Sunday, September 20, 2009

Birthdays, Booze & Beans

Today is my daughter's birthday. October 28 is my husband's birthday. So, my husband and I have decided that the time between the celebrations is an ideal time to go on the wagon. Fall is one of the best times of year to do a cleanse of any sort. (That is, according to Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of life, and Traditional Chinese Medicine.) It makes sense to me too; it's the time between the outdoor barbecue & beer scene, and the holidays. School has started, and it is a good time to re-commit to a regular schedule, a health & fitness routine and to clean out your closets, both literally and figuratively. So, we're giving up drinking for a few weeks, and I am going to avoid red meat, as well. I'm still maxed-out on meat after my trip to Spain last month, so that shouldn't be too hard. I'll miss my wine with dinner, and four weeks of football without beer may prove challenging, but challenges are good for us, right?

We celebrated Stella's birthday last night. It was just a small party this year. Our rule is that every two years, she can have the all-out bash, skating or bowling or what-have-you. So, this year, she had just a few of her closest friends for dinner and requested homemade macaroni and cheese. A few of my thoughts on this king of comfort foods - Nobody should ever make macaroni and cheese from a box. Period. When in need of quick and simple, pasta with butter and parmigiano and salt is the ticket. It's quick, easy, cheap and way tastier than the boxed stuff. For the birthday, though, we made the real deal. I have a confession to make. For the better part of my adult life, I have been trying to recreate the mac and cheese that was made in the dining hall at college. I kid you not. It was creamy and stringy at the same time, piping hot, topped with crunchy buttery breadcrumbs. And, for lunch on Fridays, after closing the bars on Thursday night, it was heaven. I've pretty much got it down. I made the basic cheddar version for the kids, and jazzed it up a bit for the adults, with additions of goat cheese, parm, bacon & scallions. The kids paired theirs with apple juice or milk. We drank the new Harp lager.

I've been wanting to add more beans to our lives. They are a healthy, high-fiber, vegetarian protein. Inexpensive too. But, to be honest, they have never thrilled me. A few months ago, my friend and fellow blogger, the Wife of a Tea Drinker, turned me on to the Rancho Gordo blog. Rancho Gordo, based in Napa Valley, sells heirloom beans and other speciality food items indigenous to North America. I've been reading the blog, and finally placed an order last week. I ordered three types of beans: Yellow Indian Woman, Scarlet Runner and Christmas Lima. I also got Rancho Gordo owner, Steve Sando's cookbook, Heirloom Beans. My first effort is in the crock pot right now. I'm making succotash with Christmas Lima Beans. I will keep you updated on my adventures with heirloom beans.

Billings Hall Mac & Cheese
4 Tbs butter
3 Tbs flour
2 c milk
8 oz cheddar cheese
1 lb macaroni
3/4 c breadcrumbs
Optional: any other kind of cheese, crumbled bacon, scallions, sauteed mushrooms, peas - whatever you think will go well with mac and cheese.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cook pasta according to package directions.
Make a roux by melting 3 Tbs of the butter in a medium saucepan, add the flour, stirring and cooking until it begins to dry.
Slowly whisk in the milk. Whisk over med-low heat until the milk begins to thicken. Remove from heat and stir in most of the cheese.
When the cheese is melted, pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and mix well. Mix in the rest of the cheddar and any optional ingredients. Pour into greased cassarole dish.
Melt the last Tablespoon of butter and mix in the breadcrumbs. Pour the breadcrumbs over the pasta, cover and cook for 30 minutes, or until the top is starting to get bubbly. Uncover and cook for another ten minutes, until the top is starting to get brown and crispy.
As with all of my recipes, measures are approximate and you are encouraged to improvise. This recipe will yield about four servings.
Serve with a salad and beer or a crisp white wine.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I've been back from my wine tour of Spain for two weeks, and I'm just now finding the time to organize my thoughts, notes and pictures from the trip, and to write about it. It was such a whirlwind of people, places, wines and photo-ops. Oh, and food. I'm a foodie, so this is a pretty big statement, coming from me - I have never eaten so much in my entire life! The trip was amazing. Our hosts, Louis Geirneardt and David Geary of Axial Vinos are two of the most passionate, knowledgeable, gracious and fun people I have met in all my years in the wine business.

We flew into Barcelona, and, as is always the case when I arrive in Europe, I felt like crap. It does not seem to matter whether I drink or not, sleep or not, my first goal in arriving in a foreign country is to not vomit on the customs agent. So I slept for most of the bus trip from the airport to our first destination, the D.O. Somontano and the Hotel Casa Peix. What a lovely treat this hotel was! Its decor reminded me of a restaurant you might find in a national park here in the US - 1970's decor, linoleum floors, nondescript-looking dining room. Here at home, in a place that looked like this, one would expect to be served a burger with soggy fries and a coke in a red plastic cup. Who knew this humble-looking joint was a one-star Michelin restaurant and the dinner we had there was to be one of the favorites of the week? The cold creamy garlic soup with mango puree was fabulous. Next course was noodles in a cream sauce with a mixture of wild mushrooms. The entree choices were suckling pig, roasted goat, or pig trotters (feet) stuffed with foie gras. I had never had goat before, so that's what I had. It was delicious. We drank La Mano Mencia, 2007, from Bierzo and Jardin de Luculo Garnacha, 2006, Navarra.

