Saturday, April 30, 2005

WTN: 2001 Sangiovese, Benessere Vineyards

BenessereWhen John and Ellen Benish forged the dream of owning a Napa winery, the reality must have tempered their enthusiasm a bit. Phylloxera had ransacked the neglected vines on the Napa Valley property they bought in the mid-90's, and one of their first tasks was to replant all forty-two acres at the newly formed Benessere Vineyards.

Instead of the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon planted by their neighbors, the Benish's chose the Sangiovese grape they learned to love in Tuscany. They wanted to carve a niche for their wines, and they sensed that consumers were ready to buy wines from this grape.

It was a bold move. Napa Cabernets sell, while Sangiovese was still not widely known and the Benish's suggest that previous Napa incarnations had tarnished that grapes' reputation. They saw the potential for changing that, though. The grape's low tannins and high acidity make it an accommodating companion for a variety of foods, and the Benish's knew the American public had a rising interest in Italian varieties.

The new winery owners aim higher than simply making people more comfortable with this grape; they want to make the best rendition in the state, and perhaps further afield as well. They've laid that challenge at wine maker Chris Dearden's feet, and he gets advice from two Italian consultants well-versed in Sangiovese's quirks. The Benish's themselves manage from afar; they still run a school bus company in Chicago, and currently only come to the winery three times a year. But they see this winery as a legacy for their five children, and I'm sure they look forward to the day when they can retire to the new house on the property.

2001 Sangiovese, Benessere, Napa Valley - $28
Curiosly, this vibrant red wine with its red-orange edge smells strongly of raw foie gras, a smell I occasionally get in Sauvignon Blanc. Melissa finds lots of cinnamon. There are more subtle aromas of stewed tomatoes and cherries, and that fruitiness develops as the wine opens up, though it retains a musky quality. It has the bright acidity and low tannins typical of the grape, with light cherry flavors that linger for a medium-long finish.

One of my former wine instructors loves Sangiovese with tomato sauce, but we enjoyed it with an impromptu casserole of beans, radishes, bread crumbs, and the "scrapings" from when I frenched a rack of lamb. I'd like to try this wine with a really good roast chicken.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Every Industry's Got 'Em

So I'm at the Wine Appreciation Guild's press tasting for the Wine Literary Award, and someone nearby opens a bottle of Champagne. Loudly. This is Bad Form, if you don't know. The wine writer to my right thinks he's being clever when he turns and says to me "it should never be louder than a contented woman's sigh." It's an old saying about opening sparklers, and I reply with my clever response, "Yeah, but clearly that person had never met my upstairs neighbor." He chuckles and says "Or my wife." Did I need to know this?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Jim Leff at Cody's, May 23

Chowhound founder Jim Leff will speak at Cody's Books on May 23. He's on tour for the Chowhound's Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area. Jim Leff has created his fair share of controversy and enemies over the years, but many foodies still consider Chowhound a good source for information and few deny the impact of the site. I rarely look at it, mostly because the interface annoys me and the squabbling, politicking and cliquishness of online forums remind me of The Lord of the Flies, but many of my favorite bloggers are past and present members, which speaks in the site's favor.

I don't know how useful the book will be. I prefer something like the personal and opinionated San Francisco Food Lover's Guide, where I can gauge what I think of that one reviewer and tailor my expectations appropriately. I don't necessarily agree with all nine zillion SF Chowhound members, and I worry this could just be another Zagat Guide. I'd love to hear what you all think of the Chowhound guide to New York.

Here's the official blurb from Cody's.
MONDAY, MAY 23                    JIM LEFF brings on THE CHOWHOUND'S GUIDE TO THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA. Jonesing for jook in the East Bay? Looking for the perfect martini in the heart of SF? Look no further  Chowhound's here with the essential field guide to culinary treasure for those who make every bite count. Comprised of the collected wisdom of thousands of food-obsessed experts from the wildly popular website, and featuring an introduction of Chowhound founder and über-hound Jim Leff, THE CHOWHOUND'S GUIDE will sate every imaginable craving with tips spanning the full universe of edibility, from burritos to caviar. As Leff explains, "[It's] an eye-opening plunge into the world of adventure dining, spotlighting places currently exciting the discerning iconoclast diners known as chowhounds." A chowhound would rather go weak from hunger than eat less than deliciously, and hordes of them have covered the chowscape, ferreting out over a thousand venues cooking with look and pride. Indexed by neighborhood, food type, and restaurant name, and including great profiles of hound reporters, this is a treasure to read  and to refer to. Be here! 7:30 PM at Telegraph Avenue

Plotnicki on Tasting Menus

Steve Plotnicki, founder of the OpinionatedAbout forums, has probably eaten at more renowned restaurants than even Hillel. I recently noticed his take on the tasting menu as battle between chef and diner. Interesting.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Strawberries Feel Forever

Strawberry DessertBut in fact, they're fleeting symbols of spring's abundance. Go over to SFist to see my latest, all about these scrumptious fruits.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Happy Anniversary, Melissa

Me and MTwo years ago today I married Melissa. We stood in Berkeley's Brazilian Room on a rainy day, and committed to a life together. Afterwards, we sat down to a fantastic meal and then left to eat and drink in France and Italy for two weeks. It was an appropriate celebration. Food has always been part of our relationship, from the risotti I'd make to impress her when we dated to my proposal at The French Laundry.

Melissa has always supported my interest in food, but it hasn't always been easy. I know many of you would love to have a spouse who cooks, but I didn't choose "obsession" randomly when I named this site. When I make dinner during the week, we eat hours later than anyone else because I can't cook anything quickly anymore. And when we finally do sit down, she's cleaned her plate by the time I finish writing notes about the wine. She wakes to the clatter and clang of pots and pans at 4a.m. when I make croissants or danishes for the brunches we host. And if you think I mention foie gras a lot on this blog, imagine being my wife as I spent a year researching the topic. I imagine it's tough to be married to someone with the hint of OCD common to most programmers, but Melissa is always understanding.

