A barrel of…questions

A few weeks ago, Cy and I were having lunch when he had a question about oak barrels and winemaking. Is wine ever aged or stored in barrels made from other kinds of wood? You’d think it could be, right? I didn’t have an answer then, so I did a little research.

It turns out that this is one of those things where the universe converges on one right answer because of the way barrels are used in winemaking and their shapes. Once you eliminate others because of various issues, oak is the wood of choice, particularly from oak trees grown in cooler climates, like France and the northern U.S.

Wood used in making barrels has to be bendable, but not too bendable, to give the barrel its characteristic shape.  The staves of the barrels are usually softened by heating with an open flame, which also toasts the barrel, adding flavor to the wine.

Wood used in making barrels has to be bendable, but not too bendable, to give the barrel its characteristic shape. The staves of the barrels are usually softened by heating with an open flame, which also toasts the barrel, adding flavor to the wine. (Photo from winefolly.com)

There are four criteria for using wood in barrels in winemaking:

1) It has to hold the wine without leaking.

2) It has to be slightly porous to air.

3) It can’t impart unpleasant flavors or odors to the wine.

4) Finally, because of the barrel’s characteristic shape, the wood has to be bendable.

Let’s take these four in order.

Watertight. Any wooden container could be coated to be leak-proof, either on the inside or outside. But an inside coating would make the container pretty much airtight as well as watertight, so air wouldn’t diffuse inside (we’ll get to that one below). An outside coating would do the same thing, only the wine could pick up unpleasant odors and flavors from the wood. So without a coating, this generally means a hardwood over a softwood.

Hardwoods are “hard” because they’re dense and their fibers are stronger. When trees are harvested the wood is fairly wet and has to be dried, either by natural evaporation or by heat drying. The wood fibers shrink as the liquid evaporates out of them, and wood in general becomes more watertight as it’s dried. But hardwoods have more fibers per square inch to begin with. This means even less air space between the fibers after drying, and less chance for liquid to pass through.

Two other considerations are important: fewer knots and what’s called close graining. The knots are created because of branching. Knots look nice, but they reduce strength and make the wood less watertight. So tall, straight trees with very few branches are key. Then there’s the grain structure of wood. Hardwood trees that are grown in cooler climates are denser and shrink even less when dried. Their structure allows cleaner cutting both with and against the grain. The longer dormant periods and ability to resist the cold in cooler climate zones makes all of the trees more close-grained, and this is desirable for barrel making.

Porous. This seems contradictory to water-tightness, but it’s important that air diffuse into the barrel to interact with the wine — but not too much of it. So it can’t be airtight, but it also can’t let too much air inside. The oxygen in the air reacts with various molecules in wine to enhance flavor and reduce bitterness from the wine’s tannins. But too much oxygen would also cause the wine to oxidize (like sherry) and spoil in other ways. The sulfites used as a wine preservative work largely because the wine isn’t exposed to a lot of air for long periods of time.

Equally important is the barrel’s ability to let some of the wine diffuse out. A little of the liquid will evaporate and escape through the barrel. The loss of liquid volume concentrates the remaining flavors. A wood’s porosity depends on its structure, and hardwoods are less porous than softwoods. They allow just a little air in, where a softer wood would allow more. Likewise for vapor diffusing out.

Odors and Flavors. While some people find the wood/vanilla/spice flavors that oak barrels give wine objectionable, they’re tame compared to what other woods would do. From horrible muskiness to astringent tannins to resins, other woods give some pretty awful odors and flavors to liquids inside them. Even fruit woods, like apple and cherry, don’t work. Pretty much any wood you’d use to smoke meat will give wine undesirable odors and flavors. And while oak has a lot of tannins of its own (which make it insect-resistant), these don’t add much astringency to the wine, but do help prevent oxidation.

Most wineries have rooms for storing wine as it ages in barrels, although they're not all as elegant as this one, at the Château de Mercues near Cahors in France.  But they all have an intoxicating smell that's a combination of oak and wine.  If I could find a way to make my house smell like that, I would!

Most wineries have rooms for storing wine as it ages in barrels, although they’re not all as elegant as this one, at the Château de Mercues near Cahors in France. But they all have an intoxicating smell that’s a combination of oak and wine. If I could find a way to make my house smell like that, I would!

Shape.  There are a couple of schools of thought on why barrels are shaped the way they are. One is for ease of transport — the bulge in the middle makes them roll more easily. Less material touching the ground or floor means less friction, and less work to push them. This is important, because no one wants to lift a heavy barrel to move it.  We’ve all seen the pirate movies where barrels are rolling down a plank from the ship to the dock. It actually works! And what about that “Roll out the Barrel” song? You’d better believe it would be a lot harder without that bulge.

The second is that the slightly rounded shape of the barrel means more surface area per gallon of wine inside than if it were a regular cylinder. The more spherical, the more surface area to volume. More surface area means more air and more flavors from the wood. But making them too round would be difficult and impractical for storage.

So if they’re going to be slightly rounded, the wood has to be bent to shape. Really hard woods like redwood are extremely difficult to bend. Wood for barrels gets bent either by steaming the pieces or by heating them over an open flame. The flame also chars the barrel a little, even if it doesn’t look like it’s charred, and charring adds its own flavors.

Put all of these together and you’re left with oak. And if you’re going to be using one particular tree, why not choose the one that symbolizes strength through much of the world? There’s a lot more to say about barrel size, age, and origin, but they’ll have to wait. You’ll have enough to do trying to get the song out of your head!

Can you believe this was actually a Top 40 hit in 1975?


As I was writing this I found myself wishing we had two identical wines, one aged in oak and the other not, so you could compare them side by side and see the difference. While we have some wines from the same producers that are aged in oak or not, there are other differences — mostly older vines in the oak-aged wines — that make this direct comparison impossible.

So instead I’ll just put our most elegant oak-aged wine out there, the Tuscanio Rosso 2009 from Società Agricola Bulichella in the Maremma in Tuscany ($35). It’s 100% Sangiovese, from the best vines on the property, aged 18 months in oak then a year in the bottle before release. Truly a wonderful wine — so good that the Food and Wine magazine’s Italian wing declared it the best Sangiovese in Italy last fall. Better than Sangiovese from the Chianti regions. It’s made with organic grapes, and we’ll be getting the certification paperwork for future orders so we can label it that way.

It’s a big wine, and that means you need pretty intense flavors with it or the food will be overpowered. So go ahead and have your steak or roast. But blue cheese is also a great pairing, so why use it in a side dish?  I was looking through recipes I’ve clipped from newspapers over the past few years and found a savory tart with blue cheese, apples, and shallots. That reminded me that I could also make a savory Tarte Tatin with blue cheese on top. But I didn’t want to go through the trouble of making the dough for either one. Why not use the apples themselves as a base and put the good things on top?

If the barrels didn't have that bulge in the middle, you couldn't roll them like this.  With or without the hats.  (Photo from octoberfestzinzinnati.com)

If the barrels didn’t have that bulge in the middle, you couldn’t roll them easily like this. With or without the hat. (Photo from otoberfestzinzinnati.com)

So here’s what I came up with — Apples with Blue Cheese, Onions, and Walnuts. You can do every bit of this a day or two ahead, then assemble and put them in the oven. The apples are cut in half, cored, and cooked first, in a skillet. Then you mix the blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and caramelized onion with a little softened butter and spread the mixture on the cut half of the apple. Put the topped apples in a baking dish and bake to heat through.

The dish works well with either beef or pork, or you can serve it on its own either as a starter or after the main course as a salad. And the Tuscanio Rosso is a great pairing because the slight vanilla notes from the oak complement the sweetness of the apple. Some great fall and winter flavors together. And best of all, after posting that video, I’m saving you from the obligatory barrel allusion in the wrap-up!

Bon Appetit!


Apples with Blue Cheese, Onions, and Walnuts

Serves 4 as a side dish or first course

2 large, firm, apples that are tart and sweet, like Crispin, cut in half from stem to bottom, then cored and trimmed around the stem and bottom end

Unsalted butter

1 cup water or vegetable stock

1 large onion, cut in half, peeled, and each half sliced thinly crosswise

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

1/2 cup (lightly packed) crumbled soft blue cheese

1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts

Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large nonstick skillet that has a lid. Add the apples, cut side down, and raise the heat to get the apples going. Cook them this way, uncovered, for 10 minutes, regulating the heat so that the apples get just a little browned on the bottom. Then add the water or vegetable stock to the pan and cover it. When the water starts to boil, reduce the heat to low and let the apples simmer/steam for another 20 minutes. Then start checking them — a sharp knife should go through easily, but the apples should keep their shape. Keep cooking them until they get that way, adding a little water to the pan if necessary. Take the apples out of the pan and put them cut-side up in a small glass or ceramic baking dish and let them cool to just warm.

Meanwhile, melt another tablespoon of butter in a smaller nonstick skillet with a lid. Saute the onion with a pinch of salt for a minute to get it all coated and sizzling. Then put the lid on and cook on low for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid, stir in the rosemary and some black pepper, and raise the heat. Cook another 5 minutes or so, until the onion is nicely browned. Scrape the onion mixture onto a plate to cool.

In a small bowl, mash the blue cheese with 1 tablespoon of softened butter until very smooth. Stir in the onion mixture and the walnuts. Take one quarter of the mixture at a time and pat it in your hand until it’s flat and will fit on the surface of the apple halves. Place the shaped mixture on an apple half and then do the rest of them.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes to heat the apples through, melt the cheese a bit, and toast the walnuts. Serve hot or warm.

