Monday, February 1, 2016

February at Urban Home Blog

Here are some of our plans for the emergent month of February at Urban Home Blog.
Reading List: Vermouth, Adam Ford; Hollywood Costume, Deborah Nadoolman Landis; West of Sunset, Stuart O'Nan.

February, 2013: From the Vault, Candlemas
February, 2011: Weeknight Dinner, Side Dish, Dessert, Urban Bar, From the Vault
February, 2010: Side Dish, Dessert, Homekeeper's Library

Friday, January 15, 2016

Roasted Chicken with Onion Gravy

Winter mornings in Southern California are soft and cool. Often a cloud cover rolls in, as gray as dove's wings. It surprises some to learn that Angelinos are early risers, but desk jobs from movie studios to business firms start as early as six a.m. During that commute, numerous other early birds are to be seen: joggers and gym bunnies wearing fleece, dog walkers yawning as their charges surge forward, baristas in brown aprons dispensing coffee from streetside windows.

The busy pace of the week goes far to explain the leisurely pace of off-hours living. Though LA is known for its busy nightlife, a night on the town is an occasional indulgence, truly a special occasion. For every Saturday of movie dates or mall walks, there are many more of keeping it local. Neighborhoods, known in LA parlance as pockets, are incredibly important, because we spend more time within our own enclave than we ever thought we would when we moved out here. That is one of the reasons zip code is so important!

Sometimes, staying local means not leaving the home at all. Aside from the sacred details of everyday living such as groceries, laundry, cleaning, there is much to recommend busy days at home. Sometimes it's a necessity, for as we were reminded within the last weeks, it takes a day or two to take down and store the holiday decorations, set up the home office, change the linens, and otherwise recalibrate for a new year after winter holiday hustle and bustle sent the old one out in style.

I firmly believe that busy days at home deserve equal respect as the job of the work week. Many of us cap off a day of hibernation by preparing a special dinner at home. Stew is a favorite, prepared with attention to quality and gently asimmer on the stovetop, harkening to the hearth that was the core of our ancestors' homes and is the core of our instinct to keep home. Every family has its own special dinners at home, from Sunday pot roast to grandma's goulash, from a mess of barbeque to a pot of Cassoulet, from spaghetti and meatballs to steaks on the grill. Special dinners at home provide the gift of anticipation, of something special to look forward to, of something comforting and celebratory at once.

In our urban home, we have marked such days with everything from lasagna to chocolate cake, but the dish we always look forward to is roasted chicken. Snicker if you want at the idea of good ol' chicken being a special dish, but before the advent of mass husbandry, chicken was much less common at the American table than it is today. That is the sentiment behind Herbert Hoover's famous campaign slogan "a chicken in every pot." That roasted chicken was indeed an event of a meal, borne on a platter of braised vegetables and herbs, carved tableside with as much reverence as the Thanksgiving turkey. Plates were filled with slices of light and dark meat, with a generous serving of those fragrant, flavorful vegetables. Baskets of warm rolls, topped with a golden gloss of sweet butter, were passed along with a boat of thin, flavorful gravy.

As we dig in over busy weekends at home, here is my recipe for roasted chicken. It cooks slow and steady, perfuming the air with savory steam that will have mouths watering by the time dinner is served. Pair roasted chicken with a well-rounded white wine such as Bridlewood's exemplary Chardonnay or Conundrum's juicy white blend. The vegetables will make a hearty enough side dish, but if you want, also serve wild rice with currants and ramps or cream cheese and chive biscuits. And don't forget dessert - try spice cake, banana pudding, or a plate of home-bakedcookies.

Roasted Chicken with Onion Gravy
Roasting chickens are labeled either as roasters or as broilers. Whenever possible, use humanely raised and harvested chickens, preferably free-range and grain fed. If these are not easily available at the supermarket, they should be available at a butcher shop. This recipe makes enough for two with leftovers; if you use a larger bird, adjust the cooking time, the amount of vegetables, and the size of the baking pan accordingly.

For the chicken
1 six to eight pound roasting chicken
2 lemons
1 large Spanish onion
4 medium cloves garlic, peeled
Several sprigs of fresh thyme, oregano, or a mixture of the two
1 small sprig fresh rosemary
Dry vermouth
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

For the braised vegetables
2 - 3 carrots
2 ribs celery
1 parsnip
4 - 6 baby potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, Red Bliss or a mix
1 leek
2 - 3 sprigs fresh thyme
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

For the gravy
1/4 cup chicken stock, plus extra if needed
1 tablespoon cake flour
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Dried parsley

