Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Red Heat Tavern: Josper Charcoal Broiler Oven (Part 1)

It is the only one of its kind in Massachusetts, and one of only three in New England. It is an intriguing piece of equipment, and it perked my interest enough to learn much more, delving deeper into its origins and capabilities. All this excitement over an oven, An oven?

This fascinating oven is the Josper Charcoal Broiler Oven and is part of the kitchen at the Red Heat Tavern, a relatively new restaurant in Wilmington, easily accessible from Route 93. I've spoken to two chefs at the Tavern, dined there on two occasions, and got a chance to view the oven in operation. And I remain excited about this oven, and I believe other chefs should investigate the capabilities of this unique item.

The Josper Oven was created in 1970 by Josep Armangue and Pere Juli, who opened the restaurant Mas Pi in Pinedar de Mar in northeast Spain. They enjoyed cooking over charcoal, but wanted a better way to do so. The Josper is both grill and oven, and you have the ability to close its front door to keep the smoke, moisture and flavor inside of the oven. Working with 100% charcoal, it also cooks faster than an open grill, and even uses less charcoal. Originally only available in Europe, the Josper has since been made available in the U.S. through Wood Stone, Currently, only a small number of U.S. restaurants are using this oven, and Red Heat Tavern has become the first in Massachusetts to put in into their kitchen.

I recently spoke with Chef Martha Leahy, of Red Heat Tavern, to interview her about the Josper. Chef Leahy actually began a career in finance, but eventually decided to make a change and go to culinary school, graduating from Johnson & Wales. She then obtained a Master's degree in Italian cuisine in Italy. Afterwards, she spent time in culinary research & development, concepts and even taught at culinary school. She began working at Red Heat about a month after they opened their doors in March 2014.

The Josper oven, which was new to everyone at Red Heat, was something unique, and they felt it would help their concept stand out. There is certainly plenty of restaurant competition, so such differences can be significant, if they work well. At first, the Josper was delivered to Executive Chef's Alan Frati's home so he could experiment with it for a time before they added it to the restaurant. It is a bit more expensive than a regular restaurant oven, but its advantages seem to make the purchase worthwhile. However, like any tool, the key is how you use it.

One of the disadvantages of the Josper is that it has a steep learning curve, that cooking with it is both art and science. You need to learn how to control the heat through varying the amount of charcoal as well as the amount of air allowed into the oven. The high heat, which can reach 800-900 degrees, was initially intimidating to some of the kitchen employees. Chef Frati mentioned to me that, at first, many of the cooks wore large, hear-resistant gloves and aprons while using the Josper, but once they became more comfortable with its use, those gloves and aprons vanished.

The Josper has two different grills and they use four different cooking zones within that oven. The bottom level is the charbroiler while the top level is more the oven. Each morning, around 7am, they start the grill, raising it to about 400-500 degrees, using it for their prep work such as roasting tomatillos or slow cooking chicken wings. For service, they bring the Josper up to 800-900 degrees, so it gets hot working around this oven..

As fuel, they use a hard wood mesquite charcoal which they purchase from a company in Maine. They believe mesquite provides the best flavors to their food, and they go through about 30 pounds of charcoal per day. The Josper cooks food about 40% faster than other ovens or grills, which can be a great time saver during a busy service, and the enclosed area allows the heat to come from all sides, helping to cook food more thoroughly. In addition, the enclosed area keeps the smoke within the chamber, imbuing more flavor to the food.

Chef Leahy stated that the Josper works with most foods, obviously doing well with beef and other meats. Seafood, which you might think is too delicate for the oven, actually cooks well inside the Josper too. Vegetables even do well, caramelizing nicely, as well as acquiring smoky elements. Chef Leahy loves the fact that the Josper was inspired by an ancient coking method, the covered fire pits that were once used in Spain.

How does food taste cooked in the Josper? I'll tell you my thoughts in Part 2.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Americans, Don't Ignore Farmed Seaweed

For most Americans, their sole familiarity with eating seaweed is when they dine at Japanese restaurants, from seaweed salads to sushi. Most non-Asian restaurants rarely use seaweed as an ingredient and it is also rare for Americans to purchase seaweed for home cooking. Why is that the case? Why isn't seaweed for popular, especially with current efforts to get people to eat more healthy vegetables and plants?

In the latest issues of the Global Aquaculture Advocate (Sept/Oct 2014), there is a fascinating article, Seaweeds: Top Mariculture Crop, Ecosystem Service Provider. Sure, the title might seem dull, but the points it makes are thought provoking. And there should be much more discussion in the seafood sustainability realm about seaweed.

