Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Falling Into a Bowl of Squash Soup: Splash, it's October!

Jason Hammel suggested that I call this week's blog "Falling into Fall," but the majority of the staff vetoed the title, deeming it a bit trite. Jason amused himself with the idea of me inventing a scenario involving myself tripping while wearing pair of 6-inch stilettos and sprawling onto the pavement--"Splat! It's fall!"--but I thought to soften the impact (both linguistically and emotionally) by landing on a pile of leaves (a much more autumnal image and definitely more cushioning for the extremities).

Anyway, passing over cranium-cracking asphalt or pillowy foliage, Lula continued its foray into harvest season with a beautifully rendered, completely vegetarian Farm Dinner last night. As bartender Dave remarked at the pre-shift meeting, the whole thing tasted like fall--all three courses served as a reminder of the bounty of the season.

Monday 10.12.09
Course 1: Spicy winter squash and white ale soup with pecan, cabot cheddar, pear, and maple gastrique

Preliminary Pairings: 2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, 2007 Stoller Pinot Noir

Jason / Lula Sous' soups are always little works of art, and if you've never experienced one, you should. I say "experienced" because getting a special soup is always truly interactive, from the presentation of a bowl devoid of actual broth but housing a tiny installation of carefully arranged delicacies, to the moment when the soup itself is poured, tableside, and the miniature diorama floats and swirls outward and to the top, integrating and dancing, morphing and melting, and creating a whole new dish before one's very eyes. It's almost like watching a flower open in high-speed video (remember those, on Sesame Street?).

Anyway, last night's squash soup was no different than usual, and a treat to behold and taste.The soup proper was comprised of pureed Green Acres winter squash (a French heirloom varietal), leeks, Belgian wittbier, and a dash of ancho chile (which added a substantial amount of mellow spice). Several slices of Cabot cheddar from Vermont nestled at the bottom of the bowl atop a maple syrup gastrique (thickened with pureed pumpkin, yum) and next to a pretty cool bit of culinary hocus-pocus: a maple-pecan "soil." Wha? Jason toasted pecans in maple syrup, then ground them with tapioca (a natural binding agent). Because of the saturation of the syrup into the pecans and the innate moisture of the tapioca, the crumbled pecans took on a soil-like consistency. Cool, right? And then, when swirled into the hot soup, the "soil" dissolved slightly to add another element of texture to the dish. Amazing.

As per usual, with Course 1 we look for high acid wines with slight minerality and clean fruit to complement the typical lightness of the dishes. The squash soup was particularly airy in texture, with the garnishes adding most of the weight and depth. Prager GV is such a good food wine and we liked its austere palate and juicy mouthfeel as a counterpoint and complement to the soup. The slight citrus component was delightful with the vegetal squash and tang of the maple gastrique, and the balanced acid cut through the fat of the cheddar cheese and pecans, as well as standing up to the mouthy quality of the squash puree. Prager had a bit of a wintry feel--sometimes whites with hearty food reminds me of Christmastime, like drinking riesling with pork loin or something.

Stoller PN was delicious as well and a bit out of left field--a dark horse, if you will. I chose it imagining that its many savory qualities (tamari, nuttiness, and a slight mushroomy earth) w0uld react nicely with the amalgam of flavors in the squash soup, and I was quite right. Stoller possesses just the perfect amount of tart fruit to balance its secondary characteristics and the duality of the wine delighted when tasted with the duality of the squash soup--the sweetness of the maple and the fat and saltiness of the cheese were interesting and complex partners with Stoller.

Favorites: Both! (I love it when that happens)

Course 2: Chestnut and potato "arancini" with olive oil poached black futsu squash, parsnips, frisee, and bitter apple

Preliminary Pairings: 2005 Avignonesi Rosso d'Montepulciano

Arancini are actually rice balls, but Sous Chef Mike did a bit of a bait-and-switch and used potato instead, resulting in super-tasty fried bits of starchy chestnut with parmesan and mascarpone cheeses for binding with a nice dose of paprika thrown in. Fabulous, and utterly original. Green Acres Black Futsu squash was poached sous-vide with olive oil and dusted with wintry baking spices, sliced, and placed artistically around the plate. Pan fried parsnips provided complementary flavor, and crispy parsnip chips lent crunch and texture. A small salad of frisee studded with pickled local crabapples added the necessary balancing tang, and a swoosh of a chestnut, honey, creme fraiche, rosemary, and espresso (of all things, you clever chefs) deepened the flavors and acted as a complex, earthy background to the clean flavors of the rest of the dish.

We were all very excited to taste the Avignonesi Rosso, which has been on Lula's list since forever but isn't a big seller these days. I've been dying to open it on a farm dinner for ages, but never felt the moment was right until the debut of the fried chestnut-potato balls and that brilliant chestnut-espresso business. The Avignonesi has a powerful but refined nose of black pepper, leather, and cedar, with slight notes of dark fruit, and I felt that those aspects would bring out the best in the chestnut-espresso swoosh and I was right! Layered, multifaceted and truly challenging, yet absolutely enjoyable. The Avignonesi is lighter on the palate than you might imagine given its heady bouquet, and the juicy fruit aspects complemented the vegetal characteristics of the squash in Course 2.

Favorite: Avignonesi

Course 3: Klug Farm apple spice cake with maple ice cream

Preliminary Pairings: Busnel Calvados, Vinhos Barbeito Madeira Boston Boal

A thick, dense apple cake, spiced with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, with a buttery brown sugary maple glaze atop a layer of just-right fall apples? Perfect. Melissa's maple ice cream is nothing to sneeze at, and the best part of the dish? A teeny-tiny crabapple, encased in house-made maple candy: mini candy crabapples?? What will she think of next? My suspicions were that madeira would provide just the right amount of caramely-nutty flavors to complement the baking spices and maple aspects, and still be sweet and fruity enough to partner well with the apples, and it didn't disappoint. Dave and Kendal tasted Calvados and the consensus was that the brandy cut through the dish and was slightly more palate-cleansing and the madeira buddied up to the cake and provided that wonderful mouth-coating dessert wine feeling. Mmmmm.

Favorite: Madeira, but we liked Calvados too.

Well, I'm off to enjoy the weather and maybe get a bike ride in before it snows. If you see a gigantic leaf pile on Kedzie Blvd that appears to be moving of its own accord, that'll be me trying to fish out the earring that I lost in there or my cell phone that fell out of my pocket or something.

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