Sunday, September 29, 2002

Belgian Chocolate Tasting

When we traveled through Belgium recently, we traveled with some friends who are serious chocolate devotees. Sure, you say, like every other person on the planet. No, Pavel and Kathleen are more serious than most. They consider 70% cacao chocolate (sold as bittersweet here in the U.S.) to be the sweetest chocolate they'll eat.

Suffice it to say they returned to the States with a lot of chocolate.

They were kind enough to let us go through a tasting of their haul with them. Below are my notes from the tasting. As with wines, we progressed from "dryer" to sweeter. Incidentally, we also used this opportunity to test the idea that Zinfandel and chocolate go together. We had a 2000 Geyserville Zinfandel from Ridge left over from dinner. It worked well, able to hold up to the chocolate and yet allowing it room to express itself. I'd use it again.

Dolfin Chocolate, 88% Cacao
Not a lot of complexity, but had a good basic chocolateness to it. Kathleen noted that it was not as harsh as one might expect given the high cacao percentage.

Corné Port-Royal, 77%
This ended up being my favorite of the bunch, and in fact very popular with everyone else as well. Indeed, it probably had the most universal appeal. Melissa liked it quite a bit, and Pavel commented that it had a certain bite, an edginess. He described it as "bouncing around more" on the palate.

Café-tasse, 77%
Melissa found this one very "beany", and both she and Pavel found it grainy on the tongue (Pavel noted it made his tongue feel rough). Kathleen added to this that it tasted creamier than it felt. I noticed a little spice on the finish, which Pavel and Kathleen pegged more distinctly as cinnamon.

Dolfin, 70%
This was a little odd because the chocolate had nibs in it (nibs are the broken-up pieces of roasted beans which get ground down in the chocolate-making process). This made it a bit tougher to taste, as nibs are more bitter. But it wasn't overwhelming in any event; I have no notes on this other than Pavel's comment that nibs made it seem nuttier (nibs, incidentally, are very similar in makeup to nuts--same percentage of proteins, fats, etc.)

P. Bastin, 70%
The general consenus was that there was something extra going on with this chocolate, but no one could quite identify it. Kathleen noticed that it smelled sweet, Melissa commented that it had a powderiness, I suggested some fruitiness, and Pavel thought the finish was more complex.

Neuhaus 70%
This is probably the only one of these you're likely to find here in the U.S. It's sort of the well-known high-end chocolate from Belgium (well, that and Callebaut, but usually only cooks know about Callebaut). Unfortunately, its temper had been lost at some point, so it was not as crisp as one would like a chocolate bar. Nonetheless, Pavel liked it, and found it more complex than the others. We did notice, however, that its flavor dissipated very quickly.

Burie ?%
This we picked up from a chocolate shop, and I don't think they understood what Pavel and Kathleen were looking for. This was clearly a milk chocolate, not dark. Pavel noticed cinnamon, and Melissa thought it had a mintiness.

Friday, September 27, 2002

Beaulieu Contaminated


Beaulieu Vineyards, which most people know as BV (the most prominent item on their label) seems to have gotten hit with cork taint in a big way. Looks like it's something in the cellar proper, not just a bad batch of corks. It could affect several hundred thousand cases of wine.

This is going to undoubtedly involve a pretty hefty clean-up operation. Best of luck to them getting it out of their cellars.

The full article here

Thursday, September 26, 2002

A Person after my own heart

I noticed this on Scott Rosenberg's blogwatching Salon column. Check out the Julie/Julia Project

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Ann Noble

Today's Chronicle has a nice piece on Ann Noble. Noble created the Aroma Wheel, which helped standardize the language for describing wine, and has been a leading force in helping people describe wine not based on whether they like it or not, but what they get out of it.

Here's the article

I'm currently taking a "Components of Wine" class which is focused on a very similar idea--describing what you are tasting and sensing in a wine, going beyond merely saying whether you like it or not. In our last class, our teacher had organized a bunch of vials with various smells in them. We had to go around and try and guess what they were. It's astonishing, really. If someone says "vanilla" to me, I could completely imagine what it smells and tastes like, both bean and extract. But when I smelled it without knowing what it was, I knew that I knew the smell, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you what it was. Same with honey. And, embarrasingly enough, cheese.

And then she set out a generic red and a generic white, putting the ingredients for the smells into those wines, so we could get a sense of what they smell like within a wine. I got a good smell of lychee nut, which is good for me to know. It was instantly recognizable as something I've had in German wines.

