Pretty Pumpkin

Look what my friend E. made for dinner the other night. It really seems too pretty to eat, doesn’t it? They did, though.

This a great dish for fall and is based on a recipe from Dorie Greenspan, author of the fabulous new cookbook, “Around My French Table.” It’s one of those recipes you can play around with, a little more of this, a little less of that, and is fairly simple, too. Dorie talked about this on NPR recently and it seems to have made quite a hit. I heard about a few other people who were inspired to try it. As E. puts it, “how could I *not* try something with heavy cream, bacon, and Gruyere?” He did use half/half to cut down on the cream factor a bit.  Here’s the original recipe, reprinted with kind permission of Dorie. Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good

  • 1 pumpkin, about 3 pounds
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 pound stale bread, thinly sliced and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
  • 1/4 pound cheese, such as Gruyere, Emmenthal, cheddar, or a combination, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
  • 2–4 garlic cloves (to taste), split, germ removed, and coarsely chopped
  • 4 strips bacon, cooked until crisp, drained, and chopped
  • About 1/4 cup snipped fresh chives or sliced scallions
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
  • About 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment. Using a very sturdy knife — and caution — cut a cap out of the top of the pumpkin (think Halloween jack-o’-lantern). It’s easiest to work your knife around the top of the pumpkin at a 45-degree angle. C lear away the seeds and strings from the cap and from inside the pumpkin. Season the inside of the pumpkin generously with salt and pepper, and put it on the baking sheet or in the pot. Toss the bread, cheese, garlic, bacon, and herbs together in a bowl. Season with pepper — you probably have enough salt from the bacon and cheese, but taste to be sure — and pack the mix into the pumpkin. The pumpkin should be well filled — you might have a little too much filling, or you might need to add to it. Stir the cream with the nutmeg and some salt and pepper and pour it into the pumpkin. Again, you might have too much or too little — you don’t want the ingredients to swim in cream, but you do want them nicely moistened. (But it’s hard to go wrong here.) Put the cap in place and bake the pumpkin for about 2 hours — check after 90 minutes — or until everything inside the pumpkin is bubbling and the flesh of the pumpkin is tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. Because the pumpkin will have exuded liquid, I like to remove the cap during the last 20 minutes or so, so that the liquid can bake away and the top of the stuffing can brown a little. When the pumpkin is ready, carefully, very carefully — it’s heavy, hot, and wobbly — bring it to the table or transfer it to a platter that you’ll bring to the table. Serving You have choices: you can cut wedges of the pumpkin and filling; you can spoon out portions of the filling, making sure to get a generous amount of pumpkin into the spoonful; or you can dig into the pumpkin with a big spoon, pull the pumpkin meat into the filling, and then mix everything up. I’m a fan of the pull-and-mix option. Served in hearty portions followed by a salad, the pumpkin is a perfect cold-weather main course; served in generous spoonfuls or wedges, it’s just right alongside the Thanksgiving turkey. Dorie’s variations There are many ways to vary this arts-and-crafts project. Instead of bread, I’ve filled the pumpkin with cooked rice — when it’s baked, it’s almost risotto-like. And, with either bread or rice, on different occasions I’ve added cooked spinach, kale, chard, or peas (the peas came straight from the freezer). I’ve made it without bacon, and I’ve also made and loved, loved, loved it with cooked sausage meat; cubes of ham are another good idea. Nuts are a great addition, as are chunks of apple or pear or pieces of chestnut.

Bon appetit!

 

Ten Things to Know Before You go to Chile

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Ten things to know before you go to Chile

1. Passport. Here’s the link to the U.S. government page.

2. As always, pack as lightly as possible. If you can get everything into a carry-on and shoulder bag, do. Think black knit and roll everything up, stuffing underwear into shoes and then putting shoes in a bag to keep everything nice. Note: the official sizes of carry-ons seems to be shrinking. My 21-incher did not make the cut on international flights. Of course there were the usual  boors who somehow managed to haul on enormous suitcases, braining people on either side of the aisles as they waddled along. But you don’t want to be one of them. Weather conditions vary. Think layers. Traveling in the Chilean spring, I was glad of my packable rain coat which kept out cool, coastal breezes. Long-sleeved T-shirts with a zip jacket and Capri pants/modest skirts were the right compromise for cool mornings and warm afternoons. Leggings or tights under the skirt worked for night. California casual chic worked fine, although I did notice the business people of Santiago were sharp dressers.

