Thursday, September 30, 2004

Derrick is sure to comment on the subject

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Tom mentioned that I would probably comment on the California government's decision to ban foie gras, and he's right. If you haven't heard, in February Senator Burton introduced a bill that bans the production and sale of any food that comes from a force-fed bird. That's foie gras, magret, confited legs, and a bunch of other items. It was recently signed by the governor, though the text is now somewhat different: the ban doesn't start until July of 2012. There is a single foie gras producer in California and only two others in the country.

This is an issue I've watched closely. This blog entry is literally a break from my final edits on a piece about foie gras. It will soon be at the printer's. I was well through my first draft when the bill got introduced, which obviously forced a delay.

I'm opposed in principle to a bill that bans food for any reason other than near-extinction of the animal in question. I noted several flaws in the legislature's analysis of the bill. The main one is that they used the report from a task force set up by the EU in 1998. I've spent a lot of time with that document, and though it looks objective, it's not. If you read the original papers they cite, they are less negative than the EU's summary. The text was clearly edited to put the most negative points first in any given paragraph. Like I said, I've read that document a fair amount.

On the other hand, the bill does protect Sonoma Foie Gras from lawsuits for the next seven and a half years, and gives the owner a chance to figure out a way to make foie gras without force-feeding, which I freely admit is a thought-provoking sight. I was for the bill in its current form, or at least for a veto which would still protect Sonoma Foie Gras.

Okay, at some point some of you are going to get angry with me about this. This issue engenders a lot of emotion on both sides. You're welcome to write me or comment. I do hope you'll be more polite than one reader who sent me this email after (I presume) seeing me talk about foie gras on eGullet):

Dear fatass,   It's really too bad we can't shove a pipe down your throat and pump you full of French wine to increase the size of your liver,  which is most likely enlarged from your alcoholic lifestyle. I hope you choke to death on your next liver sandwich, b**** [edited to get past any censorship filters].

I welcome intelligent debate. But I won't respond to emails like that. A word to the would-be antagonist: such tactics just weaken your cause because it reinforces the notion people have that animal rights activists are loonies. The animal rights activists I spoke to when I wrote this piece are intelligent and have thoughtful things to say even as they are passionate on the topic.

I won't say too much about my research (which has spanned the last year) or even my final stance on the topic, which is the result of a year of soul-searching. I want to encourage you all to buy the magazine when it comes out. I'll let you know when it does (publishing schedules are always subject to change, so it's not out until it's out).

Sunday, September 26, 2004

A Good House Wine

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Melissa and I always keep our eyes open for a good house wine. This is the wine we pour for a simple dinner for the two of us or for just a couple glasses when we get home from work. If friends meet us at our place before we go out to dinner, this is the wine we pour as an aperitif.

We know some people who buy cases and cases of their house wine. Melissa and I are less devoted. We find one we like, buy a case, and that's our house wine for a while. If we run out before we find another one, we restock.

We have simple guidelines for a house wine: it has to be inexpensive and it has to be tasty. Our current house red is the 2002 Big Moose Red, a $9 wine we got from our wine club at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant. I note the sell sheet suggests $11 for the retail price. Here's an excerpt from the wine store's description:

an easy drinking, juicy red that will go with just about anything and is still a sophisticated wine [that] doesn't come along every day...This wine is made by a well known vintner who goes by the name "Cult Wines" and, when he got his hands on some delicious wines from well known wineries, he knew he had to create the perfect blend. This medium bodied wine is dry with a little oak and balanced acidity—sure to go with just about anything that strikes your fancy.
Incidentally, I love the fact that my wine club, describing the bottle, never mentions it has a screw cap. Like they want to make it this very casual thing: "Well, of course it has a screw cap!"

For whatever reason, I didn't write down a tasting note for this, but Melissa and I like it a lot. I would agree with the wine club's "juicy". My friend Tom described it as, "Exactly what you'd expect from a wine named 'Big Moose Red'." We bought a case not just for a house wine but also to supply a recent party, and it was quite popular.

I wouldn't pair it with a heavy meaty dish, but the wine club suggests burgers, and I'd certainly add chicken in its myriad forms, pizza or pasta, a mild Italian sausage, and other dishes with similar weight and flavor profiles.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Bandit

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(guest photographer Tim Holmes)
In 2002, California suffered a wine glut. Too many grapes, too much wine, too few buyers. The press were beside themselves, gleefully anticipating reduced prices on California wines and waggling fingers at producers who refused to accept the coming dawn of low-priced California wines.

