Its the time of year when people begin articles with "its that time of year". It is also a time when food plays a larger role in our lives than any other season. Certainly the holidays have a lot to do with why we gorge ourselves on turkey and fruit cake. But I think there is something in our genetic make up, when the first crisp fall wind blows a tiny switch gets flipped in our stomachs. A little light registers on our internal control pannels that says "hey you, its getting cold, time to fatten up". Its nature's little way of ensuring that we make it though the lean months. Fortunatly the lean months aren't so lean any more. Yet the tradition of sharing some of our best and favorite faire with friends and family lives on; and I think we have the necessity and resourcefulness of our ancestors to thank. Some readers my have actually known a time when bacon in the winter came from the hog you killed in the fall; for others that is only one or two generations away. If you personally do not remember the feeling, then it is probably not hard to imagine the pride you would have from sharing that salty smoky treat with guests at your table. These days we can find artesional bacons with flavors like chipolte honey with the click of a mouse. While it is intent of this site to encurrage readers to eat locally can cook simply, this is indeed the time of year when we should all guild the lily and share some opulance with guests at our table. With that in mind, the following are some of my favorite internet sources for some truly amazing food finds.
In January I gushed over my all-bivalve meal at Elliott's Oyster House in Seattle. In particular I remarked about the briny Totten Virginicas from Totten Inlet in Puget Sound. As a brief primer in Oyster biology, there are only five species of oysters- total. When your local seafood monger is touting Blue Points from Long Island, NY they are in fact selling the same species as the guy pushing Olde Salts from Chincoteague, VA. That fact is even more remarkable when you consider how different those two oysters taste. The Totten Virginicas from Washington are one of my favorite examples of how regional waters can effect the taste of an oyster. In their case you get the plump meat of an East Coast oyster with a salty-sweet, clean finish of a pacific oyster. Taylor Shellfish, one of the leading oyster farms in Puget Sound is now shipping their Totten Virginicas anywhere in the us. For those of us in Virginia thats is quite an ironic round trip, but one that is well worth it for a holiday treat. Taylor will send you a dozen Tottens for around $50 (depending on shipping method) and you can add some of their small and creamy Kumamotos for another $9.00.
Sticking to the theme of opulence, there is something timeless about caviar. A blacktie New Years Eve party would be equally lacking without champagne as it would an elegant bowl of perlescant black roe. Regrettably native Caspian Sturgeon fish have been over fished to the point of near extinction. The lack of regulation and the increased demand for true Russian or Iranian caviar may have a lasting, detrimental effect on the population of Sturgeon fish in that part of the world. Hope is not lost. In fact, the stress on the Caspian Sea has proven to be the mother of Californian invention.
Tsar Nicoulai, based in San Francisco, is producing a line of California caviar that is every bit as comparable to its Old World cousin in quality and arguably better in taste. By definition Caviar is the salted roe from the Sturgeon (although convention has given way to the roe from any number of species being labeled as Caviar). Tsar Nocoulai produces a line of Sturgeon caviar they label as "California Estate". Their offerings range in price from $40/oz to $200/oz. Regardless of which option you select, the contents of the overnight delivery will bring charm and sense of bon vivant to any holiday event. For a less costly spend, Tsar Nicoulai also has a selection of salmon, whitefish, trout and paddlefish row that are all as fun as they are colorful.
If fusion is your bag, and if Top Chef has taught us anything it is that fusion is everyone's bag these days, then seafood is a great way to think outside of the box. Some of my favorite holiday splurges are not lobster or smoked salmon, but uni and ankimo. Catalina Offshore Products is my favorite online purveyor of sushi'esque seafoods. Uni, popularly referred to as the roe from Sea Urchin (check wikipedia if you really want to learn what you are eating), is my ace in the hole when it comes to surprising dinner guests. Uni has the briny character of an oyster, the texture of mousse, and the umame of foie gras. Picture your guests enjoying a uni and hazelnut bisque with a dark winter beer as a way to kick off a dinner party. Ladle that same soup into shot glasses for a cocktail party. Typically, I find myself ordering two 80g trays of the California Gold variety - one for the recipe and one for me to slurp back as a raw treat. Raw uni atop a warm cauliflower panacotta would be a gentle way to introduce someone to the subtle flavors of this under rated treasure. Creativity is truly the limit, uni will behave much like foie gras and can be used to thicken a sauce (poached salmon with uni hollandaise) or it can be processed into a compound butter (melt a slab of that over some oven roasted trout).
