Thursday, January 31, 2008

What Is Bimbo Break?

I was trying to solve a puzzle in the latest issue of The Enigma, the monthly publication of The National Puzzlers’ League, and I decided the answer might be one of the Coca-Cola brands. I haven’t memorized them, of course, so I looked them up. Holy cats! They own everything. This isn’t a surprise — America’s favorite soft drink company is a sprawling mass of a corporation — but the list en masse is quite a sight.

Here’s one to ponder: What is Bimbo Break? It’s listed in their brands, but I’ve never seen it. Maybe I just don’t shop in the right stores. Or maybe, you know, Coca-Cola decided that that brand isn’t quite ready for market yet.

I’ll tell you what Bimbo Break isn’t: the answer to the puzzle. I did manage to figure it out, though.

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32 Students!

My wine classes have typically had a dozen or so students. So imagine my surprise when my dean wrote to tell me that I had 29 students for my current course. And then imagine it when I showed up last night and found that I had 32. And only two of them were students from my Fundamentals I course, though a fair number had taken the other Fundamentals I section that happened last semester.

I kept thinking during class that they should give us a bigger room. Everyone fit, but it’s a tight squeeze, especially because the students occupy more space than they would in an accounting class: There's a line of glasses in front of every student. I doubt a bigger room exists, though. I looked at the list of other Berkeley Extension courses meeting on that floor, and I think we all filled it up.

It’s always interesting to hear about the wine drinking backgrounds of my students. Some are longtime drinkers, some are new. Some have a lot of knowledge, some know barely anything. Some are in the industry, some are just enthusiasts. I try to foster a good environment for asking questions, but there’s always one or two shy people: I hope they’re learning what they need.

I also find that my classes give me a good gauge on the average wine consumer’s view of the world, which is always useful for a writer. One person asked the question I often hear: How do you know that a Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc or that a Burgundy is Pinot Noir? Unfortunately, the answer is that you just have to know it; this is the big problem that European wines have here in the United States. We’ve come to expect varietals, bottles marketed as being from a single grape, because that’s how the American wine industry, under the urging of Frank Schoonmaker, differentiated itself from Europe’s. I also hear questions about high alcohol levels, French appellation rules versus American rules, corks versus screwcaps, and more.

Last night’s class focused on the taste of wine: acidity, sugar, tannins, alcohol, weight, and so forth. I bought five bottles of Woodbridge Pinot Grigio and left one untouched while doctoring the others: citric acid in one, sugar in another, tannins in yet another, and almost-pure ethanol into the last. That way the students could compare the exaggerated attributes to the basic wine and learn how each registers on the tongue and affects the wine. Then I poured our “real” wines: a 2006 Sancerre, a 1990 Vouvray, a 1997 Kabinett Riesling from the Mosel, a 2004 Marsannay, and a 2004 (I think) Napa Cabernet. We talked about how the grapes and climate affected the final wine, how wines age, and so forth. Though this class isn’t focused on educating students about wine regions, I always try to give a little information about the region that produced the wine they’re drinking.


Monday, January 21, 2008

Serendipity: A Bit Of Esoteric Wine History

I was searching the Government Printing Office’s site while researching an article, and I stumbled across the record for this 1986 document titled “Imported wines : identifying and removing wines contaminated with diethylene glycol.”

Sadly, the document’s not available online: Maybe I’ll look it up the next time I’m at the library. Because the reason why there’s a 1986 report about diethylene glycol in wine is that the year before, the international press went ballistic upon learning that a few Austrian producers in the Thermenregion had been adding that chemical to their wine. At the time, Austria followed Germany’s lead and made tankfuls of cloying wine. Diethylene glycol allowed wine makers to sweeten wine even when the grapes didn’t have enough sugar. This might not be a problem, except that diethylene glycol is related to ethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze. (Diethylene glycol is significantly less toxic.)

