a reason Billy Connolly developed a routine based around how, when you regurgitate, there’s always “diced bloody carrots in it.”

ISSUE #3: Celery
Celery in commercial canned soups frequently develops a revolting, slightly slimy texture, and it played an outsize role in the sense-memory flavour of my canned nemesis. I could have opted for celery seed, but I really didn’t want the texture or the taste.

ISSUE #4: The Noodle
Nobody wants a limp noodle. Typically, they look like tiny tapeworms, they have zero toothiness, they shame the marriage of water, flour, and egg. My noodle was going to be strong and proud.

ISSUE #5: The Chicken
This will sound like the proverbial deli diner’s complaint that the food wasn’t good and the portions were too small. But the industrially processed 6mm chicken bit cubes were virtually flavourless, and distributed very sparingly. Hey, I get it — chicken is the soup’s most expensive ingredient, and more chicken = less profit. I responded by loading the pot up with about three pounds (1.5 kilos) of hand shredded boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

But enough of what I didn’t want. Here’s what I did want: simple, healthy (after all, I’m feeding a cancer slayer here), and tasty. I don’t know how you go about planning your recipes (other than having the good fortune to land here, for which I am grateful), but I typically overthink. I read books, I go online, I consult my bride, I mentally review every version of the dish I’ve ever ingested, I engage in an internal Socratic dialogue, I ask friends about their preferences, I fuss.

While in the store buying chicken, I came across a special on fresh basil. The die was cast: green stock. I also had some spinach powder in my pantry, which I suspected would complement the basil, as well as providing an excellent source of beta-carotene and iron. Besides, spinach made Popeye strong, and the Big C is more formidable a foe than Brutus (or, if I might betray my age, Bluto), so bring it on. [You can use regular spinach if you want; I just wanted to play with my new toy. This spinach powder is nothing more than dehydrated fresh spinach ground into green dust. No additives.]

One caveat: the fewer the ingredients, the better each one has to be. Because I had no homemade chicken stock, I used the best commercial stock money can buy. Free range chicken. Wine and olive oil I would proudly serve at table, not hide in the kitchen. Durum semolina pasta from Italy (even if I will use a different shape next time). Of course you can economise (if you have the time and the freezer space, you can save plenty on the stock by making your own), but even in my extravagance this is still cheaper per serving than what you’d probably pay for a bowl at a restaurant.

INGREDIENTS
30 ml / 2 tbsp olive oil (I used Olea Farm Garlic Blush)
3 lbs. / 1.5 kg boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 10)
sea salt and pepper for seasoning chicken
2/3 cup / 150 ml dry white or rosé wine for deglazing (water or chicken stock work also)
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 oz. / 115 g fresh basil, shredded or chopped (reserve about 10-15 leaves for garnish)
3 liters / 12 cups good quality chicken stock (I used Aneto Low-Sodium Chicken Stock)
1/4 cup / 60 g spinach powder (or 4 oz. / 115 g fresh spinach, shredded or chopped)
16 oz. / 454 g dried pasta, cooked separately (I used casarecci, but next time it will be gemelli, ciocchetti, or gigli)
2 tbsp. /35 ml / juice of one fresh-squeezed lemon (I plucked a fresh Meyer from our tree)
OPTIONAL: Shaved or grated Parmesan cheese for garnish.

DIRECTIONS
Cook the pasta and set aside. [You can even undercook it a bit, in fact, given that it will swim in the broth later. Dealer’s choice.] One piece of advice that has served me well is that the pasta water should be as salty as the sea. This, and seasoning the chicken well, meant the recipe required no additional salt.

♫ Brown the chicken in the pot, doo-dah, doo-dah. ♫

Season your chicken liberally with salt and pepper on both sides. In your soup pot, drizzle in about 2-3 tablespoons (30-45 ml) of olive oil, and cook the chicken. Depending on the thickness of the thighs, and the heat of your range top, this should take about 15 minutes. You’re looking for a little browning on the outside, but this is not intended to be fried chicken soup. When the chicken is done (I had to do mine in two batches), remove it to a plate.

