Monday, December 30, 2002

Raising the Bar

When I first told a wine-enthusiast friend that I was signing up for a wine appreciation class, he said something which proved to be prescient.

"You know what the problem with that is, don't you?"
"No, what?"
"You'll never be able to go back to bad wine."

It sounds pretentious, doesn't it? Something only a wine snob would say? But he's right. Perhaps that means Melissa and I are becoming snobs. Perhaps it means we already are.

As I've mentioned in my other blog, Melissa and I have been trying some wines from Trader Joe's. The chain, if you don't have one in your area, is known for cheap wine. It is so pervasive around here that when Melissa and I saw a play parodying middle-aged Berkeleyites (a notable percentage of the audience), the actors wore tie-dyed shawls and the dialogue described their wine as "Chilean, from Trader Joe's."

For the most part, the wines we've found have been drinkable, if not very interesting. Exactly how uninteresting was driven home to us Saturday night, as we uncorked a Ridge 2000 Geyserville Zinfandel. We were like thirsty kids at the school fountain, exuberant in our love of the wine (the 14.9% alcohol may have helped). Jam and leather on the bouquet, nice tannins, good acidity, the list went on and on. A really nice wine. Suddenly the wines from Trader Joe's didn't seem quite as drinkable.

It's not a matter of this being more expensive, though I think it's only in the mid-20 range. We tried a Pepperwood Grove Syrah ($6 or so) Sunday night and liked it quite a bit. It's about the care put into the wine. Ridge makes good wines, as does Pepperwood Grove (whose entire line got nods from Wine Spectator for their value).

And it's not like the other wines we drank were bad. But fresh in our minds as we drank the Ridge and Pepperwood Grove, they seemed like pale imitations of what wine should be. Simplistic and one-dimensional. They feel like insults from the wine makers to the consumers, a slight snickering as the producers figure there's no sense putting their best into a bottle, since the buyers can't appreciate the difference anyway.

So how do you tell the difference? My first wine teacher was able to illustrate it for us quite easily one night, as we tried a variety of wines. One wine produced a handful of descriptors from the class and the other produced a long list as people struggled to identify elusive smells. Regardless of whether or not you personally liked the first or second, he said, which made you think more? Which forced you to take more time to really try and appreciate it?

Interesting wine catches your attention. Makes you slow down so that you have more time to take it in. Forces you to linger, enjoying the company of your friends and family. You don't have to like it, you just have to notice it.

Thursday, December 26, 2002

Interesting Articles

A slow week, since I'm enjoying the holidays, but here are two bits from the New York Times which I recently saw. Note that if you don't already have one, you'll need to set up a free account to read the articles.

The first (which Melissa pointed out to me) is all about the Straus Family Creamery, considered one of the very best creameries in the Bay Area, if not the country.

And the second describes a noticeable decrease in wine prices. A lot of the wine press has been predicting this for some time, but it looks like it's about to happen. Over-priced California wines are indicted as partial culprits; many wineries banked on more customers who would pay more than $100 for bottles of wine, which was probably fueled by the Internet boom.

Monday, December 23, 2002

Guide to Sommeliers

Huh. I didn't know such a thing existed, but it seems there's an annual guide to sommeliers which gets published. Biographical information, what kinds of wine they like, and so forth. Kind of neat. Here's the article.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Bites from the Web

Screenwriter James Orr has a plan for dealing with restaurants with corkage fees (those fees charged for bringing your own bottle of wine to the restaurant).

And poor McDonald's. Seems they're not as eagerly anticipated as they'd like to believe. A resident of Oaxaca organized enough of a protest to get McDonald's to abandon plans to infest that town.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

The Wine Bible

When I first saw Karen MacNeil's The Wine Bible, I was quite intrigued. Last year, determined to start learning something about wine, I took a wine class from UC Extension. A good class, by the way. However, I suspect one could get the same information and then some from The Wine Bible, except of course that you wouldn't get to taste the wine.

Before I bought it, I got laid off, so it went on my Christmas list. And now that I got it from my dad, I can review it properly.

I stand by my original hunch; this will tell you just about everything you want to know about wine. It has chapters for each of the major wine-producing countries (including newcomers Chile and Argentina), and has subdivisions within those for the major growing regions within that country, and judging by the acknowledgements, she had experts in more focused areas review all the chapters they knew about. So Terry Theise reviewed the Germany section, Kermit Lynch the Beaujolais section, and so forth.