But at the end of the class, and with subsequent tastings, I have actually found that my vocabulary is improved just from that one session. A tasting note for a 2001 Casa Castillo, Jumilla from Spain I had recently says "seaweed", while the 1999 Errazuriz Syrah Reserva from Chile mentions "canned peas". These are smells I wouldn't have picked up on before our "Smell-o-vision" class. Makes me want to make my own little samples to smell throughout the day.

Anyway, the point is that this isn't just some innate "wine snob gene." Being able to describe smells and tastes in wine is something which can be learned.

Monday, September 23, 2002

Cooking for Two

We are on a temporary hiatus from dinner parties, catching up with various things. But I view it as a chance to practice some things I have been interested in, as well as try out some recipes from a cookbook I'm reviewing for my food writing class. So I decided to have a tiny dinner party for Melissa and me. Of course, somehow I imagined that a meal for two people would be less stressful. Normally I make a little schedule which serves partly to remind me when to do things and partly to remind me what things to do. This time I didn't, and so various things were forgotten or hectic. Fortunately Melissa didn't mind bigger-than-normal gaps between courses.

Main Course

Pan-seared salmon with baked figs and sauteed leek and spinach salad

Wine: 2000 Ridge Grenache

This just came together off what looked good at the farmer's market. I had hoped to serve it with couscous, but I bought larger couscous than normal, and it wasn't done steaming by the time dinner was ready. It wasn't even close, in fact. And since it seemed like the obvious thing to do, I made a wine reduction sauce with the grenache. It's from Ridge's ATP program, which we joined when visiting the vineyard.


Tomme de Crayeuse

Wine: Vin de Savoie Altemont, Boniface

In this case the wine dictated the cheese, sort of. A couple weeks ago, I had made bread and cookies for a dinner party but I made way too much. So we decided to give some of the bread and cookies to our next-door neighbor. A few days later, we found the wine sitting outside our door. Since it was a Savoie wine, I decided to do the regional pairing thing and get a good Savoie cheese. We had had Reblochon recently, so I wanted Tomme de Savoie, a very nice, simple cheese. Alas, the Cheese Board in Berkeley was out of Tomme de Savoie. But the woman helping me suggested Tomme de Crayeuse, which is similar. We tried some, and I figured it would go reasonably well. It worked very nicely. More and more I find myself siding with the "white wine with most cheese" view espoused by some modern gourmets.


Poached pears with pear brandy caramel sauce and anise ice cream

This was a recipe from the cookbook I'm reviewing. Straightforward and classic, though the author had paired it with regular vanilla ice cream. I decided to make anise ice cream instead, because I had the idea for it a while ago and wanted to try it.

And there would have been a mignardise of grape jellies, but the grocery store near my work didn't carry apple pectin, only citrus pectin. I'm not opposed to trying something different, but there wasn't a conversion ratio between citrus pectin and apple pectin. Since the citrus pectin supposedly works off the calcium in fruit, not the sugar (though I'm suspicious of the fact that it nonetheless comes with "calcium water" you have to mix in; if it works off the calcium naturally present, why do you need more?), I didn't know what kind of translation to use. So we ended up with firm grape jelly, not grape jelly candy that you could cut into squares. Ah well. I'll try harder to find apple pectin!

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Food News for the Day

Here's a bunch of interesting snippets from food news.

A packing plant in Pennsylvania had to recall beef from 11 states. If you haven't yet, go find a copy of Fast Food Nation at your local independent bookstore and read it. The practices of the modern beef and fast food industries are horrendous. But there are alternatives, in the form of producers who want to create a quality product, not just fatten their wallets at the expense of public health.

Here's the full article

Like other states, Texas is battling with laws which prevent deliveries to people's homes from out-of-state wineries. This means that if you're a wine lover in Texas, you're stuck with whatever your local wine shop carries. You don't have the choice the folks in other states have. The legal argument hinges on whether or not its constitutional, since it favors in-state business over out-of-state business, violating the principles of free trade between the states.

The full article

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Visting Ridge

As we drive through the gates of Ridge Vineyard's main tasting room, it is easy to see how the winery got its name. We are at the very top of a mountain in the Santa Cruz Mountain Range, technically in Cupertino, but far removed from the flatlands around Apple Computer which most people think of. At 2200 feet, a sweeping panorama shows us the surrounding hills as well as the southern end of San Francisco Bay and the large mass of Silicon Valley, all the industrial parks blending together into an indistinct blur, though some might argue that this happens even when amongst them at sea level.

The tasting room sits on the Monte Bello vineyard, but we are sadly not here to taste the wine produced from these grapes, Ridge's award-winning Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon. We are here for the Z-list tasting, a sampling of some of Ridge's highly regarded Zinfandels. The Z-list is one of Ridge's wine clubs, one which features just Zinfandels for those obsessed with the grape.