Some producers took advantage of this glut, too. Wine insiders Joel Gott, Charles Bieler, and Roger Scommegna of Signal Ridge started Three Thieves to produce decent wine at bargain prices, to "liberate world-class wine".

The entrepreneurs thumbed their nose at the wine industry and its pretentious devotees when they released their first wine, a Zinfandel, in a 1-liter jug with a screw cap. The packaging (dubbed "retro" and thus cool by Saveur) was well-received as was the good table wine inside. Recently they decided to test consumers once again by releasing white wine in a "Tetra Brik" box with a plastic screw cap. They say they discovered the idea in an Italian grocery store, but American wine snobs may still shudder when they see boxed wine. It has a bad reputation in the U.S.

Some friends brought some Bandit Trebbiano to a party we had recently. They're as snobby as we are about wine, so they knew this would be the perfect host present. Lots of our guests made jokes about it and looked at it dubiously, despite the fact that it's produced in Italy. Three Thieves looks for surplus grapes all over the place, it seems. Melissa quickly opened the already-chilled box and offered pours.

It's not a bad wine. I wouldn't call it a "world-class" wine: Trebbiano is often a workhorse grape in Italy, the grape behind a gazillion bottles of white table wine. That's pretty much what this is. A pleasant white table wine that'd be just fine for any number of casual affairs. The packaging is cheaper than a bottle, so they can sell it for less. Given that, $6 might seem high, but did I mention it's a liter box?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Chocolate Dinner, Part 2?

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Melissa laughed as she told me one of the topics in issue 74 of Art Culinaire: savory chocolate dishes. If only it had come a few weeks back. Some ideas include "Wild Striped Bass Tartare with White Chocolate and Yuzu Gelée" (something for those of your participating in Jennifer's "Sugar High Fridays"), "Smoked Sablefish with Chocolate Blinis", and numerous others. I've seen Art Culinaire locally at Cody's Books and also at Sur la Table.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

IMBB 8: Wine and Spirits

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I had a simple plan for IMBB 8, which features Donna's theme of cooking with wine and spirits. For the chocolate dinner we hosted recently, I planned chocolate soufflés. I thought I'd make a sauce out of Framboise Royale from St. George Spirit's, snap a pic, and be all set.

Well, we forgot to take a picture. I thought about doing steak with a red wine reduction, but I do that pretty regularly, and I like to do unusual things for IMBB. I had to come up with another idea.

Inspiration finally struck when I noticed a recipe for "Olive Oil and Sweet Wine Cake" as I flipped through Regan Daley's In the Sweet Kitchen. That seemed like an interesting recipe, worthy of an entry for IMBB. I've always liked the sound of the more interesting recipes in Daley's book; this is clearly a woman who thinks a lot about dessert.

Heidi reminded readers recently that posting recipes from cookbooks sans permission might push copyright issues, so I'm not going to include the recipe. I will tell you that it's got a whole lotta eggs for not a lot of flour (the egg whites provide leavening after they get beaten to a foam). And of course, this very strange addition of olive oil, 3/4 cup in total (she asks for two different kinds). When I tasted the batter it tasted like, well, olive oil mixed with Muscat Vin de Glaciere. I wouldn't say it tasted good. I worried how it would taste when it came out of the oven.

As it turns out, it tasted delicious. The cake was wonderfully moist from all the fat, and the olive oil and alcohol flavors had muted quite a bit. In fact, it didn't really taste olive oil-y at all. The cake feels more decadent than its simple appearance indicates. We drank the obvious wine with it: the rest of the bottle of Vin de Glaciere.

It's funny. Usually for IMBB, I don't have any problem coming up with ideas. This time, I was stuck. I just don't include wine in many things I cook. As I write this (of course!) other ideas come to me. Dried cherries rehydrated in red wine. Tom's ridiculous mushrooms. But my lack of ideas at the time surprised me. Coincidentally, I noticed a cooking with wine class at Tante Marie. It's not until February, but I decided to sign up for it to fill this gap in my repertoire. So next time, I'll have tons of ideas.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Recipe for Happiness

