In Tuesday’s Washington Post, reporter Nancy Szokan recounted some weight-loss tips she found in Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, a new book by Brian Wansink. Unfortunately for First Vine, drinking less wine is part of it. I’m not surprised. As I’ve written before, wine and alcohol are often the first things people cut out as part of weight-loss programs.
But I am surprised at the way Wansink suggests we go about it: use a taller, thinner glass and you’ll fool yourself into drinking less than you think you are. “We tend to focus on the height of what we pour and not the width, so we pour 12 percent less wine into taller white wine glasses … than we pour into wider red wine glasses.”
And apparently people who drink white wine end up drinking more too. “Because red wine is easier to see than white wine, we pour about 9 percent less red wine whenever we pour a glass.”
Wansink is the director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. Through years of studying people’s shopping and eating habits, he concluded that many of our bad eating choices aren’t “decisions” at all, but things we do without really thinking about them. In Slim by Design, he maintains that we can harness that same mindlessness to eat and drink less once we realize how our perceptions work. For wine, this means putting away the larger red-wine glasses and making only the white-wine glasses accessible for use.
I’m not sure I agree. I’ll get to the mindlessness in a minute. First of all, Wansink’s studies must have used particular white and red wine glasses, because when I look in the cabinet I can see that my white wine glasses are much smaller than the glasses for reds. Also shorter. So I imagine they’d have to be glasses that aren’t too much different in capacity to start with. Because I can’t see that anyone couldn’t tell at a glance just how much less my white wine glasses would hold and make a choice based on how much wine they’d like to drink.
Then, the part about people thinking they’re drinking more if the wine is in a tall, thin glass makes me scratch my head. As a math geek, a wine lover, and someone who enjoys cooking, I’m aware of volume as more than just height. Even without consciously thinking about it, I’m a pretty good judge of what constitutes a four- or five-ounce pour in various wine glasses. I also find that I tend to pour two smaller glasses rather than one large one no matter what glass I’m using — if I’m going to swirl the wine in the glass, there has to be less wine in it to start or the wine will go all over the place. (And I’m nothing if not a vigorous swirler.)
The Post article is the first I’ve heard of Wansink’s book, so I haven’t yet read it. I’m also not an expert on behavioral psychology. Reading a few online articles seems to bear out Wansink’s observation, though. People definitely drink less from a taller, slimmer glass, even though they think they’re drinking more. Szokan says the takeaway is “to consider findings like [this] and change your environment or habits. Then you won’t have to think about it: You’ll just eat less.” But would that really work?
What I don’t see in these articles is whether or not people continue the same behavior once they’re aware of it. In other words, once you know that you’re fooling yourself with the taller glass, won’t you think about it before you pour the next time? Even if you continue to use the taller glasses, couldn’t knowing you’re drinking less make you feel a little deprived and pour a second glass?
Perhaps you could switch out the glasses then simply forget what you’d learned and end up drinking less by force of habit. Or, perhaps you’d realize that you don’t crave or need more wine than you get in the taller glass and stick with the smaller amount.
This last option strikes me as the opposite of mindlessness, though. And it’s more in line with other things I’ve read that say that understanding when you’re hungry and when you’re not is key to maintaining better weight. Still, it’s interesting to think that you can make a one-time decision about glassware and end up permanently drinking less wine without giving it another thought. Assuming that’s what you’re after, of course.
As we get into fall weather, I always think of the first time Cy and I visited Cap de Castel, a small hotel in Puylaurens. Puylaurens is pretty much equidistant between Carcassone, Toulouse, and Albi in southwestern France. So if you stay there, you can make easy day trips to some great cities. And if you are staying there, you’ll want to come back for dinner in the evening. There’s a small restaurant in the hotel, and guests get first call for seats. We’ve eaten there as late as 9 pm, so you can put in a full day of activities.
The restaurant has excellent food and while we enjoyed everything we tried, our very first bite there was the one I remember best. It was a dish of mushrooms in a tasty wine sauce, topped with a small soft-boiled egg (removed from its shell), and crunchy bread with a little garlic and olive oil on it. This was the chef’s take on the classic dish Oeufs en Meurette. When you cut the egg open, the yolk runs down and mixes with the sauce. It’s really wonderful. Some versions use bacon, but I like it better without (amazing, right? I’ll bet you never thought I’d say something was better without bacon!) And since the recipe uses vegetable stock, there’s no meat in it. I went back to the original poached egg instead of soft-boiled, but if you’re good at peeling soft-boiled eggs, by all means give it a try.