When the additive was discovered, it obliterated the Austrian wine industry’s international presence. No one would touch the wines for years. But that event shaped the modern-day industry: It wiped out the large producers who had relied on voluminous sales and cleared the way for small producers with integrity to enter the spotlight. It also reversed the trend toward sweeter wines: Today, Austria’s non-dessert whites are bone-dry, in contrast to Germany’s. The incident also spawned every joke about antifreeze in the wine, including the one in the first season of The Simpsons.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

What We Had For Dinner This Week

Since my meal-planning post struck a chord with a lot of you, I thought it might be fun to post one of these lists. Let me know what you think; this is how I structure the list now, and this is how it looked this week, with lunch, dinner, shopping, and prep steps for each day.

As I’ve said before, you’ll have to do without pictures for the time being. Melissa is pouring all her energy into the house renovation, and has none left for nighttime camera work. Once we’re settled, I hope to offer more of her gorgeous photos.


  • General Strategy: Saturdays are our main market days: Our three favorite markets — Berkeley, Grand Lake, and Ferry Plaza — all occur on Saturdays. Weekends are also our main house days. (Melissa does it during the week as well.) That means that I can include dinners that require a bit more work, but not a lot. It also means that I can’t yet cook tons of food on the weekend for use later in the week.
  • Lunch: Bakesale Betty’s Fried Chicken Sandwiches - Melissa’s mom brought us lunch as a treat. If you live in this area, try this sandwich, which features fried chicken and cole slaw on a deli roll. The slaw is spicy, but this sandwich is a stroke of genius. She told us in advance she’d bring them, so I noted it for lunch.
  • Dinner: Dopo - My friend Amy gave me a gift certificate to Dopo, an Italian restaurant in Oakland. While I had decided on Friday to use it for Saturday night, the timing ended up being fortuitous. We had a rough day, and delicious food — cooked by someone else — was the remedy. Dopo used to annoy me because they charged standard restaurant markups for wine, but then served it in crappy little tumblers. If you’re going to double or triple the price of a bottle of wine, at least serve it in decent glasses. If you want to be a casual trattoria, don’t double or triple your wine prices. I’m happy to say that they now have real wine glasses, and they still have fantastic food.
  • Shopping: Shallots, sausage, greens, lentils(?), arugula, mirepoix, deli rolls, radishes, orange, turnips, potatoes, cabbage, pears - When I’m writing my lists, I’m in one room surrounded by books, and the kitchen is in another. So I put ? next to ingredients that I may already have. It reminds me to look in the kitchen before I head to the market. I write “mirepoix” when I want equal amounts of carrot, celery, and onion for stock or stews. It doesn’t save much space, but I like the word: It is my nom de plume in the National Puzzlers’ League.
  • Prep: Hard-cook eggs, make bagna cauda, (a.m.) soak anchovies


  • Lunch: Bagna cauda sandwiches (hard-boiled eggs, radish, arugula) - This sounds very exotic, but in truth I made a small amount of bagna cauda (a warm bath of oil, garlic, and anchovies) and used it as a spread on sandwich rolls. I added all the ingredients to the sandwich. We told my mom, who helped me strip paint that day, that it was a good thing her husband was out of town: The sandwich was pungent.
  • Dinner: Lentils braised in red wine with sausage, and greens - The lentil technique came from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and it’s one I’ll use again. She has you cook the lentils sort of like risotto, keeping minimal liquid in the pot with the beans. I seared the Fatted Calf sausage, but I daydreamed about grilling them in the future.
  • Shopping: baguette, kale/chard from house - Even with just a few pots in the backyard, we’re reaping the benefits of a garden. Bonnie gave us some potted greens, and they have persevered — flourished, even — despite sharing the yard with a substantial amount of construction effluvia.
  • Prep: soak beans for minestrone


