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Friday, April 30, 2010

Best Wine Movie: Bottle Shock

All changed in the wine world in 1976 when a little-known proprietor of a Paris wine store and adjoining school (the Academy of Wine) staged a blind tasting competition between the world's best French and California wines.

At the time, the California challengers were considered poseurs at best. French noses sniffed at the thought that any California wine (or non-French wine, for that matter) could seriously challenge their  whites and reds. Somehow Steven Spurrier, the shop/school owner, persuaded the world's leading wine authorities to judge the competition, which he labeled merely a tasting to take stock of American wine in the year of the Bicentennial.

To everyone's shock, California's wines beat their French rivals in both the white and the red categories, and the world of wine has never been the same.

There is a terrific movie about the whole 1976 brouhaha that led to an explosion of great wine—not only in California but also Chile, Argentina, Australia, and many other countries. That movie is Bottle Shock, and it plays about once a year on the cable movie channels. But you can buy your very own copy, if you're nuts about wine.

The 2008 movie, which stars Alan Rickman as the bumbling but energetic Spurrier, takes a few liberties with the actual story, but that's pretty typical. It's an engaging story, particularly about those heady days in California wine country in the early 1970s when U.S. wine went from rotgut to respectable.

If after watching the movie, you want to get the real story of the day that shocked the wine world, read the book written by the one journalist who was present on that day in 1976. The book is Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine, by George M. Taber, a reporter for Time magazine.

You have to wonder how long the California wine industry would have waited for respectability had Taber not decided to stroll over to the tasting that morning in July 1976.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Pantry Project: Vegetable Soup

All week we've been eating out of our freezer, and by last night we'd exhausted the leftovers, slightly amazed by how many beans and lentils were involved: Salsa Casserole, dhal, and something called "bean stew" that we couldn't remember making but turned out to be a pleasant surprise, filled with black-eyed peas and kale. 

So it was time to move on to the other frozen bags and containers: broccoli raab, peas, vegetable stock, leftover bean-cooking liquid, and parmesan rinds. That may not sound very promising, but we're experienced scavengers. We knew that our refrigerator contained aging baby carrots and celery and that our pantry held a lot of canned tomatoes, rice, and (yes) beans. It was a no-brainer: we decided to make vegetable soup. 

It's hard to go wrong making vegetable soup, but it's possible, if you add too much water or use the wrong vegetables. (Many years ago we made a giant batch using eggplant and green peppers. Don't ever try this.) But over the years we've finally gotten it down, and we make it every time we need to clean out the crisper drawer.

We hesitate to call this a recipe, because it changes every time we make it. Sometimes we use potatoes instead of rice; sometimes we use hominy instead of beans. Here's what we made last night.

Vegetable Soup

2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped 
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 cup chopped baby carrots
1 t. dried thyme
4 cups vegetable broth* 
2 cups bean-cooking liquid
1 parmesan rind
1 cup cooked broccoli raab, chopped roughly
1 cup frozen peas
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 can kidney beans
1/2 cup jasmine rice**
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the oil in a in a large pot or Dutch oven. Sauté the onion, garlic, celery, carrots, and thyme for a few minutes, until they soften.

2. Add the liquid, parmesan rind, broccoli raab, peas, tomatoes, and kidney beans. Cook for a few minutes, then taste for seasoning. Salt and pepper as necessary.

3. Add the rice and cook until it's done (about 15 minutes). If the soup is too thick, add water or broth to thin it. Taste again for seasoning. 

4. Fish out the parmesan rind and serve, proud that you've made such delicious use of a few cheap leftovers and pantry basics.

* Usually, we just use water when making this soup, but the leftover stock and bean water really boosted the flavor. 

** Cooked rice also works well in this recipe.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Pantry Project: Pesto

Our friend Sandy is working to draw down her freezer reserves in preparation for the new season of garden produce, and she's wondering what to do with all her pesto. After all, there's only so much pasta that a person can eat.

We like pesto pasta as much as—probably more than—the next people, but we agree: a little bit goes a long way. Fortunately, there's pesto pizza.