What’s left after the chicken cooks is called the fond, and not just because I’m fond of it. When you deglaze the pot, the browned bits will transform into a very tasty sauce.

While the chicken is frying, dice the onion and chop the basil (and spinach, if not using powder), reserving a few basil leaves for later garnish. Afer removing chicken from soup pot, deglaze the pot with some wine or other liquid, then sweat the onion until it turns translucent. Add chopped basil, chicken stock, spinach powder (or chopped spinach), and reserved chicken thighs (including the juices that accumulated on the plate they sat on). Bring to a low boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least half an hour to 45 minutes or so (plenty of room for error here without any harm).

After the first simmer, remove chicken (again! It keeps jumping in and out, doesn’t it?) and set aside. Allow chicken to cool sufficiently so it can be hand shredded (or chopped, if you must).

OPTIONAL STEP: Remove most of the solids (basil and onion) with a slotted spoon and process in a blender or food processor with a little of the cooking liquid. Alternatively, you could use an immersion blender. This will thicken the liquid slightly.

Return shredded chicken to soup and add cooked noodles. Simmer long enough to warm the noodles, at least 15 minutes. Add lemon juice a few minutes before serving, to brighten and balance the flavour. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, if necessary.

Soup. Mmmm-mmmm-good.

Ladle into bowls, and garnish with chiffonaded basil leaves.

Instant Pot® Vegan Risotto with Mushrooms, Preserved Lemons, and Basil

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Canadian man makes Italian food.

As the news swirls with epic chills in the Midwest due to a polar vortex that has been altered by climate change, and when rain threatens my California home, it seems like the rib-sticking comfort of risotto is a reasonable response. Unlike my previous recipe for Saffron Risotto with Peas and Langoustine, this version was concocted in a cool bit of technology that had barely penetrated the public consciousness back then, and it’s vegan (although for my second helping, I grated a bit of Pecorino-Romano on top, and found it excellent).

Full disclosure: Although the idea for combining mushrooms and preserved lemons in a risotto originated with a yearning created in my tastebuds, several blog posts guided my thinking as I developed the recipe. You can find them at the Simple Vegan Blog, Vegan Heaven, Vegan Richa, Vegan Huggs, Chew Out Loud, and the ubiquitous Epicurious.

As is often the case, the recipe was developed around existing ingredients; I had some fresh basil in the fridge, it seemed like it would fit in with the other ingredients, and KAPOW, in it went. [One of my #squadgoals for 2019 is to undertake fewer unintentional fridge-based science experiments, a/k/a using ingredients before they stink up the joint.] Same deal with the dried mushrooms; they had been intended for a soup I was going to make for a friend who I later found out doesn’t like mushrooms.

The dried mushrooms I used were porcini (Boletus edulis), and an interesting variety known variously as slippery jack, pink boletus, and sticky bun. Although the package referred to them as Boletus luteus, which is their original 1753-era moniker gifted by the legendary botanist, physician, zoologist, and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, they are now known to be of a different genus and are more properly called Suillus luteus. You are of course welcome to use fresh mushrooms in addition to or instead of the dried.

Two other ingredients might be slightly unfamiliar to those with a limited pantry. Nutritional yeast is sold as flakes, granules, or powder, and is often employed in vegan dishes to add a cheesy or nutty flavour. You’ll find it in my recipe for Vegan Potatoes au Gratin, in fact. If your local supermercado carries it, you’ll likely find it next to the spices or in the health food/gluten-free/dairy-free ghetto. If not, well, your local GNC or Amazon.

The other possibly unfamiliar ingredient is preserved lemons. Common in South Asian and North African cuisine, preserved lemon is basically a brined or pickled lemon, generally salted heavily and marinated/pickled/brined for a month or so in salt and either lemon juice or water, if liquid is employed. Sometimes spices are added to the mix, but not generally. If you have neither the time, patience, or lemons for this process, they can be found in jars at many Indian, Middle Eastern, or North African markets, should you have such in your area. And yeah, Amazon. But seriously, they are super easy to make and they last a long time, so even if you have to buy a jar to get started, you should make your own, too. Surprisingly, the part you mainly want to use is the peel, not the flesh. Weird, huh?

