Thursday, July 28, 2005

Scharffen Berger's Kisses?

Chocolate mega-corp Hershey has acquired Berkeley-based artisanal chocolatier Scharffen Berger. Here's the Chron's blurb. Both companies are saying all the things that companies normally say in this case: "Business as usual," "Access to greater resources." Blah, blah blah.

I'll remain optimistic, but large corporations always seem inclined to meddle in the affairs of the companies they acquire, often to the detriment of the swallowee. Maybe this time will be different. But congratulations to the founders of Scharffen Berger: They've worked hard over the last few years, and they deserve the reward that they no doubt get as part of the deal.

Food Writing, Onion Style

The Onion, a satirical newspaper whose articles are rarely as funny as the headlines suggest, has nonetheless managed a hilarious swipe at food writers everywhere. Quick! Give these folks some NY Times Op-Ed space!

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

WTN: 2002 Costa de Oro Chardonnnay, Gold Coast Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley

Costa de Oro ChardonnayMy favorite thing about our wine club is the variety of wines we get. That's also my least favorite thing. Every bottle is potentially a new favorite or a wine we'd never buy again.

It's not quite the Russian Roulette I imply: We've been very happy with virtually all of our selections. But I sighed as I picked up the Costa de Oro Chardonnay a couple months back. Chardonnays from California rarely woo me, and when they do, it's usually because they're not as bad as I expected. I know I'm in the minority on this one: probably 99% of the country's wine drinkers prefer the California style to the European version. But I'm not fond of the excessive oak our vintners apply to this grape, and the malolactic fermentation always seems particularly aggressive in these wines.

There's a time and a place for everything, however. Though most sommeliers consider it a challenge to pair California chardonnay with food, corn and crab are common suggestions. So I dug out our lonely chardonnay as I cooked for my corn-centric SFist post, and I did a little research the next day.

Cooling winds and fog funnel off the Pacific into the Santa Maria valley to create a favorable climate for pinot noir and chardonnay vines. Sand and clay loam line the ground, reaching up to the bluff where the Gold Coast Vineyard sits, looking out over the valley. It's easy to imagine the landscape if you've seen Sideways: rolling hills covered in waving, yellow grass and stands of oaks that entice passersby to picnic under their boughs.

I'm sure the countryside will woo me if we visit, but this particular wine did not. It offered up one-dimensional aromas of diacetyl, the chemical that creates the butter smell in microwave popcorn, and an odd, oily aroma I couldn't quite place. From the smells I expected a heavy, flabby wine, but I was surprised to discover a light body and a charming acidity. The diacetyl flavors continued on the palate but the wine did go well with the butter-drenched ear of corn and the corn soup we had for dinner. I don't know that I'd buy this wine again, but if I were serving a corn-heavy dish, I'd be tempted.

Corn on SFist

Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.
I was rather fond of this plating for the corn soup I made last night, though I was tempted to use Photoshop to fix some of its flaws.

As you probably guessed from the title, corn is the theme for my latest SFist post.

I'm sure you're all ears. Ha ha! Wasn't that cor--? Oh, never mind.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Organic Food Movement in Black and White

I'm a little late to the "dogpile on Julie Powell" party. She wrote an ill-informed op-ed piece for the New York Times condemning the elitist snobbery of the organic food movement (which she, like many, erroneously conflates with seasonal produce), and foodies around the Internet have been reacting. (see mmw, Kate, Richard, and eGullet)

While everyone's entitled to their opinions, they tend to work better when they're grounded in reality. Julie's condemnation of devotees of organic food makes me wonder how much she knows about it. I don't know any upper-middle-class foodie who looks down on low-income families for not buying organic produce. Government is the real villain here, subsidizing industrialized agriculture and its destructive products while penalizing small farmers and failing to give low-income households the resources to eat healthfully. Jeffrey Steingarten spent a month trying to live off the government's food stamp program and informational pamphlets, and he complained that instead of actually teaching people to eat in a healthy way at their income level, the government just told shoppers about the unhealthy processed food they could buy, long-term consequences be damned.

The organic food movement I subscribe to is essentially egalitarian: We believe that healthy (in the sense of pesticide-free), environmentally sound food should be the norm, not the privilege of the wealthy. Julie's beloved, nonjudgmental Western Beef is the ultimate in class warfare because it's an outlet for industrial producers to sell unhealthy products to consumers who can't afford the alternatives. If the rich won't buy it, sell it to the poor and reward the companies that foisted off their lesser goods on those who are struggling to get by. It's practically our country's motto.

