Thursday, October 1, 2015

October at Urban Home Blog

Here are some of our plans for the glorious month of October at Urban Home Blog.
  • Send donations to bat and bee conservancies.
  • Have furnace serviced. Have air conditioners serviced and sealed for the season.
  • Visit Los Angeles Public Library to view To Live and Dine in L.A.
  • Remove Halloween boxes from holiday closet in time to decorate for Halloween.
  • Scan markets / beverage dealers for pumpkin ale releases. Musts: Uinta Punk'n, Buffalo Bill Original, and Weyerbacher Imperial.
  • Meet with financial advisor for quarterly review.
  • Go on photo safari at Hollywood Forever. Leave flowers for Rudolph Valentino and bring apples to leave for the other spirits. Check rookery in case peacock chicks are displaying.
  • Do Halloween decoupage project.
  • Program updated goth music playlists and send links/burn CDs for Halloween presents.
  • Invite friends over to watch American Horror Story: Hotel premiere. Serve curried popcorn, Halloween candy, hot spiced cider, pumpkin ale, and Black Martinis.
  • Have autumn evening dinner at Jar. Bring preserved cherries as gifts for Chef Suzanne Tracht and staff.
  • Set out horror films, cemetery and wildlife documentaries, and Scooby Doo, Addams Family and Munsters box sets for October tv viewing. Have pantry items on hand to make snacks on movie nights.
  • Make and can pumpkin butter and cranberry sauce in anticipation of holiday gift-giving.
  • Keep candy bowl filled.
  • Set out Dumb Supper on the evening of Samhain. Burn candles and incense, and welcome friendly spirits that wish to partake of the offering in remembrance of their time on this side of the veil. 
Reading List: Hallowe'en Party, Agatha Christie; The Complete Fiction, H.P. Lovecraft; Dark Lover, Emily Leider.
October, 2013: Spice Blends, Pumpkin Groceries
October, 2012: Flights of Fright, Crafts Bookstores, Weeknight Dinner
October, 2011: Weeknight Dinner, Urban Bar, Baking, Mold and Mildew
October, 2010: Urban Bar, Sunday Supper, Halloween History, Haunted Houses and Witches
October, 2009: Hot Spiced Cider, From the Vault

Friday, September 25, 2015

Fresh Lettuces with Almonds, Dates and Manchego

Wine country living embodies the aesthetic of living that is about good food and drink, about stewardship of resources from the land to the community, about the fundamentals of hospitality itself. They who take care of others during the busy weekend gather on quieter weeknights for sharing, for relaxation, for camaraderie. Special bottles are uncorked, and special dishes are placed at table.

Wine country cooking reveals its deeper secrets just as surely as does a well-crafted red. This aesthetic of living is about doing so fully and richly, with appreciation and togetherness. Wine country cooking mingles local traditions and ingredients with the inventiveness of new chefs and the goodness of local flavors. Because California has such an abundance of agriculture, the identity of cooking styles becomes very localized. This month we've learned about Santa Maria Tri-Tip, one of the key dishes at the table of California cooking, as are the pinquinto beans that it is traditionally served with. We went on an autumnal wine picnic with a favorite bottle or one just discovered and a container of California chicken salad. For this final column in the transitional month of September, we go beyond the chuck wagon and the vineyard to the true superstars of the California table: fresh produce.

The California drought is an unfortunate staple of the nightly news, because it is a concern for all of us. Whether or not you are citizen of the Golden State, your table is. California is a leading agricultural provider in the USA, providing almost half of the combined agricultural product that winds up at the American Table. California is the top producer of strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, tree nuts, tomatoes, cattle and milk, and, reminding us that humans are not the only species to provide food for, hay. Californian or not, click here to learn about the California drought, including steps to take to conserve or contribute.

As anyone who's made the drive up the Pacific Coast Highway can attest, California is also the nation's leader in the production of lettuces. Only strawberries and grapevines account for more acreage marching up the hillsides from the interzone of rocky beach that buffers the crashing Pacific and the highway that zooms along the most scenic route in the USA.