Preheat the oven
  1. Position the oven rack onto the bottom third of the oven.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Prepare and roast the chicken
  1. Unwrap the chicken while holding it over the sink, legs downward and supporting the bottom.
  2. Remove and discard giblets and neck if any and either compost or freeze them for another usage. If the inside of the cavity where the giblets were stored is noticeably bloody, lightly rinse the cavity with cool water.
  3. Still holding the chicken over the sink, pat the chicken dry with paper towels.
  4. Sprinkle the outside and inside of the chicken liberally with approximately 1 tablespoon kosher salt.
  5. Transfer the chicken to a clean cutting board reserved for poultry. Cover the chicken lightly with paper towels and allow to set 1/2 hour on the board.
  6. Meanwhile, peel the onion and slice it into circles. Wash the lemons with food-safe vegetable cleanser and rinse them until they feel clean. Slice one lemon into thin wheels. Discard the blossom and root ends of the sliced lemon.
  7. Butter the interior of the roasting pan. Place the roasting pan on a rimmed baking sheet.
  8. Place the onions in rows along the bottom of the pan, overlapping if necessary, until you have used the entire onion and covered the bottom of the pan.
  9. Place the lemon wheels on top of the onions, working along the sides first and then filling up the middle with extra lemon wheels if any.
  10. After 1/2 hour, gently blot away the moisture that should have risen to the skin surface of the chicken, as well as the salt crystals. There is no need to blot the interior cavity.
  11. Gently transfer the chicken to the roasting pan, breast up, settling the chicken nicely on the bed of onions and lemons. Tuck the tips of the wings under the back of the bird.
  12. Cut the remaining lemon into wedges. Place the lemon wedges, the garlic cloves, and the thyme/oregano into the cavity of the chicken.
  13. Cut a piece of kitchen twine about the length of your forearm. Tie one end of the twine to the lower end of one of the chicken's drumsticks, where the bone sticks out. Use the twine to bring the two lower ends of the drumstick together. Wind the twine around the untied drumstick so that the two drumsticks stay in place. Wind the twine around the flap of skin over the cavity so that the drumsticks and that flap are all nicely pulled together. Tie up the twine and cut away and discard any excess.
  14. Pour a five count of extra virgin olive oil on the highest part of the chicken's breast bone. Use a silicon brush to brush the entire exposed surface of the bird with olive oil, adding additional olive if needed.
  15. Sprinkle the entire exposed surface of the bird with a light dusting of kosher salt and several grindings of fresh black pepper.
  16. Position the vermouth bottle at the lip of the baking dish so that the spout pours into the dish but doesn't splash the bird. Gently pour enough vermouth into the baking dish to cover the onion-lemon mixture by about 1/4 inch.
  17. Cover the dish (see below if you need to improvise a cover) and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Place the baking sheet containing the covered dish on the low rack in the oven.
  18. Bake the chicken, undisturbed, for 20 minutes per pound, typically two hours for a six-pound broiler.
  19. Using the timetable in step 18 above, subtract fifteen minutes from the calculated total cooking time. At that point, safely check the bird by safely lifting a corner of the lid or cover and inserting a meat thermometer into the meat part of the thigh, being careful not to touch the thermometer to bone. The thermometer should register 160 degrees F or higher. If not, recover and test again in ten minutes or until the bird reaches that internal temperature when tested.
  20. Once the bird reaches 160 degrees F or higher, safely remove the lid or cover from the pan. Continue roasting the bird until the skin is crispy and golden brown and the internal temperature of the bird reaches 165 degrees F or higher when tested.
  21. Turn the oven off and let the bird sit in the oven for five minutes
  22. After the chicken has rested in the oven for five minutes, safely remove the baking sheet containing the roasting pan from the oven. Place the baking sheet safely out of reach on a heatproof surface while it cools down.
  23. Once the pan and bird are cool enough to work with, gently use poultry lifters to transfer the roasted chicken to a meat carving board to rest. Proceed with using the pan juices to make the gravy per below.
Prepare and braise the vegetables
  1. Position an in-sink colander into place. Place a vegetable peeler, a sharp kitchen knife, and a cutting board reserved for vegetables within reach of the colander.
  2. Remove the stem and blossom ends of the carrots. Peel the carrots and parsnip. Safely use the knife to cut the carrots and parsnip into bite-sized pieces. Transfer the peeled, cut carrots and parsnip to the colander.
  3. Remove the calloused bottoms and any bruised or discolored tops from the celery. Cut the celery into bite-sized pieces. Transfer the cut celery to the colander.
  4. Rinse the vegetables in the colander under cool water. Allow to drain while preparing the potatoes.
  5. Fill a medium bowl 1/2 with cool water. Add a teaspoon of salt to the water and gently agitate the bowl so that the salt mixes with the water.
  6. Remove and discard flowering eyes or discolorations from the potatoes. Cut the potatoes into bite-sized pieces, dropping the cut potatoes into the salt water s you go.
  7. Remove the root end from the leek. Remove the tough green top leaves from the leek just at the point on the vegetable where the dark green leaves begin to lighten to pale green. Inspect the leek. If it is noticeably gritty, cut the leek into coins and soak the coins in a bowl of water, planning to change out the water once to get rid of all of the grit. If the leek is not noticeably gritty, cut the leek into coins and leave on the cutting board for the moment.
  8. Place a large saute pan on the stovetop and turn the burner to medium-high. Drizzle the pan with a five count of olive oil. The bottom of the pan should be coated with a nice film of oil.
  9. Once the oil starts to shimmer, gently transfer the carrots, celery and parsnip to the pan. Sprinkle the vegetables with salt. Gently stir the vegetables. Cover the pan halfway and sweat the vegetables, stirring often, until they begin to soften, approximately five minutes.
  10. Meanwhile, add the leeks to the colander and rinse the leeks very well under cool water. Empty the bowl containing the salted potatoes into the colander with the leeks. Agitate the colander to express as much water as possible. If necessary, rinse and agitate again to make sure that the potatoes and leeks are clean.
  11. After the vegetable mixture in the pan has sweated for five minutes, remove the pan from the burner. Gently add the leeks, potatoes, a sprinkling of salt, and several grindings of fresh black pepper to the pan. Add a three-count of olive oil to the pan, and strip the thyme sprigs over the mixture. Stir the vegetable mixture together.
  12. Return the pan to the burner. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to low.
  13. Braise the vegetables, covered, until very soft and fragrant, approximately 45 minutes.
  14. Check the vegetables occasionally as they braise, stirring them and adding more olive oil to the pan if the pan runs dry.
  15. Once the vegetables are cooked, turn the burner off and keep the pan warm by placing it on the back of the stovetop until time to serve.
Make the gravy
  1. Place the butter into a small saucepan. Melt the butter over low heat.
  2. Once the butter is melted, add the flour to the pan. Whisk the flour and butter together to form a roux, a thick paste that should smell buttery and slightly toasty.
  3. Position a large metal sieve over the saucepan. Working very carefully, use potholders to lift the baking pan off of the baking sheet. Tilt the corner of the baking pan over the sieve so that the roasting juices that have collected in the pan slowly drain into the sieve. Safely use a silicon spatula to scrape the roasted onions and lemons into the sieve along with any of the juices that remained in the roasting pan. Return the roasting pan to the baking sheet.
  4. Use the silicon spatula to press the onions and lemons against the sieve so that all of the roasting juices drain into the saucepan. Set the sieve and any aromatics remaining in it aside.
  5. Use the whisk to incorporate the pan juices with the roux by stirring gently but constantly over low heat. Within a few minutes, a thin gravy should form. Add the chicken stock to the gravy once the mixture has thickened. Cover the saucepan and turn the burner off.
Serve the meal
  1. Use tongs or a carving set to carve the chicken. Place the breast meat, drumsticks, and thighs in the center of a serving platter, doing your best to preserve the crispy skin.
  2. Gently spoon the braised vegetables around the chicken on the platter.
  3. Give the gravy a final whisk, adding a dash of chicken stock if it has gotten too thick. Transfer the gravy to a gravy boat or other serving vessel.
  4. Lightly sprinkle the chicken, vegetables and gravy with dried parsley.
  5. Pass the platter and gravy at the table, with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Note
To improvise a roasting cover, pull one or two generous-sized sheets of aluminum foil (depending on the size of the pan and its contents). If two sheets, match the two sides, shiny side out, like you are matching panels of fabric. Fold the sheets over and then fold over again to form a seam. Spray the shiny side of the foil with non-stick cooking spray. When the dish is ready to go into the oven, gently center the foil over the dish, shiny side down. Crimp the edges of the foil to the edge of the baking dish. It won't fit exactly which is okay, as that will allow some of the steam to escape, which is necessary for safety reasons.