To make ahead: Chill the steamed apples in the baking dish covered with plastic, and then microwave them until they’re warm. Refrigerate the caramelized onion, and then microwave it just to bring it up to room temperature. Combine the cheese, butter and walnuts as directed, then proceed with the recipe.

Posted in Musings/Lectures/Rants, Oak barrels, Organic/biodynamic/natural wines, Società Agricola Bulichella, Tom Natan, Wine barrels, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

#TempranilloDay — the latest wine hashtag holiday

I learned just yesterday that Thursday, November 13, 2014, is International Tempranillo Day.

What? You didn’t get the memo either?

As you’ll recall, I also learned about Champagne Day and Languedoc Day only a couple of days before they first took place. I know they’re marketing devices, but even assuming you’re game anyway, how is anyone supposed to take these things seriously? First Vine isn’t the first one informed about these things, but the earliest PR bit I can find on “International” Tempranillo Day is November 4. That didn’t give the world at large much time to plan, did it?

A colorful pitch for #TempranilloDay from the fine folks who do PR for the Rioja wine region of Spain.  Tempranillo is a great wine grape, and great Tempranillo comes from all over Spain.  See my suggestion, below, for how to have an even better Tempranillo Day, with or without a hashtag.

A colorful pitch for #TempranilloDay from the fine folks who do PR for the Rioja wine region of Spain. Tempranillo is a great wine grape, and great Tempranillo comes from all over Spain. See my suggestion, below, for how to have an even better Tempranillo Day, with or without a hashtag.

[While I'm not superstitious, I do wonder about picking the date of November 13, since it means that 2015's International Tempranillo Day will fall on Friday the 13th. Just another indication this might not have been well thought-out.]

And what makes this one seem even more hashtag-gy than usual is the come-on by the fine folks doing PR for Rioja, a wine region in Spain that, naturally, produces Tempranillo. As you can see in the photo, the Rioja PR enterprise would like you to know that Rioja is the “Greatest Expression of Tempranillo.”  Not one of the greatest, but the greatest.

I have nothing against Rioja wines. They’re tasty, sometimes mighty tasty. But the “greatest expression?” I’m sure the producers in other DOs and DOCs like Ribera del Duero, Toro, Cigales, etc. would have something to say about that.  You’ll also notice the claim of the most stringent and consistent quality control in Spain. But Ribera del Duero and Priorat have the same quality appellation designation as Rioja.  And Tempranillos from Priorat seem to be the ones most highly prized by wine collectors. So perhaps this is just over-enthusiasm on Rioja’s part.  Call it a hashtag high.

What I can say about Rioja is that in my experience it’s the most ubiquitous expression of Temparanillo, at least here in the U.S. The wine producers of Rioja, along with the regional and national governments, were pretty much the first advocates for quality Spanish red wine outside the country. Rioja wines have been available in the U.S. for a long time. And for at least the last four years, the PR push has only been increasing.

So while other regions are making their own PR moves, Rioja has a big head start.  Good for them for doing it and finding a way to reach their market.  Here’s what it means for this wine equivalent of a Hallmark holiday, though: assuming that you only found out about it at the last minute, like I did, you’ll go looking for Tempranillo Thursday evening on your way home from work. If you stop at a well-stocked wine shop you’ll be able to find Tempranillos from all over Spain, and possibly from Portugal. But if you stop at the grocery store, or even your local market, what you’ll probably find is Tempranillo from Rioja. The cynic in me is inclined to think this was part of the plan, but perhaps I’m wrong about that.

Anyway, I wouldn’t dream of telling you not to enjoy any Tempranillo you can find on #TempranilloDay if you plan to indulge. But I do have a suggestion. Put off your Tempranillo celebration until the weekend and look for a few different Tempranillos from across Spain and Portugal, including one from Rioja.

One of the reasons the grape is planted all over Spain is because it responds well to different growing conditions. And the name “Tempranillo” refers to the Spanish word for “early.” So the grape is generally harvested before other wine grapes, making it easier for wineries to plan their harvest and vinification. This also accounts for Tempranillo’s spread to other winemaking countries. Of course, the more carefully it’s grown and vinified, the better the wine will be. You can find all levels of quality, price, and intensity in Spanish Tempranillos, and it’s fun to try different ones. I think you’ll find that you’ll want to make #TempranilloDay a more than once-a-year occasion, with or without the hashtag.

Since I don’t think we’ll escape these breathless and not-very-timely attempts to draw attention to one wine region or another anytime soon, we should have a proper name for them.  While I’ve called this both a hashtag and a Hallmark holiday, I think there needs to be a special designation for wine holidays dreamed up by marketers that have no historical basis.  My best try was “Pop-Top Holiday,” since it would definitely mean the lowest beverage common denominator.  But I welcome any and all suggestions!**


Naturally, First Vine has two Tempranillos (otherwise why would I be writing about this? :-0 ) Both are from Bodega Hiriart in Cigales. While the village (and DO) of Cigales is better known for its rosados (Spanish rosés), wineries in Cigales also make red wines. Bodega Hiriart makes two, both from Tempranillo — or Tinta del País as it’s known locally — a Roble and a Crianza. The Roble ($14) is made from younger vine Tempranillo, aged in oak for about six months, then at least six months in the bottle before release. The Crianza ($19) is old-vine Tempranillo, aged in oak for a year then in the bottle for a year. It’s a nice mini-education in wine to try them both since they’re from the same producer. The Roble is lighter-bodied and so has a different food pairing profile than the Crianza, which shines with more intensely-flavored foods.

If you’re having a Tempranillo Thursday and want to make a great but quick dinner to accompany your bottle of choice, this is an easy recipe. It’s my Spanish-style stew, a version of a chicken and sausage dish that my mother has made for years (that recipe is here). But you can make it with rotisserie chicken from the supermarket. And most good supermarkets now have Spanish-style chorizo too. Use any spicy, fully-cooked stick sausage for the recipe if you can’t find chorizo.

First, remove the sausage casing and cut the sausage in small pieces. Brown the sausage in a little olive oil and remove the pieces. Then sauté the onion, add the garlic and some smoked paprika and cook for a couple of minutes. Add tomatoes and chicken stock, along with some canned chickpeas that you’ve rinsed and drained. Add the sausage pieces back in with some green olives and strips of roasted red peppers, and simmer for 20 minutes. In the meantime, cut up your rotisserie chicken into serving pieces, then add them to the pot and cook for 10 more minutes to heat the chicken through. Serve it with rice, pasta (I like bow ties with it), mashed potatoes, or polenta. You can have everything ready in less than 45 minutes, and that gives you plenty of time to let the Tempranillo breathe.

Both the Roble and the Crianza pair well with the stew, so you can try either one. The Rioja PR folks asked me to tell you to tweet photos with #TempranilloDay in the message. They also suggest you use #RiojaBuzz. But I think the stew is pretty enough you should tweet a photo of it. And I won’t object if you want to include @firstvine, either.

¡Buon Provecho!


** If you’ve got a good idea for a nickname or acronym to describe wine-based hashtag holidays, send it in an e-mail to first dot vine at verizon dot net. The best selection, judged by Cy and me, probably under the influence of Tempranillo, will get a bottle of the Hiriart Crianza, and the one we like second-best will get a bottle of the Hiriart Roble, with the following fine-print conditions: (1) You must live in or near Washington, DC. If you live in DC, we will deliver the wine to you when we’re making other deliveries in your neighborhood, subject to your agreement on a delivery time; and (2) Since we can’t deliver outside of DC, you must be willing to pick up the wine under the will-call policies explained in the Customer Service information on the First Vine website if you live outside the District of Columbia. No exceptions.

Spanish-Style Chicken Stew

Serves 4-6

1 Good tasting supermarket rotisserie chicken

3 ounces Spanish-style chorizo (or hard stick salami), casing removed, and cut into 1/4-inch pieces

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

1 large onion, peeled, cut in half through the poles, and cut crosswise into thin half-moons

3 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced

1-1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, in juice

2 cups chicken broth (canned or boxed is fine)

2 15-ounce cans cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained

2-3 roasted red peppers from a jar, drained, patted dry with paper towels, and cut into strips (I like Divina brand, they seem to stay together better)

3/4 cup small pimento-stuffed green olives

For serving: cooked rice, couscous, pasta, noodles, or polenta

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large pot, then fry the chorizo pieces until they’re browned. Remove the sausage pieces with a slotted spoon and drain them on a paper-toweled lined plate. You should have about 3 tablespoons of oil in the pot — if not, add more olive oil. Add the onions and a little salt and pepper and saute until the onions just start to brown. Stir in the garlic and the smoked paprika, and cook for another minute or two. Add the chickpeas, tomatoes, and chicken broth, along with the chorizo pieces. Stir in the olives and the red pepper strips. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Start with the pot uncovered, and once the level drops by a third, cover the pot and continue to cook until the 20 minutes are up.

While the stew is cooking, cut the chicken into serving pieces. You can either leave the skin on, or remove it and use it to garnish the dish (see the note, below). When the stew has cooked for 20 minutes, stir in the chicken pieces and allow the stew to simmer for another 10 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.  Serve with any of the rice or pasta accompaniments.

