A different look at sustainable farming

New Jersey farmer Gabriel Siciliano of Abe’s Acres Farm on the right — he’s taking the same pose as his grandfather, Joe Notterman, who farmed and was also a psychology professor at Princeton. Cy and I met Gabe selling his produce at a farm stand and I contacted him to talk about sustainable farming.

I’ve written a lot about sustainability over the past year and how it relates to wine grape growing and wine production.  But it hadn’t occurred to me to look at how sustainability works in other agricultural sectors.

Then while driving home from Provincetown last month, Cy and I stopped for lunch at the Americana Diner in Hightstown, NJ, which is Cy’s hometown.  The diner gets particularly crowded on weekends, and there’s a wait for tables.  This summer, customers had the opportunity to buy fresh produce during their waits from a local farmer who set up a stand out front – Gabriel Siciliano of Abe’s Acres Farm in Hightstown.

Cy and I chatted with Gabe and bought some beautiful produce.  After we were back home, Cy looked at Gabe’s website and read me the description: “Produce and herbs grown sustainably in Hightstown, New Jersey! Our products are better than organic… ask us how!”  Given my skepticism about sustainability, I decided to take him up on it and ask.  We spoke about a week later, and I learned a lot about small-scale organic and sustainable farming.  This post is an edited version of our conversation.

First, though, a little about Gabe and the farm.  Gabe is 25 years old, and 2017 is his first year of commercial farming.  He grows mixed annuals on 1.5 acres.  The land is part of a 200+-acre property that was purchased by his great-grandfather, Abraham Feldsher, in the 1930s.  Gabe’s grandfather (Abraham’s son-in-law), Joe Notterman, continued the family farm, and he was also a psychology professor at Princeton University.  The property was eventually rented to another farmer who still grows soybeans on most of the land.  Gabe was able to carve out his parcel for farming with only minor soil amending, and has plans to expand in the future.

A fun coincidence:  when Cy mentioned that he grew up in Hightstown, Gabe said, “Then I’ll bet my grandmother was your pediatrician.”  Dr. Rebecca Notterman was indeed Cy’s pediatrician – the town’s pediatrician, in fact – and Cy remembers her fondly.  She is 92 now and only recently retired from practice.  So Gabe has deep roots in the community.  In that way, he reminded me of the wine producers I buy from, whose families often lived on the vineyard land for generations and are community leaders as well.

—————

You’ve named your farm Abe’s Acres after your great-grandfather.  Had he always been a farmer?  No, not at all.  My great-grandfather came to the U.S. from Russia during the pogroms.  As a Jewish man, he wasn’t allowed to own property so he wasn’t a landowner, and he hadn’t been a farmer.  He became a grocer in Brooklyn when he came to this country.  But he really wanted to do what had been denied him and buy land, so he and his wife moved to Hightstown with their three young daughters, including my grandmother – who later became your husband’s pediatrician.

That’s a great story!  When we spoke at the farm stand, you mentioned that you’re supplying a few local restaurants in addition to selling to the public.  What have you grown this year?  A range of annual vegetables — potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beets, chard, kale, carrots, turnips, and parsnips.  It’s tough to rattle them off like this, I may have left something out!  I’ll grow garlic over the winter and harvest it in the spring, too.

How did you get interested in the environmental aspects of agriculture?  Through the apprenticeships I did before starting the farm.  One was at a Chickadee Creek Farm in New Jersey that taught me about the economics of organic farming.  The other was at Quail Hill Farm on Long Island.  It’s also a land trust, and without some of the financial pressures on them they are able to push the envelope on truly sustainable practices.

You really made me curious by saying on your website that you thought sustainable farming was better than organic.  I’ve come to the conclusion – at least for sustainable winemaking and grape-growing – that the economic part of sustainability tends to outweigh the other parts, so I’m not necessarily a fan.  Why are you?  I’m kind of a purist when it comes to sustainability and I go back to what I think is its original definition:  Meeting current needs, and making sure that future generations can meet their needs as well.

So how do you think that this is any different than, say, the CEO of a large oil company would view sustainability?  Because of the word “needs.”  It should be about meeting our needs, not our wants.  Not the level of consumption we have now for things like food and textiles and water use.  Because our current production system and consumption level is unsustainable.  Even if there’s a certification for it.

The other thing is that you’re right — industry, and even super-large agriculture, thinks mostly of being economically sustainable.  That is, how long can they sustain their current activity and still make a profit.

I found the same thing when I was doing environmental work, evaluating pollution prevention plans for industrial facilities in New Jersey. Even if projects seemed like no-brainers financially, most facilities wouldn’t do them.  I’m not surprised, most factories are going to want as many years out of current operations as possible.  Eventually they’re going to have to completely re-tool anyway, and they’d want to spend as little as possible in the meantime.

But the problem with that is, it puts the onus on the consumer rather than the producer to learn if production is done as efficiently and with as little possible harm as they can manage.

Gabe says he sometimes gets a little jealous of other farmers’ photos on Instagram. But his own photos look pretty good, too.

And on the surrounding community, too, I absolutely agree.  So in the interests of informing the consumer, why would you choose sustainable rather than organic?  Particularly when the rules for organic certification are codified, and sustainability doesn’t really have rules.  Don’t get me wrong, I think organic is a good starting point.  I’m in my first year of three to becoming organic certified.  But until I’m certified, USDA won’t allow me to use the word organic.  I can’t use it on any signage, packaging, etc.

Really?  You can’t say that you’re in organic transition?  I could say that talking to people at the farm stand and to my restaurant customers – and I do, just not on paper.  But I find it’s a lot easier to talk about sustainability because I’m following the organic rules, but also pulling in other things I think are important.  Then I can talk about those as well with my customers.  Also, I think the USDA organic standards are below par.

Then why go for organic certification at all?  Well, as I said, it’s a place to start.  Some farmers don’t want to, because while the costs of certification are partially subsidized, it means a lot more bureaucracy than normal.  I look at it as an opportunity, though, because it’s a lot harder to make changes to the system if you don’t participate.  As for the standards, I think farmers have a responsibility to ameliorate as much potential environmental effects as possible, from chemical use to soil conservation and climate change mitigation.  “Organic” as we know it is only a part of that.

Did you have to do anything to your soil to begin the process of transition to organic certification?  Not much.  The land has been farmed by someone growing soybeans.  So the only things used were some artificial fertilizers and Roundup – since it’s practically impossible to grow any soybeans other than the Roundup-ready ones these days.  But none of that stuff persisted in the soil.  After the initial testing, I was asked to amend the soil with some elemental boron, since it was low.  That made me scratch my head a little.

How so?  Well, elemental boron is an artificial product, it doesn’t exist in nature.  If I hadn’t been instructed to use it prior to planting, I wouldn’t have been allowed to use it later under the USDA rules.  It’s too bad, because elemental boron is also a safe herbicide, so it could be even more useful.

You’ve mentioned water use a number of times, so I imagine that’s something you’re focusing on.  Yes, absolutely.  I’m using drip irrigation, because you pretty much have to irrigate annuals most years.  But I’m always looking to save on water and the associated costs like pumping.  I’d like to start some perennials like asparagus and artichokes, because they’re dry-farmed.  I hear that’s happening more these days in vineyards, too.

Yes, nearly all of the European wine producers I import from operate irrigation-free.  And you’re finding it more in U.S. vineyards, too.  It forces grapevines to get deep roots with lots of soil contact.  And the older the vines get, the more concentrated the grapes become.  This is true of grapevines in general, but even more with dry farming.  That’s interesting.  There are plenty of orchards with older trees around here, but I don’t know if they produce better fruit than younger trees.  At one of our local ag meetings, the owner of Terhune Orchards in Princeton told me that less irrigation produces sweeter fruit, so he tries to irrigate as little as possible.

I wonder that you have time for meetings!  It seems like a lot of work, even on 1.5 acres.  How much time do you spend on it?  In theory, it’s 50 hours per week per acre.

