Thursday, February 27, 2003

Another Dinner Party

Another dinner party has come and gone chez nous. And since I don't have a big preamble for this one, I'll just dive into the particulars.
Baguette and olive platter with pumpkinseed oil
Wine: Moet et Chandon Champagne
I kept things a little simpler for this dinner, trying to recover from getting slammed so hard at our Champagne tasting last week. And it's hard to go wrong with a crisp baguette, some marinated olives, and a little bit of our treasured pumpkinseed oil, that intensely nutty oil which is such a dark green that it usually looks brown. In fact, our guests at first assumed it was some sort of balsamic vinaigrette.

I had intended to serve a good Prosecco with this, as is our wont, but two of our guests brought a chilled bottle of Moet et Chandon Champagne. I love Prosecco, but it's very hard to argue with a ready-to-drink bottle of the royal family of sparkling wines.

Seared ahi tuna with wasabi mayonnaise
Wine: the same
This came out nicely, though it wasn't as pretty as I wanted it to be. I took sushi-grade ahi tuna, cut it into cubes, and pan seared some of the sides quickly, just enough to form a crust but leaving most of the center uncooked. The wasabi mayonnaise was made with Pacific Farms wasabi paste, made of course with authentic fresh wasabi (most wasabi you get, in all but the very nicest of sushi restaurants, is merely dyed horseradish). I had hoped to pipe this through a small star tip into a little rosette on the side, a hearkening to the dollop of radiant green one normally sees, but the mayonnaise didn't thicken enough, so I spooned it on the side.
Saffron Risotto cakes with a Hazelnut Crust
Wine: 1999 Cascina Ca'Rossa Roero Rosso "Mompissano"
This was my favorite dish of the evening for a couple of reasons. First, it was easily the prettiest plate I served that night. Second, I am justifiably very happy with my risotto cakes, the result of years of trying to get them right.

I made the risotto that morning, mixing in saffron as I cooked it, and then set it in the fridge. A couple hours before our guests arrived, I formed them into patties using one of my square cookie cutters, and set them back in the fridge. When I was ready to make them, I started heating some oil in my saute pan (a lot of oil, actually), and dredged the cakes first in flour, then in egg, then in a mixture of finely ground bread crumbs and hazelnuts ground very fine. Once they were coated, I dropped them in the hot oil, and fried them until the crust was a deep luscious brown and the inside was hot.

To plate them, I laid some frisee on a plate, and then laid a single leaf of red chicory next to it. Red chicory looks like Belgian endive, but significantly larger, and with a raddicchio red in place of Belgian endive's yellow-green leaf tips. I laid the risotto cake on the frisee, and then topped it with a beurre blanc (which also didn't quite thicken enough, so it was more of a thick dollop of melted butter). My guests were enchanted with the mix of colors, especially once they cut into the vibrant yellow risotto underneath the crust.

The crowd was definitely a red-wine crowd, and so I opted for the charming little Piedmontese red we bought a half-case of 10 months ago. Some people preferred this to the next wine, others preferred the next.

Turkey Breast stuffed with a Fig-Port Chutney with a Porcini-Balsamic Sauce
Wine: 2000 Ridge Nervo, Late-Harvested Zinfandel
I had been wanting to try this food and wine pairing since I first made turkey breast stuffed with figs, and tonight seemed a good time to do it. It worked very nicely, I thought. The chutney was dried figs rehydrated in port with red onions, which was then reduced for a few hours over a low heat. I opened up a turkey breast (technically half a turkey breast), pounded it somewhat flatter than it was originally, and then brined it for a few hours in a weak brine. I smeared the chutney over it, and then rolled it up, trussing it to keep it tightly rolled.

For the sauce, I took some leftover porcini liquid from a little while ago, and reduced it a lot. I added in a sheet of gelatin to give it a little body, and then at the very last added in some 25-year-old traditional aceto balsamico.

To plate the dish, I prepared thin slices of root vegetables, each cooked a different way. The beets were roasted, the carrots were stir-fried and the parsnips were boiled. I arranged a heap of the root veggies in the center of the plate, and then topped the heap with a slice of the turkey, the fig chutney forming a neat circle in the middle of the meat, and then topped the whole thing with the sauce.

Given the contented sounds my guests made, I'm guessing it came out pretty well.

