Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Color Purple

|

LavenderWell, lavender at any rate. Check out my latest piece on SFist about this purple plant.










Monday, May 30, 2005

Tom's Rib Guide

|

When I decided to smoke some ribs for a party at Tim's house, I e-mailed Tom for advice. He sent back a great explanation on how to trim a slab of spare ribs. I encouraged him to put it on his blog, because it was such a useful guide. So he did. I ended up trimming two slabs, and the second was, as he predicted, easier than the first, though the first looked nicer. Also be sure to read about the Gyro roll he made for the same event.

You can also check out Melissa's photos of the party itself, including shots of the aforementioned ribs and Gyro.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Recipe for Happiness

|

Part 2 of an irregular series

Epoisses

  1. Procure some raw-milk Époisses, one of the world's great cheeses [Ed: or a thermalized version, see comments]. I leave this as an exercise for the reader. Époisses made with pasteurized milk, the only kind legally available in the United States, will do in a pinch. The aroma and complexity of Époisses can not be overstated. Jean Berthault tells Ed Behr that he suspects "the monks chose that odorous, luscious kind of cheese because its sensuality compensated them for their celibacy."
  2. Find an Acme Bread baguette. Steve Sullivan is our country's equivalent of France's Poilâne brothers, creating, almost singlehandedly, an appreciation for artisanal bread in this country. If you ever get the chance, ask Steve about flour. I suspect he knows more about it than anyone else. Acme sources from specific wheat producers to get consistent quality. Cut baguette into tiny pieces.
  3. Two hours before you wish to eat, remove the Époisses from your refrigerator. Let it sit at room temperature until it's liquidy and your entire apartment smells of its heavenly aroma.
  4. Open a white Burgundy. We chose a Puligny-Montrachet from Chateau de Puligny-Montrachet. Tasting note to come.
  5. Epoisses FondueCut two big slits into the top of the Époisses and pull back the rind to expose the gooey middle. Provide each diner with a small bowl of tiny bread cubes.
  6. Skewer bread cubes on fondue forks, and use them to scoop up dollops of liquidy cheese.
  7. Repeat previous step until cheese is gone.
  8. Sigh...deeply.
  9. Optional: eat the last wedge of raw-milk Livarot in your refrigerator. Drink lots of water.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Hold on to Your Wine

|

You and a friend sit down to dinner and open a bottle of wine. You eat, you talk, you drink, but when the meal ends, the bottle isn't empty. You don't feel like finishing it, but the sink's drain is an ignoble end for good wine. You could make "The Best Red-Wine Vinegar You're Likely to Find." You decide instead to preserve the wine, but you need a strategy. Here are some tips.

Oxygen is wine's ultimate enemy. It's a poignant betrayal, for the two start as friends: Wine passes from shrieking infancy to confident adulthood as oxygen matures the complex swirl of flavors in the bottle or glass. But mortality is the steep price we pay for this transformation. Eventually the flavors become thin and frail. Eventually the wine dies. In a sealed bottle, oxygen snipers slowly pick off your wine's youth. Pull the cork, and the air carries an atomic army that ransacks your vinous treat. A simple wine dies quickly before the onslaught; a complex wine holds out longer. The oxygen always wins. Accept this. These tactics only stave off the hordes.

The more barbarians, the sooner your temples fall. Move the wine to a half-bottle. The volume of wine stays constant, but fewer ravishers can crowd in. If the leftover wine reaches the half-bottle's neck, the narrow passageway reduces the surface area exposed to air. It becomes a miniature Thermopylae, your wine Sparta to oxygen's Persia.

You can try to obliterate the invaders. Such is the promise of VacuVin and its kin. You pump and pump, removing the defilers. I distrust such devices. The pump is unreliable. A casual movement breaks the seal. It is not a true vacuum. You can not know how many oxygen atoms remain behind to plunder your treasured drink.

A better strategy: Flood the plains the raiders must cross. Private Preserve creates a wall of argon that sits atop the wine, heavier atoms that obstruct oxygen's relentless march against your precious liquid. This is not a perfect seal. One night an acquaintance of mine had a wine, freshly opened, and then the next day tried the same wine at VinoVenue, which uses argon in its high-tech wine machine. He noticed a distinct difference. Remember: Oxygen always wins.