Mariculture is a category of aquaculture where the species are raised in the open ocean, an enclosed section of the ocean, or in enclosed area which is filled with seawater. Since 2004, seaweed has been the most common mariculture species. In 2012, seaweed represented about 49% of all global mariculture. Nearly half! In comparison, mollusks (like oysters and clams) represented about 31% of mariculture while fin fish represented about 11% and crustaceans only 8%. In addition, nearly 96% of all seaweed comes from mariculture, so very little is wild harvested.

In 2012, seaweed production reached about 24 million metric tons, valued at $6.4 billion, and this total has an average annual growth of 7,7%. It is a huge business so why don't more Americans know about this seaweed production? The main answer is that over 96% of all seaweed production occurs in Asia, in six countries including China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea, Japan and Malaysia. As such, Americans rarely notice anything but the finished product that might show up on their plate at a Japanese restaurant.

Seaweed needs more respect in the U.S., as it is both good for the environment, the ecological weel being of the sea, as well as providing a nutritious and sustainable food choice. Kelp is very healthy for you, being gluten free and low in calories, carbohydrates and fat. It also is an excellent source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and iron, as well as one of the few foods with the nutrient iodine, which is essential for hormone balance.

This past spring, I learned about one of the few seaweed farms in the U.S. Founded in Maine in 2006, Ocean Approved was the first kelp farm in the U.S. and they grow it sustainability in the cold, clean waters of Maine. They see kelp farming as an industry and not just something done by their own company, and in fact, even have a Kelp Farming Manual on their website.

I got to sample some of their kelp products and I found them tasty, from a Berry Kelp Smoothie to a Kelp Savory. As I have said before, we need to diversity the amount and type of seafood species we eat, to better protect our oceans and the life that inhabits it. Kelp and other seaweeds are species that we should be consuming far more, supporting those locals willing to take the risk on seaweed mariculture. We also need to encourage other Americans to invest in domestic seaweed aquaculture, to both help our oceans, our economy and to provide another sustainable choice.

Give these plants of the sea their due respect.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rant: Vodka's Dying, Long Live Whiskey!

Three years ago, vodka reigned supreme and its future seemed bright. How matters have apparently changed in a short time.

From 2010 to 2011, the vodka category grew by volume about 6%, selling about 65.8 million cases and making it the most consumed spirit in the U.S. During that same time period, the growth of some other spirits included: rum rose 1.3% (25.8 million cases), tequila rose 3.8% (12 million), American whiskey rose 5% (20.85 million) and Irish whiskey rose 23.9% (1.76 million). Brandy & cognac remained at the same level (10.37 million) though a few other spirits saw a decline. Gin decreased 2% (10.8 million), cordials decreased 1.2% (19.4 million) and even Scotch decreased 1.4% (8.5 million).

Driving the vodka rise was the flavored vodka category, which rose by a significant 23.3%, increasing by 3.3 million cases, and constituted over 25% of the total vodka volume. Nearly 75% of the vodkas introduced in 2011 were flavored vodkas. Raspberry and citrus were the top two flavors but whipped cream seized third place. For example, Pinnacle Whipped Cream grew an incredible 324.5% in 2011 to make it the leading flavored vodka brand. Growth was predicted to continue at significant levels for years to come.

However, a new article, All Hail King Whiskey, in The Atlantic casts doubt on the continued supremacy of vodka.  It is predicted that the dollar value of whiskey this year will pass that of vodka, though vodka will continue to rule by volume. This is not a brief aberration, but rather a sign of a significant change in the drinking habits of Americans. By 2018, it is predicted that whiskey sales may even overtake vodka by volume too.  Vodka's apparently dying. Long live whiskey!

In 2013, the vodka category grew only by 1%, and is the smallest amount of growth in maybe the last ten years. In addition, 2013 saw evidence that the flavored vodka category wasn't contributing to the growth of the overall category. In fact, flavored vodka was now seen to be taking away sales from unflavored vodka. What a difference a few years have made.

Why is whiskey doing so well? There are several reasons, all contributing to its continued growth and positive outlook for the future. First, it appeals more to people seeking "local, authentic and natural" spirits. The surge of craft distilleries across the country has led to a greater interest in local whiskies. Second, its history and flavor profiles are more interesting and diverse than vodka. Many of the different flavored vodkas are actually fairly similar as they are mainly sweet in their profile. Whiskies also add more flavors to cocktails than most vodkas. Third, the great demand for more expensive bourbons is fueling increased sales, and bourbon has become one of the fastest growing whiskey categories. Fourth, whiskey has begun using marketing methods which once provided much success to the vodka category. All of these factors have led to whiskey's great rise.

