Thursday, March 31, 2005

Sean Rants on Emeril

My co-worker Sean is an eloquent ranter. He entertains us at lunch with tirades against one thing or another. He recently started a blog to capture his written rants, and his most recent one focuses on Emeril, the Food Network chef everyone loves to hate.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Pics from Sonoma Foie Gras

In response to a debate on eGullet, my friend Chris re-posted his pics from our visit to Sonoma Foie Gras. Here are the caveats I posted on eGullet.

  • He owns the copyright on all these. No reproduction without his permission.
  • He wanted me to point out that he spent the whole time in the gavage building close to retching. Not because of the gavage but because of the smell. Ducks stink. Michael Saunders has a fantastically visceral description of this in From Here You Can't See Paris. Most people adjust to this within twenty to thirty seconds. Not Chris, who seems to be particularly sensitive.
  • These are all the photos, not even the subset he sent to the editor as choices. Quality varies, which is why he made up a subset for Ed in the first place (and I have a subset of those for myself--makes for an interesting screen saver).
  • They're (primarily) in black and white deliberately. AoE prints B & W pictures, as some of you probably know. He points out that this makes them look like bootlegging pictures from Prohibition or something like that.
  • The chickens are not associated with Sonoma Foie Gras. They're from a nearby facility.
  • Gavage pics start on page 6 or 7.
Read all that? The pics are here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

SFist Tuesday

CapriciousWhat's that, you say? You wanted to know when my latest SFist piece would be available? Wait no more, gentle readers! My latest piece focuses on Capricious cheese, available at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market and great fromageries. Very long-time readers might remember that I've written about Capricious before, but, hey, food magazines trot out warhorse topics on a much more regular cycle. It's funny to read my earlier post (and not just because of the cruder writing); I use some of the same descriptions, and Capricious is no longer sold at the same farmer's markets. Plus, the original makers have parted ways and only one of them is still involved with the cheese.

Bits of Foie Gras

Famous Chicago chef Charlie Trotter speaks out against foie gras. The article quotes also-famous Chicago chef Rick Tramonto, who says that Trotter's stance is hypocritical because animals are slaughtered all the time. They're talking about two different things. The issue is not that the ducks are slaughtered, it's that they're force fed until their liver is swollen to the bursting point, it's in partial metabolic shutdown, and it may nor may not be diseased (experts differ). People need to realize that's what makes the issue different and then they can argue about the same thing. That said, Trotter's biggest complaint seems to be battery cages, which none of the U.S. producers use. So which farms did he tour, exactly? (A curious side note: Trotter seems to think that "left-leaning" is part of an insult. Didn't it used to be a simple statement?)

On an unrelated note, Illinois is considering legislation to forbid production of foie gras within that state. None is produced there now, but they want to head off Guillermo's relocation once the California ban kicks in in 2012. And Oregon, among others, is considering legislation more drastic than California's: It would ban possession.

I've long argued that foie gras is in its sunset years, and those of you who have read my article know that I'm divided about foie gras. I still assert that consumers should be able to choose, but that presumes they're well informed about the topic, which they almost never are. I've had two chefs recently argue that the ducks aren't force-fed. And the front page of PETA's foie gras campaign has such a glaring contradiction it would be funny if it weren't so sad. I think my article gets the facts right, but The Art of Eating is hard to find unless you order it from them directly.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Sugar High Fridays: Black and Sticky

MolassesHere's some food blogosphere trivia for y'all. Name the first blogger to host three of the many events in the food-blogging community. It's not me, but as of today I am the first person to host Is My Blog Burning?, Wine Blogging Wednesday, and —drumroll, please—Sugar High Friday, the monthly dessert-themed food blogging event created by the lovely and charming Jennifer at Domestic Goddess.

I'm surprised anyone let me host again given my history of difficult themes: terrines for IMBB and New World Riesling for WBW. Jennifer suggested one theme when she emailed me, "You are more than welcome to do an alcohol-related theme if you desire...." What's that supposed to mean?

But I'm going a different route. Molasses, the thick and sticky byproduct of sugar production. You can use any kind of molasses, from light to blackstrap. You could even use pomegranate molasses or some more exotic breed if you'd like. Brits can substitute treacle (dark or light). Go crazy with this smoky-flavored and somewhat bitter ingredient. I would only caution you against having too much on hand.