Finally, put your opened wine into the refrigerator, even your reds. The cold slows the reactions that wither the wine. Remove your red wine from the deep chill forty-five minutes to an hour before you want to serve it.

The best strategy relies on combinations. Before leaving for Germany, I opened a bottle of Lodi Zinfandel so I could write a tasting note before we left. Melissa and I liked it, so we drank about half. I put the wine into a half-bottle (we have a small collection), and the wine came up to the neck. I used Private Preserve on the small space, then capped it tightly with its own cork. I put it in the refrigerator, and we left for Germany. Two weeks later, we opened it. It was fine. Another Lodi Zin, however, had faded. Remember: Oxygen always wins.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Cherries on SFist

|

Cherries at the Farmers MarketMelissa reminded me that I hadn't yet mentioned my latest SFist piece, a short post about the cherries we're seeing everywhere. Her aunt and uncle visited from Michigan, and we met them and Melissa's mom at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. We bought supplies and then went over to her parent's house to make dinner with our haul. I had some thoughts about the menu beforehand, but mostly we improvised. Her aunt pitched in by stuffing zucchini blossoms, and Melissa valiantly pitted the large volume of cherrries we picked up.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Affiliate

|

Most of you probably know that I proudly support independent bookstores. To my mind, this is just another facet of the attitude you often find on this blog: The small and the diverse need to be protected against the large and monotonous. Whether you're growing tasty heirloom peaches that corporate grocers won't carry, or selling poetry that a big chain wouldn't, you need protection from the monstrous stores who want to eagerly grab your tiny market share. I try not to eat at chain restaurants, why should I shop at chain bookstores? So when I link to a book I try to always link to its entry at Cody's Books in Berkeley.

But this has some disadvantages. First, I'd rather you bought from your local independent bookstore, not mine, just as I'd rather you buy from a local farmer and not one a plane flight away. Second, Cody's doesn't have an affiliate program like Amazon.com, where a reader who clicks through to that site from mine nets me a small kickback if s/he buys the book. [Ed: Actually, they do. Thanks to Jack for pointing this out. See comments for my response] This hasn't been a big deal—it's not like I look to this blog to fund my Bay Area house purchase—but it is something I think about occasionally, and it probably prevents other bloggers from taking the same subversive action.

Inspired by a question from Clotilde, I wrote BookSense.com to ask if they have an affiliate program. It turns out they do. BookSense.com is an association of independent booksellers, and if you buy a book from them, the bulk of the money actually goes to an independent bookseller close to you.

So I am now a BookSense.com affiliate. This means that if you click on a link for a book I mention, and then buy that book, it will come from your independent bookseller (if you live in the U.S.) and I'll get a teensy tiny kickback. Simple as that. I converted the links in my review of The Botanist and the Vintner if you want to try it out.

I'm glad to see BookSense.com supports this, and I'd encourage all my fellow bloggers to switch to their program. Independent bookstores contribute to real people in your local economy, not the bank accounts of Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble shareholders. Just like good food, a good bookstore is worth protecting.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Melissa on Flickr

|

As I noted in my anniversary card to Melissa, she has taken most of the photos that appear on this blog. As she's gotten better, she occasionally grumbles about which photos I choose to post and which don't make the final cut. Plus, I may be obsessed with food, but Melissa snaps pics of all sorts of things.

So now you can get more great photos of our food and lives at her flickr page. Soon I'll get organized and set up Technorati tags that correspond to her flickr tags, and hopefully she and I will sync our posts so that I can say things like "For more photos, click here", but for now I'm just pointing you at her photos. It's brand-new, so there aren't a lot of photos there yet, but more will come soon enough. Drop by and say hi and welcome her to the photoblogging universe.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Botanist and the Vintner

|

The Botanist and the VintnerEvery wine enthusiast knows the story: In the last quarter of the 19th century a then-unknown pest devastated Europe's vineyards, France's especially. Scientists of the time named the aphidian creature Phylloxera vastatrix. The insects arrived as stowaways on American vines shipped to Europe, and the only cure was to graft European Vitis vinifera vines onto resistant American roots to create a compound organism. To this day, most of the world's wines are grown from these odd chimerae.

