Thursday, May 03, 2012

Wow! We wait and wait for nice days to get the outside world back in order, the garden world, and our poor unconditioned bodies are so laid back and weak that we have to take repeated breaks to get the work done. Yesterday, I was doing some heavy-duty shoveling and at 9:00 last night my heart rate was still putt-putting along at 92 bpm. My blood pressure was great and my cholesterol level must be dissolving by the minute. Just see if one workout at the fitness center can accomplish that?! Unlike working out on treadmills and weight machines, I’ll have a beautiful garden to show for it; and with any luck, a svelte profile.

The herb garden made it through the winter and is coming back in full force. With one exception: the lemon balm. I had such a nice patch last year but apparently made a big mistake a month ago. There was so much foliage lingering from last year that I opted to burn off the brown herbal vegetation. The tarragon didn’t care. The mint didn’t mine. The oregano was optimistic. But the lemon balm is just not coming back. The thyme is a little iffy, too, and I didn’t burn that area. Maybe I’m not to be blamed. Maybe it was this goofy winter we had, the warm March and the cold April. The lemon balm vinegar we have in stock right now might be a very rare vintage.

The straw bale garden of last summer was a success so we’ll do another one this year. We have 20 bales lined up in four rows. They’re in the process of being conditioned right now and we’ll plant in another week. I’ve also plotted two special areas for giant pumpkin growing.

We’ve already had fresh rhubarb crisp and will have fresh asparagus tonight. We’ve had ramps from the woods, multiplier onions and chives, and the garlic is up and looking great.

I pruned the grape vines last week. They’re just beginning to bud. Blossoms are a long way off on them but the plums have finished blooming while the cherries and apples are humming with bees.

Ron has had several days of harvesting and bottling vinegar. We’ve had trouble keeping up with demand for the sampler packs so he’s bottled more in the 50 ml size. Frequent visitors have kept him busy both in requests for vinegar as well as wine-making supplies. He has several wine classes underway. Folks come here to start their wines, return for racking off and a few weeks down the road, again, for bottling. That’s working really well and with the fruit season starting, there will be abundant material to work with.

A visitor this morning, noting our dandelion dotted lawn, asked if we make dandelion wine. No, still haven’t though it wouldn’t take too long to gather enough for a small batch.

Time to get back outside. A storm rolled through this morning leaving the soil nice for working. It’s clouding up again so should be cooler to work in.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Olive Oil Tasting

Over the last few years our family has taken a formal approach to tasting food. Of course we offer vinegar tasting to all tour groups but our private tastings have been pretty interesting. Pickles, mustard, chocolate, blue cheese, and Scotch have been among the themes. This last Saturday, we compared nine olive oils from seven countries.

Our daily olive oil has been one we buy by the gallon. It comes from the Middle East and has only a small amount of English on the label. It does say, “Pure Olive Oil.” Other olive oils in our tasting included: Cat Cora’s Kitchen Greek, Italian Colavita, Baja Precious from Mexico, Zatoun from Palestine, Spanish Carozzi, Mt Kofinas from Crete, Columela also from Spain, and Italian Affiorato. Son-in-law Jim had a great time with online shopping for the oils. They came in a lovely variety of sizes and shapes of bottles.

Jim also planned the menu and wines to accompany the courses:

• Antipasto with Lustau Sherry

Prosciutto, roasted red peppers, sun dried tomatoes, olives, sweet & sour onions, marinated mushrooms, Asiago, Parmagiano Regiano

• Intermezzo

Vanilla gelato

• Tasting experience 9 olive oils from 7 countries

Fresh marble-sized mozzarella balls, baguette chunks, cold shrimp, small steak bits, warm boiled potatoes, crucible of sea salt

• Intermezzo

Raspberry sorbet

• Closing

Late harvest Zinfandel

Dark chocolate

The antipasto set the atmosphere. We started before noon and allowed plenty of time to taste and savor. Following the intermezzo, we took a little break while Jim set up the formal tasting offerings on the dining room table. He provided special spoons in which to pour the different olive oils to allow tasting of the singular characteristics of each. While it might seem off-putting to sip pure oil from a spoon, we soon forgot our American reluctance for such a straight forward approach to olive oil. Jim had thoughtfully provided comment sheets which we did our best to use. Comments appeared: nice, fruity, nutty, grassy, peppery, nice olive flavor, light, heavy, musty. Several of us chose the Palestinian Zatoun as our favorite.

