Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Melons on SFist

Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.
I'm still intending to write up the last few courses in our cat sitter dinner, but meanwhile, take a look at my piece about melons for SFist.

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Monday, August 29, 2005

Three Years of Obsessing

Three years ago today, An Obsession with Food had its first post. It seems like the most bloggy of navel-gazing to announce a blog's anniversary, but it seemed like a good opportunity to say thanks.

Being a writer, being serious about being a writer, is hard. Even now that I have some street cred, I still get rejection notices, as does pretty much everyone who sends pitches into the cruel world of editorial in-boxes. I wonder what I'm doing wrong; I fret about how to crack through the wall between me and the stable of writers most publications use. I'm occasionally tempted to give up. Give up the notion of being a writer, give up the blog altogether. But you all keep me going. Somewhere in the world, a surprisingly large number of you read what I write and come back for more (and some of you have been coming back for a very long time). That knowledge provides a bulwark against the frustration and self-flagellation.

So thanks for reading. It means a lot.

And while I'm not going to turn this into a "clips" episode of OWF, some of you might appreciate this email I recently rediscovered in my inbox:

Dear Derrick,
I don't know if you recall, I emailed you a few months ago with questions about an "entertaining" post of yours. I recently started my own blog, and as yours is among the ones who inspired me into it, I'd be happy if you cared to pay me a visit! It's called "Chocolate & Zucchini", at http://chocolateandzucchini.com.
Take care,

Friday, August 26, 2005

Cat Sitter Dinner: Opener

Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.

It took me a while to figure out an opener for our cat sitter dinner. I had a few ideas, but none of them stuck. You know how that is? An idea that might inspire you one day just dribbles off your mind on another. So I turned to favorite cookbooks, and as I flipped through Bouchon, I saw it: a fruits de mer platter. (Imagine the camera, stopping on me as I look into it and say "It will be mine. Oh yes. It will be mine." Melissa will attest that I spent two weeks shouting out "Fruits de mer platter! Fruits de mer platter!" at arbitrary and not always appropriate moments.)

A fruits de mer platter is a giant tray of shellfish. As a waiter carries this glittering jewel through a French brasserie, it catches the eyes of the other patrons. It promises sophistication, with its European overtones shimmering over the edges. It promises abundance, with a vast pile of diverse shellfish calling to the diners. It promises camaraderie, with diners chatting as they pluck tasty morsels from the treasured mountain.

And here's the great secret: Even Thomas Keller's version is easy. Not just Derrick Fantasy Land easy, but really, truly easy. And most of the components can be—nay, should be—made well in advance. Boil the crustaceans in a court bouillon (times vary based on animal). Steam the bivalves as you would for moules marinière. Boil the decorative seaweed (ask a good fish shop for some) with a little lemon juice to remove bacteria and odor. Make your sauces. Shuck the oysters at the last moment. Pour crushed ice into a tray. Arrange seaweed on top of ice. Arrange shellfish and sauces on top of seaweed. Carry the tray out to your guests, and watch their eyes pop.

Choose from a range of shellfish. We decided on crayfish, shrimp, mussels, and oysters. Choose some number of sauces. I made mignonette sauce (vinegar, shallots, peppercorns) and cut up some lemon wedges. I'd probably add warm clarified butter for the mussels. Serve a crisp, minerally white wine that doesn't take itself too seriously. Txacolina, Muscadet, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Eat. (Oh, yes. Perhaps offer wet towels afterwards.)

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Cat Sitter Dinner: Apps

Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.

When Melissa suggested we invite our regular cat-sitters over for dinner as a thank you for the times they've cared for our kitties, I practically did a Snoopy dance. It had been six months since our last real dinner party: I was eager to stretch my entertaining wings, which are always caged by our ultra-busy schedules.

For the menu, I decided to keep things simple. Our more complicated dinners require that we be in practice. You can't come off a six-month hiatus and plan a meal with six or seven finicky courses. Except for shopping and some ingredients I made well in advance, I assembled the dinner party in one day, and even had an hour free in the afternoon. I planned lots of do-ahead dishes and made up a detailed list of tasks, organized by time, that needed to get done.

A good thing, too. We had a perfect storm of commitments last weekend: I catered and taught a wine tasting class on Saturday, Melissa taught a jewelry class on Saturday, the dinner party was on Sunday, and I had several writing projects converge on the surrounding days. I had hoped that by scheduling a dinner, the demands on our schedules would part like the waters of the Red Sea. I guess not.

My original plan for an appetizer platter was some home made charcuterie. It fit in with the laid-back nature of the party, since I could make items in advance and just pull them out for the dinner. Plus, it would be a good backdrop for the pickled sour cherries that have been on our countertop since June. As the weekend approached, I had to change plans. I bought slices of bresaola and speck, but I still served some of our sour cherries, along with some bread-and-butter pickles I made a couple months back.

