Social Distancing Installment #2:  The start of neo-prohibition?

Dr. Aiysha Malik discusses the potential for alcohol abuse during self-isolation from the Covid-19 outbreak. This has led some opinion writers to call for a ban on alcohol sales.

In a recent op-ed piece for the UK’s Independent, Ian Hamilton suggests that closing liquor stores and wine shops during the coronavirus pandemic “would yield more for the nation’s health than almost any other policy intervention.”

Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health sciences at the University of York, wrote his op-ed in reaction to alcohol retailers being classified as “essential businesses,” meaning that they are specifically allowed to remain open while other businesses have been ordered to close.  He’s not the only writer at the Independent who has concerns about alcohol sales during the Covid-19 crisis, as you can read here.

Obviously, as a wine merchant, I’ve got a dog in this fight, even though I’m not in the UK.  I’ve heard some social media rumblings here about whether alcohol retailers should be classified as essential here in the US, although nothing in the mainstream press.  Hamilton argues that the main reason alcohol businesses are still open during the virus outbreak in the UK is because the alcohol lobby is too strong for politicians to overcome.  I’ve certainly felt the sting of state-based prohibitions on shipping wine here in the US thanks to state alcohol lobbies.  But it’s naïve to think that’s the whole story.  After all, we’ve tried the experiment before.

Prohibition provides an interesting analog to today’s coronavirus crisis in two ways.  Part of the success of the temperance movement that helped create the national prohibition law was to help curb domestic violence.  This is a worthwhile goal and is also one point cited by some UK mental health groups advocating eliminating alcohol sales today.  The other point is that the virus has led to massive unemployment, which mirrors one of the impacts of the Great Depression.  Although prohibition was enacted a decade before the Great Depression began, it showed that people with enough money had virtually unimpeded access to alcohol during the roaring 20s.  By October 1929, when US unemployment skyrocketed, there was substantial illegal infrastructure to make and sell alcohol – so much so that alcohol consumption increased despite prohibition.  Prohibition also led to unconscionable sales of doctored alcohol to desperate people, causing injuries and deaths.

The UK never had government-enforced prohibition the way we did here in the US.  Prohibition failed because people found ways to get alcohol and state governments lost valuable revenue during the depression.

I’m not trying to be flip here. I’ve seen a lot of Twitter postings about how self-isolation is really messing with people.  That’s hardly a scientific survey, but it’s noticeable.  So it’s not out of bounds to consider that people who are feeling lonely and vulnerable might drink more than they otherwise would.  That could be a problem, and it’s important to consider it.

But it’s early days for self-isolation and I haven’t found any real data on this.  I’ve seen plenty of what I assume are joking references to breakfast cocktails, they appear to be for entertainment.  Even Ina Garten upped the typical cocktail portion size in a viral video this week.  But I wonder if it’s also possible that people reaching out on Twitter and other social media are getting some comfort and relief from those activities rather than alcohol.  Social media feedback might not replace in-person interactions, but it’s something people are definitely using.  (And no, I don’t think Ina drank that industrial-sized Cosmopolitan herself, at least not in one sitting.)

Ina Garten posted a video on Instagram joking that the serving size for alcohol might need some adjustment.

I also get that it’s irritating that alcohol retailers get labeled as “essential,” when alcohol has upended so many lives.  I’d be happy for First Vine to shed its “essential” classification in favor of one that’s less imperative.  Perhaps there could be a less dramatic adjective applied to it, rather than what appears to be the current all-or-nothing shorthand.

Finally, it’s important to remind people that drinking in moderation is key, and what moderate drinking actually means.  Reflecting on when and how much we drink is a good idea, and if we’re more mindful we may decide that we don’t need to drink as much alcohol.  That’s all to the good, I think.  Accordingly, I have put a link on my sales homepage with recommended guidelines.  Beyond reflecting on our alcohol consumption, we can also all help one another by keeping in touch with our families and friends as best we can.  Last week I saw a cartoon blaming the videoconferencing app Zoom for the coronavirus crisis.  (For the record, I don’t believe that, even though it’s funny.)  But hey, if it helps people connect and eases some of the anxiety of self-isolation, I’ll happily raise an appropriately-sized glass to them as part of my weekly moderate drinking schedule.

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Why I love Wine PR — and why I’ll be writing more often

I rigorously unsubscribe from most e-mail lists, but I stay on the ones for wine-related PR because of pitches for things like this.

A few days ago, Philadelphia-based fashion and culture bloggers Tom and Lorenzo posted a challenge to their readers on Twitter.  I’ve been reading their blog for years and I’ve learned a lot from them.  They asked their readers to take our blogs up again or start one if we’ve been meaning to.  The world needs distraction content in days of social distancing, they said, and I think they’re right.  So I thought I’d post more.  This’ll give me a chance to write about things I probably wouldn’t have before – I’ve always considered that blogging as infrequently as I do meant I had to write more substantive posts.  Well, not anymore!

Social Distancing Installment One:  Wine-related PR

Over my years in the wine business, wine-related PR has been the gift that keeps on giving.  I’m usually vigilant about unsubscribing from mailing lists, but I keep myself on these, even if I have no idea how I got on them in the first place.  Not because I’ve ever been convinced to buy something or write to promote whatever it is.  But there’s a beauty in the hyperbole of their overreach that’s unmatched in my experience, and I find it irresistible.

Why?  Well, basically, wine is a luxury product.  We love it, of course.  But it’s not the thing that’s cleared out on grocery store shelves in these days of social distancing and staying home.  So how do you make it seem like something you can’t live without?  The pitches are usually some sort of snob appeal – you’re the kind of person who will appreciate this for its age/expensiveness/tradition/environmental consciousness/pure naturalness, aren’t you?  Or, the opposite, something like you’d imagine the way a dog thinks:  gosh isn’t it fun to drink wine?  Let’s make it even more fun!  Isn’t it fun?  Really, isn’t it fun?

The latest pitch leaned into the dog thought bubble.  It’s for the Sipski, which is a self-hanging bracket you can put in your shower to hold your wine glass.  No awkward suction cups or specialty tools required, the miracle-coated silicone back clings to any surface.  Isn’t that a relief?  Nothing to interfere with the fun! “Bringing Happy Hour to Your Shower,” the copy reads.  And better yet, it’s “Part of an entire line of #Drinkintheshower accessories.”  Who knows how much fun you’ll have?

Where to start with this?  Maybe I’m just getting old, but who thinks it’s a good idea to take a wine glass into the shower, assuming it’s real glass and not plastic?  I mean, you could slip and the glass could break and jeez, who knows.  Or maybe steam condensing on the glass will make it slippery and you’ll drop it.  I guess it’s a good thing that you’re already in soap and water to clean the cuts you’ll get.

My second thought was that I don’t think I spend enough time in there to have wine.  And what about the restrictions on water use in California?  You mean you’re supposed to squeeze in a glass of wine during your mandated extra-short shower time?  How exactly is that supposed to work?  I think they’d need to change the name from Sipski to Chugski.

But what it comes down to is, WHY DO YOU NEED TO DRINK WINE IN THE SHOWER?  Do you think it’ll improve your shower singing ability?  Trust me, it won’t.  (And don’t go pretending your wine glass is a microphone, either.  That’s just asking for trouble.)

Snark aside, if the shower is the only place you can be by yourself and enjoy a glass of wine — something that could definitely be the case these days — then please, have at it.  But for goodness sake, be careful!

See what I mean?  So much entertainment.  No unsubscribe for me.  I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Cheers!

Tom

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A smile for everyone on a ride around the world

Twenty-two-year-old Hideyuki Miyakawa on a round-the-world bike trip in 1960. Hide stopped in Turin to see the famed auto show, met an Italian woman, and stayed for decades. He’s the founder and owner of Bulichella in Tuscany, one of the wineries I import from.

One of the best things about importing wine is meeting the people who make it. Some have taken over generations-old family businesses. Others came to making wine after doing other things. In those cases, there’s usually some cognitive dissonance between the old and new careers. But even among the occasionally outrageous wine origin stories I’ve encountered, Hideyuki Miyakawa probably gets the award for the biggest swerve in career and life changes.

Hide (pronounced EE-day) as he’s called, is the owner and founder of Società Agricola Bulichella, a farm producing wine and olive oil in the Maremma in southwestern Tuscany, near the village of Suvereto. His road – and I do mean road — from Miebashi, Japan where he was born, to Tuscany, where he now lives, was both unexpected and full of surprises.

In 1960, 22-year-old Hide and a friend decided to take time off from their automobile design jobs and go on a motorcycling trip. Not just your average trip, mind you, but to ride around the world, writing articles for a Japanese publication as they went. They started in southeast Asia, riding through India and Pakistan before hitting the Middle East and then Europe. They arrived in Italy in time for the Rome Summer Olympics, and Hide wrote about the games, basing himself there for a while. Soon after, the two auto designers decided to ride up to Turin and check out the annual auto show.

Marisa Miyakawa in the early 1960s. In addition to raising seven children and helping start Bulichella, she founded Un Sorriso per Tutti, a charitable organization to help orphans in the Congo.

The Turin Auto Show is a big deal, featuring the world’s finest in automotive design. And since it attracts people from all over the globe, the show organizers try to hire as many translators as possible. The translator for Hide was Maria Luisa (Marisa) Bassano, a young woman from Turin who was studying Japanese.   Sparks evidently flew between the two, and despite the presence of combustible material, no one was harmed. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself with that…) Marisa took Hide and his friend around the show and invited them to her family’s home for lunch the next day.