Equipment
Medium metal roasting pan or ceramic baker, ovenproof to 400 degrees

Friday, January 1, 2016

January at Urban Home Blog

Here are some of our plans for the renewing month of January at Urban Home Blog.
  • Celebrate New Year's Eve at The Dresden Room.
  • Watch Bob Eubanks' and Stephanie Edwards' final broadcast of The Rose Parade.
  • Re-store holiday decor in large snap-top plastic tubs dedicated to the purpose. Wrap lights for storage, discarding any that are burned out or otherwise compromised. Keep list of each storage box's contents in home holiday file, including noting new items obtained during 2015 holiday season.
  • Order pizza from the Palermo or the Delancey for holiday decor take-down day.
  • Go through December's holiday cards and compare to sent list, saving special messages or images for memory keeping and clipping addresses as needed. Create preliminary 2016 holiday card list to place in December well of greeting card pocket file.
  • Make Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's memory pages.
  • Schedule annual medical and dental appointments and car maintenance appointments for the year.
  • Plan workout regimen for 2016, including goals and plan session with a trainer to include yoga, tennis, ballet and utilizing new Fitbit.
  • Enter appointments, deadlines and seasonal events onto electronic and paper calendars.
  • Prepare for 2015 taxes by gathering all relevant receipts and records (including printouts from online records) into a snap-top plastic filing box that will be dedicated to the purpose both for doing the taxes and storing the records afterwards.
  • Set up 2016 tax folders to file receipts and records as they are incurred.
  • Print out and update contacts lists.
  • Set up greeting card pocket file with 12 months worth of birthday, anniversary and other special occasion cards filed in monthly pockets, with extra birthday, get well, and blank cards in the front.
  • Inventory household linens, including bed, bath, kitchen and dining, in anticipation of January white sales. Repurpose as able, including donating usable goods to human services organizations or animal shelters.
  • Deep clean quilts and comforters. Replace bed pillows; wash and thoroughly dry them before using them.
  • Make sachets for linen and coat closets and for storage bags.
  • Place birthday coffee order with Black Coffee Roasting Company. Favorites: Vinyl, Red Room.
  • Spend birthday in Solvang. Make birthday dinner reservation at The Hitching Post. Musts: Sides Hardware and Shoes, Succulent, Mandarin Touch, Solvang Toyland, Solvang Restaurant, VinHaus, Loring Tasting Room, and a leisurely drive up the Foxen wine trail.
  • Make a Saturday run to Burbank to visit John's hobby shop, Dark Delicacies, and scout Ikea for any new or replacement household items.
  • Be positioned squarely in front of television when The X Files returns for a limited run beginning January 24.
Reading List: Basic Training, Jon Giswold and David Morgan, The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac

