Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Vacation Update

One would think that with a relaxed, at-home vacation, I would have plenty of time to sit in front of the computer and ponder my thoughts before putting them into carefully crafted words to share on the internet.  Obviously, that hasn’t been the case.

We front-loaded our vacation week, with an overnight trip to Asheville and a grill-warming party the next day.  So it’s only now that we’re finally getting to the relaxing part of the week.  I’ve kind of front-loaded this post too; the pictures come a bit later.  I should probably also warn you that this is a really long post, so if you have an appointment or something on the stove, you might want to wait ‘til later.

To start, we headed out to Asheville late Sunday morning.  It’s only a two-hour drive, so we arrived at the Biltmore estate around one o’clock.  Just in time for lunch!  We had toured the house and gardens on our last / first trip there, so we headed to the other part of the estate called Antler Village.  This is where the winery is, as well as the extensive gift shop, several restaurants and shops.  Next to that are the stables and farmyard, where you can tour through historic artisan spaces, the old horse barns and then see and pet some farm animals.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself though.  First we had a great lunch at The Bistro, which is right next to the gift shop/wine tasting building.  The Bistro uses a lot of ingredients grown on the estate, and we were a little surprised at the quality of the menu and the food.  Miss Chef had the soup of the day, which was a chilled coconut, cucumber and mint soup.  The coconut wasn’t very noticeable, but it was still a very tasty starter.   She continued with the chicken milanese, which was perfectly cooked and very flavorful.  Both of us had a glass of wine, naturally, and those were very good too.

For my part, I had the spring green salad and then one of the wood-fired pizzas—their take on the Alsatian tartiflette, which is a baked dish with potatoes, cheese, crème fraiche, onions and lardons (basically chopped bacon).  Sounds heavy, doesn’t it?  This pizza was a lighter version, with a soft but light crust, a nice mix of onions in a cheesy creaminess, and a scattering of small batons of roasted duck breast.  As good as the rest of it sounds, I still can’t get over how good the crust was!  Because of our dinner plans, I was trying to eat light, so I ended up taking half of it home with me, and it was just as good the next day.

Next we stepped across the sidewalk into the gift shop and browsed a little before figuring out the winery tour.  It was fairly interesting, but don’t expect to learn much about how to make wine from it.  You learn more about the history of the business, and you just get a glimpse into a couple of the production rooms, both of which were still and empty on a Sunday afternoon.

Here are some of the enormous fermentation tanks.  The tour guide said this room holds about half of their 75 tanks.

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To give you some idea of scale, I took this from the viewing platform on the second floor, and the tops of those tanks were about head height.  So they are probably 15 feet high or so.  And they hold tens of thousands of gallons…I think.  The numbers of gallons and bottles were pretty impressive, I can tell you that much.

The next photo is from the bottling room for their sparkling wines (i.e. champagne not made in the Champagne region of France).  After the initial fermentation period, the bottles are put in these special riddling racks, where they are turned and shaken just so every day to move the sediment into the neck of the bottle.  I won’t go into more detail about the bottling and dosing process, but I thought the racks of bottles were a fun photo subject.

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(As you can tell, I was taking these through a window, and couldn’t get rid of all the reflection.)

The tour ends in the wine-tasting area, and of course we had to spend a little time there.  Most of the tasting is free, but there is a separate bar area with paid tastes for their premium and sparkling wines.  The Grand Reserve Chardonnay they gave us during the tour itself was pretty good, but none of the others in the free tasting area had enough structure or character to interest me much.  Though we skipped the premium tasting, Miss Chef found a few she liked, so don’t worry, we made our contribution to keeping the Biltmore Estate running.

Next up was my turn—the stables and farmyard.  We kind of buzzed through the stable area, listened in on a blacksmith apprentice talking to another family, but I was really interested in seeing the animals in the farmyard.  Miss Chef said she really didn’t care about that part, but that was before she met the goats!

Noisy baby goat (sorry, it takes me too long to download video, so feel free to make your own maaaa sounds):

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Itchy baby goat:

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Miss Chef and friend:

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“That was nice.  Can I have some more, please?”

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We both had our fingers nibbled on by goats, and were amused by this chicken who decided the back of a goat was a good place to hang out and look for tasty morsels.

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Notice the kid in the background checking out the chicken area?  Yeah, I can see how goats can be a handful!


Miss Chef made another friend before we left.  Chester is a Belgian draft horse.

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It was pretty warm that day, and Chester and his friend Bert were both hot and sweaty up under their manes, so they weren’t terribly animated.  Which was fine with me, after checking out the size of their hooves!

