Sunday, July 27, 2008

Report from Las Vegas

I'm on one of my twice-yearly business trips to Las Vegas.
Unexpectedly we had some free time yesterday so we rented a car and drove to Hoover Dam. Much about the project (scope, construction, innovations, art deco design) are admirable. The location (in Black Canyon) is unbelievable. Some of the water history that led to its being built and the "spoiling" of such a natural wonder do leave some lingering questions.

On the way there we stopped at Boulder City. It was a "blast to the past." Once Nevada's largest city (population was then 7,000) it still retains elements of being a company town for the Six Companies, the corporations that banded together to build the mighty dam. Don't get me wrong there were lots of chain choices for fast food, but also lots of interesting seeming local ones. We at the Southwest Diner, where the prices, the quantity and the quality of the food were all very satisfactory. For under $10 you could get a pot roast dinner with soup or salad, mashed potatoes or fries, string beans and a dish of ice cream for dessert. The food and the decor at the restaurant were all on the homey side with lots of cutesy displays of Americana. The service was great. I had the taco salad and Gary had the pulled pork.

That night we tried the buffet at the Wynn. Many people had recommended it to us. It had all the requisite touches buffets in Vegas all have these days -- cooking stations with a variety of ethnic foods, lots of crab legs, sushi (a bit more limited than some), and a big carving station.
I particularly enjoyed the New Zealand lamb chops, the fig sauce from the grilled pork with fennel pollen (if the pollen was there it wasn't enough to either make me sneeze or taste it) and the wonderful selection of salads and cerviches. My big disappointment is that the dessert station ran out of candy apples before I could get one. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Wynn buffet, so far my favorite is the Le Village Buffet at the Paris.

About the photos: Looking down from Hoover dam, neon red candy apples at the Wynn buffet.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

My Night With Narsai -- An Exceptional Evening at Farallon

Are there wine pixies?

By that I mean wonderful, warm, witty, and knowledgeable individuals who sprinkle their affection for the fruit of the vine over the rest of us to make us more informed and discerning about our own wine choices without ever seeming condescending, judgmental or know-it-all.

If they do exist, I think I’ve just met one and I wish you could meet him, too.

Narsai David is a former restaurateur and a San Francisco radio personality. He has been involved in innumerable other food businesses as well having written the The Monday Night at Narsai's cookbook. He is a charming man with silver hair, an impeccably tailored suit and a colorful bow tie. He and his wife, Venus (or Veni as she is called), are also philanthropists, giving money, time, effort and even wine from their own outstanding cellar to help a variety of causes, including Alameda County (CA) Meals on Wheels, which provides meals to the homebound.

It was because of the Davids’ devotion to helping Meals on Wheels that a little wine pixie dust was spread on my life. Good friends were the successful bidders for a special dinner at the renowned San Francisco seafood restaurant Farallon. All the wines for the dinner were to be supplied by Narsai and Veni. The food was to be donated by Farallon and coordinated with the Davids’ wine selections.

It was a magical evening. Our friends had invited four other couples to join them and the Davids. Stepping into Farallon was otherworldly with a d├ęcor kind of like if Alice in Wonderful had been set under the sea or if Little Mermaid had been designed by Dali. We were ushered to a private room and immediately received some of the best service we have had in a restaurant. We were also immediately handed flutes of champagne and offered oysters, caviar and a goat cheese and brandied cherry appetizer.

We went on to sample three different kinds of champagne, all the while having Narsai tell the story of why he chose them for each appetizer. The champagne that made the greatest impression on me was the 1979 Schramsberg Blanc De Blancs. It tasted slightly of caramelized sugar and its effervescence just barely registered on my tongue, but I was smitten. Narsai explained how he and Veni prefer older champagne. I had tasted the proof and had to agree.

Before we sat down to the dinner, Narsai produced a bottle of sherry originally made in 1871. The sherry was amazing – strong, more like a shot of liquor than a fortified wine, but still smooth with clear, tawny notes. I had two glasses while I listened to Narsai describe how he found and procured the wine.

Then came dinner. The first course was seared Mediterranean rouget (red mullet) with Dungeness crab “thighs.” The Davids served a 2000 Stony Creek Chardonnay with it. As I sipped and ate, Narsai told us about how the wine with its lean flintiness was chosen to compliment the dish. With every bite and slurp I had to agree with the wisdom of his choice.

With the half of lobster roasted in butter and served with English pea ravioli and orange fondue sauce, Narsai had chosen a 2005 Salus, Staglin Family Vineyard Chardonnay, feeling that it would offset the lushness of the dish. I know he said more about this including why the 2000 Chardonnay tasted younger to us, but at this point I was reluctant to give up my Stony Creek and I was really focused on my Maine lobster.

Next came two red wines with the whole roasted Creekstone Farms filet of beef with morels, fava beans and sauce Bordelaise (which I could have drunk on its own). Both were from 1974, but I preferred the Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon. Narsai spoke a bit about why wines will age differently and kindly answered wine question after question.

The desserts (a lemon balm meringue tart and a German chocolate sundae) were served with a 1966 Chateau Sudiraut. The wine was sweet, but with a nice edge. It was also very strong, I could only manage a few sips, but did manage to finish both desserts and pay attention to Narsai’s discussion about the advantages of noble rot. (I wish I had been a better reporter and taken more notes, but to be honest, I was having too much fun being a guest.)