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  1. Buy some artisan bacon from a smokehouse so good that when people visit the town it's in, they pack empty coolers just to fill with bacon. Roundmans Smokehouse is a good choice (search for "Roundmans" on that page, the listed website doesn't work).
  2. Have a co-worker bring you some fresh, ripe tomatoes from his garden.
  3. Buy some organic Romaine lettuce and an Acme Bread Herb Slab, a flat rectangular bread spiked with fragrant herbs.
  4. Preheat oven to 400°. Slice tomatoes. Wash lettuce.
  5. Make some mayonnaise with a big clove of hardneck garlic, the most flavorful subgenre of garlic breeds.
  6. Slice the Herb Slab into pieces that look about sandwich size. Then cut horizontally through the crumb to separate the top and bottom.
  7. Brush the crumb side of all the Herb Slab pieces with olive oil, sprinkle with kosher salt, and put crust side down on a sheet pan. Toast in the oven until brown, about 17 minutes.
  8. Gently fry thick bacon slices over medium heat, flipping occasionally. Run back and forth through the apartment to get the most exposure to the intoxicating smell. When bacon is cooked, lay on a plate lined with paper towels. Reserve bacon grease in pan to use for hash browns the next night.
  9. Spread mayonnaise on all the Herb Slab toasts. Lay one toast down, put bacon on top, then lettuce, then tomato slices. Top with another toast
  10. Serve with a bottle of Txakolina, a crisp, very slightly effervescent white wine from Northern Spain's Basque country that smells and tastes like a fruit-laden apple tree on a stony outcrop just after a cleansing rainstorm.
The best way to cook good ingredients: as simply as possible.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

North Coast Brewing Company

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Melissa and I visited Fort Bragg this weekend because I was covering Winesong! for The Wine News. We rolled into town late on Friday night, checked into our hotel, picked a restaurant out of the visitors' guide, and drove down the main road in this small coastal town. We changed our original dinner plans, however, when we saw the North Coast Brewing Company. I consider brewing companies with restaurants to be predictable and more interesting than the fast food restaurants that could claim the same. Sure enough, the food was standard pub fare, though the appetizers included atypical smoked salmon (a specialty of the region) and crostini, or roasted garlic and goat cheese with crostini.

You don't expect fantastic food at a brewery restaurant, but you should anticipate a good beer selection. I prefer wine, but I enjoy beer as well, and come on, what should one drink in this setting? I latched onto one option on the beverage menu: a 4-glass sampler of 4-oz. glasses. I didn't know which four beers to choose—the brewery makes about a dozen, and my beer knowledge is practically nonexistent—so I told the server what I like (not too hoppy) and asked her to choose for me. Melissa chose a glass of Scrimshaw, which she figured would complement the Scrimshaw-based batter on the fish and chips.

I tasted them as I would wine: beer has its own complexities, its own rewards for those who take the time to think about the taste. I started with the beer that seemed the lightest: the Acme California Pale Ale. A co-worker tells me that North Coast Brewing Company bought Acme Brewery at some point in the past. My tasting notes mention a nose of lemon, with a taste that was dominated by hops but also had baking spice and vanilla components. I found it pleasant but not too exciting.

My second beer was the Pranqster, and I was immediately grabbed by the nose of vanilla and waxy flowers and banana. I loved the creamy mouth feel, like some sort of fizzy cream. The finish suggested bubble gum, and my overall impression says "smooth and silky". This is a beer I will seek out and buy again. In retrospect, my rapture makes sense. The only beer I claim to have any knowledge about is Belgian beer (which means I can chat happily with beer snobs about Saison Dupont and Westvletern), and the brewery considers this a "Belgian-style" beer.

The Acme California Brown Ale offered wheat and oatmeal on the nose, and felt smooth in the mouth, leaving a hoppy finish after I swallowed. I liked it, but it didn't turn my heart from the beer I drank just moments before.

The final beer in my sample was the Old No. 38 Stout. Melissa watched with a twinkle in her eye as I tasted this one. Definite cocoa on the nose, but that became coffee with a bitter finish as I drank the smooth liquid. I don't like coffee. I don't like coffee flavoring. And, it turns out, I don't like things that taste like coffee even when they're not. I couldn't get past that flavor in the beer to give an overall impression. Melissa finished my glass. I'm sure, as a stout, it's quite good. But I'll be steering clear of this one.

I'd love to sample all this brewery's beers. They were rich and complex, even when I didn't like them. And I'll eagerly keep an eye out for Pranqster in the future. My co-worker (who knows a lot about beer), says he and his wife like the brewery's Blue Star as a crisp summer drink ("the kind of beer you can put a lemon wedge in and enjoy on a hot day"), and he also recommends the Old Rasputin, "a porter but with a bright fruit finish."

Friday, September 10, 2004

Beyond Mole

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Imagine you want to have some friends over for a dinner where every course features chocolate. Dessert offers a huge range of choices, and after some thought you'll probably hit on Latin America's mole sauce for your savory dish.

Okay. Now imagine you're planning a six-course dinner with the same theme. You can not have six courses of mole sauce or six desserts (though the last is arguable). You might wisely turn to Alice Medrich's Bittersweet, which features some savory dishes from this queen of chocolate. Or you could try and concoct a menu of your own and use your guests as guinea pigs for your creations.