A note on the chicken skin: If you want the dish to be extra-special, remove the chicken skin when you cut up the chicken. While the chicken is heating in the stew, spread the skin pieces in a large, non-stick skillet. Put the skillet over medium heat and cook for about 5 minutes, turning the pieces at least once. The skin will crisp up beautifully. Serve the stew with a piece of the crispy skin on top of each portion.

Posted in Bodega Hiriart, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tempranillo Day, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seven years of sulfites — time for Botox?

Since we've been blogging, the thing that gets the most hits via search engines is our piece on sulfites in wine.  (Photo from winetastingguy.com)

Since we’ve been blogging, the thing that gets the most hits via search engines is our piece on sulfites in wine. (Photo from winetastingguy.com)

Just about this week seven years ago, Dare and I started sending a weekly e-mail that morphed into a blog in July 2009. After 72 e-mails and 224 blog posts, it seems like a good time to look back on what we’ve thrown out into the world. I hope you won’t mind if I write a couple of posts taking a look at what has interested you, our readers.

It’s fascinating to look at the posts and pages that receive the most views and how that has changed over time. Since we still send e-mails that point to the blog posts, whatever post is up top generally gets the most hits in a given week.   But the picture is different for the ones found via search engines. Our most popular search-engine item continues to be the February 26, 2009 e-mail I wrote about sulfites in wine. (When we switched to blogging five months later, we folded some of the e-mails into the blog as content and this was one of them.)

Back in 2009, most people ended up clicking on that post by typing something like “I can drink white wine but not red.” But over the years I’ve noticed that terms like “sulfites in wine” or “wine without sulfites” come up just as often.

We also get hits on the post from some truly bizarre searches, like a recent one that asked “Does Botox have sulfites?” I’m not sure why someone having a known toxin injected into his or her body would be concerned about the presence of a little bit of sulfites, but it made me laugh when I saw it. Having a frozen forehead is OK, but heaven forbid there are any sulfites in there!

Sulfites are used as a preservative in wine and they also occur naturally as part of the fermentation process.   I suspect that interest in sulfites as an additive developed as we became more aware of additives in our food in general. While there are definitely wines with any number of additives (the list of approved wine additives is pretty long), the only one that’s required to be posted on the wine labels is sulfites. So that’s the one that people focused on.

I’ll be an optimist and assume that the evolution in search terms signals that the word is getting out there about sulfites and sensitivity. If red wines give you headaches but white wines don’t, it’s not because of sulfites, since white wines nearly always have more of them. This isn’t to say that some people don’t have sensitivity to sulfites, especially if they have asthma. But since there are thousands of compounds in wine that we know virtually nothing about, it’s likely that some other compound (or combination of compounds) is causing the headaches.  You can read more details here.

The increase in specific searches for sulfite-free wines is interesting to me. I don’t know if it’s due to a greater interest in wine without any additives or because of sulfites specifically. I haven’t written about sulfite-free wines since all of First Vine’s producers add sulfites to their wines to some degree. They wouldn’t sell wines without added sulfites. Even those who otherwise use what you could call minimal intervention in making their wines. (Many of them make wine without added sulfites in small quantities to drink themselves, generally within a few months of bottling it.) I’ve only tried one commercially-sold wine without added sulfites — and that wine was still labeled “Contains Sulfites” because it has more than 10 ppm (parts per million) concentration of sulfites, even though they’re naturally-occurring. So I don’t have strong opinions on sulfites as an additive because I haven’t had the experience to go one way or the other.

Believe it or not, someone actually found this blog via the search term "Does Botox have sulfites?"

Believe it or not, someone actually found this blog via the search term “Does Botox have sulfites?” (Photo from cekbeauty.com)

There are people with very definite opinions on sulfites, however, and you should try various wines and make up your own mind. Bottles labeled “Organic Wine” sold in the U.S. have no added sulfites by law, although they will be labeled “Contains Sulfites” if the concentration exceeds 10 ppm. European organics laws allow added sulfites in wine, although they’re not required, and most European-made organic wines will be labeled “Made with organic grapes” because they contain added sulfites. As our producers tell me, the aim of using sulfites is to preserve the best things about their wines and allow them to age in the bottle without spoiling. They try to calibrate the amount of sulfites needed for each individual wine. You can certainly be sloppy about winemaking and use too much sulfites. We’ve all had bottles that smelled like sulfur when opened. Likewise, we’ve probably all had bottles of fairly young wine that smelled a little oxidized (smelling like sherry) on opening, even if the wine tasted fine. Perhaps a bit more sulfites would eliminate the oxidized odor and make them fresher-tasting as well.

It has been a lot of fun rereading old blog entries, and I’ll be bringing you a few more of them based on our stats. More and more people are using encrypted searches, so I can’t always tell what might have brought them to this blog, but we still get a real doozy every couple of weeks. I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.


Looking back over the recipes we’ve put in the blog, I have to admit mine are pretty detailed. When I write them, I never know how much of those details are really needed. Most cooking magazines and cookbooks today seem to assume that we need basic instructions for everything short of boiling water. And that might be true. But one thing that always nags me is that most of the detail is provided in the hopes that people will make the recipes — but I don’t know that the additional detail actually serves that purpose. Are people who don’t cook more than just occasionally even going to try these recipes? If you didn’t grow up watching someone cook and helping with it, even very detailed instructions don’t necessarily help. Watching cooking shows could be more instructive, and if you’ve seen someone make a recipe on TV the print version will certainly be easier. But that might not translate to learned skills that will help you make other recipes unless you do it often enough.

I was reminded of this by two articles in the food section of yesterday’s Washington Post on Gabrielle Hamilton’s new cookbook, Prune.   If you’ve read her memoir Blood, Bones and Butter, you know she holds nothing back. She decided to write Prune without the kind of hand-holding that you find in most cookbooks today. Or the homey stories often found with the recipes. The results are somewhat controversial, as the two different Post articles show. I’ve used any number of cookbooks by restaurant chefs where the recipes don’t necessarily work in home kitchens (e-mail me if you want my list of favorites in this category), but I hadn’t yet seen a new book that was determined to eliminate most of what we see in contemporary cookbooks. As Jane Black writes in her article:

“Hamilton wrote the book as if she were speaking to her own [restaurant] line cooks. It has no inspirational or scene-setting headnotes. Its annotations, which are written in Hamilton’s own neat hand, are a mixture of warnings, advice and encouragement for those cooks. The conceit is sometimes discomfiting but stunningly original. In the blizzard of aspirational, look-alike cookbooks, “Prune,” like its namesake [restaurant], stands apart.”

It reminded me that many of the recipes I took away to college with me were basically one paragraph. This one is a recipe for salmon pie that came from my aunt Jilda who lives in Alaska:

“Make a 9-inch pie crust. Saute celery, onion, and mushrooms in butter (1/2 cup of each) until soft. Add one can cream of mushroom soup. Add two 7-1/2 ounce cans of salmon and two cups of cooked rice. Pour into the crust, bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees F.”

No separate ingredient list, no details. It assumes you know where to look to find a pie crust recipe and how to saute vegetables. It’s really tasty, even with the canned soup. Of course, I’ve tinkered with it over the years, and my version is below. But I’m keeping it in the spirit of the original, minimalist directions.

Salmon pairs well with white wines, rosés, and light- to medium-bodied reds. Since it’s still not cold here in DC, I recommend the Notes Frivoles Rosé from Domaine Sainte-Cécile du Parc in the Languedoc ($14). Although it has a lovely pale color, it’s a substantial rosé, made from Grenache, Cabernet Franc, and Carignan. And by now we’re all old hands at opening the bottle, even without a recipe.

Bon Appetit!


My Aunt’s Salmon Pie

Serves 6-8

1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust

2 tablespoons butter

1 stalk celery, finely diced

1 small onion, finely diced

6 mushrooms, sliced

1 teaspoon fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup, or the homemade version, below

2 7.5-ounce cans Alaskan salmon, drained, any bones removed; or 1 pound of cooked salmon fillet, flaked into small pieces

2 cups cooked rice (white or brown)

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Saute the onion and celery in the butter in a large skillet until they’re just getting soft. Then add the mushrooms and thyme and continue to cook until the mushrooms are done. Stir in the soup, salmon, and rice, and add a little ground pepper. Heat it through and taste the mixture for salt. Pour the salmon mixture into the pie crust. Bake for 40 minutes. Check the pie after 30 minutes and if it looks too brown, lightly tent it with aluminum foil and continue baking the additional 10 minutes. If it’s not brown after 40 minutes, bake another 5 minutes or so until it’s done.

Not Canned Cream of Mushroom Soup

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons flour

1-1/2 cups concentrated mushroom liquid, heated (made with 2-1/4 teaspoons Better than Bouillon mushroom base OR 2 small or 1 large Knorr Porcini mushroom bouillon cubes dissolved in 1-1/2 cups hot water)

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1 tablespoon dry sherry

Make a cooked roux from the flour and butter. Whisk in the hot mushroom liquid until smooth, then stir in the cream and sherry.

Posted in Blogging, Domaine Sainte Cecile du Parc, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Sulfites in wine, Uncategorized, Wine and Allergies, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reducing drinking by reducing smoking — a policy tool?

