Thursday, October 30, 2003

Amador/El Dorado Wines

When we left Tahoe, we decided to swing through Amador and El Dorado counties to try some of the wines of the Sierra foothills. This is a wine region that is off the beaten path, to say the least. Route 16, a winding back-country road, seems to be the main road you take to get around the area. Clusters of rustic houses pop up without warning and the towns in the area seem like throwbacks to the mid twentieth century.

To Americans used to Napa's ostentatious glitter, this might seem like an unusual setting for vineyards and wineries. But the region boasts some of California's oldest vines; wine has been produced here since the gold rush of 1849. The Zinfandels of the area are supposed to be particularly noteworthy. Melissa and I only got to visit two wineries, and we weren't exactly blown away. I've heard people say that the wines of the Sierra foothills have a distinctive terroir, born from the granite-rich soil and ancient vines, but we didn't get enough coverage to really come to a conclusion one way or the other about it.

Our first stop was Single Leaf, which sits at the end of a dusty driveway off of a back road. The winery looks like an upscale barn, and features a beautiful view of the winery's vineyards. When trying to decide which wineries to visit, I looked for wineries which described their wines as "estate-grown" and, ideally, "organic". The former implies a greater commitment to letting the terroir of the vine come through, as the grapes are from a small geographic area rather than being sourced from disperse vineyards. An estate-grown wine also suggests a very personal wine, or at the very least a control-freak wine maker who doesn't want grapes s/he hasn't personally shepherded to harvest. As for organic, do you want some unknown chemicals in your wine?

Single Leaf produces a number of different wines. A Cabernet Franc, Merlot, some table wines, and the ubiquitous Zinfandel. They even make a Zinfandel port which Melissa described correctly as saying that it's an accessible, easy to drink port. There wasn't anything that made us want to buy several cases, but we did leave with a bottle of the port and a bottle of their Signature Red table wine, a nicely balanced, fruity wine.

Given that it was a hot Sunday on a three-day weekend, we were surprised when two other couples came in for tastings. To Melissa and me, it seemed like a remote location. Both were more or less from the area, and had numerous recommendations for us, none of which we actually followed because of time constraints. But everyone nodded knowingly when we said we were going to Sobon in nearby Amador county; it's a well-known name from the region.

Both Sobon and nearby Shenandoah Vineyards are run by the same family, but the two labels have different markets. In the words of the woman pouring for us, Sobon is the one you might find in a wine shop, Shenandoah the one you might find in the supermarket.

I was fond of a number of their wines, including their 2001 Rocky Top Zinfandel and their 2001 Fiddletown Zinfandel. Fiddletown is a smaller appelation within the larger Amador County region. The Rocky Top had plum and smoke flavors, and sharp tannins that still let the fruit come through. It seems like a wine which will age well. The Fiddletown was more fruity with a vanilla character on the finish. The tannins were milder in this wine. We had to limit ourselves somewhat, so we bought a bottle of the Rocky Top. I found their reserve wines to have very gritty tannins, almost as if someone had mixed some sand into the wine. Not a style to my liking. We also left with a bottle of their Orange Muscat, which was a nice representative of the breed, and certainly well-priced.

Sobon is proud of the region's history; they have a small museum on the grounds which collects a number of regional antiques that help shed light on life in the mid 19th century. They also have specific sections devoted to winemaking artifacts.

A number of people swear by the wines of the Sierra foothills, but I was underwhelmed by my admittedly cursory exploration. Still, it's a region I'd be willing to explore in greater depth. The ancient vines and granite soil offer a lot of possibilities to my mind.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Tahoe Part 1

Melissa and I spent the weekend in Tahoe, courtesy of one of our wedding presents. While the main point was to get away and enjoy some time alone, something I'm sad to say we have to explicitly make time to do, we did do a little bit of culinary exploring. We were staying on the South Shore of Tahoe, which is where the big casinos are. It's also where the fast food places and sketchy dining experiences congregate.

