Last week’s missing recipe

As I mentioned last week, not every blog post automatically segues into a recipe smoothly.  So I put the recipe and wine pairing in a separate post this week.  This will happen from time to time, depending on the subject I’m writing about.

Thanksgiving seems like a distant memory now, although it was only two weeks ago.  This year, two of our guests were vegetarians, and they volunteered to make a lentil-mushroom shepherd’s pie as a non-meat entrée.  It was really tasty.  The online recipe they used was simple, but you know me – I had to make some changes.  The original recipe was vegan.  I kept it vegan, too.  But instead of the recipe’s dairy substitutes for the milk and butter, I used olive oil and garlic in the mashed potatoes, plus a little vegetable stock to thin them out.  They have a slightly green color to them from the olive oil, but they taste terrific.

I also like to reduce boxed vegetable stock – preferably Kitchen Basics unsalted – as a first step.  Then, I take some of the reduced stock and add red wine and reduce it again.  The pie doesn’t have to stay long in the oven, and you want to cook the wine enough to enrich the base.  Cooking ahead, or while you’re cooking the onions and mushrooms, gives a much richer flavor.

This recipe uses a lot of pans, so be prepared.  You cook the lentils in one pot, vegetable stock and wine in another, boil potatoes in a third, and saute mushrooms, garlic, and onions in yet a fourth pot.  But you can cook the lentils ahead, and make the mashed potatoes ahead too, and heat them in the microwave.  Everything should be hot when it goes in the oven, you’re basically just browning the top of the potatoes anyway.  The mushroom and lentil base can be made ahead, too.  But I think it tastes better if you make the base right before assembly.  Leftover lentils tend to fall apart more, and I like them to keep their shape.

A Rhône red is always good with mushrooms, and this has plenty of mushrooms in it.  So try Château de Clapier Calligrappe red ($12).  It’s medium-bodied, but has the right earthiness for mushrooms and lentils.  Use some in the recipe, too.

Lentil and Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie

Serves 6-8

7 cups vegetable stock (preferably Kitchen Basics unsalted), from two quart boxes

1 cup dry red wine

1-1/4 cup dried lentils, rinsed

1 large onion, cut into large dice

4 garlic cloves, peeled – mince two and thinly slice the other two

1 pound button or cremini mushrooms, trimmed and sliced

4 large russet potatoes

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon tomato paste

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

2 – 3 tablespoons cornstarch

Nonstick cooking spray

Start by bringing six cups of vegetable stock to a boil over high heat.  (Save the last cup of unreduced stock to use in the mashed potatoes and to dissolve the cornstarch.)  Continue to boil, uncovered, until the stock reduces to four cups.  Measure out two cups of the stock, put in a saucepan, and add about 2/3 cup of ice to cool it down a bit (or ½ cup chilled water).  Stir in the lentils, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and the red pepper flakes.  (The lentils cook more evenly if they’re not started in boiling liquid.)  Bring to a boil, cover, and cook for 40 minutes, stirring a few times during cooking.  Add water if you need to toward the end, but after 40 minutes the lentils should be soft and the liquid nearly all absorbed.  If not, cook for a few more minutes.  Then drain the lentils and set them aside.

Mix the remaining two cups of reduced stock with 1 cup of wine, and bring to a boil.  Reduce again until the mixture measures 1-1/4 cups, about 15 minutes.  (You can also do this in an uncovered 4-cup measuring cup in the microwave if you’re running out of burners.)

While the lentils are cooking, put the 1/3 cup olive oil and sliced garlic in a small saucepan.  Set the pan over medium-low heat, until the garlic slices start to color.  Pour the oil in garlic in a small heatproof bowl and set aside.

While the lentils and the oil and garlic are cooking, peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch pieces.  Cover the potato pieces with water in a large saucepan, add a teaspoon of salt, and bring to a boil.  Simmer until the potatoes are done, then drain them and put them back in the hot pot you boiled them in.  Sitting in the pot will dry them off a little.  Add the oil and garlic mixture, and mash using a potato masher.  Add salt and pepper to taste, and a little of the unreduced vegetable stock if necessary to make a thick mashed potato mixture.  Put into a microwave-safe container and set aside.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet, add the onion, and cook until the onion is soft and just beginning to brown around the edges, about 8 minutes.  Add the mushrooms, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and some pepper.  Cover the pan and cook for 3 minutes or so.  The mushrooms should have released some liquid.  Uncover the pan and continue to cook until the mushrooms start to brown.  Add the minced garlic and stir for a minute, until you can smell the garlic but it isn’t browned.  Add the 1-1/4 cups of reduced stock/wine, the tomato paste, and the soy sauce and bring to a boil.  In a small bowl, mix 2 tablespoons cornstarch with a quarter cup of unreduced stock.  Drizzle the cornstarch mixture into the mushroom mixture, and stir until it all boils and thickens.  Stir in the lentils.  At this point, the mixture should be very thick.  If it’s not, dissolve another tablespoon of cornstarch in 2 tablespoons of water or stock and add it in.  Cook for a couple of minutes to thicken.  Taste for salt and pepper – it should be well-seasoned.

Spray a 9 or 10-inch glass pie plate with nonstick cooking spray, then put the mushroom mixture in the dish.  Heat the potatoes in the microwave until hot, then spread on top of the mushrooms and lentils.  Put the dish on a baking sheet, and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the potatoes are just starting to brown.  Let the pie cool for 5 minutes, then serve.

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Out in the wine industry, part two

Mark Lyon was the winemaker for Sebastiani Vineyards for 30+ years. This year he struck out on his own with Eco Terreno. He came out professionally in 2004 as part of a newspaper interview about his wines.

Mark Lyon was the winemaker for Sebastiani Vineyards for 30+ years. This year he struck out on his own with Eco Terreno Wines. He came out professionally in 2004 as part of a newspaper interview about his wines.

This is my second post talking with out LGBT people in the wine industry.  In the first post, I spoke with Alvaro Cardenas, an importer and retailer in Los Angeles.  We both noted that we had met only a few other out importers during our time in the wine business – and he’s been in it a lot longer than I have.

I wanted to see if the same was true for winemakers, and if so, why.  As I mentioned last time, online searches don’t find many out LGBT winemakers, and most of them are in California.  So I contacted Mark Vogler and Gary Saperstein, founders and owners of Out in the Vineyard, a Sonoma, CA company that promotes wine-related tourism for the LGBT community.  They put me in touch with Mark Lyon, winemaker for Sebastiani Vineyards for 30+ years, and who has now started his own Alexander Valley winery, Eco Terreno.

All three confirmed that winemaking as a profession is “98% straight,” as Lyon told me.  And some LGBT winemakers still aren’t out, although Vogler and Saperstein think that the majority are, especially in the last few years.

Lyon came to California to attend U.C. Davis for winemaking.  He started at Sebastiani after graduating in 1978, choosing Sonoma County because it was close to San Francisco.  Vogler and Saperstein confirmed Sonoma’s current gay-friendliness.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Vogler grew up in Healdsburg in Sonoma County and thought he was the only gay person there.  He left after high school.  He and Saperstein moved separately to Sonoma as part of what they called a mini-LGBT exodus from the big cities that started in the late 1990s.  By that time, Sonoma County had long become a weekend destination for LGBT people from San Francisco, many buying second homes there as well.

The recession that began in 2008 was a catalyst for starting Out in the Vineyard.  The California wine industry was hard-hit and needed to find new markets.  Vogler and Saperstein had already met many wine-industry LGBT people, and they started lobbying their friends to market to the LGBT community.  Not all LGBT people fit the double-income-no-kids model, but it could still be hugely profitable.  The beer and spirits industries had already discovered this, and the wine industry was slow to follow. “It was really hard at first to find sponsors for LGBT-oriented wine events,” they told me.  They also wanted to convince some of their winemaker friends to come out publicly.  So they decided to hold a winemaker dinner as part of their annual Gay Wine Weekend – a separate event that would have the friendliest possible audience, and would undoubtedly lead to plenty of future sales.  At least one winemaker came out so that he could participate.

These days, it’s much easier to get winery sponsorship for their events, even from wineries that aren’t LGBT-owned or operated.  But it’s not always a slam-dunk.  When I asked Vogler and Saperstein why they thought that some winemakers weren’t out or didn’t want to sponsor LGBT wine events, they cited two reasons.  The first is that it’s still a farming profession, and some winegrowers and winemakers hadn’t been as exposed to the LGBT community as others.

Gary Saperstein (left) and Mark Vogler are the owners and founders of Out in the Vineyard, a wine tourism company for the LGBT community.

Gary Saperstein (left) and Mark Vogler are the owners and founders of Out in the Vineyard, a Sonoma-based wine tourism company for the LGBT community.