So this is basically an 80 hour-a-week job for you?  That must make it difficult to do other things.  Yes, pretty much.  It’s my first year and I’m doing it myself, unless I can get someone to help, usually that’s for things like the farm stands.  But I’d like to expand.  In five years I’d like to have between nine and 12 acres, and maybe five employees.  In the meantime, though, it’s hard work keeping it all together.  I have to admit I have some jealousy when I look at pictures of other people’s farms on Instagram!

I think everyone with the app has some Insta-jealousy.  And looking at your site, you’ve clearly found a way to take enviable photos already.  It was great talking to you, and I look forward to checking in as you go forward.  Thanks, Tom – it was great meeting you and Cy, and I’d love to talk with you again.

———-

It seems funny not to add a recipe to a post of a conversation with a vegetable farmer.  Sorry about that.  But the weather is making me think more of fall and I’m coming up with recipes for the season.  Next post, I promise!

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Last of the summer wine recipes

Fresh apricots are a great accompaniment to chicken dishes, since they’re somewhat tart and not too sweet. (Photo from stacyknows.com)

As promised in the previous post, this is the last of three summer wine recipes.  I’ll be posting more recipes, of course – but this is the last of a series designed specifically for summer eating.  In addition, I made two challenges to myself.  First, each recipe has to contain a fairly significant amount of wine:  at least a cup of wine for four to six servings.  The second qualification is that the wine shouldn’t cook for very long, to preserve some of the wine’s freshness.

I think this recipe is particularly fun and unusual – Apricot and White Wine Soup.  Fruit soups in summertime aren’t new to most people these days.  For example, watermelon gazpacho is a perennial favorite, and strawberry soup is a classic for early summer.  Still, those use raw fruit, and this is a recipe for lightly cooked fruit and wine, with just a few other ingredients. 

Apricots run the gamut from fairly tart to lightly sweet.  If you’ve never tried them fresh and only had apricot jam, you’d be right in wondering what the fuss is all about.  Most commercial apricot jams and preserves have so much sugar that they taste like they could be made with almost any orange-gold fruit.  But fresh apricots are a great accompaniment to savory foods, particularly chicken.  In fact, I serve a cup of the soup on the same plate with all sorts of chicken dishes, like this Ina Garten recipe (an old standby in my house).  And it’s a great soup to serve with a chicken salad sandwich.

Les Terrasses de Perret Muscat Sec ($12) is ideal both in the soup and for serving with it.  Muscat is usually a sweet dessert wine.  But dry Muscat has all the floral aromas and flavors without the sweetness.  Smell it before you taste it – the aroma tricks you into thinking it’ll be a sweet wine, which makes it all the more surprising when you taste it.  It’s also a great wine for spicy dishes, and for Asian or Indian food.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this summer diversion.  Next post I’ll be back to the wine talk you expect from me!

Cheers!

Tom

Apricot and White Wine Soup

Serves 4-6

12 apricots, quartered and pits removed (2 to 2-1/2 pounds)

2 – 4 tablespoons honey

1 orange, zest removed in strips with a vegetable peeler, and juiced

1/8 teaspoon salt

1-1/4 cups dry but floral white wine (such as Viognier, Clairette, or Dry Muscat), divided use

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

Optional topping:  6 tablespoons Mascarpone, very soft (or barely warmed in the microwave)

Combine the apricots, 2 tablespoons of honey, the orange juice and zest, salt, and 1 cup of the wine in a large saucepan.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer, cover, and cook for 20 minutes.  Turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for 15 minutes.  Remove the orange zest pieces and puree or put through a food mill.  Chill for at least 2 hours.

Before serving, add the vanilla and the remaining ¼ cup of wine.  Taste and add up to 2 tablespoons more honey if the mixture is too tart.  You’re not looking for it to be sweet, but the honey will balance the acidity of the soup.  Serve cool or cold.  Top each serving with a tablespoon of softened Mascarpone.

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Summer recipes, Part 3 — with a whole bottle of wine in there

One of the things I did on vacation instead of posting a recipe.  (Yes, I did kayak, and not just take photos…)

Happy August!  Cy and I have been on vacation.  I meant to put up a recipe while we were away, but it just didn’t happen.  Mostly because there wasn’t a rainy day where I’d have been inside looking for things to do…but hey, I can’t complain about good weather on vacation!

Last time I promised some summer food recipes with wine.  Not just a little splash, but using at least a cup of wine for four servings and not cooking it for hours like in a stew.  The idea is that you’d taste at least some of the wine’s freshness.

And I figured they shouldn’t all be chilled recipes, either, because that seems a little like cheating.  I started thinking about cooking things in wine, like poaching fish or chicken and then using the wine as a sauce.  Still working on that.  But then I remembered a recipe I saw Michael Chiarello do on his old Food Network show – cooking spaghetti first halfway in water, then finishing the cooking in a whole bottle of red wine, finally tossing it with cooked broccolini, garlic, and cheese.  I’ve seen plenty of variations on spaghetti cooked in red wine since then.  But I hadn’t seen any using white wine, so I decided to investigate.

Every recipe I found online seemed to be a variation of one published by Cooks Illustrated in 2012.  They also par-cook the spaghetti in water, but in the meantime boil down some of the wine to concentrate its flavor before cooking the spaghetti in the rest of the wine.  I thought it was really tasty, but of course I had to change it some.   The biggest change came from Cy’s saying that it would make a great base for spaghetti with clams – and he’s right, it does.  I’ve included a clam sauce variation below.  But I also changed the cooking method a bit, and added herbs other than the greens in the original recipe.  Plus toasted bread crumbs, which give it some crunch.  They’re particularly nice with the clams.

This all comes together in about 15 minutes, not including the time to get the water boiling for the spaghetti.  A few things to keep in mind:

1)  You need a light-bodied white wine not aged in oak and that’s not too acidic.  While acidity generally evaporates when you cook wine for a while, this doesn’t get cooked for very long and you can easily end up with a sour taste.  Even with the added sugar – which you definitely shouldn’t skip, although you might be tempted.  And boiling down wine that’s aged in oak can definitely add a bitter taste.

2)  This dish has to be eaten right away.  Not only won’t it sit around, it also doesn’t keep well.  I had some left over and the night in the fridge gave it a metallic taste, plus it just didn’t look appealing.  So make it, sit down, and eat.  Get everything else for the meal ready ahead of time so there’s not too much delay.

3)  Believe it or not, the wine cooking technique won’t work well for pastas other than spaghetti.  There’s something about the way spaghetti releases starch that makes this dish come out properly.  So get ready to fling sauce as you twirl the spaghetti around your fork!  (Unless you’ve practiced ahead of time, that is.)

Of course, I have a wine recommendation:  I use Domaine de Mairan Chardonnay Classique ($13) and it turns out beautifully.  And it’s great to serve with the spaghetti, too.  Or, you can drink a bigger-bodied white, like Château de Clapier Soprano ($20).  It’s aged in oak, which complements the dish well, even though you wouldn’t cook the spaghetti in it.

Now that the summertime wine-filled hot dish is done, it’ll be back to something chilled next time.   It is August, after all!

Not something I did on vacation, but Cy did!

Cheers!

Tom

Spaghetti Cooked in White Wine – with and without clams

Serves 4 to 6

1 pound spaghetti, preferably DeCecco brand

1-750 ml bottle dry white wine (not aged in oak)

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon dried oregano, or 2 teaspoons fresh

1-1/2 teaspoons sugar

Salt

1 large pinch red pepper flakes

4-5 ounces baby spinach

1 cup torn fresh basil leaves (optional but tasty)

2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons butter, softened

½ cup panko bread crumbs

1– Put a large pot of salted water on to boil.

2– Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a small skillet, and add the panko bread crumbs with a big pinch of salt.  Heat over medium heat until the crumbs get lightly browned, then take them off the heat.

3– In a 12-inch skillet that has a lid, heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil and saute the onion along with a teaspoon of salt, the oregano, and the red pepper flakes until it’s very soft and just starting to brown, about 10 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for a minute.