Consider even just the new outlets, and how they discuss whiskey far more than vodka. There has been plenty of discussion about new whiskey distilleries opening, locally and around the world, from Taiwan to Washington state, but when is the last time you heard about a new vodka distillery? The main news people see about vodka is the creation of some strange new flavor. And we have seen an over-saturation of flavored vodkas. How many candy flavored vodkas do you really need?

While I was recently in the Hudson River Valley, as part of TasteCamp, we visited a whiskey distillery and there was a spirits tasting there with products from a number of other local distilleries. One of those producers had an intteresting vodka made from apples, and there was at least one other vodka from another producer, but it was the whiskies, especially those produced by Hillrock Distillery that drew everyone's attention. People may have liked the apple vodka but they raved about the whiskies.

Vodka isn't disappearing, and it still sells many millions of cases, but its growth has decreased significantly, People are getting tired of all the dozens upon dozens of flavored vodkas. They want something more now and whiskey has attracted many of those people. It has become a strong competitor, and its growth will continue for years to come. There are multiple reasons for the increased popularity of whiskey, and those same reasons will lead to less growth for vodka, until whiskey, by volume, may overtake vodka..

Are you primarily a whiskey or vodka lover? Whatever your choice, why do you prefer that spirit?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Gran Reserva Rioja: The Beauty of Aged Spanish Wine

My love of Spanish wine is well known, from Basque Txavoli to Sherry, from Albarino to Mencia. They make excellent wine at all price points, and have some intriguing indigenous grapes. The country is rich in wine history, and there is much diversity to be found. I've traveled to Spain three times, including to the Rioja region, and would return again in a heart beat. If you aren't drinking Spanish wine, you're missing out on so many wonderful wines.

Some Spanish wines are categorized by the length of their aging, from Joven to Gran Reserva. The Gran Reserva designation is for those red wines with the longest amount of aging, a minimum of five years, and the wine must spend at least 18 months in a barrel and at least 36 months in the bottle. There are Gran Reserva whites and rosés but they have a slightly different requirement, requiring aging for at least 4 years, with a minimum of 6 months in the barrel. These aged wines can be often be purchased at very reasonable prices, and even less than a similarly aged wine from many other wine regions.

I received media samples of two Gran Reserva Rioja wines, one very reasonably priced, and one a more higher end wine, though it too is well worth the price. I recommend both of them, with the higher-end Rioja getting my highest recommendation.

The 2007 Montecillo Gran Reserva ($21) is produced by Bodegas Montecillo, which was founded in 1874, making it the third oldest winery in La Rioja. In 1973, the winery was purchased by the Osborne Group, a family business that extends back over 200 years. Montecillo doesn't have any vineyards, and purchases all of its grapes. The main winemaker at Montecillo is Maria Martinez-Sierra, bringing over 30 years of experience to the winery. She is a formidable force in Rioja, with feet firmly set in the past, but with eyes that look forward as well.

Produced from a red blend, with primarily Tempranillo, this wine had a pleasant aroma of cherry with herbal notes. On the palate, the red fruit flavors were prominent, bright cherry and raspberry, with underlying notes of herbs, vanilla, mild spice and tobacco. There is plenty of complexity in its taste, and the finish is moderately long and pleasing. It is still young, with plenty of room to age, and is a good value at this price.

The 1998 Bodegas Riojanas Monte Real Gran Reserva Rioja ($50) shows the great potential of aged Rioja. Bodegas Riojanas, founded in 1890, was originally located in Cenicero, in Rioja Alta, but the new winery is now in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, about 20km from Cenicero. They have over 300 hectares of vineyards, with grapes including Tempranillo, Mazuelo and Graciano. Their annual production is now about 4.5 million bottles, but in the U.S., it is still a label that flies under the radar of many wine lovers, and it should be on everyone's list..

This Gran Reserva is a blend of 80% Tempranillo, 15% Mazuelo, and 5% Graciano and is aged for 24-30 months in American oak and then aged in the bottle for at least 36 months. With a medium-red color, it has an alluring nose of cherry, plum and spice notes, and you'll probably sit with your glass for a time just enjoying the aromas. On the palate, you'll find a complex melange of intriguing flavors, a harmonious blend of fruit, spice and herbs. Elegant and silky, the wine caresses your palate, thrilling your senses. The tannins are well integrated, the wine is well balanced, and the finish lingers on and on. Though it will pair well with many dishes, it will also please on its own. An amazing wine that benefits from slowly savoring with good friends. It receives my highest recommendation.

