Thursday, April 29, 2004

Sonoma

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Those of you outside the Bay Area may imagine that we toodle up to wine country on a whim, seeking out new boutique wineries. Those of you here know the reality; life gets in the way, there's never enough time, and who wants to go out in all that traffic anyway? Plus, I'm not even a fan of Napa wine!

But Melissa and I wanted to celebrate our one-year anniversary (can you believe it!) by going away for the weekend. We thought about a number of places, but Sonoma became the instant winner when we realized that Baguette Quartette, who played at our wedding, would be playing in Sonoma 365 days later on our anniversary.

Here's the thing, though. We thought of it as a road trip, but Sonoma just isn't that far away. It took us an hour on a week-end. An hour! My evening commute can be that long. We kept commenting that maybe we should plan more day trips up there, so that we can become the stereotypical Bay Areans that the rest of the country rolls their eyes about ('cause, you know, we're not already. Really.)

We arrived in Sonoma a little too early to check into our hotel, so we went, wait for it, wine-tasting! No shock, I know. But, hey, with two wine articles on deck at different magazines, it's practically my job.

Looking on a map, it's easy to see that Sonoma and Napa are practically on top of each other. But one dares not ever say "How different are they, really?" In Napa, Sonoma is where the hicks live, and they don't know how to make wine. In Sonoma, Napa has become a sprawling mess, overrun by the unwashed masses who have been tricked into liking the monotonous wines produced there. Needless to say, neither view is exactly right.

We have a friend who spends his weekends pouring at Ravenswood, but he was away that weekend, so he recommended some places for us to go (not Ravenswood, which is a zoo on the weekends). Our first stop was Arrowood (I hate places that drop letters in confusing ways). They had three tastings, a "classic", a "limited", and a "merlot flight". Melissa went for the classic, I went for the limited. Over the last couple years, I have become very used to spitting out wine that I'm tasting. Aside from the whole getting drunk thing, some argue that the alcohol will begin to dull your senses, making you taste less effectively. But boy, what a way to stick out in a California tasting room (I once had a tasting room employee figure out I was a wine writer simply because I was spitting and making tasting notes). Most people at least poured out all but the first swallow, but still. No wonder people like all these wines.

Yes, yes, yes. Off the soapbox and onto the wines. I'm not exactly sold on the Sonoma wine scene, even after spending the weekend there, but at Arrowood we had some good wines. Melissa and I traded glasses after each of us had tasted. My favorites (even then only plusses in my notebook, not stars) were the 2001 Cote de Lune Blanc and the newly-released 2002 Viognier. Of the first, I said "grassy, apple, floral soap, nice acidity, long acid finish but flavor doesn't linger". Of the second, "classic smell of peaches, with some Riesling-esque aromas and peppery spice notes that are more dominant on the palate. A modest acidity". We did notice that the "classic" wines Melissa had ordered were more one-dimensional than the "limited" wines I had ordered. All of our favorites were from the "limited" list.

Next we went to Imagery, conveniently located on the same property. Melissa found a wine she liked there, a Pinot Noir rosé. I found the wines definitely not very interesting but we got a couple bottles of our favorites (we have a large wine rack which has long since overflown into boxes on the floor and a small apartment; we do not buy in bulk much at the moment).

For dinner, we went to Sonoma Saveurs which got put on the map when animal activists trashed the place before it opened last year. Why target this business? Because Sonoma Saveurs specializes in foie gras products and by-products. That means the duck breast is actually a magret, the breast of a duck raised for foie gras. One of the owners of Sonoma Saveurs is Guillermo Gonzalez, the owner of Sonoma Foie Gras. So I have a sentimental attachment to the restaurant, since I'm well along in an article about foie gras ethics which I'm writing. As it happens, Guillermo was having dinner there that night, so I got a chance to finally meet him after speaking with him on the phone a number of times.