Forget “La Dolce Vita” — in 1960 it was still a big deal for a proper Italian girl to bring a boy she’d just met home to meet the family, and a foreigner no less. Even with his friend along as “chaperone.” But Marisa’s family was charmed by Hide. Marisa soon left to spend a year in Japan for her studies, and her family took Hide under their wing while she was gone. In 1961, Hide went to visit Marisa in Japan, and they got engaged there, marrying in 1962.

They settled in Turin, where Hide began working with Giorgetto Giugiaro and Aldo Mantovani, both well-known Italian auto designers. In 1968, the three men founded Italdesign, a company that designed concept and production cars for many European auto companies, plus cars produced in Asia and the U.S. – including the DeLorean which was used in the “Back to the Future” movies. (Giugiaro is a giant in the world of Italian design, and also created cameras, computer prototypes, office furniture, watches, firearms, and even pasta shapes.)

One of the many spectacular views at Bulichella. The trees are featured on many of the wine labels.

And then came the wine, or at least the first step toward it.  In 1983, Hide and Marisa bought a piece of farmland in the Maremma to use as a vacation property. The land had grapevines and olive trees, and Hide and Marisa quickly saw its business potential. All of the farming was organic, something unusual for the time and the region. In 1992, they began transitioning their lives to Tuscany from Turin and decided to invest more in Bulichella, as the farm came to be known. For help, they hired the Bonaguidi family, who had been in the area for many years and knew the particular soil and climate well, and they also started an agriturismo business at Bulichella, which was then a relatively new concept. In 1997 they completed construction of a new winery, producing all their wines with organic certification.

But the move to Bulichella also led to other changes.  The same year the new winery opened, Marisa finalized plans for a philanthropic organization to aid orphans in the Congo. This venture combined a number of influences from her life – her training and work as a special education teacher and a passion for understanding the world and the problems of the less fortunate that her father had taught her from childhood. The experience of being in a multi-national and multi-racial family in what was a relatively homogeneous Italian society also influenced her worldview. It led her and Hide, after having four children, to adopt three more children from Africa. And this, in turn, led to the founding of the non-profit Un Sorriso per Tutti – A Smile for Everyone – that continues today.

Sadly, Marisa died in 2003, and over the next few years Hide began to turn more of Bulichella’s farm and production operations over to his daughter Shizuko. Shizuko splits her time between Bulichella and her family in Turin, and has continued to focus on wine and olive oil. In 2015 she hired a new enologist, Lucco d’Atoma, and his changes convinced Shizuko that she needed new label designs to launch a new phase for Bulichella. Before, the labels had been a simple stylized stand of cypress trees seen throughout Tuscany. Shizuko and the family chose line drawings that convey more of the particular setting and terroir of Bulichella plus a bit of family history. The new look made its debut at Vinitaly in 2018 and Shizuko said it was a truly proud moment for her and her family.

The label of a wine named for Hide in a new series of labels from Bulichella, showing him driving a classic car in the vineyards. In the back are two cypress trees, which used to be on Bulichella’s labels.  Shizuko Miyakawa, Hide’s daughter and Bulichella’s manager, wanted a design that combined older elements with some family history and a sense of terroir.

I’ve got lots of great stories about Hide and Bulichella, but the visit Cy and I made there in October 2017 stands out. Shizuko invited us to a big Sunday family lunch. Her husband came down from Turin, and her oldest brother Marco and his family drove from Milan. Hide and his second wife were there too, and a surprise guest arrived – Hide’s motorcycle-riding buddy came up from Rome. There was great food, mostly Italian but with some Japanese dishes too, in seemingly endless amounts.

As we sat looking at the beautiful scenery, conversations around the table switched from English to Italian to Japanese, sometimes all in the same sentence. It seemed unlike anything else we’d experienced. Yet at the same time, it was very much like family dinners at the homes of some of our producers in France. And family celebrations here in the U.S. It was a lovely reminder that the world isn’t such a large place – it’s only a motorcycle ride away.


With 17 hectares of vines, Bulichella grows Sangiovese, Cab, Merlot, Syrah, Montepulciano, Vermentino, and Viognier.  The 2017 Tuscanio Bianco ($19), made from Vermentino and Viognier, is drinking spectacularly well right now.  So is the 2016 Rubino ($21), which is 50% Sangiovese and 25% each Cab and Merlot.  Shizuko told me they named it Rubino for its color.  It has a similar formulation to so-called “Supertuscan” wines, although unlike most of that category, it’s aged in second- and third-use barrels.  Both of these wines are IGT Costa Toscana, a designation that Hide helped to create (they were previously designated as Bianco di Toscana and Rosso di Toscana).  He also pushed for creation of a DOCG Suvereto Sangiovese, and those grapes go into the 2013 Tuscanio Rosso ($35).  It’s a beautiful Sangiovese, complex and not too oaky.  Bulichella also produces the signature wine called Hide – obviously named for Hide himself — which is 100% Syrah, and a Bordeaux-style Cab and Merlot blend called Colledipietrerosse (Red rock hills).  I brought some Hide over to sell, and after pouring it at one tasting sold my entire stock within a month.  Colledipietrerosse is one I plan to bring over in the future.

I’ve been recommending Bulichella wines with recipes for a while now because they drink spectacularly well with food.   This post’s recipe is another one that will work with any of the three Bulichellas in stock.  Roasted Sausages and Grapes is supposedly a Tuscan recipe, since I have seen it in restaurants in Tuscany I’ll just go with that designation!  Dishes with grapes are pretty common in wine-making regions of Italy, some with pork or chicken.  Cooked this way, some of the grapes stay whole while some burst and release their juice into the sauce.  The dish can be made as an appetizer or a main course.  For an appetizer, you’ll want to slice the sausages up to use as bruschette.  Mashed potatoes, polenta, or cooked farro are great bases to use if you want to serve them as an entrée.  Either way, make sure you get really good Italian sausage.  It’s fine to use turkey and chicken versions as long as you get ones you’d be happy to eat even without all the grapes and sauce.

I find that I’m less inclined to drink wine outside of meals these days, so if I’m opening a bottle I’ll want to use it in the recipe too, if I can.  Although this recipe calls for ¼ cup of red wine, I’d go ahead and use the Tuscanio Bianco if you have it open.  And if you’re drinking the Tuscanio Rosso (and I hope you will), go ahead and put ¼ cup of that in the recipe.  That way you can tell your guests that you used a spectacular wine in the dish because they’re worth it!

Cheers!

Tom

Roasted Sausages and Grapes

Serves 6-8 as entrée or 12 as appetizer

2-1/2 pounds Italian sausages, (hot, sweet, or a combination) made from pork, turkey, or chicken

2-1/2 pounds seedless grapes (red or white or a combination), washed and stemmed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted plus 1 tablespoon unmelted

6 garlic cloves, peeled and cut lengthwise in quarters

¼ cup dry red wine

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper

Serving suggestions:  mashed potatoes, polenta, or cooked farro for entrée, toasted baguette slices for appetizer

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Prick the sausages with a fork, then put them in a single layer in a large skillet.  Add enough cold water to cover the sausages and bring to just boiling over high heat.  Reduce the heat to a bare simmer, partially cover the pan, and poach for 15 minutes.  This will remove some of the fat and ensure that the sausages get completely cooked in the oven.  Remove the sausages from the water and let them cool for a couple of minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the grapes, melted butter, garlic slivers, and some salt and pepper in a large roasting pan, preferably one that can also go on the stove top.  Toss well to mix and set aside.

At this point, you’ll have to decide whether to slice the sausages or not.  For an entrée you can leave them whole or cut them in half or quarters.  For an appetizer, slice the sausages into about 1/2-inch thick pieces.

Add the sausages to the roasting pan, pressing the sausages down to the bottom of the pan.  Put the pan in the oven and roast for about a half hour total.  If you’ve sliced the sausages, you’ll want to stir the pan up a few times during cooking.  If they’re whole or in pieces, turn them over once halfway through cooking.  The sausages should be nicely browned, otherwise cook for a little longer.

Remove the pan from the oven, and use a slotted spoon to remove the sausages and grapes to a bowl or platter.  Place the roasting pan over one or two burners on the stove and turn the burners on to medium-high heat.  (If you’ve used a ceramic roasting dish, pour the liquid into a saucepan instead, scraping up as much of anything on the bottom of the roasting pan as you can.)  Add the wine and balsamic vinegar and scrape up the bottom.  Boil for a few minutes to reduce and then add the last tablespoon of butter.  Taste for salt and pepper.  Pour the sauce over the sausages, and serve.  Use the bread to make bruschette for appetizers.  For an entrée, serve with something to help sop up the juices.

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How dry we were?

For the past five years or so, the idea of alcohol-free Januarys has caught on in many countries. There are many motivations, but it’s mostly perceived as a health benefit.  This particular photo comes from a series of public-interest initiatives in the U.K.

February marks the end of what for some is a month of trying various forms of self-improvement. Although we think we’re going to keep up the things we’ve started, that mostly doesn’t happen (at least for me.) Veganuary may segue into Vegruary, but probably not for most people. And after Valentine’s Day we’ll see sanity and space return from January’s crowds at the gym. In the past, there were various reasons for people not drinking as much as usual in January, like saving money or drinking their holiday alcohol gifts. I could expect a jump in wine sales as the calendar page turned.

But in the last five years or so, deliberate alcohol-free Januarys have become more of a thing. For some people it’s a way to raise money for charities by collecting donations as encouragement. For most who try it, though, there’s a health angle. At its best, I think it could be a good thing – giving people a way to examine when and how they consume alcohol. When the month’s over, this could lead to a better relationship with drinking.