Accordingly, the final column in this month of wine country living utilizes lettuces to showcase California produce, namely crunchy almonds and sticky-sweet dates. Paper thin slivers of Manchego, a Spanish cheese that is often paired with wine, crown the salad, while a rich vinaigrette of red wine and sherry bathes it. Serve your wine country salad before a main course of Roast Beef with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chicken Stew with Artichokes, or Cider-Braised Chicken. Or put the salad out as part of a wine and cheese board, especially featuring California wine, as all of the flavors represent the Golden State and pair attractively with the wine industry that is important both to the California economy and the world palate.
Fresh Lettuces with Almonds, Dates and Manchego
Most supermarkets with specialty cheese counters will have Manchego, as will any cheese store. Manchego is sold from wheels with a distinctive basket weave pattern, in ages less than one year or one year or older; either age will work for this recipe. Pitted dates should be available in bulk / dried foods area of the supermarket or health food store. A mandoline and a cut-resistant glove are important kitchen tools; click here to order. This recipe serves two.
2 heads fresh lettuces, such as red leaf, arugula, endive, escarole, or Romaine
6 - 8 pitted dates
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 1/3 - 1/2 wedge Manchego
1 small shallot
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 head fresh thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
Coarse grain salt, such as kosher or grey sea
Extra-virgin olive oil
  1. Place two salad plates in the refrigerator.
  2. Position an in-sink colander in place. Gently tear the tender parts of the lettuce from the ribs, core or roots; placing the lettuce leaves in the colander as you go. Figuring two handfuls of greens per serving, tear enough greens for two salads.
  3. Rinse the lettuce leaves under cool water, gently shaking the colander as you rinse to express extra water or soot if any.
  4. Safely use a paring knife to cut away and discard the stem and cap ends of the shallot. Remove the papery outer skin from the shallot.
  5. Cut the shallot lengthways into slices. Cut the slices lengthways to form matchsticks. Cut across the matchsticks to form dice. Transfer the dice to a small bowl. Sprinkle the shallots with a dash of salt.
  6. Measure the red wine vinegar and the sherry into the bowl containing the lightly salted shallot. Swirl the mixture in the bowl and set aside until ready to dress the salad.
  7. Working one at a time, safely use a paring knife to cut each date in half lengthways. Cut each half lengthways to form quarters. Cut across the quarters to form eighths. Add the chopped dates to a small prep bowl or coffee cup as you go.
  8. Fold a kitchen towel in half and place it on the counter. Place a clean cutting board on the towel. Unwrap the Manchego. Use a strong but not sharp knife such as a bread knife to cut away and discard the rind. Try to get just the brown or gray rind but not the cheese paste underneath; however the cheese will be dense and the cuts will not be perfect. You should have a triangular chunk of cheese with two wide flat sides.
  9. Once you have cut away the rind of the cheese, put on the cut-resistant glove. Use your gloved hand to position the triangular top or bottom edge of the cheese against the cutting blade of the mandoline. Use your free hand to safely steady the mandoline, keeping it free of the path of the cutting blade. Position the guide that came with the mandoline over the cheese and gently slide the cheese wedge back and forth over the cutting blade. Paper thin triangular slices of cheese should collect under the mandoline on the cutting board. Stop slicing when the guide gets too close to the cutting blade.
  10. When ready to assemble the salads, give the shallot-vinegar-sherry mixture a stir. Remove the plates from the refrigerator.
  11. Assemble the salads as follows:
  12. Drizzle the plate with a two-count of extra virgin olive oil.
  13. Use a tablespoon to drizzle the plate with a tablespoon of shallot mixture.
  14. Sprinkle several grindings of fresh black pepper on the plate.
  15. Sprinkle a dash of salt on the plate.
  16. Strip a few thyme leaves onto the plate.
  17. Place a few pieces of chopped date on the plate.
  18. Place a few slivered almonds on the plate.
  19. Place a couple of pieces of shaved Manchego on the plate.
  20. Add a light layer of lettuces on the plate.
  21. Sprinkle the lettuces with salt, freshly ground pepper, and few strippings of fresh thyme.
  22. Sprinkle the lettuces with 1/2 tablespoon shallot mixture.
  23. Sprinkle the lettuces with a quick pour of extra virgin olive oil.
  24. Place a few pieces of chopped date, a few slivered almonds, and a couple of slices of shaved Manchego on the lettuces.
  25. Repeat steps 21-24 above until you have used up all of the lettuce.
  26. If you have extras of other ingredients distribute it across the top of the salad but be careful to keep a nice balance of flavors. It is okay if there are dates, almonds, herbs, or shallot mixture left over.
  27. Serve immediately. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

California Chicken Salad

As befits the Autumn Equinox, September in California means wine weekends. The Autumn Equinox, or Mabon, was the harvest of orchard fruit along with perhaps the most sacred of all produce: grapes. In the ancient world, wine was revered for its ability to loosen inhibitions and to alter states of consciousness, which acts were seen as vital to the practice of connecting with the Earth. Drinking, merriment and madness were all associated with the festival atmosphere of Mabon, but the celebration belied deeper truth. In revering the Earth's production of grapes and the sacred gift of wine, those ancients were celebrating the second of the three harvests not just in gratitude, but in rituals of sympathy with the turning of the seasons. Harvest celebrations were acts of stewardship for the Earth as well as appeals against scarcity during the upcoming bleak months of winter.

Harvest is the most significant time of year in wine country. Wineries and tasting rooms are at their peak of production and of visitors. Harvest festivals abound, from Solvang's annual scarecrow festival to Santa Barbara Harvest Weekend. The Harvest tradition of the corn maze becomes a hay maze, often highlit by lattices of grapes. Aside from grapes, many of the farmlands grow pumpkins, which are vended from clapboard shacks along country roads just as strawberries are in the summer. Wineries often introduce their proudest bottlings during Harvest, and everyone -- everyone -- has an opinion on this year's yield.

It is a rite of wine country passage to go on a wine picnic, and there is no lovelier time to do it than a wine country autumn. Many of the wineries provide picnic tables and manicured lawns for opening a bottle just discovered. There is something special about spreading a blanket under a bower of grapevines, upon the welcoming ridge of a green hillside, upon rocky beach sands with the Pacific crashing against the shoreline. It is healing and connective, just as the autumn harvest has always been, has always been meant to be.

Olives, artichoke spread, bread, crackers, cheese and fruit are all available at such local markets as the Los Olivos Grocery and R Country Market in Los Olivos and the El Rancho and Vinhaus in Solvang. Another California supermarket staple that will likely be available for your picnic is California chicken salad. If you immediately thought of the mayonnaisey glop from the office lunch cart, get ready to encounter a regional preparation for as stalwart an item at the American table as there is, that will prejudice you once and for all against all indifferent interpretations and/or executions of it.