Here are the guidelines. On April 22, publish a post about a dessert you made that features molasses, and send me the link. You don't have to make the dessert on April 22, you just have to post about it then. All bloggers are welcome, whether you write about food, wine, or album covers. And you don't even have to be a blogger: If you don't have a blog, send me your post and I'll host it on this site. We'd love to see a picture, because we all like looking at desserts, and I know your creation will be lovely. And, depending on how you feel about posting other people's recipes, we'd love a recipe so we can all reproduce the dessert in our own homes.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Green Garlic on SFist

Green garlic. My latest piece for SFist. Click here to read it.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

We Love our Guests

Guest photographer Amy Wilson. All images copyright her.

If a soufflé fell at the table, and no one was there to eat it, would it still taste as good?

Great guests are like wine; they enhance even the humblest of meals. For weeks after the the chocolate dinner, Melissa and I reminisced about the fun we had with three of her co-workers from Cody's. They're a sweet group of women that, like us, have a passion for books, and conversation flows easily when they're around. Melissa adds that I enjoyed myself so much because I—the one guy—cooked for and had dinner with four smart, attractive women. Wisely, I remain silent on this point.

Stephanie and CaviarGood guests enhance a meal, but they also inspire the hosts. We see it as a chance to make our friends feel special and we know they'll appreciate it. Melissa adores her Cody's friends (note wise silence) and wanted us to serve an elegant meal. Naturally, we started with caviar. Our guests topped homemade blini with creme fraiche and three flavored, colorful caviars from Tsar Nicoulai. Ah, you think, surely they served Champagne. Très élégant. But no. We knew Champagne would arrive later, so we poured the lightly effervescent but potently crisp and flavorful Txacolina from Northern Spain's Basque country.

From that festive appetizer we moved to a salad Melissa considers among the best I've ever made. I dressed watercress with a star anise vinaigrette and then mixed in duck confit and garlic confit. I piled the salad atop a breaded and fried orange slice. It was a swan song for the last of that batch of duck confit, which I prefer to a duck song for a swan confit. I chose a peppery, minerally, acidic, and decidedly funky 2001 Brundlmayer Gruner Veltliner to accompany this dish. The crisp wine slithered through the fat in the confits, held its own against the light vinaigrette, and connected with the peppery watercress. This was probably the most flawless dish in the meal. Other dishes were prettier, but the flavors here just nailed it.

Melissa requested the main course: roast turkey washed down with a Fleurie rosé Champagne. We typically order three heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving so that we can stow one in the freezer and enjoy it later. I'm not sure if Melissa wanted to share something special with her friends or if she simply wanted more freezer space for ice cream. I fanned breast slices (too much SF dining makes me fan meat every chance I get) over a salad of truly wild rice and exotic mushrooms, and doused the whole thing with a reduction of turkey stock and the liquid left after rehydrating porcini mushrooms.

For the cheese course, I decided to experiment. I've mostly stopped using my guests as guinea pigs, but every now and then the urge strikes. I served slices of Capricious and Pleasant Ridge Reserve with a soft, eggy custard. I wanted the squishy softness of the custard to contrast with the smooth firmness of the cheeses. Melissa thought it seemed like a third, runny cheese. I topped the custard with an apple-ginger chutney, and we served the dish with a rich and nutty 10-year-old tawny port.

DessertI wanted the meal to end spectacularly for the four smart, attractive...uh, I mean for Melissa and her friends. I opted for a height-laden chocolate dessert. Edgy, I know. I placed candied orange peel and spun chile caramel on top of the tall cylinders of chocolate ganache sitting on shortbread rounds. How do you make spun chile caramel? That was an experiment, and I'm happy to say it worked. You rehydrate dried chiles (choose your heat to taste) in hot water. After a half-hour or so, you remove the chiles and use the liquid as the base for caramel. I worried the chile flavors would burn and turn harsh in the high heat of a caramel, but it came out just fine. Then you drizzle the caramel over a post held parallel to the floor (you'll want newspaper underneath). Eventually, the caramel forms long stiff strands. That's the theory anyway. Mine clumped and arced, but Tom gave me some advice so that they'll come out better next time. With this, we served a Banyuls, one of my favorite fortified dessert wines.