Mindfulness when it comes to food and drink is a good idea. But like so much else, dry January has also been incorporated into ideas of self-care. It’s a real needle scratch for me when, for the rest of the year, many people look at wine a positive part of self-care, as I’ve written before. How wine is part of self-care part of the year but not during January doesn’t make sense to me.

Part of the reason for seemingly contradictory actions is likely because really good information on alcohol and health is scarce. And it’s not just for alcohol, but top-notch medical information in general, especially for women. In the February 12 Washington Post op-ed section, Dr. Nikki Stamp argues that a history of one-sided medical research and institutional sexism has fostered the rise of the wellness culture we have today. She starts with a look at Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix show on wellness. Much of it seems expensive and useless, Stamp says. Which is fine if you want to waste money trying to look younger. But if it extends to rejecting sound medicine for treatable conditions, that’s another story. Paltrow doesn’t appear to conflate the two things, but that’s not necessarily true of wellness in general.

As Stamp recounts, last month the head of Britain’s National Health Service “delivered a stinging assessment of the growth of the wellness industry and the harms that the willful ignorance of science is bringing.” She agrees, but also argues that if doctors find the multitrillion-dollar wellness industry distressing, they deserve part of the blame for medical science that has ignored women. And, since most medical research applies almost exclusively to men, it has resulted in misdiagnosis and unnecessary perpetuation of painful conditions in women. Wellness has rushed to fill this gap for people who feel excluded by medicine. “The wellness industry purports to be everything that conventional medicine is not: egalitarian, hopeful and accessible.”

I also suspect there’s a sense of novelty to self-care and wellness that helps keep people engaged, both men and women. There’s always something new to try. The conventional message from medical science hasn’t changed for decades on general health and maintaining a “healthy” body weight: eating right, exercising, not smoking, etc. We could all recite it in our sleep. But cold plunges, a novel diet, a common substance we don’t eat enough of but should, and things like that? Why not try them? Maybe they’ll work, or kick-start a better regimen in general. But if not, at least we tried something new.

Avoiding alcohol in January certainly fits in here – while it’s not exactly a new concept, most people will have forgotten what it felt like last year so it’ll seem like something different 😉. Seriously, though, as I’ve written before, I don’t expect alcohol to be a health tonic. While I’d like to know more about it, I’m comfortable with moderate drinking given the current state of information. I’m also on board with people who want to see if not drinking will benefit their lives.

But I have a suggestion. Most people don’t just do a dry January, they try other things as well. This means that the effects of not drinking might not be as clear to us. We lead multi-variable lives, so if we want to see which things have a real effect, we can’t necessarily do them all at once. Next year, maybe we should wait until we’ve established some of the other things, like the new eating and exercise regimen, and then give a dry month a try. That way we’ll be able to judge the real impact apart from the noise.

———————–

If you’ve decided to return to drinking wine in February, or just want to try something new, we’re here to help. I’ve put most of our wines costing $19 per bottle and up on sale. You’ll automatically get an additional 20% off through the end of April when you order them, on top of the regular volume discounts. So maybe grab some special occasion bottles, or just upgrade your nightly meal wine with something you probably won’t drink every day.

And one of the ones I think you could pick, especially if you want something to pair with the chicken recipe below, is Società Agricola Bulichella’s Tuscanio Bianco ($19). It’s mostly made with Vermentino with a little Viognier. It’s a wonderful winter white wine, and perfect for many vegan dishes, too.

The recipe is Apricot and Prune Chicken Stew, from The Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan. My husband Cy’s father was born in Iran, and Cy grew up eating Persian food at family get-togethers. I like to make Cy this dish because he says it reminds him of his grandmother’s food. When it’s cooking and he comes through the front door, he tells me he can smell it as he comes up the steps! There’s not a lot of preparation, and most of the cooking is hands-off. We’re not necessarily used to combining meat and fruit in our food here in the U.S., but the apricots and prunes add just a touch of sweetness to the sauce. And the saffron adds a wonderful aroma, too. It’s awfully good.

Iranian (or Persian) cookbooks are easier to find than they used to be, and The Saffron Tales is one of the best. I asked Ms. Khan for permission to reprint her recipe, and she graciously agreed. And although it’s a “stew,” it’s not particularly heavy, and it fits in with lighter eating. Well, OK, not grilled-chicken-breast-and-steamed-broccoli lighter eating, but still – it’s a winter meal you can eat any time of year.

Cheers!

Tom

Apricot and Prune Chicken Stew (Aloo Mosamaa)

From The Saffron Tales, by Yasmin Khan

Reprinted with the author’s kind permission

Serves 4

Vegetable Oil

3 medium onions, finely chopped

¾ teaspoon cumin seeds

¾ teaspoon cilantro (coriander) seeds

8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 2 pounds, I like to cut them into two pieces each)

1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1-1/2 teaspoons turmeric

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

2 cups good-quality chicken stock

16 dried apricots, cut in quarters

16 prunes, cut in half

½ teaspoon saffron threads

A pinch of sugar

2 tablespoons freshly boiled water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large saucepan with a lid and gently fry the onions over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until brown and very soft (around 25 minutes).

Meanwhile, toast the cumin and cilantro seeds in a dry skillet for a minute or two and then grind them into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.

Once the onions are ready, add the chicken thighs to the saucepan, along with the ground cumin and cilantro, the cinnamon, turmeric, salt, and pepper. Cook for a few minutes over high heat until the chicken is sealed (not raw-looking) on all sides and then add the stock. Cover and cook over a low to medium heat for 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of oil in a skillet and lightly fry the apricots and prunes for 2-3 minutes until they start to plump up.

Grind the saffron with a pinch of sugar in the mortar and pestle and then transfer to a cup and leave to steep in the boiled water for 2 minutes.

When the chicken is cooked, add the fried fruit, along with the lemon juice and saffron liquid. Cook for a final 5-10 minutes until the sauce with the lid off, until the sauce has thickened a bit. Adjust the seasoning with a touch more salt, pepper, or lemon juice.

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Limiting pesticides in wine — and a little of my skepticism, too

The Zero Pesticide Residue Label that will appear on wines certified by Nouveaux-Champs. The organization has begun to certify wines and one of the producers is a winery I used to import from.

This morning I read an article about a new certification in France for agricultural products containing zero pesticide residues. And that a few French wineries had joined the effort and become eligible to label some of their wines as “Zero Pesticide Residue” products.

Best of all, to my enviro/chemical engineer mind, the resulting bragging sticker to be placed on the bottles contains five important words: Within the limits of quantification. This acknowledges that the wines might contain pesticide residues, but that the quantities are so small that current instruments and methods can’t yet detect them.

Bravo for the honesty. And good for the certifying organization, called Nouveaux-Champs (or New Fields, in French), for coming up with something that conveys accurate and useful information to consumers so that they can make more informed choices.

Back in 2015, I wrote about a study of pesticides in French wines. All of the 100 or so wines tested contained detectable pesticide residues, even the ones labeled organic. Some wines contained what seemed to be high quantities, although no wines exceeded government standards.  Que Choisir, a French consumer organization that did the study, recommended that wineries opt into a testing program that would allow wines with the fewest and lowest quantities of detectable pesticide residues to label themselves that way. It looks like Nouveaux-Champs has created a program to do that, also requiring demonstrating sustainable practices and periodic third-party monitoring of production in addition to publicizing the result.

The first winery to join, Les Vignerons de Tutiac, a large cooperative in the Bordeaux region, is one I know well. I used to import one of their wines. The winery has a reputation for high-quality production. Because it’s a large cooperative with many growers, it makes sense that the operators could find a few growers with exactly the right conditions for the three wines that will bear the zero pesticide residue label. As I mentioned before, many pesticides persist in the environment, so even a long break without pesticide use can still result in pesticide residues in agricultural products. And pesticides travel by air in dust and droplets far from where they’re used. Even pristine areas can show detectable pesticide levels.

So how can zero pesticide residue wines be made? In all likelihood the grapes are grown on land that hasn’t seen any pesticide use in decades. I’d bet that the properties are all relatively isolated from other agriculture, as well as industry and major roads. And that they’re surrounded by some kind of natural physical barrier, like woods or bodies of water, that blocks pesticide drift and air transport. Or otherwise topographically sheltered from prevailing winds.  Few vineyards can achieve these kinds of conditions, at least under current agricultural practices. It’s especially remarkable in Bordeaux, which Que Choisir found to be the region with the most and highest pesticide detections in wine.

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t offer some caveats. Because the substances weren’t detected doesn’t mean they’re not there. A barely undetectable amount of a really bad actor could be much more unsafe than a detectable amount of something much less toxic. There’s no reason to expect this kind of situation, but we don’t know what we don’t know.

Another issue is that “pesticides” is a catch-all term for a bunch of substances. These include insecticides, obviously, but also fungicides – something that nearly every winery uses at one time or another. The pesticides that Nouveaux-Champs tries to measure almost certainly don’t include the things approved for use in organic wine production. After all, sulfites, which are created as part of fermentation, are “pesticides” even if we don’t think of them that way, since they kill bacteria that could cause the wine to spoil. (Sulfur compounds are also used as fungicides for grapevines.)  And nearly every wine produced on the planet contains measurable amounts of sulfites, even if they’re not added by the winemaker.  The difference is that we know they’re in the bottle because it says so on the label by law.

One final thought that might be considered a caveat. I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out economically. Nouveaux-Champs estimates that those products certified as containing zero pesticide residue can expect up to a 30% price premium from consumers. With the normal supply chain markups, this means that that producers would earn between about four and seven percent more per bottle (they’d get the entire 30% for wines sold at the winery). Grape growers may receive even less.  Is that enough money to bring more wineries into the fold, given the increased costs for production and certification? We’ll find out as time goes on.