Beer and cigarettes seem to go together, according to a Washington University study. (Photo from news.upperplayground.com)

Beer and cigarettes seem to go together, according to a Washington University study.   Reducing smoking per capita also results in less beer consumption per capita.  (Photo from news.upperplayground.com)

If people smoke less, do they drink less too? And if so, can public policies designed to reduce smoking also reduce alcohol consumption? In Tuesday’s Washington Post, reporter Christopher Ingraham discussed a Washington University School of Medicine study showing that increasing cigarette taxes leads to people drinking less alcohol.

I’m not really surprised that reducing smoking also reduces drinking. What makes the Washington University study really interesting to me, though, is the conclusion that wine purchase and consumption per capita aren’t affected. Increasing cigarette taxes meant that fewer people would smoke — and those people would also drink less beer and spirits. But not less wine.

What also struck me was the study authors’ rationale for the difference. “People who prefer wine are less likely to smoke, more educated, and more likely to have healthier lifestyle habits than those who prefer other types of alcohol.”

Back in the days when you could still smoke in bars in DC, I don’t remember seeing very many people there drinking wine. Of course this was before we had many wine bars (those that were here had mostly banned smoking anyway), and regular ol’ bars don’t usually have wine specials the way they do for draft beers and rail drinks.   So the smokers were definitely drinking beer and spirits.

I haven’t seen data on what proportion of the smoking population drinks beer and spirits as opposed to wine. But it doesn’t make sense to me that wine drinkers would necessarily have “healthier lifestyle habits.” In general, people who drink a moderate amount of alcohol are healthier than those who don’t. The thinking is that the alcohol, with its anticoagulant properties, reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. But there isn’t definitive evidence that one form of alcohol is more effective than another. And with the exception of studies that dose rats with the equivalent of dozens of bottles of wine per day, there is limited — although somewhat positive — evidence that wine is better for you than beer or spirits.

The Washington University study also linked cigarette smoking with drinking spirits.  (Photo from dadswisdoms.com)

The Washington University study also linked cigarette smoking with drinking spirits, showing that reducing cigarette smoking also reduced spirits consumption. (Photo from dadswisdoms.com)

So I took a closer look at the study. This is the first time I’ve read a study that focuses on drinking habits in general with an eye toward reducing alcoholism.  It’s a pretty big body of research and one that I’ll have to look at more closely in the future.  The study itself is thoughtfully done, but the Post article misuses its conclusions to forward the idea that cigarette taxes are a way of reducing alcohol consumption.

There’s one problem I see right off the bat: The study looked at the impact of cigarette taxes AND smoking bans, not just cigarette taxes. The Post article refers once to “tobacco policies,” but talks specifically about only the tax end of it, not the smoking bans. So it’s incorrect to attribute the decrease in alcohol consumption just to cigarette taxes.

And then Post article doesn’t even mention that the scope of the study was 1990 to 2009. This presents its own issues, since later developments make it questionable if the conclusions still hold. First, the economic recession, while officially over sometime in 2009, affected alcohol sales through 2009, 2010, and 2011. And then the availability and market for craft beers and spirits have soared since 2009 and could affect the data.

As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t have good data on wine sales. While the authors relied on state tax and revenue data, those data wouldn’t necessarily be broken out by type of alcohol for every outlet.

Finally, I looked at what the study authors used to back up their claims of healthier lifestyles for wine drinkers. Three of the four articles cited were published in the 1990s, and one was published in 2002. I haven’t read through them, but if there’s the typical lag between available data and publication, then they’re potentially even more out of date than their publication dates would indicate. It would surprise me if the results were the same today as they were in 2002.

The Washington University study found that decreased smoking didn't affect wine drinking per capita, but the rationale isn't necessarily what they think it is.  (Photo from ihatenickell.com)

The Washington University study found that decreased smoking didn’t affect wine drinking per capita, but I don’t believe the rationale is necessarily what they think it is. (Photo from ihatenickell.com)

As the Post article states, “excessive drinking leads to about 88,000 deaths each year in the [U.S.]…[and] cigarette smoking adds another 440,000 deaths to the tally.” Looking at ways to reduce those deaths is worthwhile. But the study isn’t the tax policy tool the Post seems to think it is. And it doesn’t necessarily portray the lifestyles of alcohol drinkers accurately, either.  We’ll need better data to draw conclusions about either one.


It’s the lovely time of the year when we see winter squash, cauliflower, and root vegetables making appearances at the farmers’ markets. Cy and I bought celery root last weekend. Two of them. You can find them pretty much year-round at the supermarket, but they’re milder and sweeter when they’re newly harvested. When they sit around for a while, they get a little dried out and develop a sharper flavor. Not bad, but the fresher ones are a treat. They smell like celery when you first cut them open, but they don’t really taste like celery — I think of them as a cross between a Daikon radish and jicama, with a little sweetness too.

Since we had two celery roots, I decided to make soup. I used a basic root vegetable soup recipe (it works for parsnips and turnips, too), but made a couple of additions, like scallions in addition to the onions, and a little bit of dried celery seed to give it a little celery-like flavor. Using vegetable stock makes it vegetarian, although you could use chicken stock, or even water if you have an older celery root.  It makes a great fall or winter meal with salad and some warm bread.

Serve it with a flavorful white wine, like our new Vernaccia di San Gimignano, made by Azienda Agricola San Benedetto ($16). Vernaccia makes a luscious white wine, it has great citrus and some riper fruit flavors. And it smells like apricots! Since the celery root soup has a bit of acidity, they go well together. Vernaccia isn’t grown all over Tuscany, but just in the area around San Gimignano.  Like vices, not all wines are created equal — so go for the best ones you can!

Bon Appetit!


Celery Root Soup

Serves 6 – 8

1 large or 2 small celery roots, peeled and diced large (see note)

2 large baking potatoes, peeled and diced large

4 tablespoons butter

2 large onions, coarsely chopped

1 bunch scallions, white and light green parts coarsely chopped, and dark green parts reserved

4 cloves garlic, minced

6 cups vegetable stock

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1-1/2 cups milk

1 cup heavy cream

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

Melt the butter in a large soup pot. Add the onions and the white and light green parts of the scallions along with some salt and pepper and sauté until softened but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, and stir in the stock and lemon juice. Then add the diced celery root and potato and the nutmeg and celery seed. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Cover the pot and simmer for 40 minutes. Everything should be nice and soft.

Using an immersion blender, blend up the soup until it’s just barely not chunky anymore, but not smooth either. Stir in the milk and cream, and heat through. Season with salt and pepper. Chop as many of the scallion greens up as you’d like and add them to the soup and cook for a couple of minutes to soften them. Serve the soup hot.

A note about peeling celery root — you’ll need a big, sharp knife. Cut off the peel removing as little of the white core as you can. Then cut the celery root into quarters. Many of them are hollow and have a little peel on the inside as well. You’ll want to get off as much of that as you can.

Posted in Alcohol and Smoking, Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are big food and wine flavors ruining our palates?

These days, it seems it's hard to find a restaurant that doesn't have hot sauce at the table, or available by request.  Sriracha seems to be the default hot sauce of choice these days.  (Photo from 21food.com)

These days, it seems it’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t have hot sauce at the table, or available by request. Sriracha is the default hot sauce of choice these days. (Photo from 21food.com)

A few weeks ago, I listened to an interview that “The Splendid Table’s” Lynne Rosetto Kasper did with Kate Krader, restaurant editor of Food and Wine magazine. Krader had written an article wondering if the trend toward really big flavors in more and more foods — chiles, pork belly, bacon, pickles, fermented and funky ingredients, etc. — had made her reach for the hot sauce to put on foods she used to eat unadorned.

It came to a head one day when she ordered her go-to simple roast chicken at a favorite restaurant and found it less flavorful than she remembered. And she wasn’t alone. Even the chef was no longer happy with the results, and wondered how he could amp up the flavor and still keep it within the bounds of the type of cuisine he was trying to achieve.

Kasper asked Krader what she thought was responsible for the ginning up of spice and flavor. Krader responded that part of it is a natural evolution in our tastes as we try more and more foods from all over the world made by people with different culinary traditions.

But Krader also suggested that some of it is competition, both in cooking and eating. “Americans are … very competitive. I think if someone [has] a chile sauce that’s triple X … then someone else has to have the chile sauce that’s XXXX.  I think that’s definitely part of our DNA as well.” And, frankly, it’s also a way to cover up less-than-perfectly prepared food. “If you have a really hot sauce and your rice isn’t perfectly cooked — if you’re doing some kind of a stir fry — you definitely won’t notice that the rice is a little mushy or that you put too much bacon in it or not enough bacon because the hot sauce is shouting louder than every other ingredient on the plate.”

I thought about it, and it rang true to me. With new restaurants opening here in DC every week, it seems that the one thing they have in common is that most of their dishes are highly flavored and highly seasoned. And when I read the reviews of these new places, I see plenty of words like “packs a punch.” While a few dishes are reviewed as over-seasoned, it’s rare that you see any praise of dishes for their subtlety.

As I listened to the interview and before I read Krader’s article, it struck me that perhaps the dreaded (by me, at least) small plate frenzy is part of this — if every single item has to be intensely flavored, then there’s no way these ingredients can be combined into single dish. So each one stands on its own, and since each dish comes out as it’s prepared, each has to make a big flavor impression since there’s no telling in what order the dishes will be eaten. And, in fact, Krader does mention the small-plate trend as telling: “When you have only one bite of something, it has to make a big impression.”

