Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Problem With Cabernet Sauvignon

If you were to gauge our wine tastes by our wine rack, you might think we have an inordinate fondness for Cabernet Sauvignon. When I went downstairs to get a bottle last night, a cursory glance took in a Ceja Cab, a Mondavi, a Silverado, and a Judd’s Hill. And I can only get wines onto the top half of our big wine rack. And one of the shelves is half full of class wines. There were no Rieslings. There were no Sauvignon Blancs. There were no Southern Rhônes. There were no Piemontese wines. And yet these wines are among my favorites.

Why don’t I have any on my rack? Because we drink them all. (We do have a bunch in off-site storage.) But Cabernets sit for a few years before they get pulled out. My abundance of Cabernet doesn’t come from liking it: It comes from never drinking it.

The tannin-heavy, weighty grape has its place, but that place is next to heavy meats, and I just don’t have the budget for steak or rack of lamb every night. Even if I did, I like more variety in my food. To my mind, Cabernet Sauvignon does not.

On the other hand, this means that my Cabs end up sitting on the rack for a while, accruing a few of the years they need to mellow out and develop. Last night, when I made steak for dinner, we drank a 2003 Judd’s Hill Napa Cab, and its fine-grained tannins had settled down to allow the fruit — red raspberry jam and strawberries — to gush out. And there were the first hints of older Cabernet in our glasses: a thin rim of red that was more orange than purple, a whiff of tobacco and earth.

It will probably be a while before I drink another Cab, and so they will continue to pile up. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing, after all.


Sunday, October 19, 2008


We may be among the very last Bay Area foodies to eat at Manresa, David Kinch’s well-sung Los Gatos restaurant.

We’ve known about it for a long time: Food bloggers everywhere raved about it even before one of our own started dating the chef. But the last time we thought about going, we bought a new house with a repair list that made Santa Claus’ naughty-and-nice list look like a quick read. We had to wait another year, and our eagerness grew as we read each new glowing report.

We worried that we had heard too much hype. Could the restaurant live up to the gushing praise we had read? Yes, in fact, it could.

In our 15-dish tasting menu, virtually every dish was a little gem: Intense flavors, flawless technique, and elegant presentation. It’s the kind of meal that inspires me, a good cook by most accounts, to improve and stretch my abilities. It wasn’t just good: It was revelatory.

From the starting amuse of red pepper gelée with black olive madeleines (cleverly mirrored with a mignardise of strawberry gelée and chocolate madeleines) to the “Autumn Tidal Pool” (uni and foie gras in a rich broth) to the pork belly with soubise (an onion bechamel) to the banana crème with chocolate fondant and meringue kisses, we had little transcendent moments with each dish. A waiter would describe each course as it appeared at the table, and our anticipation rose to such a pitch that we stopped talking entirely when, after the amuses, a waiter arrived with a basket, which he boldly presented to our adoring eyes as “unsalted butter with sea salt and house made bread.”

One can opt for a wine pairing with the tasting menu, but we decided to pluck bottles from the restaurant’s extensive list. We started with a 2005 Stéphane Tissot Chardonnay from the Arbois, moved to a 2005 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc from Paso Robles, and finished with a 2004 Dönnhoff Schlossbockelheimer Kupfergrube Riesling Spätlese from the Nahe (as someone with a high regard for Terry Theise, though, I was sad to see that the wine buyer had opted for a grey market import of this bottle instead of Terry’s). A dinner of white wines might seem odd, but in fact only one course in the menu, the slow-roasted lamb, might have preferred a red wine.

We walked back to our hotel that night, warmed by the company of friends — meriko joined us; I had two dates for the evening — and the memory of the meal we had just eaten. Every so often on that walk home and at breakfast the next morning, one of us would speak the name of a dish from the menu, and we would all take a moment to remember and sigh.

So let us add our voices to the chorus: If by any chance you haven’t already eaten at Manresa, make your reservation as soon as you can.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pork Scratchings, A Version Of

What do you do with leftover pig skin?

I recently decided to make my own lardo, salt-cured fatback, using a large piece of pig that my friend Bonnie got for me. Misremembering the details of lardo, I asked for a piece of fat with the skin on.