Perhaps Melissa's biggest show of support can be seen right here, a blog whose posts take time away from our lives and nets me little but a place to write. She's read every post, and she often makes suggestions for improvements. And while she's almost always provided the pictures for this site, lately she's sacrificed large chunks of her own time to take stunning photos. It took her an hour to get the picture of the wine and cheese that accompanies my IMBB entry. If the site nets me little, it nets her even less, but her contributions are more valuable than mine.

So I'm taking a break from my normal posting to tell an alarmingly large number of readers that I love my wife dearly. She is my greatest inspiration; I still try to impress her with every meal. She is my greatest spice; if food tastes better when tasted with friends, food tasted with someone you love tastes best of all. She is the person I always want to see on the other side of the table.

Thank you, Melissa. For your time, your love, your patience. My life would be worse off if you weren't in it.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

IMBB 14: The Color Orange

OrangeWhen IMBB rolls around, I view it as an opportunity to show off a little. I make something a little fancier than normal, and I put more effort into the plating. When foodgoat put forth the visually-oriented theme of the color orange, I knew I could really go all out and do something elegant.

I made macaroni and cheese.

I didn't just pluck a box of Kraft Mac 'N' Cheese off the grocery store shelf, of course. Instead I bought a big orange hunk of England's crumbly Cheshire cheese, and I poured a mix of eggs and evaporated milk over the cooked pasta. I added the grated cheese and stirred it all together over low heat until it was thick and creamy. I took the technique from Cook's Illustrated, who long ago wanted to come up with a macaroni and cheese that was an order of magnitude better than the boxed kind, but took the same amount of time. I'll respect their hard effort and not re-post the recipe, but it's available to members of their website.

Mac 'N' CheeseMelissa thought we should make the meal healthier than a blob of eggs, cheese, and milk might be on its own. She wanted fava beans alongside, and she even offered to peel them. I pan-fried the shelled beans in a lot of butter (you know, to make them healthier), sprinkled them with salt, and surrounded the pasta with the fat green blobs. We drank a Roero Arneis from Italy's Piemonte region, and the acidity from that wine cut through the cheesy sauce fairly well.

We meant to finish our orange dinner with a glass of the bright-orange 2002 Francis Tannahill "Passito" Gewurztraminer from Washington, but I was exhausted from a day of writing, so we had a sip the next day. This wine smelled powerfully of apricots, with hints of orange fruit, and perhaps just a touch of caramel. It tasted like honey-dipped apricots with an almost fizzy acidity. Sweet, yes, but clean and crisp nonethless. Melissa and I smacked our lips as we tasted this dessert wine made from air-dried grapes. The taste just lingered and lingered. I know what we're having before bed tonight!

Sugar High Fridays: A Flood of Molasses Recipes

I was thrilled (and overwhelmed) to see more than forty participants in this round of Sugar High Friday, Jennifer's inspired monthly Internet baking event. When I looked for unusual molasses recipes before Friday, nothing really grabbed me. If only I had a list like the one you'll find below! From gingerbreads to cookies to cocktails, I had a lot of fun seeing everyone's creative ideas.

Thanks to everyone who participated, especially with IMBB happening the same week-end. And a big welcome to the many first-time participants. I hope you enjoyed participating and that you'll continue to contribute your great ideas.

The Entries
Niki at Esurienties took advantage of my "treacle loophole" and combined recipes to produce a Coopers Stout & Treacle Spice Cake with Pears. Her description of the flavors and her great pictures give a vivid illustration of this tempting dessert, my first glimpse at the wide range of delicious treats I was about to see.

Julie from A Finger In Every Pie notes, as did many of the bloggers, that my theme isn't particularly seasonal. Eh, what can I say? A childhood memory inspired her to create Extreme Congo Bars that combine molasses, dates, pecans, and chocolate in a deep, rich bar cookie. Her description motivated me to add chocolate to my own entry when I made it.

Barbara at mentions a deep association between molasses and her childhood on a farm. When her first idea didn't pan out, she decided to make a molasses bread. But, alas, her bread didn't quite work out, either. Tastes great, very filling. Like putty, she says, with a nice sense of humor. But she might give it a try again. Also be sure and check out her Anzac biscuits made with golden syrup, which I think is the same as light treacle.

Jennifer from Taste Everything Once eagerly sent me her first-ever SHF post. "I've been itching to send you this link for weeks," she wrote. And I wrote back that I would have been itching to read it once I saw the title:Coriander and Pomegranate Molasses Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting. I like the combination of flavors in this dish, so I don't know if I could take her advice to eat it in small portions.

Stephanie from Dispensing Happiness shared a recipe for her first SHF that's been passed down since at least World War I. Her multi-generational molasses cookies have a charming, chunky shape and look beautiful dusted with sugar.

Ana from Pumpkin Pie Bungalow shared her mother's recipe for Cake de Macau. She's not sure how this very non-Portugese dish ended up in her mother's recipes, but she offers some theories that seem reasonable enough.

My friend Winnie over at Hodge Podge Kitchen, She of the Many Gorgeous Photos, kindly contributed three entries for this Sugar High Friday. This would be stunning on its own, but she says right at the top that she's not a big molasses fan. Her dishes will probably convert others who think they don't like this ingredient. The last dish in particular seems to be a favorite.

I love any recipe that starts with "make your own...". Oliver & Nicky tell you pointedly that you won't find molasses in the ingredient list for their pretty and light Three Berry Lime Sorbet. That's because you start by reducing the syrup yourself.