Naturally, all of this made me think about big flavors in wine. Preference in wine is highly personal, of course.  I once had my taste buds stained and examined in an effort to see if my likes in wine could be explained anatomically. And, to a certain extent, they could — although some people were equally influenced by exposure. For example, one of the tasters had spent a particularly enjoyable time in Europe and drank a lot of wines while she was there. This carried over into a love of those wines even though her taste buds indicated that she’d prefer different ones.

In 2008, I participated in a tasting where we all had our tongues stained in order to determine the density of taste buds on them.  More taste buds on the tongue was supposed to mean that the taster would prefer more subtle wines.

In 2008, I participated in a tasting where we all had our tongues stained in order to determine the density of taste buds on them. More taste buds on the tongue was supposed to mean that the taster would prefer more subtle wines. (From deltadentalia.com)

There are plenty of reasons to love big, full-flavored wines even if they’re not what you normally drink. Years ago, Dare, who was pregnant at the time, and her husband Mark met Cy and me at a restaurant. Dare’s obstetrician had given her the go-ahead to have one glass of wine with dinner. After months of deprivation (and even turning to non-alcoholic wine in desperation), she said she wanted that glass to remind her what wine was supposed to taste like. So we ordered a bottle of the biggest red wine that was still in the two-digit price range. Dare savored every sip, even though it wasn’t her typical style of wine.

I have plenty of friends who, regardless of the weather or what they’re eating, want a big, bold wine if they’re going to drink wine. Nothing wrong with that. But my own unscientific survey of wine lists finds that there are fewer light- to medium-bodied red wines in restaurants these days, unless the wine list is a pretty long one. Part of this is economic, since you can find an increasing number of well-priced bigger wines. When I talk to fellow importers, they tell me that the holy grail is to find the big wine at the little price. And I’ve noticed that even the wines that you’d expect to be medium-bodied, like Pinot Noirs, are present in more robust versions than before.

But the article left me with some questions: (1) would eating more highly-flavored foods make people want more highly-flavored wines to pair with them as it appears is happening on wine lists; and (2) would drinking more and more full-bodied wines (regardless of the reason) make wine drinkers less likely to appreciate the charms of subtler wines?

If there's any truth in labeling here, these might be the wave of the future.  (From minimalpalettes.com)

If there’s any truth in labeling here, these might be the wave of the future. (From minimalpalettes.com)

And finally, if the wine world is following the food world with more flavor, is it a thing of the moment, or here to stay? Once Kate Krader started thinking more about what she was eating, she also started trying to wean herself off the condiments and getting back to appreciating the subtleties of foods that she didn’t want to write off as bland. The thing is, if she as a professional eater has to make an effort to achieve this, what chance will the rest of us have? I’d love to know what you think.


After all of this, I could hardly give a recipe for something with big, bold flavors, now could I?

I’m not sure if it was on the same episode of “The Splendid Table” or not, but Lynne took a call from someone who had something like 15 pounds of brie and didn’t know what to do with it. Lynne suggested putting the brie in custard, either savory or sweet. I thought that a savory brie custard would be a great accompaniment to a simple meal, like chicken or pork chops. And putting some sautéed apple on top would make it perfect for fall.

So here’s my version. Use a regular, firm, and creamy-colored brie — if you get one of the really ripe and gooey ones it won’t work as well, and will be a little too funky. I like a little bit of fresh thyme and you can either put some in the custard or sauté it with the apples. The custard gets baked in a water bath, which sounds like a lot of work. The easy way to do this is to have your hot tap water ready to go before you put the custards in the oven. Put the custard dishes in a baking pan that’s large enough to hold them, but not huge. Pull out the oven rack and place the pan on the rack. Pour the water around the custard dishes, filling to about halfway up the sides of the custard dishes. Gently slide the rack into the oven and bake.

You could serve the custard (and the chicken or pork) with a light-bodied red wine, like Cave la Romaine Rouge Tradition ($10), made from Grenache and Syrah. Or a medium-bodied white, like the Tuscanio Bianco from Società Agricola Bulichella ($18). It’s 100% Vermentino, made from organic grapes in the Maremma, in southwestern Tuscany, and has a lovely subtle pineapple flavor. It’s great on its own and with spicier foods, too. But at least this time, skip the spice and see how your palate responds. You’ll be surprised at how good subtlety can be.

Bon Appetit!


Savory Brie Custard with Sautéed Apple

Serves 4 as a side dish

2 cups milk


2 large eggs

A pinch of grated nutmeg

6 ounces brie, rind removed, cut into small pieces

Unsalted butter

1 medium apple, peeled, quartered, and cut into 1/4-inch pieces (preferably an apple that’s firm, sweet, and tart, like Crispin)

Set an oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter four custard cups or ramekins — they should hold between 3/4 and 1 cup each. Set the buttered cups in an 8-inch square baking pan.

Heat the milk with a big pinch of salt in a medium-sized saucepan until it’s very hot but not boiling. You should see little bubbles around the edge of the pan and maybe a little steam coming up. Remove the pan from the heat. Beat the eggs and nutmeg in a small bowl with a whisk. Keep whisking the eggs while you very slowly dribble about 1/2 cup of the hot milk into them. Then very slowly pour the egg mixture back into the pot of milk, again whisking the pot constantly. Whisk in the pieces of brie until they’re melted. Then divide the custard mixture among the four cups.

Fill a large measuring cup with very hot tap water. Open the oven door and, using a potholder, pull out the rack. Place the baking dish with the custards on the rack, and very carefully pour the hot water around the custards, making sure not to splash water in them. The water should come a little more than halfway up the sides of the cups. Gently push the rack into the oven without sloshing the water around, and close the door.

Bake the custards for 25 minutes and then check them. Look to see how jiggly they are — if there’s only about an inch in the center that jiggles, they’re done, because they’ll firm up a bit more out of the oven. If they look good, you can also test by sticking a sharp-pointed knife in half way between the center and the rim of one of the custards. If it comes out clean, then stick it in the center. It’s fine to have a little custard clinging at that site. If they’re not quite done, bake for another 5 minutes and try the jiggle test again. The custards shouldn’t take more than about 35 minutes.

Use tongs to lift the cups out the hot water and let them cool for at least 15 minutes on a rack. While the custards are cooling, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet. Add the diced apples and a pinch of salt and sauté for about 5 to 10 minutes total. The apple pieces should be soft but not mushy, it’s fine if they’re still firm at the center. Spoon the apples on top of the custards and serve slightly warm.

Posted in Bold Foods, Bold wine, Cave la Romaine, Kate Krader, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Societa Aricola Bulichella, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The other champagne grapes

The leaf on the right is from a Pinot Meunier vine at Champagne Bernard Mante.  The underside looks whiter than the other leaf, because there are little white-colored hairs on it.  These hairs help keep insects away, and also give the plant its name.  "Meunier" means "miller" as in flour miller, and it look like the leaf is dusted with flour.

The leaf on the right is from a Pinot Meunier vine at Champagne Bernard Mante. The underside looks whiter than the other leaf, because there are little white-colored hairs on it. These hairs help keep insects away, and also give the plant its name. “Meunier” means “miller” as in flour miller, and it looks like the underside of the leaf is dusted with flour.  I think the other leaf is from a Chardonnay vine.  But neither of these is one of the mystery grapes!

Here’s a pop quiz for fellow wine geeks. Champagne (that is, the real stuff from France) is allowed to contain which grape varietals?  I’ll give you a hint: there are more than three of them.  What are “the other” champagne grapes?  Read on …

I love learning about wine and wine production. Whether it’s geeking out reading scientific papers or trying to decipher documents detailing French rules of production, or going to seminars and tastings.   But by far the best way to learn about wine for me is to talk with our producers.

Every visit to one of First Vine’s wine producers is a learning experience. Many of them come from a long line of grape growers and wine makers. Not only are they attuned to making wine, but to the history of their regions.

For many of my producers, their ancestors or the people who owned their land in the past helped make history. And in other cases, they’re trying to preserve the region’s farming and winemaking history by continuing old techniques and planting older grape varietals.

The leaves and flowers of the Arbanne vine, at Champagne Bernard Mante.

The leaves and flowers of the Arbanne vine, at Champagne Bernard Mante.

Back in July I wrote about my visit with Bernard and Christiane Mante. Bernard makes champagne in the Marne Valley, and is definitely a history buff.   He has a collection of old postcards showing his village — Trélou-sur-Marne, and surrounding villages before and after World War I, and also showing how champagne grapes were grown and harvested in the early 20th century.

But as I found out during my visit, Bernard is also trying to preserve some of the agricultural history of the region as well. He’s growing four varietals of grapes that were historically used to make champagne: Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris.

Pretty much everything I’d read about champagne listed only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier as being the three grapes used in wine called “champagne.”   But Bernard told me that wasn’t the case. He said that the original documents setting out rules for champagne production referred to “Pinot” as a designation. While growers today take that to mean Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, it also means that Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris could be used in making champagne.

These two grapes are used to produce Alsatian wines.  Alsace isn’t far from Champagne, so it’s not surprising to see that they’d have been used in making champagne. But I didn’t know anything about Arbanne or Petit Meslier, so I did a little research.

