Sunday, April 26, 2009


Until the heat wave hit us full blast here in NC (it's 90 degrees as I write this), it was morel season, that brief, delicious periods in which the mysterious fungi appear.

Thanks to Lindsey and her intrepid crew of mushroom hunters, we had three glorious meals in the course of a week. They went out to their secret location three times, each time bringing back a bigger haul.

All the meals were riffs on the same theme, because there is no need to tinker too much with something so delicious. A light hand, a little butter, a little cream, and a few ingredients that highlight the morel flavor, served over a little pasta: that is the winning formula. And always with a light, earthy, red wine, of course.

The first meal involved penne and a little spring onions, all prepared quite simply. We cracked open a bottle of Bugey that we had hauled all the way back from France last Christmas.

The second meal got a little fancier. Lindsey cooked up some skillet roasted chicken thighs and served the whole thing over orzo.

The third and final haul was by far the biggest, and this one was prepared with another seasonal delicacy: asparagus. The morels and the asparagus complemented each other beautifully, and with so many morels this time the taste was far more pronounced.

I'm looking forward to next spring already...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Vegetarian Wine Dinner

After the success of our last wine dinner, where we focused on sherries, Lindsey and I figured it was high time for a new edition. Spring has come here to North Carolina, and the farmers markets are coming back to life, so we wanted to capture the fresh, bright flavors of the season.

We had gotten, since the last dinner, a number of requests from our dietarily restricted friends. Because it seemed like a fun and interesting challenge, we decided to make this dinner meat-free.

Now a note on the philosophy behind this: vegetarian cooking can be wonderful, creative, and satisfying, but there’s two things it should not be. It should never try to pretend to be meat, or in some sense try to make up for the lack of meat. It should stand on its own, proudly, not trying to live up to some meaty standard. On the other hand, it should not feel austere or have any air of health-nut self-righteous masochism. So no mock chicken, and no sacrificing deliciousness.

In developing the menu, it became clear that the wines were all going to be white. The flavors were bright, the fresh herbs plentiful, the spices liberally dispensed, and the generally more refreshing and acidic flavor profiles of white wines just worked better.

So that was the game plan: all vegetarian and all white.

We started off with some little bites and some Vi D’Agulla 07, the lightly sparkling wine from Avinyó.

We had some roasted almonds with pimentón, and carrots marinated in olive oil, sherry and garlic. There were little crostinis: one with a generously-herbed feta and another, reminiscent of a sping picnic in the French countryside, with butter, radishes, coarse salt, and a little leaf of fresh oregano. Lastly, there was the new house favorite: kale chips. These are pieces of kale tossed with olive oil, cider vinegar, and salt, and baked until perfectly crispy. The effect is odd, tantalizing, and addictive: a shattering crisp rapidly gives way to a melting texture, while the flavor is salty, a little sour, and wonderfully vegetal.

After the Vi D’Agulla was dispatched, we sat down to the first dish, a chickpea-sweet potato fritter on a bed of fresh pea shoots with a homemade cumin-pimentón aioli.

The fritters themselves were earthy and enriched by the rich aioli, the whole thing complemented by the clean, crisp, pea shoot.

The wine here was the Gurrutxaga Txakolina 07. We’re a wee bit obsessed with txakolina here, and while it may be a slight exaggeration to say that it plays well with pretty much anything that isn’t too sweet, it showed beautifully here, clear citrus notes singing.

After that came a soup of roasted garlic and lemon with truffle oil croutons (photo missing, sorry). Lots and lots of garlic, mostly roasted with a little fresh, a dash of cream, and a hefty dose of fresh lemon juice for the high note. We had this with the A Coroa Godello 2007. I’m not sure if it was some combination of the crisp wine with the lemon in the soup or something else, but to me the whole thing was actually reminscent of seafood, like there was something almost ocean-y about it despite it lacking anything from the sea…

Next up, portabello caps stuffed with risotto and topped with homemade fresh cheese.

This was the most complex dish of the meal. The mushroom caps were marinated then grilled. The risotto was made with lots of spring garlic and spring onion, and a good amount of saffron. After the mushroom caps were stuffed with the risotto, we added toasted pine nuts on top, and then finally the cheese. The whole thing finally went into the broiler for a few minutes.

We brought out the Ostatu Blanco Rioja 07 here, since it was calling for a a slightly rounder wine then what we’d been drinking until now.

Finally, dessert. Thanks to our deliciously mild weather here in North Carolina, we could enjoy the first strawberries of the season.

What we did was slice the strawberries and arrange then in a circle. We sprinkled them with crushed pistachios, and drizzled them with a balsamic syrup reduction. And in the middle, a little mound of chocolate goat cheese from Celebrity Dairy. I know, chocolate goat cheese sounds wierd. And it is, but in a delicious way. It’s very sweet, so you only want a little, and the goatiness is muted by the chocolate but still present, just enough to give it something special and keep things interesting.

The dish was crying out for something with nutty caramel notes to accompany it, and the obvious choice was Pedro Ximenez sherry. This one was from El Maestro Sierra, and it did not disappoint.

That was the last of the dishes, but it was not the last of the wine drinking. As often happens, the porrón came out after the meal, and yours truly was all too happy to demonstrate its proper use.

(Thanks to Meg Kassabaum for the pictures)