January, 2014: Grandma's Kitchen, Homekeeper's Bookshelf, Urban Bar
January, 2013: Birthdays, Home Electronics, Winter Gardens, Urban Bar
January, 2012: Urban Bar, American Table, Cooking for One, New Year
January, 2011: Weeknight Dinner, Field Trip, Birthdays, Home Movies
January, 2010: Weeknight Dinner, Homekeeper's Library, New Year

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Weeknight Dinner: Pasta Puttanesca

How busy the winter holidays are for those who celebrate them! Holiday warriors glitter their own greeting cards, bake gingerbread, pomander oranges, force amaryllis and narcissus, sew stockings in anticipation of filling them. As busy as the holidays can get, nothing is as nice as turning on the holiday lights and drawing unto ourselves for an evening. Yes, there are parcels to pack, cards to address, clothes to press for holiday parties, but we won't have the energy to enjoy the holidays, let alone keep sacred their deeper meaning, if we don't set aside time to replenish our spirits.

This month's weeknight dinner is meant for just that purpose. Pasta is the go-to for a simple dinner during a quiet evening at home. We mix pasta with roasted peppers and sausage for a hearty main course. We toss pasta with asparagus and leeks or chicken and mushrooms for soul-nourishing meals for one. We bake pasta under a blanket of cheese for a special occasion -- in the case of baked rigaboni, make that a shroud of cheese. As noted when we set up the home pantry, we keep a jar of dried pasta odds and ends to cook in chicken stock and toss with Parmesan for a simple lunch.

December's pasta dinner is as simple as December's to-do list is lengthy: pasta puttanesca. Puttanesca is easy to assemble from pantry ingredients: dried pasta, canned tomatoes, onions, capers, olives, and anchovies. Puttanesca originated as cheap food for hungry citizens of the street, which perhaps accounts for why it is so satisfying. My version is a little more robust than usual by amping up the volume on the Mediterranean seaside flavors of anchovies, olives and onions. I mix my puttanesca into a big bowl of penne, but it would be satisfying served with farfalle, spaghetti, or a whole wheat pasta. Serve your puttanesca with a lively arugula salad or classic insalata mista. Pair it with one of the spritely reds, such as the Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, discussed in the previous column.

Pasta Puttanesca
All of these ingredients are staples in our urban pantry; for the full list, click here. Use large capers if you can obtain them; they have a more robust flavor. Most supermarkets have salad- or olive bars that stock oil-cured olives; get the pitted kind if they're available. This recipe serves four, or two with leftovers. If you have extra pasta without sauce, make pasta salad.

1 small white onion
4 medium cloves garlic
1 small tin or jar anchovies
1 3-ounce jar capers
8 ounces oil-cured black olives
1 28-ounce can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1/2 cup dry red wine
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 box dried pasta, such as penne, farfalle, or spaghetti
Grated fresh Parmesan, for serving

