Friday, December 31, 2004

Thoughts on Terroir

I found this post by Jaime Goode via this post on Tom Wark's site. Goode tries to nail down a definition of terroir, the concept that wine or food uniquely reflects its place of birth (this term is most often used in wine, but others apply it to cheese, bread, teas, coffee and chocolate, among others).

Everyone discusses the physical environment of the vines. Soils, sunshine, rainfall, and so forth. But I think people do a disservice to the concept of terroir by focusing solely on items that can be analyzed scientifically. Goode alludes to other factors as a minor element. I would argue that they're more significant.

Isn't history a part of terroir? Classic Bordeaux wines reflect the several hundred years when the English controlled the territory. The wines were made to the tastes of that country, and that dictated the winemaking philosophy you still find today. What would you think of a Bordeaux wine made from the pinot noir grape? Could it reflect its terroir well even though it's an alien in that region?

And what about food? In the Old World at least, wines evolved alongside the region's cuisine, because you drank the wine with your meal. The best wine writing brings food into the mix, though the big pubs don't focus on this as much. When we drink wine in our normal life, we don't drink it in isolation, we drink it with a meal. Mightn't a crisp Txacolina reflect its terroir well by perfectly complementing food from the Basque country of Northern Spain? I think so. I could imagine a scenario where a particular grape might reflect the physical terroir of a certain region, but not go well with the food. I would argue in that case that the wine isn't truly expressing its terroir.

I'm a romantic, and so my view of terroir is probably not surprising. But I think these are important elements that can't be ignored when discussing a wine's sense of place, and I find it typically modern that we need to dissect and analyze this term. Can't we just accept that there is no standard definition? James Wilson does a good job of combining these factors in Terroir. Wilson is a geologist, but he's not unaware of the role that history plays in shaping a region's wines.

The problem with my factors is that they're constantly changing. Foods change as new ingredients become available—fusion cuisine is as old as travel. History marches ever onward. True, and I think this is what makes terroir so fascinating.

My factors also don't allow New World regions much slack. History is fine when you're talking about a winemaking tradition that predates the Christian Era, but here in California we can claim at most a couple of centuries. In that case I suppose we have to stick with the purely physical (which is what I did with the Paso Robles terroir piece).

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Christmas Eve

(Note: If you haven't seen Pim's links for tsunami relief assistance, I urge you to check them out. Help your fellow humans. If you work for a large corporation, some charity organizations may qualify for donation matching. Let us show others in the world that not all Americans are as callous as our government.)

Melissa and I have never spent Christmas Eve alone together. I mean, okay, it's not like we've been married for fifty years. We've only spent six Christmases together. But we were still delighted when we realized that we'd be spending Christmas Eve alone for the first time.

Melissa quickly suggested a plan, "You could make me a nice dinner." You know I hate cooking, but I relented after a half-second or so and set about planning the meal. I had the day off, so I decided to do something interesting.

For our opener, I wanted to make a salad with seared foie gras. I've made a few cold foie gras preparations over the last year, but I've never tried searing it. Michael Ginor of Hudson Valley Foie Gras argues in Foie Gras: A Passion that Americans prefer hot foie gras preparations. I'm not sure I agree with his cause and effect; I think American restaurants prefer serving foie gras hot because it's less time-consuming and safer than a terrine, and thus that's all the American public sees.

Ginor's book contains lots of creative recipes that I used to infer a basic technique for seared foie gras. Silvano Serventi's Le Livre de Foie Gras is probably a better source for techniques and preparations. I just didn't feel like translating. (By the way I think that's the first time I've ever linked to—even an international branch—from this site. If anyone knows of a good French bookstore I could link to and shop from, let me know.)

I cut two thick slices off a whole liver from Sonoma Foie Gras and kept them in the refrigerator while I prepped the salad (the rest of the liver became a terrine I'll bring to my mom's house on New Year's Eve). I reduced pomegranate juice by 2/3 to make a sauce, similar to the sauce for my magret salad. I sliced apples and chopped arugula coarsely (which I then dressed with Pasolivo olive oil from the gift basket that trashed my integrity). Then I heated a pan on a medium flame. I plated everything but the foie gras so that it would be properly warm when it hit the table.

When you put foie gras pieces onto a hot pan, they render fat. A lot of it. Foie gras is, after all, a normal duck liver swollen almost to the breaking point with fat. It's hard to avoid doing mental calculations of how much that fat costs as it leaks out of the foie and into the pan. I seared the pieces for about thirty to forty seconds on each side, until the pieces had a crisp exterior and a very soft, pudding-like interior. I drizzled the pomegranate reduction over the foie and the apples.

When you do a cold foie gras preparation, you often clean the liver to remove the veins that run through it (Carolyn recently sent me a link with good pictures of this process). This results in pieces of liver, which is fine if you're going to smush them in a terrine, less so if you want nicely shaped medallions. So it was odd to see the odd bit of vein in the seared piece. But I was happy with how it came out, well flavored and warm. Melissa is not super fond of foie gras, and so I took it as a good sign that she finished hers.

We had wine, but this will be yet another entry for Wine Blogging Wednesday 5 so you'll have to wait to hear about it. I'll just say it was a Bordeaux-style blend and it went well with the whole dinner.