Catalina Offshore also sells another of my seafood obsessions. Ankimo is the marinated, rolled and steamed liver from the monkfish. Challenging though that may sound, like uni it is also commonly referred to as the foie gras of the sea. Ankimo is sweet and savory and not the slightest bit fishy. In fact, blindfolded you might mistake it for a delicate fish mousse or even a charcuterie pate. Ankimo could not be easier to serve, a sliced medallion garnished with green onion and ponzu sauce is proof your mother was right: you'll never know what you like until you try it. At $15.00 from Catalina OFfshore you can give your guests a Japanese delicacy that would usually require a trip to a handful of high end sushi restaurants in the country.
As plentiful and whimsical as the plethora of seafood is, it was after all the Roast Beast that the Grinch absconded with in the Dr. Seuss classic. D'Artagnan, a supplier of all meats classically French is one of the country's most prolific producers of Foie Gras. Based in the Hudson Valley of New York sate, D'Artagnan will ship whole lobes of duck liver, ready-to-sear slices or pre-made terrines anywhere in the US. Though the fattening of the ducks' liver is a natural process, there is controversy surrounding the production of Foie Gras. As someone who is personally on the fence about the ethics of the practice, I urge readers to do their own research and form their own opinions based on facts. I will add that I plan to annualize a dish that was born out of sure bacchanal gluttony last Christmas. Together, my father and I toiled to reproduce Thomas Kellher's Torchon of Foie Gras - a fat roll of mostly raw, partially salt-cured foie that is sliced and eaten as one would a pate. It is decadence at its best. While polishing off a sweet sauterne wine and pondering leftover torchon, we discovered a "sandwich" to beat all sandwiches: a slice of foie gras torchon atop a flaky southern-style biscuit adorned with a slathering of Virginia apple butter. Serve that as your first corse and you can burn the rest, your guests won't care!
D'artagnan is also a convenient, albeit somewhat pricey, way to procure game birds. If your local butcher cannot source squab or duck, D'artagnan can ship it to you by Christmas eve. Squab is one of my favorite game birds for an elegant dinner party. Taken off the bone, the breasts are dark ruby red, like that of a duck, and lend themselves to a quick hot sear and a dark rich sauce. The legs, also like those of a duck, take wonderfully to a confit. Salt them liberally overnight, toss in some rosemary or sage for aromatics. The next day, submerge them in duck fact (don't have any? D'artagnan has you covered) and let them hang out in a 250F oven for at least 4 hours, until the meat falls off the bone. Want to truly take it to the 3-michillan star level? Pull the meat from the bones and use it as a ravioli filling, serve that with some blood sausage and browned butter and top with blue cheese crumbles. One final note about the more substantive meats, like steaks and roasts: you may have noticed they were conspicuously missing from this list of suppliers. Sure D'artagnan and other internet retailers will ship you mid-West grass fed beef fillets, but I would encourage anyone with the means to do so to find a local farmer. This is not only the time of year that they need our support the most, it is the way to serve your holiday guests the best food you can offer them. Locally raised beef, pork, lamb and poultry has less distance to travel to get to your plate. Furthermore, the bond you form by getting to know your butcher or even the farmer will pay dividends, wether in the form of marrow bones for crispy marrow or whole pork bellies for home cured bacon. While it is fun and opulent to snack on Ankimo from California, think how delighted anyone would be to hear that the standing rib roast came from the farm down the road - that will wow 'em. So, guild the lily with oysters and foie gras from the internet and help a local farmer by making them part of the main dish.