4– Stir in 1-1/2 cups of wine, bring to a boil, and let the mixture cook until it’s reduced to about ½ a cup.  This will take 8 to 10 minutes.  (See next step after 5 minutes.)  Turn off the heat and cover the skillet once the wine has reduced.

5– When about 5 minutes have passed during the wine boiling, put the spaghetti in the boiling salted water.  When the water comes back to the boil, start timing – you’ll want to cook it for about 1/3 the time that the package says is the amount of time for it to be al dente.  For DeCecco regular spaghetti (#12) this is 12 minutes, so you’ll boil it for 4 to 5 minutes in the water.  Just before the time is up, take out 2 cups of the pasta cooking water and set it aside.

6– While the spaghetti is in the water, add the rest of the wine and the sugar, and bring the mixture up to the boil over high heat.  Drain the spaghetti and add it to the skillet.  Lower the heat and simmer until the pasta is cooked, another 8 minutes or so, stirring thoroughly every 30 seconds.  Add some of the pasta water if there’s not enough liquid to cook the pasta.

7– When the pasta is done, add ½ cup of pasta water and scatter the spinach and basil on top.  Put the lid on and cook for a minute, then stir the spinach into the pasta, along with the cheese and the soft butter.  Add more pasta water if you need to, it should be a little saucy and not dry.  Serve in slightly warm bowls, topped with some of the toasted bread crumbs.

For Spaghetti with White Clam Sauce

16-24 small clams, scrubbed, depending on size and appetite

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

Proceed through step 4.  When the wine has reduced, add the clams.  Turn the heat to very low and put the lid on the skillet.  The clams should open in 3 to 5 minutes.  Then remove the clams to a bowl, leaving the clam liquid in the skillet, and proceed with the rest of the recipe.  In step 7, scatter the clams and lemon zest on top when you add the spinach and basil, and omit the cheese.

Top each serving with the toasted bread crumbs.

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Summer recipes, part two. Now with more wine.

granita making

Granitas are frozen concoctions that are easy to make because they don’t require an ice cream maker. And they often use lots of wine, which is always a plus.

I don’t know if you all feel this way, but I generally think of wine as a cooler-weather cooking ingredient.  When I started putting together recipes for summer blog posts, wine didn’t immediately come to mind as anything more than something to deglaze a pan, part of a sauce, or poaching liquid.

The more I looked through recipes I have around, though, the more I realized that I could use plenty of wine in summery foods, especially if they’re served cold or at room temperature.  So the next few posts will be recipes that feature wine prominently.  One will even be a main course that isn’t cold!

The first recipe is a frozen concoction I made up last year.  My neighbor, chef, restaurateur, and food writer David Hagedorn, asked if I would test some recipes for an Indian cookbook he was co-authoring with a local chef.  One of the recipes had a rhubarb chutney on the side.  The recipe made a lot more chutney than I needed, so I was trying to think of ways to use it.  I also had some leftover mango puree from a different recipe I was testing, so I combined the mango, the chutney, and some demi-sec sparkling wine to make a granita.

It was pretty amazing.  And yes, cooling in the mouth, even with the spice from the chutney.  I always rolled my eyes at the thought that spicy food could cool you off.  I mean, if you’re already sweating, how is more sweat going to help?  But spiciness in cold food does add something that makes me feel cooler when I eat it.

I’ve refined the recipe a bit since I first made it.  I don’t always have access to rhubarb, so I’ve been using tamarind chutney instead.  I learned about sweetened Latin-style tamarind syrup from Pati Jinich, who has written two books on Mexican cooking and is the creator of “Pati’s Mexican Table” on PBS.  It’s easy to find in Latin markets and is an ingredient in sweet and savory Mexican dishes.  It also makes a great flavoring for sparkling water when you’re not cooking with it.  Plus it keeps forever in the fridge after you open it, so you can always have it on hand.

I haven’t figured out a good way to make less than about a cup and a half of the chutney and have it turn out right.  You only need 2/3-cup for the granita, so save the rest and freeze it, or serve it with grilled tuna or roasted cauliflower or broccoli.  If you can’t find good ripe mangoes and you like peaches, puree some frozen peaches or apricots instead.

Naturally, I have a recommendation for the sparkling wine:  Domaine la Croix des Marchands Méthode Ancestrale Demi-Sec ($18).  While the chutney and the mango puree are both a little sweet, freezing them dampens the sweetness – the light sweetness of the demi-sec is just enough to bring the level up to where I like it.  Of course, you could just add some sugar to the chutney but where’s the fun in that?  Plus demi-sec sparkling also tends to be fruitier than drier versions, which makes it an ideal ingredient here.

As usual for one of my recipes, this seems like a lot of steps.  But you can make more chutney and freeze it for later.  You can also use almost any jarred chutney you like — it should be sweet, sour, and spicy.  Feel free to make adjustments on any of those qualities, and also puree it until it’s smooth.  By all means, use frozen mango (or other fruit) chunks to puree.  And of course, you’ll have plenty of the demi-sec in the fridge, right?  😉

Cheers!

Tom

Mango-Tamarind-Sparkling Granita

Serves 12 as a palate-cleanser, 6 as dessert

Tamarind Chutney (makes 1-1/2 cups)

1-1/4 cups sweetened Latin tamarind syrup

½ of an unpeeled Granny Smith apple, cored and roughly chopped

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

½ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground fennel

¼ teaspoon garam masala

½ teaspoon cayenne

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a saucepan until it shimmers, then add the spices, salt, and pepper.  Stir over high heat for 30 seconds to a minute, until you can smell it all and the spices darken just a bit.  Add the tamarind syrup (carefully, it may splatter) and the apple.  Simmer for 20 minutes, then let the chutney cool a bit.  Puree in a food processor or blender, and strain to remove the apple peel pieces (not always necessary, depending on how well your machine works).  Let the chutney cool completely, then refrigerate until cold.

Mango Puree

2 – 3 ripe mangoes, peeled and flesh cut from around the pit

Puree the mangoes until very smooth – they’re pretty fibrous so this will take at least a minute.  You’ll need a cup of the puree for the granita, so start with two mangoes and add some or all of the third if necessary.  You can always stir the leftovers into plain yogurt for breakfast.  Chill the puree in the fridge.

Granita

2/3 cup tamarind chutney, chilled

1 cup mango puree, chilled

2-1/2 cups demi-sec sparkling wine, chilled (see note, below)

This works much better if everything is cold to start with.  Stir the ingredients together and pour into an eight-by-eight inch baking dish.  Place in the freezer for an hour, uncovered, then stir everything up with a fork, using the tines of the fork to scrape the mixture into smaller crystals.  Continue freezing, stirring after each half hour, until fully frozen and nicely fluffy, another 1 to 2 hours.  Cover the dish with plastic wrap and keep frozen until you’re ready to serve.

Note on demi sec sparkling wine:  If you only have dry sparkling wine, you can add two teaspoons of sugar to either the mango puree or the chutney before mixing in the sparkling wine – give it some time and stirring to make sure the sugar is completely dissolved.

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Summer recipes, part 1

It has definitely been a summer of eating so far.  And Cy and I haven’t even left for our week of lobster rolls and twice-a-day cocktails.  So many good things to eat this year!  I didn’t get a chance to post a recipe last week, so here’s one I think you’ll enjoy — sweet corn chowder.  It’s vegetarian, and I’ve also put in a variation with salmon.

I don’t mind cutting corn off the cob, although I realize it’s not everyone’s favorite thing to do.  I learned about using a bundt pan several years ago and it has made things a lot easier.  After you shuck and silk the corn, put the stem into the hole on top of the pan (trim the stem if it’s too thick.  If the stem is completely broken off, I jam a small knife in there to hold the ear in place).  Run your knife down along the cob and the kernels will fall (mostly) into the pan.

The good news is that with or without the salmon, it’s a great soup to eat at room temperature or slightly chilled.  Try it soon, since we’re starting to get great sweet corn.  And it’s a great match for Château de Clapier Soprano White ($20).  I normally go with a light, crisp wine in the summer.  But the chowder is pretty rich, and the Soprano can stand up to it.  