For the main course, I went for classic winter food. I stole a page from Tom's winter party and made braised short ribs. He made Zinfandel Braised Short Ribs but I made Merlot Braised Short Ribs. When you cook wine down like I did, you lose just about any differences with other wines (on the other hand, if it's an unpleasant wine, it's just going to become more so). I bought the ribs from Potter Family Farms in the Ferry Building; this producer represents the pinnacle of beef. The cows are a closed herd, fed on grass, and the meat is dry-aged for 30 days. Of course they don't do this for free, but I'm happy to support this kind of meat. I braised the ribs in the wine (see below), and then reduced the resulting sauce by something like 75%. This produces a liquid so intensely flavored it doesn't need any sort of seasoning. At Tom's party, we made the sauce the same way, and we kept a small cup in the kitchen so that the kitchen staff could take sips from it.

I served the ribs with risotto flavored simply with Parmigianno-Reggiano and made with home made chicken stock. On the side, I served glazed turned vegetables. I missed the "turning party" at Tom's because I was making the crepes for my dish. But I loved the look of the veggies and I decided to try it on my own. As with so many things, I got the hang of it right as I finished up. Maybe I'll try it again soon. The glazing idea I took from Bouchon. It's a quintessential Thomas Keller recipe: glaze each vegetable in its own separate pan. I had neither the time nor equipment to do this, so I glazed the carrots, turnips, and radish all together. Sorry, Thomas. I'm sure it was some evil variant of the real thing.

I meant to make crème brulée for Melissa; it's a long-running joke that four or five years ago she got me crème brulée gear and I have yet to make this dish. I thought that I'd finally manage it, but time ran short, and Melissa bought us eclairs. I guess she'll have to wait until the next time we spend Christmas Eve alone.

Red Wine Braised Short Ribs
Buy some good quality short ribs still on the bone. Figure about a rib per person if you're serving other food. Leave the bone in and trim excess fat. Season with salt and pepper. Preheat the oven to 325°.

Heat a pan first over low heat for ten minutes and then over medium-high heat for another five minutes. Sear each rib on all meat sides. When all the ribs are done, degrease the pan and deglaze (off flame!) with red wine. Scrape off the fond but there's no need to reduce the wine at this point.

Put the ribs into a roasting pan (or into the same frying pan if you have just a few ribs and the pan has a lid), bone-side down. Pour in the wine from the pan, plus enough extra wine to go about 1/3 of the way up the ribs. Throw in some carrot ends if you've got them. Cover the pan well and put in the oven. If your cover is loose, you might need to replenish the wine as you go.

Cook for about three hours, but check every hour. Meat should be "fork tender" in the extreme; it should practically be falling apart. Remove ribs and reserve. You can make them earlier in the day: reheat in a low-heat oven close to service time. Strain the braising liquid into a pan, and reduce over a high flame on the stove top. Keep reducing. No, even more. Reduce until you feel like your chosen deity has spoken to you personally. If you're an atheist, reduce until you feel like you could believe in any god who allowed such a thing to exist. The sauce should be meaty and salty (but not overly so) and should make your eyes roll back in your head in ecstacy. Make this in advance if you can, and allow to cool so you can skim off the fat. Reheat over a gentle flame.

Spoon sauce over ribs and serve. Don't be shy with the sauce, but you won't have much. Serve with a pleasant red wine. You don't want a food-unfriendly tannin monster (so, no Napa wines), but you want something that can stand up to the deep flavors.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

High-Crab Dinners

Someone remembered to pack his angry eyes
Over the last couple of years, low-crab diets have been all the rage. Every product under the sun now seems to have a low-crab version. Who knew tortillas had crabs in them to begin with?

Frankly I don't get it. Why demonize this crustacean? Crabs and their kin have fed humanity for probably a thousand million years. It just goes to show how silly people can be. Melissa and I decided to thumb our nose at low-crab zealots and do a series of high-crab dinners.

In addition to sounding a note of defiance, these dinners gave me a chance to exercise my "stretching leftovers" skills. In some ways, this is my favorite kind of cooking. It's challenging to reinvent leftovers so that each new dish is different than the one before, and it's more exciting for the diner, who isn't forced to eat the vaguely unpleasant reheated leftovers from the previous night. American willingness to eat food like this comes from our collective attitude that food is simply fuel. We go through our meals by rote, chewing mindlessly and swallowing down something not very good. That attitude chips away at our souls, leaving us with a hollow-eyed acceptance of uninteresting dinners and a lack of sensual awareness. Not in our household, though!

We started with the beast itself, a 2 1/4 pound Dungeness crab. I made sure to get a feisty one from the fish market, since I wanted one that was still alive and healthy. I got what I wanted; he moved his legs about energetically as I removed him from the paper and prepared to put him in the pot. Tongs and grim determination won the day.

After I removed him from the boiling pit into which I had callously thrown him, I prepared him simply: take off the top shell, clean out the "dead mans' fingers" and other "delicacies", turn the crab over and dismantle the "breast bone", cut down the middle with poultry shears and then cut between each leg. Serve with melted butter. We had wine with this, but you won't hear about it until Wine Blogging Wednesday 5. Melissa and I got to talk quite a bit as we worked the meat out of the crab shell, which made for a pleasurable meal. Have this experience while you can; the crab season might end earlier than expected.
Mr. Sweetpea tries to use his Jedi mind powers to force us to drop crab.
We didn't finish all the crab, so I cleaned the rest of it and saved the half cup of meat for the second high-crab dinner.

The next night, I came home and made a crab stock from the cleaned shell. This is straightforward: break up the shell into medium-size chunks, cook at the barest of boils for an hour and a half with mirepoix. Strain.