When we lived in San Francisco, one of our favorite places to eat was a Chinese-Italian restaurant in the Mission district. This wasn't one of those fancy fusion places, but a busy neighborhood joint that specialized in takeout. We always ordered the same thing: pesto pizza and pot stickers. 

The pizza was elegantly simple: a thin, crunchy crust covered with a layer of pesto and sprinkled liberally with parmesan cheese. It went surprisingly well with the vinegar-dipped pot stickers. 

San Francisco is only a delightful memory at this point, but we still make the pizza whenever we need to use up some pesto.

Pesto Pizza

1. Heat your oven to 450 degrees.

2. Get your crust ready. You can use either raw dough or a premade, Boboli-type crust.

3. Spread the crust with an even layer of pesto. We generally use about a cup's worth.

4. Cover the pesto with grated parmesan. You'll probably need about a cup and a half.

5. Bake until the cheese is golden; 15 to 20 minutes should be sufficient.

That's it.

This recipe is for pesto purists, but it's easy to mix it up with other flavors. You can, for instance, cover the pesto with sliced tomatoes and mozzarella, or any topping you like. 

Cut into small slices, this pizza makes a great, quick appetizer.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New, Improved Eat Well, Eat Cheap: You Can Search Us!

For the past week we've been working to "eat down" our pantry and freezer stockpiles. In the course of this, we came across a container of Salsa Casserole and remembered how much we liked this dish. But we couldn't remember when we'd posted the recipe.

This reminded us that after more than a year of blogging, we've posted so many items that it can be hard to find recipes and wine recommendations.

If only Blogger had a search function, we sighed. Then we looked around and discovered that it did. We just added the button to the top of the page. Sorry for not doing it sooner! 

Let us know how it works.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Favorite Cookbooks: The Classic Italian Cookbook

We have an embarrassing number of cookbooks, on everything from Burmese to cowboy food, but there are only a few we couldn't live without, and they're easy to pick out from the crowd. Broken-spined, covered with stains and greasy fingerprints, they open automatically to our favorite recipes. Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook is one of these. 

Published in 1973, this book lovingly explains Italian food from antipasti through dessert. The Italian-born Hazan (whose American husband, Victor, is generally thought to have written the text) emphasizes fresh ingredients and simple preparation. Her forthright recipes are fuss-free and invariably delicious. 

Our favorites are her Minestrone and her Fettuccine with Gorgonzola Sauce, but she's equally wonderful on vegetables, meat dishes, and basic sauces, including this one, for the Simplest Tomato Sauce Ever

Note: We've gotten reports that the link to the fettuccine recipe link is broken. Here's the original post: 

Fettuccine with Blue Cheese Sauce

At Eat Well, Eat Cheap, we aim to offer recipes that combine deliciousness, frugality, and healthiness. This one, for fettucine bathed in creamy blue cheese sauce, is spectacularly delicious and pleasingly frugal, but—we'll admit it—it falls considerably short in the health department. But it's so delicious and easy, and makes such splendid use of leftovers, that we're willing to cut it some slack. We deal with the guilt of eating it by eating it only once or twice a year.

After the holidays, we found ourselves with dribs and drabs of several great cheeses, including a French blue and an American blue that were rapidly turning the corner from interesting pungency to hair-raising rancidity. We did not want them to go to waste, and remembered one of our favorite recipes from Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook, for Fettucine Gorgonzola.

Here's our adaptation:

Fettuccine with Blue Cheese Sauce

1 pound fettuccine
1/2 cup blue cheese (Gorgonzola, Stilton, Roquefort, Danish are all good, as are any combinations of them)
1/2 cup light cream
2 T. butter
1/2 t. salt
1/2 cup grated parmesan

1. Add fettuccine to a big pot of rapidly boiling water. Stir to separate the strands, which like to clot together.

2. While the pasta is cooking, heat the cheese, cream, butter, and salt in a wide saucepan that's big enough to hold the finished pasta. Mash the cheese into the hot butter and cream. Keep warm while the pasta finishes cooking.

3. Add the cooked pasta to the cheese sauce, quickly mix, and add a couple of tablespoons of the parmesan. Serve with the rest of the parmesan on the side.

Serves four as a guilt-inducing main course, or six to eight as a first course.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Confused About Fats and Oils?

