Thursday, July 23, 2015

Incredible Dover Sole

Last week I arrived in the late afternoon and JPSeafood was out of Dover Sole, reporting that, “It just flew out of here.”  They had two thin-sliced Pacific Halibut fillets, which was a good substitute, but this week, I want the real thing. 

JP Seafood is a local fishmonger, a counter in Dan’sFresh Produce on Central Avenue in Alameda, owned and operated by Joey Pucci, from the San Francisco family that has been selling seafood since 1918.  Joey heads down to the docks in the early morning, hand picks the fish, and brings back what is great today.  It’s always fresh and incredible.

This week, I arrive early and I’m in luck and snag two fillets of Dover Sole.  When asked, “Large or small?” I give the only possible answer, “Large!”

I prefer a simple, but incredible, way to prepare sole, a variation and combination of what the French call Sole Meunière and the Italians call Sogliola alla Mugnaia or Sole Miller’s Style.  The focus is on the fish, cooking it simply and then enhancing and complementing the tastes.

The sole fillets are sprinkled in salt and pepper, then dredged in flour.  Meanwhile 2T of butter and a good splash of olive oil heat in a non-stick skillet.  When the butter is melted, I add the sole and cook for up to 5 minutes per side until golden on each side.  I warm the serving plates and also warm another plate in the oven, on which I put the fillets to sit while I quickly make the sauce.

Wiping the skillet clean, I melt more butter and quickly cook roughly equal amounts of crushed red pepper flakes, capers, and Italian parsley in the fresh juice of one lemon.  This mixture quickly thickens.

I plate the fish, drizzle the sauce on top, and serve.  The combination of the lemon, red pepper flakes, and capers perfectly complements the tastes of the sole, giving a burst of flavor with each bite.

The sole always goes well with boiled new potatoes (cooked with a halved head of garlic, salt and black peppercorns, then halved and served with butter), but peach season has arrived and they look so tempting.  So…, while I cook the sole, Laura slices and grills two peaches (first coated with brown sugar and a little balsamic vinegar) and tosses arugula with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of walnut oil.  She then mixes the grilled peaches and arugula with goat cheese and a balsamic reduction (1/2 cup simmered until it is thick and creamy) for a salad of great complementary flavors that perfectly accompanies the sole.

I keep returning to this simple approach to Dover Sole and it always pleases us – simple, quick to make, and incredibly delicious.

Monday, July 20, 2015

After the Cinque Terre Mudslides of 2011

We visited Cinque Terre in May of 2012, a little over half a year after the devastating mudslides in October 2011.  Cinque Terre received 22 inches of rain in four hours and rivers of mud poured down the hills into Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza   In Monterosso, the mud was up to the second floor of houses in the town and we could still see a ring around the houses where the top of the mud sat.

Postings around Monterosso showing the damage

The mayor of Monterosso described the village as all but wiped out.  Vernazza had to be evacuated by sea.

Approaching Vernazza on the trail from Monterosso

Our friends, Matteo and Carla, who own Hotel VillaSteno, were located up a slight hill and were undamaged, but their guests were unable to come or go.

View across Monterosso from the Hotel Villa Steno

There was a massive effort to dig out and reopen by Easter.  And, they did!  While we were there, the gelatto shop on the main street reopened that day and it was free gelatto for everyone.  And, we were all in there, residents, shop owners, tourists, everyone enjoying together another story of recovery from and victory over the elements!

 The Gelatto shop reopens

From our hotel room, we watched the owner and chef of one of the restaurants rebuild his garden.  During the day, he was clearing, digging and planting, working incredibly hard.  At night, he was in his restaurant managing the kitchen and greeting the guests.

Rebuilding all the roads took a while and hiking in the hills above the towns required some flexibility and loose definition of paths.  Because the trails along the Mediterranean were mostly closed, we were introduced to the upper trails across the tops of the hills, hiking from Monterosso to Levanto and Riomaggiore to Portovenere.  We now prefer those hikes to the more crowded lower trails (more on the hikes in a later posting).

There were still some obstacles along the way, particularly walking along the roads.  Some sections of the roads were reopened and the barriers had been removed and stored in the intersections.

Intersection up in the hills above Monterosso

But, then, others were going to take longer, and nothing says “don’t drive here” like a nice dropoff.  We hike down, then back up the other side to stay on the road.  Then, further down the road, we must climb over the piles of dirt that were dug out of the towns and carried uphill to fill in the roads.