Leaves and new grapes on a Petit Meslier vine, at Champagne Bernard Mante

Leaves and new grapes on a Petit Meslier vine, at Champagne Bernard Mante

Petit Meslier is the more interesting of the two, because it apparently retains high acidity even when grown in hotter-than-normal weather. Grapes lose acidity in really hot weather because it diffuses through the grape skins. While Champagne produces grapes with higher acidity because of the (relatively) cool climate, it’s not difficult to see how Petit Meslier would have been blended into champagne in hotter years to keep the typical acidity level. It apparently tastes like apples, which reminds me of Mauzac, the grape used to make sparkling wines in southwestern France. Arbanne is also highly acidic, and has a flavor that one taster described as green peppercorns.

Bernard told me it was difficult to get seeds or plants of Arbanne and Petit Meslier anywhere in the Champagne region. He has planted a row of each of them, along with single rows of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. He’s not growing enough of each to make wine or champagne from them. At least for now, he’s just interested in preserving a bit of history.

[An editing note here: you'll notice that the letter "c" in champagne is used in both upper and lower case. When I first started writing about champagne I didn't know which to use, so I asked Christiane. She told me that upper case is used when referring to the Champagne region, while lower case is used for the actual wine.]


One of Bernard's historical postcards from Champagne.  Perhaps the lady is expressing delight at drinking champagne containing Arbanne and Petit Meslier?

One of Bernard’s historical postcards from Champagne. Perhaps the lady is expressing delight at drinking champagne containing Arbanne and Petit Meslier?

While I’m all for serving champagne with meals, I have to admit that I primarily serve it as an aperitif or with dessert. Not because I don’t like it with non-dessert foods. It’s just that I think butter and especially nuts taste particularly good with champagne. This week’s recipe has both.

Every year I ask Cy what flavor or style of cake he’d like for his birthday. This year, he left it up to me with the proviso that it be a showstopper. I’m afraid I dithered about it. In my defense, we were busy and we went out of town for his birthday weekend. I had good intentions of making a lovely cake when we got back, but then came Valentine’s Day and before I knew it, it was March…

We decided that we’d have a dinner party for Nov Rooz, Persian New Year, which is on the first day of spring. Cy (gently) reminded me that no birthday cake had yet shown up, and suggested that I make a cake with pistachios to celebrate both occasions. I started looking for recipes. Rather than a typical layer cake that had some pistachios in it, I wanted something that was a little more like European tortes. I found one in Jamie Oliver’s magazine, created by Anna Jones (one assumes it’s Jamie-approved if it appears in a magazine with his name on it, but I like to give credit where it’s due).

Ms. Jones’s recipe included an elderflower liqueur soak and used some in the icing as well, but I thought something with rosewater might be better with a Persian meal so I re-engineered them. And while there are proper weights given for each ingredient since there’s baking involved, there’s still that Jamie Oliver cavalier quality in listing them (can’t make it seem too rigorous, after all). Ms. Jones calls for butter. I used unsalted butter and decided the recipe needs salt. And one of the ingredients is “polenta,” which might be used interchangeably for cornmeal — except that you can also buy polenta-grind cornmeal. That’s what I did, and the cake was a little bit more toothsome than I’d like. Also too crumbly. So now I use finely ground cornmeal instead.

You’ll find Champagne Bernard Mante on our Fizz and Finales page. We carry six different varieties and they’re all very good with most desserts. But since there’s rosewater in the dessert, why not try the rosé ($42)? No Arbanne or Petit Meslier in it, but it does have a little red Pinot Noir wine added for the color and a lovely flavor.

Bon Appetit!


Pistachio Cornmeal Cake with Rosewater Icing

Serves 8 to 10


10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing the pan

1-1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1-1/4 cups shelled, roasted, unsalted pistachios, 150 grams or 5 ounces (see note on pistachios), coarsely chopped, plus a little bit more for decoration

1-1/2 cups finely-ground cornmeal

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons almond flour or almond meal

3 tablespoons Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs, at room temperature

The juice and finely-grated zest of one large lemon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cut a piece of parchment to fit the bottom of an 8-inch springform pan. (You can use a 9-inch pan, but you’ll need to reduce the baking time slightly. Also, if you don’t want to take the cake off the springform bottom, you don’t need to use the parchment). Butter the bottom of the pan, then fit in the parchment circle, and butter the paper and the sides of the pan. Set the pan aside.

Beat the 10 tablespoons of butter and the sugar together using an electric mixer. Beat until the mixture is light-colored and a little fluffy. This takes 6 minutes or so. Add the dry ingredients plus the yogurt and beat until thoroughly combined. Beat in the eggs, then the lemon juice and zest.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake 45 to 50 minutes, start checking after 40 minutes by sticking a toothpick in the cake near the center — it should come out clean when the cake is done. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool until just barely warm.

Rosewater syrup

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons honey

2-1/2 teaspoons rosewater

Heat the water and honey in a small saucepan to dissolve the honey. Let the mixture cool slightly, then stir in the rosewater. Taste the syrup — you can add a little more rosewater if you want more of that flavor. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the syrup for the icing

Rosewater icing

3/4 cup Greek yogurt

3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar, sifted to remove any lumps

2 tablespoons rosewater syrup

Whisk the yogurt, sugar, and syrup together until completely mixed.

To assemble: Unlock the springform and remove the ring. Gently place a lightly-greased cooling rack on top of the cake, then turn the cake over, taking care not to squeeze the cake and rack together. Remove the pan bottom and parchment, then put a second rack on the bottom of the cake and turn it right-side up. Set the cake on the rack over a rimmed baking sheet or large plate. Make a few small holes in the cake top with a toothpick and brush the rosewater syrup on the top and sides of the cake, making sure it’s absorbed.  You may not need to use all the syrup on the cake.

Pour and spread the icing on top of the cake and decorate with some chopped pistachios, if desired. Gently lift the cake and transfer it to a serving plate.  Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. The cake keeps in an airtight container for a few days at room temperature.

Note on pistachios: It can be difficult to find shelled roasted unsalted pistachios. If you can only get the salted ones, put them in a strainer and rinse them under running water for a few seconds. Then spread them on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees F for 5 or 6 minutes. For this recipe, you can chop them before you rinse and bake them — just be sure to let them cool completely before you use them in the cake.

Posted in Champagne, Champagne Bernard Mante, Champagne wine grapes, Gluten-free cake, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Trick yourself into drinking less wine?

As a wine merchant, I'm not sure I like the idea of people drinking less wine, but if you must...

As a wine merchant, I’m not sure I like the idea of people drinking less wine, but if you must…

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?

The main building at Cap de Castel, a small hotel in southwestern France.  A meal Cy and I had there was the inspiration for this week's recipe.  (Photo from the Cap de Castel website.)

The main building at Cap de Castel, a small hotel in southwestern France. A meal Cy and I had there was the inspiration for this week’s recipe. (Photo from the Cap de Castel website.)

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.

I know I have a photo of Cy and me on the terrace at Cap de Castel, but I can't find it.  (Photo from the Cap de Castel website.)

I know I have a photo of Cy and me on the terrace at Cap de Castel, but I can’t find it. (Photo from the Cap de Castel website.)

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!

Bon Appetit!


Mushroom Ragout with Poached Eggs and Garlic Toasts

Serves 4


1-1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, bottom of stems trimmed, caps wiped clean with a damp cloth (a pound of white mushrooms and a half-pound of crimini work well here)

2 large shallots, finely minced

Olive oil

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.)

Garlic Toasts

4 thin slices rustic bread cut in half crosswise, or 12 slices of baguette, about a half-inch thick

Olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half

Coarse salt

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.

Poached Eggs

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.

To Serve

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.

Posted in Brian Wansink, Domaine des Mathurins, Mindless eating, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Slim by Design, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, Vegetarian recipes, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Small plates, big service

If this is what restaurants meant by "small plates," they'd be a whole lot more fun than the (generally) disappointing dining experience I've found them to be.

If this is what restaurants meant by “small plates,” they’d be a whole lot more fun than the (generally) disappointing dining experience I’ve found them to be. (Photo from kizaz.com)

If you’ve read this blog for a while you’ll know that I try to avoid restaurants that serve only so-called “small plates.” But Cy and I came across one last month that redeemed the small-plate concept. Even better, we ate there on vacation, when we were really primed to enjoy it.

I listed my small-plate bugaboos extensively in a previous post, but here’s a recap: The each-dish-coming-out-when-it’s-ready thing is annoying and unnecessary. It’s tyranny, really, eating when they decide that you can. No matter how good the food is, and it’s often very good, it’s still difficult to have an excellent dining experience at most of these places. If you’re not rushed through your food, you’re waiting while some of your party eats and vice-versa. If you’re sharing all the food, you’re trying your best not to take more than your portion — and inevitably there are bits left that you all end up eying, hungrily, but no one wants to be the one to make the first move and finish something up.

And worst of all, there’s rarely an option to get small pours of different wines to go with your variety of small plates.

But then last month, when my husband Cy and I were on our final night of vacation and hoping to have one last lovely dinner out, we found a small-plate restaurant that we’d go back to anytime. Joon Bar + Kitchen, in Provincetown, MA, does it right. And since it’s a small restaurant in an expensive town with a very short tourist season, if they can do it, anyone can.

We knew we weren’t in the DC-small-plate scene the moment we walked in. We saw a table by the front window and asked the hostess if we could sit there. She said we could, but that there was another party using that table in an hour and a half — and they reserve your table for two and a quarter hours. She thought we might feel a little rushed if we took it instead of the (equally lovely) one reserved for us. For a moment, we thought that 1.5 hours would probably be enough for our meal. But we decided to take her recommendation, and were glad we did.