The second is customer perception.  Vogler and Saperstein cited a winery owned by two partners, one gay and one straight.  The straight owner has resisted sponsoring LGBT wine events and using the gay owner’s connections to market to the LGBT community out of concern that their product would get a reputation as “gay wine.”  This might seem like a stretch, since the owners are unlikely to put a rainbow flag on the label.  By customer demographics, though, it’s not impossible to think that there could be an impact.  While millennials – who are more open in their LGBT support — are beginning to drink more wine, the sweet spot for serious (and more lucrative) wine collecting is among people over 45.  Not to say that some older people aren’t just as supportive.  But as we saw in 2012 and 2013 polls on same-sex marriage, younger people were much more likely to support it than those who were older.

Lyon disagreed about the farming community, and said he hasn’t experienced any change in attitude among his peers since they learned he was gay.  But he confirmed that he also had concerns about potential customer reaction when he came out professionally in 2004.  He was already out socially, and had been with his now-husband for a few years.  His professional coming-out was part of an interview with a major newspaper to promote the wines he made for Sebastiani.  It was certainly a bigger audience than he had expected, and bigger than most people coming out ever have, especially before social media.

He wasn’t yet out at work, so he had to make the announcement when he knew the article would appear.  “I was worried, but I shouldn’t have been.  The Sebastiani family was incredibly supportive, and looking back I should have known they would be.”  He also worried about potentially homophobic wine buyers.  “I thought there might be some awkwardness at minimum, but that didn’t happen – it was absolutely neutral, zero impact.”

As my talk with Lyon came to an end, I asked him about the two percent figure for LGBT winemakers and why it’s lower than what you’d find in the general population.  I thought that part of it might be that LGBT people like Vogler felt like they had to leave their rural farming communities in the past.  Lyon agreed, but also said it will change with time.  “It’s like any other profession in some ways.  We’re making inroads now, and that’ll continue.   Think of how many business leaders you have for every Tim Cook.  We’ll get there.”

Vogler and Saperstein had the same optimism.  “Some of our friends in the wine industry still haven’t come out professionally,” they told me.  “But we think they will soon.  Sonoma’s an LGBT-friendlier place even in the time we’ve lived here.”


If you’re a reader who automatically scrolls down to the end of the post for the recipe, you’re probably wondering what’s happening here.  I’ve decided that I’ll occasionally put the recipe and wine pairing in a separate post.  More than a few readers who are also writers have told me that the written content and recipes don’t always go well together.  I think they raise a good point.  Sometimes they do work in tandem — like if the post is about certain aspects/characteristics of food and wine, interviews with cookbook authors, etc.  But in a post like this one, the transition to wine and food talk can be less than smooth.

Never fear, there will still be recipes and wine pairings.  You’ll just get to read more posts from me, that’s all!

Cheers!

Tom

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How identical are individual bottles of the same wine?

Listening to Jacques Pépin talking about how no two chickens are alike reminded me that there can be variation in wine from bottle to bottle, too.

Listening to Jacques Pépin talking about how no two chickens are alike reminded me that there can be variation in the same wine from bottle to bottle, too.

You may have guessed by now that I love reading cookbooks and watching cooking shows.  Learning from others’ experiences is always a treat for me.  But the one thing I have to say that’s missing from nearly all of them is the idea that some things are just out of your control.  Especially when it comes to your raw materials.

You typically get told to buy the best ingredients you can find or afford, and that’s good advice.  But as I was reminded a week or so ago, even the best ingredients may not be consistent.  Francis Lam interviewed Jacques Pépin on “The Splendid Table” podcast, talking about materials, ingredients, and techniques.  Jacques told him that technique is what comes to your rescue as a cook because you strive for consistency and good results.  Especially in restaurant cooking.  But you have to deal with vagaries in your ingredients:

“There are no two chickens which are the same — same amount of fat, the same amount of freshness in it or whatever, the quality of the chicken, the quality of anything else. So each time, in order to get to that same dish and have the same taste each time, then you have minute changes that happen along the way, which are sometimes conscious, and sometimes […] subconscious.”

Naturally this made me think about wine.  Obviously, wine changes with each new vintage.   But two bottles of the same vintage of the same wine can taste different, too.  I was reminded of this last week at a tasting I helped organize.  I opened two bottles of a very good 2011 Rhône while setting up, and started pouring from both bottles a half hour later.  One bottle was exactly as I remembered it.  But the other had a bit more alcohol on the nose and at first in the mouth.  It opened up more 20 minutes later, but still wasn’t quite as good as the other bottle.  A third bottle I opened later struck me as somewhere between the first two.  Again, not a huge difference, but it was there.

I wondered how this could happen, so I started thinking back to my chemical engineering coursework in college – reactors/fermentation vessels, mixing devices, pumps, pipes, various holding/aging tanks, heat transfer, thermodynamics, etc.  Then there’s storage and transportation, too.  When you consider how much a wine goes through from grape to glass, it’s a wonder we don’t see more variation bottle to bottle.

Pardon my wonkiness here, but there’s a whole lot going on.  Most of us probably haven’t considered that even small wineries that do as much by hand as possible still have to contend with equipment that can change the way the wine tastes by the time it gets to the consumer.  And those pieces of equipment are pretty much the same for wineries and oil refineries, except for size and the standard of cleanliness.

While you wouldn't think that a winery and an oil refinery have much in common, they use a lot of the same equipment -- although with a smaller size and higher standard of cleanliness.

While you wouldn’t think that a winery and an oil refinery have much in common, they use a lot of the same equipment — although with a smaller size and higher standard of cleanliness.

Take tanks, for example.  Keeping the contents well-mixed can be difficult.  Most large vessels have so-called “dead spots,” places where the liquid moves much more slowly and doesn’t mix as well.  More agitation can help, but the more mechanical work you put into mixing the liquid and solids in the tank, the more energy that goes into the wine as well.  Fermentation itself already raises the temperature of the wine, so there’s a limit to how much vigorous mixing you’ll want to do.  Even with temperature control.

Then, the mixture has to be moved from fermentation tanks to storage tanks or barrels.  Most of the time, this means mechanical pumping.  Ask most winemakers which piece of equipment they wish they didn’t have to use, and they’d probably say pumps.  Pretty much any pump is going to put a huge energy/motion input into the wine.  Some wineries minimize this if they’re set up for gravity feed:  grapes come in at the top story of the winery, then each successive tank or holding vessel is on a lower story until you reach the bottle storage at the bottom.  Gravity does much of the work, requiring less pumping.  (It’s not a new design concept, and it was a way of moving things around before we had pumps, water wheels, or used animals to turn gears.  But it has only been rediscovered for wineries in the last few decades, and an 80-year-old winery isn’t going to be set up that way.)

Even if you have gravity feed and less pumping, you’re still using hoses and pipes to get from one vessel to another.  One of the things I found fascinating when I started engineering courses was the concept that liquid doesn’t all travel at the same speed in a pipe.  The fluid in the center moves the fastest, and the fluid next to the pipe walls moves much more slowly.  Friction from the pipe walls and from the molecules of liquid in those layers moving at different speeds all create various forces on the different wine molecules depending on where they are.  Changes in pipe diameter, bends in the pipes, and valves along the way also have their effects.

Finally, after filtration and bottling (with more pumping, pipes, and valves), the bottles generally get placed in huge bins for controlled-temperature storage.  All that movement can heat the wine up a little bit, and the bottles in the center of the bins are going to cool back down to cellar temperature more slowly than those closer to the outside.  When pallets of wine cartons get loaded on trucks or in containers, chances are there will be another temperature change, and the cartons in the center of the pallet will cool or heat more slowly than those on the edges.

Each one of these things may have only a small impact on any one bottle.  But if you consider that there are a bunch of different effects happening over the course of making, bottling, and storing the wine, and that each bottle has been subjected to each of those effects differently, the potential for variability increases.  These differences can also be amplified by the age of the wine.

Why don’t we notice these variations more?  Mixing between tanks and batches before bottling helps if there’s enough wine for that.  As far as serving goes, even when I open multiple bottles of a single wine, I’m not tasting them all at the same time.  While one bottle might taste different than another, chances are I’m eating something that outweighs the difference in the wines.  Also, it depends on the particular wines themselves.  For example, you probably won’t taste the variation in more acidic wines as much as you would in less acidic ones.  The same with sweeter wines.

So in the end it may not be as big a deal as Jacques Pépin made about his chickens.  But we should all be aware that these variations exist.  Looking back on my tasting, was I just lucky with that one bottle?  I’ll have to open more to see!  (A hardship, I know, but someone has to do it…)

—————–

Last post I promised I’d talk about wine for Thanksgiving.  Although there’s a good argument for just drinking whatever you like anytime, for any meal, there’s also something special about everyone sharing the same wine during a meal like Thanksgiving dinner.