If you are, it's no wonder. Between unsaturated, monosaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, and the late unlamented trans-fats, it's hard to keep track of what will help you and what will kill you. Maoshing Ni has an excellent breakdown of this complex subject on Huffington Post today.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Make It Yourself: Coffee

Okay, we admit it: despite our DIY convictions, we still stop at Starbucks and other overpriced coffee shops. But we stop there a lot less than we might, because we can make delicious espresso drinks at home for a fraction of the cost.

We've been doing this for many years, having started with a humble two-cup Braun espresso maker that cost us about $20 and is still going strong a quarter-century later. (We pack it when we travel.) About ten years ago we moved up to Starbucks' Barista model, which served us well for a long time and is still running. But for our anniversary a few years ago we splurged on a DeLonghi machine that requires very little fussing—it grinds the beans and neatly spits the used grounds into a special container. It wasn't cheap, but it's saved us a fortune.

If you find yourself dropping $4 or $5 a day at coffee shops, consider buying your own machine. It will quickly pay for itself and reward you with years of cheap, guilt-free espresso drinks. Even a $750 machine will pay for itself in a few months, depending on how much coffee you drink.

* The machine in the photo is Saeco's Etienne Louis.
We've never seen one in real life, but love the way it looks. Who wouldn't jump out of bed in the morning to make coffee on one of these?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Asparagus and Dried Mushroom Risotto

As we work to draw down our pantry stockpile, we can't help noticing that we have a lot of rice: basmati, jasmine, sushi, black, brown, brown basmati, Arborio, wild rice (okay, nitpickers, that's technically not a rice, but we treat it that way). We also have a lot of dried mushrooms, including shiitakes and a "gourmet" mix from Costco that makes wonderful broth. The other night we decided to use some of these ingredients to make risotto. Risotto is a great way to give leftovers and pantry basics a fancy, delicious new incarnation.

The recipe we found, from Gourmet via Epicurious, called for fresh asparagus and shiitakes, but we wanted to use what we had at home: leftover roasted asparagus and dried mushrooms. We wondered whether these substitutions would work—would the mushrooms be too chewy, the asparagus too condensed?

We discovered that risotto is very forgiving: the hot broth softened up the mushrooms and asparagus, which retained just enough bite to be interesting. We were so happy with this experimental dish that we will definitely make it again.

Asparagus and Dried Mushroom Risotto

1/2 ounce (a very generous half-cup) dried shiitake mushrooms
6 cups broth (you can use chicken or vegetable; we used vegetable mixed with the mushroom-soaking liquid)
1 cup roasted asparagus, cut into inch-long pieces
1 T. olive oil
3 T. unsalted butter
1 small onion, chopped finely
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

1. Soak the mushrooms in one cup of hot water. Sliced mushrooms will be soft in about 15 minutes; whole mushrooms will take longer. Once they are soft, squeeze out the excess water, chop them into small pieces, and set aside, reserving the soaking liquid.
2. While the mushrooms are soaking, add the mushroom liquid to the broth, bring it to a boil, and leave it on simmer.
3. In a separate, good-size, heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil and two tablespoons of the butter. Cook the onion until soft, about three minutes.
4. Add the rice and stir it in the butter-and-onion mixture for a couple of minutes. With the heat on medium, add the wine and stir until it is absorbed by the rice.
5. Add one cup of the hot broth and stir until it is absorbed by the rice. Keep adding the simmering broth in half-cup increments, waiting until it's almost absorbed before adding the next ladle-ful. When the rice is done—creamy but retaining a slight bite—you're done.
6. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in half a cup of cheese, the last tablespoon of butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the asparagus and chopped mushrooms, and set aside for a minute so the vegetables can heat through.
7. If the risotto seems too thick, add a little hot broth to thin. Serve with the remaining parmesan on the side.

Serves four.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mock Tuna Salad: Don't Laugh Until You've Tried It

Ruth admits that vegetarianism has not always been easy. One of the hardest things to give up was tuna, a lunchtime staple since childhood. When she found Lindy Loo's recipe for fake tuna salad, she was skeptical—how could chickpeas possibly fill in for canned tuna? Tim was even more dubious, having been on the receiving end of many failed mock-meat dishes.