But OK, enough objections from me for now. In my former life as an environmental scientist, I advocated for the public’s right to know – about toxic chemicals coming from industrial facilities, toxic chemicals in children’s toys and other consumer products, and about genetically-modified organisms in our food. Not because anything would kill or even necessarily harm us, but because we have the right to make informed decisions about our lives. This ought to extend to the wine we drink, too. I’m really pleased that we’ll now start to have that chance.


No recipe this post — I’ve been spending a bunch of time responding to the proposed 100% tariffs on European wines, as well as commenting on the 25% tariffs on certain French, Spanish, and German wines.  I’ll share some of those comments with you next time, and I promise a recipe, too.

Posted in Pesticides in French Wine, Pesticides in Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A holiday gift — be at peace with drinking wine just because you like it

I set out to examine why many wine drinkers seem to need their wine to be a health beverage. Part of it is wrapped up in the whole issue of what constitutes health, and why it has become a necessary counterpoint to contradictory and shaming messages about food. This is partly responsible for the rise of self-care as a major component of health, and for many people, that’s where wine comes in. (Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash.)

Since the holidays are nearly here, I expect to see a round of articles discussing how the wine we’ll be drinking this time of year is either (a) the perfect way to get jacked despite the inevitable holiday overeating, or (b) a step toward missing future holidays with our grandchildren, along with some shade thrown at people who touted option (a).

Obviously, I’d like to know what the real deal is with wine and health, as I’d like to with all foods. I personally don’t need wine to be a health tonic. But I wanted to explore why so many people want or need to think that drinking wine is good for them. (Or eating dark chocolate, for that matter). And, conversely, why there’s such gleeful vitriol from some when we learn that it might not be.

I got way deeper into the topic than I expected to, and I don’t want to drag everyone into the weeds. After a couple of weeks of reading and discussion I was left with two conclusions:

1) Anything we eat or drink can be dismissed as self-indulgent, whether it’s for pleasure or what we think of as pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. Wine is an easy target, especially because of its historically elitist associations. Tangible health benefits blunt the criticism. If they turn out not to be true, then those who claimed health benefits are bound to be on the receiving end of “see, you’re no better than the rest of us” – ism.

2) It’s not just food and wine that have to be good for us. Everything in our lives has to be “healthy” or it will seem to have less value, and we’re not supposed to care about it. Since there’s no definition of “healthy” living, we’ve allowed all sorts of aesthetic and decorous things to creep into our notions of health. And then, of course, we want something to back us up in our beliefs.

These seem pretty emphatic, which isn’t what I intended. They’re based on philosophical research, which by its nature tries hard to make its points. So while it might read like we’re helplessly buffeted by forces beyond our control, the point is that there are social norms that work on us whether we’re aware or not. And they influence our attitudes in ways we don’t necessarily understand.

I didn’t expect to find any studies examining people’s attitudes toward drinking wine in a sociological or ethical context, and I couldn’t. But those studies definitely exist for food. I was particularly struck by work done by Rebecca Kukla, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, and senior research scholar at the Kennedy School of Ethics.

Kukla wrote “Shame, Seduction, and Character in Food Messaging” as a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics, and it’s an eye-opening look at what she calls “the rhetorical and ethical structure of our public communications and representations concerning food, eating, health, and obesity.” Her take on food messaging is blunt. “Any eating practices in which we may engage are at risk of being shamed. There is no normatively safe way to eat in our culture – no set of eating practices that makes one more or less immune from shaming and criticism… Our eating practices are routinely portrayed as having characterological significance, so there is no right kind of person to be in our culture, when it comes to food.” Further, she says that “messages that create a moralized sense of personal accountability for food choices, linking eating practices with character, also cause moral distortion…[and] can do direct moral harm by demeaning their recipients.”

Since she’s here in DC, I wanted to meet with her, and she agreed. I didn’t know when I first contacted her that she’s also a certified sommelier. She was happy to discuss what she also sees as an increasing need to make wine into a health beverage.

Kukla and I talked about two points in her article that I thought particularly applied to wine. The first is that wine, like some foods, is considered seductive, pleasurable, and rewarding – but at the same time those foods are thought of as “bad” because they’re tempting and an indulgence. The second is that wine is part of what we think of as celebratory foods, which Kukla claims, “are almost exclusively among those also coded as unhealthy and shameful.” While we think of wine, correctly, as part of important cultural traditions, it’s considered celebratory in part because it’s also indulgent and decadent.

She agreed that modern-day wine writing, like food writing, plays up the sensual aspects in a way that can push wine into what people think of as the “bad” category. And the reasoning that we “reward” ourselves with wine (like we do with other celebratory foods) underscores that it’s something we’re not otherwise “supposed” to have.  But if wine has a health benefit, that’s a built-in excuse to drink it without seeming self-indulgent.

Wine has its own elitist baggage, though. Its historical association with wealth certainly doesn’t help. And wine evokes what Kukla called “the charm of other places.” Not that it has to be a French château necessarily, but even many California winery tasting rooms sport the hushed tones generally reserved for the world’s great cathedrals.  I appreciate that charm because it has great associations for me.  But it can certainly seem overblown.

Kukla then took our discussion into work by Anna Kirkland at the University of Michigan. Kukla’s chapter cited one of Kirkland’s articles, titled “The Environmental Account of Obesity: A Case for Feminist Skepticism.” Kirkland’s idea of something called “healthism” – that health has become our new morality – also applies to how we look at wine.

I’m looking forward to contacting Kirkland to discuss her work more fully in a wine context. But reading her feminist skepticism article and my discussion with Kukla on Kirkland’s ideas gave me plenty to ponder.

At first glance, the idea that we need everything to be healthy in our lives in order to be worthy of consideration seems way out there.  But I can see some truth in it.  I think part of it may be a reaction to the definitively unhealthy things in our lives we can’t control, like pollution and global warming.  Kirkland argues that because healthy means different things to different people, we have let the concept slide. It has absorbed aesthetics, character, and class values in a kind of absurd mix. Our images of what constitute “healthy” living now tilt toward the decorous, proper, and clean, like something out of a magazine. And it extends beyond what we eat to things like spirituality.

Kukla and I discussed healthism as it applies to wine, and we agreed that the marketing associated with “natural” wine fits the bill. While there isn’t any evidence that these wines are better for you than wines produced by today’s conventional methods, they have acquired a patina of self-care. Our expanded sense of health includes concepts like self-care, so that makes natural wines “healthy,” especially if you can pit them against other wines.

But even conventional wines are treated as self-care, although most people don’t seem to extend that distinction to beer and spirits. Since we’ve conflated self-care with health, we then want what Kukla calls “Capital S science” to back it up. When we find it, it reinforces the good we think we’re doing ourselves.

Definitely a lot to think about here. Rebecca Kukla and I agree that people should drink wine because they want to, without shame or the need to make it a health benefit. It sounds like it should automatically be that way, but maybe we all need to embrace our habits to give ourselves permission to enjoy the foods we like without making it seem like we’re judging other people for theirs. Easier said than done, I know, since we’re all buffeted by messages telling us otherwise. But hey, it’s the holidays, so we can always hope, right?


Roasted butternut squash and onions

A photo of my attempt at Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za’atar, from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. You don’t peel the squash before roasting (it comes out great that way), and you can do the squash and onions a couple of days ahead. So it makes a tasty and easy Thanksgiving side dish. Thanks to Mr. Tamimi for permission to reprint the recipe.

My experience with Thanksgiving food is that most people don’t want to experiment, at least not with the basics. Not because they’ll get shamed for it, but because part of the comfort of the Thanksgiving holiday is the traditional meal.

Dessert can be an exception, especially if someone else brings it. But new side dishes can also get a pass as long as they don’t crowd out the stuffing, mashed potatoes, or brussels sprouts. The trouble is, oven space is at a premium on Thanksgiving Day, so it’s great to have a side dish you can make ahead, refrigerate, and then let sit at room temperature before serving.

I was looking through some of my cookbooks recently and came across a recipe containing roasted butternut squash in the book Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. It has a lot of great stuff in it, but the thing about this recipe is that you roast the butternut squash without peeling it. Cutting it into small pieces first and then roasting skin-side down on the baking sheet softens the skin and makes it a bit chewy, a nice contrast to the softer flesh of the squash. But maybe the best thing is that it was wonderful as leftovers, too – which makes it perfect as a make-ahead Thanksgiving side dish.

I asked Sami Tamimi for permission to reprint the recipe here for you, and he graciously agreed. I’ve included my notes on doing the roasting ahead.

I hope your Thanksgiving dinner is accompanied by a bunch of open bottles of wine, allowing you to try different foods and wines together. So don’t sweat it. But if you’re looking for something in particular – especially if you’re bringing this side dish to a dinner – try Bulichella Rubino ($21). It’s a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, made in the Maremma in Tuscany. Not as big-bodied as so-called Supertuscans that have the same blend of grapes (and only pair with Tuscan steak), it’s delicious with a wide range of foods. Shizuko Miyakawa, the Japanese-Italian winery manager at Bulichella, spent a year in the U.S. as an exchange student, and would be thrilled if you served her family’s wine with your Thanksgiving dinner.

Best wishes for the holiday season, and enjoy all of the wine and food!

Cheers!

Tom

Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za’atar

Serves 4 as a main, or 8 as a large side dish

From Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, reprinted with Mr. Tamimi’s permission

1 butternut squash (about 2-1/4 pounds), skin scrubbed and rinsed, cut into ¾ by 2-1/2 inch wedges

2 large red onions, each cut into 8 wedges (about 1-1/4 inch)

3-1/2 tablespoons olive oil

3-1/2 tablespoons tahini paste

1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons water

1 small clove of garlic, crushed to a paste or grated

3-1/2 tablespoons pine nuts (30 grams, or 1 ounce)

1 tablespoon za’atar

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Flaky sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.

