Tag Archives: Lodi

SPUDS ‘N’ WHISKEY CHEESE

When we arrived back home, I downloaded my camera to see if I had managed to capture any images of our visit to California. Here are a few of those memories:

Among the things we found in our cooler from the trip were some fragments of cheese that we had bought in Lodi. The night before our return home, Peter and his family stopped by our apartment on their way back to the Bay Area from a ski day in Kirkwood. We enjoyed some local wine and a plate of cheese before we went out to dinner.

We had found the cheese at a great little cheese shop on School Street, the main drag of Lodi’s charming historic downtown. Cheese Central is owned by a very pleasant woman, Cindy Della Monica, who clearly enjoys what she is doing. Most cheesemongers seem to have a good time and love to talk about cheese. That, and free samples, helps them sell their products. Karen, Cindy’s very knowledgeable assistant, was happier and more enthusiastic than any other cheesemonger I have ever met. She shared some excellent samples and gave us some very good suggestions.

We wound up buying a French epoisse cut fresh from a three-pound log, a Spanish cinco lanzas, and a Welsh cheddar, along with some crackers and a bit of quince paste membrillo. The cinco lanzas is made  by Queso García Baquero in La Mancha in the style of manchego (even with a similar dark grass imprint on the rind) but instead of sheep milk, it is made from a secret blend of cow, sheep, and goat milk. It went well with the membrillo. The Welsh cheddar was the big surprise. It is called “Amber Mist” and is made by the Snowdonia Cheese Company. The surprise is that the cheese is soft and crumbly because of added Scotch whiskey which adds to the flavor without being overpowering.

We had a wonderful time with Peter’s family; the two girls loved the membrillo and all of the cheeses along with some heart-shaped water biscuits. Even at that, there were leftovers. But not enough for another cheese party when we got home. Still, the cheeses wouldn’t last forever, and they were too delicious to throw out. That’s when I decided to use them for a special mac and cheese. Our three cheeses went well together, but you should be careful with your choices. The cheese should melt, so no hard cheeses. Blue cheeses might overpower any others. Stinky cheese should not be included, and after a two-day road trip the epoisse came close to disqualifying itself.

Somehow mac and cheese seemed to be a bit prosaic. I substituted potatoes for pasta, added some more ingredients, and poured in a little extra whiskey to flavor things a bit more.  I used some Italian guanciale (cured hog cheek) but you can easily substitute pancetta or bacon or even nothing. Here’s the ad hoc recipe. It turned out pretty good, I think.

RECIPE

Spuds ‘n’ Whiskey Cheese

Ingredients

  • 2 large russet potatoes, peeled and diced, ½ inch cubes
  • 4 ounces guanciale, trimmed of skin and diced (Use pancetta or bacon if you prefer, or omit)
  • 2 medium crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 scallions sliced (include green tops)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1½ cups milk
  • 2 ounces Scotch whiskey (don’t use your 18-year-old single malt) or other whiskey*** Optional
  • salt and pepper
  • leftover cheeses (about 4 ounces)
  • butter for preparing baking dish and topping the casserole filling
  • panko
  • 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

Method

  1. In a heavy pot, cover the cubed potatoes with well salted water, bring to the boil, and cook for 10-12 minutes until the potatoes have softened but not cooked through. Remove from the heat, drain, and set aside.
  2. In the meantime, sauté the guanciale over medium heat until it is crispy. Drain on several thicknesses of paper towel and set aside. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the rendered fat; add the sliced mushrooms and sauté until cooked through. Drain and set aside.
  3. Prepare the scallions and set aside.
  4. In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter until it has stopped foaming. Add the flour and stir while cooking another 5 minutes until the mixture is cooked but not browned. Stir in the milk and continue to stir until the mixture thickens and comes to a simmer. Stir in the whiskey, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  5. Over low heat, add the leftover pieces of cheese to the white sauce. Grate the cheese if it is in large chunks. Stir until the cheese is completely melted.
  6. Stir in the sautéed guanciale,, mushrooms, and scallions.
  7. Combine the potatoes and sauce.
  8. Prepare a baking dish by liberally buttering the inside of a baking dish and coating the inside with panko. Transfer the potato-sauce mixture to the baking dish, and top with more panko and grated Parmesan. With a pastry brush, paint the top of the casserole with melted butter.
  9. Bake in the middle of an oven preheated to 350°F for one hour until the top is browned and bubbling. Serve while still warm.