Grab Your Fork's Augustus Gloop made a dense gingerbread since he's a fan of moist, dense cakes. He's much more patient than I: He watched his treacle in fascination as it flowed out of the bottle, I tapped my foot and groused about thick ingredients.

I was dubious when I saw that Sarah of Delicious Paths opted to help molasses " turn a slender ankle in the direction of health and well-being." Desserts and healthy eating? In the same sentence? Nonetheless, her Oatmeal-Molasses Banana Bread with Bananas Foster Topping sounds sufficiently decadent for a dessert-themed event.

Celia's daughter might have been disappointed that "gingerbread" didn't mean little people-shaped cookies, but the rest of us can enjoy the raisins and candied ginger in the cake they did make. I note that Celia did the research I didn't, and provides the actual difference between treacle and molasses.

Zarah from Food and Thoughts topped a Danish treat called Sirupskage, "a cross between a quick bread and a shortbread cookie", with a molasses-creme fraiche ice cream she says still needs some work. You wouldn't know anything went wrong from the pretty plating in the first picture.

Nic. from bakingsheet impressed me with her graham crackers. She says they taste markedly better than store-bought, and they don't look too difficult, so I'm tempted to give the recipe a whirl. I'm with her on the s'mores idea.

Lisa from Restaurant Widow hit a triple with her Spiced Molasses Cookie with Molasses Ice Cream and Basil Hayden Treacle Caramel Sauce. Quite a feat for her first-ever food blog event. I love the look of the caramel sauce on the plate.

Mika from The green jackfruit also tried to make a healthier molasses dessert. What is it with these people? She kept things light with her Molasses Ginger Cookies, though she eschewed ground ginger for freshly grated ginger. For a less-healthy option, she suggested sandwiching ice cream between two cookies. Now that's what I'm talking about!

When in doubt, make a trifle. I live by this advice. When the tops of her soft ginger cake muffins ripped off Suebob from Snackish decided to impress her co-workers by bringing a Trifling Ginger Molasses Cake to an office potluck. Lucky them!

Cookie-decorating maven Sylvie from Food - Got to Love It contributed to her first SHF with pretty Decorated Moravian Molasses Cookies. She also had to explain this event to her husband, a problem we've probably all encountered as we describe food blog events to our loved ones.

Kim from walkernewyork eagerly contributed a "cornbread pudding", her more politically-correct name for New England's molasses-rich Indian Pudding. Since her baby's made her a whiz at fast cooking, this dish doesn't take long at all.

Anne from the appropriately named Anne's Food found a new favorite with the Syrup-cranberry cookies she adapted from a Swedish cookbook. "Syrup" seems to be the term for treacle in Scandinavian tongues, given the dark and light versions she mentions and the similar usage of the term by Zarah in Denmark.

Even non-French speakers will be able to follow Veronica's simple recipe for Financiers à la melasse et pistaches. In short, combine the dry ingredients in one bowl, add browned butter, molasses, and pistachios, and pour into buttered molds. Cook for 10 minutes, and let the financiers rest in the oven with the oven off. Véronique, dites-moi si j'ai fait une erreur avec la traduction!. Safari users will want to switch browsers to look at this site, by the way. Firefox handles the different character set with aplomb.

Before I read Molly at spicetart's post, I was intrigued by the url, which included the phrase "plate-licking." Her simple technique for Strawberries Bathed in Molasses Sour Cream speaks with the authority of someone who loves food: Pour stuff together until it tastes good. Oh, and don't forget, "drizzle some molasses on top so you can take a fancy picture and your entry for Sugar High Friday looks tight."

Sarah from The Delicious Life offered her opinion of molasses with her laugh-inducing opener, "There is a reason the word 'ass' is part of the name of that drippy, gooey, sticky (yes sticky being the perfect concatenation of stinky and icky) molasses". Despite this bias, she combines a bunch of great ingredients in her Gingerbread Ice Cream Sundae with Rum-Molasses Pineapple Sauce and Candied Ginger.

Many of the participants mentioned childhood memories of molasses toffee, and they'll no doubt be happy to see the Molasses and Chocolate Toffee from Carolyn at 18thC Cuisine. It looks super-easy, and no one could (or should) pass up a description like "the most delicious, chewy candy you'll ever eat."

Brenda from Culinary Fool offers the lightest and most unusual entry with her variant on a Moroccan Martini. Can you imagine drinking this on your porch on a chilly summer day? I can (hey, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area; summer days here are chilly)

Let's just take a moment to appreciate Christine's domain name, shall we? While "I Like To Do Stuff..." is probably more accurate, "pookiefatcat" would be a great blog name. Okay, once you're done enjoying her domain name, be sure to check out her super-cute mini shoo-fly pies.

Raise your hand if you know what a Parkin is. Anyone? Other than Nicola from A Sprinkle of Sequins? Maybe you're all more up on English food than I, but I had never heard of this British bar cookie. I always get to learn new things when reading everyone's entries, so now I look forward to the day when a trivia contest hinges on my newfound knowledge about a Parkin.

Though most cookie entries tended towards the thin and crisp, Alice from My Adventures in the Breadbox contributed the thick, chewy kind. I almost opted for a chewy molasses cookie, and as I read Alice's entry I wonder if I made the right choice. They sound so good.

Andy from Minor Gourmandry made a great dish from epicurious, but I can't get to his site right now to refresh my memory about it. Keep an eye on his site, and I'll re-post once he's up.

I've seen Molly's Orangette mentioned here and there, but I hadn't made time to check it out yet. After reading her sweet ode to an overseas friend, I'll definitely be back to her site soon. Sure, the Ginger-Molasses Cookies look good, but the personality in her post is the best ingredient.