As the holidays approach, this would be a good choice for a splurge, either for yourself or as a gift for someone else. You can look forward to more articles about Rioja wine in the near future,

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Alden & Harlow: First Impressions

Although Alden & Harlow opened in January 2014, I felt bad that I hadn't dined there until very recently. And now that I've dined there, I feel like I've cheated myself out of some excellent meals, and I promise myself to frequent this restaurant more often. As I mentioned yesterday, I recently dined there with a Chilean winemaker and I also attended another wine tasting there earlier this week. If you haven't been there yet, I advise you to rush there and experience its delicious cuisine.

Alden & Harlow, located in Harvard Square on Brattle Street, is owned by Chef Michael Scelfo, who may be familiar to you from his stints at restaurants like Russell House Tavern and Temple Bar. I'm acquainted with Chef Scelfo's culinary skills from Russell Tavern and several local food events, and was pleased that he finally had his own restaurant. The website states that it serves "thoughtfully sourced, honest American food" and they use local ingredients whenever possible. Many of those local purveyors are identified on his website and sometimes on the menu as well.

This is a far larger restaurant than a I expected, with a lengthy bar to your left as you enter the restaurant. It has a homey, casual vibe, and was relatively packed on the Thursday evening that I dined there.

I like that they have an open kitchen, which to me is a sign of the confidence of the chef and his team.

The menu contains primarily small plates, perfect for sharing, including Snacks (7 choices at $8 each) and the main plates (22 choices at $12-$18, with one exception). The menu changes frequently, though a few items (like their Secret Burger) remain, though the preparation may vary. You may have heard that vegetables take a prominent place on the menu, and that is correct, but carnivores will find plenty to interest them as well. We had a few of their vegetable dishes, such as their Grilled Cauliflower, and and they certainly looked enticing, and were well received by the others dining with me.

From the Snacks menu, I loved the warm, Pistachio Crusted Halloumi with roasted cherry tomatoes and warm bread. The soft, creamy and briny cheese was complemented by the nutty pistachio and it was great to smear on the bread slices. And the tomatoes added a nice touch of smoke and acidity to the dish. For the price, I think it was a very good value as it was large enough to share with 2 or 3 people.

Maybe my favorite dish of the night was the Chicken Fried Local Rabbit ($15) which comes with celery, apple, blue cheese, and chili oil. For a detailed explanation of their rabbit dish, check out a Anatomy of Alden & Harlow’s Chicken Fried Rabbit in Boston magazine. Though some of the accompaniments for this dish are different, the main info about the rabbit is still applicable. Chef Scelfo loves eating rabbit, as do I, but also understands that it is a tough sell at restaurants. Earlier this year, I wrote about all the reasons why people should eat rabbit, noting that people's reluctance to eat rabbit was primarily psychological, and that they need to get past those mental barriers. Chef Sclefo tried to make this rabbit dish more accessible to diners, and I think he succeeded.

This dish is superb comfort food, a thick crispy piece of a silky and flavorful rabbit and pork belly mixture, For a fall evening, this was a perfect dish to fill your belly. The addition of the apple and blue cheese adds an interesting element to the dish. It is large enough to split with someone else, though it would be tough for me to have to share such a compelling plate. I understand why so many people have raved about this dish, and I highly recommend it to everyone. Put aside your reservations about eating rabbit, and just give this dish a try. I bet you become a convert after enjoying this fried rabbit.

The Grilled Lamb Sirloin ($18) with cocoa rub, grilled carrot mash, and spring green puree, were perfectly cooked slices of lamb, tender and flavorful, with mild cocoa notes, and they were perfect accompaniments to the wines we were drinking,especially the Carmenere. Again, this is a dish you can share, but you might find yourself wanting to eat all the lamb yourself. The carrot mash was tasty too, with a nice creaminess.

The Crispy Berkshire Pork Belly ($15), with Anson Mills grits and roasted peaches, was another winner. The skin on the top was very crunchy, and topped the silky and alluring fat beneath. Who doesn't love pork belly? And the grits and peaches made a delicious side for the meat. Peaches and pork is such a great pairing.

I had a little room for dessert and there are four choices available on their Dessert menu, priced $9-$11. I opted for the Baked Apple & Olive Oil Cake Trifle, with Aleppo & Honey Whipped Cream and brown sugar. This is a great seasonal choice with lots of flavor, a spicy kick, and a nice balance of crisp apples and smooth cream and soft cake.

Every dish I tasted was a clear winner, from an excellent presentation to well-balanced and compelling flavors. I now understand why Alden & Harlow has received so many accolades, and Chef Scelfo has created a destination for food lovers of all types. Kudos to the chef and I'll be dining there again very soon, to further explore the menu.

Alden & Harlow on Urbanspoon