The crab stock formed the liquid base for a risotto I served with steamed fennel. I finished the risotto with some taleggio, the crab meat from the previous night, and a chunk of the crab butter I made earlier this year. I've recently gravitated more towards Tom's risotto technique. We had similar techniques already, but he adds liquid more aggressively and ends up with a creamier final dish. The risotto came out nicely, but next time I might reduce the amount of taleggio. The crab and cheese were well balanced, but I wanted more crab flavor.

With this dinner, we drank the 1998 Trittenheimer Altärchen Riesling Spatlese from Weingut Ernst Clüsserath. This wine's muted smells of petrol, apple, pepper and nutmeg gave no indication of the bold flavor. Sipping this wine was like biting into a tart green apple, one that has you licking your lips and slurping up the juice on your chin even as its acidity sends a little frisson down your spine. It had a nice weight and viscosity, and oddly it brought out the cheese in the risotto.

We didn't manage to eat all the risotto, so I put the leftovers in the refrigerator. Two days later on Christmas at Melissa's parents' house, I used the risotto to make arancine—balls of risotto that are breaded and deep fried and served as an appetizer.

So there you have it. Take that, low-crab fanatics!

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Dilemma of Foie Gras, Art of Eating 68

Photo by Chris Holmes
I thought I wouldn't write anything until after Christmas, but I'll make one quick post. Issue 68 of The Art of Eating is sort of out, and it has my piece about foie gras. I did a lot of research on this piece, and my own attitudes about foie gras changed dramatically in the process. I used to think there was no dilemma but now I acknowledge it's a gray area. I of course think there's a lot of good information in the piece to help people make their own decisions about the ethical issues of foie gras. I'm pretty proud of the article, as I think it will be useful to the people most likely to be debating or thinking about this topic. Lots of food writers and chefs have a lot of respect for The Art of Eating and many cite Ed's earlier discussion of foie gras (issue 48). My research has, however, made me quite the boor about foie gras (see my previous post), and it's given my inner pedantic plenty to shout about when I read other foie gras articles (hey, writers! There are THREE foie gras producers in the United States; is it that hard to ask someone? The California State Assembly figured it out! And Sonoma Foie Gras's farm is near STOCKTON, no longer anywhere near the offices in Sonoma!) My friend Chris once again did the photography. I don't know which shots they chose, but I saw the "finalists" and they're all great.

Why is it "sort of out"? Well, if you call and order it from them (or start a subscription, which I encourage), they have some in the office. My co-worker got a subscription for Christmas and his just arrived. I ordered a gift subscription for my mom and they said they'd be sending her issue 68 soon. I haven't seen the issue yet (though my co-worker promised to bring his copy into work when he gets back). The bulk of the printing has not yet been shipped out to stores and current subscribers. Or at least I don't think so.

For those who want to wait for it to show up nearby, I know The Pasta Shop in Oakland and Berkeley carries it. I've also seen it at Reader's Books in Sonoma. Supposedly, Cody's Books in Berkeley now carries it. And Ed says that Fog City News carries it, though he recommends calling ahead to make sure. Issue 68 is the one with the foie gras piece, issue 67 is the one with my Paso Robles piece. I've got a couple more pieces tentatively in the pipeline, but it will be a while before those come out.

Now, really. I'm on hiatus 'til after Christmas Day!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Why Do People Eat Foie Gras at Christmas?

You may not know it, but foie gras is a customary treat for the holiday season. Sonoma Foie Gras doubles its production for the last couple months of the year (ironically, California's ban on force-feeding generated a lot of press which translated into more business than normal this year for them). It's the only time of the year you can walk into upscale but not tony butcher shops and buy a foie gras without ordering it in advance. Sam's having some for Christmas dinner. By the way, if you're opposed to foie gras, I totally understand. It's a complex issue, and I could happily argue both sides of it.

The romantic in me loves traditions. They're connections back to our ancestors, our families, our cultures. But the pragmatist in me loves to know why traditions exist. There's always some reason, even if no one remembers it anymore.

Foie gras is no exception. Until about fifty years ago, most foie gras came from geese. Some still does. Geese have a short breeding season, and by the time you produce goslings, raise them to the right age, and then force-feed them for a month, it's Christmas time. So the holidays were the only time you got fresh foie. And then you'd have to conserve it to enjoy throughout the year, which is why most people think of foie gras immersed in fat in jars or in canned terrines. Tangentially it explains "the Christmas goose".

These days, most foie gras producers use ducks, which they breed year-round by artificially inseminating Pekin females with Muscovy sperm to produce the sterile Mulard. This hybrid is sturdier than a goose and only needs to be force-fed for two weeks, though Hudson Valley Foie Gras still feeds its ducks for a month. Presumably so does nearby La Belle Poultry which uses Hudson Valley's techniques. They use artificial insemination because Muscovies and Pekins aren't physically compatible (the male mounts the female and slides off, but then the female thinks she's been impregnated and no longer lets males mount her).

So if you're eating foie gras this season, impress your fellow partygoers with that tidbit of information. You'll be the life of the party (or shunned, which is what happens to me; maybe leave out the bit about artificial insemination).

On a related note, I recently discovered the phrase "fat as a Strasbourg goose." Most people associate foie gras with France's Périgord region in the Southwest but Alsace produces some as well, and in fact this region is responsible for the idea of cooking foie gras en croute, or in a pastry crust. I love knowing the origins of phrases even more than I enjoy learning how traditions were born. Now I try and use the phrase whenever I can; my co-workers are used to my foie gras obsession by now. My vegetarian manager gave her fiancé a thorough picture of the ethical complexities of foie gras after she read a rough draft of my upcoming article on the subject.

Happy Christmas, for those who celebrate it!

The Nominees Are...

