Sunday, June 8, 2008

El Corregidor

When I was in Spain this past May, arguably the best meal I ate was at El Corregidor in a small town called Almagro, a half hours drive from Cuidad Real, in La Mancha. The following are a gentler version of the notes I tried to scribble down during the meal:

We started off the eveninng with a bottle of Muga ‘reserva especial’ from '03, a Rioja, and according to Frank '03 was and exceptional year'. It had a big black cherry nose with a full flavor and clean finish. We enjoyed it over a plate blanketed with bellota Iberico ham.

We had brought two small bottles of olive oil that we had picked up at the food expo, in case the house oil was not-so-good. The head waiter saw us and came over to our table- he poured himself a bit of each into separate wine glasses, tasted them, and declaired 'no!' and walked away. A moment later he came back with a bottle of Aceites Oro Balien, a 100% picual olive oil from Jaen, which we had just tasted for the first time at the expo. He declared that it was the best, set it on the table, and walked off. I was really impressed that they take their oil so seriously.

We then ordered a bottle of Mauro Ribera del duero ’05, from Castillo y Leon. Interesting bit with this wine is that the producers did not adhere to the rules of Ribera DOP, so by law it has to be labeled as ‘table wine of Castillo y Leon’. Instead of making a DOP approved Ribera, they altered the percentages of grapes (‘temperinillo and hotras' (others) on the label) to create a slightly different flavor profile. From my notes: Tempranillo grapes differ from region to region- the flavor reflects the terroir incredibly. If it’s grown in 20 regions, you’ll get 20 wines.

Although both wines came bottled with a traditional cork, somehow we got on the topic of advancements in the wine industry- specifically screwcaps. The advantage of screwcaps is that you get a 100% seal, whereas with corks you’ll get an 80% seal at best. They’ve only been in use for 12 years, so it’s arguable how well they would allow wines to age over long periods of time.

Food, as it arrived on the table:

Crema de Guisantes con tallarines de sepia y verduras (12e)
-foie gras (sadly, badly trimmed) with local mushrooms in sauce. The flavor of the foie was good but the veins were distracting. The mushrooms were the local variety, somewhat similar to shittake but not as distinctive. The sauce was nice in that they had mounted in butter for richness, but it would have better had they reduced it beforehand and added more salt.

Pochas saltenades con colas de cangrejo de rio y crujiente de jambon (14e)
- white beans stewed with either shrimp or crayfish (couldn’t tell) and deep fried bacon strips. This was the dish that lingered most in everyone’s head, and I was really sad that I couldn’t eat it on account of my allergy to shellfish.

Papada crujiente de cerdo con gambon y caramelo de vinagre (15e)
- Somehow I missed the notes on this, but would be remiss if I didn't mention it.

Merluza con sopa de mejillones (22e)
-hake, which was bland- needed salt and oil, which made it taste much better. Frank noted that it tasted better when cool- he enjoyed the saffron notes although it's presence wasn’t evident in the color.

Carrillada de cerdo iberico en su jugo (18e)
-Matthew said ‘oh my god’ three times and declared it a ‘pork epiphany’. Fantastic young pig with the most amazingly impressive crispy crust. Not sure how they managed that, because the layers of fat and meat between the crust and the little rib bones were perfectly cooked and moist. The fat layer added a creaminess to the dish- we made sure not to leave any meat on the ribs. The skin was amazing. There was an apple pure (consistency implied that it was passed through a food mill) and a reduced vinegar sauce that added a fantastic acidity. A perfectly balanced dish in both texture and flavor.

(Kitty, holding up the pork)

Magret de Pato con higos agridulces (20e)
-duck seared with apple pure, a poached fig and black and rasp berries. The fig must have been poached in a bit of vinegar and spices and paired awesomely with the duck, which was cooked to a perfect medium rare.

Conchinillo crujiente con pure de manzana (22e)
-pork cheeks that were sadly overcooked and undersalted. The apple pure was the same as on the crispy pork, but the overwhelming impression was that the cheeks were like jerky.