Reblochon and Valencay with pain de mie
Wine: Moscato d'Asti, Rivali
Yeah, okay. This cheese course has been repeated at numerous of our dinner parties, though the cheeses have varied a fair amount. But even I recognize that this is an extremely enjoyable addition to the meal, and it's hard to come up with something to improve on it. Besides, we haven't had much repetition with our dinner guests since I started this, so it's only us who notices. And Melissa isn't exactly suggesting I not do it anymore.
Croquembouche with a hazelnut pastry cream and pear-vanilla granita
Wine: Tokaji Aszu, 5 puttanyos
Croquembouche is a bit of an obsession with me. It's not that I make it all the time, but every time I make it, something seems to go wrong. The first few times, I didn't know enough about caramel, and my sugar would always crystallize. Then once I figured out how to get the caramel to work, I assembled a croquembouche for a potluck at work and left it out overnight. In what I'm guessing was a warm kitchen, because by the next morning, the caramel had reliquefied and I had a nice pile of slightly sticky but also somewhat moist cream puffs.

No such problems this time, though after the effort of cleaning the caramel off the plate, I think next time I'll serve each individual croquembouche on a tuile or something. I underestimated the amount of pate a choux I needed, so each person only got three little cream puffs.

The granita was a last-minute addition. I had some leftover syrup from a compote I made a couple of weeks ago, and I had never made a granita, so I decided to try and make one, and if it didn't work, it wouldn't go on the table. It came out quite nicely, though I can see why some suggest serving it in glasses that have been in the freezer: as soon as it hit the room temperature glass, it started to melt. This was no doubt partly caused by it not freezing a whole lot (our freezer, it turns out lacks freezing oomph), but the cold glass would have helped. Regardless, the guests liked it quite a bit.

Candied grapefruit peel with piped shortbread cookies
We've had candied citrus peel at the close of a number of meals recently, and I decided to try it for our dinner, in another last-minute addition (last-minute here being sometime that morning). It turns out that candying citrus peel is extraordinarily easy and produces great results. Just chop the peels and blanch them three times, then cook at a light simmer in a 2:1-ish sugar:water mixture for an hour and a half. Then roll in sugar (I suggest letting them dry a bit before you do this; I didn't and my sugar clumped unattractively). That's it. And they taste fantastic. Ideally they should dry overnight, but mine, which dried for something like seven hours, were still good. And I saved the syrup.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Chez P

Name some famous American chefs. Chances are, as you go down the list, that a significant number have done time at Chez Panisse. 30+ years ago, it was the birthplace of California Cuisine, a cooking style which emphasizes quality ingredients made by small producers. If there's a farmer's market in your city, it probably exists because a woman named Alice Waters started a revolution. She's one of the reasons Slow Food has been so successful in this country. So it may be a surprise that I had never eaten there before.

Well, that's not quite true. I've never eaten downstairs before. The upstairs is the Chez Panisse Café, a more casual, though not itself casual, eating experience. There is a menu, and you have a number of choices for each course.

Not so the downstairs. There is a prix fixe menu. That is what is being served. This was in fact one impediment to us eating there for a while; until recently Melissa wouldn't eat mammals, and the hostess's response when I asked about this a year ago as I tried to book a reservation was unequivocal and speedy: "we suggest you eat upstairs". But as Melissa is now willing to eat food that has been raised and slaughtered correctly, Chez Panisse is the perfect place to go. (In truth, the restaurant will behave graciously if perhaps a bit coldly if you abruptly announce a food concern, but they'd prefer you don't, and really, why not just take the best efforts of the kitchen).

One can't help but feel elated as one walks into the downstairs dining room. This is where it all began, and it looks the part. Beautiful wood paneling covers all the walls, making the room feel cozy, and small copper lamps light up each table. Just past the door is a giant basket full of wild mushrooms. But the best part happens as you walk towards the back: the kitchen is in full view, a battalion of chefs scurrying about in the highly fluid environment of a top-notch kitchen.

After we sat, a server (I'm not sure we had one official server; a small squadron seems to serve everyone) brought us an aperitif, a little lemony drink that was the perfect starter. Melissa has suggested we start doing this at our own parties, and I'm beginning to see her point.

We looked at the menu, and then the wine list. Chez Panisse has a very nice wine list, with an emphasis on French, Californian, and Italian wines and a smattering of other wines (many of the entries show the stamp of Kermit Lynch, famous wine importer and close friend of Chef Waters). And while not an expert on wine prices, the prices seemed extremely reasonable. Of course, now that Melissa is taking a wine class and quickly approaching my limited knowledge on the subject, we both want to study the wine list extensively. Perhaps we should start asking for a second one. But Melissa ended up being the one to place the order, and thus the taster and bottle approver.

