Wednesday, August 30, 2006


As I said before, Melissa and I are off to Victoria for the weekend. Expect OWF to be quiet in the interim.

Major in Organic Farming!

Microsoft's demographics analysis tool asserts that this site enjoys a marked popularity among the under-18 set. I'm skeptical that the next generation has so much passion for wine, homemade charcuterie, and fine dining. But just in case Microsoft's automated analysis tool knows my readers better than I do, I'm throwing out a college option for all you high school students: The University of Florida in Gainesville will offer one of the country's first majors in organic farming.

For those of you not sitting for your SATs, this development offers more proof that public demand for organic food goes up and up and up each year. That is, if you needed more proof than Wal-Mart's aggressive entry into the organic food business.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Saute Wednesday = Edible Nation?

Bruce Cole's well-known Saute Wednesday blog has been quiet of late. As he says, maybe it's because he's been writing all the posts for Edible Nation, the official blog for the Edible Communities magazines (of which one of my clients, Edible East Bay, is a member).

The Edibles (as I call them) focus on local, sustainable food for their given areas, and talk about the passionate people who provide that food to the community. The blog looks like it covers a little of everything in the realm of food politics and issues.

AoE Mosel Article Online

As Bux mentions in his update on the foie gras debate, The Art of Eating does not publish its articles online.

But I recently noticed that importer Michael Skurnik reprinted my Mosel piece on their site, because of the mentions of Terry Theise (the link is a PDF). They added a giant "the Art of Eating" to each page to properly cite the source. It's not the best reproduction, since it's just a scan, so I hope that any of you who read the article will be inspired to get your own, much prettier, subscription to The Art of Eating, which I maintain is the best food magazine you'll find in English.


A Presidential Term of Obsession

Snickerdoodles: My first food obsession.
Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Today marks OWF's fourth year of existence. No sentimental note this year, just a quick thanks to everyone who reads this site. We're going to Victoria to celebrate the event!

No, not really. We are going to Victoria this weekend, but we're celebrating our friends' marriage.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Taste of Petaluma Festival

Many Bay Area residents think of Petaluma as a town where you shop at outlet stores and buy poultry products. The Taste of Petaluma Festival on October 21 wants to change that impression. The town's restaurants, breweries, and food suppliers will offer up tasty treats during an all-day benefit for the Cinnabar Theater.

I plan to enjoy myself at the event, but I'll also be working hard as one of the judges. Come by and say hi if you see me.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

WTN: 2004 Clos Lapeyre, Jurançon Sec

Jean Bernard Larrieu returned from enology school eager to build a winery on his father's property in the Southwest of France. The farm in the Jurançon region—cuddled up against the Pyrenees—provided the raw material for his new endeavor. The region has been famous for a long time: Henry IV supposedly tasted "the best of Jurançon's wines" when the priest baptised him. The vines grow in a soil rich with limestone, a desirable component of good wine, though a thick coat of pebbles and ironstone challenge any would-be farmers. The region is best known for its sweet wines, bottled under the standard Jurançon appellation, but there is some demand for the table wines that fall into the Jurançon Sec ("dry" in French) definitions.

Larrieu built Clos Lapeyre in 1985, and added to it as money and opportunity allowed. The family stopped growing strawberries and replaced them with grape vines. New vineyards from neighbors came under Larrieu's control over the years, the family improved the cellar, and the winery hired other employees.

Like most of the Southwest varieties, the grapes from this area haven't caught the questing eye of novelty-seeking New World growers. Larrieu uses Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng in this wine, though the latter enjoys a better reputation among wine experts.