But this recipe has become a favorite of both of ours. It's amazing how much this mix of ingredients tastes and feels like tuna salad. Though Lindy Loo didn't bother to use the kelp in her recipe, we think it's crucial for the "tuna" flavor; we've used both kelp granules and nori seaweed flakes with good results. (You can get both products at health food stores.)

Even if you still eat tuna, you may want to cut back on your consumption to limit your mercury intake. If so, give Lindy Loo's recipe a whirl. You will not be sorry.

Given that our pantry stockpiles include several big bags of dried chickpeas, we plan to make Mock Tuna Salad a few times in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Spring Challenge: Draw Down the Stockpile

The other day we were talking with our friends Sandy and Chuck, who put in a substantial vegetable garden every year. Sandy noted that they were eating out of their freezer to use up last season's produce in preparation for the new year. We admitted that our freezer and pantry were full to bursting with neglected food items, and we vowed on the spot to draw them down.

When we got home, we investigated.

How did we end up with two sizable containers of black rice? We recently discovered this delicious grain, but as we're still in the early stages of figuring out how to use it, two containers seem a bit excessive. Over the weekend we made a batch of black rice pudding, and we'll work the rest into Asian and Italian dishes (reports to follow—and if anybody has a good black-rice recipe, please share).

Meanwhile, we own many, many jars of dried beans and lentils; an impressive collection of rice varieties; stockpiled bags of dried peppers and spices; and a daunting range of never-cracked oddball items picked up at ethnic and specialty markets. There are things that we bought but ended up not being crazy about—pressed barley, anyone?—and things that we simply forgot about. At the same time, we can't find things that we know we bought, including a big sack of French lentils.

The freezer has its own problems: in addition to necessary items like frozen stock, Parmesan rinds, fruit, and vegetables, we've packed the shelves with mysterious leftovers. (Why, oh why, didn't we mark all of them? Did we really think that a frozen brown square would be immediately recognizable six months later?)

Over the next few weeks, we'll be working to draw down our supplies, and will keep you posted on our discoveries. And if anyone has good tips for using up old pantry and freezer items, please let us know . . .

Monday, April 19, 2010

Guacamole: A Love Letter

One great thing about moving south is that we get more spring and summer—an extra couple of months, in fact. This means more gardening, more lawn mowing, more canine swimming expeditions . . . and more guacamole.

For health reasons, we've been trying to dial back our cheese consumption, and guacamole helps us do it: rich, creamy, indulgent, requiring just enough effort to set it apart from everyday snacks like bottled salsa. Although high in fat and calories, it's loaded with nutrients and cholesterol-free. And it's easy to make.

First, find a Hass avocado or two. The rough-skinned, dark Hass variety has the creamiest flesh; although in a pinch you can use the smoother, rounder, lighter-green varieties, they tend to be watery and fibrous. Some stores charge as much as two dollars a Hass, so it's worth looking around for deals. (Costco and Trader Joe's are both good sources.)

If you can, choose an avocado that isn't rock-hard, but avoid any that are squishy and dented with the telltale thumbprints of the shoppers who preceded you. If you can only find hard ones, take them home and wait for a couple of days, when they will be ripe.

Once the fruit is ready, slice it, spoon out the pit, scoop the flesh into a bowl, and mash it with a fork. Add a teaspoon or so of lemon juice and salt to taste. Although some people like the pure flavor of unadulterated avocado, we prefer a little more complexity, so we add a tablespoon of bottled salsa per avocado, and a quarter-teaspoon of chili powder.

Guacamole turns a horrific color once it's been exposed to air, so it's best to make it in small quantities.

Serve with homemade chips or sliced vegetables. If possible, eat it on a warm screen porch or patio, surrounded by fresh-cut grass, sun-warm flowers, and tired dogs.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Frugal Pantry: Tahini

We've been in the mood for hummus lately, to the point where we had to crack a new jar of tahini. This reminded us of how much we love this ingredient, which is not only indispensable to Middle Eastern dishes like hummus and baba ghanouj but an excellent addition to salad dressing.