Looking at the price tags, an organic tomato costs more than its industrial equivalent, but this is a short-sighted view. Proponents of the organic food movement realize that the industrial fruit is the dearer of the two. Subsidies to support large-scale agricultural enterprises, a flood of pesticides (or hormones, for livestock), a steady decline in fertile soil, more reliance on chemical fertilizers, toxic byproducts in our food and groundwater, and long-term health problems. Want to compare costs on that organic tomato again? If we as a culture paid more attention to the bigger picture, this kind of food would be more available to everyone, and as a society we'd be better off. So says my elitist mindset, anyway.

I was also struck by her assertion that we who believe in the organic food movement somehow dismiss the good food made by people who shop at Western Beef. I'd be curious to know who's she thinking of. Is this a version of foodie that exists in New York but not in the Bay Area? Most food lovers I know enjoy a good meal. We don't grill the chef about the ingredients or lecture them about their choices. My local Slow Food group recently had dinner at a restaurant that prepared a traditional Szechuan banquet for us. Our convivium leader acknowledged that the restaurant wasn't using "Slow Food" ingredients but it was helping educate people about a traditional cuisine in an affordable way, and that was just as valuable. Julie would have you believe that we were four dozen elitists gathered together to look down upon food made with non-organic ingredients. I just saw a bunch of food lovers enjoying a good meal. That's all I ever see at Slow Food gatherings or friends' houses, but perhaps Julie runs with a different crowd.

Trying to distill American attitudes about food into an op-ed piece is an ambitious goal, but perhaps Julie should read up a bit more before her inevitable next piece. The issues are complex and painted in shades of gray. Now that she's mastered the art of French cooking, maybe she should master this topic so that she can add something to the debate.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Organic Farming = Good

From Flaming Grasshopper, a summary of a report that shows how organic farming compared to industrial farming over a 22-year span.

Presumably the report covers real organic farming as opposed to what now suffices for an organic label (not much, thanks to the industrial firms that lobbied for softer guidelines so they could take advantage of the consumer dollars being spent on real organic products).

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

What Can I Say?

Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.
A recent dinner for the two of us: fried chicken, corn on the cob, and a bottle of sparkling wine on ice. There's nothing I can say about this picture that would add to it, so I'm just posting it for your enjoyment.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Bitter Melon - About which, more on Tuesday

Fried bitter melon
Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.
I promised a deeper exploration of bitter melon this Tuesday, and as many of you probably guessed, that's because it's the subject of my latest SFist post.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Slow-Roasted Salmon

Slow-Roasted Salmon, Corn Salsa, Bitter MelonYou think you know a lot about something. Salmon, for instance. You make gravlax. You developed your own technique for salmon rillettes. You know how to pan-sear it. And poach it. And bake it. En papillote, even.

And then you experience this fish in a completely new way, while eating at a local restaurant. You have an epiphany.

"The salmon was transcendental," said one of my co-workers the next day. "It made me rethink fish," said another. It looked normal enough when the waiter set it down: a light pink rectangle of meat surrounded by beets and topped with a creamy beurre blanc. But as soon as we touched our forks to the salmon, we knew something was different. It didn't flake; it melted like pudding. Succulent, tender, heavenly. It had a mild, buttery taste. I asked about the technique. "Oh, we just cooked it for a long time at low heat," said our waiter.

I wanted to reproduce the dish at home, and the waiter's clue was sufficient to find recipes. I decided to start with this one from Charlie Trotter because it uses the lowest temperature for the longest time.

Friday night was my first trial. Instead of the fillets he suggests, I used steaks, because that's all that was left at my fish market. I also didn't build his little rack o' celery or douse the fish in thyme. Even my first attempt at recreating this dish was astonishingly good. I want to tweak things a bit, but this is now my default cooking technique for this fish: Season meat with salt, cook at 225° for 17-20 minutes. Ensure the correct oven temperature with an oven thermometer, and use a good-sized spatula to get the jiggly salmon onto a plate.