Tasting Note
This delightful white wine has light grapefruit aromas with a stunning mineral quality, light petrol, and a wheaty smell I often note as Honey Nut Cheerios. A juicy acidity gives life to the chalk, citrus, and floral flavors, which hover for a medium-long finish.
The bright acidity and sturdy flavors allow this wine to pair with any number of dishes, from seafood and shellfish to heavier dishes such as duck breast (though not the magret from foie gras ducks in the area, which would be too heavy). Price: $13.50 at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant

Friday, August 25, 2006

Jeffrey Steingarten Foie Gras Article

Thanks to megnut for the information that Jeffrey Steingarten's foie gras article for Men's Vogue is now online. I knew of the article when it came out, but I didn't get a copy of the magazine before it disappeared from newsstands. I did know that he adopted the same neither-evil-nor-holy stance I took a couple years back. (The neutral AVMA ruling he cites hadn't happened when I did my piece, so I was glad to see someone incorporating that report.)

The article's not a bad read, and I recommend it.

Can I Still Sign Up For Your Class?

The other night, a friend of mine asked me if he could still sign up for my six-week class on the wines of Germany and Eastern Europe.

He can. And so can you. Just click here and register. It seems expensive, but each night you'll be tasting somewhere on the order of 8-10 wines (more, if I can swing it), and getting a 3-hour talk focusing on two or three regions. You'll be an expert on this subject by the time I'm done, able to order Plavc Mali and Grüner Veltliner with confidence.

Sign up now. Buy seats for your friends. And family. And strangers on the street. I'm not picky.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Silly Star Trek Spirits

Note: I thought about putting this on OWEE, but I imagine some of this blog's readers will enjoy it.

You may think I'm obsessive (Google does). But someone who takes the time to catalog the alcoholic beverages in the entire Star Trek universe? That's got me beat. I discovered the article while researching Modern Drunkard as a potential client.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Good Books for Cooking Technique

Lenn asked me for recommendations for technique-oriented cookbooks. I gave him some ideas and decided to share the list. The following books have given me skills and knowledge that I use every day in the kitchen. I love European food, and these books reflect that.

I've excluded general references such as Culinary Artistry and Vegetables: From Amaranth to Zucchini. Perhaps I'll write about those in another post.

On Food and Cooking - Every cook should own this book. Harold McGee's masterpiece sheds light on the physics, chemistry, and biology that underlie every technique in the kitchen. (See my interview with him for SFist).

Zuni Cafe Cookbook - Judy Rodgers' cookbook from her San Francisco landmark restaurant seems to have three pages of text for every handful of ingredients. Rodgers is picky about quality, and she trains her readers to trust their senses and pay attention to the way ingredients change during the cooking process. I also love her do-it-yourself streak, which results in techniques for pickling and salt-curing. As she says in the book, her motto is "Stop. Think. There must be a harder way."

French Laundry Cookbook and Bouchon - I don't understand why cooks describe the French Laundry Cookbook as an unused coffee table book: My copy is well loved and stain-splattered. The Bouchon cookbook offers a homier style of cuisine, but the Keller eye for detail is still a key element.

Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques - This photo-heavy book combines two of Pepin's earlier works. Five to 10 photos walk you through any typical kitchen task, from making stock to folding puff pastry dough.

Cooking by Hand - Paul Bertolli's extended love letter to Italian food has flaws—ignore the food and wine pairing section, with its talking bottle and plate—but the plusses outweigh the minuses. He covers everything from the way pasta flours pair with sauces to making your own conserva.

Charcuterie - This recent book from Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn is a good intro to the universe of charcuterie. I don't always follow their advice—I always make duck rillettes from confit meat, and my duck confit technique varies a bit—but I've made a few of their recipes and think they're pretty sound. Ask me again when I've made my way through Jane Grigson's more classic book, however.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking - Hard to argue with Julia Child's pivotal book. I use this for any basic ingredient of French cuisine, from pâte à chôux to pain de mie.