But our hotel actually managed to recommend an uber-cute café nearby: the Alpen Sierra Café. Melissa says their coffee was really good, and was particularly keen on the fact that they will, if you want, serve you your coffee in a French Press, so you know the coffee is fresh and made just for you. They do their own roasting, as well, and had a wide range of selections (I don't drink coffee; I'm just channeling Melissa for this part). If I had actually managed to get a wireless card for my new iBook before we left, I could have used their free wireless Internet connection. A very nice bonus, even if I only got to enjoy it in theory. The staff was friendly, the ambiance was nice, and it was a perfectly amiable place to while away the time.

Hoping to scope out the local wine scene, we went to the one wine shop recommended by our hotel, "The Cork & More". Its wine selection was respectable, having a good breadth of styles and places of origin. The "More" in the store's name covers a deli, kitchen gadget section, cheese/charcuterie counter, gourmet food store, and miscellaneous other items. Clearly the place we'd shop if we lived in the area, and according to one woman we met the next day, the only place to find good food on the South Shore.

For dinner, we drove to the North Shore, roughly 45 minutes from our hotel. We were eating at Soule Domain, a restaurant recommended by my boss, who knows that I'm passionate about food. The difference between North Shore and South Shore is striking. North Shore has cute (and almost certainly expensive) houses, small restaurants, and only one or two casinos. Supposedly it's also where the better skiing is, though I also don't ski (we were there before the season started), so can't vouch for this.

Soule Domain is good. Not great, but good. They have an Asian, and I might even venture fusion, slant to many of their dishes, even though they also serve Filet Mignon and other kind of fare you'd want in the dead of winter. An unusual twist to the bread basket, which was quite good, was that it was served with hummus. As an opener, I had a tuna tartare with a lemon-wasabi aioli and cole slaw on the side. Melissa had shrimp and spinach salad that was swimming in dressing and mixed warm shrimp and cold spinach in a way that Melissa found not to her taste. Our entrées were supposedly different, but it's hard to say what differed except the fish. Melissa had swordfish, and I had some esoteric Hawaiian fish (ono, maybe?). Melissa's swordfish was good. My fish was either inherently tough, in which case I wonder why the restaurant serves it, or prepared badly. The sauces were very similar, some Asian-fusion melange that was okay but not memorable. The wine list was surprisingly decent, and Melissa and I opted for a Rosenblum Viognier. I was a little annoyed that they didn't bring out an ice bucket or some way of keeping our wine chilled, but the dining room was cool (but certainly not cold) enough that it kept the wine at a decent temp throughout our dinner. I opted not to have a dessert, simply because I wasn't in the mood. Melissa thought her blueberry creme caramel was quite good.

In general, the food seemed to be from the "keep throwing things in until it looks interesting" school of thought. It was reasonably well executed within that context, but it's a style of cuisine that I find muddled and without focus. Most people who know me know that I have no qualms about frou-frou food, but I do like it to have direction. When the kitchen kept things simple, the restaurant was quite good. When they tarted things up with whatever was in the larder, it ceased to be interesting.

Coming soon: wine tasting in nearby Amador and El Dorado Counties.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating

If I didn't live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I'd probably do a lot of shopping by ordering from Zingerman's in Ann Arbor. Started as a deli, the business has since grown to become a bakery and a purveyor of quality ingredients from America and Europe.

But since I do live in Oakland, I have local sources for most of the high-end ingredients they sell. The only exception is an organic, stone-ground polenta fresh from the Piemonte. And I mean fresh; you have to store it in the freezer, and it has no equal among the polentas you buy even from tony stores in the area.

All of which is a roundabout way of describing how I got a copy of their new book, The Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating, written by Zingerman's co-founder Ari Weinzweig. I was ordering some polenta, noticed the book (which they carry in paperback; a hardback edition is forthcoming) and decided to buy a copy.

The book is partly an encyclopedia of gourmet ingredients, what to know about them, how to pick out good versions, and so forth. So one chapter is all about olive oils. Another all about vinegars, including aceto balsamico tradizionale. One's all about cheeses, another about bread. There's a whole chapter devoted to the polenta I bought in the same order. You get the idea.