 

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HOMECOMING BEAN AND KALE SOUP

We are back from our long visit to Lodi, California. We had a great time and returned with a trunk filled with bottles of wine that we found at some of the more than 80 wineries in the Lodi area. We plowed through two days of rain and snow with tense times on the passes in Tehachapi, California and Flagstaff, Arizona.

When we got home, the cupboard was bare – or nearly so – requiring a little innovation on my part to come up with something to eat. I fell back on a post that I had just read a few days before. Diane Darrow writes an interesting blog, Another Year in Recipes. She lives in New York City but has spent much time in Italy and has authored two Italian cookbooks. She wrote of making a bean soup from one of her cookbooks when she was snowed in during the recent NYC blizzard. You should definitely check out her blog.

This is not Diane’s recipe, but it is certainly inspired by hers. I confess that I had run out of ditali and had to turn to elbow macaroni. I also had to run to the market for a bunch of kale, but otherwise everything else was in the pantry or in the little cooler we always carry in our car. The next day I went back to the store for a marathon journey through the aisles.

image

 RECIPE

Bean and Kale Soup

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup dry black-eyed peas
  • 2/3 cup dry black beans
  • 2/3 cup dry red beans
  • olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • ½ cup celery chopped
  • ½ cup carrots, grated
  • 1 quart beef stock
  • 8 ounces canned tomato sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning blend
  • 1 tablespoon rubbed sage
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 bunch kale
  • ½cup elbow macaroni
  • 2/3 cup Parmesan, freshly grated
  • extra virgin olive oil (your best)

Method

  1. Pick over the beans, removing any stones, and place in a large, lidded, heavy pot. Cover with at least 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, for two minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and set aside until the pot has cooled. Drain the beans and set aside.
  2. Rinse and dry the pot. Heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sweat, covered, for about 5 minutes. Do not brown. Stir in the celery, carrots, reserved beans, beef stock, and tomato sauce. Bring to the boil and then simmer covered for about 1 hour.
  3. Add the garlic, mushrooms, seasoning blend, sage, and salt and pepper to taste. Continue to simmer, covered. Add water if needed.
  4. Meanwhile, wash the kale. Remove the stems and center ribs, soaking the leaves in cold water for an hour. Cut the kale into 3 x 3 inch pieces and add to the soup pot. Cover and continue to cook for another hour, stirring occasionally. About 15 minutes before you are ready to serve, stir in the macaroni.
  5. When the beans are soft, and the kale has cooked down, correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into serving bowls, top with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

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SEARCHING FOR THE MOTHER LODE

Our month-long visit to Lodi, California, has provided us an excellent base to explore the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and the area that was the center of the feverish gold rush that began in 1849. We have visited Sacramento, now the capital of California, but at one time a center for transportation during the gold rush as well as serving as the western terminus (San Francisco notwithstanding) of the great race between the Central and Union Pacific Railroads to meet up to create the first transcontinental railroad. We have also visited some of the historic towns in the foot hills and taken back roads into the mountains and the areas of devastation from the “Butte Fire” of last summer. All of it has been a learning experience.

Sacramento is much like any big city. It has around a half million residents and traffic to match. The capital building is a replica (smaller of course) of the national Capitol in Washington DC and it has its own beautiful mall. The riverfront has been restored into “Old Sacramento” which, like most “Old [fill in the blank]” is filled with Victorian-era buildings, bars, restaurants, and gift shops.

But one place in Old Sacramento that shouldn’t be missed is the Railroad Museum. The place has accumulated engines and rail cars that capture the entire history of California railroading. The rolling stock has all been carefully restored. The museum goer can walk through many of the exhibits. Some of the restored cars even replicate the rocking motion of a speeding train. We spent several hours in the museum and then decided that we didn’t need to see any more of Sacramento.

We explored several mining towns and soon learned that you have to get off of the main highway. The main drags are universally lined with the usual  gas stations, McDonald’s, hardware stores and Dollar Generals. The old town Main Streets are the places to experience the real feel of the communities.