That's the basic story, a simple case of a pest brought to a defenseless ecosystem. But of course it's much more complicated than that, as Christy Campbell describes in The Botanist and the Vintner. In a sense, politics and pride left Europe as vulnerable as its vines. Few believed that the pest could invade their noble vineyards; most attributed the destruction to poor vineyard management in the afflicted areas. And fewer still wanted to use American rootstock once scientists suggested that solution; opponents feared that the notorious "foxiness" of American grape species would afflict the noble aromas of Vitis vinifera. The French government attacked instead with chemicals. It was an understandable attitude given the reputation of French wines, but the ineffective approach gave the tiny aphid carte blanche to wriggle its way through the ground from vineyard to vineyard. A rare winged form (rare on vinifera vines, anyway) could fly a much greater distance.

Those who believed the aphid wouldn't affect them were proven wrong, and the government's chemical attack accomplished little but draining the country's coffers. The single most striking part of Campbell's book is the pair of maps at the very beginning. One shows phylloxera penetration in France in 1875, a small set of light gray splotches. The next shows France in 1894, painted with the dark gray he labels as "Totally phylloxerated." With virtually all of France's vineyards withered and dead, "the American option" was the only choice left (phylloxera itself was not the killer; like AIDS it simply lowered the vine's defenses to other attacks).

Campbell then brings the battle to modern times. A poorly wrought rootstock hybrid from UC Davis proved vulnerable to phylloxera, to the dismay of those California growers who embraced the new roots. And phylloxera adapted to be even more voracious than before. High-tech equipment now helps track phylloxera's spread, but to this day there is no effective chemical defense against the minuscule marauder. Genetic engineering, says Campbell, may finally provide the answer, and perhaps even allow vinifera rootstock to be used once again if the genes that marshal American vine defenses can be inserted into vinifera. Those who have tasted wines from ungrafted vines pronounce them smoother and more refined than the equivalents produced by the grafted vines. But will consumers accept transgenic wines? That is a much different debate.

The writing in the book evokes Simon Winchester. Sometimes that's bad, as Campbell seems to have acquired Winchester's tendency to end chapters with sentences like, "Professor Planchon was about to find out for himself" or "The botanist was horribly correct." The story is compelling enough without a little hook seemingly tacked to the end of every chapter. But mostly this writing kinship is good, as the erudition one sees in Winchester's books can be found here as well. Campbell does a good job of placing the struggle in its historical context, including the fact that the controversy around Darwinism made people slow to accept an obvious explanation for American vinous resistance. He also talks about how phylloxera changed the European wine landscape. It paved the way for the massive flow of wine that hemorrhages out of the Languedoc and Midi; it allowed vintners in Sancerre to replace the Pinot Noir that dominated the appellation with the Sauvignon Blanc that makes it famous today. Many vineyards were simply left abandoned. New safeguards went into place as English drinkers became suspicious about wines purportedly from a place that had stopped producing. It's interesting to see how the disaster created our modern view of wine.

For anyone fascinated by history and wine, this is an enjoyable book that sheds light into what is probably the single most important event in 19th century wine making, an event that still shapes our universe today.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Dinner in Montmartre

|

Melissa and I are standing on the landing of a Montmartre apartment building, holding a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of German wine. We're apprehensive. First, we're not sure which of the four doors we should knock at. Second, we don't quite know how the evening will go. The person behind one of these doors is someone we admire greatly but have never met, even though we feel like we know her. Will our friendship leap from the electronic realm to the physical? We hope so.

A handsome young man comes up the stairs and solves the problem of the doors. "It's that one," he says, pointing, before we even ask. "I'm Max." He fishes out his keys and opens the door.

Louis Menand ponders a writer's voice in the introduction to this year's Best American Essays (I should note, curiously, that I work for a subsidiary of that book's publisher). It's a thought-provoking essay in its own right, and I was struck by his observation that a writer's written voice often doesn't correlate to the writer's real-world personality. We've probably all seen an eloquent writer give a drab reading of his or her own work. I think blogs, good ones anyway, are different. I've met a number of food bloggers by now, and I often note that a blog is a surprisingly accurate virtual projection of the person who runs it. "Everyone seemed just like their blogs," said Melissa the first time some Bay Area food bloggers met. Perhaps our little websites are so intimate that they can't help but be flattened versions of ourselves.

