Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wine Tasting Tips

One of my friends on Facebook posted a question on my wall earlier this week about 'tips for going to a wine tasting'. Her and her husband recently had a baby and they are going to their first wine tasting for some "grownup time". I responded to her with the following tips:
1. Pace yourself - don't get schnookered (you'll look like a novice & probably buy more than you wanted to)
2. Drink plenty of water - to help pace yourself and keep hydrated.
3. Be sure to eat beforehand - Another way to prevent against getting schnookered.
4.If going as a couple, decide who will be responsible for driving home (just in case tips #1-3 don't work out for you)
5. Do whatever makes you comfortable - if swirling a glass or slurping your wine feels awkward, don't worry about doing it. It will just make you paranoid and you'll be too caught up in 'looking proper' (no one likes a wine snob or wine slob).
6. Don't wear white. Dark colors are best, in case you get bumped or are too overzealous with your swirling.
7. Don't wear cologne or perfume - people are there to sniff and enjoy the wine, not to smell your potent perfume.
8. Take notes or take photos with your camera phone so you can remember what you liked.
9. If you like any of the wines you taste, it is usually a better deal to buy them at the event, then somewhere else later; but don't feel pressured to buy anything if you aren't crazy about any of them.
10. Relax and have fun!!!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Some Things are Worth the Time/Effort - A Recipe for New Orleans BBQ Shrimp

The first time I tried this recipe was back in 2003, when I was still in college and tinkering around with the idea of going to culinary school.  I loved putting off homework so I could bake, stir-fry, and experiment with new cooking techniques.  These days I don't have quite as much free-time as I did back then, but some things are worth making the time for.  So I decided to take the couple hours needed to create one of my favorite dishes, Emeril's New Orleans BBQ Shrimp. Here's the recipe with my additions/alterations:

Ingredients:
3 pounds large Gulf shrimp, in their shells
2 tablespoons Creole seasoning (i used Zatarains)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped onions
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 bay leaves
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 cups water
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup dry white wine (I used an Aussie white blend)
1 cup heavy cream


Directions:
Peel the shrimp completely and de-vein. Reserve the shells and set aside. Sprinkle the shrimp with 1 tablespoon Creole seasoning. Use you hands to coat the shrimp with the seasonings. Refrigerate the shrimp while you make the sauce base.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a skillet over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions and garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the reserved shrimp shells, the remaining Creole seasoning, the bay leaves, lemons, water, Worcestershire, and wine. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, allow to cool for about 15 minutes. Strain into a small saucepan.
Place over high heat, bring to a boil, and cook until thick, syrupy, and dark brown, for about 15 minutes. 

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the seasoned shrimp and saute them, occasionally shaking the skillet, for 2 minutes. Add the cream and enough barbecue base to coat. Stir and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the shrimp to a warm platter with tongs and whisk the butter into the sauce. Remove from the heat. Mound the shrimp in the center of a platter. Spoon the sauce over the shrimp and around the plate. 

This time around I decided to serve the shrimp with some grits (polenta), but in the past I have served it with white rice (which I think is better).  I had a little leftover BBQ base, so I have it in a storage container and have since added dollops to my mac'n'cheese, BLTs, and baked potatoes...it is so flavorful and delicious on/in so many things!  

My recommended wine pairing with this recipe is an off-dry Gewurztraminer to help quench your thirst that all the spiciness creates, while still working well with the depth of flavor the dish provides.  
Cheers & bon appetit! 

Monday, July 12, 2010

How I Spent My Fourth of July Weekend

Some people camp, others go on a road trip or cruise...me? I decided to go out on a limb and fly out for an "audition" at one of our nation's finest restaurants.

Months ago, I had decided to shake things up a bit and send in my resume to The Herbfarm Restaurant in Woodinville, WA.  For those of you that follow my blogs, you will know that I vacationed to that area in February.  Well, The hubby and I liked the area when we were there and I have always been in awe of what The Herbfarm has achieved, so we thought it would be a nice move. But I thought it was a shot in the dark because their job posting had said that they were looking for candidates in their immediate area.  It seems that after several months of searching, they just couldn't find the right candidate nearby.  So I got an email and then a phone call.  Then another phone call. Then another and another.  Next thing I know, I am online booking a flight so I could check the place out firsthand and they could check out me.