One of our first visits was to Murphy’s. The main landmark of the street is “Murphy’s Historic Hotel” which advertises itself as having served the town since 1850. That claim does not make it clear whether the current building is the original, but that doesn’t really matter. The building is old enough and run down enough that you can picture it as the background of a gun fight during gold rush days. There is a bar in the front of the building where locals hang out. In the back, the dining room has been fixed up to capture Victorian styles. It looks like a good place to enjoy a leisurely lunch or a fancier dinner. There are white linen tablecloths and comfortable chairs. Lots of good California wine choices. The food turned out to be “ok” with a badly over-cooked hamburger supposedly topped with blue cheese crumbles that turned out to be a grayish unpleasant-tasting blob that could only be salvaged by scraping it off. Perhaps the “chef” (who had just started work that day according to the slightly deaf server) put the blue cheese on the burger too early in the cooking process. The bacon-wrapped shrimp po’boy special turned out to be a better choice.

Another stop was Sonora. The guidebook informed us that the town had been named by homesick Mexicans for their home state in Mexico. They had apparently come to California during the gold rush to make their fortunes. Our food discovery in that quaint little town was Talulah’s Restaurant, named by the woman owner just because she thought the name sounded cute. The Victorian storefront was painted in bright chartreuse, and the inside also had touches of chartreuse. Not a big place, it had a surprisingly large menu with, of course, a good selection of California wines.  The mushroom soup was so flavorful and aromatic that I started to eat it before I remembered to make an image. The complementary garlic bread turned out to be picture perfect and delicious to boot. The marinara on the spaghetti was not my recipe, but it was flavorful and tasted of fennel and just a hint of cinnamon and cloves. (I know what you’re thinking – no, it was not Cincinnati five-way chili. It was really quite tasty.) The grand finish was a delicate lemon cake filled with a light-as-a-feather lemon mousse and topped with a warm lemon sauce.

We drove through Angel’s Camp, named after Mr. Angel, not the celestial variety. Angel’s Camp is home to Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, so everything was named, “Frog”, including the high school mascot.

My favorite place was Sheep Ranch (the name of the town, population 32) located on Sheep Ranch Road and former headquarters for the Sheep Ranch Mine. There was a large, still well-preserved but unoccupied white hotel nestled in the pines at the end of the main street. There were no restaurants in town, but the abandoned general store still advertised gasoline at 18 cents a gallon. Unfortunately there was none for sale.

Sheep Ranch

Sheep Ranch

Up Swiss Ranch Road, after the pavement had turned to gravel, we discovered an ornate iron gate that looked as though it was the entrance to a great English country house. Its story remains a mystery to us, but I am certain it would be very interesting.

The saddest part of our trip was to see the devastation caused by the “Butte Fire” of October, 2015. Miles of forest were burned and over 500 homes were destroyed. Most of the ruined buildings had nothing above the foundation, and they were surrounded by the shells of burned-out cars and trucks. It will be years before the forests and hazardous materials are cleared, decades – if ever – before the forests come back, and probably never for families to put their lives back together.

 

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DEVILED EGGS

Deviled eggs seem to be enjoying a renaissance. They are on many menus these days. Sarah often makes them for catered dinners as well as for family occasions. Sometimes she stuffs them with smoked trout or other delicious fillings.

Sarah piping deviled eggs

Sarah piping deviled eggs

But in their simplest form, how difficult can deviled eggs be to make? Hard boiled eggs cut in half; yolk mashed with a little mayonnaise, mustard, lemon, salt and pepper; yolk mixture spooned or piped into the egg white halves; maybe a little garnish of paprika, snipped chives, or crumbled bacon. Simple is not always easy.

During this visit to California, deviled eggs have been on many menus. I have eaten many of them because I like them when they are good.

The best ones so far were served at the School Street Bistro in Lodi. My very minor quibbles were that the yolk filling was too runny (Too much mayonnaise?) and had too much mustard. Otherwise they were delicious, and their garnish of house-made French-fried potato straws was outstanding  I could have eaten a plate of the potato straws by themselves.

Sunday deviled eggs with potato straws at the School Street Bistro, Lodi, CA

Sunday deviled eggs with potato straws at the School Street Bistro, Lodi, CA

Some of the eggs have had a rubbery texture undoubtedly from the eggs being boiled too hard and/or too long.