Sustainable Table

I just got a press release about Sustainable Table, a website that helps home cooks and parents choose sustainable food and cook it. It comes from the same people who brought The Meatrix to the internets and who started The Eat Well Guide as a tool for finding sustainable growers and producers near you. Sustainable Table looks like a decent site (even if it is Flash heavy).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Sorbet on SFist

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
The next in my infrequent "technique" posts for SFist: sorbet made easy. Or at least separated from recipes. I wanted to give people a basic technique for assembling a sorbet from what's available.

Let me know what you think.

Monday, August 21, 2006

House Red Hunt: Summer 2006

Melissa and I recently went on a hunt for a "house red," an inexpensive red wine that pairs well with a wide range of foods. A wine we can afford to buy in "bulk" and open for the most casual of dinners. (As a couple who amass German and Austrian wines, we don't need a house white).

Our audition process was straightforward: Go to a wine store where the staff knows their stuff, give them a price range and general parameters (fruit with nice earthiness, good acidity, medium tannins), let them choose a few different wines, and then taste them over the next few weeks. Pick a favorite and buy a number of bottles.

We have a handful of great wine stores here in the East Bay, but we used Vintage Berkeley for our house red quest. Owner Peter Eastlake seeks out low-priced wines (when I first discovered the North Berkeley store, he tried to keep every bottle under $20, but now the upper limit is $25), and his palate, like mine, tends towards the complex and interesting. We told him what we wanted, suggested a $10-$15 range, and within minutes had a basket weighed down with five or six reds.

Here are tasting notes for three of the wines (I don't know where the others are). Our favorite was the Nero d'Avola, but the new vintage had come in since our visit. Peter says it's still very good (maybe better), but he didn't want us to buy six bottles of something we hadn't tasted yet. Instead, we bought three bottles of the Nero d'Avola and three more house red candidates, just in case.

Tasting Notes
2003 Château Haut-Roudier, Bordeaux, France - A nice Bordeaux, sporting barnyard notes that mingle with aromas of green pepper, caramel, and cherry. Lots of interesting flavors on top of a good acidity and modest tannins, but the aromatic wine failed us on the short finish. It didn't stand up to the lamb shoulder I made, though in truth few wines would.

2004 Peggio Bidii Rosso, Sicilia, Italy - Our eventual winner. This bottle of Nero d'Avola had bright red fruit aromas and plummy, cherry flavors with a long vanilla-scented finish. Modest tannins contributed to the medium body, and a middling acidity kept the fruit flavors fresh but didn't quite lift the wine out of a certain flabbiness.

2004 Lavradores de Feitoria, Vinho Tinto, Douro, Portugal - Hot aromas didn't quite obscure the spicy aroma, and the robust cherry flavors didn't obscure the subtle chocolate note. The wine had a good acidity, but the potent heat on the nose disqualified this bottle.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Learn From My Mistakes: Puff Pastry Pie Crust

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
I promised to bring a tart to a friend's house last night, but I didn't feel like making a crust. Instead, I used puff pastry from the last batch I made. I had seen this idea before, but I wish the suggestion had included the advice I learned yesterday.

This dough wants to shrink as you prebake it, and pie weights don't seem to do much to stop the crust's slouch into the pan. I used a technique from the Bouchon cookbook to fight the shrinking. Roll out a piece of dough three inches wider than you'd need otherwise. Press the dough into the flutes, but let the dough hang over the edge of the tart pan by a half inch or so. Trim anything more than that, and use the scraps to fill in breaks in the crust. Cover in foil, poke holes through the foil and crust with a fork, and fill the foil with pie weights. Bake on a cookie sheet until brown (about 20 minutes at 425°). When the crust comes out, remove the foil and weights, let the tart shell cool, and then cut off the lip with a bread knife perpendicular to the tart pan edge. The overhanging dough prevents the crust in the pan from shrinking.

The other problem with a puff pastry pie crust is its flakiness. Isn't that what you want in a crust? Yes, but not when it shatters at the lightest touch. Keep the tart safe in the tart pan for as long as you can, and use a serrated knife to carefully cut pieces.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

What's Your Beef?

