Friday, February 29, 2008

Class Update

I meant to provide weekly “behind the podium” updates from my wine class, but the move to the house consumed a lot of time. Instead, I'll catch you all up on the last few weeks.

Class 2: Your Nose Knows
This class is a lot of work for the teacher, but I know — as someone who took this class several years ago — that it gives the students good tools for identifying aromas in wines. I spent the afternoon chopping a wide range of ingredients and putting them in little Dixie cups with foil covers. Lemon wedges, lemon zest, canned peas, liver, salumi, bacon, steak, chalk, and many more — I think I ended up with 70 samples. I write the name of the ingredient on the bottom of the cup. Students sniff the cup, try to guess the aroma, and then check their answer on the bottom of the cup. For those aromas that are limited to white or red wines, I put the sample into a cup and pour in a neutral white or red wine. It’s easy to recall an aroma when a person says its name — if I say, “vanilla,” you can probably conjure up its odor — but much harder to go from an aroma to its name. This is one of the hardest parts about articulating what’s in a glass, and of course the subject of infinite amusement to non-connoisseurs. “Flutter of Edam and soupçon of asparagus,” indeed.

As I told my students, I’m of two minds about the push to standardize wine descriptions (perhaps best personified by Dr. Ann Noble’s Aroma Wheel). On one hand, I encourage my students to develop their own tasting vocabularies: This helps them remember wines and draws from their own experience. On the other hand, a standard vocabulary allows you to read someone else’s tasting note and make sense of it, and it allows you to articulate something meaningful to a sommelier or wine merchant.

Either way, you have to train yourself to map scents to names, and this exercise gives students a chance to start that re-education. After we smelled the samples — a chaotic flow of cups around the room — I poured a number of aromatic and typical wines and asked for descriptions. Starting from that moment, my class couldn’t get away with “citrus” or “berry” as descriptions: They had to drill down and tell me which citrus and which berry. They had to tell me if a wine smells more like citrus zest or the fruit as a whole. (The other night, one student said a wine smelled like shoe polish, and another one quipped, “brown shoe polish,” which gave the class a good laugh.)

Class 3: Faults And Flaws
“Next week,” I told them at the end of the second class, “we’ll be smelling all sorts of stinky wines.” Hardly a good sales tactic. But I think this class is one of the most educational for one main reason: I scrounge up corked bottles from local wine shops, and then I pour (hopefully) uncorked glasses of the same wine. (Because of a cold, I couldn’t smell that night, and I passed around a “good” bottle that was corked as well, which everyone thought was amusing.) Naturally, I talked about how cork taint gets into a bottle, alternate closures, what to do when you get a corked bottle at a restaurant, and so forth.

I also poured samples of flaws that might not be flaws in the right context. A brown color and nutty aroma — signs of oxidation — are flaws in a recent Chardonnay but features of oloroso sherry. A hint of nail polish is a flaw in most wines, but not in an Amarone or Valpolicella. Brettanomyces, the yeast that gives wines a leathery, sweaty, “barnyard” aroma, is a flaw to a UC Davis graduate but not to a vigneron in the Southern Rhône or Burgundy.

Class 4: Oak
From a shopping perspective, this is probably the hardest class in the entire course. I went to the store and asked for wines with varying oak profiles: neutral, lots of American, lots of French, light toast, heavy toast. This isn’t how wine merchants categorize their inventory, so they had to do some thinking. But I found a good selection.

In my lecture, I tried to emphasize that oak is analogous to spice in cooking. You can overdo it, but a little can add complexity to a wine. I talked about barrels (and printed out my article on barrel alternatives) and the different variables that could affect the wine: the wood, the toasting, the size, and the age. I talked about New World versus Old World philosophies (more oak versus less, to paint in broad strokes) and increasing shifts to an “international” palate, which tends to have more oak character.

Rather than give the students a list of oak aromas — there are tons — I told them to look for umami scents — toasted bread, caramel, molasses, soy, chocolate, coffee — and different types of spices and nuts. The class called out descriptions and I wrote them down, and then we talked about which aromas were from the oak. By the end, I think they had a good sense of whether a wine had seen a lot of oak or if it was well-integrated: They could describe wines as oaky or not even before they knew what had happened to it in the cellar. (I pour the wines blind.)