This is by far my favorite wine for Thanksgiving, Bodega Hiriart Lágrima Rosado.  And it won the award for coolest pink wine label in Europe!

This is by far my favorite wine for Thanksgiving, Bodega Hiriart Lágrima Rosado. And it won the award for coolest pink wine label in Europe!  The labels were designed by Manolo Sierra, an artist living in Cigales, where the wine is made.

The trouble comes with trying to pair wine with all those different foods on the table.  As I’ve said before, Thanksgiving dinner is a combination of savory and sweet that many of us rarely eat at other times of year.  It’s also pretty rich food.  So I think it needs a wine that cuts through the richness, but also has more fruit and body than a white wine would have.

In the years I’ve been in the wine business, I haven’t found a wine that fits the bill better than Bodega Hiriart Lágrima Rosado ($13).  The first thing you notice (other than the cool label) is that the wine is a lot pinker than most French rosés.  More skin contact with the Tempranillo and Grenache gives it more color, but also more body.  (Plus, it looks great on the table.)  But it also has some Verdejo in it – the wine rules for Cigales, Spain, where the wine is made, insist on adding Verdejo for acidity.  Other rosé producers in hot, dry places might add something like tartaric acid to the wine.  But the white Verdejo grape provides that liveliness and also a bit more flavor.  I think you’ll really like it.

In years of blogging I’ve given you a bunch of Thanksgiving recipes, both for the meal and leftovers.  This time, I’m abandoning decorum and posting a recipe for a guilty pleasure:  deep-fried stuffing.  Cy and I made up this recipe one year because we have good friends who, like us, love nearly everything deep fried.  It has become a joke between us over the years, and every once in a while we’ll try frying something we hadn’t thought to fry before, just to share with them.

Think of this more as a guideline than a strict recipe.  Everyone’s leftover stuffing is different.  Some is moist, some dry, some already has eggs in it, etc.  For many years I didn’t stuff the bird because I brined it and didn’t want the stuffing to get too salty, so my stuffing was on the drier side.  It’s definitely a play-it-by-ear sort of thing.  The stuffing should stick together but not be a mushy paste.  I add egg whites for binding my drier stuffing, but you could also add leftover mashed potatoes.  Coating the stuffing balls before frying is also up to you, but I like to dip them in egg white and then roll in Panko bread crumbs.  The extra crunch is hard to resist.  You could use whole egg for binding and coating, but I always have egg whites in the freezer, and this is a good way to use some of them up.

I like a size of about two tablespoons per morsel.  For two cups of stuffing, you’ll get 16 of them, which is enough for four people to enjoy as a snack or appetizer.  Feel free to fry up more if you like, though.

Chances are you’ll have leftover cranberry sauce or relish, too.  Heat it up to use as a dipping sauce – thin it out with a little of the Lágrima Rosado if you need to.

Don’t worry if these don’t all turn out the same – consistency isn’t necessarily the goal here.  Deep-fried goodness comes in many forms!

Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving!

Tom

Stuffing Croquettes

Serves 4 as an appetizer

2 cups leftover stuffing (made without eggs), lightly packed

3 large eggs, or 6 egg whites

1 cup all-purpose flour

1-1/2 cups Panko bread crumbs

1 quart peanut or canola oil, for frying

Salt

1 cup cranberry sauce, heated and thinned out with white or rosé wine

Heat the oil to 375 degrees in a large pot or Dutch oven.  Set up a three-station breading line:  Put the flour on a plate, then beat 2 eggs or 4 egg whites with a big pinch of salt in a shallow bowl.  Spread the Panko on another plate.  Also set up a cooling rack set over a baking sheet

Beat one egg or two egg whites in a small bowl.  Mix gently with the stuffing.  It should just hold together.  Portion out the mixture in 2 tablespoon amounts, roll each gently into a ball.  Gently roll the stuffing balls in flour, then in egg, and in the bread crumbs.  Set the coated stuffing balls aside on a plate until they’re all coated and ready to fry.  (You can do this a few minutes ahead, but don’t wait too long.)

Fry in two batches for a few minutes each, turning the stuffing balls occasionally.  They should be nicely brown.  Remove to the cooling rack with a slotted spoon, sprinkle with salt, and fry the rest of them.  Serve hot, with warm cranberry dipping sauce.

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Out in the wine industry

My friend, Alvaro Cardenas, is a wine importer and retailer in Los Angeles. When I met him last year, he was only the third out LGBT importer I'd met in 10 years in the wine business.

My friend, Alvaro Cardenas, is a wine importer and retailer in Los Angeles. When I met him last year, he was only the third out LGBT importer I’d met in 10 years in the wine business.

Wednesday, October 11, was the 28th annual National Coming Out Day.   As I was reading NCOD posts on Facebook, it occurred to me that I don’t know very many other LGBT people in the wine business, or who write about wine.  So I decided to ask the few I know about their experiences in the wine industry, and also ask for recommendations of others I could talk to.  This is the first of a couple of blog posts about those conversations.

First, some background.  NCOD was founded in 1988 with a simple premise: progress on civil rights comes in large part from visibility.  Given that there were few out individuals in the previous decades (let alone centuries), it was the norm for most people to assume that their family members, neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances were straight.  LGBT people were a shadowy “other,” and it was much easier to disparage what you didn’t know.  But by coming out, LGBT individuals showed that we’d been there all along – the only thing that had changed about us was that others now knew our sexual orientations or gender identities.

As far as the wine industry goes, I’ve been in it for about 10 years now and have found that there are many more out LGBT people at the retail level, particularly sommeliers, than up the supply chain (producers, distributors, importers).  While you can do an internet search and find some out LGBT winemakers, few are out professionally.  Those who are live almost exclusively in California, with some in Oregon and Washington and a smattering elsewhere.  The glossy wine magazines tend to portray winemakers as rugged individualists – invariably straight (if they mention their personal lives at all).  And they’re mostly male, even though a few female winemakers have received greater visibility in the past few years.  In the import world, I found that when I first started getting invited on organized importer wine tours, I was the only openly gay person among dozens of invitees.  As time went on, there might be one other out LGBT person, and at most I’ve seen is two others on one particular tour.  Altogether, four of us among 200 or so I’ve met.

The relatively small numbers of out LGBT people above the retail level might come as a surprise to people who aren’t in the wine business.  Despite the valiant efforts of bloggers and writers, there seems to be an attitude that people who enjoy the complexities and intricacies of wine are as effete as Niles and Frazier Crane.  (When those two get to talking about wine, they sound an awful lot like Will and Jack on “Will and Grace,” despite being ostensibly straight characters.)  And that’s just people who drink it, so I can imagine the perception of those who sell or make it, since their lives are even more about wine.

Obviously, thinking about this and NCOD left me with a lot of questions.  First, I wanted to check to see if my impression of the scarcity of out LGBT people as winemakers, distributors, and importers was in fact the case.  Then, I wanted to ask people if and how being out had affected their businesses, and if that had changed over the years.  Was the experience different for winemakers than for importers and distributors?  For example, could it be that some winemakers aren’t out because they think it will hurt sales?  After all, the demographic of most serious (and high-spending) wine collectors definitely skews older.  And although those customers clearly like wine, they might not be as comfortable with LGBT people as younger customers.

I thought I’d start with importers, my area of expertise, so I contacted two out importers for interviews.  One told me that being out hadn’t made a difference among people who knew – but it also wasn’t central to personal or business identity, and asked to remain anonymous.  The other importer, Alvaro Cardenas, lives and works in L.A.  He and I met in Toledo, Spain, at a wine show in 2015.  He has worked with wine in various jobs since 1994.  Today, he’s co-founder of JK Wine Imports/Hudson & Green and also the owner of two wine retail shops.  His downtown L.A. Wine Stop opened this week.

It was fun catching up with Alvaro and comparing our experiences as importers.  Here’s a condensed version of our conversation.

I was already out when I started First Vine, and Cy came along on most of my European scouting trips with me.  I introduced him as my husband even before we were married because calling him my “partner” left the door open to people thinking we were just business partners.  So there was no question that we were out.  Was that true for you, too?  I’ve been out the whole time.  When I was a kid my mother told me, “Your body is going to start to change and you’re going to start to like girls, or boys – whatever is fine.”  Clearly she had an idea of what was going on.  And I never tried to hide it, as if I could.

Did being out had any effect on doing business initially?  Probably not.  I think that the few difficulties I had at first were because I was young and inexperienced.  If there was any anti-gay feeling in that, I didn’t see it.