Combine the squash pieces with the onion wedges in a large bowl, add 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspon of salt, and some black pepper and toss well. Spread on a baking sheet with the skin facing down and roast in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Keep an eye on the onions as they might cook faster than the squash and need to be removed earlier. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

At this point, you can refrigerate the squash and onions for up to 2 days. A couple of hours before serving, take them out of the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature.

To make the sauce, place the tahini in a small bowl along with the lemon juice, water, garlic, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Whisk until the sauce is the consistency of honey, adding more water or tahini if necessary.

Place the remaining half-tablespoon (1-1/2 teaspoons) of the oil into a small frying pan and place over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts along with ½ teaspoon salt and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often, until the nuts are golden brown. Remove from the heat and transfer the nuts and oil to a small bowl to stop the cooking.

To serve, spread the vegetables out on a large serving platter and drizzle over the tahini. Sprinkle the pine nuts and their oil on top, followed by the za’atar and parsley.

Variation: You could also make a different version using spinach, bleu cheese, and walnuts. Roast the squash and onions and let cool. Put 3-4 ounces of washed baby spinach on the platter, top with the roasted vegeetables, ½ cup walnut pieces, and about 1/3 cup crumbled bleu cheese. Drizzle on about 5 tablespoons of a simple lemon vinaigrette and serve.

 

Posted in Anna Kirkland, Rebecca Kukla, Uncategorized, Wine and health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A stopped clock is right about sustainability

My colleagues at National Environmental Trust created the Luntzspeak website to expose and debunk the environmental doublespeak of Frank Luntz, a republican pollster. Luntz helped create the Contract for America and taught two generations of republican politicians and industry leaders how to make it sound like they cared about climate change.  It seems a little quaint these days, looking back on how we thought the George W. Bush administration was the worst thing that could happen to the environment.

 

I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Republican pollster and PR wordblitzer Frank Luntz. But in a recent Washington Post article, writer Dan Zak recounted some of Luntz’s testimony before the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. And it made me give grudging, limited props to one of the environmental community’s old nemeses due to Luntz’s comments about sustainability and climate change. These are two subjects I follow closely and have written about, particularly for the wine industry.

Luntz, an architect of Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America during the Clinton Administration, also coached leading Republicans on how to be climate change deniers while seeming more reasonable. But the 2017 California wildfires that grazed Los Angeles made him face the real-world impact of his work. In his testimony he owned up to some of his former activities and made suggestions for messaging that could more urgently convey the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

His words reached beyond just climate change, though. For example, when asked about “sustainability” to describe the desired impacts of climate action, he indicated absolutely not. “ ‘Stop,’ Luntz said, ‘Sustainability is about the status quo.’ “

Well, thanks, Frank. That’s the way I feel about industry-sponsored sustainability and so-called sustainable wine production. I’m glad you’ve acknowledged it. But what you didn’t say is that the industries you advised on obstructing environmental progress – energy and auto manufacturing in particular – are the ones who made “sustainability” all about protecting their status quo at our expense. They followed your playbook to the letter. Unfortunately, that means that even if sustainable wine production were a better concept, it would still suffer from the damage caused by those other industries over 30-plus years of greenwashing you helped them achieve.

I did say grudging props, didn’t I? 😉 Well, here’s one more. Unlike other anti-environmental wordsmiths pretending to be voices of reason, Luntz at least now tries to offer helpful suggestions. Not that it now makes Luntz a good guy, but contrast him with someone else Zak mentions in his article, The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg used many of Luntz’s techniques in his book, requiring the environmental community to waste close to a year debunking his nonsense. And at least Luntz has owned up a bit, unlike closeted political figures who harmed the LGBTQ community through their policies and then expected a parade when they finally came out.

Here’s some background. I used to work for a national environmental organization, and our communications department created a website to expose and debunk what they came to call Luntzspeak. I’m sure my colleagues would recognize the Luntspeak in the way big-industry sustainability is practiced today. That is, expressing concern publicly, but undermining progress through inaction and campaign contributions. Although National Environmental Trust doesn’t exist anymore, an archived version of its Luntzspeak website is available here and seems remarkably current despite being from the George W. Bush era.  Read it and feel the nostalgia for a time when those characters were the causes of our environmental worries.  (Note that the domain luntzspeak dot com is now maintained by a different organization, and has a more general, non-environmental focus.)

Zak goes beyond misleading Luntzspeak to address the failure of the good guys — environmentalists and scientists — to find the right language to convey the seriousness of what’s going on. Partly because there’s crisis fatigue among the public, but also because scientists and environmentalists don’t always realize that environmental issues can become challenges to people’s core moral values. As a scientist, I sometimes find myself glossing over this aspect, and it has been an issue for the wine industry regarding sustainability.

I don’t mean to imply that sustainable wine reaches the same heights of seriousness as other issues. Choosing a sustainable wine isn’t going to have the same impact as buying a Prius instead of an SUV. Or choosing to do without a car at all. But as I’ve written before, most wine professionals don’t understand – or seem particularly interested in — what sustainability certification really is, or what it’s supposed to mean even if it doesn’t achieve its goals. And if they don’t, why should the average consumer understand or care about it? Sustainability gets lost among all the other do-gooder terms that seem like ways to guilt you into different choices. Another day, another breathlessly worded warning, like should we eat the new chicken sandwich from Popeye’s or not.

As I said, I’ve written lots about sustainability and wine on this blog, including the reasons why the certifications don’t mean what producers hope they do. (Look for the double asterisk ** below if you want links to some of the posts.) But I also have sustainability sympathy for the wine industry. It’s tough to convey the breadth of techniques involved in both growing grapes and making wine. The wine industry came late to the sustainability party, hoping it would help do that without some of the baggage of organics and biodynamics. It isn’t their fault that other industries brought them bigger, nastier baggage.

So although it still rankles me to think that Luntz is right about something, I guess we need a new term for sustainability in grape growing and winemaking. In my years doing environmental work, I saw “Sustainability” replace “Pollution Prevention” as a catchphrase about 20 years ago, so it’s probably time for something new anyway. And we also need easier, more systematic ways to convey it to consumers without pushing the moral buttons, as some in the “natural” wine industry try to do. Wine producers choose sustainability certification because they want it to be a shorthand for the way they operate without plonking a lot of mystifying terms on their back labels. Customers deserve to know what it means, whatever that is. And all of us in the wine and wine media biz need to do a better job talking about it even if we don’t get a new word.

** Here are some of my sustainability posts.  Enjoy!  And if you’re looking for more, type Sustainability in the search bar on the bottom of the page.

Sustainability as a concept and in wine production, Part 1 and Part 2.
What wine professionals know about sustainability.
Why you don’t see the word sustainability on wine labels.

——————-

The menu logo of the Mayflower Café in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Cy and I ate there earlier this month and had Portuguese Kale Soup. It’s a dish that you used to find all over town, but not much anymore.

Cy and I made our usual summer trip to Provincetown. We tried to hit all the usual activities and food. So there were lobster rolls, and other forms of lobster. And lots of other seafood. And our favorite burgers. And cocktails. But we noticed that one thing that used to be available at nearly every restaurant in the past was hard to find: Portuguese Kale Soup. In fact, a lot of the Portuguese-style foods we used to get there have disappeared. You can still go to the Portuguese Bakery and get various Portuguese and Portuguese-American treats. But I remember long ago being able to get dishes like Cod Escabeche that I haven’t seen there in years.

We went on a hunt for the soup, and found it at Mayflower, one of the older restaurants in town. The decor is nothing to look at, but our food was good, and it was great to have their Kale Soup. The soup is based on Caldo Verde, a Portuguese staple. Every Portuguese cook has his or her own version. Traditionally, it’s made with kale, Linguiça (a spicy, smoked sausage), potatoes, onion, garlic, and water or stock. It’s also generally more pureed (including pureeing the sausage), with some extra Linguiça as a garnish. Provincetown’s version is left chunky, and being in New England also contains beans. Mayflower’s soup had kidney beans in it, but small white or red beans are also used. Given the region’s reputation for thriftiness, probably just water with no stock, too, since you had to cook the beans anyway, and why waste the cooking water. And I didn’t see or taste garlic, which doesn’t surprise me – recipes from the 1920s and 30s frequently avoided it. (Mayflower proudly proclaims its 1920s heritage.)

So here’s my recipe for Portuguese Kale Soup. I’ve combined different versions from more authentically Portuguese to one listed in The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook. Linguiça used to be impossible to find outside of Massachusetts. But now some grocery stores carry it, and I found a homemade version at Stachowski’s here in DC. (Call ahead to make sure they have it, though.)

It’s a meal in itself, but of course bread and salad are always welcome. And serve it with a substantial wine, either white or red. Società Agricola Bulichella’s Tuscanio Bianco ($19) and Rubino ($21) are my choices for pairing. Neither is traditional to Portugal or Provincetown. But they’re both made with organic grapes and subject to the utmost care in grape growing and winemaking. So no sustainability-speak or guilt here.  Just eat, drink and enjoy.

Cheers!
Tom

Portuguese Kale Soup
Serves 6

6 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces Linguiça (or Spanish-style Chorizo if you can’t find it), sliced 1/4 – inch thick
2 large onions, cut in large dice
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 to 1-1/2 pounds kale (depending on the size of the bunch), center ribs removed, leaves cut into thin slices
2 15-ounce cans small white or red beans, drained and rinsed (See note below if you want to use dried beans)
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
4 cups chicken stock
Water
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a large soup pot. Cook the Linguiça slices in the oil until browned. Remove the sausage from the oil, then saute the onion in the pot until soft and just starting to brown around the edges, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 more minutes.