We decided to pair our first course with a half-bottle of Rausch's 2001 Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($18). Not the best of the 2001s I've tried, but quite good nonetheless (it lacked the telltale "Terry Theise Estate Selection" on the label that is an indicator for finding the very best of these wines). And the first course? Steamed Atlantic cod, little potatoes and chioggia beets with salsa verde.

Here is the thing about Chez Panisse. You won't find highly elegant presentations like you do at The French Laundry. Chef Waters's philosophy is that you should present fantastic ingredients with a minimum of fuss but prepared in such a way to let the produce shine in the best possible way. Melissa once heard her speak, and she talked about the fact that all the chefs deal with the produce from beginning to end, so that they can properly figure out how best to treat it. There's no early prep cook mindlessly chopping those beets into wedges so they can be tossed in the oven to roast. The chef instead must make the call about how best to spotlight them and do the prep work then.

After our delicious first course (which also included fennel, by the way, practically a signature California cuisine ingredient), we switched to a full bottle of the 2001 Chianti Classico La Pieve Podere Il Palazzino ($38). I'm not a huge Chianti fan. Ultra-tannic Sangiovese is hard to deal with when you've spent a lot of time drinking perfectly balanced Germans, but this was good nonetheless.

The next course was borage ravioli with lamb sweetbreads and marrow. Three ravioli only, but three very rich ravioli. We weren't unsatisfied in the least. But it was served in an interesting way: the ravioli were partially submerged in a rich broth with olive oil floated on top, swirling and pooling in interesting ways as we maneuvered our cutlery. Good thing we had plenty of bread (Acme Bread, one presumes, which was started by the former baker at Chez Panisse and is one of the Bay Area's absolute best bread makers).

Our final savory course was grilled James Ranch lamb chops with winter chanterelles (and black trumpet mushrooms, though these weren't listed). It's funny; I used to (years ago) really dislike rare meat; I wanted it well done. Now, there are few more blissful things than a just barely cooked, exquisitely juicy and perfectly seasoned piece of meat. It is one of those things that makes me realize how far I still have to go as an amateur cook. Needless to say, I liked the lamb.

Given Chez Panisse's distinctly French slant (California cuisine draws a lot from French influences), I was surprised that there was no cheese course. Especially with so many fantastic cheese makers close by. But, instead we went straight to dessert, a shaved chocolate meringue with hazelnut ice cream. (We opted not to go for a dessert wine). Very good.

And finally, our little mignardise, two candied orange peels and two tiny butter cookies with strained and reduced preserves on top.

Overall, I was very happy with our dining experience. It's not The French Laundry, undeniably. But it's very good nonetheless, and the prices are actually quite reasonable. The Saturday night prix fixe is $75, and the wine prices seemed quite appropriate. Monday nights are $45, but the food is "more rustic", whatever that means. Reservations were not difficult to get: I spent five minutes trying to get through precisely one month in advance. It lives up to its reputation, and while it's not cheap enough to eat at on a regular basis, it might well start figuring in our lives more.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

The Final Champagne Tasting

Note: Forgive any rambling in this post; I am recovering from a cold so heaven only knows how coherent this post is.

It may seem as if Melissa and I have done our fair share of Champagne tastings recently. The Terry Theise event in January, the K & L tasting a few weeks ago. How many of these do we need? Just one more, it turns out, one we hosted ourselves in our little apartment.

We had arranged to try some estate-bottled Champagnes (real Champagnes, not sparkling wine). Most Champagnes are purchased from a zillion little growers, the art in the bottle being a result of the blender's discerning palate. An estate-bottled Champagne means that all the grapes were harvested from the bottler's own property. In a sense, these are artisanal Champagnes, and we thought that having some at our wedding would continue our trend of having local, artisanal products for our guests to eat.

But we did not venture into this on our own: we invited an eclectic group comprising Melissa's mother and grandmother, my mother and her husband, and our dear friends Lisa and Josh, who are very knowledgeable about wines.

In terms of preparation, we were, as French chefs say, dans le merde. Everything seemed to be taking too long, and we ended up scrapping a number of the planned dishes due to lack of time. I didn't have all the ingredients I needed, and worked very hard for a modest quantity of food. But, everyone had a good time, and if people didn't stuff themselves, nor did they go hungry.