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Glass Pantry

Packing, moving, and unpacking have been time-consuming and stress-inducing. But there is an upside: Long-lost treasures have re-emerged.

I had been looking for Georgeanne Brennan’s The Glass Pantry in my bookcases for a while, but I hadn’t found it. I worried that I had gotten rid of it.

But the other day, as I cleared off the magazines on our bedroom’s bookcase, I found the book buried in a stack of Wine Spectators. As soon as Melissa got home, I gleefully showed it to her.

The book was much as I remembered it: pretty preserves held in glass jars, mapped to seasons. Relishes and mustards. Vinegars and oils. Jams and jellies. These aren’t large batches but small lots.

As I look through it now, I realize that I have a sense for how to make many of the treats; indeed, I have ideas for how I might improve some. But each page provides new inspiration as I imagine a productive garden in the backyard (instead of the bamboo infestation we have right now). I want this life of glittering glass goodies tucked away in my chilly basement and summoned later to liven a dish.

My interest in preserving has flared up of late. I think our first house has brought out the nesting urge in both of us, but I think its physical layout — a big kitchen and storage space — moves me to freeze flavor in time the way Brennan suggests. Even before the garden takes off, I plan to use her book as a launching point for experiments. After all, our most common farmers’ market, Berkeley’s Saturday market, is mere minutes away. Perhaps the next time we go there, I’ll buy an excess of shallots and preserve them in brine, as she suggests. Rediscovering this lost book has awakened my slumbering still room chef.

A curious side note: When I looked at her recipe for Nectarine Mustard, I was surprised to see her reference Curt Clingman, “longtime chef at Oliveto.” I didn’t know him when I last looked through the book, but Curt has become a friend of ours, though we think of him as the co-owner of Jojo, our favorite Oakland restaurant.


Friday, February 22, 2008

American Wine Blog Awards

Last year, Tom Wark at Fermentation hosted the American Wine Blog Awards, and they proved popular enough to do a second time. If you read wine blogs — I consider OWF a food and wine blog, which means it doesn’t quite fit in either category — you should go to his site and nominate some of your favorites. Nominations close on February 27, so you have time to think about it. Right now he’s only taking nominations, so if a wine blog is mentioned you don’t need to nominate it again. You’ll get a chance to vote on the finalists in a few weeks.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Remember That Survey? Here Are The Results

Back in September, I asked you to participate in a survey to help me better understand my readers. I had 135 responses, which I estimated to be 2.7 percent of my readership at the time. (My readership is a larger number than my daily visitor count, because many people read me occasionally. Of course that means I can’t tell you how many distinct readers I have; I know it’s more than my daily visitor count, and my weekly/monthly visitor counts just add up all the daily numbers.) That response rate probably doesn’t give a meaningful result, but I have kept your comments in mind since then.

Only in mind, in fact. Some of you have written and asked me to publish the results. I apologize for dragging my heels on this. Here, at last, are the results, livened up with the Google Chart API. (Note that those charts might not show up in your RSS reader.)

How Do You Read OWF?
RSS/Site is for people who see the update in their RSS reader and then click through to the site.

These data didn’t surprise me because I see which browsers people use to visit this site. In addition to the obvious clients, I also see lots of RSS readers of various stripes. For those who don’t use an RSS reader, it doesn’t make sense to come here every day; I only update once or twice a week.

Do You Read An Obsession With Everything Else?

I used to say that I could count OWEE readers on one hand, but clearly I was wrong. Still, I’m not surprised to see so few OWEE readers: My rants about silly editing issues and my links to mechanical puzzle sites probably have a more limited audience.

Do You Ever Follow The Snacks Links On The Right?

One person pointed out that those who read the site via RSS don’t see the sidebar. I posted about the feature when I first implemented it, but I agree that most RSS readers have probably forgotten about it. (Of course, Snacks has its own feed, but the links that make it in are even more eclectic than the ones that show up on OWEE.

What Do You Like About OWF?
Fifty-five of you left comments here, and I was happy to see that you all like the facets I’m proudest of: the writing style (thanks!), the strong opinions, the deep knowledge, the “from scratch” mentality, the focus on techniques, and of course Melissa’s photos. I appreciated all the kind words you left.