Stir in the potatoes, kale, Linguiça, and beans. Then add the stock and 4 cups of water, plus a little more if necessary to cover everything by an inch or two. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, to soften the kale. Add more water at this point if the soup seems too thick – it shouldn’t be a stew. Stir in 1 tablespoon of vinegar and taste. It should have just a little tang. Add more vinegar as necessary, along with more salt and pepper. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then serve.

Note on using dried beans: Soak 1 cup small white or red beans in a quart of water with 1 tablespoon salt overnight. Drain and rinse the beans, then put them in a pot with 2 quarts of water. Cook for an hour, then taste for doneness and cook longer if necessary. Save the cooking water to use in the soup.

Posted in Sustainability, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Two more reasons wine writing is less diverse than food writing

New and established food writers can drive traffic to their sites via Instagram if they can take good photos. To bad it doesn’t work so well for wine.  (Obviously, with only 11 likes I hadn’t yet learned to tag properly. Things are better now with my food posts, but way outshone by photos of my cats, who are on their way to Instagram stardom.)

This is my third post about the lack of diversity in the wine writing world, especially compared to the world of food writing.  The first post framed the issue and the second set out the financial barriers to wine writing.  You may find some of the background helpful before moving on here.

One caveat worth repeating – some of this discussion is about wine and wine industry jobs, not strictly wine writing.  But all the factors contribute to the result of having a less diverse wine writing population.  Some of the connections are obvious:  almost all wine writers drink wine.  The link between wine professionals and wine writing is less obvious, but a great many wine writers worked in the wine industry in some capacity.  Although I don’t have any data on diversity among wine drinkers, the wine industry is markedly less diverse than the U.S. workforce as a whole.  This lack of diversity certainly carries over into wine writing as well.

In this post, I’ll discuss two additional barriers to wine writing vs. food writing – I call them structural and institutional barriers.

Structural barriers are exactly what the name implies:  the food and wine writing worlds are built differently, especially in the age of social media.  More and easier opportunities means more diversity in the food writing world.

There are many more ways to be part of the food writing world than the wine writing world

The food writing world is much larger to start, and you don’t have to be the person with the byline per se.   You can be a recipe developer, recipe tester, food stylist, researcher, or photographer, just to name a few. 

Wine writing doesn’t have the same range of jobs or the scope of the food writing world.  You can still be a researcher, stylist, or photographer, but in the wine writing world you’re generally the person with your name on the piece.  Even if you’re not writing wine reviews. 

The food world is geographically much larger than the wine world

Wine is made in many places, but food is everywhere.  No doubt the wine writing world still has places to discover and more things to say about wine producing regions everywhere.  But these pale in comparison to the sheer number and varieties of cuisines worldwide.  And many of those cuisines developed without a wine culture to accompany them.

Almost anyone can become a food writer with little effort or investment

Food writing can start with something as simple as making an inexpensive meal, styling and photographing it well, and putting up an Instagram story linked to a recipe and some commentary.  If you like cooking and have a well-stocked pantry you can create photo-worthy meals without a lot of extra expense.  With some trial and error you can also develop and post very short videos that allow your personality to come through.  Sometimes that’s as important as the food you’re making.  A handful of wine people have managed to break through in video, but it’s a lot tougher since you have to use your words instead of counting on the imagery to look as good.  Kitchens are natural backdrops for food videos, and it’s tougher to find the right place to take wine videos.

Wine and wine writing so far haven’t adapted well to Instagram compared to food.  And you don’t have to take just my word for it:  Amber LeBeau recently wrote a piece called “Why do winery Instagram feeds suck so much?”  If wineries can’t do it well with all the built-in imagery they possess, imagine how much harder it is for wine writers posting a photo of a bottle and wine in a glass.  Even a great 140 character wine review doesn’t register without a great photo.

Wine writers tend to do better in slightly longer form, like blogs.  Back when I began blogging, it was possible to start small by posting about an inexpensive bottle with dinner.  This is what my wine blogger friend Jon Thorsen did more than 10 years ago with Reverse Wine Snob.  Wine blogs don’t have the cachet they used to, though, and they don’t have as much influence.  It might still be possible to duplicate Jon’s success starting a blog today, but it won’t have the punch of what social media can do very well.  Or the potential reach, which is important for getting readers.  Just providing a Twitter or Instagram link to your post won’t do it without the right visuals unless you’re already a well-known quantity.  And even then, most people will only look at the photo and not click through.

These structural barriers are what they are – not that things can’t change, or that wine writers can’t find ways to break through them.  But they apply to everyone across the board.  This makes them different from institutional barriers:  the roadblocks faced by people due to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other factors in daily life also apply to wine writing and serve to make the field less diverse. 

I’ve written about the lack of LGBT people in wine production and importing.  But as a middle-aged White man, I can’t credibly address race and ethnicity.  Julia Coney, a DC-based African-American wine writer, posted a discussion last year on the lack of diversity in the wine world and you absolutely should read it.  I can only add two things to elaborate on what she said. 

Julia Coney’s point about non-White wine drinkers getting pigeonholed by wine industry professionals into particular categories is supported by my own experience and conversations I’ve had with others in the wine business

A wine shop owner friend told me that he has had African-American customers thank him for treating them like they’re serious about wine, rather than just steering them to the Moscato.  I’ve heard something similar from two of my customers – buying wine online is colorblind and they can select what they like instead of what someone else assumes they’ll want to drink based on their appearance.

Coney also believes that seeing few people of color working in the wine world discourages people of color from trying more wines and learning about them. 

But those non-White people who get entry-level jobs in the wine industry aren’t always welcomed by every customer.  I recently listened to Jehan Hakimian talk about his sense of other-ness in his early jobs in wine retailing as part of Bâtonnage 2019, a form on women in the wine industry.  Born and raised in the U.S., Hakimian’s parents are Iranian and South Asian.  One of the first things many customers would ask him when he approached them to help was “What are you?”  They weren’t necessarily hostile.  They just clearly expected to see a White person working there.  And statistically, that’s who they’d encounter. 

The food and food writing world also has institutional barriers.  Again, I can’t speak to these barriers as someone who has experienced them, just provide examples of what I’ve heard and read lately.  But unlike most of what I’ve seen of the wine writing world, the food writing world has been making an effort to change things for the past few years.  Here are two of the institutional barriers I’ve learned about recently.

Most non-“American” or non-European food writing is still treated as exotic rather than everyday food

I recently listened to a Sporkful podcast, with host Dan Pashman interviewing Madhur Jaffrey and Priya Krishna about Indian food in America.  Both agreed that Indian food is more mainstream than it used to be, but there’s still a long way to go.

Jaffrey needs no introduction to most English-speaking food lovers.  If you don’t have one of her books, you may have seen her on TV or in movies.  Krishna’s new book is called Indian-ish:  Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family.  Jaffrey’s first book was published decades ago and had a lengthy subtitle designed to reassure people that they could indeed make this food in their American kitchens.  Unfortunately, Krishna tells us that 45 years later the publishing world doesn’t yet think Indian food and flavors have reached the point where most people use and make them at home, despite her family’s experience.  “If your book isn’t about roast chicken, [publishers and distributors] will label it as ‘international’ rather than something you could use every day,” she said. 

The recent Food Writers’ Workshop I attended confirmed the problem, and panelists discussed how they experience this same bias.  There’s a “We’ve Already Got an ‘Insert-Your-Ethnicity-Here’ Cookbook” attitude among publishers.  Meanwhile, those same publishers jump on any paleo/gluten-free/instant pot proposals, no matter how many they currently have in print.  And some cuisines don’t even get the one book.  Two panelists with significant presences in the food writing world said they were told that there wasn’t a market for their proposed books on Filipino or Caribbean food (other than the ubiquitous jerk chicken, that is).

The food writing world also encourages marginalization by relying on the same few “experts” in so-called exotic cuisines

Panelists at the workshop made the point that the most visible person in a particular food community isn’t necessarily the one who should be on the record.  Especially when that “visibility” comes through hits on search engines in English, conducted by people who don’t take the time to seek out those who might not have such an anglicized presence.  Obviously, that’s endemic to any writer on a deadline, not just food writers, but it can be particularly marginalizing for cuisines that aren’t well known to U.S. food media consumers.  Cuisine “experts” at minimum need to acknowledge the humanity of the culture in order to qualify for the term.  That hasn’t always been the case in the food world.

But the fact that this is just the latest year of multiple workshops with panel discussions dedicated to significant diversity issues indicates that the food and food writing industries take diversity seriously.  For example, one of its major initiatives is designed to erase the old excuse of not being able to find a qualified person who isn’t White and male.  Equity at the Table (EATT), started and overseen by a group of food world heavy-hitters, provides a directory of women and people of color for nearly any position, task, or job in the food world.   Not everyone will look past their old boy network, but responsible employers will at least find that they have a more diverse pool to pick from.

I don’t want to make it seem as if the wine industry has completely ignored the diversity issue.  Bâtonnage and other groups/organizations make an effort to enable more people of color to attend wine industry discussions.  This has made its way into wine writing as well, although much more slowly.  Some wine writers use EATT for people with wine and wine-writing expertise, which is a start.  And there are other things the wine writing community can do to help with diversity, which I’ll discuss in a separate post.

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I found a way to make leftover Linguine Carbonara taste as good as the first time. I realized this could work for nearly any leftover sauced pasta dish.