Make the Sauce
  1. If the olives aren't pitted, gently pinch through each olive to remove and discard the pit. Roughly chop pitted olives to equal approximately 3/4 cup.
  2. Peel the onion and remove the root and stem ends. Place the onion on a clean cutting board reserved for vegetables. Halve the onion from root to stem; halve each half. Cut each quarter into thin crescents. Cut across the crescents to form dice. Measure 3/4 cup diced onion into a large mixing bowl.
  3. Place a large sauté pan on the stove top and drizzle the pan with an eight-count of extra virgin olive oil. Add the diced onion to the pan.
  4. Peel and halve the garlic, discarding any sprouting from the center of the clove. Press the cloves into the sauté pan containing the onion and the olive oil.
  5. Add the hot red pepper flakes to the pan containing the garlic, onion and olive oil. Turn the burner to medium and gently sauté the ingredients, occasionally stirring with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula, until the onion is translucent and the garlic has blonded.
  6. While the pan ingredients are sautéeing, separate the anchovies. They may tear; that is okay. Gently rub your finger across the anchovies to remove any pinbones or other matter from them. Roughly chop the anchovies to equal about 1-1/2 tablespoons, which should be most of the tin/jar.
  7. Add the anchovies to the pan. Lightly stir the sauté to break up the anchovies and incorporate them into the mix. The mixture should be getting very fragrant.
  8. Add the olives to the pan. Lightly stir the sauté to incorporate all of the ingredients. Turn burner heat to medium-low.
  9. Open the jar of capers and pour the contents in a mesh sieve. Rinse the capers quickly under cool water. Add the capers to the pan. Lightly stir the sauté to incorporate all of the ingredients.
  10. Open the can of tomatoes and gently add the tomatoes to the sauté pan. Add the wine to the tomato can, and swirl the can to mix the wine with the tomatoes and sauce remaining in the can. Add the wine-tomato mixture to the sauté pan.
  11. Add the dried herbs and several grindings of fresh black pepper to the mixture in the sauté pan. Stir all of the ingredients together.
  12. Cover the sauté pan and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has thickened slightly and is very fragrant, approximately ten minutes.
Make the pasta
  1. Fill a large pot 3/4 with cold water. Add a generous pour of salt to the water. Place the pan on the burner, cover the pan, and turn the heat to high.
  2. Once the water is boiling hard, safely remove the cover from the pan and gently add the dried pasta to the boiling water. The water will boil and foam when the pasta is added, but that will subside.
  3. Boil the pasta until al dente as directed in the instructions on the box, typically 10-12 minutes.
  4. Carefully drain the pasta, tossing gently to express all of the water.
Serve the puttanesca
  • Divide the pasta among large serving bowls. Top each with a generous serving of sauce. Serve immediately with grated Parmesan.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Supermarket Wines

One of the things I first started trumpeting my approval of when we moved west was that everywhere, even the supermarket, sells wine. Not uncommon for a working writer, there are days when my travels take me no farther than the Ralph’s up the street, where everyone’s neighborhood friend Sonja presides over her register with a chat, a discreet extra scan of your club card to rack up fuel points, and a braid that belies her Indian heritage. She is used by now to my cart being laden with wines and spirits. In the three years since we settled out here full time, Sonja and I have bonded over several bottles from the supermarket shelves. She is an aficionado of sparkling wine, flavored vodka, and California red blends. I focus on gin, California wine and the occasional seasonal beer. In honor of Sonja, and the largesse of spirit embodied not only by her friendliness but by her naughty sense of humor, and out of respect for panicked last-minuters who are designated to "bring the wine," here are my thoughts about and recommendations for wine from the supermarket shelves.

Some dismiss mass market wines, and their rationale is not unfounded. High yield mass production can result in pedestrian juice or worse. While any wine regardless of cost or availability can falter or fail, carelessly produced wines announce that fact with distortions in color and clarity, a taste profile that is too sweet or too acidic, an off bouquet, or no particular color, flavor, or bouquet to speak of. Those are characteristics to be avoided in all wine.

Having participated in tastings across the spectrum, from rarefied cellar uncorkings to box-wine taste tests, I have learned that, as with anything, cost is not a hallmark of quality. Quality proceeds beyond cost, from vineyard, vintner, vintage, terroir and, frankly, magic. While the complex considerations that lead to the price of a bottle of wine make sense upon study, it is fair and accurate to state that, with wine, expensive and rare do not automatically equate to noteworthiness, and that inexpensive and widely available do not automatically equate to poor quality. The lesson of supermarket wines is that, like any other amassing of them, the important qualities are those that land in the glass. There are very good supermarket wines every bit as much as there are mediocre cellar wines.

To some oenophiles, there is a distinction between cellar- versus table wines. As a rule, one collects the former as an investment both financial and aesthetic, whereas one serves the latter for the simple enjoyment of it. One of the joys of wine is the worlds that open up in the glass and upon the palate, and neither the conveyance of the glass nor the destination of the palate distinguish a wine's quality until the tasting happens. Some look down upon table wines as the guzzle with which you wash down weeknight dinner, but the most important characteristic of wine, whatever its provenance or its purpose, are the qualities that reveal themselves in the pour. As true as it is that we should respect wine, even admire it in its highest expressions, it is also true that all wine started as table wine, and there is no room, at least in my cellar or at my bar, for snobbery. But the corollary must also be respected: if a wine is undrinkable, then it is undrinkable.

For this column, supermarket wines are identified as widely available, comparatively inexpensive, and stocked in commonly accessible purveyors to accompany home cooking or to provide a tasty buzz for partygoers. I set a per-bottle cap of $25 as determined by the Southern California market, but many of these wines fall below that price point. While box- and other mass-market wines such as four-packs were not disqualified, none of those that were tasted were of sufficient quality to be included in this column.

Supermarket Wines
As with all lists and guides at Urban Home Blog, all of these are recommendations based on my skills and experience as a homekeeper and lifestyle writer and none is a compensated endorsement. Where applicable, vintage is noted for these wines, but among the considerations for supermarket wines is consistency of quality across vintage, and that is reflected in these recommendations.