The air is pleasant, with an occasional breeze keeping it from being too hot. Because the weather is so nice, the winery has moved the tasting out to the vineyard itself, and so we have to walk up a slight hill to get to the umbrellas perched at the very top of the vineyard, nervously eyeing the many signs warning about rattlesnakes. It is a spectacular venue for such an event.

But first we must build our strength for the 15-second climb up the modest climb. A member of the winery's staff hands us each a glass of the 2000 Chardonnary Santa Cruz Mountains, a 100% Chardonnay made from grapes in the surrounding hillscape, one presumes. The wine is crystal clear with just a hint of yellow towards the middle. In the nose I get some smoke as well as the sulphurous smell I associate with a just-lit match. I find it a heavy wine, the alcohol adding a fair amount of weight to the palate, with just a hint of sweetness and little bit of yeastiness on the finish.

Once we're up the hill, we get our first Zinfandel, the 2000 Geyserville. It's 66% zinfandel, 17% carignane, and 17% petite sirah, and ends up being our little group's favorite wine of the bunch. So much so that we buy a bottle for dinner that night and Melissa later buys an extra bottle for us to enjoy in the future. It's a dark red-purple wine, the red starting at the edge and deepening to purple in the middle of the glass. Like all the wines today, it's got a fair amount of alcohol; most of the wines we had were in the 14-15% range. I get a bit of leather on the nose, as well as dark cherry. It's got a decent amount of acidity and a good long finish, which pairs well with the tomato sauce with ground turkey we eat later that night on spaghetti. Interestingly, coming back to it after we drink the others reveals a much fruitier wine than we originally noticed.

The third wine is the 2000 Pagani Ranch Zinfandel, which is 88% zinfandel, 9% alicante bousclet, and 3% petite sirah. This looks clearer to the eye, not as dark, and the color does not change much from the edge of the glass to the center. It has a substantial amount of leather on the nose, as well as cherry, and the only actual tasting notes I have comment on its heavy alcohol.

The final official wine in the tasting is a 2000 York Creek Late Picked Zinfandel, with 75% zinfandel and 25% petite sirah. According to the pourer, it was probably left on the vine about two weeks too long, which left it with a residual sugar of .7%. Not enough to register with my palate, but they want to be honest about what's in the bottle. It's got strong tannins, but blissfully they disappear off the palate fairly quickly.

While those are the only official wines in the tasting, the staff is also pouring "library wines," random bottles from previous years. I am astonished at the tannins in the 1981 and 1988 Geyservilles. Still vigorous now, one can't help but wonder what they were like on release.

Conveniently :), the winery store is open, so we decide to pick up some wine. I also join the ATP wine club, in which Ridge sells you a more random selection of wines from single vineyards throughout the year. I pick up the first two bottles, a Grenache, to try at some future point.

If you're in the area, I recommend stopping by on a weekend. While the Z-list tasting doesn't happen often, the winery is open for general tastings on weekends. They won't open Monte Bello at a regular tasting, but they make lots of other great wines, and bringing a picnic lunch would be a fine way to enjoy the spectacular view. And while it would have been a long way to drive if we were not also visiting with friends, there turn out to be a number of wineries in the area which make for a very satisfying day trip. Wine Spectator had an article a few issues back about just such an outing.

Monday, September 16, 2002

The Icewine Cometh

The idea started innocently enough. I was taking a friend, out to dinner, and I asked him if he liked ice wine. We had just acquired a nice bottle, and I wanted to share it with someone who would appreciate it. And Josh and his wife Lisa were the most obvious candidates.

Not only did Josh like ice wine, he had gotten some for his wedding (technically, he had gotten eiswein, which is the same thing from Germany). In short order, he suggested an "ice wine summit." We'd provide dinner and our ice wine, and he and Lisa would bring their eiswein.

Ice wine is among the s†rangest of the dessert wines. Many dessert wines are made with grapes that are harvested late, but for an ice wine, the grapes are harvested after the first frost. Usually at dawn after the first frost, as many countries have laws about what the temperature has to be when the grapes are harvested (-8 C for Germany, for instance). Some producers, such as Bonny Doon, harvest the grapes, and then just freeze the juice for what they say is the same effect. The debate continues about that.

So here's our dinner menu, as usual with my notes:
(Note: I don't usually make wine tasting notes at dinner, because I don't feel right about scribbling away in a notebook while trying to entertain guests, so there's not much in the way of descriptions on the wine.)