I’ve been making a lot of food lately, and it has made for plenty of leftovers.  Some leftovers are easy to reuse, especially if they’re already kind of liquid-y.  But others are more difficult.  Leftover sauced pasta isn’t usually great heated up.  (Some people like it cold from the fridge, but I don’t find that appealing).  Shapes like penne seem to do better than spaghetti, but they’re still often pale imitations of their original selves.  So when I had a half-recipe of Linguine Carbonara left over, I wanted to find a way to make it taste as good as it had the first time.

What I came up with is something that works for any leftover sauced pasta with or without meat.  Roast a cruciferous vegetable like cauliflower, broccoli, or brussels sprouts.  Throw some sliced onion in there too unless you’ve got carbonara, which already has a lot of them.  Mix with the pasta and a little stock, put in a greased baking dish, then top with grated cheese or breadcrumbs (depending on the pasta dish and how much cheese it might already have) and bake for 20 minutes.  Serve with a big salad, and you’ll have a meal for four people.

The wine you’ll serve depends a lot on the pasta you start with.  But a light-bodied red works well, even in summer.  Cave la Romaine Côtes du Ventoux Rouge Tradition ($10) is 80% Syrah, 20% Grenache, and 100% easy to drink.  Open the bottle and stick it in the fridge for 20 minutes, it will be ready to serve and just the right temperature.

I know you’ve come to expect much more elaborate recipes from me, but hey – we all need a break.  And if you went through the trouble of making a lovely pasta dish, you should give it the royal treatment without too much work for you.

Cheers!

Tom

Casserole Magic for Leftover Pasta Dishes

Serves 4 with a large salad, 2-3 without

½ a recipe of leftover sauced pasta – use one that started with 1 pound of dried pasta, such as Linguine Carbonara, Spaghetti with White Clam Sauce (remove the clam shells), Pasta Bolognese, or Spaghetti with marinara.

Vegetables:  2 stalks broccoli, or ½ of a large head of cauliflower, or a dry pint of brussels sprouts

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

Nonstick cooking spray

½ of a large onion, sliced into thin half moons (you can skip this if you start with Carbonara)

¼ to ½ cup vegetable or chicken stock, or water (if needed)

½ cup finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano – and/or — ½ cup dry bread crumbs mixed with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Set a large rimmed baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F. 

Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables:  for broccoli, trim the bottom of the stalks then cut the stalks off.  Slice crosswise into 2-inch lengths and peel off the outside skin, then slice ¼ inch thick.  Cut the florets into ¼ inch slices as well.  For cauliflower, break into florets and slice ¼ inch thick.  For brussels sprouts, trim off the bottom and then slice ¼ inch thick.

Combine the vegetable and the onion if you’re using it in a large bowl.  Add 2 tablespoons oil, plus ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper and toss to coat everything.  Add another tablespoon of oil if you need it.  Carefully take the hot baking sheet out of the oven, quickly spray it with nonstick spray, then pour the vegetables and onions on.  You should hear a good sizzle when the vegetables hit the pan.  Working quickly, spread the pieces out and put the sheet in the oven.  Roast for 20 minutes, then stir everything up and roast for five more minutes if things aren’t getting a little browned.  Remove the sheet and let the vegetables cool slightly, but keep the oven on.

Heat the pasta for 30 seconds to a minute in the microwave to loosen it up. (I leave it in the container it was stored in, although I don’t normally microwave in plastic this makes things easier and it’s not in there long.)  Spray a 2-3 quart souffle dish with nonstick spray.  Gently stir the vegetables and pasta together in a large bowl (or the souffle dish if it’s big enough) with ¼ cup of stock or water.  You may not need to add the liquid if there’s plenty of sauce, but the mixture should be moist.  If not, add up to a total 1/2 cup of liquid.  Pour into the greased baking dish.  Top with the breadcrumbs and/or cheese, and bake for 20 minutes.  Let cool for a few minutes, then serve.

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Wine isn’t always a luxury, but writing about it is

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Every beginning wine writer dreams of being invited on a trip like this one I took in Cahors, with a lovely sunset balloon ride to see the terrain.  It’s a great hands-on way to learn a lot about wine and the region.  Unfortunately, though, only very experienced wine writers get invited on these trips, and only after they’ve demonstrated their ability to translate their writing into sales.  Sometimes, even that’s not enough.  (By the way, I went because I import wine, not for my writing…)

A couple of posts ago I wrote about a food writers’ workshop that was much more diverse than any wine writing event I’d ever attended.  I’m sad to say it showed me that I’d never questioned what appears to be the uniform racial makeup of the wine writing world.  So I wanted to find out more about why that world — at least the part I experience at meetings and conferences — seems to be populated almost exclusively by White people like me.  This post is a starting attempt to get answers.

Although I haven’t found statistics on wine writers by race, it’s useful to look at the wine industry – producers and sellers of wine — as a guide.  The numbers are sobering when it comes to diversity.  I recently listened to recordings of panel presentations at Bâtonnage 2019, a forum about women in the wine industry.  One panelist recounted the results of a recent survey of over 3,000 wine and spirits professionals in the U.S.  According to the respondents, 85% are White.  Two percent are African-American, 4% are Asian-American, and 7% are Latinx.  Contrast this with Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the U.S. workforce as a whole:  63% are White, 13% Black, 6% Asian, and 17% Latinx.  And while 22% of all U.S. business owners/CEOs are women, only 4% of wine and spirits businesses are owned or run by women, and only one-fifth of those 4% are women of color.

After talking with a bunch of wine and food writers, I’ve come to the conclusion that wine writing has much higher barriers to entry than food writing.  For simplicity, I’ve divided these into three categories:  financial, structural, and institutional.  There’s obviously overlap between them, but each has individual challenges.  Unfortunately, all of them contribute to keeping the non-White population of the wine writing world low.

I’ll discuss the financial barriers first.  Many of them have to do with wine itself rather than wine writing specifically.  But the point is the same.  Anything that makes drinking and learning about wine more expensive or difficult is bound to reduce the diversity of the wine writing world.

1)      It’s a lot easier to get a thorough food education than wine education through free and low-cost content

You can start at your public library and view online content to learn about both wine and food.  But the content in the food world is bigger and, generally, better.  There’s plenty of training in cooking nearly anything in old and new cookbooks (cookbooks have a much longer shelf life than wine books, I’ve found), online videos and TV cooking shows, etc.  And if you’re looking for inspiration, there’s a ton more food writing to read and help you decide where your niche might be than there is wine writing.

Teaching yourself about wine can lead to wine writing success, depending on your focus.  Jon Thorsen writes the Reverse Wine Snob blog.  He told me that he didn’t spend any money giving himself a wine education, he relied on free materials online.  He also reminded me that he blogs about wine that costs under $10 and writes his blog for wine novices.  And he has a large, appreciative audience.  Because of his target audience, he receives plenty of samples of less-expensive wines that wouldn’t make it to your average wine reviewer, so he has to spend less money on wines to review.  But he’s one of the exceptions in the more recent wine writing world.

2)      Wine writers generally pitch their content to people who know more about wine, so they need a broad range of experience

The average wine writer isn’t necessarily writing for experts, but I’d say there’s a definite geek factor.   Even general-interest publications pitch the wine writing level to people who know more about wine rather than less.  In order to appeal to them as readers, you have to speak the lingo – or at least enough of it to show that you know what you’re talking about.  And if you’re going to write about wines themselves (as opposed to the wine industry, or particular aspects of wine, wine consumption, and wine production), you’ll have to have quite a few glasses under your belt.

It’s also more difficult to be a wine generalist these days than it used to be.  With more emerging wine regions (emerging for us in the U.S., anyway), keeping up is difficult.  It’s one thing to know a lot about major European and American wines, but how about Georgian, Greek, Uruguayan, and wines coming from China?

Obviously, there are various expertise levels for readers of food writing, too.  But there seems to be a greater tolerance for food writing that’s not necessarily up to your own culinary level than in the wine world.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve been exposed to food from a very young age, and we don’t get exposure to wine until we’re adults.  Many of our formative memories are about food.  I think this is why even professional chefs have a soft spot for people making food they learned from their parents and grandparents. 

As for food generalists, there’s a different standard for food writing — no one is expected to be an expert on every cuisine.  In fact, these days readers expect that an article about a particular cuisine will be written by someone who has more than superficial cultural or experiential ties to it.  This doesn’t mean that people can only write about the foods of their ethnicity, but food writers have to be particularly sensitive to avoiding cultural appropriation – and rightly so.  This probably also helps make the food writing world more diverse.

3)      High-end wines cost a lot more than they used to

Good wine doesn’t have to be super-expensive, but great wine generally is.  And getting more expensive all the time, it seems.  Understandably, a fine hand-made product dependent on the vagaries of the weather and requiring manipulation and potentially years of storage before sale can command a high price, whether it’s wine or food.  But unlike foods, some wines are also considered investments, which raises their prices well beyond the reach of the average wine-drinking novice.  

A wine industry friend told me that she feels lucky to be old enough to have been able to experience drinking and learning about great wine because she doesn’t believe she’d be able to do it these days.  (The 1980s seem to have been a particularly good time for this.)  You don’t need to drink a huge amount of expensive wine to learn about it.  But it’s important to put wines in the context of their regions and of other regions producing similar wines.  if you’re going to say that a low-priced Côtes du Rhône drinks like a more expensive Côte-Rôtie, you’ll have to have tried enough of them to know what you’re talking about.

It’s easy to get media invitations to producer tastings, and those can be a way to learn about wines from a particular region.  However, those tastings generally focus on a relatively narrow price range that the organizers hope will appeal to local importers and distributors who will want to buy them.  This generally leaves out the higher end.  Only after you get established as a reliable wine writing source will you start getting samples of more expensive wines to taste and review, or be sponsored on trips to wine-making regions that really show you what’s going on there.  But even being “established” doesn’t guarantee samples and access.  A super-good DC-based wine writer recently told me that she has a job at a wine shop to get herself the employee discount so she can afford to buy and taste a wider variety of wines and keep herself current.