California chicken salad highlights west coast crops and flavors, including the crop most central to California living and food: grapes. It embodies the tenets of California cooking of freshness, local produce, lightness of touch and richness of flavor. Wine-poached chicken is pulled into delicate threads, then mixed with distinctively California ingredients for a dish that is flavorful and satisfying. It travels safely if kept cool, so make it ahead of time to serve with picnic crackers or pulls from a fresh loaf of bread, or keep a bowl of it in the fridge for lunch fixes.

At whatever table from picnic to luncheon you serve your chicken salad, its legacy is truest when enjoyed with a glass of good California wine. Try Gainey's spritely Sauvingnon Blanc, Foxen's plush Chenin Blanc, Bridlewood's voluptuous Chardonnay or Melville's satiny Pinot Noir. All will nicely compliment this original recipe for a true Golden State classic: California chicken salad.

California Chicken Salad
Resist the urge to poach the chicken quickly or over high heat; the slow, steady method is the only way to achieve the velvety texture for this dish. Click here for Urban Home Blog's recipe for chicken stock; if using store bought, use low-sodium. This recipe makes enough to serve four to six people.

1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
3/4 pound red seedless grapes
8 ounces pecan halves
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 cup off-dry white wine such as Chardonnay, Viognier, or Pinot Gris
Chicken stock
1 - 1-1/2 cups mayonnaise
1-1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoons table salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the chicken
  1. Look over the chicken breasts and trim and discard any fibrous areas or areas that display discoloration or an off odor.
  2. Place the chicken breasts in a medium sized saucepan with a tight-fitting lid.
  3. Measure the wine into the pan. Add enough chicken stock to cover the chicken breasts by 1/2 inch. Add the bay leaf and the peppercorns to the pan. Swirl the pan around to mix the liquids and the seasoning together.
  4. Cover the pan. Turn the burner to medium-low. Cook the chicken breasts until they are cooked through and the cooking liquid releases its fragrance, typically about 30 minutes. The chicken is cooked through when the tip of a sharp knife safely inserted into the thickest part of the meat meets no resistance.
  5. Once the chicken is cooked through, turn off the heat and remove the pan from the burner. Allow the chicken breasts to cool in the poaching liquid 15 minutes.
  6. Once the chicken breasts are cooled down, remove them from the poaching liquid and place them on a plate lined with a layer of paper towels. Discard the poaching liquid.
  7. Working one chicken breast at a time, place a chicken breast on a clean cutting board reserved for poultry. Use two forks or your hands to tear each chicken breast into bite-sized pieces. Transfer the shredded chicken to a large mixing bowl as you go.
Prepare the remaining ingredients
  1. While the chicken is poaching, remove the grapes from the stems, popping them into a colander as you go. Rinse the grapes and give the colander a shake to express excess water if any.
  2. Use a clean cutting board devoted to fruits and vegetables and a paring knife to cut each grape lengthways into halves, then each half into quarters. Pop the quartered grapes into a large mixing bowl as you go. Once you have quartered all of the grapes, you should have between 1-1/2 to 2 cups. Don't worry if the measure is not exact.
  3. Sprinkle the grapes with the salt and several grindings of fresh black pepper.
  4. Transfer the pecan halves to a nut grinder or mini kitchen prep and pulse until ground but not pulverized. Transfer the ground pecans to the bowl containing the grapes.
  5. Measure the poppy seeds into the bowl containing the pecans and the grapes. Use a silicon spatula to mix the grapes, pecans, and seasonings together.
Make the chicken salad
  1. Use a silicon spatula to transfer the seasoned grape-pecan mixture to the bowl containing the shredded chicken. Use the silicon spatula to mix all of the ingredients together.
  2. Use a measuring scoop and the silicon spatula to add the mayonnaise to the chicken mixture. Measure the cider vinegar into the bowl containing the mixture.
  3. Use the silicon spatula to mix all of the ingredients together. It is okay to add additional mayo/vinegar to the chicken salad to achieve the texture you like; work in increments of 1/2 cup mayonnaise to 1/2 tablespoon cider vinegar.
Serve the chicken salad
  1. Scoop the chicken salad into a serving dish or transport vessel, depending upon when and how you're serving. Serve with wheat crackers, fresh bread, or salad greens.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cowboy Beans

In the previous column I wrote about Santa Maria Tri-Tip, that iconic California dish from the Central Coast. While Santa Maria Barbecue is the emblematic dish of the Central Coast, the cooks there are not one-trick ponies when it comes to cuts of beef. The Los Olives Café is known for its pot roast, which arrives in a bath of herb-scented gravy, heady with wine, lounging on a selection of the day's best local vegetables. Just down the street, ask your server at Sides Hardware and Shoes if the chef is preparing the signature Prime Fillet with Stilton and Port.