Some close ups:

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I have to admit, I love horses’ muzzles and their lips.  They are so soft and sensitive, I just want to flap that lower lip and make funny noises.  Don’t worry, I didn’t harass Chester.


By now it was time to head to the hotel and change for dinner.  We had reservations for four at Curaté, the Spanish tapas place that was part of the reason for our last trip here.  We enjoyed it so much last time that we invited the chef and his wife from Passion8, whom we’ve gotten to know the last year or two.  Amazingly, everything worked out for us to meet up and have a chance to sit down and chat for about four hours, while someone else cooked.




I didn’t take any pictures during our meal, because the dishes kept coming and coming, and I was kept busy just keeping up with tasting them all.  The ones above and below are from our last trip, since I never got around to sharing that here. 

This was one of my favorite dishes: gambas al ajillo (shrimp and slices of garlic sautéed in butter).  Keep in mind I don’t really like seafood, and you’ll have some glimmer of how tasty it is.

curate shrimp


Naturally I insisted we order this again, but we tried plenty of others.  Crispy fried eggplant with honey, trout cooked sous-vide with a saffron and fennel sauce, lip-smacking cured meats from Spain, lamb skewers with North African spices, red peppers stuffed with goat cheese…all of it made with top-quality ingredients.  We also enjoyed Spanish beer, tableside sangria preparation and Miss Chef learned she likes Manhattans and dirty martinis.  (As a matter of fact, I hear her using her brand-new cocktail shaker in the kitchen this very minute!)

Phew.  There was one last dish Miss Chef and I knew was coming.  We had added a note to our reservation that we were celebrating a birthday, because we had learned last time that they will bring out this showstopper of a dessert to end your meal:

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It’s called a panuelo, and it's inspired by a dish that the chef, Katie Button, developed while interning at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli in Barcelona. The sweet transparent sheet is made from potato starch, and as it cools it is manipulated into a free-form sculpture before being studded with—I’d love to make you guess from the picture—pop rocks!  We had seen this on another couple’s table at our last stop there, and just like them, we were the center of attention when the chef herself brought it to our table.  It starts conversations, and of course you end up breaking off a few pieces for the next table to try.  So fun!

Our night was not over, though.  The cocktails and conversation kept flowing, and before we knew it, the two chefs were seated on stools at the bar overlooking the kitchen, the better to view the equipment and techniques.

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While Jessica and I kept up our own chatter, the two chefs were talking with Katie Button and some of the cooks.  Next thing I knew, Katie’s husband Felix, who runs the front of house, was inviting us to see their large-group room downstairs.  Luca, who’s Italian, and Felix, who’s Spanish, bonded over soccer scores and upcoming Formula One races, while Jessica fervently complimented Felix and congratulated him on his success.

When we came back upstairs, it was to find the place empty of customers and the staff hard at work closing down the line.  Whoa, it was after closing time—“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” as the song says.

We walked the quiet Sunday night streets for a bit, bonded with a drunk panhandler and finally parted ways with promises of our next culinary adventure together.  Definitely a night to remember!

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Oh, but don’t think were were done yet.  Somehow we popped awake before seven the next morning, and soon were researching breakfast!  We passed up Tupelo Honey’s staid menu and 9:00 opening time in favor of the vegetarian-friendly fare at Green Sage, which had been recommended to us by the wife of another chef from the Art Institute.  We really are hooked up when it comes to food!

I will spare you the details of breakfast, but here’s a picture of my egg and bacon sandwich on a homemade biscuit.  It needed some salt, but that biscuit was delicious.

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Before heading out of town, we had to stop by the restaurant supply store that happens to be located right next to the hotel.  I’d spotted the sign from our fifth-floor room, knowing Miss Chef wouldn’t be able to pass it up.

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Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?

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Of course, there’s much more to talk about, what with the grill-warming party, shopping and this morning’s swim at the pool in a friend’s neighborhood, which has left us both nicely reddened.  But it’s time to get Miss Chef off the internet where she’s looking for the special Spanish olives Curaté uses in their martinis.  So I’ll just leave you with a few more photos from our stroll through downtown Asheville.

The next best thing to a banana hammock?

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Just one section of an odd mural on the side of a building.  Miss Chef liked the cat with the bomb in the upper right.

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I liked this bit, of course.

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Miss Chef and I agreed the dog up front is pretty much just what Rosie would look like if we tried this with her.