Lynn from To Short Term Memories made her Indian Pudding on short notice and far from her normal kitchen. How do people do that? Sounds like her version is much better warm than cold. Any Indian Pudding experts should drop her a note to see if her recipe is a normal representation of this dish (I couldn't remember).

SHF's lovely founder Jennifer sweetly describes her excitement about me hosting, and her relief that I didn't choose foie gras as a theme. I wish I had thought of that; the write-up would have gone more quickly. The rest of her post naturally has a well-written sensual memory centered around her Molasses Sponge Candy.

Cathy from my little kitchen joins the Indian Pudding contingent and offers not only a recipe but what history she can about this New England staple.

What do you call gingersnaps when you forget the ginger? Mia from The Skinny Epicurean settles on "spicy snaps" at the end of a humorous post that describes her many, uh, modifications to the recipe she started with.

I love these food-blogging cooking events in part because I get to learn about other cultures and lives. I enjoyed reading Nupur from One Hot Stove's description of her childhood memories of molasses from growing up in a sugar-producing region. The Gooey Gajar Halwa, of course, captivated me as well, and I'm sure you'll find it as intriguing as I do.

Alice from My Epicurean Debauchery submitted her post by proxy. Sounds like she's away at the moment, but I'm glad she had someone else tell me about her Baked Molasses Sesame Donuts with a Pomegranate Molasses Glaze. I like the look of the sesame seeds sprinkled throughout the crumb.

I can sympathize with chefdoc from the attractive A Perfect Pear when he comments on a busy week. If only we could just cook for our blogs all day instead of going to work! I'm glad he made time to contribute his Molasses Marvels cookies, a family favorite.

Gemma from Part-Time Pro Bono Baker jazzes up her Molasses Snaps with banana ice cream to create a delicious-sounding entry from this first-time SHF participant. Be sure to stop by and welcome her!

New food bloggers Mrs. D & Chopper Dave from Belly-Timber created an attractive and intriguing Molasses and White Wine Zabaglione with Molasses Brittle, which they served in wine glasses. Their post's detours into food science and culinary school anecdotes are as much fun as the post itself. Welcome to the world of food blogging, and we can't wait to see what else you concoct!

Despite being on vacation in California, I Amos from the Brooklyn Bridge User Group made Gingerbread with Lemon Icing. As of this writing, she hasn't told anyone how it tastes, so be sure and write her to ask. Also, check out the photos of the "Mutant Lemons" she used for the icing.

The Fig & Molasses Conserve somehow seems like an appropriate entry from Viv at Seattle Bon Vivant. She always strikes me as someone with a deep love for preserves of all kinds. I'll remember her combination of figs and molasses for future inspiration, though I doubt anything I do will look as pretty.

Jeanne from Cook sister! was one of the last entries in, but I was happy to see her email. None of her regular readers will be surprised to find a childhood joke about how molasses got its name and a lengthy, informative post about treacle before she offers up a recipe for Black Treacle Scones.

I'm still awaiting The Headhunter's picture of the Boston Brown Bread she made for SHF. Her nostalgia makes the post sweet, even if the dish technically isn't.

This SHF is Aileen from Cooking for Kodiak's first food blogging event, so be sure to give her a warm welcome. She combined molasses-rich Aebleskivers with a Spruce Tip Syrup to create what sounds like an evocative dish. Carolyn also alluded to a traditional combination of molasses and spruce, which I had never heard of before. I'm always intrigued by unusual flavorings, though I don't think we have much in the way of spruce here in the Bay Area.

After reading everyone's great entries, my first SHF entry of Cacao Nib Gingerbread seemed pretty plain, but Melissa and I are still chomping away at it.

I think that's everyone, but please let me know if I omitted you or if you notice any mistakes. Thanks again for participating. I know I'll never look at that bottle of molasses in my cabinet the same way again.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Jojo Spring Dinner

Jojo is one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants. Melissa and I had our rehearsal dinner there, and we try and eat there every couple of months. Melissa and I will be out of town for their special "Spring Dinner," but I thought we'd pass along the menu and encourage you to go. If you decide to go, tell them you heard about it from Derrick's website, and then tell us all about it.

Details: Sunday, May 15,$45 per person. Call 510 985-3003 for reservations.

Spring Pea Soup with Herb Crackers

* * *

Grilled Shrimp with Fried Asparagus and Aioli

* * *

Spring Lamb with Fava Beans and New Potatoes

* * *

Salad of Little Gems

* * *

Almond Cake with Strawberries and Creme Chantilly

Specially selected wines will be available by the glass.

Friday, April 22, 2005

SHF: Cacao Nib Gingerbread

Cacao Nib GingerbreadThis month's Sugar High Friday, the Internet-wide dessert event, finds me in a funny state. I'm the host, but I'm also a first-time participant. Don't tell Jennifer; it'll be our secret. I meant to participate when Clement hosted, but my idea for a stunning puff pastry dessert came too late in a busy week.

I don't know what prompted me to think of molasses as a theme—Jennifer suggested I choose alcohol for some odd reason—but I determined to make something other than gingerbread. I figured many of you would have fantastic examples to share, and I knew I couldn't compete.

But as I looked through various recipes, gingerbread kept suggesting itself. I mean, why not? It's so delicious, with its warm smoky flavor perked up by spices and (ideally) freshly grated ginger. Who can resist a big slab of cakey, gingery goodness? Especially when it's bedecked with strawberries (a garnish I enjoyed recently at Jojo). Or toasted and slathered in butter. Ooh, and don't forget the dollop of whipping cream.