The best part about doing a Champagne tasting, of course, is that you only have to put minimal effort into pairing food with the wine; Champagne is among the most affable of wines in this regard. So you can make pretty much whatever you please.

Which is not to say that there aren't classic pairings, food that begs to be paired with this most revered of wines. Who are we to deny such greatness? And so we served oysters. A few dozen raw Kumamoto oysters, glistening in their shells, handled ever so delicately by their server so that the briny liquid inside would not spill out. And I followed a suggestion from Rick Tramonto's Amuse-bouche and served them with a blood orange aspic. A very nice touch, incidentally. The aspic was ruby red, and contributed a pleasant tang to the oyster.

Of course, raw oysters are hard for some to eat, so we had alternate food as well. House-cured gravlax, which had been curing in our refrigerator for the week. A pile of gougeres, little balls of pate a choux mixed with an aged Gruyere. A Brie de Meaux and Selles-sur-Cher, two of the world's most wonderful cheeses. Chocolate covered hazelnuts, rolled by hand by me that morning. And a Roquefort-Pear Trifle, straight from the pages of the French Laundry Cookbook. I'm not sure our guests knew what to make of this; it looked like it would be a dessert, but of course ended up being something else altogether. I thought it was delicious.

Ah, yes. The Champagnes. We served seven different bottles, and let our guests choose as they would. The majority of people voted for the René Geoffroy a Cumreres, Premier Cru. Though some preferred his Cuvee 97, that was too bad, as it is out of our price range for the wedding (we bought half a case for ourselves, however). Curiously, my merchant tells me that this maker favors Pinot Meunier, which he considers underappreciated and underutilized in Champagne production (Champagnes are usually blends of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier).

The wine that fared the worst in my mind was the Nicholas Feuillate Premier Cru Chauilly-Epernay, the $20 bottle we bought at the K & L tasting we went to, and the one non-estate-bottled Champagne in the mix. It was among the best of its price range at that tasting, but tasted harsh next to the more delicate $30 bottles. Too bad, as we're going to need two cases of the stuff.

The most striking thing about the tasting notes we collected from our guests was their diversity. While many preferred the non-vintage Geoffroy, one of our wine tasters preferred the Feuillate (though he gave the Geoffroy '97 the highest marks). Descriptions ranged across the board, and the scores people assigned varied widely. As everyone pointed out, however, we're not going to go wrong with any of them. Any Champagne at all is going to be appreciated by our guests, and it's arguable that anyone will appreciate the difference between this Champagne and any other. But our wedding is going to be full of foodstuffs which people won't notice. The important thing to us is to support the local artisanal foods we care so deeply about.

Sunday, February 16, 2003


Sorry for the problems with links, if you've been having them. I'm still sorting out new domain name stuff. Feel free to holler if you see something missing.

In the meantime, check back here soon for the reports of our official wedding Champagne tasting.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

The Dirt on Dirt

Terroir. It is a word bandied about by wine snoots everywhere. It has no easy conceptual translation in English ("land" is the direct translation my Oxford French-English dictionary lists), and means different things to different people. Perhaps that is part of its charm; a word which is ambiguously defined can be used for any number of purposes.

Since everyone offers their own definition, here is mine. To me, it is the sense that a particular food product (though usually applied to wine, it can apply equally well to cheeses and any number of other things) can only exist in that form in that one space. If you moved a Burgundy vigneron and all his vines to Oregon, he wouldn't be making Burgundy. Which one would be better is a matter of taste, but what you were drinking would be distinctly unBurgundian.

Some say that it is whatever Nature inherently gives to the wine. But what about the microclimate formed by the walls surrounding a clos? It has an effect, in some cases a staggering one, and that is obviously a human factor.

Is it real? I'm willing to believe it. In one of the wine classes I took, we had a whole lecture on terroir. Our teacher offered us an experiment. First we had a Burgundy from a particular vineyard, made by a particular producer. Then a second Burgundy, different vineyard, different producer. Finally, a third which we tasted blind. Her challenge to us: which of the first two was it most like? It was easy to tell that it tasted much more similar to the first. The answer: it was the second producer, but the first vineyard. (This, of course, is part of the difficulty in understanding Burgundy; many vineyards are farmed by multiple vignerons)

But whatever people say about terroir, few deny that the impact of the soil on a vine is tremendous. So who better to write a book on terroir than a geologist, a former oil explorer for Shell? You can imagine I was thus intrigued to read Terroir by James Wilson.