  • General Strategy: On weekdays, I can shop at Rainbow Grocery, a natural-foods, vegetarian co-op near my work. Oddly, they have a weak produce section, but I dare you to find a better bulk section. I decided to try Heidi’s Do-It-Yourself Power Bars, and Rainbow had all the exotic ingredients I needed.
  • Dinner: Minestrone - But with cabbage, turnips, and potatoes instead of the normal ingredients.
  • Lunch: honey, pear, goat cheese sandwich
  • Shopping: Bread for mussels, dried fava beans, cumin?, lemon, dried figs, bay leaves, 1 ¼ c. rolled oats 1 ¼ c. hazelnuts, ½ c. oat bran, 1 ½ c. crisped brown rice cereal, dried cranberries, crystallized ginger, brown rice syrup, ¼ c. natural cane sugar
  • Prep: Soak dried figs in leftover wine,(a.m.) beans,power bars - Having used half a bottle of wine for the lentils the night before, I used the other half to rehydrate some figs for Friday (another Zuni technique).


  • Dinner: library night - I had to do some research at the library, so I left each of us to our own devices for the night. In the end, we both ate leftover minestrone.
  • Lunch: On our own. I fell down a bit on planning lunches this week, but usually we had good leftovers from the night before.


  • Dinner: Mussels - Few things are worse than waking up the morning you plan to make moules marinières and realizing that you didn’t make plans for french fries. The way I make them, they require a fair amount of prep, and without potatoes on hand I couldn’t include them.
  • Shopping: mussels - One of the best parts of the house is its proximity to lots of our favorite food stores. Monterey Fish Market, one of the Bay Area’s best seafood sources, is just up the road a bit, so Melissa went and bought us mussels.


  • Dinner: Ful sandwiches - This isn’t the full name of the fava bean salad from Mediterranean Street Food, but it’s how I abbreviated it. I decided to cook the dried fava beans in a slow cooker I’m reviewing, and they came out well, though they could have used a bit more time, I think. I cooked them for almost 3 hours, but I think in the future I would cook them for 3 ½.
  • Shopping: scallions, parsley, persimmons?, pita bread - Rainbow didn’t have persimmons — the original recipe calls for way-out-of-season tomatoes — so I used avocado instead.


  • Dinner: cheese course with condiments (dried figs with red wine) - This revived an old tradition of ours. When we wanted to learn about cheese, we would buy three cheeses each week and eat them (with bread and salami and whatnot) and read about them. I thought it might be a fun treat to bring that back from time to time. We got to the cheese counter and asked the vendor which cheeses she liked at the moment. We bought Brebiou, Cone de Port Aubry, and Cabot’s bandage-wrapped cheddar.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

2006 Movia "Gredic" Tocai Friuliano, Brda, Slovenia

Friuli, just to be clear, sits at the northeastern edge of Italy. The region surrounds the ancient city of Trieste, which balances on the tip-top of the Adriatic Sea. In the 1960s, Mario Schiopetto, whose name is about as Italian as you can find, imported German winemaking techniques to create the “super whites” that define the modern Italian style: clean, fruity, refreshing. I know where Friuli is; I’ve passed through Trieste on my way to Croatia.

So knowing all that, you might wonder why I picked a Slovenian wine for this edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday, the monthly Internet-wide tasting event that this month asked us to find Friuli whites.

Borders are a funny thing. We can hope that Italy’s borders will remain stable for a long time, since wars tend to be the events that move them, but not that long ago surveyors needed to decide where Italy ended and other countries began. Working in the hills that straddle Collio, an Italian wine region, and Brda, a Slovenian one, some engineer had to make a long series of decisions about which ground belonged to which country. And one of those decisions put the line through a vineyard owned by the Kristancic family, then and now the proprietors of the Movia estate. So some — maybe all — of the grapes in my bottle of Slovenian wine are actually from Italy.

That may be the most mild of the stories surrounding Movia, today the property of the charismatic and passionate Ales Kristancic. I’ve heard that Movia, alone in Slovenia, stayed private under Tito’s Communist rule because Ales’s father or grandfather was a friend of Tito’s. To get around the problem of a privately owned winery, Tito bought up all of Movia’s inventory each year. I’ve heard that American presidents have wandered through the vineyard.