La Cense steak
Photo by Melissa Schneider.

How does a grass-fed cow's diet change the taste of the beef? Montana's La Cense offered to send me beef samples so that I could learn about grass-fed meat. I've already boarded that train, but I wanted to look at the effect of regional grasses on the flavor of the steak. Can beef reflect a place and a season the same way as wine, cheese, or honey? Grass-fed beef growers think so.

The La Cense steaks caused a stir when they arrived at the office. My co-workers are blasé about wine samples, but styrofoam boxes and ice packs still draw a crowd. The steaks and hamburger patties had a deep red color, and the leanness of the New York Strip was obvious: a thin strip of fat along the side, and an even but light marbling of fat in the meat itself. The pasture diet keeps the cows trim.

I knew what I wanted to taste next to the Montana beef: a Prather Ranch steak. Prather Ranch raises cattle near Mount Shasta, high up on the bicep of our arm-shaped state, and we often buy their beef (not only because it's good but because there's a stall at the Grand Lake farmer's market). The closest cut I could find was a filet mignon; I hoped for a tighter control, but the La Cense beef was ready to eat.

Prather Ranch steak
Photo by Melissa Schneider.

I treated the different steaks the same way: A light salting in the morning, another one in the evening, and then into a preheated sauté pan with a sizzle, where I cooked them to rare before letting them rest for five or six minutes under a foil tent. Standard Schneider steak treatment. I topped them with a tarragon butter, and put roast potatoes and braised chard on the side.

In the wine world, there is a debate about terroir, this sense of place I sought in the beef. How much of a wine's flavor comes from the soil and sunlight that nourished the vines, and how much comes from the craft of the wine maker?

A similar question lingered over our steaks. The Prather Ranch steak had a deep flavor—earthy and richly meaty—that the La Cense lacked. The Prather Ranch meat had a better grain (though that could have been the cut). They weren't just different, the Prather Ranch steak was noticeably better. (Though the La Cense was still better than standard beef.) Is this terroir or technique? The two farms use similar practices, including the all-important dry-aging time. But Prather Ranch finishes its cattle on grain (not corn), which creates a fatter meat. More fat means more flavor, even if the final product isn't as healthy as the La Cense beef. Which do you prefer?

Further reading: Amy's taste test, Meg's tasting note

Epicurious Milk Tasting

The folks at epicurious sent me the results of a milk tasting they did with children. I love some of the comments. Of organic soy milk: "It tastes like hamster food." Of a rice drink: "It tastes like white water." The surprise winner of the day? Oak Knoll Dairy's Chocolate Goat's Milk. Regular goat's milk also fared well, but remember that these are children exposed to a lot of good food items.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Terrorists and the Milk Supply!

The FDA has figured out what security analysts have known for years: Our centralized food system makes an easy target for agroterrorists. The Philadelphia Inquirer has an article that describes an exercise to find weaknesses in dairy systems. No surprise, but dairy farms and their distribution centers offer plenty of opportunities for would-be terrorists.

The FDA is aware of the threat, but I'm sure they'll handle it the same way the rest of the government deals with security issues: Wait until someone exploits the weakness, and then enact the simple rules that would have stopped the attack in the first place. Of course, those new rules will add costs, which will hit small farmers the hardest. Shop from them now so they can save up.

Monday, August 14, 2006

My Berkeley Article Online

My editor updated the Edible East Bay site, and I gave her permission to post my article about the history of the Berkeley food movement. Read it and tell me what you think.

MS-NBC's Writers Talk About Guilty Pleasures

MS-NBC's stable of writers talk about their culinary guilty pleasures. I'm one of the contributors, though you'll have to listen to the audio that accompanies the slide show to hear my guilty pleasure. I'll let you all judge me from that. Thank goodness they didn't take my other ideas for the series.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Debbie Zachareas in the Chron

Debbie Zachareas is one of my favorite sommeliers, and one of the 3 people I credit with my love of German and Austrian wine. (Reminder: I fell in love with these spectacular wines so much that I'll be teaching a class on the subject through UCB Extension, and you can still sign up for it).