Do you think that being in California made a difference?  Absolutely!  Everyone is pretty open here, especially in the cities.  I don’t think it helps or hurts being out.  There are a ton of LGBT sommeliers out here – many of them started as servers and worked their way into the wine end – that I don’t have any issues dealing with customers.  You know how somms are, if you have a good product at a very good price they’re going to want to buy no matter what they think of you.  Even the straight ones.  I only know a few out importers like you and me, though.  And I have to say there’s still sometimes an issue selling outside the big cities.  Not really overt, but at least at first I could see a reaction from customers in some of the smaller towns, and sometimes still do.

And is there a difference selling outside California, too?  Yes.  When I started visiting distributors in Texas and Illinois to do customer tastings, there was visible discomfort.  Like they didn’t quite know what to do with me.  You know me, I’m way out, and I don’t think they were used to it.  Even as little as five years ago.

Has that changed?  It is getting better – some of it is just that they know me and are used to me, but even among people I meet there for the first time fewer seem to have the same kind of discomfort as before.

We both buy European wines and sell them in the U.S.  I haven’t had any issues being out and buying from the wineries.  I buy from only one producer who isn’t married to an opposite-sex person, so I guess it’s possible he could be gay.  But I don’t have any indication he is.  Have you met any out LGBT producers in Europe?  No, none.  I’ve met a few who were definitely the most flamboyant people in the room – even including me – but they aren’t out and don’t even talk about it with me privately.  And it’s not just that “Gay or European, you decide” thing, either.  Religion plays a bigger role in Europe, though, and lots of people live with their parents until they’re married and they’re usually not out at home.

Do you think some of it is just a reserve as opposed to the instant informality we have here in the states?  I buy from three producers with LGBT children.  But it wasn’t until we’d done business together for a couple of years that I started finding out about them, as I got to know the producers more personally.  None of my producers has told me they have LGBT children, so I’m impressed!  Yes, there’s definitely a reserve there, but you’d think it would go away once we’ve been doing business for a while.  It hasn’t for me in Europe, though.

Thanks for talking with me!  Before we hang up, how’s the new store opening going?  When you and I first met I thought I’d be open soon.  But it has been over two years start to finish – first all the surprises when you get rehabbing an older building, and then all kinds of permit/license/inspection delays with the city.  Nonetheless, I’m really excited to open Wine Stop in downtown L.A.  And thanks, really fun talking to you.  You and Cy have to come to L.A. and see the new place!

—————

A preview of a forthcoming post on Bodega Hiriart, the maker of this post's featured wine. Non-trellised vines, and lots of clusters left after harvest for quality control. You can tell these grapes are Tempranillo rather than Grenache because the clusters are shaped like South America.

A preview of a forthcoming post on Bodega Hiriart, the maker of this post’s featured wine. Non-trellised vines, and lots of clusters left after harvest for quality control. You can tell these grapes are Tempranillo rather than Grenache because the clusters are shaped like South America or Africa.

Since Alvaro and I met in Spain, I thought I’d recommend a Spanish wine.  Bodega Hiriart Roble 2014 ($14) is 100% Tempranillo, aged in oak for four months and then in the bottle for at least six.  Cy and I visited Hiriart about a year ago.  I’ll write a post about the winery and our visit another time, but for now let me say that this may be the best Roble I’ve ever had.  While the actual rules for making a wine called “Roble” differ from region to region, the best Robles are like a lighter version of Crianzas – the next step up in the Spanish red wine hierarchy.  Robles generally contain grapes from younger vines than Crianzas, and spend less time aging.  But in very good years, you can end up with something wonderful at a very good price.  Hiriart’s 2014 Roble certainly qualifies.

The Roble pairs well with plenty of different foods.  It’s fall now, and lots of squash are available.  I love stuffing acorn squash and baking them, they’re really tasty this time of year.  And the baked, stuffed squash looks impressive on the plate.  For a red wine like the Roble, I like to stuff the squash with rice, mushrooms, and pine nuts, and cook them in a little tomato sauce.  The sauce adds acidity to the sweetness of the roasted squash, and the mushrooms call for a wine with some earthiness.

A couple of hints I’ve picked up on squash over the years.  First, the squash roast more evenly and you have less potentially tough skin if you use a vegetable peeler on the ridges of the squash.  Plus, they look prettier with the alternating bands of flesh and skin.  Second, the squash will have more flavor if you roast them a little before stuffing.  Before you start making the filling, put a baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.  Brush the cavity side of the halved squash with some olive oil, then salt and pepper them.  When the oven has heated, put the squash cut-side-down on the hot sheet pan.  Roast the squash for about 15 minutes, then take them out and fill them.  (You don’t have to do this, of course, you can stuff the squash without pre-cooking.  Just bake them longer.)  You’ll be cooking the mushrooms and rice anyway (unless you have some left over), so it’s not difficult to use the time to roast the squash.

I don’t make tomato sauce ahead of time.  I just take crushed tomatoes from the can, mix in a little salt and pepper, a tablespoon of tomato paste, a couple of tablespoons of white wine, and two smashed and peeled garlic cloves and put the mixture in the bottom of the baking dish.  Then put the stuffed squash in, cover with parchment and foil, and bake.  Take off the parchment and foil, add some grated Parmesan cheese, and bake to brown.

Needless to say, I’ll have some Thanksgiving wine recommendations to come.  But that’s another post and another week.  For now, enjoy recovering from Halloween!

Cheers!

Tom

Baked Stuffed Acorn Squash

Serves 4

2 medium acorn squash, 3 pounds or so total

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 cup cooked rice (white or brown)

12 ounces Cremini mushrooms, wiped clean and bottom part of the stems cut off

4 ounces Shiitake mushrooms, stems removed (or use more Cremini mushrooms)

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, or ¾ teaspoon dried thyme

3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

1 small onion, minced

1 garlic clove, peeled and minced, plus 2 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled

¼ cup grated, peeled apple

1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 tablespoons white wine

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put a sheet pan in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  While the oven is heating, take a vegetable peeler and peel a strip of skin off each of the ridges on the squash.  Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and strings and discard them (or rinse the seeds off and save them to roast for a snack).

When the oven comes to temperature, brush the cut sides of the squash and the cavity with plenty of the oil.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then place cut-side-down on the hot sheet pan.  Roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven.  Turn the heat down to 350 degrees F.

In the meantime, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large nonstick skillet.  Saute the onion and thyme for 3-4 minutes until soft.  Add the minced garlic and cook for another minute.  Roughly chop the mushrooms while the onion is cooking (by hand or in the food processor).  Add the mushrooms to the onions and garlic in the pan, sprinkle with some salt and pepper, then mix everything together.  Cover the pan for a couple of minutes, until the mushrooms release their liquid.  Uncover the pan and cook until the liquid is almost gone and the mushrooms start to brown a little.  Stir in the grated apple, cook for 1 minute.  Then mix in the cooked rice and pine nuts.  Taste for salt and pepper.  The filling should hold together a bit when you press it with a spoon.  If it doesn’t, add a little water.

In a glass or ceramic baking dish large enough to hold the four squash halves, mix the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, white wine, a half teaspoon of salt, ¼ teaspoon of pepper, and the crushed garlic cloves.  Remove the squash from the sheet pan (you may need a spatula to help), and put them cut side up on the tomato mixture.  Stuff the cavities with the filling, mounding it up and leaving some of the squash on the top exposed.  Drizzle with a little oil.  Cover with a large piece of parchment inside a large piece of aluminum foil, tenting the parchment and foil so they don’t rest on the stuffed squash.

Bake for 35 minutes.  Remove the foil and parchment, and use a sharp knife to test that the squash are tender.  If not, cover again and bake for another 10 minutes.  Remove the foil, sprinkle the grated cheese on the filling, then raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees F and bake for another 10 minutes.  Let cool a few minutes before spooning the sauce in the pan over each squash half, then serve.

Note:  you don’t have to pre-roast the squash, you can stuff and bake them without that step.  Bake the covered squash for 1 hour before testing for doneness, then bake uncovered as directed.

Posted in LGBT people in the wine industry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cookbook author wine talk with Domenica Marchetti

Domenica Marchetti is the author of seven cookbooks on Italian cuisine, including her latest on preserving foods.

Domenica Marchetti is the author of seven cookbooks on Italian cuisine, including her latest on preserving foods.