And then you get to the cellar. The standard (and useless) definition of biodynamic viticulture is “organic plus.” Movia sometimes seems like “biodynamic plus.” I’ve heard that Ales records his fermenting yeast and plays their own song back to them. He uses the atmospheric pressure of the new moon to clarify his wines. He leaves some of his whites in Slovenian oak barrels and on their lees, the dead yeast cells that drop from the wine during fermentation, for 2 years. He ages his reds for 3 to 7 years.

Clearly, Ales flouts modern winemaking. But he also makes some killer wines. I have tasted a number of them, either at wine dinners or at Jack and Joanne’s house. I have never been disappointed.

His 2006 Gredic ($19), a well-balanced Tocai Friuliano, has light, buoyant aromas of honey and flowers, wax and cheese. It spanks your palate with searing acidity but then kisses the pain away with rich flavors of peach and wax. And if you ask Jack, who drinks them often, this is the least of Movia’s wines. If you ever get the chance to order a bottle of Movia wine, do so.

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Art of Eating, Number 76

Ed Behr’s quarterly, The Art of Eating, distinguishes itself from other food and wine publications in a number of ways: quality of writing/editing, depth of research, and lack of ads. But perhaps the most unusual aspect is a seeming lack of word count requirements. Ed, like Cheryl at Edible East Bay, feels that stories have a natural length, and he clearly doesn’t want a writer to leave something out because it doesn’t fit in some arbitrary box. I don’t think I’ve ever had Ed tell me anything more than a very rough number, and I ignore, with him, my usual rule of hitting within one percent of a publisher’s word limits. (Though I recognize the value of self-editing a 1,300-word draft down to 800 words.)

As a result of this quirky editorial philosophy, articles in The Art of Eating can sprawl across tens of pages if Ed feels they should. His feature about Beaujolais, which came out about four or five years ago, is a great example. I think I once heard him say that it’s 20,000 words, 7-10 times the size of a standard magazine feature.

I consider myself fairly geeky about wine, but if you had asked me about Aglianico del Vulture, I probably would have guessed that it’s from southern Italy, and I might have remembered that it’s a red. Even in Saveur, the closest glossy mag you can find to AoE, you might — might — find three pages about the wine. Compare that to this issue of AoE, which devotes 24 pages to the area: the wine, the food, the culture, and more.

This is why you should be subscribing to The Art of Eating.

As an aside, I have a small feature in this issue about rabbit. I really came to appreciate this meat as I researched the article. I used to only eat it at restaurants, but now I cook it at home when I can. To accompany the article, Melissa took pictures of Taylor, from Fatted Calf, breaking down a bunny, since few cookbooks show you the process: They just describe it. James MacGuire contributed most of the recipes.


Monday, January 14, 2008


I lifted the spoon, with its drab, brown pile, into my mouth, and I bit down. Well, no. I didn’t bite down. My teeth squished through a mouthful of cotton balls. My tongue curled away from the sticky, coating mass, which tasted and felt like soggy, slightly toasted cardboard.

Melissa labored through her bowl for a dozen bites or so, but she dodged the wretched part and instead dug for the edamame and carrots, which emerged covered in a brown, felty pelt. I threw mine out after just two bites.

The dinner seemed like a good idea. I had an open-for-interpretation “grain salad” on the evening’s menu, a way to mesh spontaneity and meal planning. I stood in the bulk grain section at Rainbow Grocery and spied toasted buckwheat, which I had never made before. I didn’t read the instructions too carefully, but I thought it said to combine 1 cup of buckwheat with 2 1/2 cups of water and simmer for 20 minutes.

On the stove, the buckwheat expanded into a thick sludge as soon as the water hit it. It kept expanding, like some horror-movie blob, as I added more water. And the texture skipped past fluffy straight to furry.