Bad idea. You want only the fat for lardo, and so I spent hours cutting the creamy white fat away from the pink, leathery skin: I understand now why they used to make footballs from this stuff. With the fat tucked away under weights in the refrigerator, I turned my attention to the square foot or so of skin I had left.

By chance, I had been flipping through Fergus Henderson’s Beyond Nose to Tail. (Also by chance, shuna had been, too.) If you have not yet discovered Henderson, run to the nearest independent bookstore to fix this gap. It’s not just that he writes recipes for offal, the “off cuts” of an animal: He writes those recipes in a warm, humorous, thoughtful voice that is as charming as it is knowledgeable. Of the snails you need for a nettle and snail soup, he writes, “24 fresh English snails, picked by your fair hands (you will need to put them in a bucket and let them poo all their poo out for a few days before cooking …); or there is Tony the Snail Man, who breeds snails.”

One of the first recipes in Beyond Nose to Tail is “Pork Scratchings, A Version Of,” which Henderson describes as “A most steadying nibble.” I describe it as pig skin confit. Pluck stray hairs from the skin; salt it; let it sit for five days; soak overnight in cold water; cook, covered, in duck fat for 2½ hours; and store in duck fat until you need it.

No one considers me shy about serving odd food to guests, but even I might hesitate before serving pig skin confit on toast to most diners. Fortunately, David Lebovitz was in town, and a few food bloggers gathered in San Francisco to pay homage to the master of chocolate and ice cream.

Most food bloggers will put anything edible into their mouths. And sure enough, the guests reached out without hesitation for my crostini, which held reheated, crisped, and chopped pig skin — a gummy, gluey texture — along with an apple-onion marmalade. I watched tentatively as the bloggers’ teeth sank in: I was prepared for disaster. Instead, I heard mmmms and saw eyes rolling back. The pig skin confit was a hit.

I still had some left a week later when I decided to make a variant of the classic French salad of frisée, lardons, and poached egg. Instead of lardons, I reheated the pig skin and chopped it into bits. Instead of frisée, I used Little Gems lettuce tossed in a bacon grease/red wine vinegar vinaigrette. The pig skin bits ranged in texture from teeth-shattering crunchy to teeth-gluing chewy. But they were still delicious. My one regret was that the chunks, even when chopped, glommed together: I wanted them to spread through the salad more.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Peanut Butter Truffles

I have been on a peanut-butter-and-chocolate kick.

Sitting near our office vending machine hasn’t helped. It is always stocked with at least one Reese’s product: Sticks, Cups, or — for one heavenly week — Pieces. I know these are crap foods, except for Reese’s Pieces, which are wonderful, but they’re close and cheap when I need a snack at work.

But as I chewed my way through these unsatisfying bites, I remembered a peanut-butter-and-chocolate recipe in my cookbook collection: the Peanut Butter Truffles in the back of The French Laundry Cookbook.

As French Laundry recipes go, this one is fairly easy: Make a ganache by puréeing peanut butter, butter, sugar, and melted chocolate; chill; coat in melted chocolate; chill; dust in cocoa powder. It’s also astonishingly delicious. I brought them into work for a “pollinated pairing, ” our team’s occasional Friday celebration of food and drink, and my coworkers slurped them down. Our community manager asked, with hand poised over the plate, if she could take some home and then asked, on Monday, if any were left in the refrigerator. Our group’s designer left early, but I slipped her a truffle before she headed out: She said on the Monday after that it didn’t even make it to the car.

So consider us fans.

I’m not, however, a fan of the truffle dipping fork. I decided to give one of these delicate little forks a try, and I am far from a natural with it. I put the ganache ball into the room temperature chocolate, and then plucked it out with the fork. But the chocolate formed an uneven coat, and if I missed or the fork turned while buried in the chocolate, I ended up plunging the fork into the ganache and turning it into a malformed mess. Only at the end, when I switched to using my fingers, did I get the coating I wanted. I’ve made lots of truffles, but the dipping fork added nothing to the process except frustration.