Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Luxe Fall Layers

Maybe I'm obsessed with shopping, but to me, Farm Dinner was the gastronomic equivalent of this year's must-have early fall fashion staples: 3.1 Phillip Lim's gauzy, lightweight slub-style boyfriend t-shirt layered under a luscious, rich, chunky-knit Chloe sweater coat with Brian Atwood's gorgeous cognac-leather platform ankle booties. Sounds delicious, doesn't it?

Monday 09.28.09
Course 1: September market salad with chicories, apple, turnip, marcona almonds, fiore sardo, and goat milk yogurt dressing

Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Domaine du Salvard Cheverny Blanc, 2007 Couly-Dutheil Chinon Blanc Les Chanteaux, 2006 Monticello Vineyards Pinot Noir

So this salad was rare for Lula because of its (non) composition: a plate of greens, dressed, with fruit, nuts, and other ingredients interspersed. Generally, Lula's chefs like architectural or deconstructed salads (2007's potted confit beets, anyone?) but new Sous Mike continues to push the envelope and keep us on our toes by challenging our ideas of what we do.

The salad was light-as-air in texture and color with crunchy escarole, curly endive, and arugula, and raw shaved Nichols Farm apples and Werp's turnips; deceptively hearty, filling, and earthy, however, as the Swan Creek goat's milk lend heady, tangy grassy notes to the house-made creamy yogurt dressing. Marcona almonds, deliciously spiced with autumn-in-a-mouthfull cinnamon and ginger lent tooth and bite, while golden raisins (pickled in another fall-spice favorite combo of cinnamon, star anise, and green coriander) added acid and sweetness. Finally, in an inspired move, Fiore Sardo (Sardinian goat's cheese) was delicately shaved throughout. This brilliant addition of the smoky, rustic aspects of Fiore Sardo truly achieved balance and depth in the dish.

Unexpected happenings, wine-wise. I was fairly certain that C-D Chinon, known for its honeysuckle, stone fruit flavors and balanced slatey minerality (from the Loire, after all) would echo and complement the raisins and vinaigrette (which, in addition to the yogurt, was comprised of a fair amount of local honey for body) while balancing and tempering the earthiness of the goat flavors. Also, chenin blancs are nice with smoked cheeses due to the slight petrol notes on both nose and palate. Well, I was right, although the actual taste of C-D with the salad wasn't as mellow as I had predicted--both wine and food flavors changed a bit when tasted together, but in an altogether pleasurable way. It seemed that C-D enhanced the grassiness in the salad, which was nice, while fruit flavors in the wine seemed to slightly eclipse the minerality.

Domaine du Salvard was a wild card for me that did not pay off. I wanted to counterbalance the very flavorful, large-scale smells and flavors of the Chinon Blanc with a slightly cleaner, more austere option. I had originally pulled a pinot blanc but decided against it in the end, fearing that I hadn't gone too far opposite C-D. Salvard is still from the Loire so I figured simply a regional similarity would keep us from straying too far off the mark. A sauvignon blanc / chardonnay blend, Salvard is all citrus fruit and brine with the typical Loire wet stone. Very fruity and round in the nose, Salvard tends to be bright and tart on the palate--too much so for the earthiness of the salad. We actually tried Salvard first, and while quite nicely balanced at the start of a bite, the Salvard finished bitter and we vetoed it on the spot.

Finally, the dark horse of the three preliminaries of Course 1: Monticello PN. We loooooooved it. First of all, Monticello is new to Lula's list and already offered as a glass pour alternative to O'Reilly's Pinot Noir (which is younger, and more inexpensive). The staff and I are super-excited to sell Monticello, which is from Napa but feels refined like a Burgundy, with subtle dark fruit, savory herbs, and integrated tannin, while maintaining a juicy, food-friendly mouthfeel and balanced acid. I think the gorgeous velvety fruit-herb flavors truly balanced the goat yogurt's barnyard funkiness while matching the Fiore Sardo and complementing the spices in the almonds and raisins. YUM.

