Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas 2010

  So it's been a while since I updated this blog. As I said in the beginning, sometimes the muse leaves me. Poof, she goes elsewhere. Winks out like a cheesy little bulb on a 2 dollar string of WalMart  Christmas tree lights.  I know she'll be back but don't know when. As the harvest season wound down and all the festivals came to an end, there wasn't a whole lot in the way of wine to scribble about; so I didn't.
  For the time being, I'm going to expand the subjects of this site a bit. I'm going to be talking about more than wine, namely beer and other grown-up beverages. More about that later. This is gonna be a long post, so quit reading now if Twitter length novels are to your taste.

  It's been cloudy and raining for what seems like forever. My pasture is a smelly bog. Your boots sink several inches into this viscous, anerobically foul mix of dirt, manure, pee and wasted hay and every step makes a vaguely biological and disturbing sucking sound. The goats are unhappy with the mud, and when the goats are displeased, I am too. They are apparently genetically convinced that stepping into mud or heaven forbid a puddle will cause their limbs to dissolve, starting from their hooves and gradually working it's way up their legs, leaving them hobbling about comically on stumps. They're smart. Being wet and cold is no fun. God would not have given us garden hoses and drip lines if we really needed days and days of dark, drizzling rain.

   I was starting to be reminded of a misplaced quarter of a year I spent in the Pacific northwest, where EVERY morning brings the drumming of rain on the roof. The denizens of that dark and gloomy land are uniformly about the same color as the 3 inch layer of moss that grows on their roofs. No wonder every town of any size has a bar or saloon on every block. By the time you stop at one and drink your misery and head down the street, the b-b gun sting of ceaseless rain is so overpoweringly depressing that you need to stop on the next block to bolster your courage.

  My pal Johnny finds endless days of pleasant weather uninteresting. He and I are opposites. He's always looking forward to the next meteorological cataclysm. He can't wait for them to arrive and revels in their grandeur. Not me. I told him not long ago I was thinking of looking into real estate in the Atacama Desert, where it hasn't rained for centuries. They have goats there. And I bet those goats are happy, too.

  But I digress. The sun came out for Christmas. A cloudless sky and shining sun announced the lengthening of days. We had a lovely day, as near as I can remember. When I'm seriously cooking I get into this weird kind of zone. It's a matter of an aging brain trying to keep track of a menu that a dozen people are going to sit down to, hopefully all at once. What time did the roast go in? If I want a 135 degree pullout and it was at 125 10 minutes ago, how long before checking it again? How hot is the mind-of-it's-own oven now? The roasted vegetables were par-blanched, but the Brussels Sprouts blanched a bit too much and the carrots are a bit crunchier than the baby Yukon Gold potatoes, so what is the optimum roasting time? Is the rosemary and thyme chopped and is there enough?  Did the bitter salad greens get washed and are they dry? Strain and boil down the pan drippings for the au jus and add the herbs but don't forget to skim the fat off first, and if the fat isn't skimmed well enough (it wasn't) should I add butter or forget it? How long has the roast been resting? During this time, especially the end game where everybody has arrived is the most critical and it's also the time when the socializing starts. Wine and beer is poured and conversations ebb and flow and it's a struggle to remember all that has to be remembered while trying to be at least remotely sociable at the same time. Josh Wheeler has a natural ability in this regard and knows how to stay out of my way, take on tasks and foresee outcomes. He's got the natural feel for a kitchen and can intuitively find his place in the "brigade de cuisine". If he wants to pursue a career in the kitchen, I'll support him in that endeavor in a heartbeat.

  Somehow it all came together  at some level, thanks in large measure to liberal applications of Grand Teton Brewing's Bitch Creek ESB. Bitch Creek is an awesome brew. My go-to beer store, Suzy-Q market in Cottonwood has a current sale on it and given some extra cash, I'd go buy all they have left.

  Bitch Creek is unusual in the universe of American Micro-brews. There's a current paradigm among the thousands of U.S. micro-breweries that has decided that beer should be heavily hopped. The more hops the better. This is apparently what the snob-beer newbies have decided they want. Go into any good beer store and you'll find dozens of examples of beers with names like Hoptober Fest and Caribou Spit Hopalicious and god knows what else. IPA's (India Pale Ales) are all the rage, and the more hops they've been hit with the better, apparently.

  It should be noted here that hops are a chemical anachronism. Hops was originally added to beer not so much as a flavoring agent as a preservative. British persons, who presumably couldn't figure out how to brew their own local beer during the Raj period of Indian history, insisted on beer from their homeland (another dreary, gloomy place). Sadly, beer that was shipped on sailing ships to India from England had the tendency to turn into undrinkable slop, spoiling on the long and bouncy sea voyages. So they added tons and tons of hops to the mix to preserve it. Somewhere along the line they decided they actually LIKED the taste of this puckery stuff, and IPA as a beer type was born. American brewers, in typical yankee fashion, have taken this to it's logically absurd extreme. Given all the thousands of American micro brews on the market, the number of balanced, malty brews with a hint of hops flavors are scarce as hen's teeth. Bitch Creek is one of these brews. It's head is brown and long lasting, the balance of hops and malts is perfect, and enjoying it from a big deep wine glass gives off it's lovely aroma, reminiscent of a bakery. It goes down real easy. Thank god it's not available all the time. You could get in trouble.

