Sunday, March 30, 2008

Willett's Winery

Last night, Becka and I were invited to Willett's Winery in Manito for a lovely evening of wine, a cooking contest, and a cooking demo. I can't say enough good things about the owners Cris and Dan. They were very hospitable and even took me on a grand tour of his wine making operation. In the short time that we discussed wine making, Dan taught me several pointers that I will be immediately putting into practice tomorrow when I begin the fining process on my own wine.

Chef Kevin has worked closely with the Willetts to organize a series of contests where local residents can enter their recipes. Each contest's theme correlates with a dining course. The winner of each contest will have their recipe prepared by Chef Kevin as part of a complete "Wine and Dine" dinner on April 12th and June 14th. The catch is, each recipe must be prepared with Willett's wine.

Last night's theme was desserts, and I was honored to be invited as a guest judge. There were only five entries last night, a few less than the other competitions. It was a tough decision with first place being decided by a mere point. The winner featured a 75 year old chocolate cake recipe that called for vinegar and water. The contestant substituted Willett's Midnight Cherry wine and it was a smash hit! The texture of the cake was unbelievably moist and tender - I doubt if I could have baked a better cake. She iced it with chocolate fudge icing and served it with a chocolate cherry sauce that also included the Midnight Cherry wine.

I must say that Willett's is rustic, yet classy, but never pretentious. The wine speaks for itself. Which brings me to a short rant about Illinois wines. I've heard so many people taste a local wine and proclaim it to be "good, but not quite like a Cab or Pinot Noir." Well, the truth is, it's never going to taste like those wines, and shouldn't be expected to. I find them neither better or worse than "world class wines," but a refreshing alternative that should be appreciated on it's own merit. Why would I want to travel to Manito to drink a wine that tastes just like a wine that I could buy in the grocery store? I will say that I was floored by their Chamborcin, a dark red with a spicy tobacco character. I had never tasted a wine with this particular smokey and spicy edge, yet it was still well balanced. I liked it so much that I came home with three bottles of it, and yes, I will be holding on to them just as if they were an absurdly priced bottle of wine (which they are not). Plus, I have the added pleasure of knowing that I am supporting local agriculture.

Lastly, Dan crafts and bottles all of his wine by hand, and is truly passionate about his trade. Dan and Cris both have an enthusiasm that is contagious, but from the moment you walk into the winery, you are put at ease. You will never be made to feel uncomfortable for being unfamiliar with Illinois varietals or not knowing what you like. Samples are offered freely and the atmosphere is relaxed. It's almost as if you are stepping into another time and place, and you just can't help but to smile.

And, of course, I snapped some photos:

A stunning array of their currently available wines. Notice the two medal winners.

The winning recipe. Chocolate cake made with Midnight Cherry wine.

Another over the top chocolate dessert with raspberries and chocolate sauce.

A sneak peek at Dan's wines inside his giant walk in cooler. Brilliant!

Saturday, March 22, 2008


(sorry, this was taken with my phone)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Common Ground Coffee...Well, Not Ground Yet

Actually, the coffee is only purchased at Common Ground and imported by Equal Exchange, a fair trade business. Until a few weeks ago, I wasn't aware that Equal Exchange had Ethiopian coffee. As many of you know, I prefer to support Ethiopia by buying their coffee, and I always try to point out any fair trade coffee that I come across. This one also happens to be organic, as most from Ethiopia are.

Ethiopia is renowned for their coffee, and this one hails from the southern region of Sidama. It is a full city roast that produced a fruity shot, albeit a little on the stale side. The beans weren't oily, and it was obvious that they were in the bin at the store for a while; which is an issue because it's not tightly sealed and it's exposed to light. It didn't help that I left it in my cupboard for several weeks before I tried it. Despite all that, it is very delicious and I will be buying it again considering the lack of Ethiopian coffee on the market. It's $8.99/lb.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Cooking Gone Wild

Backpacking is one of my favorite outdoor activities although I haven't been able to do much of it recently. There is nothing like the feeling of freedom knowing that all the essentials (and a few luxuries) are strapped neatly to my back, and that I can fully experience nature without the annoyances of car camping campgrounds (not that there is anything wrong with car camping).

So, what then, do you eat when you are wandering aimlessly for days through seemingly endless mountain trails? Berries, fiddlehead ferns, wild game, twigs, leaves? Well I, like many others, bring homemade dehydrated food that I reconstitute with hot water in camp. Dehydrated food saves a ton of weight and space which allows me to stay "lost" for longer. It's incredibly easy to prepare and requires very little time in camp to cook - simply add boiling water. The meals can be very delicious if you follow the recipes in here book or online.

My good friends over at the Backpacker Forums have helped me tremendously when it comes to backcountry cooking. The forums are a wealth of knowledge with several active members who have authored back country cookbooks. Among them is my friend Laurie from Ontario who recently authored "A Fork in the Trail." It is a collection of 208 recipes designed to be lightweight and completely delicious.

