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Playing Kitchen in Napa Valley, California

Alejandro Benes
Posted: July 30, 2008

(continued from page 1)

After lunch, we had to taste pork prepared about 12 ways using different international flavor profiles. I can't tell you how little appetite everyone had for this exercise, but we soldiered on. The day's "work" ended around 3 p.m. I went back to the kitchen and found the espresso machine and made myself a double to cut through the richness of the pork and the musta-been-seven macaroons I scarfed.

We now had some time before a group of us met up for drinks before dinner. I saw an opportunity and went into the little yard behind my motel room and stretched out on the lounge chair with a lovely Padrón Reserva de la Familia, the one you can't buy, that Orlando Padrón had given to me. (Frankly, when I think pork, I think Padrón family, since they invited me to be on their team when we cook a whole pig every year during the Lechon Cup competition at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida.)

This was an OK setting to enjoy a cigar, and this cigar is one that is impossible not to enjoy. Still, I would have preferred to be having it with the Zaya (dark rum) on the rocks I would be sipping in about two hours at the Martini House. No such luck.

Day 3 found me partnering with Pablo, executive chef at a resort hotel in Puerto Rico. He and I were tasked with preparing three Latin dishes. Two involved using pork tenderloin and we decided that to keep the cuts moist, we'd stuff them with chorizo even though the recipe didn't call for that. Three other teams made pork dishes from other parts of the world. My favorite was the Vietnamese pork sandwich with peanut sauce. The team couldn't find the baguettes so they made the sandwiches on small challah rolls and turned them into sliders. Killer. Everything we all made went on the buffet.

We had a few hours off before our afternoon class on pairing wines with pork, so, of course, I went with a colleague to try the new release of the Louis M. Martini Gnarly Vines Zinfandel that can be bought only at the winery. We split a case.

The next day, each attendee was on his own. We had to make our own three-course menu. That was a lot of stress for someone who's not in the kitchen every day. So I modified a couple of classic Cuban dishes to highlight pork. I added an amuse bouche of toasted brioche round topped with blueberries reduced in balsamic vinegar. On top of that I placed a small cube of very tender braised pork belly that I caramelized in brown sugar. The last touch was a sliver of Cabrales blue cheese. That should have opened up anyone's taste buds.

My next course was Cuban black bean soup with a dollop of sour cream topped with ample shards of applewood-smoked bacon towering high. That was followed by a pork picadillo (a sort of hash), which puzzled the students who later approached it on the buffet. The picadillo was served on white rice, then topped with any or all of the following: fried egg, sliced bananas, olives, golden raisins, capers. The pork had been browned and sautéed with crushed tomatoes, onions and some spices I won't divulge, but garlic and oregano played big parts. After lunch and a double espresso and a farewell macaroon or six, I was on my way to my people.

BACK TO THE CIGAR PART OF THE STORY

About 20 miles south, back in the town of Napa, progress has not taken away everything. In addition to BakerStreet Tobacconist, Napa Valley Wine & Cigar has a small room with a TV where you can puff, but it's a little bit out of the way, next to a tire store. I was early and stopped in. The lounge was full of sheriff's deputies watching something like Aussie-rules football and smoking cigars. Not a chair to be had. So I bought a Rocky Patel corona and drove into town, parked and walked around.

I've visited this part of California for three decades and was always disappointed that the town of Napa had relatively little to offer. That is changing quickly. There are world-class restaurants now. The opera house is open. There's shopping.


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