This book is full of interesting material. Is there a difference between First Growth and Second Growth Bordeaux, given that the 1855 Classification which created those terms was based on the selling history over time? As it turns out, yes. First Growths have underlying geography which differs from most Second Growths. And the Seconds that many consider worthy of First Growth status share that geography. There really is an explanation for why one Burgundian vineyard can be a Grand Cru, and one a few feet away can be a Premier Cru. For each of the significant French regions, Wilson provides you with information about the geologic and cultural history of the land, the appelations and the grapes they comprise, and a host of other things both trivial and significant.

But this wealth of information does not make for thrilling reading. Wilson was a geologist for most of his career, and his writing can be as dry as Bordeaux gravel. Not to a full-time wine professional, perhaps, and certainly not for other wine-loving geologists, but for folks like me, this book is a tough read.

An example: plucked from a random spread.

As to the "why" of the high quality of this small area of Grands Crus, the seismic geologic profile illustrates its "potential for greatness" [how the Cru status is applied in Burgundy]. First, we have a near-perfect soil, blended from a blue-ribbon recipe of White Oolite, Prémeaux marly limestone, Calcaire a entroques, and thickened by the Ostrea acuminata marl. Second, the topsoil and pebble layer are spread at an average thickness of about 4 feet (over a meter) on a gently sloping bedrock disleveled by only very minor faulting.
Much of the book is not like this. You'll learn a fair amount about European history as well as the top makers of various appelations and the signature flavors of the wines they produce. But much of the writing is like this, and for those of us who do not keep a geologic timetable in our head, those parts can be hard going.

Still, one can't argue with the geekiness of the book (meant in a good way). If you really want to understand what goes into your favorite French wines, this book will give you a good idea. If you want an overview of Burgundy, however, you may find this book too onerous to read.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

Entertaining Reborn!

After a long hiatus, we have started entertaining again. Well, entertaining at full blast. We managed to sneak a couple of things into the entertainment hibernation I was forced into by unemployment, but this was the first time in almost four months that I was able to let loose. We warned our dinner guests: Tyler and Michelle, who we know through puzzle collecting and who rival if not surpass us in love of food and wine, and Melissa, who is, confusingly, my Melissa's boss at Cody's Books. Another person who loves good food and wine with a passion.

So let loose I did. In an ideal world, I would also have my digital camera now, but Best Buy didn't have the one I wanted in stock, and so I have to wait a bit. This means you will just have to suffer through my descriptions without the benefit of pictures.

Here is our menu, with comments. For the first time, we tried printing out menus and presenting them to our guests, an idea we stole from both my friend Tom (whose parties demand menus because of the vast array of dishes) and Tyler and Michelle when we were at their house for dinner.


Porcini-sausage stuffed Cipolline onions with dressed frisee
Wine: served with the appetizer, see below

I love amuse-bouches. A little bite of something, just enough to intrigue, to get the juices flowing. This one was based on some stuffed onions I made and described on my Eating Well Cheaply blog a while back. They came out really well, and even then I hinted at the idea of doing a small version as an amuse. I stuffed roasted cipolline onions with a mixture of porcini, calabrese sausage, and the centers of the roasted onion. I laid each half on a bed of frisee, which I dressed with a simple garlic vinaigrette, and because we had such beautiful dried porcini, I took one whole but small rehydrated porcini for each plate and laid it to the side. It looked really nice; all my presentation practice is finally beginning to pay off.


Bagna cauda

Wine: Giustino B., 2001 Prosecco di Valdobbiadene

I always like bagna cauda, but I was particularly interested in trying it again for two reasons. First, I found a source for salted anchovies (a couple sources, actually), an ingredient which has cropped up in the recent books of several talented chefs, including Jeremiah Tower, Judy Rodgers, and Nancy Silverton. Second, I did that whole presentation class a couple of weeks ago, and we spent a lot of time sculpting radishes, which are a traditional accompaniment to bagna cauda (as are cardoons, but those are hard to find). So the very delicious bagna cauda (a Piedmontese "warm bath" of olive oil, garlic, butter and anchovies) was burbling away, and next to it was a plate of intricately cut radishes, blanched fennel and celery.

As for the Prosecco, this seems to be a trendy little drink nowadays, but we started drinking it around September after I read about it in Gambero Rosso, the Italian wine magazine. It's similar to Champagne in style, but is made with its own unique, eponymous grape. It's a delightful sparkler from Northeastern Italy, and is always a nice way to start an evening.


