Friday, March 30, 2007

Food Puzzles: DoveTail Bar

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Many of you know that I collect and design mechanical puzzles—think Rubik's Cube and wire puzzles instead of jigsaws. It may shock you to learn I own about 700 puzzles, but my collection is tiny. The largest United States collection, whose owner is bequeathing it to the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana, has about 30,000 puzzles. The largest in the world, a private collection in England, has about 35,000.

Most of mine come from International Puzzle Party, the annual, invite-only meetup for the 500-600 mechanical puzzle collectors around the world. Designers and collectors bring puzzles to IPP to trade and sell, and most of these teasers will never appear in a store. Each time I go I bring home anywhere from a couple dozen puzzles to more than a hundred.

Some of the items in my collection have food or wine themes, and I decided to post about them here from time to time. I'll still write about edible food and wine, but I hope you'll indulge occasional tangents about the way that food influences a single art form. Food's ubiquitousness makes it a wellspring of analogies and metaphors that work across cultures. I've seen solvers from around the world acquire these thematic puzzles and instantly get the joke. Far more so than, say, jokes about politics or sports that show up in other puzzles I own.

I won't share any solutions; it's bad form among puzzlers. If you ever find yourself holding one of these puzzles, you'll have the pleasure of solving it yourself.

DoveTail Bar
Norman Sandfield's "DoveTail Bar" is one of many dovetail puzzles that he and his brother Robert designed over the course of several years. The classic dovetail "puzzle" is more of a curiosity: A block of wood appears to have perpendicular dovetail joints. Norman and Robert jumped from this classic object into true puzzles that used new shapes and locks, and they worked with craftsman Perry McDaniel to explore new dovetail movement. Until you solve it, you're never quite sure how the sections of a Sandfield puzzle will move.

In the Sandfield dovetails, you're usually hunting for a hidden compartment, but in the DoveTail Bar you need to "take a bite" off the top. If you're holding the puzzle, you can see the joint, but you'll need to work through some steps before you can separate bar and bite. Melissa's setup for the photo obscures any part of the lock mechanism.

Perry used walnut and maple for this faux ice cream bar, and Norman presented the puzzle in a paper bag reminiscent of ice cream bar wrappers.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Humanity Is King

Another Humane Society press release alerted me that Burger King will commit to buying humanely raised animals for its restaurants. The sheer scale of the Burger King chain prevents it from switching over every animal product to a humane alternative, but they've made good first steps. I wonder how one polices them on these goals.

From the press release:

  • It has begun purchasing two percent of its eggs from producers that do not confine laying hens in battery cages. It will more than double the percentage of cage-free eggs it’s using to five percent by the end of the year.
  • It has implemented a purchasing preference for cage-free eggs. Such a preference is intended to favor producers that convert away from battery-cage confinement systems.
  • It has started purchasing 10 percent of its pork from producers that do not confine breeding pigs in gestation crates, which are too small to allow even ordinary movement. The volume of pork purchases coming from gestation crate-free producers will double to 20 percent by the end of the year.
  • It has also implemented a purchasing preference for pork from producers that do not confine breeding sows in gestation crates.
  • It has implemented a preference for producers that use controlled atmosphere killing of chickens used for meat. This has been shown to cause significantly less suffering than the conventional method of slaughter used by most of the nation’s poultry slaughterers.

Okay, McDonald's, join the club. Stop clowning around with the OED, and give yourself the ultimate PR. Eric Schlosser once said, in discussing the hellish life of a slaughterhouse worker, that if McDonald's wanted to purchase beef from companies that treated their employees fairly, the entire industry would change overnight. Imagine if they wielded that power for an ethical food system. Even I might eat there again.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Psst! Hey, you! Want some cheap Brunello?

Jack sent me links to a guest blogger's posts at Brooklynguy's Wine and Food Blog. Deetrane is a wine bargain hunter, and found a great source for bottles well below market value. But you'd be right to suspect a wine source who provided awesome deals as long as you met him on street corners.