Bridlewood maintains a showstopping tasting room in Santa Ynez, where everything from car commercials to tv movies has been filmed. But that doesn’t overshadow the wines, which in the tasting room are perfectly serviceable with one blend – the 175 Blend – being notable. Bridlewood's star bottling is their supermarket-staple Bridlewood Chardonnay. This commendable Cali Chard is balanced and easygoing, lush but not overly oakey, buttery but not slippery. The fruit is bright and fresh, with mingled flavors of green apples, lemon and orange and a nose-tickle of honeysuckle. This is the Golden State Chardonnay that we should all expect.

Oranges, figs and fern are not a mix of flavors we typically associate with Chardonnay, but this is not the only mashup that Mark West Winery is guilty of. A honeyed quality emerges from Mark West Chardonnay that evokes the sleek French treatment of this workhorse grape; all the more dexterous because Mark West is a signature California winery, a milieu in which Chardonnay not only rules but typically evidences distinct Californian qualities. Mark West Pinot Noir is arguably the official house red of the Golden State, a stalwart of dinner tables and by-the-glass menus. This very drinkable, fruit-forward red plumps up nicely in the glass with cherry, pomegranate and black pepper flavors leading to a woodsy if thin finish that does not deter from being a pleasing glass, or two, of wine.

The simple script of the Josh Cellars label is familiar to California wine drinkers. This winery produces table- and reserve wines that embrace the heritage of NorCal wine country. Josh Chardonnay is a pinto pony of apples, peaches and oak, playful and slightly rebellious, with a nuzzling finish of straw and sweet spices. Josh's noteworthy Cabernet Sauvignon is elegant, pure, and evocative, with lots of plum and cassis cradled in a soft-bodied mouthfeel. The Cab is the go-to, but don't overlook Josh Pinot Noir. This deft expression of the heartbreak grape is aromatic and powerful, with a burst of berries amid currants and a dash of licorice presenting through a bouquet of smoke and tea.

Chasers after Cali Cult Cabs may think that Robert Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2012 is unworthy of the game, but this is a notable wine on any table. A buttery blackberry center settles into the glass like the jam on a scone, before revealing a summery note of cherry tomato and green pepper with a smoky finish of cedar and ash. This wine would be a showstopper at any price point, and would be the pour the sommelier reveals near the end of a tasting in a wine room. Among supermarket wines, this one is worth short cellaring.

Some Chilean Cabernet Sauvignons approach Californian mastery. Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is earthy and full, landing with chewy black cherry and plum flavors before wandering into the playground of Monterey Veggies. There the wine displays green pepper and tomato notes and culminates with hints of tobacco and green olives. This is the wine that hair-chested generals quaff in the game room before moving on to cigars and brandy. While it won't usurp the loftiest efforts, this Cabernet Sauvignon is a reasonably priced, widely available, and very drinkable accompaniment to a roast beef dinner or weekend barbeque.

I've written before about Line 39 Petite Sirah, which I still enjoy and serve, as suggested, with steak. It figures that Line 39 Cabernet Sauvignon would fall into place as the Sirah's strong-armed sibling. Line 39 expresses this definitive California grape with opening notes of smoky tea leading to a vegetal tangle of celery, red pepper and green vines. Decant for 30 minutes to allow the slight alcohol sourness to settle and the country lane flavors to bloom.

Cambria Pinot Noir 2012 Julia's Vineyard would likely be a success based on vintage and locale alone, but this deftly handled wine is notable beyond vintage. It is spritely for a Pinot Noir, with vivid notes of figs and resin and earthy bloom upon the nose. This wine plays a funky, plummy game upon ocean-cooled Santa Maria hillsides, and in the playing, the profound nature of the grape reveals some of its charm and grace.

In our reverence for Pinot Noir, we may have forgotten its festive nature. The Crusher Pinot Noir 2013 is as mischievous as the claret poured from a crystal ewer at Agatha Christie's dinner party. Slight acidity suspends a strong fruit-forward profile with the playfulness of an Italian red. After breathing, the wine opens unto a juicy, bright expression of Pinot Noir that is as lively as a grape stomp, as flirtatious as the emergent rose and chocolate notes, and as rewarding as offering your glass for a second pour.

Bogle Petite Sirah slides into the glass as the inky pour this wine is supposed to be. The ruby plasma of the wine hints at the jewel-like prism of its flavors: charcoal, moss, anise, plum, cherries, and orange zest. This courtly Sirah verges on an old-world evocation of a well-rounded Shiraz whose acreage was planted to supplement revenue for a coffee plantation. Accordingly, pair this Sirah as you would a Syrah: with grilled beef, lamb or game, or spicy pork.