The steaks at The Hitching Post are renowned for the flavor and texture that come from being grilled over their famous firepit. Red oak smoke perfumes the air as a bottle of their house Pinot Noir is decanted tableside. A shrimp cocktail in a pewter cup arrives to inaugurate the meal along with that great steakhouse tradition, a celery tray of cut glass, offering cuts of crisp celery, plump radishes, pickled peppers, fresh olives. The accompaniments of choice for your steak are a green salad with Ranch dressing and rice pilaf.
Salsa is a condiment on both the breakfast and dinner tables. Santa Maria salsa is smoky from charring the chiles; soupy from its legacy of being mashed together. Garlic bread circulates as an appetizer to accompany cocktails and the first bottles of Pinot Noir being uncorked. A common side dish is a roasted pepper, fresh off of the grill, hot and mellow at once, self-resurrecting from a blanket of blackened Monterey Jack.
California Central Coast cooking is a legacy of Indian and Mexican tastes and techniques, developed around ranches and vineyards. It can be as fancy as a five-star restaurant or as cozy as dinner at home, but fundamentally it's cowboy cooking, as rustic as the pans rattling on a chuck wagon, as welcoming as the red clay path to a mission. Along with tri-tip, the emblematic dish of the Valley is the traditional side to accompany it: pinquinto beans stewed with tomatoes and chiles. Pinquintos, or Santa Maria Pinks, are very small pink beans native to the Central Coast valleys. While they are a grocery store staple in southern California, pinquintos are available by mail order here and here. Here is my recipe, based on tradition, for Santa Maria cowboy beans -- true legacy cooking indeed.

Cowboy Beans
If you don't have pinquintos, use pinto or red beans. Don't skip the step of plumping the beans; it is the best way to achieve the chewy texture that is an important element of this dish. I like to use a caldero to cook beans; you can obtain one from cookware stores, Latin grocery stores or here.

1 pound dried pinquinto beans
4 slices bacon
2 yellow onions
3 cloves garlic
1 dried pasillo, ancho or New Mexico red chile
1 8-ounce jar or can tomato sauce
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon stone ground mustard
1 tablespoon molasses
1 12-ounce bottle dark beer, such as brown ale, stout or wheat

Plump the beans
  1. Pick over beans to discard any stones or stems. Place beans in a large pot and cover with water by two inches.
  2. Turn the burner to medium-high. Bring the beans to a rolling boil.
  3. Turn off the burner. Cover the beans and allow to sit 1 hour.
Prepare the beans
  1. After 1 hour, drain the plumped beans and return them to the large pot.
  2. Cover the beans with fresh water by two inches. Bring the beans to a rolling boil.
  3. Cover the beans. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, until the water is absorbed and the beans are soft but chewy, 45 minutes - 1-1/2 hour.
  4. Check the beans at the 45 minute mark for texture, and to add more water to the pot if needed. Continue checking the beans every 15-minutes until the beans are soft but chewy, per step 3 above.
  5. Once the beans are cooked, empty into a large colander to drain while you prepare the sauce.
Prepare the sauce
  1. Carefully pour the bottle of beer into a 2-cup measuring cup with a spout.
  2. Tear the dried pepper roughly into bite-sized pieces. Place the pieces along with any seeds or expressed juice into the measuring cup with the beer. Stir to incorporate and set aside.
  3. Place the bean pot on the stove top. Place the bacon into the pot. Turn the burner to medium and fry the bacon until very crisp, approximately 10 minutes.
  4. While the bacon is frying, remove the stem and cap ends from the onions. Peel the onions. Cut the onions in half lengthways to form half-moons. Cut the moons into strips to form crescents. Cut across the crescents to form dice. Scrape the diced onion into a bowl.
  5. Remove the tough outer skin from the garlic cloves. Place each clove on a cutting board. Place the flat side of a bread knife on each clove. Safely hit the flat side of the blade with your fist to smash the garlic clove. Scrape the smashed garlic into the bowl containing the onion.
  6. Once the bacon is fried, turn off the burner. Carefully use tongs to safely remove the bacon from the hot grease in the bean pot. Place the bacon on a plate.
  7. Carefully add the onion-garlic mixture to the hot grease in the pot. Turn the burner to medium. Cook the onion-garlic mixture in the grease until soft and fragrant, approximately 5 minutes.
  8. Measure the brown sugar, mustard, molasses and tomato sauce into the pot. Stir together with the onion mixture.
  9. Carefully pour the pepper-beer mixture into the sauce mixture in the pot. Use a silicon spatula to get all of the pepper-beer mixture into the pot. Stir to incorporate.
Finish and serve
  1. Turn the burner under the bean pot to low.
  2. Give the colander containing the beans a shake to express any excess water.
  3. Place the colander on the rim of the bean pot containing the sauce. Carefully tip the colander so that the beans slide into the sauce.
  4. Mix the beans and the sauce together. There should be enough sauce to coat the beans; if not, add 1/2 cup water. Cover the pot and cook until the beans and sauce are well-incorporated, approximately 10 minutes.
  5. Once the beans are cooked, turn off the burner. Crumble the fried bacon into the beans and stir to incorporate. Serve the beans directly from the bean pot.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Santa Maria Tri-Tip

It's been five years since we first visited the Santa Ynez Valley during that first, fateful trip to southern California. Now the SYV is our second home, our SoCal getaway just as New Yorkers escape to Long Island, the Hudson Valley, the Jersey Shore. The trip itself is soothing. After battling through Hollywood traffic to the 101 freeway, the further north we go, both the traffic and the tension ease.