People clearly love their food bloggers. Kate at The Accidental Hedonist received a huge response to her request for nominations for the first ever Food Blog Awards. Vote for your favorites between now and December 31.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Sonoma Day Trip #2

Melissa had to meet with a client in Sonoma, and she knew I'd come along if she suggested we go wine tasting afterwards. After her meeting and our lunch at Sonoma Saveurs (always enjoyable, though they recently lost their head chef) we set out for the various wineries on our list. I love small wineries because the producers are often more passionate about their product, but for various reasons we ended up at three of Sonoma's biggest wineries. We felt like such tourists. It's funny how we shy away from big producers, assuming they'll be mediocre. Talk about unfair preconceptions. But economics imposes its cruel logic; if you're going to make 40,000 cases of wine, you've got to make sure that they appeal to a large swath of people, so you create a lowest common denominator wine.

Our first stop was Sebastiani. Three years ago I knew nothing about wine and drank it only occasionally, but even I'm aware of Sebastiani's reputation. Most people know them for inexpensive and uninteresting wines. In 2001 they changed direction. They sold the Turner Road brand that accounted for 98% of their production, and now they're all about quality. Wine maker Mark Lyon is over the moon, since he's now getting to do what he's always wanted (one wonders why he's worked there for twenty years if he wasn't thrilled about it).

The winery (which was mobbed and unpleasant on a Saturday) wasn't pouring their top-tier wine, the single-vineyard Cherryblock Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, they were pouring their second-tier wines. Even these were quite respectable, and I liked their 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon. It's worth noting that I don't normally like California wines from that grape. I neglected to take detailed notes, but I'll keep an eye out for that 2002.

Our next stop was Ravenswood, a lodge-esque building on a hillside at the edge of town. A friend of ours works in the tasting room on Saturdays, and he invited us to stop by. The main counter was swamped, but he set us up at the side counter where they pour their single-vineyard wines and the like. Ravenswood produces various levels of wine (most but not all are Zinfandels). Grapes from all over the state go into the vintner's blend, the bottle you're most likely to see at the grocery store. One notch up are their county blends, which you can find at upscale supermarkets. These wines come from grapes in a particular region. Finally they produce some vineyard designate wines where the grapes are all from one site. You'll only find these at actual wine shops. A common rule of thumb about buying wines is that the more specific the source of the grapes, the more interesting the wine. You're more likely to get a sense of a vineyard's uniqueness in these bottles, though that assumes that the vintner doesn't muck with the wine too much and obscure the vineyard's character.

We tasted seven different bottles. I won't bore you with all the notes. Some were standard but unremarkable Zinfandels, and a couple were intriguing. We bought the 2001 Cooke Zinfandel from Sonoma Valley. The vineyard's high altitude and unfriendly volcanic soil produce unusual Zinfandel grapes. My tasting notes mention "strawberry, apple, pine, cream, candy, balloon, soap" as well as "smooth" and "keeps offering more". Zinfandels are usually dark cherries and berries, not strawberry balloons.

Next we went to Gundlach Bundschu, a winery that sits on a sprawling vineyard just past the sparse residences at the town's edge. Yet another mobbed tasting room probably explained the staff's apathy. The first wine they poured was the 2002 Sangiacamo Ranch Chardonnay. One whiff and Melissa and I practically gagged. This wine managed to encapsulate everything that's wrong with California Chardonnay. I don't know why wineries bother with expensive grapes for these wines; they're just going to obliterate them in the winery. If you want to save yourself some money but get the same experience, slather some slightly rancid butter on a wet oak dowel and suck on that. Next was the Rhinefarm Gewurztraminer, which had a delicate but promising nose of standard Gewurz smells. But the wine was all hat and no cattle and lacked any taste to live up to the smell's promise. Most of the wine we tried here was uninteresting, but I sort of liked the Rhinefarm Zinfandel. At any rate, Melissa and I won't be buying any of their wines.

We finished our little day trip with dinner at the girl & the fig, one of Sonoma's best regarded restaurants. We enjoyed our meal quite a bit, though I sadly didn't take notes on what we had. It was nice to actually drink some wine after a day of spitting.

Friday, December 17, 2004

A Question of Integrity

The other day, one of the wine makers I mentioned in my recent Paso Robles article wrote and asked for my shipping address. They wanted to send me a package. I asked what it was, because (as I said to them) I'm wary about packages from wine makers when they're not samples for a particular article.

They told me it was their standard holiday gift basket: a few artisanal Paso products and a bottle of their lowest-tier wine. I thought about it and decided it was okay. The package seemed more like a "hey it was good to meet you, and we're spreading some holiday cheer" than a "you should write about our great products." After all, the article's published and at this point immutable. But I'm a wine writer and they're a wine maker and I've just taken a present from them.

Have I compromised my integrity? As a co-worker said, some vegetables and a bottle of wine won't sway my opinions. It's a small family-owned winery with a lot of sincerity; that will have a bigger impact on anything I write about them in the future. And if I thought the quality of their wines declined, I wouldn't hesitate to say so. Finally, I'm not going to try and think up ways to write about them just because of the gift basket. Still. If I were writing another piece about Rhones from Paso, mightn't I think to interview them before I thought of other Rhone producers in the area? That indirectly translates into more press.