Sautéed shrimp on a Brioche Round with lemon-crab velouté

Wine: Getariako 2001 Txacolina

This was probably the prettiest plate I did all night. For the prep work, I brunoised some carrot and red chili pepper. Then I cut a bell pepper into semi-circles across the middle (cut the bell pepper in half down through the stem, then cut each of those into strips across what used to be the pepper's core). Finally, I made some sourdough brioche, cut it into slices, and then cut rounds out of those slices with my biggest cookie cutter. To actually serve it, I sautéed the shrimp and made my sauce with crab stock and minced conserved lemon I made two months ago. The crab stock I made last week with the shell of an entire crab (we ate the meat in mid-December and I froze the shell). I was worried that the sauce would be too overpowering, but it worked out pretty well. The conserved lemon was definitely a useful touch. Then I laid a brioche round in the middle of each plate, and arranged the shrimp (actually prawns) and bell pepper arcs around the round in a pinwheel. Then I put some of the sauce over it (note: don't use a squeeze bottle for the saucing here; it splurts more then squirts and was the one downside to the presentation) and sprinkled my orange and red brunoise all over the plate. Tres nice.

Txocalina is one of my favorite little wines, a Basque wine from Northern Spain. It's a crisp wine, with just the slightest effervescence, and goes very nicely with shellfish. I always try and keep a bottle on hand to open as a treat.

Main Course

Steak au poivre with truffled root potatoes and roasted beets.

Wine: Ridge 1999 Dynamite Hill Petite Sirah

In my presentation class a few weeks back, our instructor used a star tip fitted into a pastry bag to pipe his mashed potatoes on the plate. This was something I had known about for a while, but never gotten around to doing. But once you see how stunning this looks, it's hard to not want to do it. I figured something like that would be perfect with the steak. I made mashed potatoes with a small amount of turnips, and then added some parsley for color and a healthy dose of white truffle oil. To plate it, I piped the potato/parsnip purée onto the plate in a coiled stripe, laid the steak next to it, and then a row of roasted beet wedges on the other side. Finally, I laid three steamed baby French carrots on the potatoes in a cross formation (think an X with a line through the middle). The dish was quite good, but I overcooked some of the steak (I had to do it in two sauté pans) so three of us got a steak that was more medium-well and two of us got a more medium-rare steak. Urgh.

As for the wine, well, I've not yet had a Ridge wine I didn't like, and that rule still stands. Petite sirah is often a pretty robust grape, with peppery notes, and it worked nicely with the steak.


Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk with pain de mie toast

Wine: Meulenhof 2001 Riesling Kabinett

I was definitely in the mood for a washed-rind cheese, so I gave Melissa three options when she went to the Cheese Board for me: Epoisses, Red Hawk, or Alsatian Munster (not to be confused with, well, any other Munster you've ever had). The Red Hawk won out, and that was plenty fine with me. I made pain de mie the night before, and toasted it just before plating it. I cut the pain de mie in half to make two perfect little triangles and laid one on top of the other to make little chevrons, and then positioned a wedge of cheese facing the opposite direction. Finally, a little arugula for color and an added bite, and the dish was ready to go.

We bought a case of the Meulenhof at the big German wine tasting we went to a month ago, and we were eager to share it. It was so good at the tasting that I took a break from the tasting itself and went next door to buy a case; I didn't want them to run out. This was the perfect opportunity to open some.


Fried pear dumplings with honey-vanilla ice cream

Wine: Schloss Gobelsburg 2000 "Zöbinger Heiligenstein" Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese

The pear dumplings came from one of my new favorite cooking magazines, Art Culinaire. It's a magazine aimed at food professionals, but a lot of the recipes are doable for home chefs. The dumplings were simply a pear compote put into wonton wrappers and fried. I made the honey-vanilla ice cream the night before, using all the rest of my supply of Marshall Farm's CIA honey, honey made from beehives in the herb garden at the St. Helena Culinary Institute of America. This was my favorite when we did a tasting of all their honeys, so it was the obvious choice when I decided to do a honey-vanilla ice cream. To serve these, I put a scoop of ice cream on the side of the plate, and then arranged four dumplings in a row next to the scoop.

As Melissa (my girlfriend, not our guest) wrote up the menus, she decided to just write "Wine TBA" on the menu, a total wine geek joke, as TBA is the common abbreviation for the otherwise unwieldy trockenbeerenauslese. Given our guests, I was eager to pull this out; I knew they would fully appreciate it. In addition to the case of Meulenhof we walked away with last month, we picked up two half-bottles of this TBA, because we fell in love with it at the tasting. TBAs in general are high on my list of favorite dessert wines, and this is a particularly nice one.