Each section lists the main producers for that region, and lists "wines to know" which has pictures of the labels. That alone would be great, but she also has sidebars about the food of the area, confusing terms, or anything else which seems appropriate.

The amount of information in here is vast. Of course, at 886 pages before the bibliography and the index, it should be. The best part, though, is the price: $19.95. A total bargain. I've been up nights reading about Piedmont and the Loire, where Melissa and I intend to honeymoon.

Curious, at all, about wine? Buy the book. The only bad thing about it is that it tempts you to go off and spend a bunch of money on wine.

Friday, December 13, 2002

Eugenio Jardim

Last year, about this time, I signed up for a wine class through UC Extension. My original teacher wasn't able to do it, so we got a last-minute replacement. Eugenio Jardim.

I thought he was fantastic, and a lot of the wines I now like I directly trace to his influence (Loire whites, and Northern Rhône wines in particular). Melissa pointed out that the SF Chronicle did a write-up about him.

Home Cooking?

A recent book review in Cook's Illustrated referred to "the Alice Waters school of idyllic ingredients." You know, those oh-so-precious perfect baby fava beans, or liberal doses of truffle oil long before it was the hip ingredient du jour a couple years back.

I accept this, and even expect it, when the book is presented as the cooking of a four-star restaurant. I'd be let down if The French Laundry Cookbook had a recipe for making pasta salad with packaged ingredients. But a recent trend seems to be having four-star chefs writing books which attempt to rethink home cooking. Two recent examples come to mind: the eponymous Jeremiah Tower Cooks and Eric Ripert's A Return to Cooking.

It's not that these are bad cookbooks. Indeed, I own the Tower book because it ended up on my birthday list after I looked through it a bit. And if I didn't have an advance copy of Ripert's book, it probably would've been on my list as well (see my earlier post for my thoughts about it, however). It's that the authors are trying to inspire home cooks, but have clearly lost all touch with them. They have spent too long as professional chefs, as fantastic and influential professional chefs, to have an even remotely realistic view of what home cooking is really like.

In Ripert's book, he goes off to various parts of the world to do "home cooking." The idea being that he will only cook with local ingredients, in the kitchens of rented houses. Though not without a vast array of professional equipment, and at least two other professionally trained cooks. The book had many goals, but one of them was to "demonstrate" what was possible in the home.

Certainly trusting the kitchens of the rented houses led to some adventures. My favorite is the house in Vermont where the oven didn't work. Ripert's solution: use the giant fireplace. But one of my favorite quotes in the book instructs the reader to set up two large, heavy sauté pans. I love my All-Clad sauté pan, but I've only got one. And I have more gear than the average home cook. Is this a meaningful rethinking of home cooking?

Or the Tower book. Again, a perfectly fine cookbook, but the end flap tell us "...his insight into cooking at home has deepened. The result is a book that is both accessible and ambitious..." Ambitious is right. There are 16 entries for the various kinds of truffles in the index, and only something like 250 recipes. Is the average home cook really cooking with truffles 6.4% of the time? And is it even realistic to imagine they could?

Do the authors really think this is home cooking? It's hard to know. It feels more like a misguided marketing strategy than an honest direction.

Perhaps this is part of why I've found Nancy Silverton's Sandwiches and the Zuni Café Cookbook so inspirational (see my other blog for how I've made more sandwiches recently). They are not shy about frou-frou or expensive ingredients, but they seem more in touch with the realities of home cooking. Judy Rodgers tested many of her recipes on her home stove, which is not a Viking or a Wolf but some generic oven. And Nancy Silverton just seems more in touch with reality overall.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Ceramics 101

December is a good month for me. Christmas, my birthday, and Melissa's and my anniversary. Of course it means I get nothing else all year long, and then a big flurry in December, but it works pretty well for me.

This year, I got a way cool anniversary present. A ceramic paring knife from Kyocera. Wow, it's a beaut! My paring knife up until now has been some p.o.s. thing I got when I first got out of college, and it's my own fault that I never upgraded it. Ceramic knives are very sharp, and keep their edge for a long, long time. Unfortunately, they're also very delicate, so they require some care.

So what did I pare with it? Well, all that came to me was to segment a lime, removing all the membranes, which is pretty boring but it's what I had at hand. The knife worked beautifully, cutting right down to the center with no problem, and creating beautiful little wedges as I turned them out. When I do this with my chef's knife, I end up smushing some of the wedges, but not this time.