I know some people figure that writers should take advantage of these opportunities. It's not like we make a lot of money, and this is sort of supplemental income. Anyway, they might say, it's tough to be truly objective. Many wineries work the press hard because a good score can translate into big sales. In the end, all wineries are businesses and people need to make a living from them. I feel like I should work just as hard to counter these efforts. I should be able to offer an honest opinion to readers. If you knew a writer was on good terms with a producer, how would you view the writer's praise? Perhaps people aren't as skeptical as I imagine; Wine Spectator's scores have a huge following, and that magazine is riddled with ads. On the other hand, lots of people (including Wine Spectator) cried foul when Amanda Hesser gave a great review to Spice Market without mentioning that she's friends with owner Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Mimi Sheraton remarked in Eating My Words that when she was the New York Times restaurant critic, she wouldn't go to events where she might meet chefs. Partly this protected her notorious anonymity, but it also prevented her from becoming friendly with a chef she might need to review later. It made a lot of sense to me.

I guess going forward I'll have to decline all "extracurricular" presents, even if it means turning down simple expressions of good will. I'd rather be a wine writer that people trust than one people view with suspicion.

Blogs need to address this topic more and more. A number of companies have started schmoozing food and wine bloggers in the hopes that we'll promote their products. I've gotten press releases, offers of samples from wineries, notes from publicists about movies, and even an offer from a publisher to help me design a contest so I could give free copies of books to you. I almost went for that one, just because I'm so passionate about books. (Of course I thought of calling the contest "Shilling for The Man" so maybe the publisher should be thankful I declined). I have a label in gmail called "Rent this blog!" for all these. I'm glad to see that marketers view us as influential, but I think our greatest strength is strong, independent opinions. Pick up just about any mainstream food mag if you want to read text that's shaped by advertisers and devoid of personality. For that reason I've resisted all these advances except for passing along the occasional press release. Then why take the gift basket? I guess the difference is that the gift basket wasn't overtly trying to influence me, while people who contact me about promoting items here want me to write something I might not write otherwise.

Like so many facets of life, your views on this topic are personal decisions (and as Pim often reminds readers, blogs are our sandboxes so we can do what we want on them). But I feel strongly that any writer should tell readers where s/he is coming from. Our readers need to know what's forming our opinions so they can weigh them appropriately. That's true for bloggers and professional writers alike.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Dine About Town

Those of you outside the Bay Area won't care, but San Francisco's Dine About Town will once again happen in January. Throughout the month, you can get a prix fixe lunch ($22) or dinner ($32) at participating restaurants. This is a bit of a crap shoot; some restaurants skimp on their menus. But in the best case, it's a low-risk way to try a new restaurant and get a sense of their cuisine so you can go back later. We've always enjoyed bacar's interpretation of Dine About Town, and so we'll probably go back again.

Be sure and mention that you're coming for Dine About Town when you make your reservations; some restaurants like to know in advance and it's a good way to encourage restaurants to continue to participate. And don't forget your Visa card (doesn't that just bring back TV ads from the late '80s?); the idea is that the menu's only available if you pay with Visa, but many restaurants don't seem to press this point.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Eating My Words

Restaurant critics are the most visible food writers. Even people who don't subscribe to seven food and wine magazines read local restaurant reviews. And probably no American critics are more visible than those at the New York Times. For decades this paper's food section has influenced the country's food-conscious citizens.

It seems inevitable that the Times reviewers become icons, and they dutifully release their memoirs so that we may daydream of hobnobbing with prominent food people in between extravagant meals eaten on someone else's tab. Mimi Sheraton's Eating My Words offers up plenty of opportunities for fantasy, but none of them stuck with my internal daydream apparatus. I read the book with the mental equivalent of a shrug.

Perhaps it's Ms. Sheraton's tone. I'm sure chefs dreaded her direct and no-nonsense attitude when she was reviewing their restaurants, but in the book it comes across as dry and curmudgeonly. Not in a humorous Jeffrey Steingarten kind of way, either. She cavalierly dimisses California cooking as "grill and stack" in a way that struck me as that most tired of clichés, the New Yorker who believes that only one city in the U.S. has good food. Of course there's a fair amount of truth to her blanket description, but it grated on me. Like much of the book, it felt vaguely smug.

I'm inclined to blame her editor for some of this. A chapter about a visit to China quickly felt like a montonous "and then we went and then we went and then we went and then we went". It's easy to fall into this trap, but the editor should have caught it. Her quick comment about Bernard Loiseau bothered me. Many considered his suicide a reaction to the pressure of maintaining the high ratings of one of France's best restaurants. Though she expresses sorrow at his passing, she can't seem to remember that it was Gault-Milau that reduced his score, not Michelin. It's probably my barely contained pedant, but factual errors like that niggle at me. How many are there that I missed? Didn't the editors double-check these things?

But there were some things about the book I enjoyed immensely. My favorite chapter was her description of how a restaurant staff can fix a vast array of things about a critic's dinner when she's recognized. Here on the west coast, our reviewers seem to think that "they can't learn to cook at the last minute." Ms. Sheraton's own background in the restaurant industry adds considerable weight to her long list of exactly what the staff can do to enhance the dining experience for a recognized critic.

The book is informative in other ways. The back cover lists the twenty most common questions people ask her about life as a restaurant critic (despite the fact that she's enjoyed a rich food-centric writing life even when not at the Times), and she answers them, in one form or another, within her narrative.

Perhaps that, ultimately, is why the book failed to grab me. These twenty questions are a central theme, and maybe the memoir has been stretched too thin over this framework. Though the book is good reading material for the would-be restaurant reviewer or food writer, it ultimately didn't feel like her heart was in it.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

2004 Food Blog Awards

Kate noticed that there's no "food blog" category in the Bloggies (though Clotilde snagged a nomination last year). So she took matters into her own hands, and announced the first ever Food Blog Awards. Be sure and nominate your favorite food blogs in the ten or so categories she's set up.

