Sat 7 Jun 2008
Where food is concerned, astonishment does not equal happiness. Great cooking does not require prestidigitation but thoughtful consideration of the virtues of simplicity, intensity and inevitability. (Apply this concept to making wine, too.) I would take a perfect roasted chicken any day over the Frankensteinian kitchen feats that transform sea urchins into matchstick fries and olives into bubbles.
LL and I discussed these matters Wednesday after dinner because she had prepared, two nights running, what I decided were perfect meals: porcini risotto on Tuesday and salmon and bok choy on Wednesday. I always tell her that she’s a great cook, a designation she denies. “All I do,” she said that night, as we finished a bottle of Landmark Damaris Reserve Chardonnay 2005, “is try to get the most flavor out of the ingredients as possible.” Zut alors, what an idea! Perhaps the chefs of all the restaurants of the world could stitch those words into a sampler and hang it in their kitchens.
As far as porcini risotto is concerned, LL remains haunted by the by-now nearly mythical (or perhaps mystical) flavors of the dish as she experienced it on her first visit to northern Italy some 40 years ago. Often has she described to me the platonic earthiness, the sublime woodsy nature of that encounter. As she has made porcini risotto for us over the years, and I have reacted by asserting, “Wow, that’s fabulous,” she would demur and say, “Well, it’s good, I suppose, but it’s not like … ”
We had several packages of fragments of dried porcini mushrooms; they’re far cheaper than packages of the whole dried mushrooms, but they’re going to be chopped up anyway. LL soaked them in boiling water, but just to cover, so the flavor and color would be concentrated; then she used that “broth” in the risotto. She also chopped and sauteed a handful of shiitake mushrooms to add flavor. The whole process is a matter of cooking down, reducing, to intensify the elements.
There’s nothing photogenic about a wide, shallow bowl filled with porcini risotto; it’s just a mass of nubby, slightly glistening biege — LL shaved a little Parmesan cheese on the servings and scattered some diced green onion — but boy, did enticing smells rise from it! She took a bite and got this dreamy look on her face. “That’s it,” she said. “Whew,” said I.
Typically, I would have served a medium-bodied, not too boldly flavored red wine with this dish, say a lighter pinot noir or a Dolcetta d’Alba, but when LL called for a some white wine for the risotto, I plucked from the refrigerator a bottle of the Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc 2006, from California’s Central Coast, and poured us each a glass. We liked it so much that we decided to drink it with the risotto. I haven’t been thrilled recently with Bonny Doon’s red wines, but I’ve been knocked out by the whites, particularly Le Cigare Blanc 2006, and not just because it’s a faithful rendition of a white wine from the France’s southern Rhone Valley. Comparisons aside, it’s an entrancing and alluring wine.
Composed of 75.3 percent grenache blanc grapes and 24.7 percent roussanne grapes and aged about six months in neutral (that is, used) French oak barrels, the wine practically glimmers and vibrates in the glass. The color is limpid pale gold; the bouquet features green apple, pear and peach with hints of yellow plum, limestone and honeysuckle. The back label tells us that the roussanne grapes were affected by botrytis, the harvest-time mold that occurs under certain weather conditions and concentrates grape sugars, making the grapes appropriate for dessert wines. In this case, the roussanne was given the minority influence in the wine, but since the residual sugar — the natural grape sugar left after fermentation in dessert wines — is only 0.16 percent by weight, well below the detectable level, the wine is bone-dry but imbued with extraordinary inner richness and broad definition of fruit. The point is that the wine exhibits wonderful tone and balance, a lovely dense, satiny texture, though acid is as crisp as an apple plucked from the tree and cleaved with an ax. At the end — you have to stay with me here — it’s as if the wine embodied two different sorts of floral elements: a little white astringent flower, high-toned and chaste, and a little white sweet blossomy flower, shy, sly and sensual (a sort of Lolita enters the convent wine), while the acid and limestone feel precise, chiseled. In a word: remarkable. Production is 1,830 cases. I rate the wine Exceptional. About $22.
So, next night, we had two fillets of steelhead salmon from Costco. At the local Fresh Market, I bought four heads of baby bok choy. This would be dinner. Preparation of the salmon could not have been simpler. Salt, pepper and lemon juice. Saute about a minute on each side on the stove in the trusty old iron skillet. Slide into a 400 degree oven for about two minutes, three at most. The result is salmon that is indeed cooked but with a layer of rosy rareness at the center. Such a salmon needs no spices, no sauces, no embellishment of any kind. Hollandaise would have been superfluous, “barbecue buerre blanc” or “mango coulis” an insult. These splendid pieces of fish, among the nobility of the finny tribes, were allowed to speak eloquently for themselves.
Similarly simple with the bok choy. Parboil in a very small saucepan, so the leaves stick out from the pot and get slightly charred by the fire. Then saute them briefly in olive oil and garlic and a squeeze of lemon. That’s it.
I wrote about the Landmark Damaris Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Carneros, from the well-known Sangiacomo Vineyard, a few months ago. Having another bottle on hand, I opened it to drink with the salmon and bok choy. Talk about marriages made in heaven! This wine represents everything that is best or can be best about chardonnay in California. It’s not Burgundian, but it’s marked by Burgundy’s elegance, balance and proportion; it’s definitely Californian in its bold ripe flavors, but it avoids the excesses of the flamboyant, tropical, dessert-like style of which the reviewers in the Wine Spectator are so enamored. Its richness and ripeness, its slightly brazen nature are tempered by vibrant acid, resonant mineral qualities and a tremendous sense of self-confident purity and intensity. It’s another Exceptional wine. Internet prices range from about $29 to $38.