Cheers!

Tom 

Summer Corn Chowder (with or without salmon)

Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a first course

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 large onion, cut in medium dice

1 stalk celery, including leaves, cut into ¼-inch dice

1 large carrot, peeled and cut into small dice

1 large russet potato, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces

4 ears sweet corn, shucked, kernels cut from the cobs and the cobs reserved

6 – 8 cups vegetable stock

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons dry sherry

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Optional:  1 pound skinned salmon fillet, cut into ¾-inch chunks

 

In a 4-quart or larger pot, melt the butter over medium heat with the vegetable oil.  Add the cayenne, onion, celery, carrot, some black pepper, and a half-teaspoon of salt.  Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables soften.  Add the potato and cook for about 5 minutes.  Stir in 6 cups of the vegetable stock.  Cut or break the corn cobs in half and add them to the pot.  Bring to a boil and the lower the heat to a simmer for 20 minutes.  Remove and discard the corn cobs.  Add the corn and simmer 5 minutes, then stir in the cream and sherry.  Turn off the heat and let the soup sit for a few minutes.  Taste for salt and pepper, and add more vegetable broth if you think the soup is too thick.  The soup is ready to eat hot, or you can let it cool down to room temperature.

 

Salmon variation:  If you want the soup hot, turn the heat back on to low after you’ve let the soup sit, then add the salmon pieces.  Cook for five minutes, then serve.  If you plan on serving the soup at a lower temperature, don’t bother heating the pot when you add the salmon – the fish will cook in the soup as-is.  You may want to add more vegetable broth if you think the soup is too much like a stew.

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Perhaps you can buy happiness after all

Well, at least we now know that the happiness can come in the form of experiences or material possessions.

As part of looking back on 10 years of importing and selling wine, I wrote a post a couple of months ago about how my millennial customers generally don’t buy the same wine twice.  The most common explanation for this, as I mentioned in the post, is that millennial customers prefer to have experiences over acquiring things.  Drinking wine counts as an experience (or at least part of an experience), and not sticking with the same wines makes for new experiences with each bottle.

There’s even a body of research suggesting that people (not just millennials) are happier, in general, when they prioritize experiences over consumption.  Part of that may happen naturally, as you acquire more things.  I’ve noticed that the wine trips Cy and I have taken in the past few years have been more about the places and people there and less about acquiring souvenirs than they used to be.  We love and use our French table linens and ceramics, but we also don’t necessarily feel the need to get more stuff.  And I have anecdotal evidence that it’s not just us.  A friend in the fine jewelry business tells me he’s concerned because, at least at this point, younger customers aren’t looking for pieces the way they used to.

So I was intrigued to read a piece in Slate a few days ago suggesting that the perceived experience/consumption ratio for happiness might not be the case.  Nick Thieme reports on a Hungarian study on data taken as part of an annual household survey.  The results show that people who spend money on experiences are equally as happy, on average, as those who spend money on consumer goods.  While experiences come out slightly ahead in the number-crunching, the difference for experiences vs. consumption is negligible and not statistically significant.

What makes the new study interesting is that it’s a different approach than previous researchers took.  The older studies typically divided people into two groups.  One was asked about recent experiences and how happy they made the individuals.  The other group was asked about material purchases.  The results showed that the experiences group was, on average, happier with its spending than the material purchases group.

But the Hungarian study took a different approach:  asking people how they had spent their money over the past month, three months, and the past year, and then separately for a numerical measure of their happiness.  The purchase data was easily separated into experiences and non-experiences.  The researchers found that those who spent more on experiences vs. material purchases didn’t consider themselves any happier.

It’s an interesting comparison.  Both methodologies are valid, although they come to different results.  And both could be tweaked to be more similar:  in future, Hungarian researchers could ask people directly whether they thought that their spending had influenced their happiness, and the other researchers could ask their subjects about overall happiness instead of just happiness with particular spending.  But the Hungarian study definitely suggests that the idea that experiences make us happier than other purchases isn’t as strong as previously indicated.  It also points out that things aren’t as clear-cut as they might seem in behavioral studies like these.

As a wine merchant, I found the study interesting, of course.  Wine is an experience but also a material purchase.  So perhaps it’s not a bad thing to stress both aspects in pitching to customers.  I’m also glad to see that my non-millennial customers (who are repeat buyers of wines they like) may be just as happy as the new-experience-seeking millennial crowd, too.  I’d hate to think they were having all the fun.  Plus it makes me think maybe it’s possible to buy your way to happiness after all!

———–

Happy post-July 4th!  We went to a slew of cookouts, with one genuine barbecue in there too.  I’ll have a couple of recipes for you soon.

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Making wine Instagram-mable again

A very long ago, pre-Instagram tasting area photo of Cy and me at a winery in Sonoma. The tasting room and patio were designed to draw your eye to the lovely vineyards, so naturally, that’s what people focused on — not the wine, and not anything else in the tasting room, either.

Even though I have lots of wine-loving friends, I’ve noticed that more of them post food photos on social media than wine photos.  Not that they don’t take wine-related photos, just that there are barely any featuring a particular wine.  They’ll post plenty of lovely vineyard/winery scenery shots, and maybe some collections of bottles, or an interesting label here and there.  And, of course, selfies with wine glasses in hand.

Contrast this with their lovingly-shot photos of glistening plates of food, taken from various artistic angles, showing interesting things in the restaurant in the background.  The food is definitely the star, based on its own visual qualities, along with how it’s plated and how it fits into the surroundings.

I admit to being somewhat social media impaired.  So while I noticed the wine photo deficit, I didn’t think too much about why.  Then one day I listened to Alton Brown interviewing Gaby Dalkin, a southern California food blogger and social media wizard.  Her “What’s Gaby Cooking” blog is gorgeous and full of interesting recipes.  Dalkin pretty much perfected the use of Snapchat for short cooking videos (she and her mother named them Snapisodes).  She also posts a lot on Instagram and does Facebook Live videos. Naturally, she has gained some knowledge about social media food photography.

Gaby Dalkin’s author photo from her What’s Gaby Cooking blog. In an interview with Alton Brown, she said she’s determined to make Bruschetta the trend of 2017, so of course I had to use this photo.

Dalkin talked about Instagram in particular and said that chefs have been heavily influenced by it, knowing that people would be taking and posting photos of the food.  This has definitely made for more colorful and casual-yet-totally-staged plating, and may even have contributed to the (to my mind, inexplicable) small plate craze.  She and Brown both agreed that multiples of the same thing look better on plates and in photos than just one – they’re more visually appealing.  Hence, two tacos, a pyramid of four Albondigas, three Bruschette, small cribs of perfectly squared-off fries stacked like firewood (or all standing upright in a small copper pot), etc.  Dalkin also said, just a little sheepishly, that she sometimes chooses what she’s going to eat based on what will look best on Instagram.  (Brown accused her of “Instajudging,” which she readily admitted was true.)  Colorful salads, tacos, most pastas, and pizza make the best photos, according to Dalkin.  They have enough visual interest so that you can even photograph them from directly overhead.

She went on to say that Instagram also heavily influences restaurant design.  For example, food photos almost always look better in natural light.  So getting natural light into the restaurant is key – along with colors that are going to enhance rather than detract in photos.  After listening to the interview, I did some research and found quite a few articles on Instgram’s influence on restaurant design over the past couple of years.  It has led to things like putting interesting objects on the walls instead of paintings or large photographs, because they make for better food photo backgrounds.  As well as great photo subjects in and of themselves.  Another area of influence is utensil design, which has become even more important lately.

Glasses of wine suffer in comparison to glistening food.  Even multiple glasses together aren’t that interesting.  A few posts ago, I asked Joanne Weir – a chef, TV cook, and cookbook author who makes a point of talking about wine – why she didn’t do more with wine in her television shows.  Her reply was that it’s really not compelling visually.  Even the color we see with our eyes doesn’t necessarily show up on camera.  And you have to spend a lot of time talking about it since only the most experienced wine drinkers might be able to imagine the flavor from the visuals.