Homemade baguettes & pumpkin seed oil

Goat Cheese Mousse in Parmiggiano Crisps

The bread and oil is straightforward enough, but the mousse in crisps comes from The French Laundry Cookbook and worked out quite well. I figured out an assumption in the recipe that wasn't explicitly stated. Keller suggests using an egg carton to shape the crisps, but what he means is an egg carton that holds at least 18 eggs; the crisps want to be shaped in the wells between four of the spikes in an egg carton, and a 12-egg holder doesn't have any wells with all four corners being spikes. This I realized after I tried shaping them, so they didn't look exactly like the picture in the book, but they were still yummy. I piped the mousse with a small star tip, so it got a nice swirly, ribbed look.

House made Gravlax with Arugula Creme Fraiche

Wine: Bricco Quaglia Moscato d'Asti. La Spinetta 2001

This pairing was an experiment. The Italian model of wine is that it is an ingredient of the meal, and they'll often use it to complete, rather than complement, the food on the plate. That was the goal here. The Moscato d'Asti is a lightly sweet wine with a little fizz, the gravlax (salt-cured salmon) is of course salty, and the arugula is bitter. So we had sweet, acid, salt, and bitter when everything was combined. But it was merely a fine pairing, not a really interesting one. Still, Moscato d'Asti is always a treat, even though serving it first violates the "increase in sweetness" rule of wine progression.

Main Course

Roasted Cornish Game Hens with Mashed Potatoes and Beet/Caramelized Onion salad

Wine: Rex Hill Oregon Pinot Noir, 1998 Reserve

I knew I wanted to serve this Pinot Noir, which was quite a nice wine, but I struggled with what to serve it with. A little later in the year, I might have opted for coq au vin, the classic dish of Burgundy, figuring that even if the wine wasn't from Burgundy, it was still made with Pinot Noir, and Oregon's Pinot Noirs from the Willammette Valley can often hold their own against Burgundies. Instead I went for root vegetables in different preparations. The pairing worked nicely.

Cheese Course

Montagnolo with toasted Pain de Mie

Wine: 1997 Claar Cellars ice wine, Riesling

Within days of this dinner's conception, I had figured out how to serve my ice wine. Unusually, it had gotten botrytized while on the vine. Botrytis is the "noble rot" which makes Sauternes so distinctive. So I decided to treat my ice wine just like a Sauternes, and served it with a mild blue (not knowing how strong it was, I didn't want to overpower the wine with very flavorful cheese). The Montagnolo is, as it happens, a German cheese. Pain de Mie is a dense, fairly buttery bread which is great for toast or sandwiches. You actually cook it in a special pan which has a tight lid. As the dough rises, it hits the lid, but has nowhere to go, which makes the crumb very tight. And the pan is perfectly square, so you end up with a beautiful loaf for presenting slices.

The ice wine was delicious. On the nose, it was like sticking your face into a vat of honey, the botrytis making itself known loud and clear. The wine walked away with gold medals from the Washington State Fair when it was released, and it's easy to see why.


Fig Tart with 25-year-old aceto balsamico tradizionale

Wine: Winzerkeller Wiesloch 1998 Riesling Eiswein, Wieslocher Spitzenberg, Baden
I fretted over this wine, because I couldn't find any notes about how it tasted (I have an ice wine book which explicitly listed the '97 Claar Cellars). I asked around to people more knowledgeable than I, and a sommelier acquaintance of mine hadn't tasted it, but offered advice about eiswein in general. He pointed out that the German eisweine tend to be more delicate, and suggested a peach tart. Unfortunately, that was in mid-to-late July, when peaches made sense. In mid-September, peaches didn't make as much sense, but I took the gist of his idea and turned it into the fig tart. As an aside, when figuring out how to arrange the fig slices, I realized they weren't as flavorful as I would have liked. So I figured out how many figs I'd need (plus a few) to cover the four individual tarts, and then took the rest and turned them into a fig syrup, which I brushed on the individual fig slices to boost their flavor.

The eiswein was everything you want a good dessert wine to be. It was sweet, of course, but noticeably crisper than the Claar (which makes sense in retrospect; Baden may be a warmer part of Germany, but Germany is still cold enough that the fruit doesn't ripen very much). A really nice balance.


Homemade caramel chews and sables poches
Chamomile Tea
I don't usually repeat a course so soon (the same Mignardise was presented at last week's dinner party), but I have so far only done a handful of confections successfully at home. My thinking was to present something that would go with any ice wine left over (there wasn't any). Otherwise, I might have done truffles. But the caramel and shortbread were nice finishes nonetheless.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

More Harvest News

More bad news for the 2002 harvest, this time from the Languedoc and Southern Rhone parts of France. A freak storm wreaked tremendous havoc on the vineyards and the vintners.