The food at Sonoma Saveurs is delicious. I've eaten lunch there once before, where I had the charcuterie platter which included a foie gras mousse. This time, Melissa and I split a butter lettuce salad and we each got a duck burger, made with magret and foie gras ground together. Sonoma Saveurs' menu has a handy wine and food pairing guide so that you can pick an appropriate style of wine to go with a given dish. It's a great system: color-coded squares steer you towards something with an appropriate amount of weight to go with the food (because ideally the restaurant staff has a better idea than you) but still leaving you a number of choices.

The wines themselves are part of the Sonoma-centric focus of the restaurant; all the wines are from the surrounding area. In fact, the ducks, who are raised near Stockton, probably had to go further than any of the wines on the menu. The wine list is modest but well-focused on the cuisine, and of course stays consistent with the restaurant's goal of being intertwined with its local community (one might argue that this is more necessary than normal when you are the center of quite a bit of controversy).

Because we were having wine by the glass, our choices were more limited. We each went for the Deerfield Sauvignon Blanc to go with the salad, and a Curotti Zinfandel to go with the duck burger. I don't know why I continue to order California Sauvignon Blancs. Even the best of them are middling approximations of the great Sauvignon Blancs of the world. And most are just flaccid and boring. This was the latter. Sauvignon Blanc should have an acidity that makes your eyes light up and your spine tingle. It should not melt away like a whisper on the wind. And the Curotti was, not bad, but very unexpected, and not a good match with the duck burger. It smelled of boysenberry jam and even tasted sweet on the palate. Under different circumstances I would have enjoyed it quite a bit, but not with that food. Perhaps if it were served with a sweeter main course. Despite this, their general wine recommendations are spot on as far as I'm concerned; we just picked unsatisfying examples of the guides our colored squares offered.

So then we were off to the concert. The band is wonderful, specializing in Parisian café music of the '30s and earlier. I kept a close eye on Melissa when they played at our wedding; I was worried she might leave me at the altar (or the fireplace, in our case) for Odile Lavault, the charismatic lead singer of the band. They got the crowd involved and happy.

The next day, we toodled about Sonoma (see, we're toodling now, just like those stereotypical Bay Areans at the top of this post). We wandered into the stores (lots of wine stores on the town square) and meandered about until we left and came home.

But we came home to dinner at Citron, one of Oakland's best restaurants. So hold on a bit for that post.

Maybe it is time we start making more trips into our wine country. There's Mendocino, and the Alexander and Anderson Valleys, and the Russian River... hmm, when are we free again?

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Cooking Out of the Box

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Many of you have probably figured out, from the occasional comment of mine, that Melissa and I have started getting a produce box from a (somewhat) local farm. These programs have become popular in the increasingly urban and food-devoted Bay Area, and fall under the general name of "Community Supported Agriculture" (usually just CSA).

The general idea is that at some regular interval, a box of produce is shipped to you directly or to a nearby drop-off point. I'm pretty sure all of them feature organic produce, and the intent is that the farm that grew the produce gets more money than they would otherwise, ideally allowing even small farms to stand their ground against the onslaught of agribusiness. The food has a high degree of traceability, an import concept among Slow Food members, and of course we get a personal connection to the people who produced our food.

There are a number of these programs, and Melissa and I did a bit of shopping around before we settled on one. Organic Express (usually just called The Box) and Planet Organics are two large ones that are popular with a number of our friends. But both of those pull from a large number of farms, and while it's still supporting small farms, I wanted to support a particular farm, or at least a small number. When it came to a choice between Capay and Eatwell, the latter won out. They were a lower price, and just seemed homier. Plus, they send their box to a drop-off point rather than delivering it, which is actually better for apartment dwellers.

Usually when people get these boxes, they complain of two things: not knowing what to do with what they've got, and not being able to use it all. The first isn't a problem for us; I have enough veggie cookbooks and creative ideas and just general experience that I can usually think of plenty to do with our produce. Our problem is using it all up. It's not that there's such an abundance of produce, but our busy schedules keep us from using it effectively. I always want to maximize the yield of this still pricey produce, and some shipments I do better than others. This week's shipment is particularly grim, as Melissa and I are out of town this week-end. We just need to be better about saying, "okay, we're getting a shipment this week (we get them every other week), so I'll come home early on Wednesday and we'll conserve some of it, and figure out what we're going to do with it the rest of the week". For instance, I imagine chard can be pickled, right? It's at least worth experimenting with, since we are currently getting chard in every shipment.

