This is a story of a city girl and a country boy joining forces in a downtown Manhattan alley. OK, that came out wrong—let me explain. In the beginning of this school year, my friend, Austin, approached me about cooking a dinner for Bloomer Creek winery to celebrate their recent addition of a new plot of land to their greater vineyard. I had gotten to know Debra Birmingham, one of the owners of the winery (and wife of the winemaker, Kim Engle) and artist at the Ithaca farmers’ market during my time at Cornell. Therefore, I was obviously enticed by the thought of cooking toward the Bloomer Creek wines (which I have thoroughly enjoyed while in Ithaca).
To get the planning started, we took a short trip up to the Bloomer Creek winery one chilly Sunday in October to taste their wines and talk ideas with Debra and Kim. After basically mudding through an enchanted forest to get there (damn you, GPS, who did not know the easier route), we arrived at the winery. Before going inside, I could tell the property was beautiful; even though the day seemed gloomy, the area’s extensive green, weathered and healthy vines, and view of the lake had me excited. Once we entered Debra and Kim’s winery (and home), I was blown away.
This place was not ordinary, and it only took a few questions on my end before I learned that Debra and Kim built the house with their bare hands, painted every wall, and distressed and finished every floorboard themselves. It was incredible. After taking it all in, we went over to a central island to taste some wine. While we tasted from Riesling to Cabernet Sauvignon to distilled grape spirits, we learned how they began the winery, Kim’s philosophy on winemaking, and their take on their wines in the context of New York as well as the world. Each wine had unique beauty, and as we noted various flavors and aromas, colors and textures, we began thinking food.
Before heading home, we saw the cellar where the magic happens. Vats and carboys of fermenting wine took up much of the cellar, while old oak barrels housed aging wines. Kim and Debra explained that they prefer using older oak barrels for their wines so that the grapes can be more readily expressed than they could under a veil of heavy oak flavor. Even more interestingly, they allow their wines to begin fermentation naturally rather than inoculating with a yeast starter like many other winemakers do. Even though the fermentation begins more slowly, they said, the wines’ flavors benefit, and this proprietary yeast strain makes their wines more notable.
When we talked about a location for the dinner, Debra and Kim suggested we either have a sit-down dinner in the Bowery section of Manhattan, at their artist friend, Jimmy Wright’s place, or have a cocktail party at the winery. Although the cocktail party sounded fun, we unanimously agreed an off-site in Manhattan would be a fun adventure. Besides—with a smaller crowd for dinner, we could control the wine pairing experience better and focus on creating a winning menu to show off these great wines.
Once we got on the road, Austin and I began talking food. Between the car ride home and a stop at Chipotle for a quick dinner, we had already come up with much of the menu. First and foremost, we chose our wine progression based on seasonal ingredients we wanted to use. Then, it was all menu talk. After drafting a five-course tasting menu, we sent it to Debra for feedback.
She gave the menu the thumbs-up, so we began to plan the dinner for mid-November. Unfortunately, as the date came closer, Hurricane Sandy hit the city. Although Jimmy’s place was not damaged by the hurricane, the city was a watery, powerless mess still, and we decided it was clearly best to wait. After a few back-and-forth emails, we set the date for January 27th, the weekend after classes began again for Cornell.
On January 25th, a Friday, Austin and I drove out of Ithaca for my New Jersey hometown at the crack of dawn. Neither of us really knew whey we had to leave so early, but we felt we could get more done without a rush if we arrived early Friday. That day, we shopped for most of our ingredients, finalized our menu, and created a game plan. We would drive into Manhattan the next day to set up at Jimmy’s and begin prep.
On Saturday, I was excited as I backed my Dad’s old Toyota into Freeman Alley, a small alley off Rivington, where the fabled apartment we would work in, was located. As of this day, I had not seen the space, even though Austin had, so I was running on blind faith. After all, this was a sketchy door going into an industrial looking building in an alley. But you never know these days… After we got buzzed in, we carried our coolers of ingredients up his couple flights of stairs to the main space.
If I wasn’t speechless from lugging coolers upstairs and being out of shape, I would have been rendered so by the sight of the living space. When I say this place was cool, I mean it was the sickest looking apartment I had ever laid eyes on. The apartment had everything—exposed brick, random decorations collected over the years, beautiful art, a nice kitchen with two four-burner ranges and ovens, and a lovely man living there.
Jimmy was a rare bird, for sure. One way to explain how cool he is is to start by noting that he and his late partner renovated the apartment years ago, converting it from a near meth-lab type building to the crazy-awesome studio/apartment that it currently is. I could also describe him by noting that over a day at his apartment, we heard music from opera to Snoop Dog to jazz to skaa-like stuff. And he painted his bathroom like a jungle. And he has some witty-ass humor. Yes, the dude is awesome.
After we unloaded and organized our stuff, we parked the car and set out in search of Asian herbs and duck breast. Being close to Chinatown certainly helped; after striking out on duck meat at Whole Foods, we knew where to look. In a Chinese fish and meat market, we found a pile of birds in the back cooler, most of them chickens. Fortunately, we found three ducks priced at ten dollars each. This was great! We would find out later that the suckers still had heads and feet on and were very possibly frozen with the guts still in, but because we did not need the carcasses, we were in the clear (and the duck passed the taste-test). We should have known when we saw an oddly small center-cut loin that was most likely from someone’s wire-haired Schnauzer that we were probably not getting a fully fabricated bird situation. But hey, c’est la vie, right?
Back at the house, we busted out most of our prep for the next day and planned out the table set-up with Debra, Kim, and Jimmy. After that, Austin and I returned to New Jersey to get some sleep, print some menus, and go over final details.