Guess which I did.

Oh, I intended to use Medrich's book more than I did. In fact, one of our guests was the person who got us the book, so it seemed appropriate. But then I started coming up with other ideas and, well, suddenly I had a menu planned. Oops. But our guests gamely agreed to be test subjects. I apologize in advance for the lack of pictures. People were so eager to eat that we often forgot about the picture.

Our appetizer course featured a chocolate-rosemary pain de mie (a dense bread baked in an enclosed pan). Several months ago I experimented with a bread that combined normal white dough and chocolate dough, and I revisited it for this dinner. I corrected mistakes I noticed before and I mixed rosemary into the white dough, an inspiration from Tom's winter party. For both doughs, I replaced some of the butter with some of the leftover lard I rendered recently. The idea behind the bread is simple: make the normal version of the dough, then make a chocolate version by swapping out some of the flour for cocoa powder. Stretch the normal dough into a rectangle, do the same with the chocolate dough, put one on top of the other and roll into a log. Bake.

The bread was pretty successful, though I think next time I'll reduce the cocoa to about 25% of the total flour/cocoa powder mixture. The chocolate portion was too bitter when the bread was eaten plain. The homemade chicken liver paté helped; the fat muted the bitterness, as it does when you eat a fatty dish and drink a tannic wine. We also offered olives and cornichons and poured glasses of the Roederer Estate Brut sparkling wine from California.

We featured a very small and simple soup course, really more of an amuse-bouche than a full dish. Into each bowl, I placed one of the four segments from the small Scharffen Berger bars (bittersweet in this case). I ladled in hot turkey consommé and served it with trepidation. My idea was that the soup would melt the chocolate into a semi-solid mass that could be sliced with a spoon but wasn't so far gone that it would cloud my clear consommé. I wasn't too worried about the taste, since poultry and chocolate go well together (I spent a lot of time with Culinary Artistry when planning this meal), but I was glad to see that the flavors meshed, neither one overwhelming the other.

A recipe in Bittersweet inspired our salad course, green beans and roasted red peppers tossed in warm butter and cacao nibs. Cacao nibs are the smashed fragments of roasted cacao beans, before they get ground down into chocolate. They're small, crunchy, and add an unmistakable earthiness to a dish. Medrich suggests using them where you might use nuts. When I served this, I laid out about half a dozen green beans on the plate, all next to each other, and then laid strips of the red pepper on top, perpendicular to the beans. Even when you toss the food in cacao nibs and butter, the nibs don't naturally stick to the beans, so I spooned some of the nibs on top of each plate. I had a hard time picking the wine for this. I had planned on a light merlot, but the weather was so warm that we decided to serve a white wine. I decided on the 2002 Raptor Ridge Pinot Gris from Oregon's Willamette Valley. It leans more towards the Alsatian style of this grape, and so was a little heavier than a Pinot Grigio. It at least didn't clash with the vegetables.

Even if one is creating other savory chocolate dishes, it seems silly to not include a mole sauce in an all-chocolate dinner. I made a roasted duck breast with spinach and fried polenta, adorned with a duck stock mole sauce. I intend to get a high yield out of the duck breasts I bought; I deboned the breasts and used the bones for the stock. I scooped out and trimmed off hunks of fat and froze them to render into duck fat at some point. And I used the remaining half-breast (five guests/3 full duck breasts = 1 half-breast) to try making my first duck confit. But back to the dish. I made a small mound of braised spinach, fanned roasted duck breast around it, and then ladled mole sauce onto the plate so that the duck and spinach were in a little sea of chocolate. Then I put down two fried polenta diamonds. I had intended to serve this with an Oregon Pinot Noir, but one of our guests graciously brought a 2001 David Bruce Pinot Noir from the Central Coast, so we served that. It went very well with the dish, the acidity supporting the fruit and earthiness against the complex flavors in the sauce.

I had a hard time incorporating chocolate into the cheese course. I racked my brain and finally came up with cacao nib tuiles which I could serve with the cheese, along with (purchased) raisin butter and well chopped dried apricot. The cheese itself was an artisanal Irish washed-rind (read, smelly) cheese whose name I sadly neglected to jot down. We served a Beaumes-de-Venise with this, a Muscat wine from the south of France. I think my original plan for a Banyuls would have been better, but I couldn't find a good one. The muscat worked fine, however.