Favorites: C-D Chinon, Monticello

Course 2: Pan roasted Lake Superior trout with sweet potato pommes anna, caramelized broccoli, chorizo, and px sherry vinaigrette

Preliminary Pairings: 2004 Bodegas y Vinedos Conde de San Cristobal Tempranillo / Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot

First we pulled on our gauzy t-shirt and now we need to dress for the weather with our toasty sweater coat. Folks, say hello to pan roasted lake trout with apples. A study in reds, Course 2 was beautifully presented and the flavors matched the artistry of the dish bite-for-bite. This trout had a pretty pinkish hue and a meaty texture (so much that some might have mistaken in for salmon) but a delicate, mild flavor that no salmon could ever hope to achieve. Basted in butter, chorizo, and garlic clove, the trout had the requisite crispy skin and sat atop local caramelized broccoli. On the side, the piece de resistance of pommes anna: sweet and wax potatoes layered lovingly with celery root and pear butter (red wine poached pears served as the base) took the place of a cheese in a gratin. Finally, a small but substantial-in-flavor salad of beauty heart radishes, purslane, caperberries, and dry cured chorizo, dressed in px sherry-pear vinaigrette, added acid, sweetness, crisp bursts of flavor and visual interest. I should say here that Course 2 really was a sight to behold, with colors and textures truly delighting the eye. Even in the salad, the patterns in the shaved radishes mimicked the striations and marbling in the chorizo. Cool.

It was the chorizo, in fact, that inspired my wine selection for the trout--Spanish cured meat as a theme throughout the dish? OK, let's try a Spanish wine. The San Cristobal is another Lula newbie and one of the best wines I feel I've tasted this year: Again, a little older vintage means mellow fruit and subtle, velvety tannin, and delicious tempranillo lends its spice and slightly darker fruit with mineral and herbal earth. Sweater coat, indeed. Let's wrap ourselves up in this one and sit by the fire drinking it, right? Anyway, San Cristobal's fruit did wonders with the pommes anna, the perfect-food-wine medium body (the Spanish are truly adept at producing food-friendly juice) balanced the fish, and the spice and mineral complemented the chorizo wonderfully. Deelish.

Favorite: San Cristobal

Course 3: Klug Farm poached pear with autumn ice creams

Preliminary Pairings: Warre's 10yr Tawny Porto, Alvear Solera Cream Sherry

Autumn ice creams: sweet potato lightly spiced with black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon, brown-sugar brandy ice cream studded with brown sugar-macerated raisins, and pear sorbet. Atop all of these, a brandy, cinnamon, ginger, root, and black peppercorn poached pear, with sweet potato and raisin compote and a brandy gastrique (more sweet than sour with just the slightest hint of vinegar for balance) around the plate. As if the dish needed more amazingly complementary flavors and textures, a brandy soaked semolina cake added a mouthy component. Writing about this dessert cannot in any way do it justice, but just imagine the luxurious, fabulous, sexy shoe-fetishistic pleasure of those color-so-deep-you-could-swim-in-it Brain Atwood cognac-leather booties and you can begin to get the idea. (Plus, cognac=brandy which is what Melissa used in the dessert . . . am I pushing the metaphor?)

But no cognac for pairing. Dave and Tracey tried Calvados but my suspicions were confirmed when they both agreed it was overpowering. I really wanted the Warre's to work this time, but no dice: too strong, again. Alvear proved itself again to be the most versatile dessert wine we seem to have on the list at Lula, which its lovely nutty, slightly caramely bright raisin flavors providing a perfectly balanced sweetness with the ice creams and semolina cake.