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Oh, and here’s one last unrelated picture…our shopping trip yesterday found us in Ikea, just to see what all the hubbub was about.  We ended up buying new dishes, so Miss Chef can plate her food without the interference of the blue borders on our current set.  Here’s our first meal on the new plates: leftovers from the grill-warming party!


Clockwise from left, that’s a corn salsa, homemade refried beans hiding under the lettuce and tomato, Mexican-style rice, and a quesadilla made with some of the smoked chicken from the party.

You know I can’t leave without making you hungry, right?  Buen provecho!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday Shortcut: Garlic

Today is the first day of my Staycation.  So naturally, I’m spending it like any other Saturday.  Miss Chef has to work tonight, so I’m at home, trying to not be a total couch potato.  Hey, it’s hot out there!

This morning, though, I did get outside before the real heat set in.  I watered the garden, trimmed the flower buds off the basil, cleared the dead coreopsis from the front bed…all those morning garden chores I cannot will myself out of bed for during the week.

I also harvested most of the garlic.



For anyone who doesn’t know where their grocery store garlic comes from, here’s the entire plant, enjoying a last sunbath on our patio chaise longue:



I guess that’s approaching 4’ tall, though several inches are below ground as it grows.  Here’s a closeup of the flowers, on top of the long, sturdy stalks called scapes.  Those are good eating, too.


I did leave a few plants in the ground, hoping for some of these flower buds to open.  They, too, can be used, for example as a garnish to finish off a pasta or maybe a cold salad.

As I looked at the grubby bulbs, I was suddenly aware of another benefit to getting to know the farmers at the market.  I didn’t need to scrub these babies.  I cut the stalks, then simply pulled down a few of the outer layers of skin, like an onion.  And voila, fresh clean garlic.



I did give their dirty little birds a soak and a rinse, and now they are splayed out on our wire onion basket to dry.

And now back to our previously scheduled housecleaning…

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What’s Going On?

Been busy.  Good busy.  I start teaching again after the 4th of July holiday, so I’m reveling in beautiful weather and free time: farmers’ market, kayaking, graduation party, patio sitting…went to the library and checked out a couple of my favorite old James Herriot books.  Miss Chef and I are looking forward to a whole week off together, starting this Sunday.  No Big Trip this time, just an overnight to Asheville (to Curate, to be specific), and a Grill-Warming Party.  The rest is unscheduled project and fun time.

The weather has been absolutely gorgeous here—highs in the 70s and 80s, evening lows in the 60s.  Just like the summers I basked in during my childhood up north.  Today, the last day of spring, we hit 90 again, and from what the forecasters say we’re only going up from here.  Summer is here to stay.

So what’s with this?


What is that, goat droppings in a snowy forest clearing?    Reindeer gifts in the shrubbery?  No, actually it’s peppercorns, rosemary and bay leaves atop both sugar and salt.  In other words, a brine.

For a chicken.  Just add water!  (and a chicken)



I mixed this up in preparation for Part II of the Great Grill Induction Ceremony: Smoking.





That’s actually a halfway through picture…somehow we tore into the finished bird before either of us thought to stop and take a photo.  When one of us did think of it, we both shrugged and kept eating.  It was that good.  (What’s even better about this bird is that we left it smoking and went out for beers with some friends.  When we came home it was the perfect temperature for serving.)

Naturally, we are planning to smoke more for our Grill Warming Party.  We’re hoping for 15 to 20 guests, mostly chef-types.  Should be interesting.


Now, in the absence of any sustained effort on my part, how about some random pictures?

Remember my imminent floral explosion from the beginning of the month?



It asploded!












Meet Wort.  This is Miss Chef’s newest BFF.  Wort is in the process of fermenting right now, in order to grow up and change his name to Beer.  He’ll spend two weeks in here letting his yeast play, then he’ll get a taste of sugar before moving into bottles for another week.  Then we’ll get to know him better.

Miss Chef had Monday off from both jobs, and was very, very excited about using it to brew up this wort.  When I came home from work, she’d turned on the grill for burgers, but there was nothing on it.  I tried to be patient—I changed, went out to pull carrots from the garden, started a salad.  After two or three “I’m hungry" / “Ok, I’ll put the burgers on” exchanges, Miss Chef was still gazing fondly into the steaming pot as she stirred her fragrant concoction.  I finally said, “You just can’t tear yourself away, can you?”

“No,” she said, “I really can’t.”