Made of ground sesame seeds, tahini is similar in texture to peanut butter, but it adds a unique smoky flavor to whatever you're preparing. A 16-ounce container usually costs between $6 and $8, and will last a long time; typically, you use just a few tablespoons for whatever recipe you're making.

Most supermarkets carry tahini, but finding it can be a challenge. Sometimes it's by the peanut butter, sometimes it's with the oils, sometimes it's in the catch-all "International" section. If you can't find it, ask—it's worth the effort.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How to Cook Chickpeas

Most people know that you have to soak dry beans before you cook them. For most beans—black, white, pinto, kidney—a simple overnight soak works fine. But chickpeas require more soaking and longer cooking.

For us, it's a worthwhile effort, because home-cooked chickpeas have much better flavor and texture (and price) than their canned siblings, and because this delicious "meaty" bean is the main ingredient in hummus and many Indian dishes. But we struggled with the soaking and cooking issue until we got a great tip from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat.

Before you leave your raw chickpeas to soak (in a roomy bowl with lots of water), mix together a tablespoon of flour, a tablespoon of salt, and a teaspoon of baking soda, then add just enough water to make a thin paste. Add this paste to the soaking beans, and you will dramatically shorten not only the soaking time but the cooking time.

This week we let a batch of chickpeas soak overnight in the flour/salt/baking soda mixture, then cooked them the next morning. Amazingly, they were done in 40 minutes.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Favorite Cookbooks: How to Eat

Sometimes we wish we could dislike Nigella Lawson, simply for what she has wrought: all those TV cooking shows featuring women in tight sweaters who lick their spoons, toss their lustrous hair, moan about how A-MAZ-ING their food smells, and never give you any helpful information. But unlike these lame pretenders, Nigella is the real deal—an excellent, practical cook and a witty writer who is always fun to read.

Our favorite book of hers is How to Eat, because although it contains many great recipes, it's more than that. As the title says, it tells you how to eat. How to shop, how to stock a pantry, how to save time, how to plan menus for everything from a one-person meal to a full-scale dinner party.

This excerpt from How to Eat sums up the attitude we find so appealing:

. . . you don't have to go through the ridiculous pantomime of pretending everything is homespun. If you're still getting your shopping out and unwrapping your packages when everyone arrives, who cares? Your kitchen doesn't have to look like a set from a 1950s sitcom. It is curiously relaxing to be slowly creating the canvas—arranging the table, putting flowers in a vase, chopping up herbs, and putting water on for potatoes—while talking and drinking unhurriedly with friends.

Not sold yet? These two recipes will convert you.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Roast Asparagus to Concentrate Its Flavor

At first glance, roasting seems like a terrible thing to do to a beautiful vegetable like asparagus. Unlike steaming or boiling, which preserve the velvety greenness, or grilling, which adds delicate char marks, roasting results in a pan full of limp, withered, khaki-colored stalks. (There's a reason we aren't showing a photo.)

But in our opinion, nothing brings out the flavor of asparagus like a roasting in a hot oven. And unlike steaming, boiling, or grilling, roasting does not require a light hand—we've found that the worse the finished product looks, the better it tastes.

You can roast either thick or thin stalks, but the thicker stalks are best suited to this rough treatment.

Roasted Asparagus

1. Heat your oven to 400 degrees.

2. Wash the asparagus and snap off the tough ends. Save the trimmings, as they are excellent in soup stock.

3. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil on a baking pan—a tablespoon should do it. Lay the asparagus on the pan in a single layer, rolling them around a bit in the oil. Salt lightly.

4. Roast until the asparagus is done to your liking. This really is a matter of taste: 20 minutes might be enough for some people, leaving the stalks green and a bit moist; others might prefer 40 minutes of high heat, which will condense the stalks and turn the tips crispy. Experiment to see what works for you.

Sometimes we like to finish the asparagus with a little good balsamic vinegar, but usually we enjoy the concentrated flavor on its own.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Eat Well, Eat Cheap a Best-Seller on Kindle!

We knew that Eat Well, Eat Cheap was available on Kindle, but we didn't think too much about it until last Friday, when we noticed that EWEC was ranked 51 among Kindle's Top 100 best-selling Lifestyle & Culture blogs — way above Rachael Ray (No. 87).