3. If you are bringing electrical devices, be aware that the current in Chile is different from the U.S., 220v/50h vs 110v/60h, and the plugs are shaped differently, too. So you will need both an adaptor for the plug, small and cheap, and a larger device  to moderate the current, bigger and less cheap. My solution was to count on finding hair dryers in the relatively upscale hotels I stayed in, which there were, and to take only my iPad, which can run on either current, and adaptors I got from the Apple store, no doubt at a wildly inflated price. It turns out I could have just borrowed adaptors at the hotel. Also, a note to smart phone users. Unless you have/buy some type of international plan, it is very important to turn off roaming capability if you do not want to get stung with fantastically expensive bills. Just to be on the safe side, I kept my phone off except for times when I was in an area with free wifi (wee-fee in Chile, fyi), in which case I turned that on but turned off all the update, “push data” settings so my phone wouldn’t run up a tab getting the latest tweak of Fruit Ninja.

4. The flight to Chile from the United States is long. You will thank yourself later if you bring a stout pair of socks to put on, ditching your shoes, and an oversize sweatshirt/hoodie to cozy up in. If you are of the feminine persuasion I recommend wearing underpinnings that are short on style, long on stretch. Put a stretch knit dress or tunic-leggings combo on over that and you’ll still look reasonably smart. (Please note: Just because you could just wear sweats doesn’t meant you should.)

5. First thing you do when you get off the plane in Santiago, which is where you’ll most likely land, is pay the reciprocity tax. This is equal to what Chileans have to pay to visit the U.S. and as of October 2010 was $140. It’s good for the life of your passport. They take credit cards. The lines can be a bit free-form; be alert for swiftly moving queues.

6. Visa: this is required; flight attendants will give you a form to fill out on the plane _ no big deal. BUT, the other form you have to complete, attesting to the fact that you are not bringing in plant or animal goods is a big deal. The list of forbidden items is long and comprehensive. Lots of things count, including those chocolate covered peanuts you forgot you had stuck in the pocket of your carry-on. The fine is substantial if you get caught. Best bet is to mark “yes” if you have any doubts at all and then describe the items in question to the customs officials.

7. Which brings us to language. A lot of the people I met on my recent whirlwind trip of Chile spoke English, some amazingly well. But if you have any high school Spanish that you can brush up in the weeks before your visit do so. For one thing, it may come in handy, if, let’s say, you have to do some chatting at the Aduana (Customs) checkpoint.  For another thing, it’s fun to try to communicate in another language. Even if, as I did, you do tell a tableful of people that you are full of “mierda”, (crap, to put it politely) when you meant, “miedo”, fear.

8. Food. Get ready to eat some fantastic seafood. A great place in Santiago is La Mar, Av Nueva Costanera 3922, Vitacura, Santiago. This is actually Peruvian cuisine. The ceviche was super, the congrio, a local fish, was simple and so tasty. La Mar has a few locations around the world, including one in San Francisco, I’m going to have to try that one and see how it compares.

9. Visit. If you are in Santiago, the Mercado Central is worth a visit.

10. The really key thing: Have a pisco sour for me!Salud!

South America memories

 

Sunset over the Renacer winery in Mendoza /Michelle Locke

Back home again today _ so weird to hear everyone speaking English! _ and still processing the many things I saw, learned and experienced on my trip down south.

Here are some highlights.

Sunset in the Mendoza, that was a magical moment as the sky slowly turned golden and a chorus of frogs tuned up.

 

An outdoor tasting at the Veramonte winery in Chile's Casablanca Valley /Michelle Locke

 

Tasting Chilean wine in the vineyard where the grapes were grown, a ground-to-glass experience that never gets old for me.

 

Learning the tango in Argentina. Allegedly there are photos of this, but with any luck they won’t circulate.

MEAT! Here we got up close and personal with our soon-to-be lunch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, finally, there’s a highlight of the trip that I don’t have on camera, but I do have in my heart. Sitting in the Santiago airport and watching the last of the Chilean miners being brought to the surface. I must have been allergic to the pisco sour I was drinking. though, because my eyes would not stop watering.

Cheers.

Aiming high in Argentina

The Andes seen from the Nieto winery in the Mendoza /Michelle Locke

The high desert of the Mendoza wine region is not the Napa Valley. But winegrowers in both places share a similar idea: Higher is better.