Favorite: Alvear (I swear, next week we won't even try it)

I'm fairly certain all these dishes will make an appearance in the next week. You must try Monticello, and please do yourselves a favor and if you miss San Cristobal by the glass, come in and order a bottle--really, it is the perfect autumn wine.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Girl Who Cried Houndstooth Finally Puts on Her Coat

Ok, so I know I've been going on and on about autumn coming early to Logan Square and me being ready to bust out my cozy scarves and sweaters and stuff, and then it was totally hot and summery for like a month . . . Well, autumn came to Logan Square yesterday, officially (according to the calendar) and unofficially, as Farm Dinner ushered in fall with a culinary tour-de-force of the changing seasons' bounty. It is really quite challenging to do summer-into-fall with class, trust me. How does one gracefully segue (sartorially in any case) from a 50-degree, golden honey-crisp morning into a blazing 80-degree afternoon and then back again to a chilly sunset? By knowing your own closet, ladies. It's all about the right layering. Well, last night the Lula sous brought-it with intimate understanding of a just-right juxtoposition of early autumn's offerings with late summer accents.

Monday 09.21.09
Course 1: Grilled Spanish mackerel with porcini mushrooms, raw autumn vegetables, and white miso

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner, 2007 Jean-Luc Colombo Cotes du Rhone La Redonne Blanc, 2007 Sattler Family Zweigelt

Mackerel is an oily fish, grilled to perfection here and tempered, texturally, with bright, raw vegetables. Porcini mushrooms were pureed with white miso to add earth and a little bit of that elusive umami to serve as a bridge between the fishy mackerel and the clean flavors of local butternut squash, chioggia beets, celery root, and shaved pear. Mustard oil (an amazing product--not mustard infused olive oil, but the actual oil of mustard seeds) added subtle heat.

I needed wines that wouldn't overpower the delicacy of raw vegetables but could stand up to the rather pungent mackerel and support the earthiness of the porcinis. Luckily, Prager GV has all the right components: a pristine, mineral driven palate with hints of austere citrus fruit and the necessary acid backed by crisp bursts of near-effervescence. Perfectly tart with the uncooked vegetables and possessing just the right amount of unctuousness in the mouth, Prager GV was a dream come true with the mackerel dish. Jean-Luc Colombo, whose Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc is a Lula staff fave, has just a tad too much honeyed-fruit not to clash with the mackerel, although it was lovely with the squash and beets and truly allowed the spicy mustard oil to shine. Finally, Sattler Zweigelt (another pairing stand-by) showed off its versatility yet again by mellowing out next to the mackerel and mustard (while still providing delicate, yet prevalent flavor) and matching up brilliantly to the juicy, refreshing vegetable salad.

Favorite: 2007 Prager GV

Course 2: Slow roasted Gunthorp Farm pork shoulder with brussels sprouts and shell beans, hazelnut butter, pancetta, and ground cherry 'choucroute'

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Sattler Family Zweigelt, 2004 Patrick Lesec Selections Chateauneuf du Pape Pierres Dorees

When sous-chef Mike told me that a prevalent flavor idea behind the pork shoulder was
"forest floor" I immediately thought of Chateauneuf du Pape, especially considering the herbs-du-provence triumph of this summer's 3-D bacon moment. Like Costello Tagliapietra's elegently draped silks and velvets of Fall 2009 in the most gorgeous hues of muted slates, aubergines, and mustards as a direct response to their flashes of brightly colored taffetas for the season before, the forest floor characteristics of garrigue (that ever-controversial description for the terroir of the Southern Rhone and Provence) are autumn's darker, headier answer to the golden, late-summer-afternoon-sun-soaked qualities of its herbs-du-provence counterpart (remember: lavender, thyme, rosemary, etc).