Harold McGee offers some insight about the technique. "Because the fish surface is simultaneously warmed by the oven air and cooled by evaporation of its moisture," he explains, "the actual maximum temperature of the fish surface...may be just 120-130°F" He mentions the "custard-like texture" but cautions that the appearance "is often marred by the off-white globs of solidified cell fluid, which is able to leak out of the tissue before it gets hot enough for its dissolved proteins to coagulate." This wasn't a problem with the Chez Panisse version, but I noticed it in mine. I'm surprised he mentioned it as a general fish-cooking technique: I assumed the fatty flesh was a crucial component.

I topped my version with a beurre blanc, a corn salsa, and fried bitter melon (about which, more on Tuesday). At the restaurant, we drank a 1999 Burgundy with their dish. The fish is so delicate that you'll want a wine with subtlety and finesse rather than assertiveness and power. Look for a silky texture and a light body so you don't overwhelm the meat.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Bloggers with class...

...or class with bloggers. Lenn and I will be leading a discussion about food and wine blogging at Stony Brook University's Center for Wine, Food, and Culture on October 20. We're going to talk about why we do the blog thing, evangelize the medium a bit, and chat about food and wine writing and blogging. If anyone's in the New York area and can trek down to Long Island, we'd love to see you. We haven't figured out the full presentation yet (I sent an email to Lenn and the director, but forbade Lenn from responding until he got back from his honeymoon), but we're both excited to talk about one of our passions and meet each other. I'm hoping he can give me some advice about Long Island wineries, but I don't know how much he knows about the region :). I'm also looking forward to getting to know Louisa Thomas Hargrave better: She's the Center's director and the doyenne of the Long Island wine industry. I met her at the wine writers' symposium I attended in March.

And yes, by the way, this means that Melissa and I will be in New York in late October. I'm not closing a book deal, like my friend Clotilde; this is a vacation. I will, however, follow her lead and ask you all for New York advice presently.

Decanting in the Chronicle

The Chronicle has a reasonably useful article about decanting wine. The article correctly states that it's probably something that intimidates people, and goes on to describe a controversy that I didn't know was there: whether or not oxygen actually softens tannins.

The article has a couple of important omissions. They bill Ronn Wiegand as "the editor of Restaurant Wine" without also noting that he's one of the three people in the world to hold both a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier. I would think those qualifications would carry more weight with readers than being the editor of a magazine most of them don't take. I also note that they only listed two of the reasons for decanting wine: removing sediment and aerating the liquid. Christie Dufault stumped a room full of wine professionals when she asked us to name a third reason. After we hemmed and hawed and looked around nervously, she reminded us of a purely aesthetic reason: Wine looks gorgeous when pooled in a decanter. Certainly Melissa and I like the look (though we don't decant all that often), and when we were in Germany, I commented to the server in our hotel's restaurant that I really enjoyed watching him decant: It's such a pleasure to see it done well.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

WTN: 2002 Domaine du Clos Naudin, Vouvray Sec

If you've ever met Alder, you know that he always carries a little notebook to write wine tasting notes. I'm not so disciplined. When I'm at dinner, in a restaurant or at a friend's house, I don't bother with my notebook. I worry that it makes my companions feel self-conscious. Or maybe it's me that feels self-conscious.

So it's significant that I went to grab some paper and a pen when we opened the bottle of Vouvray we brought to our friends' house. I love Vouvray—few regions bring Chenin Blanc to such heights in such diverse ways—but this wine's balance and complexity reminded me why. I expected the intense minerality typical of Loire Valley whites, but the wine also offered up aromas of roasted pears and flowers, with whiffs of banana peel, peaches, and creamsicle. There was, perhaps, just a hint of yeastiness. The wine's acidity seemed slightly lower than I expected, but it still had plenty of bite. Minerals again dominated the flavors, suggesting the slightly bitter characteristics of ash (the fiery residue, not the tree). The wine gave the sensation of biting into a Granny Smith apple, and the finish left a peppery sensation on the tongue. This wine grabs you and doesn't let go.

We ended up drinking this as an aperitif, but we brought it to go with Zante's Indian Pizza, pizza with Indian food on it. The acidity in this wine makes it quite food friendly, and the swirl of intense flavors should hold their own against a variety of backdrops. The label on the back suggests that we got it at K & L Wines, but I have no recollection of it.

Tomatoes. Oh yeah.

It's Tuesday!
Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.
My latest post for SFist focuses on that emblematic summer vegetable, the tomato. Tomatoes are everywhere at the market right now, and we've been putting them to good use.