In Napa, that means planting grapes on the slopes of the valley’s gentle hills. In the Mendoza, it means getting a little closer to the Andes. The theory for both places is that vines that have to work harder to survive produce more intense fruit.

Beautiful but arid, the wine growing areas of the Mendoza give off an austere vibe even in mild spring weather. Many of the vines grow very tall here; it’s hot, so need to keep the grape clusters close to the earth. Another unusual sight — black netting is strung along the tops of vines as protection against the hailstorms that can develop from the Andes mountains and are a major threat to crops here.

Walking along the Mendoza vineyards and looking up at the Andes looming in the distance is something I haven’t gotten used to. It feels like someone’s Photoshopped in the craggy, snow-dusted peaks. But they’re real all right and useful for more than a stunning backdrop. An intricate system of channels and aqueducts siphons runoff from snowmelt to the region.

In just a few days, I’ve only gotten the vaguest notion of the local culture. But here is a performance of a traditional dance that I liked a lot. The dancers were so graceful and elegant. (And I totally have to have some of those gaucho pants.)

Hola, Argentina!

 

Street scene in Mendoza /Michelle Locke

Friends, you know what’s a good way to introduce yourself to Argentina’s wine country? Riding through the vineyards of Mendoza on horseback.

Yes, I couldn’t be more surprised myself, but that’s what happened. My horse, named Socket, for reasons I was unable to determine, was a teensy bit self-willed, but we got on tolerably well. I think my, “Whoa, boy, I’ve put you in ‘park'” proved efficacious, And I flatly deny that was me squawking, “Ooh, Mummy!” when we went up that tricky bit. As you can no doubt gather I’ve arrived in Mendoza, center of Argentina’s wine country. I haven’t seen a great deal of it so far, but what little I have seen has been very attractive. Lots of green parks and gracious buildings.

Not surprisingly since this is prime cattle country, the menu has been meat followed by meat with a side of meat, please see below.

Speaking of meaty issues, I have now eaten my first blood sausage. It was OK, but nothing to get excited about. Squeamish-wise, I think if you’ve eaten Spam you’ve pretty much plumbed the depths of alimentary adventure, but I doubt I’m going to be combing the Berkeley farmers’ market for this. Next up, tango lessons. It can’t be that hard, right?

Hasta la vista.

Wine at the bottom of the world

Wine at the Valdivieso winery in Chile's Sagrada Familia wine region /Michelle Locke

In ancient times, map-makers wrote “Finis Terrae,” world’s end, on the spot now known as Chile. With the Earth being flat, clearly this was where the unwary traveler would go a step too far and fall off.

Luckily, nothing like that has happened to me, yet, although there have been some rather complicated turns involving big buses and small roads. The kind of operation where one guy gets out to wave his hands about while the other guy drives and you sit there saying, ever so politely, “I don’t mind getting out and walking. Really I don’t.”

I did learn a new phrase: Camino sinuoso, or winding road. Sounds better in Spanish, doesn’t it?

Anyway, there have been quite a few discoveries at the end of these particular long and winding roads, including some wines I tried at the Valdevieso winery at their vineyards in the Sagrada Familia district about an hour south of Santiago.

A standout was a 2010 single-vineyard sauvignon blanc, which went well with a local dish I tried, criadillas, served chopped and in a spicy broth. What are criadillas? Well, they’re a part of the bull, let’s put it that way.

So here I am tasting some nice wines and crossing a gustatory Rubicon or two. Who says I don’t know how to live on the edge?

Buen provecho!

Harvest is Happening

Harvest is getting its groove on in the Napa Valley. The sparkling wine houses _ who want grapes with a little less sugar than those used for still wines _ have been picking for a few weeks. And I recently had the chance to experience one of the harbingers of harvest, the annual Blessing of the Grapes at Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford.

The blessing of the grape harvest is a centuries-old tradition and has been observed at Grgich Hills since 1977. This year Father Mark Christy from the Carmelite Monastery in Oakville did the honors over a few containers of grapes glistening green in the sunshine. Winery cofounder Mike Grgich was there, wearing his trademark black beret and beaming at the small crowd of friends and well-wishers.

“This is a great day for all of us who work here,” said Grgich. “We promise out of these grapes we are going to make wine artistically, scientifically and use all our experience to make the best wines in the world.”

Here are a few snippets from the ceremony.