When I mentioned Domenica Marchetti’s new book Preserving Italy to my mother, she told me things I’d never heard before.  About how her father had preserved eggplant in olive oil and bottled his own tomato sauce.  And how they’d eaten dandelion greens and other things that grew around the neighborhood.  My grandfather came to the U.S. from a farm near Naples, and growing, harvesting, and preserving foods was a way of life.  For many Italian immigrants, it was also a way of keeping a foot in the old world – especially during a time when U.S. cooking steadfastly resisted the charms of immigrant foods.**

So I was predisposed to like the book from the start.  But it’s a keeper for other reasons.  The subtitle is Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions, and it fits.  It’s a nice, concise introduction to the different kinds of food preservation you’ll find in Italy, but also used the world over.  You’ll find tasty recipes for foods preserved in oil or vinegar on through to pressure canning, liqueurs, and simple cured meats.  While that seems like it might be limiting to stick only to Italian food, it’s actually a great way to learn about the various techniques.  Fitting them within a framework of a single cuisine –seeing why preserving in olive oil works for some foods like eggplant, but not others — makes it all much more understandable.  There’s enough instruction in the book to make anything in there, even for novices.  You’re not required to become an expert in water-bath canning, for example, to try it out.

Domenica Marchetti started her working life as a newspaper reporter, so she was already a storyteller when she decided to start writing about food.  Coming from an Italian family and spending summers in Italy, where great pains were taken to find the best food around, gave her plenty of material to start.  Over the past decade or so she has written seven books on Italian cooking.  Writing about the food she loves is another way of sharing what she already shares with her family and friends.  You really feel like you’re there with her in the kitchen reading and using her books.

For Domenica, learning the techniques she describes in Preserving Italy was an outgrowth of wanting to duplicate her grandmother’s liquor-soaked cherries.  We talked about the book, her family, and Italian food in general.  And about wine too – she has recipes that use wine in the book, so I figured she must drink it.  As an Italian food lover myself, I enjoyed every minute of our talk, and I think you will, too.

—————-

I have to thank you for writing this book – I learned things about my mother’s family I didn’t know before because of it.  For my grandfather, preserving food was partly a necessity.  What do you think makes people want to take it up today?  I’m happy to hear you say that!  I think it’s another way that people can connect more with their food.  I have friends who barely have to go to supermarkets because they preserve things they grow or buy in the summer.  Not everyone can do that, but because so many of our memorable food experiences these days come from beautiful, seasonal fresh foods, it’s only natural to want to have them outside of summertime.  The preserved foods aren’t the same as fresh, but they’re prepared and preserved in a way to capitalize on the best attributes of the ingredients.  And in the dead of winter, when you open a jar of tomato sauce you canned yourself using tomatoes from your farmers’ market, everything you loved about that late summer day you bought the tomatoes will be right there on your plate.

Preserving Italy is an easy-to-follow guide to the different ways Italians use to preserve food. When I told my mother I had bought it, she told me stories about her Italian immigrant father preserving food at home that I hadn’t heard before.

In my first job out of college as a chemical engineer, I made and canned spaghetti sauce at a food products company, but I’ve never tried doing it at home.  Or any other home preserving other than some quick pickling, for that matter.  What’s the most important thing people need to know about it?  I wanted to make sure that everything in the book was done with food safety as the paramount concern.  So I recommend that people keep the foods preserved in oil or vinegar in the fridge, for example, which your grandfather probably didn’t do.  For tomato sauce, it’s important that it be acidic enough to kill the various bacteria, even if you’re canning it in a hot water bath.  But it’s not a given that tomatoes will be acidic enough to not need something added to lower the pH.  I use fresh lemon juice, putting it in the jars before adding the sauce and processing them.  Some home canning experts recommend using bottled lemon juice because it’s absolutely consistent in terms of acidity, but I couldn’t bring myself to use it!

I’m with you on that.  At my spaghetti sauce job, we controlled pH with citric acid, but also with salt – it was an easy way to take the pH down a little if we needed to.  I asked my mother about it, and she said her father didn’t add any acid to the sauce he bottled, at least as far as she remembers.  In the old days, cooks added some sugar to their sauce to balance the acid in the tomatoes, so your grandfather may not have had to add any acid.  And since nobody died, it probably worked, but I had to go by the USDA guidelines for the book.  I also think over the years tomatoes got selectively bred for sweetness and less acidity – apart from the flavorless ones bred strictly for transport.  I hadn’t heard about adding salt to control pH before.

It was an industrial trick.  Plus, this was the early 1980s before we had low-salt canned foods, so I wouldn’t rely on it today!  I freeze my meat sauce, so I was interested to read about pressure canning it.  Do you find there’s a difference in the sauce when you use the two techniques?  Pressure-canned meat sauce definitely tastes a little more “cooked” than sauce that’s been frozen.  Bringing it up to 240°F instead of just 212° makes a difference, although it’s good both ways.  But what I really use pressure canning for is beans and chickpeas.  I love them and use them a lot in cooking, and there’s nothing like the flavor of dried beans you’ve cooked yourself.  Canning makes them available quickly, and you can also flavor them any way you like.

That sounds great – I love beans too so I’ll have to try it.  Are there any brands of dried beans you particularly like?  I found Zursun beans, a brand from Idaho, at a local kitchenware/gourmet food shop, La Cuisine in Alexandria, VA.  Zursun has all kinds of beans, grains, etc.  They’re consistently good and I never have to worry about them being too old.  Also, I like to bring beans back from Abruzzo when I go over.

It’s great that you can bring the dried beans back with you, much easier than toting olive oil or wine.  I like to get cassoulet beans when I’m in France.  Did you find that there were some things you couldn’t duplicate here, or that just tasted different using ingredients in Italy?  I wanted to put more artichoke recipes in the book since Italians love them, but really good artichokes in different sizes are hard to find, at least in Virginia where I live.  Maybe if I were in California that would be easier.  Also olives – you need the right climate to grow them, and I order mine from California when I cure olives.  But the number of different kinds of raw olives you can easily get in Italy is amazing.

Do you plan to try more complex food preservation now that you’ve finished the book?  So far I’ve only cured pancetta and guanciale at home, and I’d definitely love to cure salami.  I have sausage recipes in the book, but they get done relatively quickly in the fridge – not the ones that I’d have to hang to cure.  Also, I’d love to make prosciutto, although I couldn’t do that at home.

I noticed in the book that you said you appropriated your husband’s wine fridge for curing pancetta and guanciale, so I figured it was safe to assume that you enjoy wine.  Of course!  My husband is more of a wine expert than I am, he likes to do the pairing with food.  As you might expect, we like Italian wines and drink the wines you find in Abruzzo – Montepulciano, Cerasuolo, and Pecorino.  Plus there are Barolos and Amarones around for bigger occasions.  We don’t really collect wine to keep at home, so that’s why there was room in the wine fridge for curing meat!  We also like some Virginia wines, and it’s great having the wineries close by.  It’s always wonderful to taste the wines at the wineries, somehow they always taste even better there.

The cherry peppers were pickled briefly in vinegar and water, then dried, and were ready to stuff.

The cherry peppers were pickled briefly in vinegar and water, then dried, and were ready to stuff.

I agree – something about the setting that definitely enhances the wine.  What Virginia wineries do you like?  I imagine you’ve tried the Italian varietal wines made around Barboursville.  We have tried and enjoyed them.  But one of my non-Italian favorites is Horton Vineyards, they make a great Viognier.  I found them when I was developing my recipe for Mosto Cotto – fresh wine grape juice, or must, that gets cooked down to a syrup.  I couldn’t get Montepulciano must here like I’d use in Abruzzo, and didn’t know if I could get any grape must at all.  So I put it out on Twitter that I was looking for some.  Michael Heny, the winemaker at Horton, responded and gave me must from Petite Syrah, Tannat, and Norton.  I’ve found that winemakers are usually generous and friendly that way.

Have you had any other memorable wine experiences, either in Italy or here at home?  If you mean when the clouds opened and angels sang, well, no.  But my husband and I love drinking the local wines that we find at restaurants in Italy – some of them might seem a little rough without the food, but the circumstances make all the difference.  Also, we have been doing Italian culinary tours in Abruzzo and visit a couple of local winemakers that represent two different styles of winemaking.  One of them is completely traditional, and is currently run by two sisters, something unusual in Italy.  They use the big casks that you also don’t see too much these days.  The other is a little more experimental and also has a particular microclimate that makes for interesting wines.  But our visits year after year have let us get to know the families better and that makes for a richer experience each time.  They’re so proud of what they do, so meticulous about the grapes and the wine, and you can share the love, passion, and pride when you visit.

I like to joke that since I started my wine business I’ve discovered that every person of European heritage I meet tells me that he or she has a relative back over there in the wine business.  Do you?  Unfortunately, no!  My mother grew up in a city in Abruzzo, and my father’s family didn’t make wine, either.