Amazon recalculates its sales rankings hourly, and we've slipped a bit since Friday, but we're still thrilled. Thank you, Kindle subscribers!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bargain Wine of the Week Tip: Get to Know Your Wine Clerk

Here's why you want to chat up the clerk at your local wine store: Because he or she can lead you to a better wine or lead you away from a potentially bad purchase. And, we've found, the better the wine store, the better the wine advice — generally.

We were in our local the other day buying a Clos du Bois Chardonnay that was on sale for $8. Clos du Bois is a good winery, and typically pretty reliable. But as it's grown, it has added bargain whites to its premium wines. Lots of wineries do it, and because the wine maker knows wine, they usually turn out a good bargain.

We couldn't find the on-sale Clos du Bois, only the winery's $25 premium version, so we asked, "Where's the Clos du Bois that is on sale?" The dutiful clerk took us to the bin. But, he quickly added, "if you like that, I've got a wine for a bit more that's much better." Music to our ears.

"Is it under $10?" we asked. Yes, he replied, and took us to the Muirwood Chardonnary 2008 from the California Central Coast. This bargain California Chardonnay is a bit on the light side for a Chard aged in oak, but it was medium-bodied and went really well with our grilled vegetables and salmon.

So, the lesson is: You don't have to take the advice of the clerk, but why not try out something he's gone out of his way to show you?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Eat Stupid, Eat Here

There's a chain of restaurants that serve cereal to people who are too lazy or dumb to pick up a box of their own.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Let Your Red Wine Breathe

"Letting the wine breathe" has become a joke, one of the pretensions that make wine drinkers so comical and intolerable to the rest of the population. But it really is a good idea, and not just for expensive bottles. We've found that inexpensive reds benefit enormously from a breath of fresh air.

A wine that can taste sharp or flat straight out of the bottle often deepens in delicious ways when it's given a chance to open up in a glass or decanter. So, if you know you're going to be drinking a certain bottle with your pasta, crack it early and pour a couple of glasses before you sit down to dinner. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

On a related note, we've been seeing ads for the Rabbit Aerator, which allegedly performs the same function for $30. We asked one of the knowledgeable wine guys at our local liquor store about this device, and he was unimpressed. For the same price, a decanter does an indisputably fine job. Or you can just plan ahead and open your bottle ahead of time, for free.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Happy Easter Dinner: Asparagus Soufflé

One challenge of a mixed marriage is how to celebrate Easter. No, we aren't talking about religion, but about what to do when one person is a meat eater and the other a vegetarian. Holidays demand menus that are a little more festive. And, although Tim is a perpetually good sport about the fake-meat amalgams that Ruth foists upon him, a ham-shaped wad of tofu definitely wouldn't cut it for Easter.

Surrounded by the cherry blossoms and sudden heat of a Northern Virginia spring, we wanted an Easter dinner that would, in the parlance of the cooking magazines, celebrate the season. And what better than asparagus? And what better than an asparagus soufflé—vegetarian enough for Ruth, festive enough for Tim?

We adapted a recipe that used little ramekins, partly because we didn't have enough eight-ounce ramekins, partly because we like the thrill of seeing the big puffy soufflé come out of the oven (and the related uncertainty about whether it will rise). We also switched out the spices, unsure whether we'd like the author's cumin and nutmeg.

Partway into the preparation, we realized that we'd left our soufflé dish in Connecticut, so we substituted a casserole. It ended up being a little too big for the recipe, so although the soufflé came out fluffy and delicious, it did not majestically rise above the dish as we had hoped.
We served the soufflé with a quick tomato jam: grape tomatoes squashed in olive oil and herbs de provence and cooked down until their juices thickened. The acid bite of the tomatoes worked well with the rich soufflé.

Asparagus Soufflé

1 pound asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into inch-long pieces
1/3 cup chopped onion
1 fat clove garlic
1/2 t. dried thyme
1/4 cup. unsalted butter
3 T. flour
1 1/4 c. whole milk
1/2 t. dry mustard, or more to taste
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper
1/2 c. Gruyère cheese (or Swiss if you can't find Gruyére)
3 egg yolks, beaten
5 egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar

1. Remove the top rack from your oven and preheat it to 375 degrees. Butter a soufflé dish or smallish casserole and set aside.