What Don’t You Like About OWF?
(I rolled the next question — Other Comments? — into this one.) Forty-three of you offered suggestions for things I could improve. Many of you wrote something along the lines of “Do you ever cook anymore? Maybe you should write about that.” Here’s one typical comment in that vein:

… lately you've veered much more in the direction of writing more about food politics, the food blog community, etc. and have had less frequent posts about actual cooking, which were what drew me to the blog originally. It seems like the blog is less focused on actual food lately and more focused on talking about food, if that makes sense. I'd love to see more technique-focused posts, like the ones you've done in the past on rendering lard and making gravlax, for example.
I may have corrected this a bit since then, but once we’re settled in the house, you’ll find lots more cooking posts. I promise. A number of you gloss over the wine posts — “I tend to read the food posts more closely than the wine posts... but that's my habit in all my reading,” says one commenter — and the book reviews — “Honestly, your book reviews are usually pretty boring and I'm almost never interested in buying the books,” writes another. Others mentioned some design issues, which I hope to focus on soon. And, of course, many of you mentioned my low-frequency posting schedule, which I’m sure has only gotten worse as I’ve done more writing for other venues.

I’m constantly trying to improve my wine descriptions, and at least one person commented that my wine tasting notes read more or less like Wine Spectator’s: in other words, yawn-inducing. So I’ll keep experimenting to find a nice balance. My book reviews are another experiment in form, so I hope that you’ll bear with me on those.

How Did You Find OWF?
As I quickly realized, this wasn’t a very fair question. Could I tell you how I found most of the sites in my blogroll? No. And most of you couldn’t really remember either, though “from another blog” was a popular guess. I guess this makes sense: Search engine referrals usually make up a pretty small piece of my traffic, and my mentions in the mainstream press usually give me spikes that disappear after a day.

How Long Have You Been Reading OWF?

With five years of blogging under my belt, I wanted to know how many of you have been here since the beginning. More than I would have guessed, though maybe you’re more likely to have taken this poll. My readership went through a period of linear growth (albeit with a low slope) and now it stair-steps: I go up by 100 readers or so every few months. I don’t check my stats all that often these days, but that’s my sense of what happened.

Name Five Other Food Sites You Read
I asked this question for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to hear about interesting sites from you all. Second, I wanted to know if there was some correlation between OWF’s readership and the readership of other blogs. Some of the results suggest surprising overlaps, but I think my graph may just prove that people who read food blogs tend to read the popular ones. Here are all the sites that 5 or more of you mentioned (sub-blogs within the New York Times or Chronicle went into those totals):

Do You Have A Blog?

A big thanks to everyone who participated; it really helped me understand what you like and don’t like in your food blog reading habits. If you missed this survey, stick around until 2012, when I post one for my 10-year anniversary.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Keep Or Don't Keep: Magazines Worth Moving

So here it is: The final countdown (cue the Europe song). In two weeks, we will have no claim to our apartment; we will want nothing to do with our apartment. Ever again.

Today, I culled magazines from my shelves in an attempt to reduce the amount of clutter we’re moving. Looking back through my archives of various publications, I had to decide which would end up in the new house and which would end up in the recycling bin.

I’ve tried to be harsh, but some magazines make for good research material — I didn’t save any because of recipes. Which food magazines made the cut? (I assume most of you do not care that I discarded Opera News and kept Cubism For Fun).


  • The Art of Eating — You’re shocked, I know. The magazine that informs my writing and my eating philosophy has encyclopedic articles that are usually the best in the business for the given topic. That’s why it’s the best food magazine in the country. My subscription dates back to issue 53, though I have some earlier issues that Ed sent me when I needed them for research.
  • Saveur — This magazine has the most in-depth food articles of the mainstream glossies. My subscription dates back to issue 13 or so, and I do find myself referring back to older issues on occasion.
  • Gastronomica — Though the poems and paintings rarely move me, this scholarly journal has articles that get researchers like me off to a good start. They’re not as comprehensive as AoE’s, as a rule, but they’re more eclectic. I started my subscription with issue 1, and I believe it has never lapsed.
  • Carafe — I learned of Todd Wernstrom’s terroir-focused newsletter from AoE. When I started writing for his magazine The Wine News, we corresponded often, and I expressed my sorrow when he closed up shop. He sent me one of each issue, so I have the whole library.
  • The Wine News — Speaking of The Wine News, my small collection survived the cut. The magazine has the most in-depth articles of the wine glossies, and I could see myself referring to them in the future. My subscription started when I started writing for them.