The day of the party, we only had to finish some prep work, organize, and set up the space for the dinner. Despite using my family’s old-ass computer and printer for the menus, we came up with something our artist friends deemed nice. Once we got started with the dinner, it went by in a flash.
When guests arrived, we had cheese and aperitif wine for them. Debra poured Bloomer Creek’s delicately balanced Riesling and Pinot Noir while we took a break in our cooking schedule to meet and befriend the guests. Debra insisted that we not rush the dinner or spend too much time cleaning in case we miss out on the company, and her advice did not fall on deaf ears. Everyone was really great to talk to—we talked to people in the food and wine business, the art business, and a girl close in age to us who gave me advice on where to travel in Hungary. Cocktail hour was fun, and we cheers’d to finally making the dinner happen.
Course by course, we sent out the food, actually taking the time to eat each course with the guests—another of Debra’s kind requests. No one was in a hurry, and even though we took time to eat, the whole dinner didn’t drag.
Our first course was a carrot salad with cashews, sheeps’ milk yogurt, oregano, and maple-lime vinaigrette. We paired it with the Bloomer Creek Block 97 Chardonnay from 2010. Here, the subtle oak on the wine went beautifully with the smoky, nutty cashews; the maple rounded out the pairing, adding some sweetness where the wine was dry. Oregano added minty, herbal freshness, and the yogurt brought a tart note to the dish that echoed the Chardonnay’s clean acidity.
The second course was a black cardamom and vanilla-spiced crispy pork rillette with mizuna salad and challah croutons. This paired with their Tanzen Dame 2nd Harvest Riesling from 2011. We designed this course after Debra told us she likes this wine with paté. Since the Riesling had some spice notes to it, we wanted to bring that home with the spices in the pork. The vanilla in the dish accented the stone fruit in the wine. Since the wine had a little sweetness, we dressed the mizuna salad in a high-acid vinaigrette so that the overall pairing wouldn’t end up too cloying or one-note. Overall, the pairing seemed a success. And, of course, deliciously butter-laden challah croutons never ruin the party.
The third course was duck with masa dumplings, squash puree, raspberry-red pepper salsa, and chevre crema. We paired this with the Cabernet Franc from 2007. Because we detected a lot of earthy notes and some bell-pepper notes in the Cab Franc originally, Austin wanted to give a nod to his home (Arizona) with some Southwestern flavors. Hence, the masa dumplings and salsa. The pairing was really nice here, because the raspberry in the salsa brought up some of the red fruit in the wine a notch and the peppers in the salsa spoke to the capsicum notes the wine already showcased. The masa and the duck both brought some warmer flavors and umami to the dish, creating a pairing that had it all.
The fourth course was braised beef tongue with celeriac puree, sour cherry gastrique, and Vietnamese herb salad. This went with the Cabernet Sauvignon from 2007. This course was a funny one. From the outset, I wanted to do braised beef tongue. As frequent readers of Getinmebelly know, I am an off-cuts girl. It took minor convincing on my end to get Austin on board with this, and Debra was a little unsure. But because we went through with a risk, we did reap a high reward—none left a scrap of tongue on the plate.
Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the heavier wines in the world. Kim and Debra’s Cab is slightly less oaky than some, allowing the woodsy, fruity qualities from the grape to shine through. For the pairing, we did a take on steak and potatoes. Our steak was obviously the tongue, here, and the mashed potatoes were really celeriac puree. To pick up the acidity, we added the sour cherry gastrique, and to add intrigue, we added the Vietnamese herbs (mint, cilantro, culantro, basil). The celeriac met some of the woodsier flavors in the wine where a potato might have left them hanging, and the herbs came through for the subtle eucalyptus notes we found in the wine.
The last course was a clementine-saffron sherbet with whipped almond gazpacho, tonic gelée, and smoked paprika gingersnap crunch. We served this with the Bloomer Creek grape brandy. This course was a fun one. We took some very Spanish flavors (saffron, pimentón, white gazpacho), and used them in a dessert. It hit home for me, having spent time in Galicia, where some meals are finished with the house Orujo, a distilled grape spirit. No, we did not put garlic in the gazpacho for the dessert, but a little lemon zest and a touch of sugar transformed it into a delicious dessert “soup.”
Since we charged it in an isi canister, it was really more fluffy than soup, but let’s not get away from the bigger picture. The spice and crunch from the cookie with the creaminess and acidity of the gazpacho, the bright, saffron-infused sherbet, and the subtly bitter tonic gelée was a pretty dynamic bomb of flavor. And with the beautiful grape brandy? It was the shit. And I’m not bragging—it’s just one of those things when flavor nostalgia hits home.
By sitting down and eating with the guests (something cooks do not do often), we got to see both sides of the story—the cooking and the guest experience. As Aly, one of the guests, pointed out, the English language does not have a word for good food, good people, and a good place. Well hopefully, we can make one soon; it seems a few foreign countries already beat us to it.
When the dinner was over, I think Austin and I both felt mixed senses of relief and loss—even though we were both glad the dinner went off without a hitch, it was our baby. Since October, we had been planning, tweaking plans, re-engineering the menu…and now it was all over! I take comfort in knowing that not only did the dinner go well, but that we met some really great people in the process and had a great time collaborating with Debra and Kim. I know I don’t usually get all sappy here on Getinmebelly, but I am certainly grateful to have a great friend/fellow cook in Austin and that Debra and Kim took that leap of faith having us cater the dinner. I think it was a master collaboration of Ithaca, Manhattan, food, wine, art, and friends. May the Barrow Vineyard property we celebrated bring more great wine and great times to Bloomer Creek.