I’m sure I did something wrong: Lots of people like buckwheat, and no one would if they tasted what I made. If you have suggestions for cooking it, let me know, but I won’t be touching that grain for a while.

Food blogs provide us with a fantasy life. I would like to have time to make all the gorgeous dishes I see on other sites, and I hope that some of my pretty plates have inspired you.

But, you know, sometimes things just don’t work. And it’s good to remember that even simple fantasies sometimes smack against hard reality.

Got any culinary disasters of your own you want to share? Add a comment or write a post on your own blog and send me the link. Help me feel better after making such a wretched dish.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Franconian Beers, San Francisco Chronicle

When I interviewed beer importer Dan Shelton for my Cantillon article, he threw out a tangent about the interesting world of Franconian beers. Franconia, a small region of Bavaria, contains one-fourth of Germany’s breweries, many of which are local pubs that produce just enough beer for the local villagers. I researched it a bit more, and today my article about the region appears in the Chronicle.

On another note, have you signed up for my Berkeley Extension wine class yet? No? Well, you’re in luck: There’s still time. Go sign up now before you forget.


Monday, January 07, 2008

Meal Planning

When I was a child, my family planned out our meals for the coming week. I was involved in this to varying degrees: For a stretch of my youth, each of us made breakfast for the other family members on a rotating schedule; at other times, I just had to take the chicken out of the freezer when I got home from school. But big shopping trips and weekly menus were a part of our lives.

I continued this in college. My first year out of the dorms, and well before I became the obsessive cook I am today, my roommate and I would pick recipes from the Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book (“new” despite being published in 1930), go to Safeway on the weekends, and cook dinner on weeknights.

But as time went on, I lost the habit. I lived further from the bone, with enough income to go out for lunch and decide on a whim what I would make for dinner. And who wants to meal-plan on Friday night when movies and take-out beckon?

Then we bought a house.

As we adjust to our new budget, meal planning has re-entered my life. On Friday nights, I curl up on the couch with a stack of cookbooks — old favorites, new favorites, and books sent to me for review — and plot out my strategy for the week. What sounds good? What will make use of a seasonal ingredient? What will use up the rest of an ingredient I buy for a different dish?

It became a pleasure rather than a chore when I realized that meal planning is just the same as dinner party planning. Instead of five or six courses over a few hours — our normal dinner party — I’m serving 13 or 14 courses — lunch and dinner — over one week. I figure out what will work and what won’t. I figure out how the meals will fit into the week’s work schedule. I even make a list, with daily shopping and prep tasks, analogous to the one I use for parties. Yesterday, for instance, I had to buy polenta, ricotta, and Parmiggiano for a few dishes: I grouped the ingredients based on our ability to go to Oakland’s Market Hall, a small collection of gourmet stores. Tonight, I have to soak beans for tomorrow’s dinner and roast vegetables for tomorrow’s lunch.

I worried about losing spontaneity. There is no more, “What do I feel like making tonight?” though I leave slots on Saturday nights for “market inspiration.” In fact, I have more flexibility now, not less. It’s hard to decide at 6:00 pm that you’d like to make a stew for dinner. But if you plan for it over the weekend, you can set up the stew in the morning. A whole range of dishes has become available, including every fifteen-part recipe in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

I’ve also come to realize that planning out meals creates anticipation for each one. This weekend I bought a petit jambon from Fatted Calf, and Melissa keeps wanting to know when I’m using it (tonight, in part, for the polenta). She says that I should have a chalkboard and write out, brasserie-style, the week’s meals.

Finally, meal planning has put me back in touch with old cookbook favorites. I’ve rediscovered new sources of inspiration in the cookbooks that have been on my shelf for years. Some that I had lost interest in, such as Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book, are now frequent guests in my pile of books. Others that I had forgotten about, such as Anissa Helou’s Mediterranean Street Food, have come back onto my radar.

I’m sure, at some point, that we’ll adjust to our new budget and return to our former lives. But I think that now I’ll keep meal planning, even when I don’t have to.

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