And thanks to Sam and Lenn for nominating yours truly.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Visions of Sushi Rolls

Melissa was exploring eGullet and discovered The Original Sushi Pillow! The gift possibilities are endless, at least within the set of 10 or so different sushi pillows they make.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

What's With All the Magret?

(photo by Tim Cherna)
Astute readers may have noticed that I've cooked a lot of magret in the last few weeks. I used some for my "Damn Good Duck Confit" as well as for dinner to accompany an Australian shiraz, where I cryptically mentioned that I was trying to use up leftovers.

So why all the magret manipulation? Because this year I was "guest chef" at my friend Tom's winter party. I've talked about Tom's elaborate winter parties before, and I've mentioned that he uses a "staff" of cooks drawn from his food-obsessed friends. I've been on staff duty for a year and a half now. Each party (he has a still-impressive but more casual event in the summer), he asks one of his staff to take charge of a single dish. The chef has to conceive it, audition it, do trial runs, and be explicitly in charge of it on the day of the party. This time it was my turn. Tom gave me minimal guidance: he was thinking something with crepes, maybe a salad. Somehow it occurred to me to do something with magret, the breast meat of a bird raised for foie gras (don't let anyone tell you that they remove the liver and toss the rest of the bird, by the way; there's probably less waste from a foie gras bird than any other type of farmed poultry). I looked in Culinary Artistry for some flavor-pairing ideas, and hit on pomegranate and oranges. You know me; the dish would have to be seasonally appropriate. I thought the acidity in those would work well with the fatty duck, and for a touch of bitterness and interest I decided to add some greens (spinach and watercress). Plus, it had to be a salad. (Tom commented at the party that he had told me, "maybe something vegetarian" and this is what I came up with).

Crepes came in the form of baked crepe cups that held individual servings of this salad. I did a trial run in late October, and Tom came up to Tim and Mitch's house for the audition. We worked out some kinks (the main one: bake the crepe cups on an upside-down muffin tin rather than in the cups themselves. You get more even bowls with a predictable volume), but it was pretty good to go. The dish was well received by the crowd, and at one point the rest of the kitchen made me go out to the patio to receive an embarrassing round of applause from the thirty-five guests.

The party was fantastic. Tom said that many people have told him it was one of the best ever. Melissa and I have been going to the winter party for four years, and I'd have to agree. Normally there are two or three stellar dishes while everything else is merely extremely good. This year, there were something like half a dozen really spectacular dishes. Be sure and check out the menu, the prep strategy, and more at Tom's site, as well as the rest of Tim's pictures to get a sense of the fun. I got there at 8:30a.m. on Saturday and left around 11:30p.m. Tom started the actual cooking the week before, though he had been planning and testing dishes throughout the year. He and William did some initial work during the day on Friday. There were up to six people working in Tom's galley-style kitchen throughout the day, but somehow we all managed, though Meriko and I had a moment of confusion about whose chef's knife was whose.

Pomegranate Duck Salad:

  • pomegranate juice, reduced by half to two-thirds
  • magret de mulard duck breasts
  • oranges, slices removed from their membranes "supremed"
  • crepes
  • equal parts spinach and watercress
  • pomegranate seeds for garnish
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Fold the crepes in quarters and trim away the edges. Take each crepe and lay it (ugly side down) over the bottom of a cup on an upside-down muffin tin. Bake until cups are hard, about 15 minutes.
  2. Wash, dry and roughly chop spinach and watercress.
  3. Trim magret and score skin with several diagonal slices
  4. About one hour before service, preheat the oven to 400°. Heat a skillet over low heat. Season magret with salt and pepper, though Tom had me grind down grains of paradise for the final dish.
  5. Forty minutes before service, place the magret in the pan skin-side down and pan sear on both sides. Place on a sheet pan (skin-side down) and roast until just rare, about ten minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest at least fifteen minutes. While duck is resting, dress greens with some of the pomegranate reduction. Slice magret thinly.
  6. To plate: in each crepe cup, place some of the dressed greens with an orange supreme slice on top and to one side. Lay three magret slices on top. Spoon pomegranate reduction over plate. Garnish with pomegranate seeds.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Want More?

If WBW 4 whetted your appetite for more information about Riesling, check out Viv's post with lots of links about this classic grape. I think I'll be checking out the book soon!

WBW 4: The Round-up



That pretty much sums up the reactions to my Wine Blogging Wednesday theme of New World Riesling. Some participants kept an open mind, but people in general feel strongly about this grape and its expressions in the New World. Some described it as one of their favorite grapes, others went to the wine store in dread.

Why this theme when I freely admit that Alsatian and Austrian and especially German Rieslings are my wine world loves? Partly, it was to stretch myself; there are other producers trying to make a go of this grape, and it seems worth giving them a shot. Who knows? Maybe the next Mosel valley is lurking on a New World continent, just about to burst on the scene. But the actual inspiration for the theme came from a conversation I had with my editor at The Art of Eating. We were discussing his earlier quote about Rieslings (that they're not very popular outside of the regions that grow the grape), and we wondered if there were any worth drinking from the New World.

Are there? Some wines were definitely hits; I'll let you find the gems in the great posts everyone made. Here are the entries in the order I got them (more or less). Let me know if I forgot you. Thank you everyone for participating, and welcome to all the newcomers! We look forward to more great wine notes from you.

Scotticus Cooks
Scott was one of a number of first-time WBW participants. His flatmate works in a wine store and selected the 2001 Knappstein Riesling from Australia.