Here's the full story

For more grim news on the harvest around the world, see my earlier post.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Sneak Peek at Local Book Events

Melissa Mytinger, the events coordinator at Cody's Books here in Berkeley was kind enough to send me a sneak peek at upcoming book events related to food and cooking. Mark your calendars! Note that all of these are at the 4th Street store, and there's no charge unless otherwise noted.

Friday, October 18    JEREMIAH TOWER on JEREMIAH TOWER COOKS: 250 Recipes from an American Master. At last, a long-awaited new cookbook from the father of California cuisine and one of the most inventive and influential cooks in America. When Jeremiah Tower started cooking in California in the 1970s, fine food in America was typically a pale imitation of French haute cuisine. With the extraordinary fresh ingredients available locally, Tower experimented and invented and changed the face of American cooking. His new book is more than a cookbook to return to repeatedly. It reveals the author’s gift as a writer and storyteller, and is almost as rewarding to read as to cook from. Donald Sultan’s elegant still lifes further make this an exceptional book. Jeremiah Tower was chef at Chez Panisse, and opened Stars in San Francisco in 1984. His first book, New American Classics, won a James Beard Award in 1986 for best American regional cookbook; he also won the James Beard Award for best chef in 1996. He’s opened branches of Stars in the Far East and is the writer and host of the PBS series American’s Best Chefs. 7 PM at Fourth Street

Friday, October 25    JAMIE OLIVER - HAPPY DAYS WITH THE NAKED CHEF LIVE! Britain’s culinary boy wonder, Jamie Oliver, is 27, stars in three cooking shows, has written three cookbooks, plays drums in a band, and oversees the menu at Monte’s, a restaurant in London. He grew up in the restaurant business and heard his calling to food at a very young age. Joining his previous books, The Naked Chef and The Naked Chef Takes Off, is the new HAPPY DAYS WITH THE NAKED CHEF, filled with fantastic salads, pastas, meat, fish, breads, and desserts for all occasions – great food and good fun. Jamie will present a 30-minute live cooking show, featuring demonstrations, music and special effects. Seating will be available at 6 PM and is limited to ticket holders only; tickets are free with the purchase of any of Jamie’s three cookbooks and will be available beginning October 14. 7 PM at Fourth Street

Saturday, October 26    DAVID DOWNIE shows COOKING THE ROMAN WAY: Authentic Recipes from the Home Cooks and Trattorias of Rome. Easy to make, good for you, gutsy, flavorful and fun to eat – that’s author David Downie’s one-line definition of Roman food today. His is the first major cookbook on Rome to be published in the U.S. in decades, and it brings the luscious food and rich culinary culture of the Eternal City, a continuum spanning centuries that’s fresh and vibrant today. Downie, a San Francisco native and UC Berkeley graduate, has lived, studied and worked in Rome, Perugia, Padua and Milan. His food and travel articles appear in many publications, and he is the author of Enchanted Liguria: A Celebration of the Culture, Lifestyle and Food of the Italian Riviera, a collection of essays on Paris, and a thriller. Downie and his wife Alison Harris, food and travel photograph extraordinaire, divide their time between Italy, France and California.
“Cooking the Roman Way captures the ethereal essence of great Roman cooking…simple, beautiful and definitely authentic recipes. This is without a doubt the indispensable tome of Eternal City cooking.” – Mario Batali
“This is the book I’ve been waiting for. Who can resist the fascinations of Rome: its history and culture and of course its remarkable food. Bravo David and bravo again for such a lively and delicious gift to us all.” – Carol Field.
With little tastes from the book’s recipes, and with slides of photographs by Alison Harris. Note time: 4 PM at Fourth Street

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Smokestack Lightning

"Happiness is a pile of wood and a pig." That slogan, printed on the T-shirts of the staff from Memphis Minnie's, perfectly captured the spirit of "Slow Cookin': A BBQ Benefit for Slow Food".

The event was a joint venture of Slow Food East Bay and B.A.C.C.H.U.S., two of the local chapters of Slow Food. The organization is devoted, among other things, to preserving traditional foods and educating people about them. The two convivia (as the local chapters are called) worked together to create an event which would educate people about traditional barbecue, at the same time raising money for the organization.

The first part of the day had the 200 or so attendees watching "Smokestack Lightning," a documentary film about barbecue produced by David Bransten & Scott Stohler, based on a book of the same name by Lolis Elie (who also directed the movie). The movie is primarily interviews with some of the great barbecuers of the country. The film makers tell the story of barbecue by letting its greatest practitioners tell their stories. And in the microcosms of these people's lives, you get a feel for the larger story of barbecue.