So the gingerbread won out, but at the last moment, I threw in some cacao nibs, inspired by Julie's fantastic entry. Thank goodness for early posters! The cacao nibs, a byproduct of the chocolate-making process, softened in the oven but retained a pleasant crunch. Like Sauron's ring, cacao nibs are forged in a hot flame that helps them stay intact in the relatively low heat of my oven. The chocolate and molasses and ginger blended to create a deep, earthy flavor that one has to taste to believe. We practically fainted as the aroma of baking gingerbread spread to every corner of our apartment.

I had fun with my first SHF, and maybe I'll start making more time in our schedules so I can participate in future rounds. I imagine Melissa won't mind. ("I know you and Melissa love desserts," said Jennifer when she and I discussed my hosting duties).

So now you know about my dish. Tell me about yours. If you made an entry for this edition of Sugar High Friday, drop me a note with the link, and I'll include it in the round-up, which Jennifer asked me to post ASAP!

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Love by the Glass

Wine intimidates people. This won't come as a big shock, but it always surprises me nonetheless. I'm part of the problem. I love the whole experience of wine, and yet I obsess about trivia and tasting notes. It's the last part that tends to show up in my writing, and in the work of wine writers everywhere. Would-be wine lovers see our obtuse prose and turn away, convinced they'll never know enough about wine to have an opinion. We don't just need to write better. We need to help people recognize that wine is nothing more than a beverage to enjoy with friends and good food, an attitude you'll barely find in Wine Spectator and its ilk.

We who want to share our passion with readers should take lessons from John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter, the popular wine columnists at the Wall Street Journal. I don't take a subscription to the paper, but I'm considering it after reading Love by the Glass, their memoir and book-length love letter to each other and the world of wine.

I couldn't read this book without crying at regular intervals. I'd often stop reading briefly to let an overwhelming moment pass. The book isn't sad; even as they fight fertility issues and health problems they retain a sense of humor. But their passion for each other is deep and powerful. Maybe I'm just a softie, but you try keeping a dry eye as you read their separate accounts of John finishing the New York Marathon, virtually in last place, in agony, late at night.

If you make it through that one, I'll up the ante. Read some of the thousand responses they got after the first "Open That Bottle Night" column, where they urged readers to uncork bottles tucked away for a special occasion. "Make the wine itself the occasion, and let us know what you thought." Go ahead, tough guy, keep your composure as you read about the son that opened a bottle his beloved father never got to taste. Or any of the other stories.

I imagine their readers couldn't help but open themselves to John and Dottie, because John and Dottie always open themselves to their readers. They share their lives with the Journal's subscribers and this book's readers because to them, you can't talk about wine without sharing something of yourself. When they approached their twentieth anniversary, the Journal ran pictures from their wedding, and John asked their readers which of ten bottles he should open. Do you see anything like that in mainstream wine writing? Indeed, John and Dottie's writing seems more blog-like than mainstream, with its responsive audience and intimate look at another person's life.

But if they can't talk about wine without talking about themselves, they also can't talk about themselves without talking about wine. The chapter titles are the names of wines symbolic of that era of their life. Sometimes they're "junk" wines, but that's not the point. Wine has always been there for them, and they will cheerfully tell you that you don't need to drink rarefied bottles every night; wine enriches your life no matter what. Few books convey that so well.

I would love to foster that attitude. John and Dottie are the wine writers we need to emulate, because they're the ones who connect with everyday drinkers rather than the small group that reads a lot of wine media. Don't pay attention to us wine geeks; just grab a bottle and try it with a good meal. With your family, with your lover, with your friends, by yourself. And if you need inspiration, read how John and Dottie did it all their lives. Just make sure to have a hankie nearby.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

WTN: 2003 Barrel 27 Syrah, Paso Robles

Barrel 27 FrontCalifornia's Central Coast has a reputation for great wine grapes. Everyone knows about Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, but Rhône grapes from Paso Robles inspire their own rabid fans. The hot weather recalls the warm Mediterranean climate of southern France, while the cool breezes that flow off the Pacific allow the grapes to hang on the vine longer and develop more flavor. I know a bunch of the wineries in Paso, but I hadn't heard of either McPrice Meyers or Herman Story, the wineries behind the small-production 2003 "Barrel 27" Syrah in our wine club shipment.

Barrel 27 Back2003 "Barrel 27", Herman Story Winery, Syrah, Paso Robles - $17
Here's a wine to serve with a nice rack of lamb. It smells like ripe plums and smoke, with the occasional whiff of vinyl and vanilla. It's a curvaceous wine, full-bodied but smooth and appealing. The generous acidity lightens up the whole package. The flavors suggest plums and meat at first, but the taste of ripe cherries lingers the longest. Maybe it's not a complex wine—there aren't layers of aroma that develop and tease—but it tasted rich and I thought it was fairly well balanced. It seems like a good value at $17.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

If it's Tuesday...

Radishes and BreadAdmit it. You don't really know what to do with radishes. It's okay, I didn't either. But I got lots of new ideas as I wrote this week's post for SFist, all about radishes.


Sunday, April 17, 2005

Tasting Obsession: Lampreia

Hillel and I are bringing you a joint blog entry. He's covered Lampreia enthusiastically on his blog before, so he's leaving the words to me, while I leave the images to him.

When Melissa and I planned a five-day visit with our Seattle-based friends Pavel and Kathleen, we only had one thing on our must-do list. We wanted to eat at Lampreia. And we wanted to go with Hillel.

I learned about Lampreia through Hillel's blog of eating adventures around the world, and Chef Carsberg's Tyrol-inspired restaurant sits high on his list of favorite haunts. That's a noteworthy recommendation in its own right, but the cookbook from Carsberg and the team renewed my interest in eating at this medium-sized Belltown establishment. Hillel and I met at last year's Fancy Food Show—his frequent dining partner Lauren is a friend of mine from back when I was famous —and he and I have kept in touch. I knew he couldn't pass up a meal at one of his favorite restaurants.