First, a bit about the dish: Gunthorp Farm pork shoulders were cured in caraway, garlic, and thyme, and roasted and rolled around a farce (which is basically a stuffing) of braised red cabbage, dried cherries, and hazelnuts (it's like you can feel the leaves falling and that autumn afternoon chill already, eh?). Brussels sprouts and cranberry beans were cooked in a hazelnut butter and lent lovely textural layers and pops of green, vegetal flavors, while the ground cherry choucroute added tang and acid. "What is ground cherry choucroute?" do I hear you say? Choucroute is a traditional Anglo-Germanic (Um, I made that up: just think Alsace) accompaniment to many meats, especially sausages, and is, in layman's terms (the only terms I use, incidentally, when it comes to cooking) a hot sauerkraut cooked in FAT (this time, pork fat, of course) and seasoned with all sorts (in this case, caraway, juniper, Hendrix gin, amongst other things), and ground cherries are little bursts of flavor that look like caperberries but are most likely a cross between a tomatillo and a gooseberry. Finally, crispy pancetta and pork cracklins provided more textural interest and depth of flavor.

So due to Course 2's Bavarian origins, the Sattler Zweigelt seemed a natural contender and an interesting foil to the Lesec Chateauneuf du Pape. The thing about Sattler is that he's just so darn food-friendly, and his juicy acid did wonders with the tangy choucroute. Dark cherry fruit echoed the dried cherries in the farce and soft tannins mingled well with the crispy pancetta and cracklins. Sounds great, right? It was, but Lesec was better, if you can believe it. Simply the presence of garrige, in my opinion, rounded out the flavors and gave CdP its edge as the true winner. It is difficult to explain the magic that happens in the mouth with the right wine-food match. Some wines are simply made for some foods, as was the case with Lesec and Course 2. I will say that perhaps the age difference between Lesec and Sattler could've lent an advantage--after all, Lesec has had time for the tannic qualities to mellow and integrate, the fruit to become silkier, and the garrigue to take center stage.

Favorite: 2004 Lesec CdP

Course 3: Dark chocolate gianduja torte with salted caramel buttercream and Frangelico ice cream

Preliminary Pairings: Frangelico, Warres 10yr Tawny Porto, Alvear Solera Cream Sherry

Gianduja is not fancy nutella (ok, it is). Seriously. The torte was dense and rich, with an almost flourless chocolate cake consistency. Pulverized hazelnuts were studded throughout the cake and it laid atop a swoosh of chocolate-caramel sauce. Salted caramel buttercream lightened up the plate a bit, as did Frangelico ice cream, and a yummy hazelnut touille added crunch and echoed the hazelnutty flavors in the gianduja.

Frangelico was a no-brainer, but some people don't like liqueurs and I was curiuos to know which of our dessert wines would be best. The staff was divided (again) between Warre's and Alvear, but it seemed that in the end, Alvear showed himself to a slightly better advantage. After all the sherry has those nutty qualities that perfectly echoed the hazelnuts in the dish, as well as a slightly less raisinated flavor profile as compared to Warre's.

Favorite: Alvear Sherry

So there you have it: Fall's first offical Farm Dinner. Harvest season is upon us and it's only gonna get more hearty, rich, and comforting. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to stare into my closet for the next 45 minutes so I can figure out what to wear that won't be too hot for the next 2 hours until the sun goes down and the temperature plummets. Love it!

Monday, September 14, 2009

What's Up, Doc?

Lot's of changes here at the LC. With the departure of Nicole Pedersen, much-missed sous-chef, the staff and I were on tenterhooks to see what Mike, brand new Lula Sous in Nicole's place (and would-be winner of Sweetest 'Stache Ever Award) would debut for his first-ever Farm Dinner. Duncan took Course 1 (as evidenced by another play-on-a-classic--tuna melt and tomato soup), and Mike took Course 2 and boldly went straight for the gusto. Melissa, naturally, hit another one out of the park with a much-anticipated cheese course.