This made me wonder if Instagram and other social media could start to have an influence on winery tasting room design – finding ways to overcome wine’s visual shortcomings and help make it the focus of photographs.  In my experience, winery tasting rooms are designed to show you the beauty of the surroundings – rolling hills, rows of grapevines, trees, lovely outbuildings, etc.  Or if the tasting room isn’t right on the vineyards, then you’re looking out at beautiful gardens or something like that.  There are often huge windows, which certainly help with natural light for photos.  But very little in the tasting rooms themselves that will draw your eyes to the wine or the inside surroundings to make you want to photograph them.  Of course, many were designed in an era that didn’t consider customer photography.  So I wondered if perhaps newer or newly-redesigned wineries might have considered Instagram, etc., in planning.

After contacting a few, I didn’t get any indication this was true.  Even for brand-new tasting rooms, like the one at Lokoya in St. Helena, CA, customer photos weren’t a consideration in the tasting spaces (which are gorgeous).  While the design brings the outside in, it doesn’t draw your attention to the wine.  Everything looks designed for wide-angle photos rather than close-ups.  In a way, this makes sense – the design should be somewhat timeless because it’s expensive to build, and you want it to look good for a long time.  Wineries probably aren’t going to make over their tasting rooms until they’re old or they need to expand them, they’re going to put their profits into making the product instead.

I then thought that urban wineries/tasting rooms might be different, since so many have started since Instgram’s 2010 launch.  And in many cases, they’re more like bars than tasting rooms, and may have kitchens to serve food.  But I contacted the managers/owners of several and couldn’t find any who would definitively say that the tasting rooms were designed with photography/social media in mind.  And among the few that Cy and I visited in Oakland, CA a couple of months ago, only one had plenty of natural light coming in.  Not because it was designed that way, but because the space had been a sandwich shop and juice bar before the winery moved in.  The manager called it a “fishbowl” because people could see in, but it was enjoyable being in that space.  And it did bring the wine into greater focus, rather than the view beyond the windows.

It’s not surprising to see so many fairly dark spaces.  Natural light can be the enemy of wine – after all, that’s why so much of it comes in green bottles.  Many of the spaces themselves are in more industrial buildings that don’t have a lot of windows to begin with.  It’s easier then to keep the tasting area dark and cozy rather than light and airy.  And even a small batch winery requires a fair amount of space, which won’t be cheap in many urban areas, and certainly not in the retail core.  The Oakland urban winery I mentioned with the big windows had been in an industrial building with few windows before this more retail-oriented space opened up.

I don’t mean to imply by any of this that tasting room designers should entirely cave to the “If it didn’t happen on Instagram, it didn’t happen” meme.  But it might not hurt to consider making the urban spaces less like dark bars and providing more interesting and photograph-worthy surroundings and décor.  Obviously, I didn’t contact dozens of wineries or tasting rooms for this post, so it’s entirely possible I’ve missed some that were designed with customer photography in mind.  Still, my small survey leads me to believe that hasn’t been an issue, at least not yet.  Wineries may be missing out on an easy way to gain potential customers’ attention through social media, so it’s worth thinking about.

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Grated, salted, and drained zucchini mixed in with orange pepper, onion, and tomato. Draining the grated zucchini gives it more flavor.

Speaking of social media, a friend posted recently on Facebook that she hates zucchini.  It reminded me of watching Sara Moulton on “Sara’s Weeknight Meals,” when she said that she had also hated zucchini for a long time.  Until she realized she could concentrate the flavor by grating, salting, and draining it.  The result is a great addition to lots of different dishes.

I decided to try it in couscous a few nights ago, and it was delicious.  You can serve the couscous as a side dish, mixed in with salad greens, or as a base for a protein and sauce.  I made this one vegetarian by cooking the couscous in vegetable stock, but you could use chicken broth if you’re making a chicken dish.

The salted, grated zucchini only needs to sit in a colander for 10 minutes or so.  Then you can either press on it with a spoon, squeeze with your hands, or squeeze it all in a clean kitchen towel to remove the liquid.  You’ll be surprised at how much comes out.  If you want to be super thrifty, collect the liquid you squeeze out and use it to cook the couscous.

You can serve the couscous hot, warm, or at room temperature – it’s great to do ahead and serve with summery meals.  Your choice of protein might determine which wine you pick.  But if it’s served like a salad, try Bodega Traslagares Verdejo ($13).  It’s got great acidity and just the right amount of floral notes.  Put it in a nice glass and it will look beautiful on Instagram next to your plate of summery zucchini couscous!

Here’s the vegetable mixture with cooked couscous. This makes a great summer side dish.

Cheers!

Tom

Zucchini Couscous

Serves 4

2 medium or 3 small zucchini, washed and trimmed

1 small onion, chopped

½ of a yellow or orange pepper, minced

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 small tomato, diced, or 8 grape tomatoes cut into pieces

1-1/2 cups quick-cooking couscous

1-1/2 cups vegetable stock

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Grate the zucchini in a food processor or using the large holes of a box grater.  Mix with ½ teaspoon of salt and put in a mesh-style colander set over a bowl.  Let sit for 10 minutes.  Press on the zucchini with a large spoon to extract as much liquid as possible.

In the meantime, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet.  Add the onion and pepper with some salt and pepper and cook until they’re soft, about 7 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute.  Then put in the tomatoes and cook for a couple of minutes until they shrivel.  Stir in the drained zucchini and cook over medium-high heat.  The grated zucchini will shrink a bit and will just start to brown.  Taste for seasoning, then turn off the heat, cover, and set aside.

When you add the zucchini to the skillet, bring the stock to a boil in a small saucepan that has a lid.  When it boils, add a quarter teaspoon of salt, some pepper, a tablespoon of olive oil, and the couscous.  Stir to combine.  Then turn off the heat, put the lid on, and let sit for 5 minutes.  Remove the lid and fluff the couscous with a fork.

Add the cooked, fluffed couscous to the skillet with the vegetables and stir to combine.  Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

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10th Anniversary Musings, Part 2

That’s me leading a wine tasting in 2013 at DCanter, a DC wine shop that carries some fine First Vine selections. We got to video chat with one of our producers and hear him talk about his wine — something that wasn’t really possible when I first started the business.

I’ve done a lot of wine tastings in 10 years of importing and retailing.  From pouring in a shop that sells our wines to guided wine tastings in people’s homes.  I’ve served as entertainment for corporate events, bridal showers, and birthday parties, and as a handy source of alcohol for slightly drunk people at wine and food shows.

You might think these different situations/venues would lead to many different questions from people.  But by and large, they boil down to just a few categories.  The one most asked by far is some variation on “What would you serve with that wine?”

It’s a great conversation starter.  As you know, I can go on at length about wine and food, so I love to launch in.  I start by asking what kinds of things people like to cook and eat, and we go from there.  I hope I’ve led people to try food and wine combinations they might not have thought of before.

While we’re talking, though, especially when I’m pouring in a market that sells food as well as wine, I’ll see a bunch of people quickly picking random bottles off the shelves to drink with the food in their baskets.  So other than a way to make polite conversation, what is it about tasting a wine that makes people more curious – and to some extent, anxious – about what to serve with it?  And why, even if the wine is relatively inexpensive, are they afraid of making a pairing mistake?

Part of it is that once people taste a wine, they’re more invested in potentially making it into an experience.  I tend to ask people tasting how often they drink wine, and generally the people who stop to taste tend not to drink wine routinely with meals.  This was a surprise to me initially, because I thought that habitual wine drinkers would be the ones tasting.  But people also seem to look at the tasting as an educational opportunity, so I guess it makes sense.  And since wine with meals probably feels more like it’s a special occasion thing to them, they want the food to be special, too.  Or at least not just something thrown on the table with minimal thought beforehand.