We did eventually eat.  The burgers were delicious.  I’ll have to let you know later about Beer.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Up A Creek

After a couple weeks of absence, I once again headed out to the US National Whitewater Center last Sunday for a little kayak time.  Miss Chef had homework to do, so she stayed at home.  I try to think of these paddle sessions as a special trip to the gym.  Between the drive, check-in and walk to the dock, I can probably be from my front door onto the water in about 30 minutes.  Well, on a Sunday, that is.  Saturday afternoons are another story.

This trip was pretty uneventful.  Saw an enormous dead fish on my way back into the creek.  Didn't get to go as far as before, since the water level has been dropping.  Fewer planes, so more of a sense of solitude.  As I headed back out, I enjoyed playing with the stroke of my paddle, seeing how fast I could go, or how much power I could maintain, not really caring that much about the wildlife around me.

And then, as I came around the bend by the old beaver dam, I saw this.

I took several minutes of video as my kayak continued to float aimlessly toward the bank.  "I'll get a cool video of him taking off," I thought to myself.  But he (or she) only continued to watch me with alertness, eventually becoming less concerned.

Eventually it struck me that this heron wasn't going anywhere, short of my saying "Boo!" or throwing a stick at it.  Which I was not about to do.  So I put the camera down, picked up my paddle, and tried to maneuver away as slowly and quietly as possible.  I figured as I started to turn the kayak around, it would finally take flight.  But as I eased around the other side of the bend and was finally able to look back over my shoulder, it was still there.

And you know what was even cooler?  A minute later I saw another one.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Miss Chef’s Notbirthday Present

So there’s this thing Miss Chef’s been talking about getting for two or three years now.  When she first brought it up, we didn’t really have the budget for it.  After I started working a second job, I considered buying her one for her birthday, but it was still a little hefty of a price, and I wasn’t convinced she’d really use it enough to make it worth it.

Well, we can afford it now, but I got a different brilliant idea for her birthday present and already bought that last month.  So I told her she wasn’t getting her desired gift this year, either.

But then our neighbor went and got one, and had to show it off to us.  And use it, practically under our noses.  I guess that was the last straw, because within a few weeks Miss Chef decided she was gonna buy her own damn birthday present!

Did I mention her birthday’s not until August?

Anyway, we were talking about it Monday night, and where we would put it.  Next thing I knew, we had re-arranged the patio furniture, and Miss Chef was saying with a gleam in her eye, “So can we go to Home Depot now?”  (Can you guess what she wanted?  I bet you can!)

We went to Home Depot, then to Lowe’s, then back to Home Depot.  Then home, with a carload!  It wasn’t until Wednesday night that Miss Chef was home to put the dang thing together, and she was disciplined enough to do her homework first, so we didn’t get started until after 8:00.

The grand opening:



There were lots and lots of pieces, from teeny washers and pins to big hunks of heavy metal.  It was on the verge of utter chaos for a while.



Rosie was happy to have us outside with her, but couldn’t even be bothered to supervise properly.


You may notice the picture above is a bit grainy.  That’s because we were rapidly running out of daylight.  While there was minimal confusion and cursing, it was still a lengthy process.  (I bet that propane tank behind Rosie is the final hint, if you still needed one.)



Hey, it’s starting to look like itself.  Notice the prominent placement of the directions.  We are very good about reading them when it’s something this involved.  I’m always amazed that we can do this kind of project without getting ticked off at each other.  It usually works out well, because when Miss Chef gets frustrated or can’t figure something out, I can usually step in and make it work.  And vice versa.

It was at this point that things got down to “the fidgety bits.”  Gas burners, electronic leads, various grates and racks.  And you’ll notice it’s definitely getting dark now.  But we dragged out an electric work lamp and soldiered on.

Finally, about two hours later, we had our first “real” grill!


Rosie: This??  Seriously?  This is why you were ignoring me?  I don’t get it.


What Miss Chef had been talking about for a couple of years actually was getting a smoker.  This, as you may be able to tell, is a grill with both gas and charcoal units.  You can of course use the charcoal side as a smoker, but that box on the ground holds a separate attachable smoking box, so you can do cold smoking, too.  Which Miss Chef is very excited about.  As you can see, there remains a bit more assembly in our future.

As for Rosie and her attitude…she sure got it the next evening…


First grill meal: steak, corn on the cob (that’s a cob zooming through the air at top), grilled zucchini and squash, aluminum-foil potatoes and portabello mushrooms.  Miss Chef wasn’t happy with the lack of grill marks, but that’s ok.  I’ll be happy to let her keep practicing.

Oh, and I almost forgot: s’mores for dessert.  Happy days!