One final question about food.  I remember looking through Marcella Hazan’s first cookbook in the late 1970s and her talking about how Italians stick to their native regions for food, that it would be unusual for them to eat foods from other parts of Italy.  I’d never heard of that before.  Do you find that regionality still persists when you visit?  Yes, it definitely does.  In America we’re used to having pretty much anything we want nearby, and you don’t find that over there.  Of course there is some fast food that’s all over Italy, and you can find desserts like Tiramisu and Panna Cotta everywhere.  But I still find that the food in Abruzzo is different from the food in Liguria, which we visited last summer, and that’s different from the food in Piedmont next door.  Food doesn’t necessarily correspond exactly to governmental boundaries, so Abruzzo has some influences from the surrounding regions – Marche, Umbria, Campania, Puglia.  There are some more contemporary restaurants in Abruzzo, but by and large the food is still cooked by families in restaurants and is pretty traditional, even with variations.  It’s a great comfort for us when we visit.

Thanks so much for talking with me, and introducing me to things that were a part of my family’s past!  My pleasure – food is a great way to meet interesting people.  And it was fun to hear about your grandfather.  Food is one of the things that makes places special to us, and it’s great he was able to carry some of that with him to America. 

————————–

I wasn’t sure I wanted to jump into water-bath canning right away when I first got Preserving Italy.  But I thought it would be fun to try preserving in olive oil.  Coincidentally, my husband Cy’s first crop of Italian cherry peppers that he grows in pots was coming in.  So I decided to try the recipe for Rosetta’s Tuna-Stuffed Cherry Peppers.  Domenica got it from a friend and fellow cookbook author, Rosetta Costantino.  The hollowed-out peppers get pickled briefly in vinegar and water and stuffed with a mixture of tuna, capers, and anchovies; then they’re packed in sterilized canning jars, the jars are filled with olive oil, and the peppers sit in the fridge for a week and up to three months.  They’re seriously good.  Cy’s plants are still producing, so you’ll be able to find the peppers at farmers’ markets.  I got my canning jars at the local hardware store.

Stuffed in the jars and ready to fill with olive oil.

Stuffed in the jars and ready to fill with olive oil.

How hot the stuffed peppers will be depends on the peppers themselves.  You might want to try one raw first and see if they’re hot enough for you.  You can always add some dried red pepper flakes to the stuffing, or infuse the oil with red pepper flakes before you do the peppers.  I found that a small cocktail fork was ideal for removing the ribs and seeds from the peppers.  Tuna in olive oil is a must for this – there’s some great quality tuna in jars from Spain and Portugal if you can find it, but most of us can also find Cento brand tuna in oil in the grocery store.  Another thing to consider is how old your olive oil is:  if you’ve had it around a while, you might want to consider getting a new bottle for preserving the peppers even if it doesn’t smell or taste rancid.  Since olive oil is a main ingredient, you want it to be at its best.

As Domenica mentioned in the interview, you want to store these in the fridge after an initial 24 hours at room temperature.  Only take out what you’re going to eat and let them sit at room temperature to liquefy the oil (it gets solid in the fridge).  Add more oil to the jar to completely submerge the remaining peppers before putting the jar back in the fridge.  And be sure to follow the instructions for sterilizing the jars.

You’ll probably serve the peppers as part of an antipasto platter with cheeses, cured meats, olives, bread, etc.  Or, if you’re like me, that will be dinner as well, with a little salad to go along.  The peppers aren’t vinegary, so you don’t have to worry about choosing a red wine, just choose a medium-bodied one.  I served the peppers with Château des Donats La Coquille Rouge ($14).  It’s a Bordeaux-style blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, but not aged in oak.  The wine is from Bergerac, a town and wine appellation east of Bordeaux that got famous by literary means.  An ancient food preserving tradition along with an inspiration for great art is too good to resist!

Cheers!

Tom

**  As I was preparing to write this post, I listened to a “Fresh Air” podcast on depression-era food in the U.S.  Home economists were trying to instruct Americans on making cheap, nutritious food.  But they completely ignored immigrant cuisines, even though many of those immigrants came from impoverished countries yet still managed to make nutritious food.

Rosetta’s Tuna-Stuffed Cherry Peppers

Makes 3 pints

From Domenica Marchetti’s Preserving Italy, reprinted with the author’s permission

2 pounds (907 g) hot cherry peppers

2 cups (473 g) white wine vinegar

2 cups (473 g) water

2 (7-ounce) cans best-quality solid tuna in olive oil, drained

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained

6-8 best-quality anchovy fillets in oil, patted dry

Extra-virgin olive oil

Equipment:  Disposable kitchen gloves (such as Playtex); 3 sterilized 1-pint jars and their lids

Wearing glove, cut out the stems from the peppers with a paring knife and carefully remove all the seeds and pith inside.  Put the peppers in a high-sided saucepan and pour in the vinegar and water.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil for 5 minutes.

Drain the peppers in a colander and let them sit until cool enough to handle.  Set them, cut-side-down, on a clean kitchen towel to dry for 2 hours.  Turn them over and let dry for at least another 2 hours, and up to overnight (if drying overnight, turn them back over so they are cut side down).

Prepare the filling by finely chopping the tuna with the capers and anchovies.  Stuff the peppers with the tuna mixture and pack them snugly into the jars, leaving about 1 inch head space.  Slowly pour in enough olive oil to completely cover the peppers.  Screw the lids on tightly and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours.  Check to make sure the peppers remain completely covered; if not, add more oil.

Let the peppers cure in the refrigerator for 1 week before using, then store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.  To serve, remove from the jar only what you plan to use and let it come to room temperature.  Top off the jar with more oil as necessary to keep the remaining peppers submerged.

Note on sterilizing jars and lids:  First, wash jars in hot soapy water.  Sterilize by immersing them in a covered pot of boiling water for 10 minutes, or place them in a 285°F oven for 30 minutes.  Place the rings in a small covered pot of boiling water and boil for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave them in the water.  Do not boil the lids, as it could compromise the seal; just add them to the pot of hot water right before filling the jars.

Posted in Cookbook Author Interviews, Cookbook author wine talks, Domenica Marchetti, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s 500 years between friends?

Chances are, this summer these folks were enjoying Pet-Nats. And they're using the right glasses too -- it's better not to use champagne flutes. (Photo from solutionstalk.com)

Chances are, this summer these folks were enjoying Pet-Nats. And they’re using the right glasses too — it’s better not to use champagne flutes. With flutes you can’t smell what’s often a lovely floral aroma.  (Photo from solutionstalk.com)

I’m usually hard-pressed to decipher the hot thing in wine in any particular year or season.  But I’m pretty sure this summer’s winner would be Pet-Nats, the J-Lo abbreviation of Pétillant Naturel.  (That’s French for naturally sparkling.)  It’s everywhere these days, and even being made locally nearby in Maryland.  Most casual wine drinkers haven’t heard of it before, and many winemakers are embracing it as a fairly easy way to make something new.  But in the case of Pet-Nats, “new” is actually about 500 years old.

[You know I get excited when I get to wonk out a little.  So be warned, that’s what happens here.  I hope it’s still understandable, but sometimes you can’t take the engineer out of me…]

The earliest written record appears to be from 1531 in a monastery in southern France, although it certainly could have been produced before that date in some non-religious context.  We’ve all had bottles of what’s supposed to be still wine that tasted a little fizzy when we opened them.  That’s because fermentation still occurred once the wine was in the bottle, producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct.  The CO2 trapped in the bottle gets released when the bottle is opened, creating bubbles.  Normally we think of fermentation as happening exclusively over a period of two weeks or so and then it’s done.  But fermentation continues – albeit slowly – over months.  Bottling the wine while it’s still fermenting, even just a little bit, can result in wine with some fizz.

That’s where the “Naturel” part comes in, since the winemaker isn’t adding yeast to grape juice that’s already fermented into wine, as gets done with champagne.  It’s an easy leap to think that somewhere along the line a winemaker decided to make the process a bit more systematic.  Controlling the amount of fermentation taking place in the bottle can lead to frothy sparkling wines, or wines that have a tiny bit of fizz.  Temperature and the amount of yeast on the skin of the grapes are the main variables.  These days winemakers have more control, particularly of temperature.  But certainly not back in the middle ages.  You had to be able to count on Mother Nature, who might not have cooperated.  So these wines made by what is now called the Ancestral Method, or Méthode Ancestrale, could be variable.

No doubt this is why the Champagne Method, or Méthode Champenoise, was developed.  Adding a dose of yeast and sugar to already-fermented wine to generate CO2 is a good way to control the foam and also add some yeasty flavor.  There were still a lot of variables in the Champagne Method once it became more widespread, but at least you could tame Mother Nature somewhat.  It also helped that the vast underground caves of the Champagne region made for a constant-temperature environment not always available in the south.