The food was very good, nicely prepared, and beautifully served. The best thing, though, was that we were able to ask for our dishes in the order we wanted to eat them. Imagine, getting two small plates of our choosing at the same time, one hot and one cold. And then two more dishes at the same time, as requested. In the second round, one of the dishes was something that would no doubt have come out from the kitchen pretty much right away in any other small-dish place. But it came when we wanted it, right off the grill.

Despite the Persian name, Joon Bar + Kitchen doesn't serve Persian food.  This week's recipe is my version of a Persian small-plate dish. (Photo from foodspotting.com)

Despite the Persian name, Joon Bar + Kitchen doesn’t serve Persian food. This week’s recipe is my version of a Persian small-plate dish. (Photo from foodspotting.com)

Though I found a wine on the list that we were happy to drink an entire bottle of despite our disparate dishes, Joon is a wine bar and you can request small pours of any of the wines served by the glass. Next time I’m going to try it out.

While we didn’t take the full time allotted to us, we stayed for two hours at Joon. Contrast this to some DC small-plate places that try to chase parties of four out in less than an hour and a half. And Joon’s not any more expensive than the DC places are. So check it out if you can. You’ll be surprised how civilized small plates can be.


As soon as we saw the sign “Joon,” Cy and I wondered if perhaps the owner might be Persian. Joon, in Farsi, is a term of endearment, like “dear” in English. Cy’s father came to the U.S. from Iran, and Cy’s paternal grandfather was called Papa Joon by his grandchildren. Cy and his sister still call each other Joon when they talk on the phone.

Sure enough, owner and sommelier Audrey is half-Persian like Cy. Her father called her Audrey Joon from the time she was born. So she named the restaurant Joon in his honor. The name fits, though, because it’s so welcoming. The photos on the wall are from her father’s family in Iran, and when I first saw them I wondered how they’d managed to get Cy’s family photos up in Provincetown.

Although there’s no Persian food on the menu at Joon, I thought it would be fun to have a small-plate Persian food recipe. Last year I posted a recipe for Albondigas, Spanish Tapas-style meatballs. Practically every culture has its own version, and the Persian ones are called Kufteh. You can form them on skewers and grill them, or make them as small meatballs and cook them in a tomato sauce with cinnamon and turmeric, as the recipe shows here.

Louisa Shafia's new book is a good introduction to Persian food.  I'll be writing a review soon.

Louisa Shafia’s new book is a good introduction to Persian food. I’ll be writing a review soon. (Photo from asiasociety.org)

The key to making them moist and not too dense is to soak uncooked Basmati rice in water for at least an hour, then drain it and grind it up in a food processor before adding it to the meat. It’s important to use Basmati rice because other varieties might not behave the same way. Some Persian rice dishes steam Basmati rice for over an hour and it still comes out beautifully — you can’t say that about some other long-grain rices. You should be able to find Basmati rice in the grocery store. But if not, see if your local Indian restaurant will sell you a little. You’ll only need a half a cup. Using rice instead of bread or bread crumbs in the meatballs makes them gluten free, too.

I first made Kufteh earlier this year from Louisa Shafia’s book The New Persian Kitchen, and this recipe is basically hers with several tweaks. The ingredients aren’t out of the ordinary, with two possible exceptions. One is turmeric, a spice not everyone may have around. If you’re someone who doesn’t want to buy a spice you don’t otherwise use to try a recipe, you can leave it out. But last week in my doctor’s office I read about turmeric’s use in relieving joint pain. So it might be worth buying after all. The other is mint. Shafia writes that many Persian cooks used dried herbs in cooking, especially mint. I never thought dried mint had any flavor, but if you’re going to make more middle-eastern food it would be convenient to have around. You can also substitute some dried or fresh basil, which might be easier to find — use about one-third as much dried basil as dried mint, or half as much fresh.  I think wintertime fresh basil from the grocery store has more flavor than wintertime fresh mint, so it might work out better anyway.

This week's recommended wine is a new selection from Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, near San Gimignano, Italy

This week’s recommended wine is a new selection from Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, near San Gimignano, Italy

Since this dish is basically meatballs in tomato sauce, I thought I’d pair it with our new spaghetti and meatballs wine: Azienda Agricola San Benedetto Chianti Tradizione ($14). We’ve just received shipments from two Italian wine producers, both in Tuscany. San Benedetto, near San Gimignano, makes classic northern Tuscan wines like Chianti, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and Vermentino. Marco and Andrea Gianelli farm and make wine and olive oil on land their ancestors worked as sharecroppers. Their Chianti Tradizione is lighter-bodied, with a little acidity to stand up to the tomato sauce. A great wine for everyday meals. Italian wine and Persian food — combining great cuisines in a meal doesn’t have to be difficult!

Nooshe Joon!


Persian-Style Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Serves 8 as an appetizer or tapas-style course


1/2 cup basmati rice, soaked in cold water for at least one hour

4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled

3 tablespoons dried mint, or 1 cup loosely packed fresh mint (you can substitute 1 tablespoon dried basil, or 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves)

1 small onion, cut in pieces

1 pound lean ground beef (90%), or a mixture of ground beef and ground lamb

1 egg, beaten

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil (for browning)


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, minced

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

3 cups cooked tomato sauce (use your favorite brand from a jar, preferably one with less herbs. If it’s very thick, add 3 tablespoons of water to it)

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Make the meatball mixture: Drain the rice well and shake off as much excess water as you can. Put the rice in a food processor with the garlic, mint or basil, and onion. Pulse until it’s ground up — there should be no large pieces of rice. Put the mixture into a large bowl and combine with the meat, egg, salt, and pepper. At this point you can cover the meatball mixture and refrigerate it for 24 hours if you’d like to do it ahead.

Make the sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and sauté the onion until it’s lightly browned, about 10 minutes or so. Add the cinnamon and turmeric and cook for a minute. Stir in the tomato sauce and some black pepper. Bring to the simmer and taste for salt.

Brown the meatballs: While the onion is browning for the sauce, form the meatballs using one heaping tablespoon for each one. Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet and lightly brown the meatballs on all sides. You’ll have to do this in batches, remove the browned meatballs and put them on a plate while you do the rest of them.

Finishing:  When all the meatballs are browned, pour off any fat in the skillet and add the sauce. Scrape the bottom to mix in any browned bits. Add the meatballs back to the skillet and stir gently to coat them in sauce. Cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice — the sauce should be lightly acidic but not too much (it will depend on how acidic your tomato sauce is). Add another tablespoon of lemon juice if you think it needs it. Serve warm.

Posted in Joon Bar + Kitchen, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Small-plate restaurants, Tapas recipes, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our wine is better than your water

One of the wagons in the Vendanges des Artistes was painted with this:  Our water is better than your wine.  I guess that's what passes for trash talk in the wine world.

One of the wagons in the Vendanges des Artistes was painted with this: Our wine is better than your water. I guess that’s what passes for trash talk in the wine world.  (The photos in this post are from the video made by Sebastian Nickel at vnickel.com)

[Update: I learned today that while my translation is literally correct, the photo to the left is actually a very clever play on words. First, the "water" is real bottled water that's produced in Sainte Cécile les Vignes, which is the village next door. Then, eau de là -- which I translated as "the water there," sounds the same as au delà, which means beyond. Or, in this case, the great beyond. So you could read this as "Our wine is better than dying," which would most likely be the truth.  But it could also be that their neighbor's bottled water is like death.  Ah, the crafty French!  That's much better trash talk.]

It’s harvest and wine-making time again. Harvest is the busiest time of the year for most wineries because you’ve only got a limited amount of time to pick the grapes before it gets too cold at night (or during the day, for that matter). If the harvest is later than usual because of cooler or rainy summer weather, then it’s really a race to pick them quickly.

So while there’s still time before the harvest starts, a lot of villages in wine-making regions have a pre-harvest festival. One of these villages, Cairanne, in the Southern Rhône Valley, just had its third annual Vendange des Artistes, or Artists’ Harvest.

The wine cat of Cairanne, from a grape wagon at the Vendanges des Artistes.

The wine cat of Cairanne, from a grape wagon at the Vendanges des Artistes.

As I posted a couple of years ago, the festival started with local art students painting the wagons used to haul grapes from the fields to the wineries (called bennes in France), in consultation with the winery owners and grape-growers. Although the wineries’ names don’t appear on the wagons, the hope was that you’d see a wagon with decoration you’d like and either follow it back to the winery, or find out who it belonged to. Then, of course, try the wines.

The Vendange des Artistes has become a little bit more elaborate every year and is now open to more than students. And the folks promoting Rhône Valley wines are using it for a marketing tool now, which is probably how the video of this year’s festival got made. Still, it’s a really fun idea. And a great way to bring the community together.


Gives a whole new meaning to "bottle rocket," doesn't it?  From the 2014 Vendange des Artistes in Cairanne.

Gives a whole new meaning to “bottle rocket,” doesn’t it? From the 2014 Vendange des Artistes in Cairanne.

We don’t carry wines from Cairanne anymore, but this week’s recommendation is from a village that’s practically next door.  Cave la Romaine Séguret ($15) is 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah. The winery is the cooperative in Vaison la Romaine, but all the grapes are grown in Séguret, a village only a few kilometers from Cairanne. The wine is medium-bodied and has all sorts of ripe fruit flavor, plus a great leathery/tobacco earthiness. Robust enough for grilling, and the perfect thing to take the chill off our September evenings.