Monday, we visited Bodegas Otto Bestue in D.O. Somontano. The family has been growing grapes since 1640 near the village of Enate. When, about a decade ago, a large corporation attempted to buy their vineyards, the Bestue family decided to keep their vineyards and their grapes and start making their own wines. Good decision. That day, we learned that lunch in Spain is a three-hour affair. Our meal at Bodega del Somantano consisted of five courses paired with the wines of Otto Bestue. After a quick visit to the headquarters of Opus Dei (you Da Vinci Code fans know it), we were off to the city of Zaragoza. We ate late, casual tapas, and finished the night in an Irish Pub. (It seems that whatever county I visit, I end up in an Irish pub!)

Tuesday, we visited the Carinena D.O. In the morning we visited vineyards and tasted through the Abrazo wines. Then we were treated to a visit to a 300-year-old wine cellar! Out of its one, still functioning barrel, we tasted a 60-ish year-old solera-style Viura. How cool! Next stop was Bodegas Anadas. We arrived around noon, lunchtime in our American minds. The Spaniards prefer lunch at around 3:00 PM, so they served us the traditional Spanish snack of tortilla, a type of potato omelet, with the CARE Rose 2008, in the vineyard. After the tour and tasting we sat down at 3 PM, for our second three-hour lunch. We were learning by this time, that every meal (including breakfast) starts with jamon serrano, a Spanish cured ham, resembling proscuitto. Here, we were served serrano made from the tenderloin - yum! I think the highlight of this meal was the foie on toast served with wild mushroom ice-cream!

Wednesday turned out to be one of my favorite days, which was a surprise, since jet lag had hit me hard and I think I only slept about three hours on Tuesday night. We left Zaragoza and headed to the D.O. and town of Calatayud. First, we headed for the vineyards, through the winding, narrow, steep (San Francisco has nothing on this town!) streets of the ancient town. And I am not exaggerating when I say ancient. I did not find out how old this town was, exactly, but I would guess it to be easily 1,000 years old. In some spots, one could not distinguish the eroding hillside from the crumbling walls of a building. And then, suddenly, we were at the top of the hill and popped out of the town, into the vineyards. As we moved higher through the vineyards, we came to a pine forest, which is home to one of the wildest vineyards I have ever seen. The vines are ancient and gnarly, and surrounded by grass, wild rose bushes and trees. If you were to stumble upon this vineyard, you might think it abandoned. But it produces deep and rich Garnachas, for Bodegas Virgen de la Sierra and other members of the Co-op. The wine producers of Calatayud own their vineyards co-operatively. We lunched at Meson de la Dolores,
a 16th century restaurant/hotel. We drank Cruz de Piedre wines and the highlight of this meal was the lamb chops. They were so tiny, that each diner got about a dozen. If you are not a fan of the gamey-ness of lamb, you would not have enjoyed these, as they were probably the gamiest I have ever had. Luckily, I am; they were great. After lunch, we left for Rioja, with a stop at Bodegas Pagps del Moncayo, in D.O. Campo de Borja. This is a tiny, state-of-the-art winery, producing intense Garnachas and Syrahs. That evening, we dined at Marixa Restaurante in the town of Laguardia in Rioja. Another great meal; the highlight for me, was the starter. Roasted piquillo peppers (a local, red, very slightly spicy pepper), with salt and olive oil. My chef husband always says that the key to fine cooking is perfecting the use of salt. This dish convinced me of that. It was so simple, but perfect. Paired with the Vallobera Blanco, 2008 white Rioja (100% Viura), I could have just had three more dishes of the same and been completely content!

On Thursday, we toured Bodegas Vallobera's vineyards and winery and then spent a few hours in the medieval town of Laguardia, a walled city, which, to this day, has never allowed any automobiles to enter. We visited the Portico de Santa Maria, a preserved, 14th century church portico carved out of stone. (Please check out the link; my description does not come close to doing it justice!) We had lunch in the old town at El Bodegon. We started with a seafood salad, welcome, I think, to all of us, after the red-meat extravaganza we'd been on. Then came my favorite part of this meal, shredded, deep fried artichoke. This, I am going to try to duplicate at home!

Friday was our final day of wine touring. We visited Bodega Finca el Carpio winery in D.O Ribera del Duero and had a tasting of the Zumaya wines (Tempranillo). Then we travelled to D.O. Rueda for a visit to Bodegas Avelino Vegas and a tasting of the Esperanza white wines (Verdejo, Verdejo-Viura and Sauvignon Blanc). Our last long lunch was at a tiny place that may have been called El Molino, although, it had no sign. We drove down a sandy, dirt road and parked in what resembled a US state park; picnic tables, grass, not much else. We walked down a path and came to a cement building that resembled what might be a changing room or restroom in a park. But, as surprises never seemed to cease in Spain, it was a little restaurant that served traditional paella!

Saturday was our last day, a free day in Madrid, where we did touristy things like visit the Palacio Real and drink Sangria in the Plaza Mayor.

What a trip! Thank you Louis & David!