We love the way our dinner parties allow us to delight our guests, and I love the cooing sounds of diners eating a meal gone right. Even when they're not all smart, attractive women. Not that I noticed that, of course.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

7x7 Thinks I'm five by five

Sam let me know that Bruce gave me a nice mention in 7x7. He even comments on my Art of Eating pieces, and references a quote from our last trip to Sonoma (I'll let you figure out which one, but suffice it to say that the Gundlach-Bundschu Chardonnay wasn't one I liked).

Bruce is, of course, very knowledgeable about the food blogosphere, and also took the time to comment on the long asparagus commentary at SFist.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

That Time of the Week

SFist Yau ChoyMy latest piece for SFist is up. It's about yau choy, which I had never cooked with before. And thanks go to Winnie for offering expert advice on the vegetable. Here's a link to the post.

A writeup on a dinner party coming soon. I haven't done one of those in a while, I've noticed, so it seems like a good time.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

WBW 7 Roundup

Andrew has posted his summary of the 36 entries for the latest Wine Blogging Wednesday. His write-up provides links to essays and tasting notes from bloggers around the world who delved into the world of unsung reds. There are lots of interesting grapes and good posts to explore.

He clearly faced a tough task with the summary and he ended up doing his write-up in three parts. Be sure and check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for a handy guide to all the participants and their wines.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

More on that Symposium

I finally wrote Toni and asked if I could describe the wine writing symposium in more detail here on OWF. I wanted to make sure there wasn't an "everything off the record" assumption that I didn't catch. She said go for it, so here's a bit about the event.

I'm not sure the fifty or so wine writers seated under the peaked roof of Meadowood's Vintner's Room knew what to expect of this inaugural Wine Writers' Symposium. Some had been to the food writing equivalent that Toni runs at the Greenbrier in West Virginia, but more than one attendee commented that this new event might have a different dynamic: The wine writing world is much smaller than the food writing world, and wine writers are arguably more isolated from each other than food writers.

What do wine writers talk about with each other? Do you imagine we compare the great wines we've encountered in our lives, try to outguess each other in blind tastings, speak in flowery prose about the fine structure of a wine? No. In fact, a number of us noticed that we speak differently amongst ourselves than we do to our readers. We barely talk about wine as a beverage. For all of us, wine is just a way of life, and it's no big deal. We do talk about whether scores matter, and the difficulty of making it as a writer, and the ethics of everything from samples to press junkets.

We also talk about the future of wine writing. The first (and last) panel grappled with this topic explicitly, but it permeated every conversation. Panelist Jerry Shriver of USA Today wondered aloud what would happen if the U.S. Supreme Court voted to allow all interstate direct shipping of wine (an unlikely extreme scenario, in most people's mind) or if China, one-sixth of the world's population, developed a strong interest in wine. These would have huge impacts on our business. Michael Franz from The Washington Post predicted our readers will specialize more over time as wine becomes better integrated into society, and Frank Prial from the New York Times asserted that we'll need to understand and explain economics and politics as the industry changes.

Of course, wine writing won't have much of a future if there aren't any wine drinkers. Wine writers constantly share ideas on how to get more people drinking wine. I'd prefer to focus my food and wine writing on helping people see through propaganda and misinformation, but it's just good business sense to nurture more wine drinkers. Think of how food writing proliferated as Americans learned to appreciate fine ingredients and the pleasure of a good meal. You can't shake a stick in the Bay Area without hitting a food writer, but in one two-day conference I've probably met one-fourth to one-third of the dedicated editorial wine writing community. There's room for growth, to say the least.

Clay Gregory and Judd Wallenbrock gave a presentation on the last day that discussed the business of wine overall, but it offered some useful information on how to create more wine drinkers. This was one highlight of the conference for me. There are a group of "marginal" drinkers who drink wine less than once a week, and more than once a month. Gregory and Wallenbrock argued persuasively that this is the group to focus on if we want more people to drink wine. The group is slightly larger than the core drinkers who consume wine more than once a week. How can we get more marginals to be core drinkers? One statistic jumped out at me: In a survey, only 34% of the core group thought wine made a meal more formal, but 48% of the marginal group thought so. It's our job as wine writers and wine educators to help consumers realize that for the most part wine is simply a healthy (in moderation) beverage that enhances a meal. Wine snobbery and our country's Puritan streak have left us feeling awkward and stiff around wine. That needs to change.