The Instant Pot® doesn’t let you off the hook entirely when it comes to stirring stirring stirring your risotto; it bypasses only about 85-ish percent, which is not insubstantial. And while this method in all honesty may not yield that Michelin-star-worthy risotto of your Tuscan dreams, it gets close enough that I’ll take it on a weekday when I don’t have the Zen-like attitude or schedule that the former requires.

INGREDIENTS
100 g / 3.5 oz dried mushrooms (to be rehydrated) (or 16 oz. / .5 kg fresh mushrooms, preferably crimini)
2 tbsp. / 30 ml extra virgin olive oil (or other preferred oil)
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups / 600 g uncooked Arborio rice
1/3 cup / 75 g preserved lemon, minced
8 cups / 2 liters Aneto vegetable broth, or other low sodium veggie broth
1 loosely packed cup (1.5 oz. / 45 g) fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
1/4 cup / 10 g nutritional yeast
1/2 teaspoon / 1 g white pepper
salt to taste

“Mushrooms and lemons,” ring the bells of St. Clements.

DIRECTIONS
Rinse dried mushrooms thoroughly to cleanse them of grit, then drain. Then cover them in a liter (or quart / 4 cups) of warm veg broth. I used the stupidly expensive and stupidly great Aneto vegetable broth, available at a case discount at Amazon. If you have your own veggie stock, great. Otherwise I would recommend a mix of water and one of Better Than Bouillon‘s stock bases, such as the No Chicken Base. The mushrooms should hydrate in about 1/2 hour. Remove them from the liquid, then strain the liquid to remove any remaining possible grit and reserve the liquid. [The mushrooms soak up about 100-150 ml of the original liquid, which you can replace with more stock, water, or dry white wine.]

Dice onion, mince garlic, mince preserved lemons.

You can chop the mushrooms if you want; I didn’t.

Set Instant Pot® to “Sauté” and add olive oil to the stainless steel inner container. Add onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, until soft without colouring. Add the garlic (and fresh mushrooms, if you are using them) and sauté for another two minutes or so, stirring regularly. Don’t worry if there’s some browning on the bottom of the stainless steel container. Add minced preserved lemons and sauté for another minute or so. Add rice, and stir, to coat all the rice with a little oil. [Add another few ml or a tbsp. of oil if you feel like you need to.] Deglaze the bottom of the container with a little of the reserved mushroom soaking liquid. Add the rest of the liquid and the mushrooms, close the lid, then set Instant Pot® to high pressure (I used the “Bean/Chili” setting) for six minutes, making sure to set the vent on the lid to “Sealing.”

Chop the basil and set aside.

How much basil? This much basil.

When the timer goes off, carefully turn the vent from “Sealing” to “Venting.” [You may want to do this wearing oven mittens; be mindful to avoid the rapid jet of steam that will be emitted.] Turn power to “Off.” When the steam has vented, carefully open lid and set aside. The risotto will look a little soupy at this point, but it will thicken as you stir in the remaining ingredients. Stir in the chopped basil, nutritional yeast, and white pepper a bit at a time, making sure they are well distributed, until remaining liquid is absorbed. Add salt (if necessary), ladle into bowls, and serve.

Just like mamma mia didn’t used to make.

Soupe de la Semaine: Celeriac, Fennel, & Apple Chowder (Gluten-Free and Vegan)

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Chowdah!

Chowdah!

It would seem that the most likely derivation of the word chowder comes from the French chaudière, meaning “boiler” (and is also an archaic French word for cauldron or kettle, from the Latin calderia). The Brits, though, not wanting to be left out of the linguistic fun, claim that the word springs from their jowter, or fishmonger. To be sure, many of the best known chowders do contain fish, but this one is a vegetable and fruit chowder that’ll stick to your ribs on a chilly night.

The original recipe was published in the excellent Cook’s Illustrated All Time Best Soups volume, and this variation was also influenced by a post on the terrific Big Girls, Small Kitchen blog and Ina Garten’s recipe for Celery Root and Apple Purée (which is very much like this soup without the vegetable broth).