  Our dinner was pretty simple. A prime rib. Brussels Sprouts, roasted in olive oil, salt and pepper. Baby Yukon Gold potatoes, carrots and sweet onions roasted in olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme and rosemary. Bitter greens salad and Olive oil and rosemary sourdough bread from Orion Bakery in Cottonwood. Pumpkin Creme Brulee for dessert was an experiment met with mixed results.

  Each year I experiment with dry aging my prime rib. Plastic wrap is the worst thing that ever happened to meat. Wrap a piece of meat in airtight plastic and it immediately begins rotting. Rot is caused by anerobic bacteria, the only bugs that can survive in the airless environment of plastic wrap. These buggers will spoil meat in a matter of days. They are the same kind of nasty critters that are currently making my pasture stink. Dry aging involves unwrapping the meat, washing and drying it off and putting it on a rack, loosely wrapped in a tea towel and letting air circulate around it for a time. The nasty anerobic bacteria will be beaten back by the oxygen and the natural enzymes and aerobic bacteria contained in the meat will cause it to intensify in flavor and age gently and begin to taste like actual beef again. I have aged roasts as long as three weeks, and as little as 6 days. A week seems to be optimum. Three weeks causes too much crust to form on the roast and given the price of prime rib, too much has to be trimmed off before roasting. This year's roast was aged a week, as was the roast from year before last, and based on comments received I think a week is optimum for home aging.

  We were joined by our soul mates John and Susun, dear friends Bob Dog Brubaker, his wife Bonny and their son and daughter Arthur and Annie, and Kate's dad Bob Lomadafkie and his son Michael. This is our normal Christmas mix and it's about the only time everybody gets to see each other. Johnny got lucky and ended up with the trick folding chair at the dinner table. It gave way on cue and he did an admirable recovery from the floor after it collapsed, receiving an 8.5 from the judges. He got the medal by default as nobody else's chair fell apart. Next year we've gotta add in another trick chair to give him some competition. Just kidding of course, the offending furniture has been added to the burn pile out in the pasture.
  Our wines were varied and all agreeable. Suspecting that others would show up with bottles and trusting their tastes, I bought only one bottle of Merkin's Chupacabra. It was the 2006, and although made here at Page Springs Cellars, it's California grapes. Tasty none the less. You won't find any complaints here about California grapes. There are so many thousands of acres of grapes growing in California that there is truly an entire universe of good wines available made from them. There is so much good California bulk wine available that even the Demon Spawn WalMart has gotten into the act with their own label of dirt cheap, very drinkable wines. The genius in Chupacabra is the local vinting expertise of Eric Glomski and the out-there, edgy blending of M. J. K. I like Chupacabra, CA grapes or not.
  Johnny and Susun brought an unfiltered Merlot called Renaissance, from North Yoruba, also in California. John and Susan had been hipped to this wine by a friend, and I must say it impressed. As an unfiltered wine, it really needed to be decanted. I need to get a carafe for such occasions.  I've never seen so much sludge in the bottom of a bottle. I looked at an empty this morning and wondered if maybe somewhere along the line I'd used it as a spittoon. Is that fruit and yeast residue down there or Copenhagen? A very tasty Merlot, and I like Merlot.
  Bob Dog et al brought an Argentinian Malbec. Bob and family have an understandable affinity for Argentine wines, their son Arthur having spent a year there recently. The Mendoza region of Argentina is the home of the Malbec grape, and I expect to be seeing it appear more and more in U.S. wines. Argentinian Malbecs are a great value right now. Very drinkable young and with the chops to stand a few years layaway to deepen and open them up. I've noticed Malbecs do well with being opened and allowed to breathe for up to a day before serving. Their flavors really deepen and expand.

  Kate's dad brought a wine with...I am not making this up....a SMILEY  FACE on the label. It didn't get opened at dinner sadly, as I think it would have been real nice with the roast. Tonight we had the ribs off the roast reheated with a salad and that wine served very well. It's made or at least bottled by Oreana Winery in California and is called Project Happiness Syrah. In spite of the goofy label, I like it. An "Oreana" by the way, is an old California Mission Spanish term for a feral, unbranded calf. I don't know what significance this has one way or another, but they didn't see fit to put a cow on their label, so it's an interesting piece of trivia. You can't beat a decent varietal Syrah. I also had a bottle of Chateau St. Michelle Syrah out on the counter and it's nowhere to be found so I guess it got drunk too. My pal John Hull brought it by the other day on his way to Phoenix. Tasty. I like Washington wines in general.

  All in all it was a perfect day. I want to thank everybody who came and hope all had a good time and at the same time let me apologize to anybody I may have offended. God knows what I may have said to anyone who got in my way in the kitchen. When I win the lottery, we're going to have Christmas dinner catered and I'm going to stand in the kitchen and kibbitz and criticize and have someone else to blame for the screwups. Meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and please know that we cherish all of you!
  Johnny, who I think I've mentioned had surgery some years ago to have a Canon point and shoot digital camera permanently attached to his right hand, has done a magnificent job chronicling this year's debacle. I've taken the liberty of linking to it here. Lots of fun pictures, don't miss them!