There was plenty more at the conference. Sam Gugino talked about writers' rights, another panel talked about food and wine writing, and Jack Hart gave a fantastic talk on how to improve our general writing skills. This was another highlight for me. Lots of stuff I "knew" in a general way, but that doesn't mean I apply the techniques reliably. I'm largely a self-taught writer (though Ed as an editor makes anyone a better writer) and I found it useful to get concrete examples and explanations of why some sentence structures work and others don't. I've resolved to read more poetry to get a better sense of rhythmn. Time to dig out my Dana Gioia book.

Oh, and finally, we ate and drank well. Most of our meals were at Meadowood itself, but I'll never forget walking into the darkened Cask Room at the CIA to see a well-lit, single long table waiting to seat 70 of us. The Napa Valley Vintners' Association donated all the wines, and I even found some California wines I liked. The Frog's Leap 1998 Rutherford I drank at the CIA dinner was elegant in a way one rarely sees in this state's wines. I also enjoyed the 2003 Bourassa Vineyards Viognier we drank at the "Extraordinary Wine Tasting" dinner on the last night of the symposium. I imagine the wineries were happy to donate wines to fifty wine writers from around the country.

So that's the gist. Toni reminds me that the event is open to professional editorial wine writers. If you only write "advertorials" or PR, you probably won't find the conference useful. And what constitutes "professional" in a universe of bloggers? I told Toni I don't envy her the task of figuring that out.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

OWF mentioned in the SF Chronicle (again)

I've graduated from walk-on role to one member of an ensemble cast. I would only add that I am a freelance food and wine writer (see right), but Amanda's correct that I aspire to do it on a more full-time basis.

WBW 7: Unusual Reds

Cynthiana BottleWhen Andrew suggested "Unusual Red Varieties" as his Wine Blogging Wednesday theme, my pedantic streak kicked in about what he considered unusual. As I said in one comment, one person's unusual is another person's trite, something he hints at in the announcement by forbidding Pinotage to South Africans but not to Americans who have a hard time finding it. French Colombard bound for box wines, while not a red grape, accounts for more California wine acreage than anything except Chardonnay. Could we consider it an unknown despite this? I'll be curious to read the other entries when Andrew posts the wrap-up in the next couple of days.

I consider the Cynthiana, better known as the Norton, unusual, but readers in the Midwestern United States might disagree. At any rate, it wasn't on Andrew's verboten list. Norton is an oddball among native American vines. While most are of the species Vitis labrusca, Norton is a member of V. aestivalis. It's still not V. vinifera, the species that contains the world's great wine grapes, but Gerald Asher thinks the Norton has the potential to produce fine wines, and he points out that it's well suited to the cold winters and rot-prone vineyards of Missouri's foggy wine country.

A century ago, wine experts around the world assumed that the Great American Wine would be Norton from Missouri. But something happened on the way to the 1920's: The Temperance movement decided to go after the state's wine industry, the largest in the country. World War I offered a serendipitous opening. Many emigrants from Germany settled in the Midwest, and a simple slogan of "a dry vote is a vote against the Kaiser" linked WWI's Big Bad with people who had emigrated decades before. That campaign helped decimate an industry already struggling with high costs and it paved the way for Prohibition, a nationwide ban on alcohol. Missouri never really recovered even after the government repealed Prohibition. California became a behemoth with its imported grapes, and Norton doesn't invite quick replantings. You can't grow it from clippings as you can with vinifera vines; you have to push a shoot from an active vine down into the ground and wait for it to start its own root system before you separate the plants like a surgeon dealing with conjoined twins.

In 1965, Jim and Betty Ann Held decided to start producing wine again at Stone Hill—once the country's second-largest winery—near the town of Hellmann. Their modest success encouraged other wineries to make a go of it. One was Augusta Winery, which started in 1988 about 40-50 miles east of Hermann in the town of Augusta. They grow most of their own grapes, but they do buy some as well. In 2001, the winery started bottling Cynthiana as Norton with a "Cynthiana" subtitle, but my bottle predates that by a year. They're clearly proud of the wine's Missouri heritage, even proclaiming that the wine was aged in Missouri oak.