The Chronicle has started running quick profiles of wine folks, and they started with Debbie, though those of you with long memories might say that they're restarting with Debbie: When the wine section was young they profiled sommeliers, and Debbie was the first one they picked.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Michael Pollan has a new book out. Have you heard?

The Omnivore's Dilemma has hit bookstore shelves just as America's concern about food issues has unfurled like a bullwhip, a slow wave of defiance building to a snap at agribusiness's throat. Wal-Mart and Safeway scurried to carry organic products in the last year. New farmer's markets open every week. The Eat Local movement is the darling of the food press.

Pollan's fluid, detailed prose makes this book the new bible of culinary activism. The four meals he describes in the book serve as Nicholson-Bakerian lenses that bring a keen insight into our modern food systems.

He makes the point, explicitly and through example, that we don't understand complex natural systems enough to graft them onto industrial thought processes. Our entire food system is in danger because we've paid attention to short-term efficiencies, not long-term costs.

No surprise that "conventional" agriculture suffers from this blind spot, with its cattle feedlots, impoverished farmers, and environmental destruction. But many of the "ethical eaters" who read this book might be surprised to find that similar problems afflict organic farming.

Organic food has become big business, and former idealists have become savvy CEOs of sprawling companies. Ever purchased a Rosie free-range chicken? Seen the little farm on the label? Now picture thousands of chickens packed into a shed, with minimal and unused access to a small grass yard for the last two weeks of their lives. Or picture organic food that's been shipped across the globe, "awash in fossil fuel" to use Pollan's phrase.

The book offers Polyface Farms as a counterexample. Joel Salatin, something of an icon among small farm advocates, relies on innate animal behaviors to do the heavy lifting on his property. Cows graze in pasture and leave their manure in the field. Three days later, farmhands move chickens into the same area to spread the manure (and add their own) as they seek out the fly larvae that have become plump in the cow patties. Three weeks later, a rich field of grass is once again ready for the cattle.

Salatin's practices have increased productivity on his farm. This reality flies in the face of theory, which positions agriculture as a zero-sum game where we take away and never give back. And, says Pollan, the meat and eggs taste great.

Polyface represents a utopian vision, but Pollan doesn't speculate about how well the model would scale. Could we feed everyone in the country with a zillion copies of Salatin's farm?

The last meal in the book certainly won't scale. In the last section, he hunts and forages his own food (more or less), including a wild boar. It is here that the book bogs down. The section looks at the philosophy of food (his well-regarded essay "An Animal's Place" is reprinted almost verbatim), and his own epiphanies about killing an animal for his supper. I don't doubt that he had a profound experience, but I didn't learn from his hunting tale the same way I did from earlier sections.

Read the book. You'll never look at your dinner plate the same way.

Eat Feed on Gelatin

I'm catching up on podcasts, and I just listened to the "Secret Life of Gelatin" show on Eat Feed. The first part of the show is entertaining, but the best part is the interview segment with food historian Ivan Day (starts at 14:56). This very British scholar launches into an erudite, 15-minute-long discussion of gelatin that you have to hear to believe. I giggled through most of it, not because it was funny but because I was so surprised and delighted by the vast knowledge he has on this obscure topic.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Tuesday Tomato Battle

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
Melissa and I did a tasting of heirloom tomatoes this weekend. Which came out on top? Find out in my latest SFist article.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Pleasant Saturday Afternoon

Photo by meriko.

We recently went to meriko's house and had some fun with nine bottles of sparkling wine. And an oyster knife. That was the best tool to hand for sabering open the bottles.

No big post—I have other plans for a sabering piece—but I did want to share this photo that meriko took of the aftermath. She got the cleanest cut of the day, visible just left of center, and plans to set up the beskirted cork as a trophy in her office.