Monday, 09.14.09
Course 1: Late summer heirloom tomato bisque with smoked trout, green beens, and brioche

Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Big Fire Pinot Gris, 2005 d'Antiche Terre Greco di Tufo, 2006 Buglioni Valpolicella

As we've been hearing in increasingly exasperated tones from anyone who cares all summer, this year's tomato crop has been disappointing. The lack of hot weather and heavy rainfall has resulted in slightly watery, slightly bland fruit. What better way to play up the positive qualities in this season's unfortunate offering than to turn those tommies into smoky, tangy, earthy, slightly peppery soup? City Farm tomatoes were roasted and pureed with cream--some of the tomatoes were smoked, as well. The inspired addition of house-smoked Rushing Waters trout lent another dimension to the aforementioned smoky aspects of the dish, as the fish was folded with Neal's Yard Ogleshield ractlette-style cheese and spread on little toasts to be dunked into the soup. Pickled Nichols Farm green beans added the usual zip and tang, and Sweet Earth parsley, plus City Farm celery and ramps added explosions of bright green flavors in each mouthful.

We liked both Big Fire and Greco, but for different reasons. Big Fire, with all of its peachy fruit and stony minerality, not to mention high, food-friendly acid, stole the show and stood out as a tasty counterpart to the soup. Greco di Tufo is all about almost-effervescent acidity, briny minerality, and light, citrus fruit. The staff and I were of two minds again, some of us enjoying the fruit-forwardness of Big Fire while others (myself included) thought Greco's subtle elegance was a better match.

We all agreed, however, that good old Buglioni truly did itself proud, with its juicy fruit qualities and slightly chewy mouthfeel nicely complementing the flavors and textures of the bisque.

Favorites: Big Fire, Greco, and Bugs!

Course 2: Handmade orecchiette with Gunthorp Farm rabbit, black kale, braised olives, pumpkin seed oil, and rosemary

Preliminary Pairings: 2006 Buglioni Valpolicella, 2007 Tenuta Garetto Barbera d'Asti

Mmmmm, rabbit. Greg Gunthorp's tenderly raised bunnies were braised in Belgian beer and picholine olives, and the braising jus served as the base for the sauce on the hand-made orecchiette. Pan roasted chanterelle mushrooms and pumpkin seed gremolata lent depth of flavor, spice, and a little sweetness, while City Farm black kale balanced with acid and earthiness. Reduced sherry vinegar throughout supported the sweetness and acid.

I wanted to go Italian, so I kept Buglioni as a contender and brought out Tenuta Garetto, one of our favorite pairing wines and an all around awesome barbera. TG exhibits uper subtle, fragrant dark fruit and spice, which I thought would pair nicely with the rabbit and pumpkin seeds, and velvety tannins and a background of earth and funk which would stand up to the richness of the orrechiette and the earthiness of the kale. As TG is a more complex wine than Buglioni, it seemed to contain the X-Factor for Course 2, but Buglioni didn't go down without a fight. A truly enjoyable wine, Bugs (the wine, not the bunny) still tasted delicious, if a little simple, with the wabbit dish.

Favorite: TG Barbera, but Bugs is always a favorite (the wine, not the bunny, but he's great, too)

Course 3: Prairie Fruits Farm Roxanne with financier, Klug Farm grape sorbet, and candied almonds

Preliminary Pairings: Vinhos Barbeito Madeira Boston Bual, Warre's 10 Year Tawny Porto

Oh, finally a cheese course! Having never tasted Barbeito Madeira with a Farm Dinner, I was excited to have a chance to test it out (especially because the staff and I started comparing dessert wines during some of our preshift meetings). What can I say? Super nutty and light with slight hints of caramel, the Barbeito was perfect with Prairie Fruit's raw sheep's Roxanne and Melissa's innovative uses of Klug Farm jupiter grapes (sorbet, financier filling, and a little salad), not to mention candied marcona almonds. The delicate sweetness of the Madeira matched up to the Swan Creek Farm honey dressing on the grape and almond salad. Deeeelish. Warre's Tawny, a staff favorite, was a bit too big and powerful for Course 3 and we were all proud to say Barbeito finally made an appearance for a suggested pairing.

Favorite: Barbeito

Th-th-th-that's all, folks, until next Monday. Tune in and see what those loony sous do next!