Which brings me to my next point; there's something very interesting about the seasonal cooking this kind of shipment enforces. You can see why things with long seasons pose a particular challenge to the chef who likes to be creative; let's say you got a big stack of chard every other week. What would you do with it? You can think of a few things, I'm sure. But what about when it's the sixth time in a row and you've still got a big stack? Hence one begins to think of things like pickling the leaves.

But the converse of that is things with such minute growing seasons that you want to gobble as many as possible before the season ends. We got sugar snap peas in one shipment, and then a tiny amount in a subsequent shipment. Does that mean the season is over? But wait! We want more! Melissa and I may not use everything in every shipment, but we appreciate what we get.

In general, we're pretty happy with the box itself. It's nice to know that some family farm is staying afloat in part because of us, and that they are given the ability to provide outstanding organic and flavorful produce. We just need to center our lives around dealing with it a bit more. And making food even more of a focus in our life is bound to be a good thing.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Let Us Eat Cake

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For the third "Is My Blog Burning", Renee suggested the theme of cake.

I envisioned something I was calling a "buche de printemps", a variant of the classic French dessert, the buche de Noel. I made a verjus curd, a white sheet cake, and a white chocolate buttercream frosting. The plan was to spread the curd over the sheet cake, roll it up, trim the ends to create "branch stumps", and then frost the whole thing.

Note the past tense in that last paragraph. It didn't work out that way. I rolled up the sheet cake, and created a whole bunch of long strips separated from each other. Sigh. I was annoyed and disappointed, but hey. Verjus curd, white sheet cake (even in pieces) and white chocolate buttercream. How big of a disaster could this be?

So my contribution to Is My Blog Burning is...a terrine de gateau! I put the best-looking cake pieces on the bottom of a buttered loaf pan, then smeared some verjus curd over them. More cake pieces, more curd, and a final layer of cake pieces. I doused the cake with Frangelico, and weighted the terrine down.

The next day, I took the cake from its pan and frosted it. Now here comes the big confession. Much as I love frou-frou presentation, I've never really practiced decorating cakes. In this case, however, my bare-bones effort worked nicely. Because with my "terrine" the frosting in cross-section looks like the layer of fat you'd normally find around a pâté. Flavor-wise, everything worked fairly nicely. None of the flavors really dominated but rather blended together harmoniously, though at one point Melissa gave a whoop as she hit a particularly booze-soaked piece of cake.

If I were doing this for a dinner party or something (and I might someday; I like the joke), I'd complete the joke by making little marzipan cornichons and olives, but this time I was unable to.

A fun event, overall. I don't normally make cakes, so this was a nice departure from the routine.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Journal of a Wine Writer

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Slate is running an article about a wine professional spending a week in Bordeaux. It's well written and gives a good image of what this life might be like.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Only in the Bay Area

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I imagine most people around the country will roll their eyes at this quintessentially Bay Area thing, and most people in the area will roll their eyes that this happened in Woodside, one of the more affluent Bay Area communities. So for all you eye-rollers, here's a story in the SF Chronicle about a cheese club at a local school. I'll admit I had an unusual high school experience, but you've got to envy these kids getting such an early education in appreciating cheese.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Pâté Training

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In the November 1999 issue of Saveur, there was an article on pâtés and terrines. The article stuck with me, because despite the author's attempts to convince you that pâté is a rustic dish, an off note worked its way into the piece. It had amplified a bit in my mind, but one can't ignore this penultimate paragraph:
The idea that any old chef can knock out a decent pâté or terrine maison, however, could not be further from the truth. To fashion the real thing requires traditional culinary thinking, a true understanding of the properties of seasoning, lots of laborious chopping, and a keen desire to (eventually) taste the first slice... (Saveur, November 1999, pg. 136).
Rather than encouraging the reader and would-be pâté maker, the article instead has the author reminisce about his own pâté experiences and then finish his piece with a discouraging note to anyone who might think to attempt this seemingly death-defying feat. Not just anyone can make a decent pâté? Maybe he has really high standards.