I did serve some amuse-bouches, but even these stayed on the simple side. One was an idea I got from amuse-bouche: cubes of watermelon with a little sip of authentic aceto balsamico poured into a tiny, scooped-out depression on the top. It's a great combination of sweet and acidic, simple and complex flavors, and it takes very little time to make. The seared coins of foie gras on roasted figs were my own creation, making up in succulence what they lacked in aesthetics (small dollops of foie gras, with their large surface-area-to-volume ratio, leak a huge amount of fat).

I figured the acidity in the pickles and vinegar would trash any wine, so I served a simple New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to whet appetites. It wasn't a wine that required a lot of attention, though our guests liked it, but it offered something pleasant to start with.

I'll post about the opener soon. Check back in a couple of days.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Upcoming Heritage Foods Dinner at Chez Panisse

For Bay Areans: Chez Panisse will be hosting a Heritage Foods dinner on September 21. Though Max has pointed out the irony of shipping food across the country to a restaurant that gives lip service to local ingredients, the equivalent meal in June was damn good, and we're going to this one as well with our friend Jack (send me a note if you're going to be in the first seating).

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Crayfish on SFist

Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.
I'll be writing about the fruits de mer platter in more depth later this week (we had a dinner party! yippee!), but you can get some foreshadowing by reading my SFist post about crayfish. It's a longer-than-normal entry, so enjoy!

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Westvletern - Victim of its own Success

The abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvletern [thanks to max for the link] makes some of the last authentic Trappist ale. Most Trappist abbeys often lease their names to brewing companies have hired lay people to do the work, and there is a suspicion among critics that marketers have too much sway in certain abbeys. But the Westvletern monks still do their own brewery work and make the traditional style. When I learned of the abbey from The Art of Eating, one could buy the beer only at a tiny shop across the road in the small town. The monks sold the beer in unlabeled bottles distinguished by bottle cap color. A short time after that, you could buy it in small quantities at Monk's Cafe. Finally I saw it at Toronado. It was expensive, but I didn't care. It was worth it. I still get it when I can.

The beer grew in popularity. Too much, according to this article. The abbey has sold out of their beer after Westvletern 12 was named the best beer in the world. At first, the article suggests that the monks have stopped production, but the rest of the piece makes it sound like the monks are just sold out for now. Presumably it will be in stock again once the monks make more, but they aren't going to increase production to appease the demand, as Chimay did. From the article: "'We are not brewers, we are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks,' the father abbot said on the abbey's Web site." (they have a web site?)

I'm willing to go without, rather than ask the monks to change their ways. Some things are worth the wait. There's a shortage of perfect beers in this world. It would be a pity to damage theirs.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Tomatillos on SFist

Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.
Last year, I didn't do much with our tomatillos except make salsa. I had plans to do something different for this week's post about tomatillos for SFist, but it didn't work out.

So I made salsa again. Why argue with success? I did, however, use it in a different way. Click through to read more!

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

WTN: 1995 "Pagani Vineyard", Ridge, Alicante

The average time between buying a bottle of wine and drinking it is surprisingly low. My friend Mark recently suggested forty-eight minutes, but I don't know if that was in jest or if he read it somewhere. Everyone agrees that, whatever the actual number, it's well under twenty-four hours. Most people buy wine to drink with dinner that night, and since stores typically stock recent vintages, most wine is probably drunk within a year of release.

This is fine. Few wineries make wines that can mature over time. At best, you can say a bottle will keep, given proper storage conditions.

But a small percentage of wines actually mature in the bottle, shedding their simple fruit mantle for a suit of deeper flavors that defies simple tasting terms. So profound is the difference that wine geeks use different synonyms for "smell" depending on the age. "Aroma" refers to the scents a grape gives to the wine, "bouquet" to the more complex compounds that come from bottle age.

I wouldn't have guessed that the 1995 Ridge Alicante from the Pagani Vineyard would mature in an interesting way. Ridge is a good producer, and the Pagani site is a good one, but Alicante rarely does more than fill out a blend. The thick skin, which allowed the grape to survive cross-country railroad trips during Prohibition, adds tannins to a wine, and the unusual red juice adds color. Almost no one bottles it on its own, but Ridge's ATP club often offers unusual bottles. My former boss got me a couple bottles of this wine, one from 1995 and one from 1996, and Melissa and I pulled one out the other night on a whim.