It reminds me of something I heard just two years ago at a wine conference:  for most people, wine still is not like other beverages or foods.  This despite the fact that we wine writers and wine sellers have tried hard over the years to demystify wine. I’d like to think we’ve succeeded somewhat.  More people ask questions at tastings than when I started out.  And while many used to preface their questions with “I don’t know anything about wine, but…” or “This is probably going to seem like a dumb question,” I don’t hear those anymore.

A recent tasting at Each Peach in Mt. Pleasant. The two wines on the right are from Cave la Vinsobraise, and were two of the first wines we imported.

But clearly we’re not even halfway there yet.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I still think that food is probably the best entrée to wine.  Certainly, more people drinking local wine as they increasingly eat locally-grown food should help. And more travel to places where people have wine in all price ranges with their meals as a matter of course, too.  I’d love to see the day when newspaper food sections ask the food and wine writers to spend a few minutes pairing the week’s recommended wines with particular recipes in the same issue.   (And if they’re lucky enough to have beer and cocktail writers, get them in on it too.)

On the other hand, I don’t want us all to go too far in making wine absolutely ordinary.  As someone in the business, wine still has magic for me, and I don’t want that magic to disappear entirely for my customers.  Or the idea that wine makes a meal more special, because I think it does.  But I’d definitely like to eliminate people’s fears of “bad” food and wine pairings, or that there are only a few carefully chosen options with any given meal.


This week’s recipe is not only easy, it will prep your taste buds for summer tomatoes to come.

I can’t not give a recipe after that lead-in, can I?

I’ve been cooking a lot lately, especially things to go with wine.  After all, toasting 10 years requires plenty of food!  I’ll have a bunch of new things to share in coming posts.  But this particular dish is something that’s so easy I had to put it up sooner rather than later, Roasted Tomatoes with Feta.

Cy and I were out in California visiting friends in early April and of course there were already some tomatoes available.  But they weren’t yet the wonderful tomatoes they’re probably getting now.  Still, when our friends Davey and Cameron roasted the tomatoes with Feta as a side for lamb, they turned out beautifully.  And I realized that’s probably for the best.  After all, why cook a really magnificent tomato?  You’ll want them for your tomato, cheddar cheese, and mayo sandwiches.  Or at least Cy and I will, anyway.

So, while we’re in the pre-tomato season, there’s no better time to prep your taste buds for the glories to come.  I made the recipe using grape tomatoes, which are always at least passable.  And I found Campari tomatoes at a local supermarket, they’re generally good tasting, sweet, and not too acidic.  The combination of Campari and grape tomatoes proved to be ideal once they were roasted, and a little bit of red wine vinegar at the end brought everything together.

The prep and cooking couldn’t be much easier.  Slice the Camparis, halve the grape tomatoes, crumble the feta, strip the leaves off some herbs, and you’re good to go.  Twenty to 30 minutes in a hot oven and you’re done.  You can double or triple the amount of tomatoes depending on the size of both the baking dish and the crowd you’re feeding.  And if the dish is safe to put on the grill, go ahead and keep the oven off.

All sorts of wine work really well here, but I’m going to recommend Cave la Vinsobraise Côtes du Rhône Blanc ($13).  Cave la Vinsobraise was one of First Vine’s first producers, and is the only one of the originals we’re still buying from.  The wine is equal parts Viognier, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc.  In a long-ago blog post I touted the virtue-out-of-necessity of Rhône white blends.  They draw on the strengths of their constituent varietals, since it’s rare that any one of them will have the right balance of fruit, nuttiness, acidity, floral notes, etc., on its own.  Winemakers vary the blend from year to year if necessary (within AOC parameters, anyway), making good wines even in off years.  I think they’re not nearly as well-known here in the U.S. as they should be.

As I said at the end of my last 10th anniversary post, thank you all for the support over the years.  And I hope to meet more of you at tastings to come.

Cheers!
Tom

Roasted Tomatoes with Feta

Serves 4-6 as a side dish or as a bruschetta topping

18 ounces Campari tomatoes (1 or 2 packages, depending on size), or 4 Roma tomatoes, cored and sliced

2 pints grape tomatoes, halved

Leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh thyme

Leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil

4-6 ounces crumbled Feta cheese, depending on your taste

½ teaspoon red wine vinegar

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Use somee olive oil to oil the bottom and sides of a 13 x 9-inch ceramic or glass baking dish.  Ceramic-coated cast iron works well, too.  Layer the sliced Campari tomatoes in the dish.  Drizzle olive oil over the tomatoes, then salt and pepper them.  Sprinkle the fresh herbs on, and about 1/3 of the Feta.  Make the next layer with the grape tomato halves.  Drizzle with oil, salt and pepper the tomatoes, and sprinkle on the remaining Feta.

Bake at least 20 minutes, up to 30 minutes.  The Feta will be lightly browned, the tomatoes will have shriveled but not be dried out, and most of the juices will have evaporated.  Remove the dish from the oven, and drizzle the vinegar over the top.  Let sit for a few minutes, then serve.

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10th Anniversary Musings, Part 1

10 candles

Hard to believe, but we got our first wine shipment 10 years ago, almost to the day.  A lot has happened in a decade, and I hope you’ll indulge me in a few memories.

Happy Winoversary to us!  First Vine officially started selling wine 10 years ago, almost to the day.   Our first shipment arrived on May 14, 2007.  Seven wines from four producers, all in the southern Rhône valley.  I wrote a post on our fifth anniversary detailing all the issues we encountered getting started, and I’m not going to repeat myself.  At least not too much, anyway.  But I think 10 years is a good point for reflection.  Both on how things have changed, and how they haven’t.

So, over the next few months I’m going to do just that, one or two subjects at a time.  The first is about customer demographics.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had more first-time millennial customers than I did when I started the business.  It shouldn’t be surprising to me, since news reports say that as of January 2016, millennials drink more wine than any other generation.  While they’re not in the lead among high-frequency wine drinkers – that’s still the baby boomers — they do consume the largest share of the current wine marketplace in terms of volume.

But I wouldn’t have predicted this would happen even five years ago.  Admittedly, my limited experience with millennials in the marketplace wasn’t exactly definitive.  It came mostly from sessions at wine conferences I attended from July 2011 through January 2015, too early to catch what appears to be a sea-change.  Not much changed in millennially-based wine-thought during my conference-going years except that there was more and more alarm over the surge in craft beer sales and how that might be bad for wine sales.  The beer industry, given its shorter lead time for production, certainly seemed better able to capture the social/commercial things that researchers said were of interest to millennial drinkers.

Well, millennials definitely drink craft beers.  Evidently they’ve also cunningly sidestepped winerati panic.  They drink a lot of wine and seek to educate themselves about it.  What makes millennials different from my slightly older customers is that they’ll run through completely mixed cases of wine and I don’t see them ordering the same thing twice.  Even if they tell me they really liked something, they’re probably not going to order it again.  Whereas my customers who are just a few years older tend to settle in on favorites, ordering multiple bottles of them or even single-selection cases.

And once my millennial customers have run through their choices in our 70-plus selections, they’re done and they don’t order again.  It’s not because they don’t like the wines, since they tell me they do.  It’s probably because I only have a limited number of wines and they’re just from France, Spain, and Italy.  The Fortune article I linked to above indicates that millennials spread their wine largesse across all the world’s wine-making countries/regions and don’t necessarily focus on just one or two.   Even the built-in variety that new vintages bring rarely entices them back.  And targeted discounts don’t really work, either.

According to a New York Times article, Chase Sapphire is eclipsing Amex among millennials. They’re marketing to millennials’ desire for experiences over things.

A recent New York Times article on credit cards illustrates the divide in terms of American Express vs. Chase Sapphire cards.  Amex is the ultimate concierge card, providing services that made the company’s reputation among previous generations.  However, millennials don’t appear to need or want these services.  The company is having a hard time attracting millennial-age customers, who are (at least for now) flocking to Chase.  Chase claims to focus on experiences and less on the snobbery of owning things, and has tweaked its rewards system to give customers more of them more quickly.  Although, as the author, Charles Duhigg, points out, there’s definite snobbery in “an Instagram post from [an] Iceland spelunking adventure or a lament about how hard it is to find a charging station near Burning Man for [an] electric sports car.”  They’re still purchases, although not necessarily the sort of high-culture ones that their parents’ generation enjoyed.