I took two significant detours: I omitted the heavy cream (thus keeping the soup vegan), and substituted potato starch for wheat flour (which makes it gluten-free). Trust me, you won’t miss the cream a bit; if you process in a Vita-Mix, it will be plenty creamy, but even if you just use an immersion blender the soup will emerge a tiny bit more rustic, while still maintaining that silky mouthfeel.

When it comes to the wine, you don’t really need to use a $38 bottle of Roche 2014 Carneros Chardonnay French Oak Reserve, but damn, it was good (and you only need half a cup (or 120ml).

Special note for celiac patients: Be extra-sure that your vegetable broth is free of wheat or barley or malt products. These often show up in commercial vegetable broths and broth bases.

INGREDIENTS

    2 tablespoons / 30g Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks (or unsalted butter, for non-Vegan version)
    1 onion, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    1 fennel bulb, halved, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, plus 1 tablespoon minced fronds
    Salt and pepper
    6 garlic cloves, minced
    2 teaspoons / 1.6g minced fresh thyme (or 3/4 teaspoon / .75g dried)
    2 tablespoons / 20g potato starch
    1/2 cup / 120ml dry white wine
    5 1/2 cups / 1.3 liters vegetable broth
    1 celeriac (also known as celery root) (14 ounces / 400g), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    12 ounces / 350g red potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    2 Golden Delicious or Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    zest of 1 lemon or orange
    1 bay leaf
Soup on the boil.

Soup on the boil.

DIRECTIONS

Put butter, onion, fennel, and a couple of pinches of salt in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, cook over medium heat until translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Add garlic and thyme, cook for 30 seconds to a minute until fragrant. Raise heat to high and add potato starch, stirring continuously, and cook for another 2 minutes or so. Add the wine to deglaze the pot, making sure to scrape up all the bits on the bottom; let most of the wine boil off.

Stir in the vegetable broth, celeriac, potatoes, and apples. Add bay leaf and zest your citrus over the pot. Bring to a boil and then back the heat off to a high simmer. Cover pot and cook for 35-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are all tender.

Remove from heat. Discard the bay leaf. Process 2/3 soup in batches; if you are using a blender or Vita-Mix, making sure to cover feed tube loosely with tea towel (do not plug it up, because steam needs to escape). Return processed soup to pot. [Alternatively, use an immersion blender to process soup, making sure to leave at least 1/3 chunky.] Season with salt and pepper to taste, and ladle into bowls. Garnish with fennel fronds and serve. Makes 6 servings.

Fig Onion Rosemary, um… It’s a Jam! It’s a Conserve! It’s a Very Thick Sauce!

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Destemed figs await being destiny.

It’s figgy! It’s oniony! It’s rosemary-y! It’s… Supercondiment!

When it comes to a project like this, seems to me there’s only two ways to go: 1) You can make just enough for yourself, and let’s face it, a little goes a fairly long way, or 2) If you’re going to bother with it at all, you may as well make a bunch, and share it with friends, neighbours, co-workers, etc. After all, you’re committing the same amount of time in either case, and in the latter mode, you can share the wealth. Sure, your cost of ingredients doubles, but by a back-of-the-napkin calculation, that came to about $12 in this case, less if you use red onion rather than Vidalia sweet onions, a cheaper wine, and can find a better deal on fresh figs than Whole Foods‘, all of which are well within pretty much everyone’s reach.

Clostridium botulinum, or Botox in the wild.  (Photo Credit: Dr. Gary Gaugler/Science Photo Library)

Clostridium botulinum, or Botox in the wild.
(Photo Credit: Dr. Gary Gaugler/Science Photo Library)

I’m going to say this up front, because food safety is paramount: THIS MUST BE REFRIGERATED. You can’t really preserve it in a standard water bath as you do other jams, because the pH isn’t low enough (or, put another way, the acidity isn’t high enough) to guarantee that our old pal Clostridium botulinum won’t rush in and ruin the day. The spore that causes botulism — and turns actresses of a certain age into Stepford Wife-looking creatures — is given a perfect home to reproduce in a fairly low-acid foodstuff that has been canned in an anaerobic (air-free) environment. You could get around this by adding a healthy dose of lemon or lime juice (or citric acid powder), but that would muck about with the flavour in a way that I wasn’t aiming for, personally. That said, if you do want to adjust the recipe and can it in the trad fashion, I’d recommend getting a pack of pH test strips and make sure you have the acidity at a pH lower than 4. Then the nasty little beastie is banished from the kingdom.