The drive follows the historic El Camino Real through cinematic vistas that remind us why California has always been a promised land. To the right, green hills roll towards towering mountain ranges crowned with snow and mist, while on the left, the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean extends to the gray film of the horizon. Beaches fan off of the PCH in the seaside county of Ventura. Hippie vans and dune buggies shudder down winding roads to the sand. Surfers crest Pacific waves during daylight; cluster around bonfires at night. The peaks of mission bell towers, bone white in sun glare against the chili red clay of rooftops, punctuate the route through Santa Barbara. The traffic on the highway thins, and before we know it, we're just about the only vehicle there. And that is how we know that we're well on our way to the SYV. 

The Santa Ynez Valley is an area of Santa Barbara county where sea breeze and soft green hills cushion the small towns of Lompoc, Buellton, Solvang, Los Olivos, Los Alamos and Santa Ynez. The placement of its valleys, canyons and flatlands has made the SYV transitional both geographically and culturally, from the Chumash who are the area's native citizens to the mission settlers and visitors along El Camino Real. The larger Santa Maria Valley enrobes the SYV and its AVAs. Like Santa Ynez, Santa Maria was named for the next mission post along the central trail. It is also the namesake, and the locus, of a true California original: Santa Maria barbecue.

Santa Maria barbecue is the hallmark of the Santa Maria Valley just as surely as Pinot Noir is the hallmark of the SYV. Santa Maria barbecue is a legacy from those mission days, when ranches hosted communal feeds for celebration days from community holidays to family milestones. It is a quintessentially Western dish that appears everywhere from fine dining rooms in Napa and Sonoma to backyards in San Bernardino, but its home is Santa Maria.