Still, Duhigg’s likely exaggerated cynicism inadvertently gets at a real issue.  For some (possibly many) millennials, sharing an experience via social media is an important part of having that experience.  It stands to reason that you can’t keep sharing or posting the same thing over and over, so constantly new experiences are the way to go.  It doesn’t have to go as far as “If it didn’t happen on Instagram it didn’t really happen” for this to be true, either.

Of course, the sheer availability of things compared to what previous generations could access is a big part of it, too.  If it had even occurred to me that it was possible to have an Iceland spelunking adventure in my 20s, I’d have had to find a specialty travel agent to help me.  Or find and read obscure travel guides, and spend months planning the trip.

My guess is that both of these factors come into play.  For wine, it means new bottles as new experiences.  Whether or not they get posted on social media.  And as we’re all aware, it’s possible to get more and more wines and learn more and more of the stories behind them than ever before.  Those of us who are older don’t necessarily avail ourselves of all those choices, partly because we didn’t necessarily have the same choices and habits when we were in our 20s and 30s.

Despite all the gloom and doom I heard at wine conferences about millennials drinking mostly craft beer, it turns out that millennials drank more wine than any other age cohort last year. Evidently they didn’t get the wine conference memos.

Variety and experiences are the order of the day, at least for now.  The question is whether they’ll keep going as people settle into careers, property, and parenthood.  Wine certainly offers an ever-increasing variety of options, so it’s possible that millennials can keep it going, at least where drinking is concerned.  Or they could decide that sticking to a reasonable number of favorites works for them.  As a small importer, I’m hoping for a bit more of the latter, since I can’t bring in loads of new selections each year.

Still, I hope they don’t completely shed their interest in variety.  And that goes for the rest of us, too.  I know I definitely could benefit from being a little more adventurous!


No recipe with this post, but I’m trying a bunch of new things out and will have some great ones later this spring.

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Cookbook author wine talk with Joanne Weir

Joanne Weir is a chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, cooking teacher, and culinary travel guide. Her books and television shows about cooking in the California wine country are filled with great recipes and lots of information on wine.  Of all the wine interviews I’ve done so far, hers is the best wine awakening story.  So of course I had to include a photo of her with a glass of wine!

In 10 years of being in the wine business, I’ve seen a lot of cookbooks on wine and food.  But the one I turn to most often is Joanne Weir’s Weir Cooking – Recipes from the Wine Country.  The book was published in 1999, before I had started educating myself about wine, but the advice on cooking with wine and serving it with food is every bit as valuable today as when I first read it.  The book was also the companion to a PBS series that brought wine into the kitchen as an everyday ingredient more than any cooking show had before – or since, for that matter.  And the recipes are still wonderful, too.

Surprisingly, I learned that Joanne grew up not drinking much wine, even though her mother worked with Charlotte Turgeon, author and editor of French cookbooks beginning in the 1940s (Turgeon was also a college classmate of Julia Child).  But love of food and care in selecting good ingredients definitely were there in her family of farmers, chefs, caterers, and restaurateurs.  Her great-grandmother operated a restaurant in Boston at the turn of the 20th century.  And about a century later, Joanne opened Copita, a Mexican restaurant and tequileria in Sausalito, California.

Of course, plenty of things happened between growing up in Massachusetts and becoming a leading food writer and chef in California.  (You can read about some of them on her website.)  Joanne started her working life as a junior-high school art teacher in the Boston area in the 1970s.  Taking a local Mexican cooking course sent her exploring the various food markets to get ingredients, which in turn led to exploring all different kinds of foods and cooking them for friends.  A couple of years later, a trip to California and lunch at Chez Panisse made her want to work there (“It changed my life, really,” she told me).  And she did, but not until she’d had formal training with Madeleine Kamman, both in New England and in France.

With five years at Chez Panisse under her belt she still had the urge to teach, only this time the subject was the art of cooking.  Joanne started teaching classes in California, and this led to offers to teach in Australia, Italy, Spain, France, and Morocco.  Which in turn led to being a culinary travel guide and organizer.  And writing cookbooks as well – teaching cooking was a great way to learn about putting cookbooks together.  Then television, more books, more television, the restaurant, awards, etc.  Her cooking memoir, Kitchen Gypsy: Recipes and Stories from a Lifelong Romance with Food, provokes cravings and envy on every page.

But reading Kitchen Gypsy you also get a sense that she’s a really delightful person, which was confirmed when I spoke with Joanne by phone.   We packed a lot of talking into a short time, and what follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

Joanne’s 1999 book of recipes from the California wine country is still one of the best food and wine cookbooks out there. The wine advice holds up, even with all the new wines and wine guides out there. And the recipes make wonderful food.

You grew up in Massachusetts not far from where I grew up in Connecticut.  As I remember, the area was a vast wasteland for wine in the 1960s and 70s.  But with your family in the food business, did you have access to better wines?  I don’t remember anyone in my family drinking wine more than occasionally when I was growing up.  Although my great-grandfather may have had a strong interest in it.  I don’t think I’ve told anyone this before, but he had a book called The Grape Culturist that was a gift inscribed to him by William Cullen Bryant, the 19th century poet and philosopher.**  So maybe he was thinking about growing grapes and making wine.  The other side of my family came from Lithuania.  I have a memory of my grandparents drinking Manischewitz from water glasses.  But that was about it.

That surprises me, especially since your mother worked with Charlotte Turgeon, who wrote and edited French cookbooks.  I can see how you’d think so, and maybe she and Charlotte had occasional glasses of wine together, but if so it didn’t translate to our drinking wine at home.  My mom loves wine now, though!

So was it moving to California that sparked an interest in wine?  No, it was something that happened when I got a job teaching art.  My friend Charlotte and I had moved into an apartment in Cambridge, and we got a bottle of wine as a housewarming gift.  It took us two nights to drink the bottle, that’s how non-wine-oriented we were!  We were pouring and out came a dead fly – you’re probably thinking it had flown into the bottle after we opened it, but it hadn’t.  I got absolutely indignant in that way you can only be when you’re young and have time on your hands.

I wrapped the fly in foil and sent it back to the winery along with a letter of complaint.  The name didn’t mean anything to me, but it was Château Mouton-Rothschild.  A couple of months or so later, I got a reply from Xavier de Eizaguirre, the export manager of the château.  He apologized, thanked me for sending him the fly (if you can believe it), and invited me to come to lunch with him at Mouton-Rothschild if I were to find myself in France.  I was amazed!  As a teacher I had the summer off and it happened I was turning 25 that summer, too.  So Charlotte and I made plane reservations as soon as we could.

It seems like it would be pretty daunting, getting invited to lunch at Mouton-Rothschild.  Did you do anything to prepare?  I wasn’t intimidated yet because I didn’t know any better, but thought I should learn at least a little about wine first.  So I went to the Harvard Coop and bought two books to read.  One was Hugh Johnson’s World of Wine, and I can’t remember what the other one was.  But I read them and learned as much as I could.  I was absolutely stunned to find out that Château Mouton-Rothschild was one of the world’s finest wineries.  The photos were absolutely beautiful!

What was it like walking in there?  Xavier and his assistant were both utterly charming, and it was elegant and lovely – handwritten menus, flowers, beautiful china and cutlery.  Amazing food!

There must have been some amazing wine, too.  Oh yes!  We did a vertical tasting, after champagne and some of the same wine I’d found the fly in.  First a 1964, then a 1944, then a 1918.  And more amazing food, followed by an 1892 Château d’Yquem.  Can you imagine getting to try wine from the 19th century?  All accompanied by tasting lessons from Xavier.

It sounds like an excellent first lesson!  I’m happy I had the wherewithal to appreciate it.  And it really did open a door for me.  Had I not studied food I’d have studied wine.