Now that I’ve frightened you, let me say that this is the same advice you’d get for canning meat, or asparagus, or mushrooms, or wax beans, or pretty much any veg that isn’t a tomato (and yes, I know a tomato is technically a fruit).

If, on the other hand, you have a pressure cooker/canner, you could do this no worries, so long as you get the canning temp above 240° F/115.6° C for a specific period (there are online guides), and it makes sense to err on the side of caution. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to treat it the same way you do pretty much everything else: put it in the fridge, and use it within 10 days or so. [Since it isn’t going to be in an anaerobic environment, botulism isn’t an issue, but as you well know, nothing in the fridge keeps forever… except that box of baking soda that doesn’t really absorb the odors the way it’s advertised to do.]

On to the good stuff.

This jam/conserve/very thick sauce is most excellent when served with stinky cheese, or as a glaze/condiment for a pork tenderloin, chops, or chicken. [Of course, since it’s vegan, it’s also good with crackers and flatbreads, not to mention garden burgers.] I tried to keep the sugar content as low as practicable, favouring the umami as much as possible.

Destemmed figs, awaiting their destiny.

Destemmed figs, awaiting their destiny.

FIG ONION ROSEMARY JAM/CONSERVE/VERY THICK SAUCE
INGREDIENTS:

45ml (3 tbsp.) extra virgin olive oil
3 large Vidalia sweet onions, sliced (about 1kg) (any onion can be substituted here)
5g + 1.25g (1 tsp. + 1/4 tsp.) sea salt or kosher salt
15g + 250g (1 tbsp. + 1 cup) turbinado sugar (white sugar works also)
1.25kg (2.75 lbs.) fresh Kadota figs (or whatever variety is convenient)
30ml (2 tbsp.) fig balsamic vinegar (or other balsamic vinegar or wine vinegar)
500ml (2 cups) red wine (2/3 of a standard bottle)*
15g (1 tbsp.) fresh rosemary, finely chopped

DIRECTIONS:

[Mise en place notes: Slice the onions and set then aside in a bowl; wash and destem the figs, then cut them in half (north/south) and set aside in a separate bowl. Chop the rosemary and set it aside. You can measure out your other moist and dry ingredients at this time if you want to, but nothing here is so time-sensitive that it’s really necessary.]

The only time the Sweet Vidalia onions made me cry was at the checkout counter.

The only time the Sweet Vidalia onions made me cry was at the checkout counter.

Heat pan on high and add the olive oil; when oil begins to shimmer, add the sliced onions, 5g/1 tsp. salt, 15g/1 tbsp. sugar, and stir briskly, to coat onions with the oil and mix in the salt and sugar. Reduce heat to medium high and allow onions to caramelize, about 20 to 30 minutes. [Note: If you haven’t done this before, it’s a little tricky. Stir them too often, and they don’t brown up. Stir them too infrequently, and they can burn. Don’t freak out if a couple of the onions look overdone; not a big deal. Timing is approximate depending on the amount of onions, your pan, and the heat of your cooktop.]

Onions, rosemary, and figs! Oh my!

Onions, rosemary, and figs! Oh my!

When the onions are browned, add the balsamic vinegar and wine to deglaze the pan, being sure to scrape any brown bits off of the bottom of the pan. Add figs and simmer until tender, about 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally and pressing the figs against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon to break them up. Add the remaining turbinado sugar and salt (to taste) and simmer for an additional 20 minutes. If jam/conserve/very thick sauce gets too thick, add more liquid (either wine or water) as needed until the desired consistency is reached.

Jam, condiment, or very thick sauce? We report, you decide.