After dinner Narsai uncorked a 1962 Hine Grande Champagne Cognac. It was a dream of a cognac, smooth and strong and satisfying after our elaborate meal. Narsai was explaining the difference between grande and petite champagne at that point (I think), but I was lost in the vapors and plush taste of the cognac.

The evening was grand. The Davids were great. And special thanks to our hosts, Farallon restaurant and to my husband for being a designated driver that night.
About the photos: Top - Narsai David. Middle -- 1871 Sherry. Bottom -- Menu for the evening.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Photos from Chinese Dumpling Class

Here are the photos from the last in a series of cooking classes I took at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. This one was on Chinese dumplings and we made it all from wrapper to dipping sauce. There were two fillings -- one pork and one vegetarian. Watch for more on this class, but until then please enjoy the slide show.

Here's the link to see the photos in the album without the slide show.

Summer Slowdown

Actually my schedule seems to speed up during summer, which means the time I have available to write and post dwindles and my output slows down. Since the last entry I've been to a family camp for a week in the Sierras, Los Angeles for a family party and I leave soon for a week in Las Vegas for business. Then I'm home for a bit and we take off again to the family camp (our older son is a staffer). Then I'm off to visit my sisters back East. I look forward to fall as a vacation from my vacations.

I took this photo (I absolutely loved the sign) at Zuma Beach in Los Angeles. The food pretty much amounted to ice cream, chips, corn dogs and sodas, but the sign was great. If and when I ever do a major redesign, the photo is on the short list of graphics for the banner.

I have been eating, cooking, researching and interviewing (and of course taking photos) I hope to get caught up sooner or later.

Hope you are enjoying your summer as much as I am mine.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Berried Treasure -- Strawberry Sorbet with a Little Something Extra

Cook Sister! is an informative and well written food blog by a South African living in London. Cook Sister! is also hosting the monthly food blogging event "Waiter There's Something in My ..." This month's theme is berries, or as Cook Sister! puts it "berried treasure."

Since my husband has never driven by a farmstand he won't at least check out, I was overstocked with juicy, jammy sweet berries straight from their growers. They were wonderful by themselves, but there were so many I needed to do something to preserve them since we couldn't eat them all fresh.

I thought I would make a strawberry sorbet and include a blackberry swirl. Well it turns out you can lead a berry puree to an ice cream machine, but you can't make it swirl. I improvised a bit, found another way to put bits of berries into the dessert and turned the blackberry puree into a sauce and this patriotic-looking red, white and blue dessert packed with the taste of that sweet farmstand fruit was born just in time for July 4th.

Once the "Berried Treasure" round up appears, I'll include a link, but here's Cook Sister's invitation to come out and play. If you'd like to join in, you have until July 6.

Berried Treasure Sorbet
Approximately 8 Servings

The preserves can be left out if desired, but I think they add a bit of texture, pretty flecks of color and a nice jolt of flavor. They also seem to not freeze as rock hard as bits of fresh berries sometimes seem to. See below for directions for making the sorbet without an ice cream maker.

1 and 1/2 cups strawberry puree (about 2 pints of strawberries)
1 and 1/2 cups simple syrup (see note below)
juice of 1/2 lime
3 tablespoons or to taste, boysenberry, blackberry or blueberry preserves (the kind with bits of fruit -- I used Trader Joe's boysenberry)

Combine puree with syrup and lime juice. Refrigerate until cold. Put into ice cream maker and follow manufacturer's instructions. When the sorbet is almost soft set, with the blade or container continuing to move, add preserves by tablespoon. When preserves are well distributed and sorbet is finished, pack into a freezer-safe container and freeze for an hour or two to harden before serving.

Blackberry Sauce
1/2 cup of blackberry puree or juice without seeds. (About 1 pint of blackberries put through a food mill OR pureed and then pushed through a sieve.)
1/2 cup simple syrup

Combine puree or juice with syrup in a sauce pan. Cook over medium heat stirring occasional until the mixture has cooked done to half its volume. You'll have about a 1/2 cup of sauce. Cool.

To serve, drizzle sauce over sorbet. Top with a jot of whipped cream and a fresh berry. Any leftover sauce can be used with abandon over pancakes, etc.

A Note About Not-So-Simple Syrup
Simple syrup is nothing more than sugar cooked into water until is "melts" into a liquid. Whenever you are cooking sugar, be careful of burning (both of you and the sugar in the pot). The traditional ratio is 1:1 sugar to water. This will result in a smoother, less icy sorbet with a bit more sweetness. At our house, my usual ratio is more like 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar to 1 cup water, but we like our sorbets on the tarter, grainier and icier side. Taste your berries and let them be your guide to how sweet you need your simple syrup to be. Remember that when the sorbet mix is frozen it will taste less sweet than it does before it is frozen and adjust accordingly. (I used the 1:1 ratio for the sorbet shown above.)

Adaption for Those Without Ice Cream Makers
Once the strawberry puree-simple sugar mix is cold, pour it into a metal pan or other freezer safe container that is wide and flat. Stir in the preserves, making sure the the bits are well distributed. Place in the freezer and stir and scrape the mixture every half hour or so until frozen. Remove from the freezer about 20 minutes or so before serving and scrape with a fork to break up and serve. The result will be grainier but just as tasty.
Info for weight watchers. Figuring eight servings and allowing for each serving to have 1/8 of the blackberry sauce (which would be a lot), a single serving would be equal to about 3 points (using 1-1/2 cups of sugar and 1-1/2 cups of water for the simple syrup used in the sorbet and syrup recipes).
Want to see some of my other sorbet recipes (tangerine, lychee and hibiscus tea), click here?