The bottle was left over from a wine competition, which is why it has the funny tag near the neck. It garnered a silver medal at the 2003 San Francisco International Wine Competition plus other awards around the country. I consider medals to be a bunch of bunk. You'll have to hunt down a bottle to see for yourself what you think, but until then you can read my thoughts.

2000 Augusta Winery Cynthiana, Missouri, price N/A

Tasting Note: This wine is a lovely pomegranate-seed red with thin salmon edges. There's an awkward alcohol component to the nose, but the dominant aromas are raspberry and smoke. A deeper sniff might reveal a meaty quality and a hint of bubble gum. The wine features soft tannins and a modest acidity, with flavors that briefly suggest dusty vanilla and raspberries before being swept away by the taste of cooked beef which is in turn masked by a long finish of hickory smoke.

Food: We drank this wine with macaroni and cheese. No, it was not home made, but nor was it from Kraft. It was a weeknight. Enough said on that subject. I'd actually like to try this wine with a roast chicken simply seasoned with lemon and good salt.

General Thoughts: Melissa liked this wine, but I found that the flavors were not in harmony with each other. It's as if there were two flavor axes running parallel to each other rather than being entwined. That may not make sense, but it's the way I thought of it. Though the Norton can handle some age, it's possible this wine is in an awkward phase; it didn't seem over the hill, as the fruit was still strong, but nor did it suggest a complexity that would mature into something interesting. The oak dominated more than I like, but obviously different people like different amounts.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

SFist Tuesday

Asparagus at SFist My latest SFist piece is available here. More posts coming to this site soon (including more about that symposium); I'm just a bit caught up with work (or, not caught up, depending on how you look at it).

Friday, March 04, 2005

Here, Chickie, Chickie

My friend Chris sent me an ad for the E-Z Catch Harvester from Bright Coop. The movie ("Click here to watch the video") is the thing to watch, though you should refrain if you prefer to be in denial about food processing. It's possible the video looks worse than it actually is, like videos of gavage (I bring everything back to foie gras in one way or another).

The curious thing about the video is the chickens are all running around (hence the need to catch them). Does that mean they're "free range"? It gives one pause.

Fish Out of Water

Ever feel out of place? I did initially while attending a wine writers' symposium at the bucolic Meadowood resort earlier this week. Me with my three feature clips and programming day job mingling with fifty food industry and food journalism veterans like Karen MacNeil and Frank Prial and Sam Gugino. Gulp. My anxiety diminished once I started chatting with the other attendees, of course. These are just people, and I kept reminding myself there was a time when they didn't have any clips. It also helped when the participants realized that I'm a "domain expert" on food and wine blogging (ironic given I was there on behalf of my paid work). Only about a third of the group understood blogs well and a few didn't even know the term. Between me, Carolyn, and Le Roy, I think every participant left with a new understanding of this modern writing outlet. The attendees were definitely curious about the subject, and I gave a mini presentation on the last day to help them understand my take on wine blogs. (As an aside, I used to be fairly decent at public speaking, but years of disuse have reduced that particular skill; I'll need to redevelop it).

I explained that blogs democratize the wine experience. I talked about how my posts often start discussions with my readers, either via email or comments. For most pubs, the audience can only write a letter to the editor, which may or may not get a response. I pointed out that thirty-year-olds write the two top wine blogs in terms of volume (my guesses were Alder and Lenn) and speak to a demographic that most wine magazines can't reach. Finally, I described Wine Blogging Wednesday, to my mind the ultimate in making bloggers and our readers feel comfortable about wine and about voicing our own opinions about the subject. I think that got a lot of people's attention; it's not something you could pull off at a newspaper or magazine.

I won't say much about the event in terms of the actual dialog or the schedule of events, mostly because I didn't get permission to do so, but I'd highly recommend next year's for wine writers at any level (even upstarts like me). It's run by Toni Allegra, who started the famous Greenbrier conference for food writers. I listened a lot, conversed a lot and made a lot of good connections. Will I get assignments from my contacts? Well, maybe, maybe not. But I got some story ideas, and broadened the base of people I can use as resources. That's got to be worth something right? Oh, and we drank a lot of wine.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

SFist 03/01/05

I'm at a wine writers' conference at the moment, but I wanted to make a quick post to let you all know that my latest SFist piece is up. Here's the link.