We’ve long heard that Americans prefer mild olive oils. I expected that one or more of these would be strong flavored but found all of them to be mild to my taste. We’ve used olive oil in cooking and for dipping for many years. Maybe we have developed more worldly taste buds.

Vinegar has long been touted as beneficial to the human body. Olive oil is tasty and a great carrier for the fat soluble vitamins. I learned that I prefer my olive oil mixed with some sea salt and one of our Leatherwood Vinegars. The oil provides a bass note while the salt and vinegar sing the melodies. Whether for salads, marinades, or condiments, oil and vinegar mix well.

We will continue to use our Middle Eastern variety while it lasts (our source has gone out of business) and experiment more with the Zatoun and Carozzi which Ron found to his liking.

We highly recommend this kind of event for a family gathering. It’s a real conversation stimulator and fun activity for the whole family.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Winter weekend in Grand Marais

     One terrific way to keep the creative juices flowing is to take a cooking class. Whether novice or experienced cook, you’ll come away with new ideas and greater understanding of what constitutes good eating.

     We did just that this weekend, traveling up to Grand Marais for a French cooking class (see photos below) with second generation French chef Judi Barsness of Chez Jude. We stayed at the MacArthur House B&B, took in some of the north shore night life and spent five delight-filled hours with Judi.
     Judi planned the menu and prepped ingredients for our private class, a Christmas gift from our daughter and her husband who shared the weekend with us. We arrived at 9:00 in the Chez Jude dining room which is right across the road from Lake Superior, the fish market and the North House Folk School. Judi invited us into her kitchen with an immediate tempting treat of fresh scones with lemon curd, cranberry confit and whipped butter. While we indulged in this “second breakfast” (we’d enjoyed poppy seed muffins, vegetable frittata, fresh fruit and juice at the MacArthur) we reviewed the day’s menu and cooking instructions with Judi:
• Roasted butternut squash salad with cider vinaigrette

• Braised short ribs of beef (Bouef Bourguinonne)

• Potato Root Vegetable Gratin

• Molten bittersweet chocolate cake with Tawny Port and raspberries

     Judi grew up in her mother’s French restaurant (Frenchy’s and later Fleur de Lies) in Milwaukee. She learned her mother’s techniques and then sailed off to expand her cooking repertoire as sous chef in a 16th century manor house in England, studied at the Culinary Institute of America and the National Baking Center, interned with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse (California), and became the chef at Bluefin Bay resort on Minnesota’s North Shore. Eight years ago, Judi struck out on her own, purchased the building that had been a bakery and opened her own restaurant and cooking school. Judi’s husband Peter, who was instrumental in establishing North House Folk School helps out in the kitchen and delights guests with tales of his sailing adventures on the lake.
     After introductions, we jumped right into chopping, slicing and dicing. We coated the short ribs with herbs de Provence rub, browned diced bacon in a Dutch oven and then seared the meat on both sides. Adding a host of delicious ingredients to the pot, the meat went into the oven as did the cubed butternut squash which was destined for the salad.
     We combined apple cider, cider vinegar, and shallots, cooking them until the liquid was reduced by half. Then we whisked olive oil, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper into the liquid to finish the vinaigrette. Of course, we were thinking how Leatherwood Vinegars could be used in place of the cider vinegar and how they would influence the final flavor.
     Potatoes, rutabagas and parsnips were diced, cooked in water, lightly mashed with milk and butter and then spread in a baking pan. Topped with cheese and additional butter, this gratin baked in the oven until golden brown.
     The chocolate dessert of bittersweet chocolate, butter, sugar, tawny port, vanilla and a small amount of flour was baked in generously buttered ramekins placed in a pan half-filled with water.
     We began eating our four course dinner, each paired with wine, at about 12:30. We savored both food and conversation (Peter joined us) while Judi continued to flit in and out of the kitchen, attending to the final details of our meal while prepping and taking reservations for later in the day.
     Judi is excited about trying some of our vinegars in her menu. As her website says, “Chez Jude's menus reflect her commitment to the freshest offerings of the Minnesota seasons, organic, locally grown, harvested, wild caught, handcrafted ingredients.” That philosophy fits right in with ours. We also discussed how we might pair our cooking skills with hers in class offerings at the North House School.