Don’t Keep

  • Wine Spectator — There was a time — when I was a wine newbie — when I read these religously. Even after I stopped, I kept up my subscription because I wanted to see what the 800-pound gorilla of wine writing was saying. Except that the news pieces lagged behind the blogosphere by a few months, and the feature pieces seemed to repeat each year.
  • Food & Wine — At best, I glanced at these a few times.
  • Bon Appétit — Forget wondering about moving them; I wondered why I still had them. Bon Appétit served me well when I was first learning to make gourmet food, but is there any content there besides ads anymore?
  • Cook’s Illustrated — I have a website account; I have several years’ worth of the annual hardbound collections. I don’t need the magazines; at any rate, the quality of the magazine has fallen off in recent years. I let my subscription lapse in 2005, but I had given up on it by early 2004.
  • Slow — The publication of the Slow Food movement has interesting articles, but they’re not quite research-library-worthy.

Which of your magazines would survive a major cleaning?


Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Art Of Simple Food

Cover Of The Art Of Simple FoodIn Mouth Wide Open, John Thorne admits that he often reviews cookbooks without testing the recipes. Heresy, he says. So many cookbooks don’t have reliable recipes; shouldn’t you check a few before suggesting the book?

Probably. But taking a page from Thorne, I find myself willing to recommend Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food despite the fact that I have yet to explicitly make one recipe in it. I’ve come closest with the winter version of minestrone soup and the grapefruit-avocado salad — less a recipe than a shopping list to begin with — but in each of those cases I put my own spin on the dishes.

But the book keeps resurfacing in my weekly meal planning sessions. I flip through it and think, “Hm. Soufflés. That sounds good.” I scribble soufflé on my list and assemble one on the right night. Or a bean dish catches my eye, or a meat dish, and I make that, more or less. I know how to make soufflés, soups, salads, and the other dishes she includes: The book just reminds me that those dishes are out there, waiting to be made. Often, they use ingredients that pique my interest, though few will surprise devotees of California cuisine: goat cheese, chard, salt-packed anchovies, Meyer lemons, fennel, and arugula (Waters prefers the term rocket).

If you don’t have a casual knowledge of these dishes, you’ll quickly gain it. Waters has aimed the book at the unconfident cook, laying out recipes à la The Joy of Cooking: List an ingredient or three, add a paragraph about what you’re supposed to do with them, list the next ingredients and their steps. She also includes solid explanations of cooking equipment and ingredients. Use this book enough, and you’ll find yourself with a good grounding in cooking basics.

You’ll also have no doubt about Waters’ position on sustainable, organic, local, and ethical foods. She trumpets them at every possible moment in a focused beam of Watersness that can become oppressive as it repeats, page after page. I say this despite sharing her stance. Will the average reader tire of it even more quickly?

Perhaps. But they won’t tire of the straightforward, delicious dishes that appear on the dining room table, reminders that sometimes simple food is just fine.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Celebrating Tom's Life

I haven’t had the motivation to post something new, and it’s been hard to figure out what I should post next. It’s hard to go from the last one to something breezy about house wines or meal planning or whatever. But Saturday was a transition of sorts.

Tom’s service was Saturday, and 200-300 people showed up to remember him. Some got up to talk about what he had meant to us: Not just friends and relatives but co-workers he had touched in small but meaningful ways. Melissa and I learned things about our friend we had never known: He was an Eagle Scout, he was Apple’s best bug screener, he used to walk in his sleep. People told funny stories, people told sad stories, people told bittersweet stories.