When it gets cool at night I start thinking of heartier foods. Yet we know that we can still get a couple of scorching days and I won’t want something too heavy. Salmon fits the bill for this anything-goes weather-wise time of year. I got the idea for this recipe from watching Jacques Pepin make a salmon dish. He put a fresh bread crumb and hazelnut topping on a side of salmon and baked it in a low oven — low enough to be able to bake the salmon right on the serving platter. I tried it, but the salmon wasn’t cooked enough for my taste. (I don’t need to have it completely cooked through, but this was a little too raw for me. I also have to admit that I wasn’t courageous enough to risk breaking my serving platter cooking it in the oven.)

So I guess you can read this as wine improving your sight, or that everything you see looks better with a little wine.  Either one works!  From the 2014 Vendange des Artistes.

So I guess you can read this as wine protecting your sight, or that everything you see looks better with a little wine. Either one works! From the 2014 Vendange des Artistes.

So I’ve upped the temperature and bake them a little longer. Plus, instead of the hazelnuts in the recipe, I use walnuts, which are easier to find, and I added garlic and thyme to the crumbs for a little extra flavor. I make the recipe with four to six ounce fillets instead of one big piece. You can put the fillets butting up against one another if you like, that way the ones in the middle will cook a little less.

Southern Rhône wines pair very well with salmon, so the Séguret will be a good match. Serve the breaded fillet on top of some salad for a lighter meal, or with something like pasta with garlic and olive oil as a side dish for a colder-weather dish.  You may not live in a place where you can watch the grape wagons go by, but you can eat as if you do!

Bon Appetit!


Baked Salmon with Walnuts and Bread Crumbs

Serves 4

4 4-6 ounce salmon fillets, skin on, any little bones removed.

1 large clove garlic, peeled

1/4 cup walnut pieces

2 slices sandwich bread, or 5-6 baguette slices (remove the tougher parts of the crust if you’re using baguette slices), torn into small pieces

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly oil a shallow baking dish that’s just large enough to hold all four salmon fillets.

Drop the garlic clove through the feed tube of a food processor that’s running and let it get minced. Stop the food processor and add the walnuts. Pulse until the walnuts are very finely chopped, but not ground. Empty the walnut/garlic mixture into a medium-sized bowl. Put the bread pieces in the food processor and pulse until you make fresh bread crumbs. You should have about a cup of crumbs; if not, use the processor to make enough.

Combine the walnut mixture and the crumbs, along with the fresh thyme and a little salt and pepper. Stir in a tablespoon of olive oil. Put the fillets skin-side-down in the oiled baking dish, and brush the fish with the olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Using your hands, press the crumb mixture on top of the fillets and drizzle a bit more olive oil on top.

Put the fish in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes. The crumbs will be lightly browned and the fish should be just cooked through. Serve immediately.

Posted in Cairanne, Cave la Romaine, Jacques Pepin, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Vendange d'Artistes, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vacation Rental Kitchen Surprises

For some reason, every vacation rental I've stayed in has at least one jar of red pepper flakes in the kitchen.  Not just the takeout packets, but whole jars.

For some reason, every vacation rental I’ve stayed in has at least two jars of red pepper flakes in the kitchen. Not just the pizza place takeout packets, but whole jars.  (Photo from theperfectpantry.com)

Cooking on vacation can be a challenge. Even if the place has a nice kitchen, you’re not necessarily going to have the staples you have at home. If you’re lucky, the owners spend time there and cook a lot themselves, so they’ll have a good supply and don’t mind your using them. Or, since most people who buy staples on vacation leave them in the house, you could end up staying after someone who just had to whip up lovely meals.

But most of the time that’s not the case. By the time you read this, Cy and I will be in Provincetown, our 14th trip up together (and Cy has been going even longer than that). The first half-dozen years we went, we stayed in a big house with friends and the kitchen had lots of equipment and staples. So we made lots of fun meals and had a great time entertaining, which we love to do.

Since 2008, though, we’ve been renting various smaller places on our own.  While the kitchens aren’t exactly just afterthoughts, there’s usually not a whole lot there. And the food supplies left behind are downright puzzling. Why in the world are there always multiple jars of crushed red pepper flakes? And more than one bottle of cider vinegar? There also seems to be a bottle of pancake syrup every year. Not maple syrup, but Log Cabin and such. (No evidence of pancake mix or Bisquick, though.) And if there’s a blender or a food processor, it’s definitely seen better days — some kitchens look like everything came from the Island of Misfit Toys.

Still, we like to entertain even in less-than-ideal conditions and even make some of the food,  so I’ve had to think of recipes that don’t require specialized equipment or lots of ingredients. The two that have worked out best over the years are tarts or pizza, made with frozen puff pastry or pizza dough from a local pizza place. You can make the Tomato Tart with Cheese and Pizza à la Pissaladière (a fancy name for cooked onions with other things like olives and capers) with about a half hour of prep time, and produce something tasty for guests or an easy dinner for yourselves in an hour. And they’re not just “good enough for an afterthought kitchen” kind of recipes — they’re definitely things you’d be happy to make at home.

According to Epicurious, Mrs. Butterworth's is the best of the non-maple syrups.  Unfortunately, I almost always find the store brand instead in vacation rental kitchens.  And, inexplicably, no pancake mix...

According to Epicurious, Mrs. Butterworth’s is the best of the non-maple syrups. Unfortunately, I almost always find the store brand instead in vacation rental kitchens. And, inexplicably, no pancake mix…(Photo from meandmypinkmixer.com)

I’ve posted these recipes before, but I’ve developed a few shortcuts and tips since then after making them in various rental kitchens.   The idea is to use what you can find around and don’t worry too much about things you don’t have or can’t easily get. The recipes are pretty forgiving, and they’ll be delicious (almost) no matter what you do with them.

As I mentioned before, you can make them with pizza dough or puff pastry. If you’re looking to make one of each and the local grocery store has puff pastry, it’s a good way to go, since frozen puff pastry comes two sheets to a box. And the look of puff-pastry tarts can’t be beat.  If you think ahead, put the puff pastry sheets in the fridge the night before you want to use them to thaw. But if you forget or don’t get a chance, just unwrap them and let them sit on the counter until you can unfold them, usually about a half hour. This gives you time to prep the other ingredients.

If you can’t find puff pastry, then stop at a pizza place and ask for enough dough for a large pizza. (They’re usually happy to sell you pizza dough.) Don’t worry about not having flour for rolling — it works just as well just to oil a baking sheet and press the pizza dough into the right size right on the oiled surface. In fact, it actually works better than rolling on flour. And if you’d still like to roll the dough, use a wine bottle as a rolling pin. If your rental kitchen doesn’t have baking sheets, buy the disposable foil ones, or just use two layers of foil as the sheet, fold up the ends so you can grab them, and put the foil right on the oven rack to bake.

Grocery stores have a lot more things like fresh herbs these days, but if you’re going to a store without them, don’t worry. You can use dried herbs, and they may even already be in your rental kitchen. But if they’re not, buy a little jar of Italian seasoning (and leave what you don’t use for the next renter). For the tomato tart, mix about a teaspoon of the seasoning with a little olive oil (I haven’t yet seen a rental kitchen that didn’t have olive oil in the cupboard), and use that to drizzle the top before you bake it. For the onion tart, you can mix the herbs right in as you cook the onions.

And as for cheese, olives, capers, etc, use what you can find. If your grocery store has an olive bar, you can buy just what you need. Otherwise you can leave them out. I have made these tarts with pre-shredded cheese (Sargento brand is good, I’ve used their Asiago blend and it’s tasty), and even pre-sliced Swiss cheese that I cut into little bits.

If your rental kitchen has no dried herbs and you can't get fresh, buy a small jar of Italian Seasoning.  It'll work in lots of dishes and the next renters will love you for leaving it for them.  (Photo from styleforum.net)

If your rental kitchen has no dried herbs and you can’t get fresh, buy a small jar of Italian Seasoning. It’ll work in lots of dishes and the next renters will love you for leaving it for them. (Photo from styleforum.net)

If you want to read more about the recipes and the background for them, you can take a look at the original posts I wrote with them. The tomato tart recipe was one Cy and I had while visiting French friends. And the Pissaladière is based on a pizza we had in a small village where practically everyone town gathers to eat pizza and drink local wine on Sunday nights. That’s part of what makes them perfect vacation fare.

The tarts go with nearly any wine, as long as it’s not too oaky. If you’re looking for something, try the Tradition Côtes du Ventoux Red, White, or Rosé from Cave la Romaine. At $10 a bottle, they’re great for entertaining, and they’re fresh and tasty, whether on vacation or not.

Bon Appetit!


Tomato Tart with Cheese

Pizza à la Pissaladière

PS:  I made both the tarts for a cocktail party yesterday — photos below.

Pizza à la Pissaladière made with puff pastry.  The local grocery store didn't have an olive bar, so I left out the olives, anchovies, and capers.  It was still delicious.

Pizza à la Pissaladière made with puff pastry. The local grocery store didn’t have an olive bar, so I left out the olives, anchovies, and capers. It was still delicious.

Tomato Tart with Cheese.  With Italian Seasoning mixed with olive oil drizzled on top before baking.

Tomato Tart with Cheese. With Italian Seasoning mixed with olive oil drizzled on top before baking.

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