Well, I guess I'm not just any old chef, because my very first pâté came out pretty well. Or maybe it's not my first pâté. I don't know. I've made a terrine of foie gras, and I've made a chicken-liver mousse pâté. But somehow this feels like my first one. It's certainly my first one in this particular style.

Despite our feature writer's claims, pâté is very easy to make. American meatloaf is a simpler descendant. I started with Julia Child's basic recipe, just to get a feel for things. The gist is this: grind together some lean meat (I used equal parts pork and veal) with some fatback. The proportions are as for sausage: 1 part fatback to 3 parts meat. Fatback, you will not be surprised to learn, is the fat from the back of the pig (it may be a general term that applies to other beasts, but I have only seen it referencing pig fat). Add some egg and seasoning and booze (it is Julia, after all). Sauté a small chunk and correct seasonings. Line a mold with yet more fatback, add some pâté. If you want to be moderately fancy, add some strips of ham and layer it with the pâté. Cover with a final strip of fatback, and then with foil, and then cook for about an hour at 350 in a bain-mairie, until the pâté begins to pull away from the side, and the fat is clear and yellow. Lay a piece of wood (cut to fit the mold) on top of the foil, and place some weights on the board. This compacts the terrine, getting rid of air which gives little bacteria a place from which to spoil the insides. Cool to room temp, and then overnight in the refrigerator. Unmold and slice.

Mine came out well-seasoned and quite flavorful, but I think more interior goodies would be key. Peppercorns and pistachios are common, but I, fennel addict that I am, eye my fennel seeds (sort of the Italian sausage variant). I think next time I'll use thinner slices of fatback; you want a nice white layer, but not something that looks like it's more fat than meat. I was also annoyed that my pretty ham strips didn't contrast as much with the ground meat. Still, it caught the attention of my co-workers, who were very curious about it. They know how much I love pâté and that I've been thinking of making some of my own.

There are other avenues to explore. Richard Olney suggests using a knife to cut the meat into very small chunks, rather than a grinder, and this might be good, giving a coarser texture. It's also a great way to use up various offal bits (livers often find their way in). And of course there's a universe of spices and herbs to use. Not to mention cooking one en croute, or in a pastry crust. I'm a bit confused by Julia's assertion that it's fairly pricey; I think my entire terrine clocked in at $10 or so for the ingredients. Probably not even that much. And it's going to provide a base for lunch for Melissa and me for most of the week. I think once I get the hang of it, and plan my shopping a bit better, I don't even think it will take that much time to make pâtés in the future.

Let me, at least, end on an encouraging note. Pâté is very easy, and provides a great canvas on which to experiment. And imagine how chi-chi you'd feel, with your lunch of pâté and cheese and little cornichons. Now if only my work allowed us to drink wine in the lunch room.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Butter Me Up

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What do you get when you cross a crab carcass and two sticks of butter? No, it's not the start of a bad (probably really bad) joke: I finally had a quiet(ish) day to make crab butter from our leftover crab shell, which has been biding its time in the freezer.

This is an amusing exercise, because it involves, as Tom once phrased it, an unorthodox use of one's Kitchen-Aid. Julia Child prefers the blender, but Tom argues for the heavy-duty capabilities of the foodie's favorite mixer. Since crab butter is essentially crab shells pulverized into butter, you want as much power behind the pulverization as possible. Though he does recommend putting a dish towel over the bowl and mixer, which prevents crab bits from flying about but makes your mixer look like a fertility goddess eating ortolans.