WTN: 2005 Wölffer Estate Rosé, The Hamptons, New York, USA

Every year in the late spring, wine publications run features that sing the praises of rosé wines. Every year, I wonder if anyone still believes that rosés are off-balance sweet wines in the manner of White Zinfandel. But I was out to dinner with a group of friends and friends of friends and they asked me to choose a wine. I mentioned an Italian rosé on the list, and the friends of friends chortled at what they thought was a joke.

So I guess that answers the question of why wine magazines and newspaper wine sections still run the hoary "rosés are great!" piece. If you're one of those "no pink" types, you're missing out. A good rosé is tart, dry, and food-friendly—not to mention prettier in the glass than either a white or a red.

Melissa and I recently opened the Wölffer Estate Rosé, which the winery sent me as a sample. We made a brief visit to the showy winery on our "Eat 'Til You Drop" tour, and I liked the wines, even in a slightly snuffly state. Wölffer seems to distribute its products more widely than its Long Island peers, and wine maker Roman Roth has created some admirable ambassadors for the region. There are better producers on the East End, even in my limited exposure to Long Island, but it's harder to find them outside of a small area.

Tasting note:
This pretty red-pink wine is a good, but not a great, rosé. Delicate floral aromas mingle with a brief hint of pepper. Floral flavors dominate the palate as you taste the medium-light wine, but there's a pleasant earthy quality in the first part of the long finish and a refreshing mineral quality at the end. I wish the wine had more acidity. It's not a flabby wine, but it's not as crisp as I'd like. I didn't note down what we ate with this wine, but I'd put it up against a charcuterie platter, fresh salmon, or steamed mussels.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

WTN: 1994 Domaine aux Moines, Roche aux Moines, Savennieres, Loire, France

If you're one of my Bay Area readers, find an excuse to eat at Foreign Cinema soon. They have a 1994 Domaine aux Moines Savennières on their wine list for $45. Most casual drinkers don't get a chance to drink "old" white wines (a good Savennières can age for much longer when properly stored). Coincidentally, Alder just covered this wine in-depth, and he notes that the 1994 is the current release.

I didn't take careful tasting notes, but the wine has an oily minerality that suggests kerosene more than hard rocks, and it finishes with a subtle spiciness. The straightforward aromas it probably had in its youth have evolved into a complex bouquet with layers of intriguing scents. "Funky" is the word that came to my mind on the first sniff. You may not like this wine, but it's worth experiencing: Four of the five of us who drank it preferred it to the 2002 Savennières we had at the start of the meal, which had sherry aromas that suggested poor storage. The 1994 bottle didn't have as much acidity as I'd expect even in a 12-year-old Savennières, but it still has enough to make it food-friendly. I tasted it with a charcuterie platter.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Dr. Vino Goes to the Geese

Some of you know that I have a spider-sense that tingles when writers mention foie gras, but this time Tyler at Dr. Vino made my job easy when he sent a link to his post about a visit to a French goose foie gras farm. He touches on the "unmentioned" problems with the foie gras industry, such as the handful of large corporations who keep foie gras farmers near bankruptcy by demanding lower prices and threatening to leave farmers out to dry if they don't comply. (The same practice keeps American farmers of all types in the red.)

I've visited Sonoma Foie Gras, but I'd love to tour some French farms next time I'm in that area.

Field Trip: Boston

One of the many reasons I love my readers: I ask a simple question about the food scene in Boston, and you all come back with a flood of advice.

International Puzzle Party's activities only left us time to sip at the wellspring of your suggestions, but twice we snuck out to the hot and humid city, and thanks to you we ate well wherever we emerged from the T. (See Melissa's whole photo set of the trip.)

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

The Boston Ice Cream War
"People in Boston take their ice cream seriously," said our friend Pavel. The city's residents supposedly eat more ice cream per capita than any other urban population. No wonder a fierce ice cream debate erupted in my comments. Toscanini's or Christina's? Christina's or Herrell's? Toscanini's or Herrell's? You couldn't agree.