Saturday, July 09, 2005


Today's Word of the Day from Merriam-Webster is "turophile" and the definition is "a connoisseur of cheese : a cheese fancier." This seems like a useful word, don't you think?

More from their notes:

From an irregular formation of the Greek word for cheese, "tyros," plus the English "-phile," meaning "lover" (itself a descendant of the Greek "-philos," meaning "loving"), "turophile" first named cheese aficionados as early as 1938. It was in the 1950s, however, that the term really caught the attention of the American public, when Clifton Fadiman (writer, editor, and former radio host) [see bio on Wikipedia - DFS] introduced "turophile" to readers of his eloquent musings on the subject of cheese.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

WTN: 2002 Weingut Albert Gessinger Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese, 2-star

Zeltinger Sonnenuhr RieslingI almost didn't participate in this round of Wine Blogging Wednesday. I've been too busy, and I thought about letting another one slip by. But at a recent party, Alder, Sam, and Fatemeh urged me to do it. They reminded me that my love of German wines would allow me to close my eyes, reach into my wine rack at random, and find an off-dry wine to suit Beau's theme. The German wines we see in this country almost all have some amount of residual sugar (there are lots of dry German wines, by the way; you just don't see them in the United States).

So I relented, and pulled a wine out last night. It was a Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Riesling from our wine club that I hadn't tried yet, but the label was promising. Some of the region's best vineyards lie between the towns of Zeltingen and nearby Bernkastel-Kues. "Sonnenuhr" means "sundial" and can be a valuable clue: Locals only put sundials in the vineyards that receive the most sunlight, a critical element in this northerly, steep gorge. Finally, a German wine maker typically only puts stars on his—always his—special bottles, often made with grapes from a small parcel, though that's not regulated.

This pale, straw-colored wine transported me back to our recent vacation. You couldn't ask for a more crystalline example of the smell of slate, the rock that dominates the best vineyards in the area. In this wine the aroma has begun to exhibit the "petrol" note common in slightly older Mosel Rieslings. Strong citrus smells suggest grapefruit, and there's an undercurrent of nuttiness reminiscent of blanched almonds. The wine comes alive in your mouth. Its acidity is sprightly, almost spritzy, though there aren't any bubbles from the small second fermentation that sometimes occurs. The residual sugar—more than 18g/l for German wines not labeled as trocken, halbtrocken, or feinherb— gives the wine a weighty feel and the still young flavors convey a sense of ripe, custardy apples with a firm peel still intact. The minerality rakes your taste buds, leaving flavors of orange, orange peel, vanilla, and peanuts as the medium finish dissipates.

Serve this wine with a big tray of sushi or charcuterie.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

From Zukes to Cukes

Homemade pickles
Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.
I hoped to do corn for this week's SFist post, but there wasn't any, so I decided to take advantage of the abundant cucumbers instead. I should also note that Melissa, in pursuit of a more interesting shot, did all the plating for this picture.

Pardon Our Dust

I've been inspired by recent posts at Food Blog S'Cool to upgrade my template. While I'm doing some of the work in a staging area, I'm also moving some to OWF proper so that I can see it every day and make tweaks as things annoy me.

So, sorry in advance if things shift about a little. The result will be a better, stronger OWF, I promise!

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Cook Next Door

Within two days of each other, Amy and Pim tagged me for the "cook next door" meme going around. I have to do it now: I'm likely to run into them at local food blog events!

Though this wandering post provides glimpses into food bloggers' pasts, the most interesting aspect is the map that Nicky has meticulously maintained. I look forward to seeing how she maps the two lines that come into this post.

What is your first memory of baking/cooking on your own?
When I was about nine or ten, my dad set up a schedule that had a different person in charge of breakfast for a week at a time every day. I don't think cereal was allowed, and I would often make muffins. Some things I learned: baking powder is actually a good idea; also, if you want a little dollop of jam in the middle of a muffin, don't mix the jam into the batter.

Who had the most influence on your cooking?
I've had a number of influences. My mom is the one known for fancy food clipped from Bon Appétit or Gourmet, but my dad is one of those people who can assemble good food from seemingly disconnected ingredients in the fridge. I'm somewhere in between: comfortable with the fancy stuff, but able to work with odds and ends. Tom Dowdy has inspired me to push myself and learn more. The multi-course dinner parties we're known for arose immediately after we ate at The French Laundry, so I'd list Thomas Keller as an influence.