There's still some fruit in this wine, simple cherry aromas and a light cherry finish. But a funky, earthy bouquet dominates the nose, occasionally suggesting mushrooms, at other times cheese. You might also notice a whiff of cinnamon or other baking spices. Its still sturdy tannins and low acidity make it a tough match with food: perhaps seared tuna would work. It has a modest 13.7% alcohol: It comes from a magical time when New World wineries made wines that went well with food, instead of the high-alcohol wines that show well in a wine magazine's tasting. Melissa and I both enjoyed the wine, and drank it while we watched Wimbledon.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

WTN: 2001 Dashe Zinfandel, 2002 JC Cellars Syrah

I liked Lenn's theme for this edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday, the Internet-wide tasting group. Find the winery closest to your home, he wrote, and taste their wines. I assumed his theme deliberately coincided with August's "Eat Local" challenge, but no. His choice was pure coincidence.

Those of you who know the area might assume I'd be tasting a wine from Rosenblum Cellars or Edmunds St. John. In fact, two wineries—Dashe Cellars and JC Cellars— recently moved into a shared facility mere blocks from my apartment. Fatemeh (who lives even closer to their building) and I thought about visiting the wineries and talking to the wine makers while tasting their wines, but it didn't work out. The Dashes were away in Europe until Monday, and the representative from JC Cellars claimed they weren't yet set up for visitors. One suspects the winery would have figured something out if I had said we were two writers from Wine Spectator instead of two bloggers with a sizable combined readership. On the other hand, I don't actually expect the busy wine maker to take time away for every single press person. Still, I'm disappointed I can't give you a more intimate look at our neighborhood winery.

I can't tell you which of the two wineries is closer to my home, since they're in the same building, so I reviewed one wine from each. The wineries source grapes from throughout the state, though I'm sure they're both considering the potential for vineyards under the dock cranes near Oakland's Jack London Square. The Mediterranean climate would, I'm sure, be excellent for Rhône varieties. (ack! I'm making wine geek jokes! Stop me, quick!)

2002 JC Cellars "Ventana Vineyards" Syrah, Monterey, $30 at Solano Cellars
JC Cellars SyrahJeff Cohn has built quite a reputation as the wine maker for Rosenblum, across the estuary in Alameda. It's tempting to wonder if he forged his own love for single-vineyard wines at that facility, which is well-known for its innumerable bottlings from small plots. He's launched JC Cellars even as he continues his wine making duties at Rosenblum, but this isn't a simple side project. A JC Cellars syrah won first place at the Syrah Shootout at this year's Hospice du Rhône, no small feat when you look at the other entrants.

It's not hard to imagine this wine showing well. It's a seductive syrah, with potent, intense aromas perfectly in line with the almost black color. Tilted on its side, the wine looks like blood. It's an unabashedly New World wine, and I'm surprised James Laube and Robert Parker scored it under 90 points. I sniff this wine and imagine the sticky smell of blackberry must on a warm day. I imagine pork fat rendering over a low flame, or bacon sizzling on the stove, hints of smoke trailing along behind. This wine smells the way velvet feels. But when I taste it, I'm surprised. I expected a heavy, tannic wine, but the lip-smacking liquid has mild, fine-grained tannins and great acidity. The taste didn't quite match up to the lush aromas, and a hot finish tipped the hand to the 14.6% alcohol. It's a wine I'd serve with a braised lamb or duck, or perhaps a grilled magret (the breast of a bird raised for foie gras).

Their website reveals a curious fact: These vines are planted on original rootstock, not grafted onto phylloxera-resistant Vitis labrusca roots. The louse has never fared well in sandy soil, and so it can't make headway in this Salinas vineyard.

2001 Dashe Cellars "Todd Brothers Ranch" Zinfandel, Alexander Valley, $23 at Solano Cellars
Dashe Celllars ZinfandelMichael and Anne Dashe each bring a wealth of wine knowledge to their new winery. He's worked in cellars around the world, from New Zealand's Cloudy Bay to Ridge's Dry Creek facility, while she's received extensive enological training in her native France. The two look for small lots, and use indigenous yeasts to ferment the grapes. Michael, the wine maker, avoids the filtration that might strip flavor from their wines.

The Todd Brothers Ranch is a steep, rocky vineyard perched above the town of Geyserville along the Russian River. The 65-year-old vines have come into their own, offering the maturity and depth you only get from old Zinfandel vines.

The rose-petal edges and garnet core make for an eye-catching wine that offers up bready, earthy aromas that develop into an almost floral flavor with uplifted fruit. The medium tannins and decent acidity all combine to provide a wine of balance and elegance. You don't even notice the 15% alcohol. This is a wine to drink with a hearty, fatty steak.

Comparing these two is a fruitless exercise: They're apples and oranges. But my favorite of the two was the Dashe. The JC seemed a little too sculpted, whereas the Dashe seemed truer to itself. Despite the manicuring on the JC, the Dashe seemed the more balanced of the two. Even with its higher alcohol (which diminishes a wine's food-friendliness), the Dashe seemed like a wine that would integrate into a meal rather than try to grab center stage. Both are good representatives of their type, however, and I'd happily order either again in the correct circumstances.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Okra on SFist

Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.
While I'm usually willing to try a new ingredient for the SFist column, facing a vegetable I don't think I like is a bit more daunting. So I was apprehensive about writing about okra for this week's SFist post. Happily, it turns out that even if I didn't fall in love with okra, I at least don't mind it so much anymore.