Further down the road toward Corniglia

Dirt trucked from below

In the towns, work continued as the tourists arrived and filled the shops, restaurants, and trails.

 Walking into Vernazza from the train station

There was another mudslide the next year, and while some of the trails are still not yet reopened in 2015, Cinque Terre continues to delight everyone who visits.  The towns are charming, the hiking is fabulous, and the people are great, welcoming and good spirited.  We’ve been there every year since, and will be going back this Fall.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

It’s Le Quatorze Juillet, Bastille Day!

Tuesday was Le Quatorze Juillet, the French national holiday on the 14th of July, known as Bastille Day in English-speaking areas outside France.  In honor of the occasion, we have a wonderful bottle of Pierre Cellier Brut Reserve Champagne from K&L Wines and a white Graves from Château du Haut Maray in Bordeaux, recommended and shipped to us by our friends at Bordeaux Classique in St. Emilion. 

We’re pondering what to serve with these fine wines, but then find that our fishmonger, JP Seafood, has obtained a 30 pound Wild King Salmon that he is recommending highly and there are two fillets left.  We have to have them!

To pair with the champagne while we cook, continuing the celebratory French-themed fashion, we complement the taste with several assorted hard cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery at the San Francisco Ferry Building. 

Sipping the Pierre Cellier Champagne, we are rewarded with a spirited blend of equal amounts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier.  This champagne is made by the same people as make Phillipe Gonet, which we really enjoy, but with purchased fruit.  This is a new label, perfectly done, and fabulous with the cheese.

But, I digress.  Back to the Salmon.   I return to a favorite recipe from Bobby Flay’s Boy Meets Grill:  Red Chile Rubbed Salmon with Toasted CornVinaigrette.

We have some Red Chile Rub left over from when we last made this dish (albeit with a farmed salmon) a few weeks ago and I don’t need to assemble the combination of ancho chile powder, cumin, brown sugar and cinnamon.  I use it up.

I boil, then grill three ears of shucked corn, two yellow and one white (Bobby suggests two, but I like the extra amount).  Along with the corn, I also grill two jalapeño peppers (Bobby suggests 1, but I want more kick).  The vinaigrette combines lime juice, the grilled jalapeños, seeded and chopped, and honey, with olive oil whisked in until emulsified.  Cutting the corn off the cobs, I add it to the vinaigrette along with sliced green onion and cilantro, season with salt and pepper, and stir it all up.

Applying the Red Chile Rub to the salmon, along with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, we grill each side a few minutes until medium and let it rest while I open the wine.

Greg and Mansur at Bordeaux Classique have been recommending and sending us wine since we wandered into their shop seven years ago.  Walking down the street in St. Emilion in 2007, we spotted the storefront and  the tasting counter inside and had to stop.  We’ve been truly pleased with the results, visited them in the store with friends several years later, and ordered by email periodically over the years.

The Château du Haut Maray that Mansur recommended is a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Sauvignon Gris, packed with tropical notes including honeysuckle, melons and peach and a beautifully buttery finish.   The winery only makes 3000 bottles and Mansur suggested consuming it this year or next year.  We paid 15€ for the bottle and a little freight and duty – what a great deal!

I pour the wine, plate the salmon, add the toasted corn vinaigrette, et voila, un bon dîner à la maison.  It’s not the same as standing along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, watching the parade and seeing French fighter jets fly the length of the boulevard, then wandering into a friendly-looking neighborhood bistro for dinner, but we’re not there this year and we celebrate quietly by ourselves

Monday, July 13, 2015

Flying Ourselves to the Grand Canyon

One of the great things about the Grand Canyon hike is the journey back and forth.  We fly from the San Francisco Bay Area to Grand Canyon (GCN) airport in Tusayan, just outside the park in a 4-seat Cirrus SR22 airplane.  The flight takes a little over 3 hours and offers great scenery as we cross the Sierra Nevada mountains at Mammoth Lakes, fly down the valley between the military training areas to Las Vegas, then straight across to the Grand Canyon. 

We generally fly this route at 9,500 feet eastbound and 10,500 westbound.  The Sierras are 10,000 to 11,000 feet high near Mammoth and we fly up a valley at 12,500 for 20 minutes or so, then drop back down to 9,500 once we have crossed the range.  Regulations require us to have supplemental oxygen if we are between 12,500 and 14,000 for more than 30 minutes.