She also keeps a blog at her website that I will be reading from now on. And if anybody has any questions, please feel free to drop me an email or head to the forums for some insight.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Peaches and Vinegar

This dessert is based on a very traditional Italian recipe using strawberries and the finest Balsamic Vinegar. I substituted peaches and used my best Balsamic - aged over 27 years. Ok, I lied. I don't have Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena with the Extravecchio designation (aged for 25 years or more). As you can probably guess, it's quite pricey. Instead, I made a Balsamic reduction with pretty decent vinegar and some sugar in the raw. I usually use dark brown sugar, but I was all out. The extra molasses helps to darken the color and add depth of flavor. Anyway, it could have been reduced slightly more for a sexier photograph, but the consistency is authentic. A bit of fresh ground pepper sets it off. I just wish peaches were in season.

Bear Grylls vs. The Truth

So, today I came across this video that cracks me up every time I watch it. It is indisputable proof that Bear Grylls from "Man vs. Wild" is not only a fake, but advocates dangerous techniques that could get somebody killed. I wouldn't mind so much if he would admit that what he does is dangerous and unnecessary, and stop trying to pass it off as legitimate survival education. His show belongs in the category of "Jackass" and all the other mindless entertainment of MTV. It turns out that America's thirst for this crap has caused channels like Discovery to replace their edutainment programming for entertainment. Another example is "Smash Lab," which I've been told is like "Myth Busters" without the science. Even "Myth Busters" is overacted at times and dramatic, but at least it still has an educational core. Shame on you, Discovery Channel, for pandering to this audience.

Back to Bear. I remember several reports that he stays in hotels during his "expeditions" and the camera crew helps him out and carries his gear. I have never really researched this because the show seemed so phony that I felt it wasn't worth the time. But after seeing the video, there is not a doubt in my mind that the show is fake and dangerous. Let's fight this disinformation by TURNING IT OFF!

Now for some survival truth:

1. The only safe way to cross lava bridges is with a rope and harness, and should only be done by trained individuals as a last resort.

2. Jumping onto a bridge is never safe and can result in death.

3. Always look for an alternative route.

Without further ado:

Monday, March 3, 2008

Tofu Tacos

I can't say enough good things about tofu tacos. I know many of you shy away at the mere mention of tofu, but I've converted several people with this recipe. It should be mentioned that I'm not using tofu specifically as a meat substitute; it's good in its own right. There are, however, a few tips that will bring out the best in your tofu.

1. Start with firm or extra firm tofu for this recipe (NOT silken tofu, even if it's labeled as firm).

2. Freeze the tofu and thaw it before you cook it. This toughens the proteins giving it a meatier texture. When you thaw it, gently ring out as much water as you can - like a sponge.

3. Use an ultra seasoned wok or a teflon pan capable of browning food. If you use a stainless steel pan, be sure to have a metal spatula capable of scraping the fond from the pan (hold it upside down and scrape firmly; think cow catcher instead of snow shovel). It's important to brown the tofu to develop flavor and to minimize the scrambled egg texture.

I like to start my sauté with onions and maybe some peppers. Depending on the size of your pan, you may have to evacuate the vegetables before adding the tofu. It's important that you use medium high heat and a fair amount of oil. Don't forget the salt! Once you have achieved browning, add the vegetables back in and sauté the garlic being careful not to let it burn. Season liberally with paprika, chili powders, cumin and the like. Then deglaze with a liquid of your choice (wine, vegetable stock, or lime juice and some water), and be sure to cook the liquid back out for a firmer texture.

Use a good quality corn tortilla and garnish with cheese, onion, salsa, leaf lettuce, lime juice, and yogurt.

Making the Tortillas (photo by Becka).

Tofu Tacos with, Onions, Lettuce, Cheddar Cheese, Tomatillo Salsa, Yogurt, and Chipotle Sauce.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Indestructible Coffee...

Many of you probably know of my affinity for Trader Joe's. Sure, they have their problems just like any other company, but I've always found their products to be first rate. While they don't carry fair trade coffees exclusively, they do have a decent selection; one of my favorites being the medium dark roast Ethiopian. Not only is it among the world's best coffee, it's fair trade, shade grown, organic, and helps to stimulate their economy which is currently in shambles. In fact, many Ethiopian coffee farmers are destroying their coffee fields in favor of khat, a narcotic that commands a much higher price than coffee. You can check out OxFam for more information, and be sure to stop by Trans Fair for tips on being a responsible consumer.

As of last year, Starbuck's now recognizes Ethiopia's right to patent their coffees as it has done in Canada, Japan, and the European Union. Apparently it took more than 96,000 supporters to convince Starbuck's to stop exploiting Ethiopia and help the coffee farmers earn a living wage.

But this isn't about Ethiopian beans. I'm writing about beans grown more than 4,000 miles southwest of Ethiopia on an Island known as Sumatra. I decided to give these a try last time I was at TJ's - a few months ago. I recently opened the nitrogen sealed can to find them in relatively good condition albeit not as shiny as I would like (true coffee connoisseurs advocate brewing coffee within 48 hours of roasting). Anyway, I dialed in my grind and pulled several shots; all were fantastic. It seems that, no matter how sloppy my technique, the shots are very smooth with little to no bitterness. Even if my tamp is uneven or too light, the water temperature a bit too cool, or the dose irregular; the shots are phenomenal. This coffee is virtually indestructible!

100% Arabica Beans, NOT Rubber Flavored Robusta from Viet Nam.

Ahhhh.... Pulling a Shot.

Smooth and Rich Double Shot.

Latte Art is Not My Thing.