A couple of days before the service, his old kitchen crew sent a flurry of emails to each other and decided to cook for the 40 or so people who attended a small post-service gathering at Tom’s girlfriend’s house. It seemed like the right thing to do. We made some of the “best of” dishes from summer and winter parties. William, Tom’s main sous chef — his second-in-command — printed out menus and prep lists, just as Tom had always done. We assembled in an unfamiliar kitchen (though a well-equipped one: Anne matched Tom’s food passion), donned our chef whites, and once again moved as a team, hollering out warnings, questions, and answers. One person would finish a task and dive to someone else’s aid. Oil sizzled, knives chopped, and we cooks dodged and swerved around each other. For a moment, at times, one could pretend that this was just a normal party. Then the reality would come crushing back: There was one fewer person in the kitchen. People came up and thanked us for our efforts, but really, what else could we do?

Traditionally, just before guests arrived at the party, the kitchen crew would have a Champagne toast with each other, a way of taking a deep breath and enjoying the moment of quiet after the prep and before service. William broke the tradition that day; we shared the Champagne toast with the entire group and toasted Tom. People talked, remembered, and ate. I think it’s what Tom would have wanted us to do. And William voiced what the whole kitchen crew was thinking: “We should do this again.”

See more photos on meriko’s Flickr stream.

Menu for “a poubelle tribute”
tomato and bocconcini salad
broiled shrimp with blood-orange beurre blanc
buffalo monkfish and maytag blue cheese celery root salad
warm lentil salad
chocolate rosemary fraternals - puff style


Monday, February 04, 2008

The Cook I Always Wanted To Be

Picture of me and Tom
Photo by Melissa Schneider
A lot of people have influenced my cooking: from close-to-home guides such as my parents to distant idols such as Alice Waters and Judy Rodgers. But one person transformed my cooking more than anyone else: my friend Tom Dowdy, whom many of you know as the writer behind Butter Pig. He introduced me to The Art of Eating. He told me about On Food And Cooking when it was still a cult book. He inspired me to try daunting dishes at home and host extensive dinner parties. He taught me to lean on techniques rather than recipes. He even taught me those techniques.

Despite his culinary wisdom, he was only five years older than I when he passed away the other night.

Tom looking sassy
Photo by Melissa Schneider
Memories of him and his food have consumed my mind since then. I remember his quick-paced pop culture references, flying faster than I could catch. I remember talking puzzles and programming with him; we had more than cooking in common. I remember the pièce montée he made one year, a towering pyramid of cream puffs and spun sugar. I remember the deep-fried chocolate truffles, liquid chocolate in a hard crust. I remember terrines of foie gras, a pink, truffle-studded slab he taught me to make. I remember wild mushroom cassoulet, an original recipe of his that even cassoulet purists would love. I remember his sauce Foyot, a rich hollandaise mixed with glace de viande that had my wife ready to leave me for him. I remember a puzzle cake he made in my honor.

But what I really remember is his unfaltering generosity. He and his then-girlfriend Carol gave us not just a smoker but a smoker brimming with supplies and accessories. He treated us to dinner and half the wine at Santa Monica’s stunning Capo restaurant so that I would choose a wine priced above my normal comfort level. He answered random cooking questions whenever I had them, despite being a busy engineer at Apple.

One of Tom's Menus
Photo by Melissa Schneider
And then there were his parties, his ultimate displays of generosity. His annual winter party made our 6-course dinner parties look like amateur hour. Imagine hosting 40 or more people for an 18-course gourmet meal where everything — everything — is made from scratch. He auditioned dishes and ideas for a year in advance. He prepped ingredients in the month leading up to it. He stayed home the day before to get everything done. He even had a kitchen staff, drawn from his foodie friends, who helped on the day, turning vegetables, making sauces, prepping ingredients, and cooking dishes. One of my proudest moments as a cook was when he asked me to join the kitchen crew. I called it the Tom Dowdy Cooking School, because, as accomplished as all of us are behind the stove, we always learned something when we worked at his parties.

Last night I made meatballs, and I thought of when I first learned to make patés: both the mousse kind and the ground-meat kind. Even then, he told me that my instinctual salt proportion wouldn’t be enough, and even yesterday my meatballs needed more salt than I originally added. Whenever I make a detailed list with dinner party prep steps, I think of his multi-page lists, the direct ancestors of mine. When I smoke a chunk of meat, I remember his comment that the less I check it, the better it will be.

That voice, at least, will always be with me, even if my friend and mentor isn’t. I can’t count all the things that I learned from him. I am the cook I am today because of him.

Tom at summer party
Photo by Melissa Schneider

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