He and his wife Debbie and their friends dine there often ("I've been here four times," said his college-bound sister visiting from the East Coast), and they urged us to let the chef cook whatever he wanted. This is good advice. With no menu, you can't build up any preconceptions about what the meal might offer. You wait, slightly giddy. A dish appears. What is it? You don't know until the waiter steps back, waits for conversation to die, and announces the new arrival, simultaneously quiet and triumphant.

17-crab and apple.jpg The first dish we ate exemplifies Carsberg's cuisine. It featured Dungeness crab wrapped in Honey Crisp apples with an apple gelée and blackened sea salt. The subtle flavors and textures played off each other in a flawlessly choreographed dance, and created an unexpected synergy. Carsberg says he favors simplicity, but there's something of a wink there. The fresh and local ingredients may be simple, but not so the techniques and flavor combinations that are both classic and novel. You can taste his attention to detail, his obsession with getting things just right.

18-asparagus with duck and foie gras terrine.jpg Why stop at one dish, no matter how representative? We certainly didn't want to. The paper-thin slice of fatty duck ham laid atop smoked white asparagus in the next course was a savory treat with nutty undercurrents, and the small baton of foie gras with a Sauternes aspic added an unctuous feel that enriched the dish without weighing it down. A curl of Meyer lemon peel refreshed the palate. It was a simple presentation with clean lines and perfect proportions. We sighed.

19-egg in pasta with truffle.jpg Then it arrived. The highlight of the evening for many of us. A raviolo filled with sheep's milk ricotta and a still-intact egg yolk. Around it, shaved ricotta salata, salted and aged for half a year. Truffles everywhere. It sounds simple, doesn't it? But as I broke into the pasta and punctured the egg yolk, it flowed over the two cheeses and re-released a heady truffle aroma. This dish was bass notes and earth tones and creamy fat, and the depth of these flavors resonated deep in my belly. The craftsperson in me tried to figure out how you get an intact egg yolk into a pasta shell. The gourmet in me just kept eating.

20-kobe carpaccio.jpg From that heady dish we moved on to a practically see-through pane of gravlax-style kobe beef, topped with a quenelle of an apple-red wine purée and a crunchy tomato wafer ("It's a communion wafer," said Hillel. "He found the recipe and adapted it"). I enjoyed this dish, sort of a deconstructed hamburger, but Pavel was less sure. He felt the purée overwhelmed the subtle flavor of the beef.

21-scallop with meyer lemon.jpg Pavel may have been our sole dissenter on the kobe beef, but Melissa and I felt that the kitchen made a slight misstep with the scallop with meyer lemon and sea salt. The presentation, a plump scallop resting on a baby bamboo steamer, appealed to my love of the cute, but the scallop was slightly overcooked, especially contrasted with the breathtaking scallop we ate at Union two nights earlier. And the salt's texture didn't blend as seamlessly as we had become used to. Taken in toto to some other restaurant, this scallop would probably shine as the star of the menu. This dish faltered only because Carsberg raised our expectations so high with the previous dishes.

24-beet ricotta gnocchi.jpg When the waiter brought out plates with three tiny red scoops, we figured they were balls of sorbet. When Carsberg dripped some thick aceto balsamico tradizionale onto the mounds, we weren't surprised. True balsamic vinegar ($25/oz for the entry-level stuff) complements fruity sorbet surprisingly well. Imagine our surprise, however, when the pale red mounds turned out to be beet-ricotta gnocchi. The gnocchi were light and flavorful, though the beet added little but color. The aceto balsamico added a perky acidity and sweetness that rescued a dish that might have lost appeal otherwise.

25-fish with porkbelly.jpg At this point, the waiter asked if we'd like to move on to dessert, or if we wanted the chef to prepare another savory dish. I looked at Hillel, seated to my right. Was there some option here? I suppose the staff wanted to protect us from becoming overly full, but who could resist just one more? Maybe we left a little too stuffed, but we managed to find room for the Atlantic black bass "tagine" with smoked paprika and pork belly. This may have been Pavel's favorite dish, even more so than the raviolo. This dish brought us back to the world of a few ingredients in perfect balance. The pork belly, which added mouth-watering umami qualities, was super tender with just the slightest give.

26-pecorino on cedar.jpgThe cheese course was a pecorino under a glaze of honey speckled with black seeds from tahitian vanilla pods. The melting slice of cheese came on a cedar plank. Honey and cheese is a great combination, and the vanilla added that heavenly muskiness that is so unlike anything else in the world.

31-strawberries with white chocolate strawberry sauce and a honey tuile.jpg At last dessert arrived, three strawberries stuffed with a white chocolate mousse, sitting in a thick strawberry sauce, garnished with a spiraling tuile. The raviolo may have been my favorite dish, but this is the dish I'll try to replicate at home, especially with strawberry season bursting upon us here in the Bay Area. The mousse was delicate and flavorful, and contrasted nicely with the ripe but firm strawberry flesh. Hillel, I think, was the first to forget decorum and slide his finger through the strawberry sauce. We had a discussion about licking plates. That's how good the sauce was.

32-petit fours.jpg Most of my readers know how much I love the mignardise course. Our little plate contained a cinnamon cookie, a lemon one, a chocolate truffle, and a tiny thumbprint peanut butter cookie with a chocolate mound. All the treats were light and airy, the perfect sweet end to an incredible meal.

I did notice one problem with the surprise menu. We didn't know quite how much wine we needed. Hillel and I each brought a bottle, I the superbly balanced 2002 Donnhoff Riesling Spätlese from the Oberhauser Brücke vineyard, Hillel an equally well-balanced Pride Merlot, possibly the best Merlot I've ever tasted. But it wasn't quite enough. Another bottle would have been nice, I think.