Santa Maria barbecue refers to both the preparation method and the cooking method of a tri-tip roast that are specific to the Valley. The tri-tip is the pointy bottom end of the sirloin. To prepare the tri-tip, the cut of beef is rubbed with a dry marinade that, like most regional specialties, has as many definitive versions as there are kitchens professional and home in which it is prepared. The dry rub always contains salt, black pepper, garlic, onion and hot pepper. Some of the rub is set aside for a second bath, after the meat has cured, in California olive oil. The roast is then grilled over red oak chips from that local species, most authentically aboard an iron grate that is raised and lowered over the flames. This process is known as barbucating, which locals believe relates to the term barbeque, though whether in parallel or direct lineage no can prove but everyone is ready to discuss. Roadside signs and menus for Santa Maria tri-tip often refer to the dish as barbucated, but that term and barbecue are used interchangeably.
As witness to its rich flavor and intoxicating aroma, the true power of Santa Maria barbecue resides in the gathering of neighbors and travelers while the meal is barbucating. That is one of the great truths of wine country culture. For all that we associate it, rightfully, with marquee restaurants and above-ninety wines, wine country culture is in service to appreciation and to gathering. It is cowboy country after all; the first California winemakers were mavericks. The essence of wine country is shared conversation over a plate of good food and a glass or three of great wine. Maintaining local ways is an expression of civil pride and cultural heritage. It is also a way that members of the community take care of each other.
True to the spirit of California cuisine, Santa Maria barbecue showcases California’s profound agricultural contribution by utilizing local bounty. Santa Maria Tri-Tip is served with salsa made from smoked local chiles and alongside tiny pink local pinquinto beans stewed in a spicy tomato sauce. Santa Maria barbecue highlights California produce from garlic to olives to ranch beef to wine grapes, in a meal that is equal parts cowboy cooking and wine country chic. Most of all, it is one hundred percent California cooking, as emblematic of the Golden State as Cioppino, Sourdough, fish tacos, Cobb salad, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon. Here is my preparation for a true California classic: Santa Maria Tri-Tip, including the recipe for the smoked salsa that accompanies the dish. Serve your Santa Maria Tri-Tip in true wine country style by pairing it with a Central Coast Pinot Noir, such as Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Highliner 2012, Loring Wine Company Gary's Vineyard any year, or Brewer-Clifton St. Rita Hills 2012.
Santa Maria Tri-Tip
Ask your butcher for a meaty tri-tip or triangle beef roast with some fat on one side. Outdoor grilling is the preferred method for preparing Santa Maria Tri-Tip, but I have included an oven version. Click here to order Central Coast red oak chips.
For the roast
1 2-1/2 - 3 lb. tri-tip beef roast
Extra-virgin olive oil
For the rub
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1/2 tablespoon onion powder
1/2 tablespoon nigella (black onion) seeds
1/2 tablespoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon celery salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon hot paprika
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
Make the rub
  1. Thorough mix all of the dry rub ingredients together in a small bowl. 
Prepare the roast
  1. Rinse the roast under cool water. Dry the roast with paper towels.
  2. Inspect the roast. Safely use a butcher's knife to carve away tough silvered areas if any.
  3. Safely use the knife to score the fat layer into a diamond pattern. Be careful not to cut all the way through the fat to the meat.
  4. Unroll a clean piece of waxed paper large enough to accommodate the roast along the countertop.
  5. Pour half of the dry rub down the center of the wax paper. Use your fingers to spread the dry rub across the surface of the paper.
  6. Gently place the roast on the dry rub, fat side up. Gently roll the roast back and forth on the waxed paper to coat the roast with all of the dry rub.
  7. Cover the roast with a clean kitchen towel. Set the roast aside to rest for 20 minutes.
  8. Mix the remainder of the spice rub with enough extra virgin olive oil to form a thick but spreadable paste. 
Soak the wood chips
  1. Measure 2 cups of wood chips into a bowl if using an outdoor grill; 1 cup if using the oven. Cover the wood chips with clean water and weight the chips with a ceramic plate. Soak the chips 20 - 30 minutes. 
For the outdoor grill
  1. Safely prepare a charcoal or gas grill for medium-high heat.
  2. While the grill is heating, drain the wood chips.
  3. When the grill thermometer reaches 400 degrees, safely add the soaked, drained wood chips to the grill.
  4. Brush the grate or a grilling pan with extra virgin olive oil.
  5. Carefully place the dry-rubbed roast onto the grilling surface, fat side up.
  6. Dome the grill and grill the roast for 10 minutes.
  7. After 10 minutes, carefully open/remove the dome and check the roast. The grill-side of the roast should be nicely charred. Carefully turn the roast over so that the fat side is on the grate. Generously brush the roast with the dry rub-olive oil mixture.
  8. Grill the roast for 10 minutes, watching for flare-ups.
  9. Continue flipping, brushing and grilling the roast at 10 minute intervals, doming the grill as able to safely capture the red oak smoke, until the internal temperature of the thickest end of the roast reaches a minimum of 140 degrees, approximately 35 minutes.
  10. Once the roast is cooked through, transfer the roast to a cutting board. Tent the roast with foil and allow the roast to rest 15 minutes. 
For the oven
  1. Position an oven rack in the bottom third of the oven and heat the oven to 450 degrees.
  2. While the grill is heating, drain the wood chips of all but 1/2 cup water.
  3. Pour the wood chips into a large roasting pan and arrange them in a single layer. Carefully add the 1/2 cup soaking water to the pan.
  4. Position a meat rack over the chips. Brush the meat rack with extra virgin olive oil.
  5. Place a sauté pan large enough to hold the roast on the stovetop. Drizzle the pan with a four count of extra virgin olive oil. Turn the burner to medium-high.
  6. Once the oil is shimmering, carefully place the roast fat side up into the pan. Sear the roast on the non-fatty side until nicely charred and very fragrant, approximately 4 minutes.
  7. Turn off the burner and safely remove the pan from the fire.
  8. Carefully transfer the seared roast to the meat rack, fat side up.
  9. Carefully use a silicon spatula to drizzle the roast with the searing oil from the sauté pan.
  10. Cover the roasting pan and place in oven.
  11. Roast for 15 minutes.
  12. After 15 minutes, carefully remove the cover from the roasting pan and check the roast. The seared side of the roast should be nicely charred. Carefully turn the roast over so that the fat side is on the meat rack. Generously brush the roast with some of the dry rub-olive oil mixture.
  13. Cover the pan and continue roasting for 15 minutes.
  14. Continue flipping, brushing and roasting the roast at 15 minute intervals, until the internal temperature of the thickest end of the roast reaches a minimum of 140 degrees, approximately 45 minutes.
  15. Once the roast is cooked through, transfer the roast to a cutting board. Tent the roast with foil and allow the roast to rest 15 minutes.
Carve the roast
  1. Once the roast has settled for a minimum of 15 minutes, use a meat fork and butcher's knife to carve the roast across the grain into thick slices. Serve the roast with Smoked Salsa, Tabasco Sauce and Worcestershire Sauce for the table. 
Smoked Salsa
If you don't have gas burners, char the peppers with a kitchen torch or over the fire of an outdoor grill.
3 ripe tomatoes
1 bunch Texas onions or scallions
2 ribs celery
1 bunch cilantro
2 medium poblano chiles
4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Black pepper
Cayenne pepper  
  1. Rinse the cilantro under cool water and set aside on paper towels to dry.
  2. Place a drop of food safe vegetable cleaner in your hands. Gently wash the tomatoes and peppers with vegetable cleaner and set aside on paper towels to dry.
  3. Mince the onions and celery to equal 1/2 cup of each. Transfer the onions and celery into a large mixing bowl.
  4. Sprinkle the onions and celery with the dried oregano and one pinch each salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.
  5. Safely use a sharp knife to remove the stem from each tomato. Roughly chop the tomatoes into chunks.
  6. Transfer the tomatoes to the bowl of a blender or mini kitchen prep.
  7. Chop off just the leafy ends of the cilantro about halfway down from top of the bunch. Transfer the cilantro eaves to the bowl of the the blender / mini kitchen prep.
  8. Measure the red wine vinegar into the bowl of the blender / mini kitchen prep.
  9. Pulse the tomato-cilantro mixture just until the tomatoes are broken down and no large fragments of tomato skin remain.
  10. Transfer the tomato-cilantro mixture to the onion-celery mixture. Sprinkle the tomatoes with one pinch each salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper.
  11. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
  12. Put on a pair of food safe rubber or latex gloves. Safely use a paring knife to remove the cap end of each poblano chile.
  13. Working one at a time, spear each chile with a metal skewer or fork. Turn a burner to medium high and hold the chile over the flame. Turn the pepper frequently until the outside skin of the chile chars and the flesh of the chile softens. Repeat with the remaining pepper.
  14. Place the charred chiles into a bowl. Use a fork or potato masher to mash the chiles into a pulp.
  15. Transfer the pulped chiles and their juices to the salsa mixture. Sprinkle the chiles with a pince of salt. Recover the bowl with the plastic wrap and allow to sit until time to serve.
  16. Stir the salsa together just before serving. The salsa should be slightly soupy and very fragrant.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Urban Bar: Old Hickory

I turned fifty, quietly and profoundly, in a hotel bar in Solvang, California. It had been a day of special uncorkings in enviable wine cellars, of strolls through cinematic vineyards, of a legendary thick steak at The Hitching Post with no limit on glasses of their exemplary house-bottled Pinot Noir, of a slab of chocolate birthday cake with a candle in it. There had been the usual well-wishes from family and friends. Most of them arrived via social media, which certainly made me feel beloved. But other than my husband, no one remembered that it was a milestone birthday. No one even asked.