Do you have an old photo as 'evidence' of an early exposure to the culinary world and would you like to share it?
Sigh. Yes. I was going to say no, but Melissa insisted on taking pictures of these old prints we have. She collected them (unbeknownst to me) before the wedding to assemble into a booklet.

Melissa saw this picture and started laughing:I still use the exact same pose when using my Kitchen-Aid. Except, you know, my head's higher up.

Putting the thumb in thumbprint cookies. Look how much I'm smashing the cookies! The edges are totally messed up!

Putting the cookies in the oven. Note how my mom has let me do this without any potholders. We decided not to include the picture of me in tears with a big burn on my hands. (Just kidding)

Mageiricophobia - do you suffer from any cooking phobia, a dish that makes your palms sweat?
Not that I can think of. I'll make anything that strikes my fancy (and sometimes force others to do the same).

What would be your most valued or used kitchen gadgets and/or what was the biggest let down?
The successes:

  • My seven Mauviel copper pots (which Melissa polished for our anniversary).
  • Tongs
  • Whisk
  • And, you know, some good knives
The failures:
  • Those little rubber garlic peelers. Much easier to use a knife.
  • Food processor - I use mine for just a few things. For everything else, it cuts way too unevenly.

Name some funny or weird food combinations/dishes you really like - and probably no one else!
Melissa's response: "Is there anything weirder than the fact that you like Mountain Dew?"

What are the three eatables or dishes you simply don't want to live without?
Duck fat. Wine. Snickerdoodles. But not mixed together.

Your favorite ice-cream...
Mint chip.

You will probably never eat...
I'm with Adam. Count me out on dead babies.

Your own signature dish...
When Melissa and I started dating, it was risotto. I now make a much better risotto, but lots of people request my chocolate truffles. I wouldn't say I have a signature dish, but that's probably the closest.

A common ingredient you just can't bring yourself to stomach...
Something I can't stomach? There are things I don't like, but I'll eat them, and sometimes I'll realize that my tastes have changed.


Which one culture's food would you most like to sample on its home turf? 

The people I am tagging are:
As Jennifer said, if you want to play, write me. Tse Wei did, and you could too!

Sunday, July 03, 2005

WTN: 2004 Amestoi Txakoli, Getariako Txakolina

TxakoliAh, Txakoli. I first discovered this refreshing wine in a class I took a few years back, and I fell in love (long before Saveur included it in the Saveur 100). You'll convince any sommelier or wine store clerk that you're an expert when you order this very slightly effervescent white—I've never seen the reds—from the Basque country on Spain's northern coast. Many of the best wine stores in the Bay Area stock a decent number of bottles, but the staff always seems surprised when I buy some.

Just make sure to pronounce it correctly (Chock-o-lee), and you'll be all set. This crisp wine loves shellfish and light summer fare: I often serve it with steamed mussels. It's not typically a complex wine, just a refreshing drink to enjoy on a hot summer day.

There's not a lot of information about the region (which is called Txakolina), but Tom Stevenson's New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia says that it comprises two subregions: Getariako Txakolina and Bizkaiko Txakolina (the Spanish spellings are Chacoli de Guetaria and Chacoli di Vizcaya, respectively).

I've only seen Getariako Txakolina here, and usually it's from a single producer, Txomin Etxaniz. But while shopping at Vintage Berkeley, I spotted a 2004 Getariako Txakoli from Amestoi. I eagerly bought two bottles at $15 each. It lacked the characteristic effervescence (at least in our wine glasses), but offered up aromas of crisp apples with suggestions of cinnamon. There was a little yeastiness; perhaps the wine spends some time on the lees. The typical minerality of these wines appeared in the finish, after the subtle orange peel flavors and vibrant acidity had faded somewhat. It went charmingly with the steamed mussels I made.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Tasting Canada

Among food bloggers, Jennifer at Domestic Goddess represents Canadian food the way Clotilde represents French food. We look to each of them for expertise about their native cuisines. But most find the concept of "Canadian cuisine" to be an odd one. Isn't it just like American cuisine? (which is, of course, a homogenous blend across the entire country) Similarities are inevitable, but Jennifer thinks that today, on Canada Day, we should celebrate the culinary differences (and let's take a moment to appreciate other differences as well). She encouraged bloggers from near and far to give their take on what it means to be a Canadian foodie. Take some time to read through some of the posts she lists.