The basic preparation is simple if time-consuming. I softened 2 sticks of butter for our big Dungeness carcass. Pulverize the two items in the Kitchen-Aid (with aforementioned towel) for about twenty minutes. I treated it like microwave popcorn: when it had been a while between successive cracks as the paddle attachment broke through another bit of crab shell, I figured it was ready to go. Put the shell/butter mix in a good sturdy pan and put it in the oven for roughly an hour at low heat (250 or so).

Cover with a lot of water, bring to a simmer, strain. Now you have a mix of water and butter. Refrigerate so all the butter rises to the top. The butter is by this time very orange, and smells not subtly of crab; I couldn't even look at it without suddenly having crab smell all over me.

Separate the butter, melt it, and cool it again. Then put in the freezer for some future use. And what do you use it for? Julia suggests using it as a sandwich spread, or for finishing shellfish sauces. At any rate, it takes up a lot less space than the carcass did; I chopped it into four equal bits so I can just pull out what I need.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Mastering Wine

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The New York Times has an article (free registration required) about people studying for the Master of Wine exam. I occasionally harbor fantasies of going for this, and the article doesn't dissuade me, just gives me an idea of what I'm up against. But one of my wine teachers failed her M.W. exam three times, so now has to wait three years (probably only one or two by now) before she can take it again. And she sits on prestigious judging panels and the like. No slouch.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

All By Myself

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I don't often cook for myself. One obvious reason for this is I don't live by myself. But it's also the case that I rarely cook on weeknights; lunch is usually sufficient for my appetite.

But the other night Melissa was at a lecture, and I was home early (because I had been at work for 25 hours and left when most people were just getting in), and I felt like cooking something.

Since I hadn't planned to cook anything, I decided to just rummage through the refrigerator and figure something out. I had all sorts of grand plans, a soufflé perhaps. But fatigue kicked in and I went for what seemed like a quintessential bachelor dish--an omelette and a salad.

All in all, it came out surprisingly well, given my utter lack of thought on the subject. The omelette was a simple cheese omelette with Vella Dry Jack, one of the landmark artisanal California cheeses. The salad was a spinach salad with toasted pecans, dressed in a vinaigrette made from a bit of verjus, enough oil to make the vinaigrette emulsify (sure, it was about 3 times I guess), and two cloves of raw garlic. This was for less than a quarter-cup of vinaigrette, so the dressing had some kick.

It was an interesting exercise, even if I did come up with an unexciting but flavorful dish. I made the dish with minimal stress about how it looked, so while the omelette browned a little bit (a constant problem with my attempts, though suggestions from Tom and Carol helped this time), I took the time to appreciate its strengths and weaknesses without lamenting what could have been.

The other interesting aspect was the wine. I thought about opening some wine (though I don't know what I would have put up against the salad, even though verjus is more wine-friendly than vinegar), but opening a bottle of wine just for me felt like a little much. I mean, sure, we've got all the standard things for preserving an opened bottle of wine--Private Preserve and VacuVins. But it just felt silly. Maybe this is the advantage of having a "house wine" of some form. Something you open without thought or regret. I said to Melissa later that maybe we should invest in some half-bottles. She arched her eyebrows and asked, "So that we can drink alone more?" Okay, well, maybe not. But the meal wanted some wine to be complete; it illustrated remarkably well how much wine is as much a part of French cuisine as the food itself.

I suspect Melissa would be upset if I made a habit of cooking dinner only when she wasn't there, but it was fun this one time.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

The French Menu Cookbook

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I'm always surprised that Americans aren't more familiar with Richard Olney's works. And I include myself in that description. We are besotted with M.F.K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl, but we seem to have forgotten about the people in the middle chronologically. Or at least most people have. His writing is often praised by John Thorne, and he and Ed Behr were quite close. Alice Waters (and many of her protegés) list him as an inspiration. He was one of the first to capture Provence for Americans, long before Peter Mayle. But his books have wended their way to out-of-print status since they were published in 1970.