This isn’t to say that people aren’t drinking nicer wines without a wine shop job.  I’ve heard more than one recounting of groups of people coming into a wine shop and selecting a couple of more expensive bottles to try together.  One wine shop employee told me, “I’ve never seen anything like it before.  One in the group will pay, and the others will Venmo her their share right there in the store.” 

But it’s a whole lot easier to have similar group experiences in restaurants, even high-end ones.  Everyone has to eat, so why not have food education as part of your weekly food outings?  Restaurants in all price ranges are making this easier by populating their menus with smaller plates to share.  As annoying as I find this trend myself, it allows a table of four to try 16 different dishes – plus those small plates look great on Instagram (which I’ll discuss more with the structural barriers to wine writing).

4)      Professional wine training is expensive, and the work-your-way-up options are becoming harder to find 

Working at a wine shop used to be a reliable way to get introductory training and taste a bunch of different wines.  But these days, many of the better wine shops want you to have some sort of wine course certification in order to work there.  A friend with a wine store told me several years ago that he looked for employees who would be good salespeople, since he could teach them about wine but not how to have a good personality.  Recently, however, he advertised for help and required a particular level of certification as one of the qualifications, along with retail sales experience.

The professional-level courses that give you the classic sommelier or wine reviewer-type training are anything but inexpensive.  It’s hard to blame shop owners for wanting certified employees, though.  The shops have to provide added value by means of education that their customers can’t get at grocery stores or Costco. 

Some restaurants still train their servers to help customers with the wine list.  Lots of sommeliers told me that this is how they got their initial training.  But as restaurants want their wine lists to be on par with the food, they’ve moved to having more certified staff.  As with wine shops, it’s part of the customer experience they can provide that less-expensive restaurants can’t necessarily.

Culinary training isn’t cheap by any means, either.  But as far as I can tell, restaurants and nicer food stores don’t require their employees to have cooking school training to work the customer side of the businesses.  And it isn’t impossible for front of the house staff to make their way into the kitchen.

Plus, cooking school training isn’t required to write about cooking at home, which covers the vast majority of food writing.  Many of my favorite professional food writers and cookbook authors don’t have professional cooking training.  That’s also true of traditional wine writing, but those self-trained wine writers tend to have way more years of writing experience than the newer wine writers with professional wine training.  I learned from a reader of my blog that many current professional wine writers started out as sports writers and taught themselves about wine.  I suspect that’s going to be less true in the future. 

Well, that’s a lot for one post.  Although I tried to organize it, I suspect I didn’t do as good a job as I should have.  Sorry about that.  I hope anyone reading this recognizes that while there are plenty of reasons that wine and wine education are expensive (or difficult and time consuming), the end result is that the economics will favor less diversity in the wine writing community rather than more.

In an upcoming post, I’ll look at the structural and institutional barriers to wine writing.  Then after that, a post on how the wine and wine writing industry can help break down some of those barriers.  


No recipe this time – it turns out there’s a time management barrier to food writing with this post!

 

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Has wine marketing finally left the 1990s behind?

In years past, Father’s Day wine pitches sounded like Old Spice commercials, missing only the promise of a comely lass.

I got my first 2019 Father’s Day wine marketing e-mail today.  As I read it, it occurred to me that this is the first time in all my years as a wine importer/retailer that the copy didn’t come across like an Old Spice commercial.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about – a combination of deeply-scented tasting notes and words like rugged, bold, and powerful.  You can practically hear the sea shanty playing in the background as you read the text.

I also realized that this year’s Mother’s Day pitches were a lot more subdued than usual.  In the past, they’ve veered between “Give mom roses and rosé!” and a bottled version of girls’ night out.  Some couldn’t decide between the two and tried to thread the needle, with predictable results. 

Instead, the Mother’s Day copy now leans heavily on words like natural or additive-free, and highlights the small family farms that make the product.  And the lone Father’s Day example I’ve received so far is (aside from tasting notes) all about small-batch wine and hints at collectability. 

Maybe these are just new and improved gender stereotypes, but at least they’re more about qualities we associate with wine and wine production, and less about how you’re going to feel or present yourself if you drink them.  Of course, it’s also possible I’ve fallen off the wine marketing lists that still live in the 1990s.  I’m happy with either outcome.

Mother’s Day wine pitches used to veer between sticky sweet and promising a girl’s night out in a bottle. (Photo by Isabella Mendes, courtesy of Pexels.)

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that I still cringe when I read “gift” used as a verb.  Anyone who has taken German knows that gift means poison, so gifting someone a bottle of wine seems very Lucrezia Borgia.  You’d think that’s not an image any wine marketer would want. 

——————–

Cy and I visited my parents over Mother’s Day weekend and I made a late breakfast for Sunday.  It was a strata, which is sort of a savory bread pudding.  The name comes from the appearance – they’re usually layers of bread and other ingredients.  They also sort of look like a cobblestone street, and “strada” means road in Italian.  I have seen them called both, but “strata” predominates these days.

I have always hated the word “gift” used as a verb. It means poison in German.  Makes me think of Lucrezia Borgia.  Not the image you want for wine for your parents.

Stratas have two things going for them:  you can put in practically anything you like, and you assemble them the night before, put them in the fridge overnight, and then take out and bake the next day.  So if you’re planning on a girls’ night out situation, you can still make that fabulous brunch, whether it’s Mother’s Day weekend or not.

The one I made used breakfast sausage, spinach, tomato, and both cheddar and Swiss cheese.  I’ve also recently made one with shrimp, chard, Gruyere, and goat cheese.  Just make sure you follow the salt-fat-acid-heat test.  In the two examples, you have salt from cheese, cured/smoked meats, and, well, salt.  There’s fat in the meats, cheeses, and eggs, and acid from the tomatoes and sharp cheeses (pickled peppers also work well here).   You can also make it “bold” (for a throwback Father’s Day brunch, perhaps) and add some bacon, but I’d keep the amount of bacon to about a quarter of the total meat in the dish.  Any more and that’s all you’ll taste, which reminds me that you should also apply Old Spice only sparingly.

The recipe below is more of a guideline for you to add what you like or have on hand.  I’m assuming you’ll eat it for breakfast or brunch, although the leftovers make a great dinner, too.  Serve it with some Domaine la Croix des Marchands Méthode Ancestrale Brut ($18).  It’s a naturally-sparkling wine with no additives (other than sulfites as a preservative).  And it’s small batch, too, made on a small family farm with a sustainability certification.  Enough to make nearly any of today’s wine marketers happy!

Cheers!

Tom

Make Your Own Strata

Serves 8 abundantly, up to 12 more modest servings

1 loaf Italian bread, or about 1-1/2 baguettes, sliced ¾-inch thick.  It’s better to use day-old bread.  If that’s not possible, try baking the slices at 250 degrees F for about 15 minutes to dry them out a bit, then let cool.

1 pound cooked meat cut in small pieces – either one meat or a combination, cold or at room temperature.  Like breakfast or Italian sausage, chicken, turkey, ham, shrimp, or bacon.  If you want to use bacon, try 4 ounces along with 12 ounces of a different meat.

2 cups packed grated cheese (about 8 ounces), divided use – either one cheese or a combination.  Like Gruyere, cheddar, Swiss, Muenster, Manchego, Parmesan, or Pecorino Romano.  If you’re using Parmesan or Pecorino, use only ½ cup and 1-1/2 cups of a different cheese.

1 pound of greens – spinach, chard, kale, or collards.  You can mix and match if you like, but one is usually better because not all greens take the same amount of time to cook.

1 large onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, finely minced

1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half

9 large eggs

3 cups milk, or a combination of 2 cups milk and 1 cup cream

Cayenne pepper

Olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Lightly oil a 13 x 9-inch Pyrex or ceramic dish and set aside.  Take the tougher stems off the greens, finely chop the stems and roughly chop the leaves.  Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet, and add the stems with a little salt.  Cook for about 5 minutes.  Then add the leaves in batches, cooking until they wilt.  For kale or collards, turn the heat down to low, cover the pan, and cook for 5-10 minutes until tender.  Spinach and chard will be cooked enough when they wilt.  Scrape the greens into a colander to drain and cool.  When they’re cool, squeeze some water out with a big spoon or with your hands, then roughly chop and set aside.

In the same skillet, heat another tablespoon of oil and saute the onion with a little salt until it starts to brown around the edges, about 10-15 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for a minute, then add the diced-up meat.  Stir everything well, then let cool.

Whisk the eggs and milk/cream with 1 teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, and two pinches of Cayenne.  Set aside.

Fit a layer of bread slices in the bottom of the greased baking dish.  Cut up a couple of slices to fill any large gaps.  Layer on the cooked greens, then the tomatoes, then half the meat/onion mixture, and half the cheese.  Top with another layer of bread slices (patching the large gaps), and then layer on the remaining meat/onion mixture.  Don’t put the rest of the cheese on at this point, set the remaining cup of cheese in the fridge.

Carefully pour the egg/milk mixture over the bread.  Do it slowly, and make sure it’s evenly distributed.  Cover the pan with foil that you’ve sprayed with some nonstick baking spray, and put it in the fridge for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.

Take the strata out of the fridge about an hour before you want to start baking.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Put the strata in the oven, foil and all, and bake for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil, and top with the remaining cup of cheese.  Bake, uncovered for 15 minutes until the cheese has melted and the edges of the bread get a little browned.  Let the strata rest for 5 minutes, then serve.

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