Thursday afternoon I arrived and had an interview at 1pm.  I sat down with the two owners and current sommelier for an hour long interview where I was asked to do a sample pairing menu, a mock service demonstration, and talk about my career goals.  I was then dismissed, so I could rest up before returning to the restaurant for dinner.  When I returned at 6:15pm, I was greeted with a delicious non-alcoholic punch and wondered down to the cellar.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop...a really, really big, expensive candy shop.  I chatted with the owner for a little while and then made my way outside for the garden tour.

One of my favorite things about The Herbfarm is that they specialize in something that is so important to me-they grow all of their own herbs and produce, utilize products that are sustainably grown or caught locally, and really focus on the guest experience. It is quite the experience to tour their herb farm and listen to the owner talk about their growing practices and history, all while tasting/smelling things like day-lily petals, chive blossoms, and lavender. 

After the garden tour, I was seated at one of the European tables with 4 couples that came from various backgrounds and places. It was a lively and fun group.  We talked about our hometowns and jobs, about other restaurants we'd dined at, and our favorite movies; but as each course came out, everyone would fall silent for a moment as we all fell in awe of the flawless execution of the delivery and presentation. The conversation would slowly start back up, beginning with 'ooh's and 'ahhs' about the food before us.  After 9 heavenly courses I sauntered back to my hotel room to rest up and get ready to see it from the other side.

On Friday, I arrived just before 3pm to help the sommelier set up for the evening service.  We opened and decanted bottles, studied the night's reservation list, and organized our service station.  I studied up on the menu, tried to calm my nerves, and got ready for the "audition" to start.  It all felt a little overwhelming and chaotic to me, but I did my best to just absorb and organize everything in my mind. I welcomed guests, ran out courses, cleared plates, opened doors, and...oh yeah...poured wine. I didn't have too many opportunities to connect with guests like I usually would because I was too concerned with making sure I was walking the right way around a table, holding things in the correct hand, and doing everything I could to stay out of the way. After a long night of controlled chaos, I decided I had better get some rest, recalibrate, and relax.

On Saturday, I came back with two goals: 1) Be more confident on the floor and 2) make the guests' experiences memorable. I felt like after my Friday night bootcamp, I could come back knowing how to do things and doing them with my own flare.  I wanted to make sure that I could see myself doing this and enjoy doing it day after day.  About two hours into the evening, I completely forgot that I was there for an interview and fell into this zone.  I was joking with guests, taking photos for them, and walking the floor like I had done it a million times before.  It didn't take long before I was snapped back out of it, though, when I was asked by one of the owners to explain the dish (in detail) that was going out.  I tripped over my words and chopped my way through it.  Definitely needed some more practice on that.  Though, it was reassuring when, at the end of the night, one of the servers came up to me and said that she didn't even notice me on the floor that night.  Which is a good thing because it meant that she was constantly trying to correct me or maneuver around me.

After the last guest was gone, the service staff all worked together to get the room reset and cleaned up.  After that we sat down with the owners to go over the evening of service and discuss areas of opportunity.  Then, I was told that I could head back to my hotel room and that they were all going to stay to talk about me.

I got a phone call from one of the owners two days after I returned to WI.  Bittersweet news...they liked me, but needed me to have more PacificNW wine knowledge and felt that I was a little out of practice being on the floor.  This news meant that I didn't have to take a big risk and move 2,002 miles, find a new house, sell my current house, help my husband find a job, and leave my current gigs.  But it did leave me a little disappointed that I missed out on a new adventure - an adventure that would have thrown me out on that dining room 'stage' every night, would have allowed me to work for such a respected restaurant with owners that value so much that is dear to me, and would have landed me in an area that I find so astounding...

But I remain optimistic and excited about my wine-filled future.  Who knows, I may end up living in Seattle...or France...or back in California... or....?  For now, I am going to continue riding the fun and turbulent wave I'm on and keep seeing where it will take me....