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this tale of intrigue and suspense.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Send in the Clones

How distinct are Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti? The leader of a tasting group I've joined posed that question with a blind tasting of four wines, two from each appellation. Both regions sit in Tuscany, and both make wine largely from Sangiovese.

There are environmental differences—Brunello di Montalcino is arid—and soil differences—Brunello has more limestone and sand—but Brunello's reputation rests on the Sangiovese Grosso, a "superior" clone that Ferruccio Biondi-Santi isolated in 1888.

You clone propagate a grapevine clone by grafting its budwood onto another root system. Grape growers look for the vines that perform best, either in the vineyard or the cellar. Maybe one vine thrives while neighbors sicken. Maybe one produces a better cluster. Maybe one creates distinct flavor in a wine. Keep selecting, and over time you have a plant with a DNA fingerprint that stands well apart from its kin.

Guess who's researching an article about clones?

Does Sangiovese Grosso deserve its status? Within our small tasting, we found nothing more than subtle distinctions. The two Chianti Classicos, from 1996 and 1997, had a less balanced acidity but a similar earthiness to the 1996 and 1995 Brunellos. I thought both Brunellos were complex; only one of the Chianti Classicos got my nod. They differed only at a debatable level. One member of the group, who has more experience with Italian reds than I, noted that these were still young, even with a decade or more of life behind them. Maybe we should try the tasting again in another five years.

My favorite wine was the 1995 Casisano-Colombaio Brunello di Montalcino. It had the old-wine earthiness that I love, with enough acidity to liven up the palate without sending a shiver coursing down the spine. The cocoa powder finish was a bit short: That's my only complaint.

For now, at least, my tongue can't tell Brunello and Chianti Classico apart. But sign me up for any rematch.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Wolfgang Puck Throws Himself Behind Ethical Food

The Humane Society of the United States sent me a press release pointing to this New York Times article. Wolfgang Puck will seek out ethical foods for his restaurants and, most importantly, his sprawling consumer-product line.

He's taking fairly small steps: no pork from producers who keep breeding sows in gestation crates, no eggs from battery chickens, no foie gras, no veal from anyone who uses individual veal crates. But he's a major buyer and one of the most famous of the celebrity chefs; it sends a message that the Americans who buy his products or eat at his restaurants care about ethically raised food.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Potluck Recipes: The Bean Dish

In my mental recipe file, I have a section labeled "potluck recipes." The imaginary index cards hold dishes that don't cost much to make, come together easily, and scale well. Usually they can be served at room temperature, so that I don't have to fight for the one reheating option in the room.

My latest addition is a bean dip of sorts. Not puréed refried beans but whole beans cooked and mixed with a variety of flavors. The dish was inspired by a recipe in Mediterranean Street Food, though I've never made the original: cannellini beans stewed with saffron, onions, and parsley.

But it's an easy dish to modify. Soak good dried beans in water for two hours. Drain, cover with an inch of water, add half a stick of butter and any other seasoning, and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Add diced onions—about half the volume of the beans—and more delicate spices. Simmer for half an hour more until the beans are tender. If you have too much liquid, drain the beans, capturing the liquid in a bowl, and moisten the beans until they seem right to you. If they're too dry, add more water. Season the liquid to taste.

Serve with pita bread triangles. You don't have to make the pita yourself.

It won't take you long to think of the obvious addition: pork. I add cubes of smoked sausage when I start to cook the beans. A tomato component works well: Once I used slivered sun-dried tomatoes, and another time I used homemade tomato paste. Add whatever seasonings you'd like. A bouquet garni, peppercorns, whatever. Swap out different beans. No matter what, your fellow diners will consider the pot lucky indeed.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Don't Drop That Fork

My co-worker Aaron sent me this link to Dinner in the Sky. It's not airplane food but a table suspended 50 meters in the air "by a team of professionals." Twenty-two diners get the table for eight hours for about 8000 euros. Don't worry if it rains; the table has a canopy. I assume dessert is "pie in the sky."

Too bad this didn't exist—or I didn't know about it—when I went to Belgium for IPP; I'm sure I could've rounded up a few people to try it with me.