Scott Rowson and Phil Beckman sent me their tasting notes for four different Rieslings, including an Alsatian one as a control and a sample from Maryland, which is unusual from my West Coast perspective. Like many of this round's participants, they mention how the wine fared alongside the food they ate.

baking sheet
Nicole knew which Riesling she wanted to try, but didn't get a chance to get that one. Instead she shared a description of the JW Morris Johannisberg Riesling she bought for a miraculous $2.99 at Trader Joe's. If you have some thoughts on what to do with prickly pears, by the way, let her know.

Chocolate & Zucchini
Clotilde rejoins us after a WBW hiatus and puts her massive wall-mounted corkscrew to good use. She found a 2001 South African Riesling/Chenin Blanc blend called Nicole's Hat. A charming wine name for a charming blog. Clotilde even provides some handy French phrases and links to wine dictionaries in English and French.

Alder's post describes the kind of wine experience one always wants. He and Ruth sat on the back porch, sipping a 2002 Leeuwin Estate Riesling from Australia. Ah. How nice. Alder loves the winery's Chardonnay and WBW gave him the perfect excuse to try one of their other wines.

Slow Travel
Marta reminds us that the Pacific Northwest is acquiring a reputation for their Rieslings, and she shared a description of the 2001 Amity Dry Riesling from Oregon. As soon as Melissa reads Marta's post, she'll be jealous of the crab dinner that accompanied the Riesling; we haven't yet rung in Dungeness season here at the Schneider household.

Becks & Posh
Sam and I shared a moment of panic this morning as Blogger was unavailable to those of us hoping to post. Fortunately, it came back in time for her to post about the 2003 Robert Mondavi Private Selection Johannisberg Riesling. A grand-sounding name, but not nearly as grand as the Riesling Royale salad that dominates the post, a mix of many things said to work well with Riesling wines. She also tried a Rudi Wiest Riesling from Germany's fantastic 2001 vintage.

How do you write about New World Riesling on a blog about Sicily? You compare a wine from Sicily with a New World Riesling! Ronald pitted the 2003 Montana Riesling from Marlborough, New Zealand against a Firriato Catarratto. I can't help but notice that the Sicilian wine gets twice as much text as the Riesling...
Andrew is not a diehard Riesling fan. He thought about trying a dessert version, or perhaps a Slovenian Rizling (I had a Croatian one while I was there, so would have loved to hear about this wine). In the end he took advantage of the wine shows he organized to find a bottle of the 2002 Peregrine Riesling from Central Otago, New Zealand. Sounds like his tasting note is more useful than the winery's label.

Accidental Hedonist
Kate was one of the Riesling fans participating in this round of WBW. But her write-up of the 2003 Brooks Riesling from Oregon ends on a sad note. The wine maker passed away recently at a frightfully young age.

The Confabulist
I can relate to Orion's tale of being a red-wine snob until he fell in love with German Rieslings. Since he enjoys them so much, he was skeptical of the New World theme. You'll have to read his post to see what he thinks of the 2003 Chateau Ste. Michelle Reserve Ice Wine from Washington state's Columbia Valley.

My Adventures in the Breadbox
Alice also picked out a Columbia Valley wine, the 2003 Barnard and Griffin White Riesling. What is it with Washington state and "White Riesling"? Orion's bottle used the same term. Is there such a thing as a red riesling? Or a black riesling?

Purple Sunshine
Dante's tasting note for the 2003 Yalumba Riesling from South Australia included a descriptor I've never heard someone use for a wine: "...almost like a pilsner beer". This is a good reminder to trust your own impressions of a wine's aromas. The best description you can use is one that means the most to you, not the one that's the most "standard" wine term.

Stack of Toast
Peter's blog is cleverly named; it's tongue-twistingly close to how I imagine his last name is pronounced. He took some time from his normal geeky posts (says the programmer complimentingly) to enter WBW for the first time. He chose the 2003 Jackson Triggs Proprietor's Reserve Dry Riesling from Canada's Niagara Peninsula, which he drank with a delicious-sounding meal.

da xiang
Like Dante, Stef chose a wine from the Yalumba winery, but she found the 2002 Y Series Riesling and wrote about it for her first WBW entry. I like how she's honest about being attracted to the label. Don't we all do that?

No surprise that WBW's founder chose Long Island Rieslings for his post. Lenn's a big proponent of this region on his blog and in his Dan's Papers column. His stir-fry sounds great, by the way—one of the best he's ever made.

Cook sister!
Jeanne thought about Rieslings from all over the world, but she stuck close to her native land and tasted a 2003 Danie de Wet Riesling from South Africa. Before her tasting notes she gives some great advice to people looking at South Africa Riesling labels, and offers a link to a rebuttal from Bruce Jack to Jancis Robinson's dismissal of South African wines.

Seattle Bon Vivant
Viv made the Nigella Lawson "Coq au Riesling" to accompany her 2003 Covey Run Dry Riesling from Washington State (what? not White Riesling?). She promises more to come soon (including an ice wine!), when she is less tired, so keep an eye on her site!

A Barrel of This
Kieca worried that she cheated by selecting a bottle of the 2003 Chateau Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen Eroica from Washington state. Dr. Loosen is one of Germany's best-known wine makers. But I'm with her: if it's made with New World grapes at a New World winery, it qualifies as New World in my book. (she almost tried a White Riesling...but it was from Napa! There goes my theory about it being a Washington thing). She drank her bottle with take-out from Eliza's, a yummy Chinese place on San Francisco's Potrero Hill.