Grgich Hills _ it’s ger-gich, by the way _ makes a good stop on your wine country itinerary. It’s easy to get to, right off Highway 29, and centrally located, near Beaulieu Vineyards, Rubicon Estate and Rutherford Grill, where you can get reasonably priced and reliably good grub.

It’s also one of the few places where you can indulge your “I Love Lucy” fantasy. They’ve got a tub of grapes waiting, you just take off your socks and have at it. I’ve done it. A lot squishier than you expect but quite soothing.

Grgich has plenty of experience making great wines. He was winemaker at Chateau Montelena for the ’73 chardonnay that beat French white wines in the 1976 Paris Tasting, a revolutionary event that changed the way people thought about California wines. And at 87 years old he’s been in the business for more than half a century. That’s right, 87. I had to go back and check my math because you’d never know it just from talking to him.

It makes me wonder what I’ll be up to three years shy of 90.

Maybe I should buy a beret.

Cheers.

 

Mood and wine pairings

Sure, you know all about food and wine pairings. Red with beef, white with chicken and fish.
But how about mood and wine pairings? This is something to which I’ve given a great deal of thought, not to mention research hours, resulting in these rules to drink by.
When you’re feeling a little low _ merlot. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a sucker for assonance. Warm, soft, peppery, this is just what you’re looking for when you want to relax with a glass of something comforting. Yes, I realize it’s fallen from favor in recent years and, in fact, there was some overplanting that resulted in mediocre wines. But there’s plenty of good stuff out there; I’ve had some nice bottles from Sonoma County recently.
When you’re feeling effervescent _ bubbly. Napoleon is alleged to have said, “Champagne _ in victory you deserve it; in defeat, you need it.” Maybe so, but my feeling is there’s nothing like a slim flute of something sparkling for when you’re feeling on top of your game.
If you’re feeling the heat _ moscato di Asti. Serve it cold, cold, cold.
Feeling mischievous? Maybe it’s time to get a little zin-ful. I’ve been drinking Rosenblum zinfandel, dirt cheap in Costco, lately. Very tasty. To the point that Mr. Vinecdote finished off my bottle before going back to his beloved Two Buck Chuck.
And should you feel in the spirit for intellectual inquiry, pour a pinot noir. This is an intriguing and complex wine, which like merlot is feeling the perils of popularity. Good or bad, it will give you something to think about.
Cheers.

Checking out Calistoga

View from the rooftop terrace at Sterling Vineyards /Michelle Locke

 

Set at the top of the Napa Valley, Calistoga is a little bit more laid back than Napa or St. Helena. Which is odd, because below the surface the place is positively seething with energy. Underground thermal activity creates hot springs that feed a spa culture that ranges from no-frills rustic, I’m looking at you Doc Wilkinson, to extremely refined.

Mme. Vinecdote does not pay people so she can sit in mud, she did enough of that in merry olde England as a child. But I do know several people who swear by the restorative qualities of the treatment, so chacun a son gout on that one.

One attraction that doesn’t require digging up any dirt is to sit and wait for the Old Faithful geyser to spout off, something that happens about every 40 minutes. The geyser is a bit on the slender side but shoots up to 60 feet high. I visited recently and  found it extremely restful to sit in the shade of an umbrella and stare mindlessly at the pool of hot water until it roared to life right on schedule. Query: Does this indicate I’m appreciating life in a Zen-like manner? Or is my laziness reaching chronic levels.

 

The Calistoga “downtown” is about a block long, something else I like, but has a clutch of restaurants. Buster’s Southern BBQ has been getting a lot of buzz lately.Just around the corner is Sterling Vineyards, distinguished by the fact that you ride a tram up the hillside to get to the winery. Lots to like here, but my favorite is the view from the rooftop. You see a vista that stretches the length of the Napa Valley.

Despite its tranquil vibe, Calistoga was until recently the site of a pitched battle over naming rights. A number of wineries and grape growers wanted to established a California American Viticultural Area, or appellation, which meant wines using the name would have to be made primarily from grapes grown in the district _ not fruit trucked in from elsewhere. At one point, pro-AVA forces protested the opening of a tasting room belonging to a winery that opposed setting up the appellation. The issue finally was resolved in 2009, and the AVA was officially established this year.

You know, I don’t want to sound bitter, but permit me to point out that of the countless protests I have covered, not one was at a wine tasting room. I think a vending machine was about as good as it got.

Cheers.