Mauzac, an indigenous French grape, has all the Pet-Nat attributes listed here. This is why it has been used to make sparkling wines in southern France for 1500 years. (Photo from psuwineandgrapes.wordpress.com)

Mauzac, an indigenous French grape, has all the Pet-Nat attributes listed here. This is why it has been used to make sparkling wines in southern France for 1500 years. (Photo from psuwineandgrapes.wordpress.com)

Despite the difficulties, Méthode Ancestrale never went away.  And once winemakers had access to good temperature control and various yeasts, it became easier to make Pet-Nats.  It’s still possible to find Pet-Nats made as close to the old ways as possible – only yeast from the grape skins, minimal bottle aging, and no filtration.  It makes a cloudy sparkling wine.  These days, though, most Pet-Nats get filtered to make them a bit clearer.  Some Méthode Ancestrale wines may have yeast residue removed the same way it gets done in bottles of champagne instead of by filtration.  That, of course, makes it more expensive.

While Pet-Nats usually don’t undergo much aging in the bottle, there are ways of aging them before release.  For example, taking the bottle down to 40 degrees F right after filling will stop fermentation by deactivating the yeast.  Holding the bottles at that temperature for a few months, or up to a year, gives the wine a little aging and yeast contact.  Then, the bottles get slowly warmed to cellar temperature.  The fermentation resumes, creating the CO2.  This process is something that would have happened naturally in the past, given the right weather conditions.

Pet-Nats are lower in alcohol than champagne and usually have some residual sugar.  How much depends on the sugar in the grapes.  That’s usually a function of how early they’re picked.  It can’t be too early, because then they’re not ripe enough.  But since the wines are usually pretty light-bodied, the sweetness doesn’t taste cloying or syrupy.  They also don’t have the buttery taste that comes from a secondary process called malolactic fermentation.  This happens in many still wines and champagnes, but not in Pet-Nats, so they’re cleaner-tasting.

So why are they so popular these days?  I think it’s partly because they’re the wine that’s most like craft beers.  Winemakers can experiment with Pet-Nats pretty easily, with minimal equipment beyond the sturdy bottles necessary for sparkling wines.  Harvest the grapes in August, and you can have a decent Pet-Nat in February.  (Red Pet-Nats will probably take longer.)  And the low alcohol level – anywhere from seven to 11 percent – makes them pretty quaffable.

A winning combination.  And it leaves the door open to make sparkling wines out of grapes you wouldn’t normally see in those wines.  I’m looking forward to seeing what people come up with for the 500th anniversary in 2031.

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Of course, a big reason for writing this post is that First Vine carries two Pet-Nats, from Domaine la Croix des Marchands near Gaillac in southwestern France.  Jérome Bezios, the winemaker, used to call them Méthode Gaillacoise, since they’re AOC Gaillac wines.  But he switched to using the name Méthode Ancestrale a few years ago.  He’s a pretty traditional winemaker, so I haven’t broached using the term Pet-Nat with him yet.  Maybe in a couple of years…

The wines are made from Mauzac, one of the oldest indigenous varietals in France.  There’s a demi-sec and a brut (both $18).  As I mentioned above, both have some residual sugar.  (Even the brut, which is defined as containing up to 30 grams/liter residual sugar – at that level you’ll certainly taste sweetness.)  The brut is made from grapes picked earlier than the demi-sec, but still mature enough to have good flavor.  The demi-sec is definitely sweeter, but Mauzac has enough acidity so that the wine’s not cloying even when it’s riper.  And the extra hang-time on the vines makes the grapes more fragrant.  So you really can’t go wrong with either.   Both are certified sustainable by Terra Vitis, a French agricultural organization.

The residual sugar makes most people think of dessert wines, which you can certainly do with either.  But in and around Gaillac you’ll find people drink them as an aperitif with snacks.  They’re both food-friendly wines.  So this time I’m recommending a Hungarian-style cheese spread that I recently rediscovered.  I used to see it around a lot when I was a kid, but hadn’t in a while.  A shame, because it’s really good.

Liptauer cheese spread gets its salmon color from paprika and has a hint of caraway. I hadn't had it for years until I decided to make it recently for a wine tasting. (Photo from internationalcuisine.com)

Liptauer cheese spread gets its salmon color from paprika and has a hint of caraway. I hadn’t had it for years until I decided to make it recently for a wine tasting.  It’s great with wine, and especially our Pet-Nats.  (Photo from internationalcuisine.com)

Liptauer is a Hungarian cheese.  It’s sort of like cottage cheese but with a little bit more tang to it.  You may be able to find Liptauer cheese or, more likely, a spread made from it, at a good deli.  But the spread is easy to make yourself and you can control what’s in it depending on what you like.  When I looked up recipes, I found some made with butter and some with cream cheese in addition to the cottage cheese.  The cream cheese adds tang, but the butter makes it a little richer.  I decided to use both.  Many recipes tell you to strain the cottage cheese to make it smooth.  I just blitzed it in the food processor instead, which I recommend you do, too.  But almost all the recipes said to combine the ingredients with an electric mixer rather than using the food processor.  It makes the mixture creamier.  So, sorry to make you dirty up both appliances, but it’s worth it.

The cheese/butter mixture is flavored with paprika, caraway, and capers.  It’s definitely worth buying a new small jar of paprika if don’t remember how old the stuff you have at home is.  You don’t use much of it, but the fresher the better.  I also decided to coarsely crack the caraway seeds for more flavor.

I found some recipes use chopped up cornichons in there – the French pickles you find on charcuterie platters.  If you have some, go ahead and chop up a few.  But if you don’t have them, add a pinch of ground allspice to the spread.

Not all cornichons are pickled with allspice, but it adds a nice flavor.  Serve it with crackers or baguette slices and pour one of the Méthode Ancestrale wines.  You’ll be both retro and hip at the same time!

Cheers!

Tom

Liptauer Cheese Spread

Serves 4-6 as an apéro

8 ounces small-curd cottage cheese

6 ounces softened cream cheese

2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

1-1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika, plus more for sprinkling on top

1 teaspoon caraway seeds, coarsely cracked

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

A pinch of ground allspice

3 tablespoons drained capers, chopped

Optional:  2 or 3 cornichons, chopped – use only 2 tablespoons of capers and omit the allspice

Blend the cottage cheese in a food processor until smooth.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the cream cheese and butter until very smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Beat in the cottage cheese, then add the 1-1/2 teaspoons paprika, caraway, salt, pepper, and allspice and beat until well-combined.  Stir in the capers by hand (and cornichons, if you’re using them).  Scrape the mixture into a nice bowl and refrigerate for at least two hours, although it’s more flavorful if you leave it in the fridge overnight.  Sprinkle with a little more paprika before serving.

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Cookbook and wine talk with Victoria Price

This is the cover of "A Treasury of Great Recipes," by Vincent and Mary Price. When it came out in the 1960s, it was the most impressive cookbook I'd ever seen. The padded leather-like binding and gold embossing made it seem statelier than the Encyclopedia Britannica.

This is the cover of “A Treasury of Great Recipes,” by Mary and Vincent Price. When it came out in the 1960s, it was the most impressive cookbook I’d ever seen. The padded leather-like binding and gold embossing made it seem statelier than the Encyclopedia Britannica.

This post, I’m writing about a cookbook that has been part of my life for longer than anyone I know, other than my immediate family.  It’s A Treasury of Great Recipes, by Mary and Vincent Price, first published in 1965.  (Yes, that Vincent Price.)  I remember when my mother bought it.  We were at The Outlet Company, a department store in New London, Connecticut.  It was the late 1960s and the book cost $25, which was an exorbitant amount for a cookbook – heck, for a lot of things – in those days.   And it looked completely different than any cookbook I’d seen up to that point.  The padded binding and embossed gold lettering made it seem like something important.  Even our set of the Encyclopedia Britannica didn’t look that impressive.

The subtitle, “Famous Specialties of the World’s Foremost Restaurants Adapted for the American Kitchen,” is accurate, but makes it seem like a tome, which it definitely isn’t.  There are indeed all sorts of recipes from restaurants all over the world.  What makes it fun is that it’s arranged geographically and by restaurant, with reproductions of menus and photos of the restaurants themselves.  And the chapter and recipe introductions, written by Vincent Price himself, are a delight.  The design and layout were Mary Price’s creation.  The look and feel of the book made it somehow not surprising to me to learn that she had been a costume designer on Broadway and in Hollywood.

I figured that the creators of this book would have some interesting wine stories.  So I asked their daughter, Victoria Price, for an interview.  Victoria is a designer, like her mother was, and authored a book about her father, Vincent Price:  A Daughter’s Biography.  She’s also busy with a number of other non-family projects, as you can read on her website.

Victoria worked on and released a 50th anniversary edition of the cookbook last year, and had steeped herself in the cookbook and its history.  We had a fun conversation.  I’m afraid I gushed a little.  After all, the book was responsible for my first tastes of lots of interesting foods.  But Victoria told me she loves hearing people’s stories about her parents’ book, all the more so since until the new edition it had been out of print for decades.