The Las Vegas Terminal Area is Class 2 airspace, requiring a clearance from ATC to enter and navigate in it, but only from the surface to 9,000 feet.  At 9,500, on our own navigation, we cross the city and watch all the action from above.  We monitor Las Vegas Approach and watching our traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) to visualize the traffic and stay out of the LAS approach and departure routes depicted on the chart

 Las Vegas Terminal Area chart

GCN is at 6609 feet elevation and our groundspeed is faster for our indicated airspeed than at sea level.  We take longer to land and float way down the runway, but with 9000 feet, we have plenty of space to land  and turn of only a taxiway ½ way down the runway.

After parking and tying down the airplane, we buy park entry tickets in the airport terminal and catch the park shuttle bus into the park.  And, to return, we just take the shuttle bus back to the airport.

Parked and tied down at GCN

After a few days, we depart GCN and take the opportunity to fly over the canyon and look at the areas where we have been hiking and sightseeing from above.

Grand Canyon from the air

The Grand Canyon area has Special Flight Rules to prevent sightseeing aircraft from disturbing the park and from running into each other.  Four corridors over the canyon have separate altitudes for different directions of flight, 10,500-12,500 southbound, 11,500-13,500 for northbound.  Two of the corridors allow authorized commercial air tour operators to fly specific paths at lower altitudes, as low as 7500 feet for helicopters and 8000 feet for fixed wing aircraft.  We cannot fly that low, but we have a great view!

Grand Canyon Special Flight Corridors

After our sightseeing trip over the Canyon we have a quick flight to Las Vegas, albeit with a little excitement as there are thunderstorms along the path.

 Moving map showing lightning strike nearby on the way to VGT

We stay a good distance from the storms, and fly over Lake Mead on our way the North Las Vegas Airport (VGT).
 Lake Mead heading west to Las Vegas

Once we arrive at VGT, we head over to the Strip for a completely different experience than we have had at the Grand Canyon the last few days.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Tale of Two Duck Ragus: Mario Batali and Polpo

When I feel like a ragu, a great dish for casual entertaining, I’ve been returning to a favorite from Mario Batali’s fabulous book, Molto Italiano: Garganelli withDuck Ragu.  Although the preparation of a ragu does take some time, it’s well worth the effort!

Last Friday was a holiday and, with an afternoon to spare, I decided to try a new recipe for duck ragu, Duck, Black Olive, and Tomato Ragu, in a cookbook that we found last month, Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts) by Russell Norman, with recipes from Polpo, the Venetian small-plate restaurant in London.

These are two very different approaches to ragu and both are great.  Mario instructs me to cook duck legs in olive oil until brown on all sides.  I then pour out most of the duck fat and slowly cook onion, garlic, celery, and sage at low heat with a little additional olive oil (Mario suggest cooking them in the duck fat, but I prefer to only save a little of the duck fat for flavor and add some more olive oil).  I then add the duck legs back into the pot, along with red wine, San Marzano tomatoes crushed by hand, and chicken stock.  Cover and simmer for an hour.

To prepare the duck legs à la Polpo. I brown the duck legs in the oven at 475 ºF until the skin is crispy, then continue to bake them for another hour at 400ºF..

Both approaches produce great duck legs and after cooking in the sauce or in the oven, I remove the duck legs and set them aside to cool (saving the sauce in the pot).  Once cool, I pull the duck meat off the bone and shred it.  (I usually get impatient and start pulling the meat off long before it is cool and end up with hot fingers.) 

While the duck legs cook, Polpo directs me to make a liter and a half of Basic Tomato Sauce, starting with onion, garlic, chili flakes, salt, and pepper cooked in olive oil.  I then add canned (San Marzano here also) and fresh tomatoes and cook the sauce longer than the suggested hour and a half until it has a firm consistency, leaving a trough when I run a spoon through it.  While the tomato sauce is cooking, I roast cherry tomatoes in the oven until they blister.

For Mario’s recipe, I return the shredded duck meat to the sauce in the pot and cook it all for another half hour while the garganelli boils to al dente.  I then add the pasta to the sauce, cook for another minute or two and serve.

For the Polpo ragu, I add black olives and green peppercorns to the Basic Tomato Sauce and simmer a bit.  I then add the shredded duck, simmer a bit more, add the roasted cherry tomatoes and serve.  Polpo suggests serving with polenta or gnocchi, and I make gnocchi this time. 

We have about half of the ragu for dinner and save the rest for a few days later, served the second time with mezzi rigatoni.  We prefer the mezzi rigatoni over the gnocchi, cooked al dente, it’s a great taste and size to complement the ragu.   We are coming to truly enjoy ragus a day or two after they are made, the tastes have matured and blended.