Spending the weekend in the Santa Ynez Valley had been my choice even though my birthday is in the dead of winter and John offered to use the timing and the milestone as justification for us to loll around a sunny resort in Hawaii or Mexico or Las Vegas. I write this at the declination of a SoCal summer of golden sunshine and sunburn heat, but winter days are gray and contemplative in Santa Barbara county, and contemplative, if not yet gray, was exactly how I felt last January.

Milestone birthdays are curious mileage markers along the highway of life. For the lucky, childhood birthdays are marked by parties along the way, by paper hats and silly games, by party favors and candles and cake. Milestones are celebrated at the first, the Quinceañera, the sweet sixteenth. Milestone Eighteen is recognized with a voter's card or a draft card, with the first semester away from home or the first full-time job. At twenty-one we can drink (legally); by thirty we have debt. Somewhere in the twenties and thirties, life settles upon us, sometimes with watershed moments, but mostly creeping in as softly as fog. Adulthood is a situation that one day we wake up in.

Thirty is younger than it feels when it happens. Forty is the first true milestone of maturing adulthood. At least it was for me. When I turned forty, I was living in New York City at the top of my game. I had a wonderful mate and we had navigated, survived and could give names to problems that less experienced couples didn't even know existed. I was flourishing in a career at Fortune 500 corporation. I, a kid who grew up in a dusty small town where the Great Depression was still a recent memory, whose first days in the big city were so hardscrabble that I sewed costumes for cash, worked in a skyscraper! Great friends surrounded me in relationships that are still among the most important of my life. I even had a writing career that nicely integrated all of the elements of the good life that I had been blessed with, but also had worked for.

At fifty, it is uncertain if you're old but it is a certainty that you're getting older. No one really knows what to do or how to behave, so either they wait for cues from you or they do nothing at all. What birthday cards arrive make crude jokes about balding pates and bulging waistbands. Party favors feature sickles and tombstones. It all speaks to the uncertainty and weirdness of this particular milestone, not the least of which is how your loved ones try to approach the topic or, just as likely, dodge approaching it at all. Many people turning fifty report depression, but none of my family or friends, including those who work as depression advocates, some of them publicly, even checked in with me.

At fifty, we assess where we are, for what we are used to thinking of as the future has manifested, inexplicably, into the now. Often that now is a future we did not envision, which may concurrently be the future we did envision but did not come to pass. The landscape has changed, possibly considerably, hopefully for the better or at least not for the worse. The course of a decade seems like a long time and a long time ago simultaneously. As I sat in that lounge, waiting for John to come back from the bar with refills, the quietude of the winter night and the amber warmth of the flickering fire worked their magic. I realized that, for me, the shock of turning fifty was not that time had passed so quickly as people usually seem to feel, but that so much of it had passed.

During the decade just passed, life and death had become tangible. I had weathered the loss of key people and situations from my life. I had been an ally for my husband as he nursed a parent through a fatal disease. I had survived cancer and, at press time, was still surviving it. I had advanced in both my corporate and writing careers, and through them I had been the breadwinner when my husband went back to school during his own forties. And just as I had been supported by loved ones through my successes and my stumbles, my advances and my retreats, so had I done for them through theirs.

Most significantly, I had navigated a colossal change that I would not, could not ever have guessed would come to pass. John and I had toughed through a year of living apart bicoastally, and that led to the previously unthinkable act of leaving New York City. After twenty-five years as card-carrying New Yorkers, we relocated to Los Angeles. Relocating was a herculean effort in every way from packing up and transporting a household to fathoming that it was really happening, but it was the right decision. It pains me to write it, but New York had changed so significantly during those twenty-five years that the city I loved no longer existed when I left. Excluding lifelong friends, whom I miss every day, when I left, all that I was leaving was a zip code.

Perhaps that is why I wanted to go to Solvang for my fiftieth birthday, even over New York City, which was another option John had offered. I belong in southern California. I am as much a Los Angelino as a palm tree or a taco stand. I play tennis and have blond streaks and socialize on patios. DTLA and Century City provide all of the skyline I need. We have a car! In it, we make our circuits in West Hollywood and Los Feliz and Burbank and Studio City and Glendale. And, when schedules allow, we drive up to the Santa Ynez Valley.

It was appropriate for me to cap my fiftieth birthday in a firelit lounge in Solvang with just my husband and good bourbon for company. While wine country lounges feature de rigeur pours of local wines, they also serve good honest drink. And what I was honestly drinking, on this evening of red oak smoke and the sediment of memory, was an Old Hickory.

