Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It's Monday. Invite A Chef to Dinner

All of us foodies who regularly dine out must know at least three or four chefs on a first-name basis. But how often do we think to invite them to dinner on Mondays -- the night that fine restaurants are usually dark -- or their alternate off nights, Sundays or Tuesdays?

"Most people are afraid to have us for dinner," one chef told me a few months ago on his visit to the front of the house as the night's traffic waned. "Or they assume we don't eat on Mondays."

We entertain a lot, but Ella and I qualify only as competent cooks. Nevertheless, a few years ago, when she was constantly on the road and I was left at home to run wild in the kitchen, I decided to invite a chef and her husband, who ran the front of the house, to our place for dinner with another couple. Reckless and fearless, after having wine and hors d'oeuvres away from the table, I served quadrucci in brodo as a first course because it looked so lovely in Giuliano Bugialli's excellent Foods of Italy. But at my table, it was a disaster -- the fresh green herbs leaves pressed into small squares of pasta looked lovely, but the dough was chewy, and the limp broth showed the inexperience of someone unschooled in making stocks. Fortunately, the rest of the courses were fine, and I'm told that the fact that the two of them decided to separate soon after had nothing to do with that dinner.

But the experience did provide me with the first two tenets of Roger's Rules for Entertaining Chefs:

Rule One. Plenty of good wine will go a long way in covering up the sins of the kitchen. By the third course and a few empty bottles, the bad brodo was, shall we say, no longer a laughing stock.

Rule Two. Don't over-reach. Chefs are seldom impressed by attempts at advanced, Cirque de Soleil techniques, especially if they spent months learning to slice and dice at the CIA or somesuch. So if a dish seems especially tricky, don't be tempted to try it -- unless it can be prepared (and sampled) in advance.

Rule Three. Concentrate on great ingredients. Fresh, local, simple will take you a long way towards a great evening. Last night, for example, we had a local chef and his wife over for dinner, and the hit of the meal was a simple amuse bouche of small morels gathered yesterday in our side yard. Ella sauteed them lightly in butter, served them on dry toast points, and garnished them with edible purple violet flowers and leaves (her photo, above). What could be easier?

Rule Four: Spread the trauma. Several of our friends frequent this particular restaurant and we all have become friendly with the chef and his partner. As a result, we started a monthly get-together of four couples, including the restaurateurs, and rotate the dinner from house to house so that we all share the cooking challenge. In other instances, guests who like to cook have volunteered to bring a starter or a dessert when we are having a chef over -- both positive examples of collective courage.

Rule Five: Take your cue from the chef. Some chefs who are guests like to stroll into the kitchen and volunteer as sous-chefs. Others are equally happy to be free-of-ranging for a night and chattingly await, wine glass in hand, to be served. It's their call.

It should be admitted that there are probably chefs out there who live in fear-and-trembling of being invited into some amateur's dining room like ours. So, just for the record, Thomas Keller won't be getting a call from me. But most chefs I've talked with love to have someone else cook and profess to being able to eat almost anything.

At least none of them has ever sent anything back to the kitchen.

If you've had interesting experiences -- good or bad -- in cooking for chefs, please share them in the "Comments" section below. And if you want to become part of our nascent "Invite a Chef to Dinner" movement, pass this post along to your foodie friends and tell them to clear their Monday calendars.

Until the next time....

Roger Morris

Friday, April 25, 2008

Back Stories: A Good Harvest Week for Articles

For writers, each article we author has its growing season as surely as does a ton of grapes or a peck of tomatoes. The writer works with an editor to decide what seeds of ideas are worthy of planting, followed by the preparation for growth of that idea through research and travel assignments. Next follows the pruning and the green harvesting -- deciding what goes into the writing and in what order and what is left out. Finally, there is the harvest, when the article is in print and on the newstand or posted to the website.

Last week was a good harvest -- an article in Intermezzo on dining in the dry towns of Martha's Vineyard, a piece in The NewsJournal on stalking and eating wild greens, a couple of contributions to Wine Enthusiast's tally of the 25 best wine tasting rooms, and an article on upselling wines and spirits in a down market which appeared in Beverage Media publications.

Here are their back stories.

Any politician will tell you the island of Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Cape Cod is a beachead of liberal thought with a strong undercurrent of contrarianism. How else do you explain the fact that Prohibition was never repealed in four of the island's six towns? Oh sure, you can drink alcohol there, but you can't buy beer, wine or cocktails in these towns, even in the restaurants. Our family has been going to the Vineyard (think an East Coast version of Beverly Hillbillies) since 1982 and have had a house there since 1986. Each time we go to dinner, we have to remember to take our wine if we're going to a dry town or to leave it at home if we're headed for a Wetsburg. The result of our experience is B.Y.O.B Nights, an eight-page spread in the current Intermezzo (Issue 18). The text is by me, the recipes are by Island chefs, and the photos were taken by my wife and frequent collaborator, Ella. Intermezzo is on sale at most major local newstands and national book store chains.