The ones I liked the least were the ones that were supposed to be the fanciest. The word, “truffles”, seems to make something more luxe. Visions of pigs rooting up fungi at the base of a French hazelnut tree come into play, or a liveried waiter shaving little shards with his special knife onto a perfect French omelet. That’s not the same as truffle oil. This condiment has been banned from many a high-end kitchen. The well-known San Francisco chef and writer, Daniel Patterson, has written a great piece in the New York Times about why truffle oil does not find favor with professional chefs.

The main reason is that almost no commercial truffle oil contains actual truffles. The fragrance and taste of real truffles come from a complex array of compounds. The most prominent appears to be a chemical, 2,4-dithiapentane, that can be synthesized in a laboratory or factory. And that is the chemical that is added to truffle oil to give it flavor. Small wonder that foods which incorporate commercial truffle oil take on a chemical flavor; some would even say petroleum-like.

Deviled eggs with truffle oil

Deviled eggs with truffle oil

Here is a basic recipe for deviled eggs, perhaps of the Southern variety. If you don’t like it, experiment by adjusting the amounts of the basic ingredients and add any extras that sound appealing to you. Just – please – don’t add truffle oil.

RECIPE

Basic Deviled Eggs

Ingredients

  • eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon mayonnaise for each egg
  • 1/8 teaspoon dry mustard for each egg
  • few drops fresh lemon juice for each egg
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • paprika

Method

  1. Pierce the large end of each egg with an egg piercer and place in a single layer in a saucepan with enough water to cover the eggs by at least an inch. Bring to the boil over high heat, just until large bubbles begin to appear around the eggs. Cover, remove from the heat, and let stand, undisturbed, for 10 to 18 minutes, depending on the size of the eggs and the altitude.* You should work out the time beforehand. Transfer the eggs to a large bowl filled with ice and water. Chill for the same amount of time as you used for the cooking.
  2. Peel the eggs by cracking them all over and, starting at the big end, peeling them under a small stream of running water. The longer the eggs sit in the refrigerator before peeling them, the harder it will be to peel them and the more likely you are to get the dreaded green ring around the yolks, so it is best to prepare them immediately.
  3. Slice the cooled eggs in half lengthwise and gently remove the cooked yolk. Press the yolk through a fine-mesh sieve or strainer into a medium bowl. Stir in the mayonnaise, mustard, and lemon juice. If the mixture is too stiff, very slowly stir in more mayonnaise by half teaspoonfuls until the consistency suits you.  Adjust the mustard and lemon juice to please you. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  4. Spoon or pipe the yolk mixture into the empty halves of cooked egg white. Garnish with a sprinkle of paprika and serve.

* At 7000 feet, a jumbo egg takes 18 minutes to cook; a large egg takes 16 minutes. Probably at sea level you should deduct about 2 minutes for each cooking time, but it is best to work out specific times for your cooking conditions.

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LODI

I have been a little quiet in the blogosphere for awhile. We are in Lodi, California, where we will be staying for the month of January. Some time ago I wrote about Lodi when we attended the California State Chili Cookoff Championship https://fromthefamilytable.com/2014/10/26/california-chili-cook-off-championship-2014/ . That’s not the reason we are here this time.

Why, you might legitimately wonder, does one choose to spend January in Lodi? For us, the answer is a bit complex. First, our children have been encouraging us to find a place that could be used as a family retreat. The Sierras are not far away, and that is where two of the families ski and escape the city. Second, we have always wanted to explore this part of California, as we don’t know much about it, and it has a rich history. Finally, we might be able to find a relocation home; we certainly can’t afford LA or the Bay Area.

Lodi is an interesting little town of about 70,000 a half hour away from Sacramento and two hours from San Francisco. It is really all about wine.

As you know, California is responsible for much of the USA’s wine production, and some of it will compete with the finest wines in the world. There are four large wine growing areas in the state: North Coast, Central Coast, South Coast, and Central Valley. These areas are divided into over 130 smaller regions, called AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) according to weather, temperatures, soil, and other growing characteristics. At the same time, some wine fanciers often count only eleven regions where they think high quality wines are produced. These include Los Carneros, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Livermore in the North Coast; the Sierra Foothills; Paso Robles and Monterey in the Central Coast; Santa Barbara and Santa Inez in the South Coast; and Lodi in the Central Valley. Lodi is the only Central Valley place to be included even though wine production in the Central Valley is enormous.