2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, and drop in asparagus pieces for two minutes. Rinse the asparagus in cold water and set aside.

3. Melt one tablespoon of butter in a small skillet over medium heat, then add onions, garlic and thyme. Cook until soft, about five minutes.

4. Purée asparagus pieces and cooked onions and garlic in a food processor.

5. In a medium-size saucepan, melt the remaining three tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat, then whisk in the flour. Let the mixture cook for a few minutes, but don't let it get brown.

6. Add the milk, whisking all the while, and simmer until thickened. Add the dry mustard, nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste. Add the cheese, and stir until it's melted.

7. In a mixing bowl, combined the cheese sauce and the puréed asparagus and onions. Add the egg yolks.

8. Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until fairly stiff, but be careful not to let them get dry and lumpy.

9. Mix a half-cup of the beaten egg whites into the asparagus mixture to lighten it. Then, very carefully, add the rest of the egg whites to the asparagus mixture—don't beat them in, but gently fold them. It's OK if they aren't completely incorporated. You want to preserve the fluffiness of the beaten whites, as they will make your soufflé rise.

10. Just as carefully, transfer the entire mixture to your soufflé dish or casserole. Don't just plop it in; use a big spoon to gently move the mixture from the bowl to your dish.

11. Place in the center of the oven, set the timer for 40 minutes, and resist the urge to open the oven door to peek at the rising soufflé. If you have an oven window that's clean enough to look through, use that to monitor the situation. If you don't, wait until the timer rings before investigating.

12. If, after 40 minutes, the soufflé looks set, with a brown crusty top, remove it, whisk it to the table, and eat it immeditely. If it doesn't look quite set, give it a few more minutes, but DO NOT stab it with a knife to test the doneness—it will fall.

Despite all these steps, and a little bit of finickiness in mid-prepration, this really isn't a hard dish to make, and the resulting oohs and ahhs, at both the presentation and the taste, will make all the fussing worth it.

    Sunday, April 4, 2010

    Happy Easter: It's Cherry Blossom Time in DC

    We trekked into the District of Columbia midday Friday to see the cherry trees all blossoming around the tidal basin. What fools were we — along with thousands of others. It was bumper-to-bumper, no place to park and ridiculously crowded. We didn't even get close.

    So, figuring we'd beat the crowds, we got up very early on Saturday, which was supposed to be beautiful. We estimated that we'd be at the Tidal Basin at 6 a.m. — along with a couple hundred other early risers. Wrong again!

    We drove around and around and finally parked illegally near the Jefferson Memorial. But what a sight. It is a great experience watching the sun come up over Jeff's white-domed memorial, creep across the Tidal Basin, and then illuminate the hundreds of cherry trees around the pond.

    When we lived here years ago, our cherry festival was ruined by a drenching downpour that lasted all day and took all of the blossoms off the trees by the time it was over. This time, we were back at home tending to our own budding trees and plants by 10 a.m.

    Bargain Wine of the Week: Venta Morales Tempranillo 2008

    Remember the old Chianti wine bottles from Italy that came with a wicker basket woven around the bulbous bottom part of the bottle? Well, we don't have fond memories of those wines — only the times we had when we were drinking the wine. The wine, and probably the fact that we had too much of it, gave us a headache.

    And the bottle was memorable not only for the wicker, but also for the coffee table candleholders that everybody made out of the empty bottles in college dorms across America.
    Today's wine has nothing to do with the basket wine, except that the label has an illustration of woven wicker in a wide band across the middle.

    This wine isn't even from Italy, it's from Spain. But it's a heckuva bargain. It is a red wine, made from Tempranillo grapes and made in a non-oak-barrel inexpensive way — except that the grapes are grown in an old vineyard that yields only two tons per acre, so the grapes have lots of flavor.

    And, here's the best of all: It tastes so good that it was rated 88 by Wine Advocate; it has depth; and it only costs $6 a bottle. Yes, that's right, $6. If you see this bottle in your local store, buy several bottles, because it's a bargain and a half at that price.