Perusing the Wine List, The Wine News, August/September 2005

The Wine News, August/SeptemberThe August/September issue of The Wine News is running a feature of mine about wine list prices. I originally pitched a piece on what makes a good wine list, but since the piece ended up in the feature well, and not the comment columns. I decided to keep it a bit more educational. Why do restaurants charge those high markups? Has anyone beaten the "industry standard" model? (Yes) What should we as consumers expect of a restaurant charging a high markup? I still have strong opinions about what makes a good list (hint, it's not about size, no matter what Wine Spectator thinks), but I'll get to that eventually. It does annoy me that so many restaurants get a pass on their wine list from critics, but then again, most diners aren't interested in wine.

I got my copies and tear sheets, so I suspect that means it will be on stands in the next week or so. I've updated my clips section in the sidebar. Of course, if the June/July issue is still on stands, be sure and check out my Lodi article in that issue.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Fried Chicken, Part 2

Fried Chicken 3When I posted Melissa's picture of a recent dinner, I found myself at a loss for words. Each attempt to write a post seemed like a windy treatise that dimmed the bright eloquence of the image. This, beamed the photo, is all that needs to be said.

You disagreed.

I know I'll disappoint you by not sharing the exact recipe for the fried chicken in that picture. That was a common request, but I use the one from Cook's Illustrated, and I respect the effort they put into their recipes.

But I can offer the gist of it. I started with a whole chicken, which I dismembered into ten edible pieces: legs, thighs, breast (cut widthwise on each half), wings. Cook's separates the wings as well. The back and wing tips are in my freezer awaiting their fate in a stockpot.

Fried Chicken 1The dismembered pieces went into a potent buttermilk brine for two hours. If you have a flavorful bird, you'll want to skip this step, since brining overwhelms any real flavor and replaces it with saltiness. But frying is a dry cooking technique, and your average chicken lacks the juiciness to handle these methods with aplomb.

Once the bird is brined, let the pieces dry on a wire rack for another couple of hours. This helps the skin dry out a little bit so that it's not soggy when the chicken is fried.

Fried Chicken 2Plunge the pieces into seasoned flour, then into a mix of buttermilk, baking powder, baking soda, and an egg, then into the flour again. Fry in two batches in vegetable shortening at 375°. Cook's suggests some very elaborate frying technique that involves covering and uncovering the pot at different stages, flipping the pieces, and genuflecting towards Vermont. But you'll probably do just fine by frying the pieces until they're a deep brown. Monitor the temperature to maintain it close to 375° and ensure even cooking by flipping the pieces after about 10-12 minutes. Drain the pieces on a plate lined with paper towels, and serve promptly. Melissa likes the cold fried chicken the next day. I'm less fond of it.

Fried Chicken 4I chose a sparkling wine to go with the chicken because I dimly remember an article that half-jokingly suggested it. The more I've learned about pairing food and wine, the more I realized that it would work well. The acidity helps cut through the fat, and the wine has enough body to stand up to the weight of the food. The yeastiness in the wine bridges to the bready crust. Plus, sparkling wine turns any dinner into a celebration.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Wine Review Online

A couple months ago, Michael Franz, the wine writer for the Washington Post (among many other things), sent out a call for submissions to Wine Review Online, a new publication he's helming. The first issue is now officially up.

Though Michael's assembled a kick-ass crew of established wine writers, he's made it clear that this new publication doesn't intend to stay the course of monotonous wine magazines. He pointedly says the site will feature "new voices," which is refreshing on its own. Most magazines only work with a well-known stable of writers, and you need a stroke of luck to breach their walls. He's also willing to consider unusual pieces that might not fit into the predictable ennui of most editorial calendars (trust me on this one). Finally, he's at least not condescending about blogging, a notable departure from most of his mainstream media peers.

You've seen many bloggers bemoan the state of modern wine writing. Hopefully Michael and his team will set examples for other writers, but if they don't, you should. Send queries via e-mail to franzwine@msn.com. Good luck!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Here Comes the Sun

Lisa Respers has written a nice intro to food blogs for The Baltimore Sun. She gave a much-appreciated shout-out to OWF. Welcome to any Sun readers stopping by. Her list of food blogs includes some of the usual suspects as well as some I hadn't heard of before, so fill out the free registration and check out her article.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A Very Special Episode of SFist in the Kitchen

Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.
Melissa and I decided to get a taste of the Bon Appetit life by shopping with our friend Meriko and then retiring to her lovely home for brunch featuring our market haul. Something a little different for my latest SFist post.