Jam, conserve, or very thick sauce? We report, you decide.

Allow to cool until it is safe to handle, then spoon into clean jars and refrigerate. Makes approximately 1.5 liters/just over 6 cups. Should be just fine for at least 7-10 days.

Fancier than it needs to be?

Fancier than it needs to be?

* A note on wine: I used Kendall-Jackson 2010 Vintner’s Reserve Summation Red, a blend of 28% Zinfandel, 27% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petite Sirah, 3% Grenache, and 2% Petit Verdot. Why? I’d like to tell you that I did because it was the perfect match for the Brix (sweetness) level of the figs, but in fact it was around, I wasn’t particularly interested in drinking it at the time, and it wasn’t so expensive that I’d feel bad about having used it for making jam/conserve/very thick sauce. Any dry red will do; I may try a Pinot Noir or some other wine for the next batch, just to see how that works. You’ve probably heard this before, but you should avoid using any wine in cooking that you wouldn’t drink. So-called “cooking wines” are about as appetizing as Drāno®.

ADDENDUM:
I gave away a pint of the you-know-what to my pal Lisa Jane Persky, who is an actress, writer, artist, and a damn fine cook in her own right; here’s the chop she made with it. Nice.

Mmmmmm.

Mmmmmm.

ADDENDUM #2:
The other week, I attended a food festival at which restaurateur/radio host/generally cool individual Evan Kleiman was speaking about preserving tomatoes, and she said that (given the comparatively high pH of some newer varieties of tomato), she sometimes adds straight citric acid (which can be purchased either online or at many fine markets) to acidify the solution rather than adding lemon or some other citrus juice. The reason is that, while citric acid will make your jam/conserve/really thick sauce lower in pH (and hence, more sour-tasting), it won’t introduce any new flavour. You can buy pH strips or litmus paper to check to see if its pH is below 4. Alternatively, as noted above, you can pressure can the conserve/jam/really thick sauce. Or just stick it in the fridge. You’ll probably go through it faster than you thought.

Unbeatable Beets

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Best. Beets. Ever. Sans the hard-cooked eggs, which Tanis said were optional.

Best. Beets. Ever. Sans the hard-cooked eggs, which Tanis said were optional.

“As Bokonon [actually the late author Kurt Vonnegut] says: ‘Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.'” And I’m sure, were Bokonon here, he’d be happy to include “peculiar dining suggestions.” A couple of weeks ago, my pal Dan Fredman sent me an email about a wine dinner happening at Lucques in Beverly Hills, celebrating both the loose confederation of wine producers known as In Pursuit of Balance and the release of chef David Tanis‘ latest cookbook, One Good Dish. It was on a Thursday night, which interfered with The Bride’s workout schedule, and it was to start at 7 PM, which is always a challenge in Los Angeles traffic. I knew of Tanis tangentially, but I was not deeply acquainted with his history, so my natural tendency was to give it a miss. But Bokonon spoke to me, as he often has before, so I made the reservation, albeit with some reservations. But not many: dinner at Lucques has always been delightful, and at the worst, I’d have a chance to hang with Dan, which is always edifying. Also, as part of the deal, I’d get a copy of the cookbook, which kinda made the whole thing a bit of a no-brainer.

When we arrived, Dan greeted us and bade us to sit at his table, where Tanis himself was ensconced, along with a couple of other of our acquaintances whose conviviality is highly evident. The author was, by design, supposed to circulate. In practice, though, he hung out mostly at our table, often serving the dishes that he himself created.

He cooks, he scores. He even serves.

He cooks, he scores. He even serves.

The entire menu was — and this is a technical term — really tasty. All of it came from One Good Dish, with page numbers thoughtfully included. No doubt I could wax poetic about the crostini, or the espresso-hazelnut bark, and perhaps I will after I have made them. But this time, I’m going to lavish my praise upon the beets.

A perfect meal.

A perfect meal.

I’ve never been a big fan of beets. I’ve tried roasting them, cooking them in soup, glazing them, whatever. It’s not like I haven’t tried to like them, but I never had a beet-eating experience that made me want more. Until April 3, 2014, when The Bride, with whom I have been paired for more than three decades now, heard these words pass my lips for the first time ever: “May I have some more of the beets, please?”