Friday, March 16, 2007

WTN: 2002 San Antonio Winery "Heritage," Central Coast

This is a meaty wine.

Oh, it has other aromas and flavors: cherries, pepper, a bit too much alcohol on the nose. But meat—beef stew, let's say—was the term I kept returning to as I swirled and swooshed the Rhône blend and felt its tannins enshroud my tongue. I almost chewed the wine; it could use some time in a decanter.

San Antonio Winery has been in Los Angeles for 90 years. The city has given the winery, the last in Los Angeles, landmark status. It survived Prohibition by churning out sacramental wine. It has seen vineyards become rail yards and waterways become streets. It has shifted and changed to keep up with a capricious public.

The winery has expanded as well, though not so drastically as the city that now surrounds it. New brands have been added, and a Piemontese restaurant named Maddelena has arisen. But the family remains the same, descendants of the original owner who traveled from Lombardy to America to find a new start.

Food Thoughts
This wine's dense tannins and meaty aromas will stand up to a rich and complex main course but will overwhelm subtle flavors. Braised beef, duck ragú, and wild hare would all work. Or serve with the lamb you're eating at Easter dinner.

This wine was sent to me as a sample. You can buy it directly from the winery.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Clinking Glasses

Why do we clink glasses during a toast? It's not to prove the wine isn't poisoned, says urban legend debunking site Read their explanation of this tradition.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Fierce Food

One thing becomes clear after reading through Christa Weil's Fierce Food: One person's fierce is another person's fantasy. I won't be saying "Pass the bat" or "I'd like to try the human placenta" in the near future, but grasshoppers, barnacles, and betel nut? I'd try them. Foie gras, blood, and bone marrow? I cook them at home.

Weil's culinary sideshow of "the unusual, exotic, and downright bizarre" globetrots in a series of short features. Each spotlights a "fierce food," headed by an iconic key that provides an at-a-glance summary of the item. Supposed aphrodisiac? You'll know by the northeast-pointing arrow. Noticeably stinky? Watch for wavy lines. High likelihood of making you ill? A lit bomb.

But the small treatises that follow the hieroglyphics are worth your extra time. Weil has a casual and humorous writing style, but she hasn't skimped on research. Each digestible chapter empathizes with the reader's reactions—she's tried many of the foods—and delivers a wealth of useful information. You'll get lessons on dragonfly aerodynamics, the tough life of a barnacle harvester, the proper recipe for a scorpion restorative, and more. The book is more armchair eating adventure and useful reference than stow-it-with-you guide, but you'll enjoy each fierce food foray.

But before you dive in, could you pass the fat-tailed sheep's tail?

This book was sent to me as a review copy.


Saturday, March 10, 2007


Inspired by Sam—and feeling the urge to procrastinate on a few other writing projects—I have finally written an about page. This way you can learn more about me and Melissa, and I can tell PR folks my review policy.


Monday, March 05, 2007

Ice Creams I Have Made Of Late

I have grand plans for the Glace-A-Tron 6000 and its doorway into exotic ice cream experiments, but so far I have been driven by my lovely wife's requests. Here are a few ice creams that have been filling our freezer.

The Template
Grab your pens, folks: This is one of the few times you'll see a recipe here on OWF. This is the template I use for all my ice creams. It started as the basic recipe from Cook's Illustrated's out-of-print How to Make Ice Cream, but that recipe is too eggy, and I have replaced one egg yolk with an egg white on the advice of an ice-cream-fiend friend. This step can add a glassy texture to more delicate ice creams, so I'm thinking of trying a batch with 3 yolks and no white. For gelato, use 2 cups of milk and 1 cup of cream.

  • 2 egg yolks and 1 egg
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 1 1/2 c. milk
  • 1 1/2 c. cream
  • A good thermometer
  • Flavorings (see below)
  1. Combine 1/2 c. sugar with milk and cream, stir to dissolve, and heat over medium-low flame until the temperature reaches 175°
  2. Meanwhile, combine 1/4 c. sugar with eggs and whisk until mixture is light and fluffy—or your arm's about to fall off, whichever comes first.
  3. When the dairy reaches 175°f, temper the egg mixture: Pull out 1/2 c. of the hot milk-cream mix, and add it to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Now add the eggs into the milk-cream mix, whisking constantly.
  4. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture reaches 185°.
  5. Remove from heat, push through a fine strainer, and let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap, letting the plastic sit against the custard. Refrigerate overnight.
  6. Make ice cream. Freeze for several hours before servting.