Melissa and I took the middle ground and tried them all.

We started at the Harvard Yard site of Toscanini's, the pervasive chain that serves as the default answer to the "Best Ice Cream" question. Our eyes slid over the small, hip-café interior and onto the day's menu. Toscanini's favors ice creams packed with cookies or candy. We ordered Grasshopper—think Cookies 'n' Cream with Thin Mints—and Ginger Snap Molasses. The Grasshopper's dense cookie mix-in made it difficult to taste the ice cream that held it together, but the Ginger Snap Molasses reined in the ratio of ginger snaps to a smoky molasses-flavored ice cream. This flavor won our informal "best of tasting" award. (We tried it again at another Toscanini's that evening, but I didn't write down my notes on that outing.)

Herrell's has a classic ice-cream-shop feel, with kitschy tropical island murals on the walls and slow oldies on the radio. The menu hints at a more creative "mixmaster" than Toscanini's, with flavors such as Purple Cow, black raspberry ice cream with white chocolate. Maybe the simple route was a mistake: My vanilla had a dilute taste that reminded me of the frappes my grandparents make with blended milk and vanilla syrup. Melissa's chocolate tasted like a Fudgsicle. But both had an airy, smooth texture that none of the other ice creams approached.

Dinner (see below) was a few doors down from Christina's, a single-location ice creamery in a city of chains. The ice cream had a smooth texture and the Banana Cinnamon balanced delicate flavors against each other. My fellow tasters liked Gind's Mocha Explosion (I don't like coffee). Christina's gets the nod for overall quality, and my inner snob would champion their cause if I lived in Boston. But Toscanini's Ginger Snap Molasses was a hard act to follow.

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Saturday's Dinner: East Coast Grill
The mediocre food at IPP's events left us hungry for a real meal at East Coast Grill, which our friend meriko recommended, as did OWF reader Larry. Cookbook author Chris Schlesinger owns the restaurant, which serves true barbecue alongside the fresh seafood you'll find everywhere in Boston. If we lived in the area, East Coast Grill would become a favorite casual dinner spot, especially with Games People Play's impressive inventory of mechanical puzzles just a few blocks away.

After a drink at the packed bar, the waiter led the four of us—our friends Pavel and Kathleen and Melissa and I—through the noisy restaurant to our back-area table and left us with menus and a small bowl of pickles, whose acidic bite clears the palate and whets the appetite. (I often find inspiration in Quick Pickles, a book by Schlesinger and his pickle chef.)

Melissa and I each ordered a stomach-stretching line-up of appetizer, half a raw bar platter, and a barbecue sampler. I preferred her ginger and tuna sausage dumplings to my fried soft shell crab on a succotash bed, but both appetizers had us licking our lips. The raw bar platter was a fruits de mer plate heaped with fresh shrimp, just-shucked oysters, and pre-cracked crab legs. The barbecue was delicious, especially the pulled pork, an almost pudding-like pile of piggy goodness. The brisket was the least interesting item on the platter, but run-of-the-mill barbecue is still one of humanity's greatest treats. I made a good-sized dent in the sides: slightly spicy beans and a large cube of lofty cornbread.

The wine list's two pages of interesting bottles suggest a thoughtful buyer, but the restaurant doesn't offer much in the way of on-floor wine assistance. The general manager was the only person there who could talk about the plusses and minuses of different wines. It's not her fault that we didn't like her recommendation—tastes vary—but I'd expect a wine-savvy person to warn us that the Tohu Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is a 180° turn from that region's normal wines, not just "slightly sweeter." We trusted our own instincts to good effect with the Aillende Rioja from Spain. The restaurant makes a number of mixed drinks, and Melissa gave a thumbs-up to the margarita she drank before dinner (while I had a glass of rosé).