These are two very different approaches to duck ragù and I will return to both over and over in the future.  They’re both fabulous and will never cease to please!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Hiking the Grand Canyon – Rim to River and Back - Wow!

The hike from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the river and back is not recommended as a day trip, so of course we have to do it.  In August, when it's over 100ºF down at the river.  

We each carry 3 liters of water and refill the bottles twice over the course of the 10 hour hike, drinking 9 liters each.  The river is close to a mile below the rim and we cover about 14 miles taking the South Kaibab trail down to the river and the Bright Angel trail back up to the lodge.

The park shuttle bus takes us to the head of the South Kaibab trailhead to start our day.  As we descend into the canyon, the views and colors of the rocks change and truly delight us with each new perspective.

We’re thinking that down is harder than up.  We have to be very careful about placing our feet on the way down, whereas on the up journey, we basically put one foot in front of the other until we reach the top.  However, up does take about twice as long as down.

 And, finally, we make it to the river, all the way down.

Enjoying our lunch at the bottom (we earned it), the view up is breathtaking.  One mile, straight up.  But, we have to go, dinner is up there.  

As we head up, we slowly gain altitude, but the rim still seems a long way away.

We pass streams where we occasionally spot a nose poking out where somebody has immersed his/her entire body to cool off.  We soak our shirts and hats periodically in our attempts to stay cool.  We pass one rest area where the park rangers have brought in a helicopter to evacuate someone who couldn’t make it any further.  We continue, one foot in front of the other.  Repeat.

But, what incredible scenery, we can tell why this is one of the seven wonders of the world.  The views and colors keep changing, each one more incredible than the previous one.  We are so lucky to be able to do this!

Along the trail up, we start to recognize and greet people that we have passed as they rested, now they pass us as we rest.  Some of them are doing the rim-to-river-and-back in a day as we are, but many spent the night at Phantom Ranch at the bottom and are tackling the journey up with more energy that we have left.

Eventually, we reach the top and head into the bar at the lodge for a drink.  The people we have met on the trail up trickle into the lodge as we all rest, congratulate ourselves, and wonder what’s for dinner.

And, luckily, the rain held off until the next day!

Doing this hike in one day is strongly discouraged by the National Park Service, but, wow, what an incredible experience!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Dinner Ingredients from the San Francisco Ferry Building Markets

We don’t get into San Francisco to shop for food very often and so it was a treat to be in the city on Saturday afternoon when the farmers market is open at the Ferry Building Plaza.  The market has grown since we last visited and now fills the area behind and in front of the Ferry Building, but most of our business will be with the shops in the Ferry Building itself.

We thought of a meal with ingredients well-suited to the offerings we would find at the Ferry Building and an answer quickly arrived:  sautéed duck breast with wild mushrooms.

We first head over to Hog Island Oyster Company to collect fresh oysters for an appetizer.  On the weekend, Hog Island’s space in the building is full of people sitting and eating oysters, oysters to go are sold at a stand in the farmers market outside and we got a half-dozen unshucked.

Next stop is Cowgirl Creamery for some cheese that we will savor later in the week.  They are cutting and handing out samples of Ashbrooke from Spring Hill Farms, a Morbier-like semi-soft cow’s milk cheese with a layer of vegetable ash in the center.  It’s really good and we get a slice.   We also select 3-cheese assortment of Gruyere 1655, Mt. Tam Triple Cream, and Cypress Grove Chevre.

Golden Gate Meat Company has good-sized Muscovy Duck Breasts and we snag two.  Then, for the mushrooms, we head over to Far West Funghi and get an assorted pound and a half of fresh chanterelle, oyster, and shiitake.

Back outside, we head back to the farmers market for tomatoes, zucchini, and scallop squash which we’ll use in a Summer Pasta tomorrow.  We pass a Provencal Lavender booth and can’t resist a fresh bunch to carry home.

Once home, we unpack and start to cook.  The duck breasts are scored, seared on the skin side a few minutes, then cooked a few minutes more on each side until medium.  The mushrooms are sautéed in butter and wine, with a little shallot and garlic, until they are soft and luscious.

While the duck cooks, Laura shucks the oysters.  A drop of Tabasco sauce in each and down they go.  The duck rests a few minutes then we slice it and serve it with the mushrooms on warmed plates.  We complement it with a bottle of Saint-Emilion Bordeaux.  Exquisite.

It’s been a while, we need to head across the Bay more often!