I planned on keeping dessert a secret so that I could use it for IMBB 8, but since we neglected to take a picture, I'll tell you all now. Of course there are an infinite number of chocolate desserts, so here the difficulty was not creating but deciding. I opted for individual chocolate soufflés, serving a sauce made from reduced Framboise Royale from St. George Spirits. The wine was Bonny Doon's Framboise, a pleasant and fruity dessert wine.

Our guests valiantly made it through the five courses so far, but we had one final treat. This was the sole recipe I followed exactly from Bittersweet: chocolate truffles. I like Medrich's ganache a lot, though it doesn't allow much in the way of extra flavorings, and it's not one you'd whip up. When she came to Cody's, Melissa brought home some of the truffles Medrich had brought to the signing. They were delicious, of course, but I was most taken by the shape. They were square (well, cubes, really), and I immediately thought, "That's brilliant!" I realized this was a vastly less time-consuming way to shape truffles, even faster than piping them. You use a square form of some type (I have square aluminum bars I use on a silicone baking sheet), and just pour the ganache in and smooth it out. A little later (the weather was so warm I had to put ice packs around the ganache), unmold the square, and slice it into squares. Dredge in cocoa powder, and you're done. They look elegant, and they're very easy, so it's become my technique of choice.

I had been anticipating this dinner for some time, and I was thrilled at how it came out. Our guests had a great time, and all the food was good and interesting, and a great challenge to prepare: aside from the truffles and soufflé and the heavily modified bread, I didn't use any recipes. Now, I wonder if Melissa would let me do a ten-course chocolate dinner...

Monday, September 06, 2004

Learning to Serve

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When the Culinary Institute of America opened its Greystone campus, the school decided to offer a wine program in addition to the normal food classes. The campus is well positioned for a comprehensive program: it's in St. Helena in the Napa Valley, close to some of California's most famous wine makers.

I took a class there recently called "State of the Art Professional Wine Service." This restaurant-focused class may seem an odd choice, but it is tangentially related to an article I'm working on for The Wine News. While I'm not the target audience, I found the class totally fascinating. The instructor recently resigned from three years as the wine director at Restaurant Gary Danko, and clearly knows her stuff. She seems a good person to have on staff: though fairly petite, she had a commanding presence that left no doubt about her ability to do just fine in the male-dominated wine industry. She lectured on how to do classic, elegant wine service in a restaurant, and I gained a new appreciation for how difficult this is, and how delightful it is to see it done properly.

The class started at 9:00 in the morning (we had a lunch break, and what a treat that was) in one of the lecture halls in the Rudd Center. The school designed this campus building soup to nuts as a wine education facility. Carbon filters in the air ducts keep out unwanted smells. Each of the lecture halls is a small ampitheater with video screens and built-in wine storage refrigerators. Each seat has its own sink for pouring out wine, paper towels, ample counter room for glassware, and even a light in the counter you can turn on when you want a really good sense of the color of your wine. We students, about fifteen or so, introduced ourselves. Not surprisingly, a lot of people were in the wine or restaurant industries, though there were people from other industries as well.

Our instructor started with "equipment basics". She brought out, explained and demoed the various tools a sommelier should have at the restaurant: different kinds of corkscrews, wine cradles, decanters, and the second-most useful accessory of a wine server, the side cloth (the first is the corkscrew). She is classically trained, but she's also working in modern society, so she left out the tastevin, the out-of-fashion silver cup a sommelier uses to "pre-taste" the wine. She talked about how to treat the customers, and then she moved on to various practical, interactive demonstrations. First up, opening sparkling wine.

Most people know how to open sparkling wine in general. But we learned how to do it elegantly and safely (you want very little pop from the cork; hers hissed more than it popped) and how to serve it to the customers (you still present the cork to inspect and you present the cage, since some people collect the little discs on top). I volunteered to practice in front of the class, and let me just tell you that opening a bottle in a classic wine service is lots harder than it looks. Her demo was smooth and flawless, mine was fumbling and awkward and time-consuming. The class decided that some good-natured ribbing of the wine writer was in order here (some quotes: "I have no sympathy for wine writers"; "Wine writers don't know how to open wine because they expect other people to open it for them"). I fumbled through, and was told charitably that with practice I could only get better.

We learned about opening standard wine bottles (again, there's a lot more going on when a server opens a bottle than you realize), and then moved on to decanting over a candle flame. Our instructor is not only well-trained, she clearly loves her work. She waxed euphoric several times describing the dignity of a great bottle of wine and the beauty of wine served properly. But she also reminded people that a sommelier is working for the restaurant, and offered advice on making the wine service a profitable component of the restaurant (there's a 3-day class that covers just that topic in depth).

I had a great time at the class and though I'm not working tableside, I'll still be practicing proper wine service as often as I can.