Since you’re cooking with red wine, pick one you can also serve with the dish. I like Domaine des Mathurins Tango pour Hélène ($13), it’s a Languedoc red that’s 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah. Grenache and mushrooms are a natural combination, and the wine’s not aged in oak. I find that oak-aged wines can sometimes turn a little bitter when they’re cooked for a while.
While it looks complicated, this dish is really just cooked mushrooms with red wine and stock, plus poached eggs and a little bread. Almost all the alcohol cooks out of the wine, and that’s where the calories in wine are, so it’s about as virtuous as you can get for so much mushroom-y goodness. While the recipe makes four servings, you can easily eat two and save two for another meal. Serve it with a salad and you’ll feel almost virtuous!
Better yet, it works out by volume. There are approximately 3-1/4 cups of wine in a 750 ml bottle. This recipe uses 2 cups, which leaves 1-1/4 cups, or 10 ounces — enough for two five-ounces glasses of wine. And it won’t matter what kind of glass you serve it in!
2 pound fresh mushrooms, bottom of stems trimmed, caps wiped clean with a damp cloth (a pound of white mushrooms and a pound of crimini work well here)
2 large shallots, finely minced
2 cups dry red wine
2 cups vegetable stock (canned or boxed is fine)
1-1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 branch of fresh thyme, or ¼ teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons softened butter
Salt and freshly-ground pepper
In a medium-sized saucepan, combine the red wine, stock, and thyme and bring to a boil. Boil until the mixture is reduced to about 2 cups (10-15 minutes).
Meanwhile, quarter the mushrooms if they’re large, and halve the medium-sized ones. The small ones can stay whole. Heat a film of olive oil in a large sauté pan until it’s rippling, and add enough of the mushrooms to almost cover the bottom of the pan. Shake the pan and then let the mushrooms sit for 30 seconds or so to brown one edge, then shake again and brown another side. Take the mushrooms from the pan and set them aside in a bowl. Repeat with the remaining mushrooms.
Add a little more oil to the pan if needed and sauté the shallots until they’re just turning golden. Stir the mushrooms in, then sprinkle the flour over the top and combine it with the mushrooms and shallots. Cook for a minute on low heat, then slowly add the hot wine mixture, stirring to combine. Add the vinegar. Let the mushrooms to simmer in the sauce for 5 minutes. The liquid should coat the mushrooms nicely. If it seems too liquid-y, raise the heat and boil it for a couple of minutes. Turn the heat back to low. Stir in the butter, then add salt and pepper to taste. Remove the branch of thyme if you used one. Cover the mixture and set it aside to keep warm (or let it cool and refrigerate. Reheat gently to serve.)
4 thin slices rustic bread cut in half crosswise, or 12 slices of baguette, about a half-inch thick
2 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Put the bread slices on a baking pan and drizzle them with olive oil. Let them bake until lightly browned. Rub each slice with the garlic to give a little garlic flavor, then sprinkle with the salt. Let the toasts cool. Store overnight in an airtight container if you want to make them ahead.
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon white vinegar (optional)
Bring about 4 inches of water to boil in a wide pot and add some salt and the white vinegar. Then lower the heat to a bare simmer. At the same time, fill a large saucepan one-third full with water and some salt and bring it to a simmer. Create a whirlpool/vortex in the saucepan and crack an egg into the center. Leave it for 30 seconds until the outside is set, then remove it with a slotted spoon and place it in the larger pot to cook for two and a half more minutes. Once you’ve removed one egg from the saucepan you can start on the next one. (I recommend putting them in an a clockwise rotation so you’ll know which one is done first.) Remove the eggs and let them rest on a clean towel to dry for a few seconds. (To do them ahead, put the poached eggs in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and refrigerate them. To reheat, put them gently into a bowl of very hot tap water until they’re warm.) You don’t need to worry about them looking perfect, they’re going to taste great in the ragout anyway.
Divide the ragout evenly among 4 bowls, top each portion with a poached egg and arrange the garlic toasts around the edge. Dress it up with a little coarse salt and freshly-ground pepper.