Tanis’ Red Beet Salad, at its heart, is grated raw beets served in a fancy vinaigrette. And the Bugatti Veyron, at its heart, is a motorcar. The ingredients aren’t hard to locate or particularly sophisticated, but it’s absolutely worth using the very best available to you, especially super-fresh beets, and really good Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, and olive oil. I used some red wine vinegar that I had picked up at Turley Wine Cellars, and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from Oliana.

A minor digression: The difference between $15 olive oil and $3 olive oil is often hugely significant. I highly recommend splurging whatever your budget can afford on a great bottle of olive oil for finishing soups and salads, serving on bread, etc. Oliana in West Hollywood and Beyond the Olive in Pasadena and Stonehouse California Olive Oil in the San Francisco Ferry Building all have tasting rooms, where you can select from a variety of olive oils with a wide spectrum of characteristics. Most major cities in America have some gourmet store that offers a similar experience. [2017 update: Of late, we’ve been subscribing to a thrice-yearly variety package from Olea Farm in Templeton, CA.] Do give it a go; if you haven’t done it before, you will be shocked — pleasantly, but shocked nonetheless — at just how different olive oils can be.

All you need to make this excellent salad.

All you need to make this excellent salad.

Basically, you need to peel and grate the beets (I used both red and golden beets for my version), being very careful not to give yourself a case of what I like to call “box grater rash.” Alternatively, you can julienne the beets with a sharp knife. You might be well advised not to be wearing your bestest white shirt while doing this. Fresh beets are juicy, n’est–ce pas?

A bunch of beets.

A bunch of beets.

After the beets have been cut or grated, season them with a little salt and pepper and set them aside while you prepare the dressing. [I put them in the refrigerator to give them a slight chill-down.]

Great grated beets!

Great grated beets!

From the shallot to the cornichons on the ingredients list, everything is diced and/or measured and/or whatever as appropriate and gets mixed in a bowl. [Please consider buying the book; while this recipe isn’t complicated, it will do your karma good to support writers and chefs such as Tanis. And it’s a really terrific book.] The finished dressing will look something like the picture below, except that I took the shot before adding the parsley. Idiot me. So imagine some chopped flat-leaf parsley. Pour the dressing over the salad, mix, and let it marinate for at least 10 minutes. [Again, I put it in the fridge for this step.]

Yummy dressing for yummy salad.

Yummy dressing for yummy salad.

Serve, eat, and eat some more.

The second-best part about this salad is that it still tastes terrific the day after.

Mmmmm. Still good the next day.

Mmmmm. Still good the next day.

The recipe claims to serve four to six people, but don’t be surprised if your guests (or yourself!) are keen on seconds.

The Tournament of Rosés

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Dan, our gracious co-host (pictured at far right below), laid out the ground rules simply in his email:

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Bring a favorite bottle of rosé to share. Heck, feel free to bring more than a bottle if you’re the magnanimous sort. We love diversity, so no bring no more than one bottle of any one rosé, unless of course it’s Tempier or Valentini. Note-taking, reviewing or rating of the wines is heartily discouraged, and anyone overtly pimping bottles they don’t make themselves will be asked to leave (but we’re happy to send a note to your boss telling them that you did an admirable job representing the brand).

For eleventeen years or so, Dan has co-hosted a pagan summer event dedicated to the celebration of that most summer-y of beverages, rosé wines. The Tournament started on the deck outside his second-storey Malibu townhome with just a dozen or two people, and has grown geometrically in the years since, relocating to his friend Françoise’s back yard in Santa Monica. At first, it seemed something of a quirky kind of wine to revere. Much like the Jews, rosés wandered for years in the wilderness, having been given a bad name in America by the likes of Mateus and Lancers and (more recently) Sutter Home White Zinfandel. In fact, that one wildly popular White Zin was so poorly received by the cognoscenti that — despite being an economic juggernaut — it nearly tanked the reputation of the Zinfandel grape, and red Zinfandel (or just Zinfandel) is as far from white Zinfandel as red pepper is from white pepper. [That said, my pal Van Williamson makes a delightful rosé of Zinfandel (he calls it Rosato), so it is possible to make a “white Zin” that’s palatable.]