Caramel chews

In addition to the amuse-bouche, my next-favorite meal component is the mignardise, the little plate of candies and treats you get after dessert. As the amuse-bouche gets your appetite moving, the mignardise provides something for you to enjoy as you settle down after dinner. Conversation lingers, and the little plate of candies provides you with tasty bites to enjoy as you talk with your dinner companions. I had made the caramel chews the night before (they sit out overnight to harden) and was really hoping to find little mini muffin cups at Market Hall the next day; they've got a surprisingly decent candy-making section, given that their primary focus is oils, vinegars, deli food, pasta, and cheese. But alas, they were out of stock. If I had actually thought it through more, I would've found time to go to Spun Sugar in Berkeley, but as I conceived of the idea the day before, that wasn't very likely. So I did the most annoying of the many fussy tasks I did that day: I hand-wrapped each caramel chew. The fact that the little cups would have looked great and been a lot quicker only fueled my annoyance. Still, they were quite good.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003


It is not uncommon now to read stories of people fleeing the technology industry and exploring second careers. But, usually, they're doing so because they got laid off from a dot-com job and have run out of options.

Far rarer to find someone who has willingly quit a high-powered job at a big stable company. One such person is my good friend Tim, who left a great job at Apple to open a coffee shop in San Leandro. Or, more correctly, to purchase an existing coffee shop.

This might seem an odd change, but Tim is one of the most gregarious, community-minded people I know, and his coffee shop, still in its infancy, already reflects that. Even the name, Zocalo Coffeehouse, is derived from a Mexican term for a town square (specifically the large town square in Mexico City), and implies a gathering place, a home away from home.

There are board games to play, a kid's area with toys and colorful furniture, free wireless Internet access, and comfy chairs and couches in addition to the standard cafe-style table/chair arrangement. Artwork from local artists hangs on the wall, available for purchase or admiration. Poetry readings and children's story times are being planned already. People wave to each other, say hi to friends they haven't seen in a while, and inevitably, chat with Tim. Everyone feels welcome, and it's easy to get the sense that Tim remembers you and takes an interest in what you're up to. That, of course, is because he does.

Tim's doing other things right, as well. There's a roaster on the premises and he's working on developing a signature blend, and he's looking to carry artisanal and organic products, such as Scharffen Berger chocolates and Fair Trade coffee. The kind of place you want to support, and want to do well.

Sound nice? It is. It's what coffee houses should be, and it's what they so often are not. And this is only a month into its operation; I am eager to see what Tim does with the place in the future.

While the coffee house has been open a month or so, the official ribbon-cutting will take place on February 8 at 11am. There'll be samples to try and people to meet. While many of you are not local, many of you are, and it's worth checking Zocalo out, even if you can't make the ribbon-cutting.

Zocalo Coffeehouse ( exists but does not yet have content, so check back in a few weeks or so)
645 Bancroft Ave.
San Leandro, CA

Monday, February 03, 2003

Les Truffes

What is your vision of heaven? Angels and harps? An eternity of picnics in a limitless garden? Mine would probably include an infinity of repetitions of some of my favorite meals. Dinner at the French Laundry, sure. But also the truffle dinner we ate last night at Jojo, one of our favorite restaurants.

We got an e-mail from a friend of ours (who chooses their wines) about the forthcoming dinner, and I wasn't quite done reading the e-mail before I was on the phone to make our reservation.

Dinner was a prix fixe, four courses for $65, with special wines not normally on their wine list chosen just for the meal. Every course but the last one would feature truffles in some form or another. Given the general quality of the food, and the use of this most expensive of ingredients, the prix fixe cost seemed like a bargain (and Slow Food members like us got a 10% discount for the night).

We started out by choosing our wine. They were offering two different wines, and had per-glass prices for each. But it didn't take us long to ferret out the per-bottle price for the 2000 Pinot d'Alsace from Zind-Humbrecht (Pinot d'Alsace isn't a grape, to the best of my knowledge; I suspect that's the name the wine maker gave this blend of various different wines). My tasting notes for it say "funky with Riesling-esque notes" but also allude to the wine's clean, fresh taste and crystalline acidity. A very nice wine.