Monday, December 09, 2002

Poubelle Winter Feed

Melissa and I called this last weekend our "Weekend of Gluttony." We had tons of good food made for us Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. But Saturday night was the one we had been anticipating for an entire year: Tom & Carol's winter party.

Here is something to contemplate. Imagine serving 14 dishes. For 50 people. Each. Now imagine that each of those dishes is a) made as much from scratch as possible, b) beautifully presented, and c) utterly delicious. Tom started cooking in earnest the night before, and he and his team of sous-chefs were working from early that morning until midway through the night. Planning and prep of certain things (like stock) had happened weeks in advance

Carol manages everything else: setup, table decorations, renting plates and tables and the like, and the guest list. Because of her, the patio (where we usually stake out our seats; it gives you a chance to see when new plates arrive from the kitchen) is charming and cozy.

The whole thing is awe-inspiring.

Here's the rundown on the menu, but you'll really want to look at this page for a better idea of the evening. If I don't say anything in particular about the dish, just trust me that it was delicious.


  • Charcuterie Platter - It is somewhat misleading to say that they served 14 dishes. The charcuterie platter had, if memory serves, three different pâtés and two different sausages. The pâté de campagne was my personal favorite, but all of them were great. In fact, I took a risk and went back for more. Pacing is very important at the party; you want to make sure you don't eat too much early on and risk being too full later. Melissa and I had fasted all day to ready ourselves.
  • Butternut Squash Soup
  • Terrine of Foie Gras - Charcuterie is a specialty of Tom's, and his foie gras may be its greatest expression. Served with pain de mie, toasted of course, and greens.
  • Sea Bass, Celery Root, Red Wine Reduction - this was probably among Melissa's favorites, and it was easy to understand why. Perfectly cooked sea bass on a purée of celery root, and with a heavenly sauce. This was a heavenly experience
  • Shrimp, Winter Vegetable, Blood Orange Sauce
  • Ravioli de Saint Louis, Sauce Tomate - that was fried ravioli, by the way.
  • Zebra potatoes - a cute name. This was little wedges of potato alternating with spinach, cooked in a bit pastry dough. The effect was quite nice.
Main Course
  • Stuffed Pork Tenderloin, Desert Style - did I mention there was lots of wine as well? This is about when I start losing track of what exactly was in a particular dish. I do remember this being just perfectly cooked and seasoned.
  • Osso Bucco, Saffron Rice - this, along with the next item, was probably my favorite dish. The meat was practically liquid, it was so tender, and the rice was cooked so that the individual grains had almost, but not quite, become one with the liquid.
  • Wild Mushroom Ragout - like I said, this was one of my personal favorites, though it's so hard to pick any one dish out of this menu and consider it better than any other. Given the fact that Tom is in the Bay Area, there are a fair number of vegetarians at the party, and he always makes sure they have plenty to eat as well, though it seems a travesty to not eat any of the dishes he presents
  • Warm Lentil Salad
  • Mocha Puzzle Cake - how cool is it to have a cake made in your honor at Tom's party? Someone, whose initials I suspect are Melissa Weiner, slipped to Carol that Saturday was my birthday. So Tom decided to make this mind-boggling cake, knowing that next to food and wine, puzzles are a passion of mine. What's mind-boggling about it? How it gets made. When you cut into a slice, you see a nice mosaic of light and dark cakes, separated by buttercream. Evidently you cut out a cone of cake, flip the cake over, and push the cake down to form a crater, into which you put the cone. At least that's my memory of Tom's description of this. Did I mention there was a lot of wine?
  • Apricot Pithivier - this was a dessert I had never heard of, and I've clearly been missing out. Sheets of puff pastry with an apricot pastry cream in between, baked until it's beautifully risen and browned.
  • Lemon Tart

Friday, December 06, 2002

Eric Ripert

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Eric Ripert, who is on book tour for A Return to Cooking. Ripert is the chef at Le Bernardin in New York City, which is a four-star restaurant.

I had read an advance copy of the book, and had some issues with it. While the recipes and the thoughts on food are quite compelling, the book comes across as very contrived. Ripert, who mostly manages now at the restaurant, wanted to spend some time cooking in various parts of the Western Hemisphere, using just what was available around him. And he took a painter, two photographers, a writer, and another chef. So it suddenly seemed more like a project, rather than a true sentiment. Everything seems sort of concocted to show the most brilliant aspects of everyone in the group.