This meal ranks high in my pantheon of great life experiences. The sense of balance and harmony that registered with virtually every dish was astonishing. I envy Hillel, who not only lives close enough to eat there, but takes advantage of it often. Midway through the meal, he said to me quietly, "The people in this town have no idea what they've got here." I imagine he's right.

Friday, April 15, 2005

SHF is one week away!

A reminder: Sugar High Friday is next week. One week from today! Have you figured out what molasses-rich dessert you'll make? All the world is waiting to see.

Send me the link to your post when it's up on Friday. And if you don't have a blog, remember that you can just send me your post and I'll host it.

Mark Morford on Supermarkets

Mark Morford, the Chronicle's eloquent ranter (I have a thing for them), has swung the axe of his often despairing and almost always angry column at supermarkets.

WTN: 1998 Nigl Gruner Veltliner, Sentfenberger Piri, Krepmstal, Austria

2003 Nigl Gruner Veltliner, Sentfenberger Piri, Krempstal, Austria
When Melissa and I went to the 10-year anniversary tasting for The Age of Riesling, we bought roughly a case of wine. Bill Mayer used the event as a chance to sell off his older inventory, and one of the bottles we bought was the 1998 Nigl Gruner Veltliner Sentfenberger Piri, from Austria's Kremstal region. Nigl is a reliable producer of Gruner Veltliner, a crisp white grape indigenous to Austria, and we've bought a number of his bottles over the years. But you don't normally cellar wines from this grape. Still, I liked it at the tasting.

One can imagine this wine in its youth, crisp and vibrant and energetic. But it's matured over the years into something fuller and softer even while it's retained a twinkle in the eye. The rich gold color gave the first clue about this wine's age, a color closer to an opulent Chardonnay made with ripe California grapes. Gruner's characteristic zingy pepper aromas mingled with strong tropical fruit smells like mango and banana. Maybe there was some volatile acidity on the nose, the first hints of wine about to go south for good: It's hard to say. Melissa found this wine's flavors almost salty, and I had trouble pinpointing what I was tasting. Some smoke, maybe meyer lemon, with pepper notes on the impressively long finish. Gruner's typical searing acidity had been muted, but few would call this wine flabby. It retains a crispness that most older whites can't muster. Certainly it wasn't a bad wine, but it was interesting to taste an older sample of this grape.

We drank it with some radishes. But more on that later.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

WTN:2001 Rosso del Soprano, Azienda Agricola Palari

I had big plans for this Wine Blogging Wednesday. Ronald's "Sicilian reds" theme encouraged me to re-read Ed's typically evocative and thorough piece about the island and Vincent Schiavelli's more nostalgic view of Sicily that appeared years ago in Saveur. I'd pick out an interesting dish, drink a Sicilian red, and write a primo entry.

None of that happened. Suddenly, it was Monday, with WBW just two days away, and I had missed my opportunity. Melissa and I picked up a Sicilian red at Paul Marcus Wines and sped home to assemble a quick dinner of porcini-filled ravioli, ham, and peas with a brandy-cream sauce (sauté batons of ham in a thin coat of olive oil, deglaze with brandy, reduce heavily, add cream and peas, reduce over low heat until thick, and add cooked pasta to dress).

So here I am with a tasting note and little else. Sigh.

2001 Rosso del Soprano, Azienda Agricola Palari, Sicilia, Nero d'Avola - $32
I scribbled "pretty" and "pleasant" a lot in my notes for this wine. Its orange-brown edges and clean ruby-red core enchant the eye as the bright and juicy cherry aromas enchant the nose. There are hints of earth and mushroom and even some vinyl in this wine. Cherry and vanilla continue to charm on the palate, along with a decent acidity and very low tannins. Vanilla and a hot flush fill the mouth throughout the long finish. Overall, a charming wine despite the somewhat unbalanced alcohol in nose and mouth. Is it worth the price? Hard to say.

It went fine with our improvised dish, but I'd like to try it with rabbit or swordfish alla stemperata, which combines pan-fried meat with lightly cooked capers, olives, raisins, vinegar and mint, as well as aromatics and vinegar. Either that or pasta with a pesto trapanese sauce that "contains no cheese, adds tomatoes, and uses almonds in place of walnuts of pine nuts" according to Ed.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Kohlrabi on SFist

One of the things I enjoy about my SFist gig is the occasional opportunity to learn about new ingredients. Like, say, kohlrabi. Melissa and I bundled up against a late spring storm and found this vegetable at one of the local markets. Lacking other inspiration, we decided to give it a try, and now we're fans.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

WTN: 2001 Syrah, Paschal Winery, Rogue Valley

2001 Syrah, Paschal, Rogue Valley - $23
Paschal Syrah Every couple years Melissa and I drive to the tiny town of Ashland in southern Oregon to take in some plays with our friends Pavel and Kathleen. Theater is the focus, but now that I'm into wine, I make a habit of going to Ashland Wine Cellars and asking the staff to help me choose a case of good wines I can't get in California. This gives me the chance to try wines off my radar, usually ones with a small production that prevents wide distribution.

Last time we visited Ashland, local wine enthusiasts eagerly talked about the surrounding Rogue Valley. The region's many microclimates, they said, supported a wide variety of grapes. When a wine region's proponents say this, they often mean they haven't figured out what to grow there yet. The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia agrees with my cynical viewpoint, though it goes on to point out that despite the high elevation, it's "the only area in Oregon where Bordeaux varieties ripen regularly".

But some locals will now tell you the region is ideally suited for Syrah. What a coincidence! A little-known wine region happens to be the perfect place to grow a super-trendy grape. Bully for them!