I can’t write a column about supermarket wines without addressing the phenomenon of Two-Buck Chuck. Two-Buck Chuck is Charles Shaw, the house wine of Trader Joe's, which averages $2.99/bottle in the Los Angeles market. I am a fan of and customer at Trader Joe’s, but I approach Two Buck Chuck cautiously. Overall, it is not far beyond the vinegary high alcohol tipple of the local wino, often with a detectable sugar content and almost a gas station level of alcohol burn. That said, both the Chardonnay and the Merlot are perfectly agreeable, with the former displaying a fine if workaday body of apples and pears and the latter providing a chocolaty intensity that is really quite notable for this workhorse grape. To vet my opinion, I checked with a wine writer and friend who agreed that the Chardonnay is good and with a sommelier and friend who christened the Shiraz as the best budget bottle of that grape. And in case you need to know this, they both reported that the Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a noticeable amount of sugar and bite, is a solid base wine for sangria.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

December at Urban Home Blog

Here are our plans for the festive month of December at Urban Home Blog.
  • Take long weekend to remove decorations from storage and decorate for the holidays. Make stew and hot apple cider and play Christmas carols and holiday movies while unpacking and decorating.
  • Test holiday lights and safely dispose of any strings of lights that are compromised. Replace as necessary.
  • Prepare gift packages for gardener, handyman, and mail carrier.
  • Discuss overwintering warm weather plantings with gardener in the event of the predicted wet winter.
  • Go through books and clothes to identify items suitable for donation. Make note in February calendar to follow up with donation organizations regarding anticipated needs after the holiday rush.
  • Attend reception at Jar to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Mary and Vincent Price's A Treasury of Great Recipes.
  • Visit the restored Formosa Cafe to celebrate its return to Hollywood golden age stature.
  • Shop small businesses in Los Feliz. Musts: Spitfire Girl, Wacko Soap Company, Co-Op 28, Y-Que Trading Post, Skylight Books. Have lunch at The Alcove; coffee break at H.
  • Make New Year's Eve reservation at The Dresden Room.
  • Have annual holiday season dinner at The Smokehouse. Musts: correctly quartinoed martini, garlic bread, walking the halls of this legendary supper club.
  • Obtain supply of gift cards to thank favorite servers, bartenders, and other service workers for their service during the year.
  • Make annual pilgrimage to See's Candies for holiday candy both for home and for gift boxes.
  • Order country ham for Christmas dinner.
  • Bake and share toffee bars and fruitcake biscotti.
  • Plan annual White Christmas viewing party. Serve California wine, Black Russians, cheese board, artichoke dip, chicken salad, and fig and prosciutto pizza.
  • Visit tacky souvenir shops and Larry Edmunds bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard to fill holiday gift parcels for friends and family back east.
  • MAIL CARDS AND PARCELS BY DECEMBER 15TH.
Reading List: The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith; Living the Good Long Life, Martha Stewart; Yule, Dorothy Morrison

December, 2013: Holiday lights, baking, gravlax, Urban Bar
December, 2012: Baking, Yule, Wine Country gifts, American Table
December, 2011: Christmas, cookies, Homekeeper's Library, Sunday Supper
December, 2010: New Year's Eve, baking, party dips, Urban Bar, Weeknight Dinner
December, 2009: Weeknight Dinner, baking, From the Vault

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Applesauce

We are at the high point of autumn. On a brisk afternoon walk, scenes from the harvest are everywhere. Scarecrows oversee porches alongside wreaths made from acorns, while in yards leaves have been carefully raked into piles or thoughtfully spread into carpets upon dun grass. The hues of autumn leaves are as warm and spicy as the pumpkin pie fresh from the oven whose fragrance, like the wreath upon the door, welcomes us inside. Here, candlelight flickers from glass globes in windows, and sheaves of wheat are tied together with velvet bows to decorate mantles and harken to the altar of the fireside.

Whether our walk was through chill New England spires and cemeteries or luxuriant California vineyards, there is a good chance we took a path through the harvest orchard. Even as last week's jack o'lanterns fall to the same natural process of decay and renewal that gives us autumn leaves, the harvest orchard is fulsome with the last of the season's fruit. There are still fat-bottomed pears in rosy d'Anjou or spritely Bartlett to gather from increasingly bare branches. But the harvest orchard is anchored, as it has been since time immemorial, by one of the Mother's most plentiful, magical gifts: apple trees.

Apples have been a trick and a treat for much of recorded history, with a story that goes back at least six thousand years and over seven thousand varieties of this single, singular fruit. Though we think of apples as an all-American treat, the only apple native to North America is the crab apple. Orchard apple trees were not introduced into the Americas until the seventeenth century. However, the apple tree was already thousands of years into human history by that time. Many believe that the apple tree was the earliest tree to be cultivated by human agriculture.

Though there are summer and winter yields, by far the most species of apple ripen for harvest during autumn. Along with the cultivation and harvest of the apple came its storage. Apples dried, cored, cut into disks, and threaded onto strings were one of the first snack foods, with the added benefit of distributing a sweet fragrance through an early homestead that likely benefitted from it. Another common method of storing apples was cellaring: storing the fruit, belowground as the term indicates, in dry beds of straw in barrels or boxes to stave off decay. This presaged the root cellar that was once as common to the American homestead as the water pump. With the advent of safe home canning, that root cellar became not just a storage facility for everything from barrels of apples to braids of onions. It housed rows of sturdy wooden shelves on which were stored the miracle of gleaming jars of food, preserved when it was fresh against times of scarcity.