Our first course was a truffled cauliflower salad with parsnip chips. This came stunningly presented, two radicchio leaves cradling the cauliflower, all served on a bed of mache and sprinkled liberally with parsnip chips. Everything on the plate was delicious, though raw radicchio is tough to take. The parsnip chips were quite interesting, mandolined parsnips strips fried and then seasoned perfectly. The chips were twisted at some point in their lives, so they made little curlicues on our plates. Lots of color and textural contrast, delighting the eye even as it delighted our taste buds.

The second course was poached halibut with a truffled vinaigrette, this all served on a bed of frisée and poached carrots. Melt-in-your-mouth halibut, with a rich, heady sauce.

By now, we had dispatched with our Pinot d'Alsace, and I was all ready to order another, but our waitress, with a more objective eye about our mental state, suggested we try the red wine for the night and if we like it, have a single glass with our main course. The 1999 Chinon "Clos de la Doiterie" from Joguet was quite good, though the only tasting note I have says that it has good tannins (I wasn't quite up to writing that much by then; Melissa had offered to drive so that I could enjoy myself with abandon). I don't know much about the appelation, but my Sotheby's Encyclopedia of Wine says that it is mostly Cabernet franc (like many of the wines from that portion of the Loire) with up to 10% Cabernet sauvignon allowed by the AOC.

The main course was the one I was most eager to try: quail stuffed with truffle & foie gras. The quail arrived perfectly plated, of course, mostly deboned except for the standard thing of leaving the leg and wing bones in place so that the bird does not flop around unattractively. I had big sheets of truffle shavings lining the cavity of my bird, and was blissful the entire time I ate. The foie gras added a very nice note, a different flavor introducing itself as I ate the quail meat.

Dessert was an apple-huckleberry tart, but we also got a small plate holding two chocolate-chartreuse truffles. My truffle I held off on until I finished my pie and my dessert wine, a glass of '99 Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise. A good thing, too. It gave me the chance to really appreciate the truffle as I ate it. Now, I make a pretty good truffle. Or so I have always thought. But now I have a new aspiration in my truffle travails: making truffles the way Mary Jo (pastry chef and co-owner) does. They were perfect little pillows of chocolate, blanketed in a thick coat of cocoa powder. They poofed as you bit into them, the cocoa powder exploding as the filling collapsed in your mouth. As we left, I asked for any information about how she did them. A lot of chartreuse was part of the answer, but she had also constructed a little system for keeping them at the right temperature. They were sitting on a plate, and she had allowed them to come to room temperature, but their plate was sitting right next to a tub of ice water, and throughout the night she turned the plate so that one side was close to the frigid wall of the tub.

It is easy to run out of superlatives when describing a meal like this, but every single one is warranted. Yes indeed, my personal Heaven would feature this meal often.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

Champagne Tasting

The more I learn about wine, the more I like K & L Wines. They have a great selection, good prices, and a very knowledgeable wine staff. Okay, sometimes the staff borders on insufferable, the wine store equivalents of the music-store workers in High Fidelity, but for the most part they know their stuff and communicate it well.

One of the best aspects of K & L, however, is their Saturday tastings. Virtually any Saturday you show up at either their San Francisco (12-3 pm) or Redwood City (1-4 pm) store, you're able to go to a tasting of at least 7 wines, usually focused on a particular region, for somewhere around $20.

Today's tasting was Champagne, in preparation for Valentine's Day. But Melissa and I are evaluating Champagnes for our wedding, so we got an extra benefit from the tasting.

Seven Champagnes later (not to mention the ones we had at the Terry Theise tasting a while back), I'm beginning to think that all Champagnes taste like bread, or dough, or yeast-ridden batters. This sort of makes sense, as the wine sits on the lees for a long period of time, but it's tough for me to get any other flavors out of a Champagne. Even the chalk soil that Champagne has in abundance doesn't come through in the wine. My tasting notes for the 1996 Ruelle-Pertois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, the favorite among the people doing the tasting? Sourdough.

But with so many next to each other, I do end up noticing differences. The Veuve Cliquot Brut Champagne (non-vintage) and DeMeric Grande Reserve Sous Bois Brut Champagne (non-vintage) had a distinct oakiness. But the one we walked away with was the Nicholas Feuillate Brut Champagne (non-vintage). My tasting notes include pear and cinnamon, and also say "very clean." And at only $22/bottle, it was a good price. We also liked the NV Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé Champagne, but at $42, it was a bit harder to justify.

In a couple weeks, we're organizing our own Champagne tasting, so it will be interesting to see how that turns out.