We had a few desserts, none of which were terribly memorable, though it was the first time I had seen a quinelle (an egg shaped portion of ice cream or mousse that is created by rolling a spoon across the surface) since I left Vegas, which brought back a lot of memories. Food just doesn't get that fancy here in Ann Arbor.

We were the first to arrive at the beautiful old restaurant, and to our surprise, when we looked up after finishing our meal, we were the last to still be seated. The waiter was standing by patiently waiting for us to depart. We asked him to call a taxi for us- he came back a moment later and said that there were none available. The 3 taxi drivers in town had gone home for the night. Had I not been tipsy from wine and crispy pork, I would have been more concerned, but in that state of mind I would have been happy to take a nap in their kitchen. We wandered down to a hotel that had a front desk attendant and after 15 minutes or so, he found us a taxi that took us home.

The Beauty of Pork captured in the book Pork & Sons by French chef Stephane Reynaud from Phiadon press. I first came across this book in Spain, in a specialty food shop called Maison Blanche. Despite the fact that it was in Spanish, I almost bought it on the spot because of it's beautiful photos & illustrations- fortunately I found an English version online.

I've just re-read the book for the second or third time and it's a joy to drift through. His antidotes of his family, of which he's the third generation of butchers, and friends, whom he's photographed with love, and illustrations of pigs makes this compendium of all things French relating to pork a great book. And the recipes!

The last one I earmarked is 'tenderloins with maple syrup', which involves rhubarb and tenderloins basted with port and maple syrup, finished off with hazelnuts and black pepper. The 'rack of pork with ginger cooked in a salt crust' and multiple different terrines made my stomach grumble. And there isn't a single recipe in the chapter on ham that doesn't sound fantastic.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Lentil Soup

I recently made a soup with French green lentils, which are slate colored with dark specks on them (they look like flattened capers). They hold there shape when cooked, unlike brown or red lentils and taste like, well, lentils, which taste like whatever you cook them in. They have their merrits- fine lentils indeed. But what I really love are Castelluccio lentils from Umbria, Italy. They grow on the Castelluccio plain, south of the Sibillini mountains, and ever since I cooked with some over a year ago, I haven't been able to find another type of lentil that's better, or even close to better. It's hard to explain. Yeah, they're really healthy (protein, fiber, etc) and they don't require any pre-soaking and cook in about 30 minutes- all good things. But the flavor of them is what sets them apart- delicate, nutty and slightly earthy.

I'm not versed on what's involved in growing lentils, but Castelluccio's have always been grown in an organic manner, even before the distinction of organic was around. They have a 'protected geographical indication' certification from the Italian Govt. and are worth searching out if you can find them. Specialty foods stores will carry them, but in the states you'll pay a pretty penny for them.

Whichever lentil you choose, this soup recipe is a good one. It's a blend of several different ones I've come across and can be vegetarian if you omit the pancetta (though, as usual, pork makes everything taste better). It also contains a spice called 'grains of paradise', which is from West Africa- it's similar to a peppercorn but with a floral quality. At one point in history they were a cheaper alternative to black peppercorns, but have since become somewhat of a rarity.

Lentil Soup

2 T olive oil
1 thick slick of pancetta, cut into chunks
1 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup finely chopped carrot
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
2 t salt
1 pound lentils, picked and rinsed
1 cup peeled, chopped tomatoes
2 quarts of chickenstock (do yourself a favor and use homemade)
1/2 t freshly ground coriander
1/2 t freshly ground toasted cumin
1/2 t freshly ground grains of paradise
1/4 t freshly ground black peppercorns
fresh squeezed juice from half of a lemon

It's good to have the following on hand for garnishing:
a flavorful olive oil
some hot sauce (such as Piri Piri)

- heat a 6qt cast iron pot to medium
- add the oil, then the pancetta, onion, carrot, celery and salt. Sweat them until translucent
- add the lentils, tomatoes, broth and spices.
- allow it to come to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low and cook, mostly covered, until the lentils are tender (about 35-40 minutes).
- add the lemon juice and puree in batches to your desired consistency.

Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a touch of hot sauce, or some chopped cilantro and sour cream.