     Friday night, our B&B host Max Bichel joined Pete Kavanaugh down at the Gunflint Tavern. With Max on the violin and Pete on guitar, they played a sampler of country music featuring the music of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and others. Max coaxed a great variety of delightful sounds out of his violin, pleasing his audience and one little dog snuggled on his master’s lap.
     We returned to the Tavern Saturday night and joined a table of diners only later to learn they were members of the Bluegrass band The Moss Piglets who then played from 9:00 to midnight. We were back in our cozy beds at the B&B long before midnight.
     Saturday evening we also sampled the food at the Crooked Spoon. We were so full from the good food at the MacArthur House and Chez Jude that we simply nipped into the appetizers, salads and the puff pastry topped onion soup. They were all delectable and judging by the full tables, it’s top of the list for the locals and visitors alike.

     We’re back into the work week, now, refreshed, rejuvenated, and excited about trying new cooking techniques in our kitchen. We’ve had a call from Bon Appetite Management ordering a good amount of vinegar for their catering service and one from a community planning their summer festival and inviting us to bring vinegar. We’ve also had a call from daughter number five saying a semi’s actions put her in a spinout on the snowy freeway causing a three car pile-up. She was on her way to interview for a summer internship at an organic farm. The front of her car has taken on a new shape and her right front signal light is dangling. She’s OK and will still try to make it to the interview.

Chez Jude:

MacArthur House:

Gunflint Tavern:

The Crooked Spoon:

Ron expertly slices and dices at his work station in the kitchen of Chez Jude.

Nancy and Judi add the short ribs to the Dutch oven.

Photos courtesy of Dawn Tanner.

Monday, January 02, 2012

January 2, 2012

     Ron has been so busily bottling vinegar that he broke the corker. Our vinegars are all made in small batches and we haven’t gone the route of using a huge mechanized process for bottling. Each cork is inserted into a bottle by the use of a corker that holds the bottle and positions the cork correctly. Then it’s Ron’s muscles and the leverage of a handle that squeezes the cork into the bottle. He’s just bottled strawberry, cherry, and Serrano pepper.
     Strawberry was one of our first vinegars back eight years ago. It’s nice to have a good supply again. Cherry is always in demand. Serrano pepper, while not our hottest vinegar, is a zippy one and a good seller.
     This afternoon, I handled the waxing duties on seven (twenty-four bottle) cases. While it might be good for a wine to breathe through a natural cork, air can stimulate continuing mother formation in the bottles. It’s perfectly harmless, even desirable as a sign of natural vinegar. That's fine but we'd rather not have too much develop between the time we bottle and someone uses it. A layer of beeswax fully seals the bottles, deterring any additional “mothering.” Each bottle is hand dipped in melted beeswax. It’s a pleasant job with the sweet honey scent of the beeswax and the satisfaction that comes with producing our distinctive Leatherwood Vinegars.
     I’ve updated our products page with a current inventory of flavors. For those of you waiting for raspberry: Ron checked the acidity this morning. It’s up to 4.7% so we’ll give it a couple more weeks to reach full potency.