And while hearing Ripert talk didn't change my mind about the book, it did give me some more insight into what he was trying to get across, and I find it unfortunate that it didn't work. To hear him talk, it was more about sharing the "thought" behind the creative process. Why does he decide to do what he does with food? Why does the painter show things in a certain way? What drove things in a particular direction? But that only comes through when you hear him speak.

Certainly he's very personable. Rather than standing behind a podium, the bookstore had, probably at his request, set up a comfortable chair for him with folding chairs for us facing it. So we were all sitting together, and it was more like a chat than an author reading.

He did say two things which amused me. One of them, I suspect, just comes from the fact that French is his native language, and he still carries a thick accent. When discussing Michael Ruhlman, the writer who accompanied him, he described him as the author of The Soul of a Chef (an excellent book, by the way) and a collaborator on "Ze Book of Thomas Keller," which capitalized the way I just wrote it is certainly how I think of The French Laundry Cookbook. The other amusing thing was that he said that in France, when you're a bad student, you end up in a restaurant. He said that the pretty people got put in the front, and ugly people end up in the kitchen. If you ever see a picture of Eric Ripert, you will realize the faulty logic here. Maybe he blossomed late, but he is a gorgeous man. But fortunately for the food world, he got put in the kitchen anyway.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

What Was That Cheddar?

Those readers who actually read the entire account of our staggering Thanksgiving feast might remember that I couldn't remember the name of the bandaged wrapped cheddar. Well, this month's Bon App&3233;tit may have saved the day. It features a single page on artisanal cheeses, including Fiscalini's Bandaged Wrapped Cheddar from California. Since we were told it's the only cheddar produced this way in the U.S., I'm suspecting that's the cheese we enjoyed on Thanksgiving.

The whole issue, in fact is worth picking up. They highlight artisanal producers, sustainable fishing, and a host of other foodstuffs that are soundly produced and much better than their industrial counterparts.

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

The Rest of the Feast

Well, everyone knows about the turkey at our Thanksgiving dinner, but people wanted to know all the other dishes, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention everyone who contributed; I did not do the entire dinner myself.

When we sent out the invites, we told people they could offer to bring some special dish, get assigned a random dish, or just help in the kitchen. Virtually everyone brought something; it was amazing. This of course meant we had too much food, but is there really such a thing at Thanksgiving?

So here's the full menu.