The Old Hickory is one of those cocktails that definitive recipes exist for but that bartenders seize upon to craft their signature. The Old Hickory is named after President Andrew Jackson, whose endurance and rough and tumble style earned him the nickname Old Hickory. It is a classic New Orleans cocktail mixed in honor of old Ol' Hickry himself, as it was rumored to be his drink of choice when he was a general during the Battle of New Orleans. The story is unsubstantiated, but the drink is a blend of sweet and dry vermouths cut with bitters and crowned with a lemon peel.

Those classic Old Hickories are still mixed, but as it has matured, the Old Hickory has taken its past self as inspiration for an evolution in its identity. Today's Old Hickory mixes top shelf bourbon with French vermouth in a spin of a classic Manhattan. The hickory comes from smoky bitters, which perfume the drink with the wise old smoke of campfire and cigars.

My fifth decade settled upon me as I sipped an Old Hickory. Though the local wood is red oak, hickory led me through my own history to a fireside in California wine country. Hickory is a sturdy, convoluted hardwood. Its strength sustains everything from sporting equipment to airplanes. Its sweet, pungent smoke is as important to barbecue as is the red oak of the Central Coast. Hickory burns beautifully, but don't throw it into the fire just yet. Old hickories accumulate the past with each new ring of growth, but they build upon it with each new tangle of branches. A healthy tree is always maturing. Old hickories abide, and they endure.

Old Hickory
Old Hickory 1 is the classic New Orleans cocktail. Old Hickory 2 is the contemporary version. I serve Old Hickories over a large block ice cube; click here to learn about large block ice trays.

Old Hickory 1
1 shot top shelf dry vermouth, such as Dolin or Vya
1 shot top shelf sweet vermouth, such a Dolin or Vya
Orange Bitters
Peychaud's Bitters
1 lemon 
  1. Place a drop of fruit and vegetable cleanser in your palm. Rub the lemon with the cleaner and rinse the lemon under cool water until the skin feels clean.
  2. Safely use a peeler or citrus knife to excise a pieces of lemon peel approximately 1 inch in length. Try just to get the lemon peel and none of the bitter white pith underneath.
  3. Place a large block ice cube into a double old-fashioned glass.
  4. Place three ice cubes into a bar glass.
  5. Shake one drop each of orange and Peychaud's bitters over the ice.
  6. Measure the vermouths into the bar glass.
  7. Use a bar spoon to stir the cocktail (no shaking) until the cocktail releases its fragrance and the walls of the bar glass become too cold to touch.
  8. Use a bar strainer to gently pour the cocktail over the large ice cube in the cocktail glass.
  9. Hold the lemon peel over the glass. Gently twist the lemon peel into a spiral, and drop the lemon twist on top of the drink.
  10. Serve immediately.
Old Hickory 2
1 double-shot shot top shelf bourbon, such as Knob Creek, Maker's Mark, or Woodford Reserve
1 shot top shelf sweet vermouth, such a Dolin or Vya
Smoky bitters, such as Fee Brothers Black Walnut or Old Men Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Preserved Cherries
  1. Place a large block ice cube into a double old-fashioned glass.
  2. Place three ice cubes into a bar glass.
  3. Shake three drops bitters over the ice.
  4. Measure the bourbon and the vermouth into the glass .
  5. Use a bar spoon to stir the cocktail (no shaking) until the cocktail releases its fragrance and the walls of the bar glass become too cold to touch.
  6. Use a bar strainer to gently pour the cocktail over the large ice cube in the cocktail glass.
  7. Top the drink with a preserved cherry.
  8. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

September at Urban Home Blog

Here are some of our plans for the transitional month of September at Urban Home Blog.
  • Go through baking pantry to be sure pantry goods and bakeware are up to date for fall baking.
  • Attend Los Angeles County Fair. My favorite: the domestic arts pavilion. John's: the livestock pens. Check with the state beemaster regarding update on bee health and safety. Have annual fairground ice cream cone from the onsite creamery.
  • Teach papercrafting classes in Studio City and Glendale.
  • Write / send September birthday / anniversary cards and gifts.
  • Play tennis twice a week.
  • Make first carbonnade or boeuf bourguignon of the season.
  • Make and can apple pie filling in anticipation of holiday gift-giving. Invite neighbors over for apple pie and coffee.
  • Change closets from spring/summer to fall/winter. Set aside mending, dry cleaning, and jewelry repair. Donate usable goods, including bedding.
  • Wash and disinfect bed pillows, pillow covers, comforters, and quilts.
  • Disinfect and flip mattress.
  • Celebrate Mabon by stringing grapevine garlands and serving cedar-planked salmon with a special bottle of wine. Make offering of first pour of wine to laurel tree, and say prayer of thanks to plants and animals.
  • Make wine- and restaurant memory pages.
  • Send notes/emails to friends and colleagues in Central Coast wine country in celebration of harvest.
  • Assess wine inventory and reserve futures of promising releases.
  • Start watching markets for pumpkin groceries.
  • Start watching box- and craft stores for fall, Halloween and Thanksgiving craft supplies and decor.
Reading List: Principles of Home Decoration, Candace Wheeler (thanks to Chocophile George for the present); The Sea is My Brother, Jack Kerouac; Murder by Mocha, Cleo Coyle.

September, 2013: Setting up the Pantry
September, 2012: Decorating, Harvest Home, Canning, Cooking for One
September, 2011: Decorating, Labor Day, Canning, Roasting
September, 2010: Decorating, Herbs and Spices, Baking, Weeknight Dinner
September, 2009: Decorating, Weeknight Dinner