Holy cats, this Cook's Illustrated-inspired ice cream was good. I toasted and ground a couple handfuls of shelled unsalted pistachios, and added them to the custard as it heated. Don't strain them out until just before you put the mix into the ice cream maker. Just before the machine finishes, stir in some candied pistachios and let them fold into the ice cream.

Cook's Illustrated's "Chocolate Truffle" ice cream tastes the way I expect chocolate ice cream to taste. Add 1/3 cup cocoa powder to the sugar and eggs, increase the amount of sugar by 1 tablespoon, and stir 4.5 oz. melted and cooled bittersweet chocolate into the hot custard. Some of that chocolate will harden overnight into microchips.

The Cook's Illustrated idea was weak. Rehydrate dried figs in hot water and mince? No. Use red wine and water, with some peppercorns tossed in for good measure. Purée the cooked figs in a food processor and stir in to the custard until it thickens.

Salted Caramel
I'm still tweaking this recipe, but my current incarnation is pretty good. Don't add sugar to the milk and cream. Caramelize 1 cup of sugar in a deep pot until it's nice and dark, just this side of molasses. Slowly add cold milk and cream (the mixture will bubble up), and then continue as normal. When the custard is made, add kosher salt to taste. Taste it again when the custard is at room temperature. At service, garnish with fleur de sel.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

San Francisco Food Lover's Pocket Guide

Every month or so, one of my readers asks me for advice on food tourism in San Francisco. I offer some ideas—Incanto and the Ferry Building—but then defer to higher authorities: Sam, The Slow Food Guide to San Francisco, and The San Francisco Food Lover's Guide. Patricia Unterman's popular foodie tour book, written by the restaurant reviewer for the Examiner and the chef-owner of Hayes Street Grill, is the book I tend to use when planning a place to eat.

Great as her book is, it's too big to schlep on a daily basis. We never have it with us when we want an impromptu dinner in the City. I guess we weren't the only ones who noticed that problem, because Ten Speed Press recently released the San Francisco Food Lover's Pocket Guide, a slimmed-down version of its big brother. "It's the perfect size for a desk or backpack," said Melissa when she saw it. The petite book has the same organization—by neighborhood—as the large version, and also has the entries for markets, bars, and stores that made the original more than a restaurant guide. (It also extends into the greater Bay Area.)

The publisher didn't simply repackage the older book: This new version has all the updates you'd expect. Unterman notes when chefs have recently left and writes about new favorites such as Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc. Each of her original long descriptions of food destinations has been snipped and folded into one pocket-size paragraph giving tips on what you should order and what you should not. I don't agree with everything she writes, but that's the nature of a reviewer-reader relationship. As a rule, she and I have similar tastes.

This book was sent to me as a review copy.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Fair Savoie

My first significant piece for the Chronicle, about the wines of France's Savoie, appears in today's Wine section. (I also contributed to the holiday gift guide last year.) The piece is part of their new "Essentials" series, educating readers about lesser-sung regions and grapes. I had hoped to follow the Priorat Essentials, so that I could quip that I had written my Savoie piece by filling in the antonyms of key concepts: Alpine climate instead of Mediterranean, mostly white instead of mostly red, inexpensive instead of super pricey, oddball grapes instead of world-famous ones, lean and elegant instead of heavy and powerful, little oak instead of lots. For you web readers, don't miss the tasting notes.

I was also amused to see Michael Bauer's handout for his "How To Pitch" break-out session at the Wine Writers' Symposium; he included my query for this piece as his first example of a good pitch. I don't think he told the participants that I was able to pitch so casually because I had worked with Wine Editor Jon Bonné when he was at MS-NBC.

I'm happy to say that more Chronicle pieces are already in the works.

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