Within each section, you can learn how the best versions of the product are made. You can learn how to find good samples, even if you're not shopping from Zingerman's. For the serious foodie, not all of this will be revelatory; I skimmed the section on traditional balsamic vinegar, figuring that two other books and lots of articles on that very subject have me well grounded. But there's plenty here even for the connoisseur, and the novice foodie will find lots of great information.

This book is also a cookbook, each chapter having a number of recipes that highlight the food item discussed in the preceding pages of the chapter. Even a quick skim through them leaves me hungry, and one struck me as so intriguing that within ten minutes of opening the book I had added a menu item for an upcoming dinner party (more on that towards the end of the month).

Finally, this book is something of a catalog. While the advice Weinzweig offers pertains to buying quality ingredients no matter where you are, he obviously lists Zingerman's first in mail-order sources. Most of his knowledge, after all, is derived from two decades of tasting and exploring products for the company to sell.

Central to the book is the idea that you need nothing more than your taste buds to appreciate good food. There's no special magic; you just have to take your time and think a bit while you're chewing. In Weinzweig's world, every store should offer you taste samples. If they don't, he says, shop somewhere else. It is this all-embracing attitude that probably makes the book particularly worthwhile for the newbie foodie. Cook with good ingredients. Try different producer's versions of the same basic product when possible and figure out which one you like best; you don't need to trust anyone's opinion except your own. Take the time to think about where your food came from and how your mouth is responding to it as you eat. Good messages, all of them. As I say proudly at the top of this site: you have to eat, you might as well enjoy it. And few people capture the sheer joy of eating well as Weinzweig.

For those of who already do this, the book serves as a reminder and a great reference on the ingredients we love so much, and will offer insights, or at least tempting recipes, to even the most practiced gourmet shopper. The books is available from Zingerman's of course, but also fine local independent bookstores.

Friday, October 03, 2003

Because nothing balances fat like more of it.

I'm not quite sure what I was thinking when I concocted dinner for last Sunday. Pan-seared salmon with cheese risotto, a beurre blanc sauce, and caramelized fennel sounds great. And it was, absolutely. It was also extremely filling. Melissa didn't even feel like eating ice cream later that night, which may be the first time in the five-and-a-half years I've known her that she hasn't been able to fit a little ice cream "between the cracks".

I made the beurre blanc sauce by tossing some minced shallots into a pot with a heady dose of vinegar, and then I reduced the vinegar to a glaze. Then I took about seven tablespoons of butter and added it a tablespoon at a time, whisking after each one to get it well fluffed and incorporated. Finally I added some chopped tarragon. Beurre blanc can be tricky, or at least I sometimes find it so, because if the pot is too warm, the butter melts too fast and is difficult to turn into a sauce. And once it's made, you can't leave it over a burner or it will break. I have found the best thing to do is to put it on the stove between the two back burners while I'm using the front burners, whisking it every now and again and passing it briefly over a flame if it gets too hard.

The risotto was very standard, though the only condiment I used was a heap of Parmiggiano. The caramelized fennel was a snap; I made it pretty much the same way you'd make caramelized onions, with a tablespoon or so of butter and cooking slowly over a low flame. I wasn't terribly happy with them, though. I think next time I might fry the fennel and see how it takes to that treatment.

For the salmon, I dredged the fillets in flour and let them sit in the fridge as I heated my skillet over low heat for several minutes, cranking up the heat to high for another couple of minutes to get the pot well and evenly heated. I dropped in the salmon and then pan-seared it. In truth, the interior was somewhat undercooked. Not quite raw, but not as perfectly cooked as the outside.

For wine, I pulled out a Chardonnay from Dunning Vineyards in western Paso Robles. The wine isn't a normal California-style chardonnay, redolent with oak and butter, but I thought it might work well with the increasingly rich dinner I had planned. Alas, the wine was overwhelmed by the richness of the food, though it was still enjoyable.

I plated the whole ensemble by scooping some risotto into the middle of a heated plate, laying the salmon on that, spooning the sauce over the top, and garnishing with the caramelized fennel. I wiped down the plates to get rid of the stray grains of rice which dribbled onto the plate as I arranged the hill of risotto, and served.