I expected a typically New World jammy, extracted wine when we opened the 2001 Syrah from Paschal Winery in the Rogue Valley, but you wouldn't describe this wine as fruity. The wine featured strong smells of earth and meat with some smoke and barnyard and just hints of plum or strawberry. Unfortunately, alcohol dominated the nose even more, at odds with the wine's low 12.5% alcohol level. I first tasted noticeable vanilla and cream, along with some modest cherry flavors. The hot alcohol was definitely out of balance, the strong acidity arguably so. The moderate tannins were more or less expected. The flavors in the wine lingered for a medium finish, the acidity and alcohol for a while longer. The wine doesn't offer as much taste as you'd expect from the aromas, which were captivating despite the pervasive alcohol. It's an awkward wine that doesn't seem cohesive.

We drank the wine with roasted rack of lamb and steamed asparagus dressed in cacao nibs. Overall, the wine worked well, and the flavors in the wine bridged to the dish pretty concretely. Bridging—using one flavor in a dish that picks up a flavor in the wine, or vice versa—can get monotonous if you always rely on it as a crutch for pairing food and wine, but it can be effective for one course in a normal six-course dinner.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

WTN: 2003 Cascavel "Le Vin", Côtes du Ventoux

I've decided to start posting wine tasting notes as specific posts here on OWF. Why? Why not. Who cares? Probably no one.

But seriously, good tasting notes are rare. That hit home as I read David Schildknecht's tasting notes about German wines in International Wine Cellar (background for an upcoming Mosel article! woo hoo!) I liked his notes so much I read some out loud to Melissa, and they inspired me to improve my own. Some husbands read poetry to their wives; I read her tasting notes. (I told him this, feeling like a groupie as I did so. He was gracious about my exuberance.) Inspiration to improve struck me again at Karen MacNeil's presentation at the symposium, where she challenged us to write compelling tasting notes. 'Cause really. How many people actually read them?

Since OWF has always been a way for me to practice writing, what better place to practice? I get some exercise from my features and Wine Blogging Wednesday, but Melissa and I drink wine more often than that. Ahem.

Some notes on my notes. I don't do scores. Well, that's not quite true. I'll do scores if an editor wants some, but my blog, my rules. I'll try to give background information on the wine when I can, but it probably won't go as deep as one of my articles or a Wine Blogging Wednesday. And I rarely take notes at restaurants or dinner parties. In the absence of categories for posts in Blogger (how hard can it be? yo, Blogger employees, I'll send you a database schema if you want), I'll try and remember to make the titles of the tasting notes WTN: + wine name.

2003 "Le Vin", Côtes du Ventoux, Cascavel — $12
Melissa and I found a bottle of Le Vin, "the wine", in the February shipment from our wine club. It's a collaboration between the Domaines Cascavel and Murmurium, two well-regarded producers in the appellation of Côtes du Ventoux, a sprawling Southern Rhône appellation east of Avignon.

This is a fruity, lightweight wine in nose and mouth. Aromas of jammy berries dominate, but fail to make much of an impression. One can find dusty minerality in the nose as well, and a whiff of vanilla on the medium finish rounds out the delicate berry flavors. It offers a sprightly acidity and modest tannins. It's friendly but frail, pleasant but plain. Twelve dollars seems steep.

We drank it with a pork roast and mushroom gravy that Melissa's mom made for dinner, but this airy wine would be a better partner to pasta with grilled chicken and a lightweight, non-intrusive sauce. The Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant staff suggests Macaroni and Cheese as an accompaniment, but I fear that would overwhelm the light flavors. It would, however, happily accompany you on a picnic.

It's a Snap on SFist

Snap PeasMy latest post for SFist. All about snap peas. Mmmm. Snap peas.

Friday, April 01, 2005


Poached Eggs From the MachineMelissa urged me to participate in this month's "End of Month Egg on Toast Extravaganza". Jeanne and Anthony originally created this satirical event to poke fun at the glut of food blogging events but ironically it's now a food blogging event of its own, this month hosted by Johanna.

I don't normally participate because, well, we don't often eat eggs on toast. But we had this very dish for breakfast, near the end of this month, while visiting some friends in Seattle. Melissa pointed out this was a perfect opportunity to participate in something that mentions "egg on toast" and "end of the month". Plus, she thought you all would be interested in the "poach off" we did.

Poached Eggs by HandIt started simply enough. Our friends bought a fancy new egg poacher (pedants will note this is actually an egg steamer) and they offered to christen it by serving us all poached eggs. But math was working against us: Six little egg cups do not adequately handle four people who each want two eggs. I blurted out that we could just poach two more "the old-fashioned way" so everyone could enjoy breakfast together. Our eight eyes twinkled in unison as we imagined comparing the two techniques.

Poaching Eggs the Old WayI'm not a champion egg poacher, but I know the basic technique. I brought a medium saucepan of water to the point where steam was billlowing from the surface but the water wasn't boiling. I added a touch of vinegar; the acid helps the proteins in the white coagulate. Once the water was ready I broke my eggs into little bowls. I believe in stirring the water to create an eddy that swaddles the yolk in a garment of setting egg whites. Then I gently slid the eggs into the water, and cooked the eggs until the whites set.

Poaching Eggs the New WayThe egg poacher eliminates all this fuss, and it makes perfectly shaped "poached egg domes." Our friends overcooked the eggs somewhat, but we all attributed this to the natural learning curve of any new device. I love the perfect shape of the gadget eggs, but I don't imagine I'll run out and buy one of these things. One part of me loves the technical precision of an egg dome, while another part strives towards mastering a skill. Ultimately, the crotchety skill-seeker almost always wins.