That’s where Gallo is located – headquartered in Modesto – along with Bronco Winery headquartered in Ceres. Gallo produces many labels including those old college favorites, Boone’s Farm and Carlos Rossi along with the label you can only read if you peel off the brown paper sack – Thunderbird. Bronco Winery is operated by a newer generation of the extended Gallo family. They, too, produce many brands, but probably their most famous is Charles Shaw, Trader Joe’s signature “Two Buck Chuck”. The grapes come from ever-expanding plantings throughout the Central Valley.

In all fairness, Lodi has a giant production facility, too.  Constellation Brands, headquartered in New York and the largest wine producer in the world, several years ago paid over $1 billion in cash to buy out Robert Mondavi. Their Robert Mondavi Woodbridge winery sits at the edge of town. (That’s where the chili cookoff is held each year.) But the essence of the local wine-making mystique is set in the 80 or so family-owned wineries that produce only a few hundred or thousand cases of wine each year.

It is impressive how many different varietals are grown in the nearby area, but the main grape is Zinfandel, and Lodi seems determined to make it a competitor with the varietals popular in Sonoma and Napa. This is not the cloying white Zinfandel of a couple of decades ago. I haven’t seen a bottle of that since we’ve been here. These are stylish, well-made wines that can sometimes run over $100 a bottle.

Here are a few you might look for in your local wine store: Klinker Brick, McCay Cellars, Harney Lane Wines, Michael David Winery.

Unfortunately, the food to go along with the wine is a little disappointing. Places we have enjoyed are the School Street Bistro, The Dancing Fox Winery and Bakery (The food not the wine.), and a small little bistro away from the downtown, Zin Bistro. The latter is a tiny store-front in a strip mall run by husband/wife chefs and owners; it is a great discovery. The night we were there, their rockfish was cooked perfectly – moist and flaky – and their braised lamb shank was delicious with a gremolata and mashed potatoes. So far we think they make the best food in town, although we have a couple of white-tablecloth places still to check out.

We’ve already visited Sacramento and been on one side trip to Yosemite to babysit while Sarah and Evan did a demonstration at the Ahwahnee Hotel’s annual Chefs’ Holiday. More travels and food to report later.

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CALIFORNIA CHILI COOK-OFF CHAMPIONSHIP, 2014

The 2014 California Chili Cook-off Championship has come and gone, and I didn’t win a thing. But I had a lot of fun and learned about chili cook-offs. (This was my second, the first one being in New Mexico over ten years ago.)

The event was held at the Woodbridge Winery near Lodi, California. I had never been to that part of California, and was pleasantly surprised by Lodi. It is not Napa or Sonoma and sits on the edge of the Central Valley. It reminded my wife of Lubbock, Texas “with hills”. That said, the downtown turned out to be charming with lots of wine-tasting rooms, restaurants, and shops. The fields surrounding the town are almost completely taken up by vineyards.

The Woodbridge Winery is the elephant in the room. It has 300 acres of vineyards, and a large bottling operation that bottles 27 different brands of wine. It ships millions of cases of wine each year (One source says over 6 million compared with 500 cases or fewer by local family operations.)

Woodbridge was established by Robert Mondavi, but is now owned by a huge conglomerate that bought out Robert Mondavi a number of years ago. Still, it feels committed to the local community and makes a point of sponsoring a number of community-oriented activities throughout the year at its park-like headquarters space.

For 12 years it has put on a combined chili cook-off and car show. The cook-off serves as the California state championship with the winner entitled to go to the CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) World Championship  in Terlingua, Texas. That’s sort of the chili equivalent of the Burning Man in Nevada. This year the contest attracted entrants from all over California as well as from as far away as Illinois and Kansas. The reigning world champion along with two former world champions were cooking.

The car show was huge. There were hundreds of cars of all ages, makes, and models. They were all in mint condition.

There were other things to do as well, so that the crowd was in the thousands, most of whom were anxious to taste chili, guacamole, and salsa that were prepared for respective contests.

I tagged along with my friend,, Reggie Graves, who is himself a champion chili cook who has won many contests throughout Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. We decided to enter all three contests. Reggie was in the Top Ten chili cooks. I was not. And we also didn’t win in the guacamole or salsa contests. That’s just the way it goes.

Here’s an image of some of the winners:

 

some of the winners

some of the winners

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