Apple jelly is one of a home canner's core skills (no pun intended), but the most popular is applesauce. Everyone loves applesauce. It was one of our first treats, spooned in sweet mouthfuls as babies. We carry cups of applesauce in our lunch boxes, serve a side of applesauce with a thick diner pork chop, stir it into our breakfast oatmeal. Every blue-ribbon home canner sends a jar of their finest applesauce to the county fair, while leafers stock up on applesauce in the gift shop during an apple-picking trip. Applesauce was one of the first preparations I made when I started home canning. It was in memory of my grandmother's kitchen, where production was a chore that young hands were drafted into. My job was to wash the Mason jars she put up in.

The basic method to make applesauce is to peel, core and seed anywhere from a pound to a bushel of apples, boil them in a solution of water, sugar and an acid, and mash the result into pulp before hot water bath canning it. I have discovered that roasting the apples improves the texture of the applesauce while bringing out a warm sweet flavor that elevates the end product beyond the baby food jar. This applesauce is sweet and spicy, substantial in flavor and texture, and miracle of miracles, it isn't gloppy. Make two batches -- one for your pantry, and mini jars to tuck into holiday parcels and gift baskets. This applesauce is a lovely accompaniment to a fall dinner of roasted pork tenderloin and green beans or a leafer's luncheon of risotto with mushrooms and fresh lettuces with dates and Manchego.

Applesauce
It is essential to follow safe canning practices. For instructions on safe canning, click here: http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/publications_usda.html, or here: http://www.freshpreserving.com/getting-started.aspx. This recipe should yield about 4 pints.
 
3 pounds sweet red apples, such as McIntosh, Fuji, Red Delicious, Gala or an assortment
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 lemon
Unsalted butter

Prepare the apples
  1. Fill a large bowl halfway with cool water. Run a lemon along the counter under your palm. Cut the lemon in half crossways. Squeeze each lemon half over the water, then drop the lemon halves into the water.
  2. For each apple, peel the apple, safely cut the apple from stem to blossom end to form halves, and cut each half to form quarters. Safely cut out the seeds and core from each apple quarter. Place the peeled, cored and seeded apple quarters in the lemon water as you go. 
Roast the apples
  1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Butter the bottom and sides of a large rimmed baking sheet or ceramic baker.
  3. Place the apples prepared in steps 1-2 above into a large colander. Shake the colander well to express excess water.
  4. Transfer the drained apples to the baking sheet/ceramic baker. Spread the apples into an even layer.
  5. Sprinkle the top of the apples with 1/2 teaspoon salt.
  6. Sprinkle the top of the apples with the light brown sugar.
  7. Place the apples into the oven and roast until the apples are soft and very fragrant, approximately 35 minutes.
  8. Remove from the oven once roasted, and set aside until cool enough to work with, approximately 5 minutes. 
Make the applesauce
  1. Once the roasted apples are cool enough to work with, measure the apple cider vinegar into a large non-reactive pot.
  2. Add the dark brown sugar to the pot. It is okay if it begins to bubble and dissolve in the vinegar.
  3. Working carefully, transfer the roasted apples and all accumulated juices into the pot containing the vinegar-brown sugar mixture. Use a silicon spatula to get all of the apple mixture into the pot.
  4. If there are any large pieces of apple in the mixture, use a potato masher to break them up.
  5. Turn the heat to medium and cook the mixture, stirring frequently, until thick and very fragrant, approximately 10 minutes.
  6. Turn off the heat. Measure the spices into the mixture and stir the spices through the mixture. 
Can the applesauce
  1. Prepare canner, jars and lids.
  2. Place a clean towel on a counter near the canner.
  3. Use canning tongs to remove hot jars from water bath. Do your best not to touch the hot jars; let the tongs do the work. Place hot jars mouth up on the clean towel.
  4. Use a jar lifter to transport a jar mouth-side up to the pot containing the hot applesauce. Place a clean canning funnel into the mouth of the jar. Carefully fill the jar with applesauce to the ½-inch mark. Continue until all of the jars are filled. It is okay if there is applesauce left over; refrigerate it for use within 1 month.
  5. Check for and remove air bubbles if any.
  6. Use a clean, damp sponge to wipe the rim of each jar. Center a clean, hot lid on each jar. Screw a band down on each jar until it meets resistance; increase just until tight.
  7. Use canning tongs to return the jars to the boiling water bath. Add more water if necessary to ensure that the jars are completely covered by boiling water by 1 inch. Process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
  8. After jars have processed for ten minutes in the boiling water bath, turn off the heat. Remove the canner lid and set aside. Let jars sit in hot water ten minutes.
  9. After ten minutes, use the canning tongs to remove the jars. Being very careful of the hot jars, lids and liquid, place jars upright on the towel. Allow to sit 24 hours. After 24 hours, check for a vacuum seal (see instructions). Label each jar with the contents and the date prepared. Safely prepared, stored and sealed, the jam will keep for one year from date of preparation.