Fortunately, we have a chance to correct this lacuna. His books are being reissued in new editions. The first one I've read through is The French Menu Cookbook. This book was Olney's debut. It is nothing more nor less than its title suggests; a cookbook of French menus. After a straightforward introduction (which conjures up a wonderful image of his kitchen in Provence), the pages are filled with menu after menu, with accompanying recipes and wine pairings (Olney was a big advocate of the more rural French wines and inspired Kermit Lynch).

These are classic menus, meant to educate Americans (Olney was an ex-pat) about what a French menu, and French food, looked like, inspired by a passion for this country's cuisine. Julia Child wanted to teach Americans how to cook French food, Olney wanted to teach them to love it.

The menus themselves range from "casual" to formal. But even his casual meals are multi-course affairs that few modern Americans, sadly, would contemplate.

Here's one example, plucked at random: "Two Informal Autumn Dinners - Menu 1"

  • Baked Trout Stuffed with Sorrel
    A young, fruity, dry white wine: Burgundy (Pouilly-Fuissé, Mercurey, Pinot Blanc) or Loire Valley (Sancerre, Poully-Fumé)
  • Sautéed Veal Kidneys with Mushrooms
    One of the Beaujolais (Chiroubles, Morgon, Fleurie, Brouilly) from the most recent vintage [Ed: that would be the classic Beaujolais, not the Georges DuBoeuf style], or a Loire Valley red wine (Chinon,Bourgueuil,Saumur-Champigny) a couple of years old, any of these served slightly cool [Ed: it is often said that Americans drink their red wines too warm, and this is definitely true of Beaujolais, which is supposed to be drunk slightly cool.]
  • Rice Pilaf
  • Lamb's Lettuce and Beet Salad
  • Cheeses
    The same wine as the preceding, or, a Cote de Beaune (Volnay,Pommard,Chassgne Montrachet)
  • Charlotte with Crepes, Sabayon Sauce
    A Sauternes or a sweet Vouvray
Several things jump out at me about this menu. First is how quintessentially French it is, and yet simultaneously how modern restaurants have moved away from this very classic model. Though you might see this meal structured this way at good French-style bistro in the U.S., you wouldn't see one like it in other kinds of restaurants. I find it interesting that Americans (in particular) have started with this classic model, and then gone their own way with it. While some comment that our contribution to world cuisine is fast food, it often seems to be true that Americans are good at taking established norms and re-shaping them (either from a desire to break out of the mold or a misunderstanding of the norms in the first place).

The other thing that caught my eye was the French wines. I mean, of course. This was written in 1970, and Olney was a big proponent of French wines, and --hello!-- it's a French menu cookbook. Yet the modern wine universe affords us so much great wine from so many regions, and people have become so much better informed about wine in general, that I wonder what Olney would suggest for this menu if he were alive today. I don't know how many of his suggestions I would follow if I were doing the dinner.

There are no pictures in the main body of the book. It's not meant as eye candy but as something in which the reader's imagination can frolic. I read through these menus, and I think "how would this taste", "who could I have over for this?", "when can I schedule that". The text connects you viscerally to the food itself simply by letting you do the imagining. In some ways, it's more powerful than if glamorous pictures were shown; a book of food porn would have looked daunting, while the recipes and names of the dishes here convince one that it would be straightforward to make, even for a relative novice. Olney is not about frou-frou food (though he has some complicated menus), he's about connecting people to the food they're eating and to each other.

Maybe we should start a Sunday lunch tradition...

Syndication

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Another administrative note. I promise to get back to food writing soon. Like in the next day or two.

Anyway, I've set up a syndication feed for this site. Point your favorite aggregrator software to http:/www.obsessionwithfood.com/site-feed.rss.

Don't know what syndication is, at least in this context? Basically it means that I publish posts in a well-known format. People around the universe run pieces of software called aggregators, which poll that person's favorite streams, and let them know when new content has appeared. RSS (the format I use) is extremely lame, but this is from someone who spent 3 years working with ICE, a high-end syndication protocol. I might be biased. At any rate, it's easy to implement, since Blogger does the work for me.