So everything you know about Chocolate & Zucchini holds true for Clotilde, the person waiting behind the door of the Montmartre apartment building. Except that Clotilde possesses rounder, fuller realizations of the qualities you find in her writing. She is charming, funny, and of course super-cute. Maxence, who is often mentioned on her blog, complements her well.

Clotilde modestly describes her meal (see here and here for some of the items), but it becomes clear upon talking to her and reading through her posts that she has expended quite a bit of effort for our "casual" dinner. We're honored she put so much time into it, and of course the food is delicious. Could it be anything but? Wine flows freely and so does conversation. We talk about food and writing and blogs of course, but also about video games, our lives, our jobs, our Macs, and the normal things people talk about when getting to know each other better. We talk long enough that we miss the Metro and take a taxi back to our little hotel.

Melissa and I talk giddily about the dinner on the taxi ride and the next day. We both adored Clotilde for her writing, but now we adore her and Maxence because we've met them. (For their part, they were probably happy we stopped jabbering and let them go to sleep). If you are ever going to be in the Bay Area, chère Clotilde, do let us know. We'd love to see you again.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Wine Shipping

|

One piece of news jumped out at me as I started to catch up on headlines and email: the Supreme Court has made a decision about inter-state wine shipping. Despite the many corks being popped across the country in celebration, I can't imagine too many people were surprised by the decision. The court simply declared that states can't have different shipping rules for in-state wineries and out-of-state wineries. This obvious obstacle to free trade across states has always been the weakest link in the intricate web of this country's wine shipping laws.

But if a state wants to ban all shipping to consumers, it can. It just has to make sure the ban applies to out-of-state and in-state wineries alike. I imagine that will be Plan B for the distributor lobby. They don't want direct-to-consumer sales because it cuts them (and their markups) out of the picture.

Still, I was glad to hear the Supremes made the decision, even though it was more or less what everyone expected it to be. It opens a big market for small producers. Anything more radical would have been a big surprise, but let's hope that eventually happens.

A plug for Free the Grapes: this is the main group fighting for the consumer in this issue. Check out their site to get up to speed on this complicated topic.

Bonjour and Guten Tag!

|

Ribs n RingsMelissa and I have returned from the Mosel and Paris, so you'll soon see a small series of posts about the trip. We talked to many wine makers, and we felt the loose slate under our feet as we struggled to climb the steepest vineyards in Europe, probably the world. That was cool. So was meeting one of our favorite food bloggers.

We're still struggling with time changes, email/blog backlogs, and all the normal detritus of travel. I sold a piece on the Mosel, so I have to compile all my notes and actually write the feature now (due at the same time as yet another feature; I can't complain, but you'd think I could plan these all a little better).

In other words, things might still be a tad sluggish, but I should be back on the blogging wagon presently. In the meantime, SFist ran my post about Marshall's Farm Honey last week, and they've just posted one I wrote about Marin Sun Farms beef.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Auf Wiedersehen and Au Revoir!

|

Melissa and I are off to Europe for a much-needed week and a half of vacation, and OWF will probably be quiet for the duration. When we get back, we'll share highlights of our trip through Germany's Mosel region (home to some of my favorite wines) and Paris, though it's possible we'll make a cameo on some other blog before we share our own adventures (hint, hint).

I know you'll miss us, so you'll be glad to hear that I'll magically have a post available on SFist next Tuesday, good little columnist that I am. Be sure and keep an eye out. The dish I made for that was really good.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Cardoons on SFist

|

Cardoons"What on earth are those things?" asked the fishmonger as I walked into his store with cardoons poking out of my shoulder bag. Find out by reading my latest post at SFist.









Monday, May 02, 2005

Flaming Grasshopper

|

I believe every serious and thoughtful food lover should have a healthy stock of Chelsea Green books. Not because they produce great cookbooks (they don't, to my knowledge), but because they know that good food, tradition, politics, and ecology are all interconnected. In addition to publishing translations of Slow Food books, they're the house responsible for the reissued edition of Ed Behr's oft-referenced The Artful Eater (which I discussed a while back). I browse through their portfolio with my credit card a safe distance away.

They have started a blog, Flaming Grasshopper, which touches on any number of topics. The dream of a sustainable, healthy environment and a liberal government underlies the blog and their publishing philosophy. Sometimes the topics are Vermont-specific, but in general they span a national context.