What did you do to continue learning about it?  Cooking can give you a great wine education if you’re open to it.  Working with Madeleine Kamman in Haute-Savoie taught me a lot more about French wine.  And working at Chez Panisse I learned to take as much care with wine as we did with all the other ingredients.

Talking about Chez Panisse reminds me that I wanted to ask you about the concept that things that grow together go together when it comes to food and wine.  You also hear it a lot on cooking shows these days.  In Europe, the cuisines and wines developed together.  But is that true for California too?  Especially considering that the wine industry there isn’t centuries old.  It’s true, and I first encountered it when I was in France.  But as I talked about in the intro to the wine country book nearly 20 years ago now, the 38th parallel runs through the Mediterranean and through California wine country north of San Francisco.  So you find that the things that grow here are similar to things in Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Spain.  And I learned that the Mediterranean/Provençal cooking at Chez Panisse is a good match for California wines and vice-versa.  They really grew up together.

How has California wine changed in the time you’ve been there?  From the late 1970s through not all that long ago we couldn’t get much more than Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from California back here in the east — apart from Zins and some sparkling wines.  I’ve been in California since 1980, and I think a Wente Chardonnay was the first wine I had when I got here.  But you know, the whole 38th parallel thing applies to wines, too.  The Europeans who came here in the 19th and early 20th century knew it and planted their home varietals.  We’ve had them here ever since, even if they didn’t travel outside of California.  But certainly, the pendulum has swung back to much greater variety of wines, even on the shelves here in the state.

What do you like to drink these days?  I love all wines, and I love red wine.  But I’m really a fanatic for crisp white wines.  Txacolina, Albariño, Grüner, I’m really loving white wines, especially from Spain, Portugal, and Italy.  And you can do a lot with them food-wise.

When you’re planning a special occasion, what comes first, the food or the wine?  I always think about the menu first, then the wine.  Like this weekend I’m doing a Moroccan dinner and I’ve figured out what I’m going to make, so now I’ll start pairing the wines.  Maybe if I had wines around like those Mouton-Rothschilds that would be different!

I imagine so!  Finally, I wanted to ask about some of the visual aspects of wine – I’m working on a blog post on them.  It seems that you can’t escape seeing everyone’s photos of their food when they eat out.  But apart from occasional photos of a bottle label, you don’t see wine photos the same way you do food photos.  As someone who has worked with wine on television, why do you think that is?  Everyone has some experience with a lot of different foods, and will have some idea of how they’re going to taste when they see them.  But unless you have a lot of experience with wine, the visual doesn’t provide the same cues.  And it probably doesn’t even for more experienced drinkers, either.  There’s not much to see, and you really have to smell and taste it.  I’ve tried to come up with more ways to include wine in the shows, but it just doesn’t work that well on television as a general rule.  You have to do too much talking.

Well, thanks so much for talking with me about it!  Your wine country cookbook has been a favorite for a long time, and it’s exciting to get to talk to you about it.  I really had fun, too – so glad to know you’ve enjoyed the book, especially after nearly two decades.

——————–

I had a hard time picking just one recipe from the wine country book to share with you.  But I think that this recipe for stuffed pork tenderloins shows off everything I like about the book.  Interesting combinations of flavors and ingredients, and a beautiful presentation.  You might not think off the top of your head that sherry vinegar and cloves would taste great together, but they do.

Prep isn’t quick for this although nothing is particularly hard.  The marmalade stuffing takes about an hour of cooking, although you’re not standing over the pan.  And the tenderloins have to rest in the fridge for at least two hours after you rub them with garlic and spices.  However, you can stuff, roll, and tie up the tenderloins and then leave them in the fridge overnight if you’d like, that way you can skip the initial two-hour wait.

Tying up meat is something I’ve never enjoyed doing, but it’s totally worth it here.  I find it’s easier to have the pieces of string already cut.  Lay them out on a cutting board at one-inch intervals, then put the butterflied tenderloin on top.  Spread on the stuffing, then roll it up.  The strings are ready for you to then tie it.  It’s still a lot of work, but you want to keep the stuffing inside.  It’s also easier to slice with the strings still on it, I think, but that’s up to you.  Since you’re not browning the tenderloins, the strings don’t get embedded in the meat and will slip off pretty easily.

One final note I’ve put in the recipe – depending on the sweetness of the oranges, you may find that the stuffing needs a bit more acidity.  Taste it to see, and you can always add a little bit more sherry vinegar at the end.

Joanne recommends using Sauvignon Blanc for cooking the tenderloins, and it’s great to serve with it too.  Bodega Traslagares Sauvignon ($13) from Rueda in north-central Spain is sort of a cross between the austere Sauvignon Blancs from France and the more tropical New Zealand versions.  It works really well with the warm flavor of the cloves and has enough acidity to balance.

If you have the wine country cooking book already, you’ll notice that the version of the recipe below is a little different.  Joanne has changed it some over the years, and sent me her latest incarnation.  There’s more orange and she’s added garlic, which wasn’t in the original.  For most of us, recipes evolve over time – mine are filled with scribbled notes reminding me of variations I’ve tried and liked.  It’s always a process, and even after 35-plus years in the food business, one of the first things Joanne told me is there’s always something to learn.

Cheers!

Tom

**  I did a little research and learned that The Grape Culturist:  A Treatise on the Cultivation of the Native Grape was written by Andrew S. Fuller, who lived from 1828-1896.  He also wrote books on cultivating nuts and small fruits beginning in the 1860s.  He was a horticulturist and amateur entomologist, born in Utica, New York.  One obituary credited him with rescuing Ridgewood, New Jersey (where he lived most of his life) from being more or less barren and turning it into a liveable place.  As an entomologist, he amassed a huge collection of insects, which were later donated to Harvard University.  He was quite well known in his time, so it’s possible that he knew William Cullen Bryant personally.

Pork Tenderloin with Orange, Onion, and Raisin Marmalade

Serves 6

From Weir Cooking — Recipes from the Wine Country, by Joanne Weir.  Reprinted with the author’s permission.

2 large pork tenderloin, about 1 pound each, trimmed

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Large pinch of cayenne

Freshly ground black pepper

2 oranges

6 tablespoons sultana or golden raisins

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar (see note, below)

2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt

8 cloves garlic, peeled

3 sprigs of parsley

1 bay leaf

6 whole cloves

1/2 cup dry white wine, like Sauvignon Blanc

3 cups rich chicken stock

Butterfly the pork by slitting the pork lengthwise almost all the way to the other side so it opens up to make a flat piece. Flatten slightly with a meat pounder. In a bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the minced garlic, paprika, cumin, cayenne, cloves, and pepper. Rub the pork with the mixture, place in a baking dish, cover, and refrigerate 2 hours or overnight.

Using a vegetable peeler, zest one of the oranges. Juice the oranges. In a small saucepan, combine the orange zest, orange juice, raisins, and sherry vinegar. Simmer very slowly, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, add the onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft, 20 minutes. Add the raisin mixture, sprinkle with sugar, and continue to cook very slowly, covered, until the onions are very soft, 30 minutes. Add 1/4 cup water and continue to cook, uncovered, 20 minutes, until almost dry. Season with salt and pepper.

Place the pork on a work surface, cut side up. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the onion mixture on the pork, spreading evenly. Roll the pork back up to the original shape, enclosing the filling. Tie at 1-inch intervals with kitchen string.   This can be done 1 day ahead to this point.

Place the pork in a casserole with the peeled garlic, parsley, bay leaf, whole cloves, white wine, and chicken stock. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to very low and simmer until the pork is done, 30 minutes. Remove the pork and keep warm. Reduce the broth by one-half to thicken or until the sauce coats the back of a spoon, 10 to 15 minutes. Strain. Season with salt and pepper.

Remove the strings and slice the meat into 1/2-inch slices. Place on a platter and drizzle the sauce over the top.

Note:  depending on how sweet the oranges are, you may find that the marmalade needs a little bit of acidity after you’ve cooked it.  Taste it to see, and add 1/2-teaspoon additional sherry vinegar if you think it needs it.

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