  • Brandy Alexanders - a tradition from Brett and Royce's childhood. Well, maybe not childhood, but these had everyone grabbing seconds, thirds, fourths, whatever they could manage. Melissa was much dismayed that there were no leftovers for these.
  • Pastilles - another tradition from Brett and Royce's childhood. They're a Puerto Rican specialty, which seemed to have some relationship to tamales: meat and bananas boiled inside of a wrapper, which might have been a corn husk, but I wasn't paying attention.
  • Arancini - Mandy brought these fried risotto balls, and this might have been one of the few instances where there wasn't enough of a dish (even though there was plenty); they were delicious and got eaten fast and furiously
  • Mushroom paté - Ingrid's appetizer was definitely a contender for best presentation. The paté was placed on a square plate, off-center, with crackers on the rest. The whole thing was sprinkled with diced bell peppers of various hues. I might be misremembering it, but I do know it was spectacular-looking, and delicious as well.
Main course (other than the turkey)
  • Butternut squash soup - Melissa's mom Kathy made this, and it had a really nice spin on it; apples and horseradish. This worked really nicely. In fact, I could've used more horseradish in mine. That's a combination I'll keep in mind.
  • Mashed potatoes - My mom Jacqui brought these, which she called "healthy potatoes" because they only had a pound of butter in them, or something like that. Maybe it's genetic.
  • Leek & Mushroom Stuffing - having claimed all the dishes related to the bird, I ended up plotting the stuffing, though Brett and Chris and Royce did most of the actual work. I lifted it more or less straight out of last year's November Bon Appétit, because it sounded delicious (3 different typesof mushrooms!) and was already vegetarian. Despite that, we made half of it "meaty" with the addition of turkey liver. The bread was day-old sourdough that I made just for the purpose, though Melissa and I sampled some the night before to make sure it wasn't poisonous.
  • Cranberry sauce with Orange - Chris's simple addition to the basic cranberry sauce recipe worked really nicely. He put whole slices of orange in, as well as zest. There weren't many leftovers of this, let me tell you. He also made sure to bring "classic" cranberry sauce, for those who love the sight of it oozing out of the can.
  • Spinach Timbales - Ingrid is amazing. Not just an appetizer but a veggie dish as well. And another yummy one. This is the kind of thing that happens when you invite a bunch of food obsessives to a potluck dinner. I highly reccommend it.
  • Spanakopita - Joanne Kalogeras. Think she might be Greek? You know, it was a good thing she brought it, because otherwise I don't think there would have been enough butter in the various dishes. But a liberal application of butter between each sheet of phyllo made up for any deficiencies. Spanakopita is just one of those things which people should eat more often. Really.
  • Rolls - In addition to all bird-related things, I said I'd fill in any holes in the menu, and we were lacking rolls. Again, though, I merely planned it. Dave on kitchen duty did all the work. I had never tried the recipe before, so didn't know how big the rolls would actually be. 24 rolls for 18 people sounded reasonable. No. Now I know to plan about 3-4 per person, though I think Dave would have probably flung up his hands in despair if he had to make 54 rolls.
  • Broccoli & "grain dish" - Melissa brought two dishes, and was even planning a third, but the counters were groaning with the weight of all that food by that point, so we opted not to do it. The "grain dish" is a recipe our friends Pavel & Kathleen told us about wherein 3 different grains and lentils are simmered, covered, for an hour. Melissa used chicken stock, and added mushrooms. Kathleen is sensitive to onions in food, and there was no easy way for me to not put any onions in the stuffing, so Melissa wanted to make sure Kathleen had something stuffing-y to eat.
Mitch had come up with the idea of getting some cheeses, and I was going to swing by the Cheese Board on Wednesday, but Fate relieved me of that errand. We went to a cheese tasting event earlier that week (which eventually I'll write up), and as part of that event we each got to take home about 3 pounds of cheese. Voilà! A cheese course!

To go with the cheese, I made sourdough bread, the two loaves pictured at the top of this entry in fact. Always a harsh critic of my own food, I nonetheless can accept that those are some pretty nice-looking loaves.

  • Redwood Hill Farms Buchere. A nice young chèvre.
  • Mt. Diablo - the producers of this cheese are in Tracy and they were originally calling it Tallegiano, because it is very much akin to Italy's fabulous Tallegio. But this was causing too much confusion, so they changed the name to Mt. Diablo
  • The last cheese was a cheddar, and I didn't get the name. But it's the only American cheddar produced in the style of an English farmhouse cheddar, specifically the fact that it's "bandaged" or wrapped in cheesecloth while aging. This cheddar is great, and I've been using it to top various dishes since then.
  • Pumpkin pie - or perhaps I should say pumpkin pies. Pavel and Kathleen brought three pumpkin pies. They were suddenly faced with a glut of pumpkin flesh (yes, that's right; three pumpkin pies made with fresh pumpkin), and the three pies, evidently, made a small dent in their supply. Pavel's playing around with pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin ravioli, and anything else he can think of to do with pumpkin purée. I should mention that I used to think I didn't like pumpkin pie until I had Pavel's last year. Now I am very selective about pumpkin pie consumption.
  • Apple pie - My mom's husband Joel brought the apple pie, though I have a suspicion that my mom actually made it. Something about the way she talked about rolling out the pastry dough, making the lattice top, that kind of thing.
  • Honey-vanilla ice cream - Mitch got their ice cream maker way back when, but hasn't really used it much. Until recently. Mitch has been going crazy with it, but judging from the honey ice cream, I'm guessing it doesn't stay around the house very long, so perhaps that is for the best. She used a huckleberry-infused honey, and we all roused ourselves out of our eating stupor to wolf down as much as possible.
I can't even begin to tabulate all the wines. I certainly didn't write any of them down. I brought two bottles of a rosé champagne that came highly reccommended (I agree with the champagne and turkey pairing, by the way). Brett brought an Oregon Riesling, which was the first time I smelled petrol in a Riesling, a standard flavor note, oddly, for quality expressions of the grape. My mom and Joel brought a number of French wines. Joanne brought a great Zinfandel, and one other one that escapes me, and the list goes on and on.