“So what,” I hear you ask, “is the key takeaway here? After all, I wasn’t invited to the party, and even if I had been, I missed it.”

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First of all: Don’t be afraid of rosés! They’re the perfect anti-wine-snob wines, mostly inexpensive, and the obvious bridge between people who claim not to like red wines and people who maintain they’re not interested in whites. They go great with food, from grilled meats to seafood to veggies. They’re widely available; most major grocery stores usually have one or two really tasty ones for under $20 (unless you happen to live in one of those unfortunate states where the liquor sales are controlled by the government, and even the state stores in places such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire frequently carry an acceptable selection). If your local wine store clerk gives you attitude over your selection, give him — trust me, if it happens, it will always be a him — a clout upside his snooty pate and proceed proudly to the checkout counter. After all, the French, who know a thing or two about wine, consumed an average of 11.8 liters per capita in 2010.

One of several well-stocked coolers at the 2013 Tournament.

One of several well-stocked coolers at the 2013 Tournament.

Twenty years ago, red wines constituted 73.4% of wines sales in supermarkets in France; in 2011 (the most recent year for which I could find figures), they had declined to 56%. Over that same period, rosé’s market share had grown from 13.1% to 27.3%. As per usual, we’re a little behind the curve, trend-wise, but experts in the American wine business are saying that rosé sales are expected to continue to rise here as well. Maybe Brangelina’s recent foray into rosé territory will jump-start the movement here; the first 500 cases of their Miraval rosé sold out in six hours.

A few of the 84 bottles that were consumed at the 2013 Tournament of Rosés.

A few of the 84 bottles that were consumed at the 2013 Tournament of Rosés.

In addition to being a great hang, parties such as this are a terrific way to get exposed to wines you otherwise might never know about. And clearly, having friends who are in the wine business (and who have outstanding cellars) are a positive boon such a gathering. But even without that, getting friends together to share and compare can be both entertaining and educational. [It’s real easy to forget about the educational part after the first few glasses, so I just take pictures of bottles I like.]

A picture of bottles I liked.

A picture of bottles I liked.

I don’t recall who first introduced me to the two-point wine scale, but it’s served me well: ultimately, it’s either “yum” or “yuck.” While far from being an expert, I’ve spent a fair amount of time tasting, reading, and making notes about wine myself, so the last thing I would want to do is disparage others who analyze wine the way people of a certain age used to pore over the cover of Abbey Road for clues that Paul was dead. But the final question for me always boils down to whether or not I would want to consume some particular wine again, ratings be damned. And today, I was richly rewarded.

Rosés, much like roses, come in many colours.

Rosés, much like roses, come in many colours.

Here are a few faves (in no special order) that are widely available, all under $20 and many a good deal less:
2012 Charles and Charles, Columbia Valley, WA
2012 Caves d’Esclans ‘Whispering Angel’ Rosé, Côtes de Provence, FR
2012 Domaine de Triennes Rosé, Vin de Pays du Var, FR
2012 Marqués de Cáceres Rioja Rosado, SP
2010 Château Bonnet Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé, FR
2010 Falesco Vitiano Rosato, Umbria, IT
2012 Château de Campuget Costières de Nîmes Tradition de Campuget Rosé, FR
2012 Ameztoi “Rubentis” Rosado Getariako Txakolina, SP
2012 Château de Lancyre Rosé, Pic Saint Loup, FR
2012 Chateau de Lascaux Rosé, Coteaux du Languedoc, FR
2012 Domaine M. Chapoutier Belleruche Rosé, Côtes-du-Rhône, FR

And here are a couple that you probably won’t ever get to taste, and which I will likely never taste again, thanks to the generosity of one of our wine collecting friends, who pulled a couple of special bottles for the Tournament.

From our pal John's cellar. Magnificent.

From our pal John’s cellar. Magnificent.