I have a weekly wine column in The NewsJournal, the Delaware-based regional newspaper, but sometimes I get an urge to eat something, and they let me raid the refrigerator. In this case, as February turned into March, I remembered when as a pre-schooler I used to hunt for wild spring greens with my mother on our hillside farm on the western slope of the Appalachians. I was talking to vintner Anthony Vietri of Va La Vineyards near where I now live in Chester County, west of Philadelphia, and found that he hunted greens with his immigrant grandparents who grew up in the hillsides of Italy on the southern slopes of the foothills of the Alps. Small world. The result is the article Stalk on the Wild Side: In Spring a Forager's Fancy Turns to Young Greens -- So Tender, So Wild in the April 23 edition of the NJ. Vietri gives away his stalking secrets and tells us how fix a dandelion salad with egg and pancetta as well as a wild pasta dish -- spaghetti topped with sauteed dandelions and oyster mushrooms from the commercial mushroom farm next door. To stalk this article, track it down at www.delawareonline.com, then click "Life" and then "Food."

If you love haunting (and hunting) wine tasting rooms, then you have to read On the Trail of America's Best Tasting Rooms in the May issue of Wine Enthusiast. The editors asked its writers and readers to contrbute their favorites. Two of mine -- Vietri's Va La Vineyards in Avondale, PA, and Gary Farrell Winery in Healdsburg, CA -- made the cut. Grab a copy to see which of your favorites are listed among the other 23.

Finally, those of you in the wine trade -- especially retail wine merchants -- are familiar with Beverage Media, which publishes the official beverage journal in more than 30 states, including New York. The editors asked me to research what strategies importers, distributors, and wine shops were using to keep high-end sales flowing while the economy is struggling like a marathoner hitting the 20-mile wall. The result is the cover story for the May issue -- Affordable Luxuries: Strategies for Upselling Wine and Spirits in a Down Economy. If you want to read it and can't get your hands on a copy, drop me a note, and I'll scan it to you.

COMING SOON! Road Trip to Florida

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bordeaux 2007: Don't Worry About It!

Halfway through the first day of tasting barrel samples of the 2007 vintage of Bordeaux earlier this month, I allowed myself a purple-lipped smile and thought, "These wines are actually quite nice drinking wines, if not necessary wines to put away for your children." Assuming you have children, and assuming you would want to lay down wines in your cellar for their future enjoyment.

I did not get to spend a full week at the primeurs or en primeur tasting this year in Bordeaux as I did in April 2006 when I was tasting the marvelous 2005 vintage. But as I don't normally rate wines, and thus don't have to be all-inclusive, I was quite happy to sample through a hundred or so samples from the top growths to wines that are occasionally sold on futures (cheapest prices, but no pre-nuptial sampling of the wares) to those never sold on futures.

A few observations:

1. If these wines weren't compared to the supervintages such as the 2005s, we would all quite happily be talking about how drinkable the reds are -- excellent fruit, plentiful tannins, generally good balance. At their best, they are fruity up front and lean in the finish, the way a good Bordeaux with a bloody piece of beef should be. And that's what'll you'll get when they start appearing on the market over the next couple of years. Best time to drink for most will be in the first half of the next decade -- 2010 to 2015.

2. That is not meant to mean they cannot age. The ones that are in good balance will be drinking well for years past 2015.

3. The top crus that I tasted -- Ausone, Margaux, Cheval Blanc, Lafite, Haut-Brion -- were all very, very good, though none up to their 2005 standards. Although Lafite was close. Margaux needed a little more complexity, and Cheval Blanc had a green note, something I like, but which most writers liken to a pimple at the tip of an exquisite nose.

4. If you like Bordeaux blanc, prepare to go wild. All the whites I tasted were fabulous, and the 2007 Pavillon Blanc from Margaux is to die for -- or at least buy at the inflated euro rate.

5. Among the Super Seconds reds, I found a place in my heart, and perhaps even in my checkbook, for Palmer and Vieux-Chateau-Certan.

6. Bargains could be Lagrange and Issan, both wines that I have followed through the years because I know the people there. Both made wines perhaps even better than their '05s.

7. Wines that went wrong reflected the rainy weather and early lack of sun last year, which resulted in under-ripe fruit. And a few winemakers over-extracted.

At the end of the day, or at least the end of the week, I decided not to immediately factor into my deliberations the euro/dollar exchange rate, the American dis-economy, or the 2008 election. I'll think about those Scarlettish topics when the pricing campaign is over and the future prices appear in a few weeks on my computer doorstep.

Until the next time...

Roger Morris