Where's my dinner?
Anne didn't quite get her post up on Wednesday, but she got it up before I posted the wrap-up, so I snuck her post in. She thrilled her local wine store worker when she gave him the challenge of finding a New World Riesling, and she finally settled on the Rawson's Retreat Riesling from Penfolds in Australia. She and a friend drank it with a delicious-sounding Jamie Oliver dish.

Chez Pim
Even though she just returned from France, Pim found time to pick up a 2001 Arrowood White Riesling "Select Late Harvest" from the beautiful Alexander Valley in Northern California. Again with the White Riesling. She and a friend drank it with dessert from San Francisco's Citizen Cake.

Enoch dutifully writes about his 2002 Navarro White Riesling before waxing rhapsodic about the German Spatlese he enjoyed with fuyu persimmons from his garden. Sounds like a great combination, regardless of WBW themes. (At this point I did a search on white riesling, but came up with lots of wine descriptions. More to come.)

The Wine Cellar
Rich's wife plucked the 2003 Jacob's Creek Reserve Riesling from Australia out of their collection, and the two of them enjoyed it with what sounds like a really nice, elegant salad.

An Obsession with Food
My own bottle was the 2003 Spy Valley Riesling from New Zealand's Marlborough region.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Wine Blogging Wednesday 4: New World Riesling

Some consider Spy Valley Wines to be one of New Zealand's best-kept secrets, which is perhaps appropriate given the winery's name, derived from Wairau Valley's nickname—a government satellite communications monitoring facility dominates the valley floor.

The valley sits in New Zealand's Marlborough region, whose Sauvignon Blanc wines are well-known. But Ant Mackenzie, wine maker at Spy Valley, argues that the cooler temperature of the valley favors Riesling as well as Sauvignon Blanc, and he bottled a small amount. Wine Blogging Wednesday 4 provided the perfect opportunity to try this wine, which I bought from a friend when she moved to England.

Tasting Note: 2003 Spy Valley Riesling, Marlborough, New Zealand, $14 at various online sources
Straw-colored from edge to center. Apples and peaches dominate the aromas with notes of stony minerality. Melissa noted some of the petrol (gasoline) smell typical of good rieslings. Juicy lime (the fruit, not the mineral) dominates the palate along with a sharp acidity and an almost effervescent sensation. A weighty wine with a medium-long finish.

General Thoughts: This wine was a pleasant surprise for someone so snobbish about German rieslings. Though this Riesling still falls short of those lofty heights, it has its own distinct character and appeal. Melissa liked this wine a lot, and I'd have no problem buying more of it.

Food: I served this wine alongside a sautéed pork chop with raw apples and steamed new potatoes tossed in a tarragon-horseradish vinaigrette. I garnished with diced carrots that I sautéed in the pan after the pork chop came out. The wine worked reasonably well with this dish, though I think a German Riesling would have worked better. I'd love to try this wine with a mild Thai seafood dish or salad, as I think the fruitiness and lime would complement that nicely.

Wine Blogging Wednesday 4: New World Riesling (Rowson/Beckman)

Scott Rowson and Phil Beckman took me up on my offer to host tasting notes from the blogless for Wine Blogging Wednesday. They tasted four wines, including an Alsatian one as a control. They even included a Maryland Riesling. I interspersed their photos throughout the text, but otherwise left it as is (save for removing extra blank lines and making funny characters HTML friendly). Thanks for participating, guys!

A friend of mine and I convened yesterday to taste three New World Rieslings.  Just for fun (and for frame of reference) we threw in an Old World example as well.

The wines were:

Barth René — 2000
Alsace, France

We started with this one for two reasons.  One, it was the only one we had cold.  And two, it was likely to be the driest...was assuming going dry to sweet would be the way to go.  Both Phil and I really enjoyed this Riesling.  Vibrant floral nose, light and minerally on the tongue.  Very enjoyable wine.  Went well with the sushi platter we polished off, though as the wasabi kicked in, there was some conflict on the finish.  Neither of us minded this effect, and we both found it interesting...but not sure if it's desirable to the general public.  May be that you need more sweetness to fight off the spice.  Who knows?

 Montinore — 2000
Willamette Valley, OR

Billed as a semi-dry Riesling, this one went well with the relatively mild gorgonzola cheese I had.  Also didn't mind it too much with the asiago, but didn't work particularly well with saltier cheeses (pecorino, parmigiano).  Fuller-bodied and well-layered, we agreed this was a wine of character. 

Elk Run — 2003

For an even heavier-bodied Riesling, this wine was demonstrably more pale than the others.  Don't know if that's standard for Riesling, but I'd assume darker = fuller-bodied.  We tasted lots of apple and pear with this, I also got some caramel on the finish.  We were snacking on McIntosh apples and gorgonzola cheese at this point, which went well together.  Phil is from Maryland so he had the good idea to try a native Riesling.  An enjoyable wine.

 Pacific Rim Dry Riesling (by Bonny Doon) — 2003
Central Coast, CA

This "dry Riesling" was the only one neither of us cared for greatly.  More of a medium-bodied wine, this one lacked any depth.  Phil made a comment that this was appropriate given the origin (CA), but by now the wine was talking for us a bit.  Grassier in color, this one had very little nose to speak of.  Easily the most boring of all.

We were both grateful for the nudge in trying out a grape we don?t often bring home from the store.  And the remarkable diversity between Rieslings was readily apparent.  I personally would lean towards the more Alsatian in character, but the semi-sweetness of the Montinore would work really well with sushi, turkey, stir-fries, etc.