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Monday Lunch: Locke-Ober
OWF reader Jo suggested Locke-Ober near Boston Commons, but as I stood outside and read the news clippings, I remembered a 2002 Saveur article about this bastion of old-school Boston food. The article used a couple thousand words to say the same thing Jo wrote in a few sentences. The restaurant used to be a men's club where the rich and influential dined and relaxed, cutting deals that kept power in their hands. In 1972, the restaurant admitted women to the main dining room, and in 2001 a famous local chef named Lydia Shire took control of the restaurant.

She won the bid against other regional chefs by promising to preserve Locke-Ober's nostalgic cuisine, with dishes such as Crab Louis, lobster stew, and Indian pudding.

The restaurant maintains its anachronistic looks and attitudes. My jeans kept us out of the dining room, whose dark wood, brass highlights, and ancient chafing dishes evoke the 1920's. The experienced waiters dress in black vests, bowties, and long-sleeved white shirts. They take your order from a brasserie-style menu framed with a salmon-colored border that meets in an decorated oval at the top of the page. The hefty wine list features French favorites from Bordeaux and Burgundy as well as American mainstays.

My raw oyster platter featured six local oysters, each swimming in the briny liquid called "liquor" and each sliding into my mouth with no effort and no shells—the work of a master shucker. Shire allows modern influences to seep into the stodgy dishes, such as a mignonette with raspberry vinegar in place of the traditional red wine vinegar. I had a glass of Sancerre with the oysters, and a Côtes-du-Rhône with my "potted" escargot (snails served in little cups instead of their shells) and rum-tobacco smoked salmon. The last included the garnishes you'd expect: finely diced red onion, capers, hard-boiled egg yolk, and pumpernickel. The escargot had a fleshy feel and a garlicky taste, and I used the croutons to soak up the aromatic oil in the bottom of each "pot." The tobacco in the salmon came through on the finish, adding an earthy smoky note to a flavorful fish. Melissa liked both her Crab Louis and the lobster club, which comes with a tall bird's nest of "root chips."

Other Food
As some of you predicted, the summer weather left us little taste for hot chocolate, but we did stop in at L.A. Burdick to examine their wares. Melissa enjoyed an iced latte while I gulped down a tart lemonade. We negotiated with each other for more than our share of the delicate and chewy macaroons—one pistachio and one ginger. Signs that explain the chocolate shop's philosophy suggest quality-conscious owners, so it's worth a visit on a less oppressive day.

We girded for our plane flight with lunch at Locke-Ober, but also with a rustic potato garlic loaf from Five Loaves Bakery, whose eye-catching inventory sells out quickly at the City Hall Plaza market in downtown Boston. For good reason.

Thanks again to everyone for the great advice. I'm sorry we couldn't sample all your suggestions, and that we couldn't arrange a meet-up. We'll plan better next time I head off to a puzzle collector's convention.

Tighten the Grass-Fed Label...Again

A while back, I wrote a post on Growers and Grocers about the USDA's efforts to tighten the definition for "grass-fed." Their new definition would require a 99% grass diet before the label could be used (up from 80%).

Now the USDA is considering another change to the label that would require the grass to come from pasture, and would forbid genetically engineered grass. The Center for Food Safety sent me a link to their campaign to encourage the USDA in this direction. Click on the link and show your support.

Companies use loopholes in labelling laws to mislead consumers about their food, and the "grass-fed" concept is winning over shoppers tired of lax definitions for organic. If we're going to have labels, they should have a precise definition so that we have correct information about what we're buying.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Salon on Urban Gardening for Kids

Salon has a nice piece on bringing organic food to low-income neighborhoods through urban gardening projects. You'll have to watch a short ad if you're not a Salon Premium member, but it's worth it. It's nice to see teachers other than Alice Waters get attention for their efforts to make these projects viable in urban communities.

We're back from Boston. A full report will follow shortly.