As barbecue is entwined with American culture, its story in turn tells the story of this country. From its introduction via the slaves of the American South, to the hypocrisy of the segregated South where barbecue joints would have African American cooks but only white people could eat there (says one interviewee, "we couldn't eat there, but they had black people doing the barbecue, so it must have been good"), to modern day America where not only African Americans but whites are barbecue experts ("it came from the black people, but the white people stole it and now we make more money at it. I hate to say it, but it's true." says another).

But there is a parallel story of barbecue, one which touches on another aspect of American history. The barbecue of Southern Texas comes not from the slave trade, but from the Hispanic population. Barbacoa (one of the theoretical origins of our own "barbecue") involves digging a pit, burying a beef head in it, and cooking it for the better part of a day. It has its own heritage rooted in Hispanic history, but its most traditional form is dying out. The state no longer allows people to dig a pit for barbecuing, and those families which still do it are allowed only because of grandfather clauses. But the younger members of these families don't want to do the work: getting up well before the sun to dig the pit, chopping up the cattle heads and tending the pit for hours on end. There has been some adaptation; some families now do their barbacoa in stainless steel tubs, but I'm sure the zealots would say it's not the same.

And even as barbacoa in its most authentic form is very definitely dying out, other versions of traditional barbecue are beginning to disappear as well. In many cases, the barbecue masters leave descendants, either physical or spiritual, who carry the torch forward. But in some cases, there is no one left to continue a barbecue master's tradition. And when those people die, their secrets die with them.

One of the people who is continuing the tradition is Bob Kantor, the owner of Memphis Minnie's. Inspired by the original book by Lolis Elie, Bob traveled around the country and learned from the great pit bosses mentioned in it, and brought what he learned back to his popular San Francisco barbecue joint.

As you can imagine, we had quite a treat for the second part of the day--a lunch featuring the beef brisket and pork butt of Memphis Minnie's ("Best butt in California!" says another of their shirts). The former is cooked somewhere between 15 and 18 hours, and the latter is cooked between 14 and 16 hours. And in this case, the pork butt was provided by Niman Ranch.

While certainly the highlight of the food, the rest of the meal was delicious as well. We had side dishes from the wonderful Hawthorne Lane restaurant, and a Peach, Nectarine, and Plum crisp from Frog Hollow Farm. The food was accompanied not only by beer on tap from Pyramid Brewery & Alehouse but bluegrass music from Ran Bush & The Whiskey Brothers Band. All in all, a great way to learn what barbecue is about and to gain a new appreciation for this important part of the American landscape.

Monday, September 09, 2002

Dennis Desjardin

The San Francisco Chronicle has an article presenting some of the best minds of the Bay Area. One of them is Dennis Desjardin, a professor of mycology at San Francisco State. Dennis is amazing. Melissa and I went on a culinary mushroom hunt in Jenner (a couple hours north of San Francisco), and we were lucky enough to have him as a guide. The idea was he'd help us find mushrooms, and then we'd use them in a dinner that night. Here's the article; go to the bottom of the page.

The way I describe the trip is that we drove two and a half hours along curving roads in the rain, trudged for an hour and a half in a rainy forest only to find virtually no edible mushrooms (the rains were late that year), and drove back through those same rainy curvy roads.

But it was a fantastic trip. Despite all the setbacks, Dennis's enthusiasm for his subject carried the day. I felt like I learned more from that trip then a whole botany class at Berkeley that I took. Melissa and I came home and joined the San Francisco Mycological Society the next day.

And since he had already realized that we weren't going to find anything, he had his mom FedEx some porcini for us to have for our mushroom dinner that night. And you didn't think this was food-related.

Sunday, September 08, 2002

Last Night's Dinner

Over the last year, and the last six months in particular, my dinner parties have gotten more elaborate. Whereas I used to have two basic courses (not counting appetizers), it's now fairly routine for me to have four, which includes neither the appetizer nor the mignardise course that comes after dessert.

This normally works fine, but last night was the first time since this change that we've had vegetarians over. This makes things a bit tougher, since you can't rely on a meat course. But I decided to give it a shot anyway. I imposed two rules on myself: no fake meat, and no pasta (the standard escape hatch for "what do I serve the vegetarians").

Here's the menu, with my notes:


Home made focaccia with pumpkinseed oil

I discovered pumpkinseed oil at a tasting of German, Austrian and Champagne wines. This stuff is delicious, thick and brown. It tastes to me like liquid peanut butter, and provides something different than the trite (though undeniably good) extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar (Modena, not the traditional stuff, which is never trite).


Eggs Cocotte

Wine: 1997 Salomon 'Wieden Reserve' (Gruner Veltliner)

Eggs cocotte may be the second easiest French dish to prepare (the first being steamed mussels). You break some eggs into a ramekin (without breaking the yolk), and put those in a bain-mairie on the stovetop. Cook until done (about three minutes with the water at a low boil). Serve.

We had them at a brasserie in Paris recently, and fell in love. The version we had there was covered with a tarragon cream sauce. In a nod to that presentation, I garnished the eggs with three fried tarragon leaves, arranged in parallel. This was based on a faddish garnish from last year, fried sage leaves. Frying brings out tremendous flavor and color in the tarragon leaves, but you only need to leave them in the hot oil for a few seconds.

The wine was actually dictated by the next course. Under normal circumstances, I might have served this with a light red, a Merlot or a Beaujolais, the classic wine of the Parisian brasserie. But I knew we were having a white with the next course, and I don't feel like I know enough about wine to know when to safely violate the rule of "whites, then reds." Thinking back on it, a rose from the Languedoc or Provence areas might have been nice, but instead I just used the wine intended for the next course.

Main Course

Risotto Cakes and a salad of Shaved Fennel, Roasted Red Pepper, and Capricious Cheese

Wine: same as above

This was my main course, and I was pretty happy with the way it came out. The risotto was just a basic risotto that I made the night before (with a strong vegetable stock), and formed into patties with the help of a circular cookie cutter. Then I dredged them in egg, then in finely ground hazelnuts, and fried the whole thing in clarified butter.

For plating it, I laid out the shaved fennel, put julienned strips of red pepper on top, drizzled tomato oil and fennel oil over the top, did shaved pieces of Capricious aged goat cheese (see earlier post), and then laid the risotto cakes on top of everything. It looked great, and the wine went nicely, which helped add weight to the theory that Gruner Veltliner goes well with veggies.

Cheese Course

Reblochon with home made baguettes

Wine: 2000 Donhoff SchloΒbockelheimer Kupfergrabe Riesling Spatlese

Reblochon. Mmmm. Reblochon is a wonderful cheese from the Savoie region of France, and so I was happy to hear the woman at the Cheese Board (Berkeley's--probably the Western United States's--finest cheese shop) say that the ones they had in were in peak condition. If made strictly according to government regulations, Reblochon would be illegal for import, because it is made from raw milk and aged for 55 days. But some producers will hold theirs the extra 5 days so that they can be brought into the U.S.

The wine I discovered at a tasting of 54 German, Austrian, and Champagne wines. When my wine teacher explained balance, I thought I understood. But when I drank the four Donhoff Spatlese wines that were there, I really understood. Everything in this wine is in harmony, and it is a blissful experience. As we were getting towards the end of the meal, a sweeter wine seemed appropriate, and this wine is semi-sweet. An interesting point: more and more people who think about such things are arguing that for most cheeses, white wine is actually a better partner. Reds seem to work best with aged dry cheeses. The white wine doesn't dominate the cheese, but can stand up to it, and the acidity cuts through the fat very nicely.


Honey-Vanilla Ice Cream with Baked Figs and 25-year-old traditional aceto balsamico

Wine: 1999 Idyllwood, Willamette Valley, Silver Magnolia

This idea came from a convergence of ideas. The French Laundry cookbook has a similar recipe, as does the Chez Panisse Fruit book. So I used my Cook's Illustrated recipe for vanilla ice cream, modified it a bit to accomodate the honey, and then baked the figs for 10 minutes in a 400-degree oven.

If you've never had traditional balsamic vinegar, drizzling it over ice cream might seem a little odd. But it works. Nicely. You'll never find the traditional stuff in supermarkets, small groceries, or even most specialty stores. It's getting harder to find even in the Bay Area, so I might have to look into mail order. It's expensive, but it's worth the time and money (you never need much to finish a dish). If you want to make sure you're getting the right stuff, just look for the word tradizionale. Only two consortia in Italy have the right to label their balsamic vinegar this way; others use the more forgiving "di Modena" on the label.

The wine was something I found up in Ashland, Oregon, when I told the guys in the wine store that I was from the Bay Area and wanted wines I'd never find down there. They recommended this as a nice dessert wine, and I'd have to agree. I thought that it should have been a little sweeter to go up against the baked figs and balsamic, but one of our dinner guests thought it complemented it perfectly. A good reminder that one can be snooty about food and wine all one wants, but in the end these are all subjective things. Nonetheless, this was a very satisfactory wine, a blend of Riesling, Muscat Ottenel, and Chardonnay, and a nice close to the meal.


Homemade caramel chews, and homemade piped shortbread cookies

I love the mignardise course, the little plate of confections one eats with ones coffee, at the end of the meal. The piped shortbread I had tried before, with not much luck, but last night I got it right (the right tip for the pastry bag was the key). My favorite shape was the spiral, because it came out looking like a rose or some other flower. But I also made S's, and U's, and little rosettes.

Thursday, September 05, 2002

An Update on Foie Gras

So back in "Eating Our Way Through Belgium (part 2)", I mentioned that goose liver is illegal for import to the U.S. This seems to no longer be true. I found some at a company called Mackenzie Ltd., and The French Laundry Cookbook makes a statement along the lines of "Now that foie gras can be imported...".

So times, they are a-changing. It's not cheap, but it is available, at least.

Wine as Agriculture

It is easy for us to sit at our dinner tables and enjoy a glass of wine. We can appreciate its bouquet, its color, how it works with the food, or just drink it. But rarely does the average person think about who made it or the grapes that it comes from. If we think of the maker, we tend to think of some modern-day baron living on a beautiful estate. Certainly this is the image put forth by Napa Valley vintners.

But winemaking is really just a form of preserving a harvest, pickling if you will, and many winemakers are essentially just farmers. They worry about market prices. They worry about the weather. They check their crops for pests, hire pickers, and usually have just a handful of days to get all the grapes harvested and crushed.

And an act of nature can devastate a season's (or more) worth of work, at best requiring a winemaker to live off meager savings for the next year, at worst leaving them destitute.

As this year's harvest reports come in, there's been some bad news. My beloved Austrian wines look like they'll have a meager crop this year. The floods which decimated Eastern Europe this summer have taken their toll on Austria as well. Growers are worried about rot from the rain. Whole vineyards have been wiped out by floods. Even those vintners with hillside vineyards might have had their winemaking facilities in the flats, giving them a harvest but no means to do anything with it. This is a severe financial hit on the makers, and Melissa and I will cherish our 2001s when we get them, and hope that all the makers made it through. Full story here

Another sad story showed up on Wine Spectator today. A freak hailstorm wiped out most of the best Barolo sites. Barolo is one of the Piedmont region's great wines, and many vintners are throwing up their hands in defeat for salvaging the 2002 vintage. The full story can be found here

So while 2001 was a great vintage practically everywhere, 2002 might be a bit tougher for much of the world. The next time you drink some wine, don't just think about what it tastes like; think about how it got to you, and how many minor miracles had to take place for it to end up in your glass. That is what wine appreciation is about.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Capricious Goat Cheese

If you've been wandering Bay Area farmer's markets recently, chances are you've seen Capricious goat cheese stands. I've seen them at the Civic Center market in San Francisco, the 9th Street market in Oakland, and the Ferry Plaza market in San Francisco. Next time you see them, don't pass them by. They make a fantastic aged goat cheese (I haven't tried their younger cheeses). It's got a butteriness, nuttiness, and a smoothness that can't be beat. It's probably the best American cheese I've eaten in a while (and I'd say best overall in a while if it weren't for the raw-milk Brie de Meaux and Camembert I ate in Europe).

And I'm not alone in my feelings, it seems. While talking to the man running the stand, he told me that it had won Best of Show as well as 1st place for Aged Goat Cheese at the 2002 American Cheese Society awards.

He further informed me that the two women behind Capricious Cheese, Diana Livingston and Ginger Olsen are relatively new cheese makers. They had an excess of goat milk, and decided to make some cheese with it. They spent some time developing their recipe and finally entered their cheese into the American Cheese Society awards for the first time. And that first time was this year, where they took two awards home. Clearly this is a cheese to keep an eye on.

If your local cheese shop doesn't carry it, and you can't make it to a farmer's market, check out the (still primitive) company's website. It looks like you can order from them directly.

Food news

The big news for today is McDonald's decision to lower the amount of trans fat in the oil they use for making French fries, fish fillets, and other fast foods. This sounds good, but it sounds like nutritionists are agreeing on the fact that any trans fat is bad, so McD's has a way to go. And McDonald's is still plenty evil overall. Still, it's nice to see them bowing to public pressure a bit. Just goes to show that they're willing to change their habits if they get enough bad press. Now, if people would just boycott them until they make their slaughterhouses better places to work (see Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation).

SFGate has a pro screw cap article. I'm all for removing the possibility of cork taint in wine, so I look on this as a positive development. Nobody wants to waste money buying a bottle of wine that isn't any good. I've smelled one cork-tainted wine in a wine class, and I'm pretty sure a bottle of Burgundy we got not too long ago was mildly tainted (the flavor was flat and off, but the same wine from a different bottle was delicious). I found it interesting to see how they're beginning to train waiters to present screw cap bottles to customers, since the obvious problem with screw caps is that wines which use them look like cheap supermarket wines.