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I’m so happy to talk with you about A Treasury of Great Recipes.  It was the introduction to so many first dishes for me; Paella, spinach lasagna noodles, chicken with lobster.  Did you get to eat like that when you were growing up?  There was always a lot of good food around.  I had the opportunity to eat very, very well.  But I was a picky eater and probably a disappointment to my parents in that way.

This is the cover of the new edition, with a photo of Vincent and Mary Price in their kitchen. Victoria told me that the original cookbook design was inspired by the copper pots and molds.

This is the dust jacket cover of the new edition, with a photo of Mary and Vincent Price in their kitchen. Victoria told me that the original cookbook design was inspired by the copper pots and molds.

Did your parents use their cookbook at home?  It wasn’t a family recipe book, although it contains some recipes we all enjoyed.  My parents always called it “The Cookbook,” it was their project — one of a number of projects they took on together over the years.

How did the idea for the book come about?   My father had always collected recipes for foods he enjoyed, even before he and my mother were married.  He’d charm chefs out of their recipes and then recreate them for friends.  But he and my mother didn’t set out at first to write a cookbook.  That idea came later, and was an outgrowth of work they did for Sears Roebuck.

What work did they do for Sears?  My parents developed an art collection for Sears, The Vincent Price Collection.  They selected and bought art – things like Picasso prints – and some were sold in a special edition of the Sears catalogue.   My parents were collectors of experiences, they absorbed the culture of places they visited.  So it seemed natural to bring those same kind of experiences with food to a wider audience back here at home.

So was the thought originally that the cookbook would be a Sears cookbook?  I don’t think so – or if it was, it didn’t turn out that way.

When I read the cookbook, I feel like goodwill and good humor come through on every page.  It seems like your father was enjoying himself.  Does it sound like him to you?  The parts he wrote are very much like him.  And people tell me all the time they can hear his voice in their heads when they read it.

And do you feel like the design represents your mother as well?  Yes, absolutely.  It definitely feels like her.  She got the idea for the look of the book from the kitchen at home, and their collection of copper pots and molds.  I put the photo of my parents in the kitchen on the dust jacket of the new edition – and it was opposite the introduction in the original.  There were lots of variations, but that was the idea for the overall look.

Do you think your parents would be surprised by the popularity of the cookbook?  In overall terms, yes, I think they’d be stunned.  After all, it sold thousands of copies and it was expensive for the time.  I don’t believe they necessarily expected that.  But in terms of the book itself, I don’t think it surprised my mother that the book stood the test of time.  She was a long-term planner, and saw trends before they happened.  Plus she was a perfectionist, absolutely meticulous about everything she did.  It all had an eye toward posterity, as though it was meant to last.  And she was right – it did.

One thing I have to ask – although I really love the book, two things bother me about it:  the recipe ingredients are listed up front but not the amounts, and you have to read the whole recipe to figure out how much of stuff you’ll need.  And then there are instructions and things that people won’t do these days, like scaling a whole fish.  Has the recipe format changed in the new edition?   I think that the decision about the ingredient list was made by the editor and publisher.  It has a really clean look to it, with the ingredients listed down the left-hand side of the page without numbers in there.  I can see where it would make it more difficult to make the recipe, though.  We didn’t do anything to the recipes themselves in the new edition.  I wanted to leave it the way it first came out, but with new introductory material.

Your father was a spokesman for many products and organizations.  I remember seeing the American Dairy Association commercials, and one for Sun Country Wine Coolers.  But until I was preparing to talk with you, I didn’t realize he had been a spokesman for the California Wine Institute.   My father was honored to be a spokesman – really happy that they asked him.  What he did for the organization or company depended on what they wanted and the type of product.  The commercials were almost all funny.  But the wine stuff was more serious, he traveled and spoke at dinners.  Plus he made a spoken word album, Wine Is Elegance, to promote California wines.***

I had no idea!  Spoken word recordings are really a throwback to my elementary school days, along with filmstrips.  Yeah, they seem pretty quaint now.  My father did a bunch of them on various subjects, including art and even the bible – with his distinctive voice he got asked a lot.  But this one was part of a record/cassette cooking course that came out in 1977.

This cookbook, by Maxine Saltonstall and Virginia Carroll, was one of Vincent Price's favorites.

This cookbook, by Maxine Saltonstall and Virginia Carroll, was one of Vincent Price’s favorites.

Did dinner parties at home include wine?  As you can hear in the recording, he did pair wine with food, and yes, wine was around.  I never developed a taste for it, though!

Did your father collect wine?  He did, to the extent that someone as cheap as he was in his later years would collect wine.  He had some European wines at home.  But he really did love California wines, which is why we partnered with a California winery to release a line of wines with his name on them.

What other sorts of things did he like to cook?  He cooked lots of different foods.  But there were a few cookbooks he loved.  The Joy of Cooking was always around.  And he was proud of himself every time he made Marcella Hazan’s risotto.  He also loved a book called First You Take a Leek, which had a cover drawing that looked like someone was, well, you know.

Thanks so much for letting me relive part of my childhood talking with you!  It was fun for me too.  I love that so many people have vivid memories of my parents’ book – thanks for helping spread the word!

———————–

***Before I go on to the recipe, I want to say something about the Wine Is Elegance recording.  There’s a lot of information about California wines in it, walking you through different wines and varietals, and how the wines are made.  It’s a fun listen, especially with Vincent Price’s voice.

But the recording is also a time capsule that’s coming back around.  It was released in 1977, at a time when the results of the Judgment of Paris weren’t well known.  That now-famous wine tasting, which took place in May 1976, had a huge impact on California wines – in addition to making them justifiably popular, it also dictated to a large extent which varietals were planted and which wines were made for a couple of decades or more.  Maybe you could still find Italian varietal wines made in California in the late 1990s if you were in California, but they didn’t make it to the east coast.  Today, however, you can find all sorts of California wines made from many varietals all over the country, as Price describes was the case in 1977.

I think you’ll enjoy the recording.  One piece of Vincent Price’s advice definitely holds up:  Trying different wines is a wonderful game that you always win.

Side 1:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i961NGIdPpo

 

Side 2:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvBJ7HeO–A

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It was tough deciding which recipe from A Treasury of Great Recipes I should include in this post.  I was going to use the recipe for cheesecake – it’s very light in texture and is still my favorite cheesecake ever.  But I decided I’d go with this recipe for tortellini instead.  They’re mixed in a sauce made from fresh tomatoes, beef stock, and mushrooms, then topped with cheese and baked until the whole dish is hot.  This is the end of tomato season so it’s just in time.  Go out and get the best tomatoes you can find this weekend.  You won’t be disappointed.

Victoria Price, Mary and Vincent Price's daughter, has reissued their classic cookbook. She's a designer, as her mother was. (Photo from her website, victoriaprice.com)

Victoria Price, Mary and Vincent Price’s daughter, has reissued their classic cookbook. She’s a designer, as her mother was. (Photo from her website, victoriaprice.com)

According to Vincent Price’s introduction, “One of the oldest restaurants in San Francisco is Ernie’s on Montgomery Street.  It is lavishly Victorian in décor and aromatically Italian in cuisine.  One of their most popular dishes is this first course of tortellini, a miniature snail-shaped pasta similar to ravioli, and a happy change from the more commonplace Italian starches.”

I love that he felt the need (or perhaps his editors told him) to describe tortellini, since we can find them in nearly any grocery store these days.  But probably not back in 1965, unless you lived near an Italian deli.   I’m lucky to have two Italian specialty stores nearby and buy their frozen cheese tortellini. The pasta is usually a little thinner than the ones you find in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, and they’re a bit more delicate.  The original recipe calls for 24 tortellini per person, 8 dozen in total for four people.  You can make this amount, certainly, but it’ll probably feed at least six people, if not eight.  I’d make six dozen at most.  I suspect that the tortellini used to develop the recipe were a bit smaller than some of the behemoth tortellini we find these days.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of variations on this dish, including adding cooked shrimp in before putting it in the oven.  I’ve also substituted vegetable stock for beef stock.  I don’t usually peel the tomatoes, because there’s a lot of flavor just underneath the skin that gets peeled away if you do.  It certainly looks neater if you peel them.  But some of the heirloom tomato varieties have very thin skin, so it might not matter to you one way or the other.

I’ve put the recipe in more user-friendly form than the way it appears in the book, but otherwise it’s pretty much the original.  Serve it with a white wine with a bit of acidity, like Cave la Vinsobraise Côtes du Rhône White ($12).  Or the Cave la Vinsobraise Rosé (also $12).  You can also serve a light red, but because the tomatoes get cooked very lightly, they still taste fresh – the white and rosé keep that freshness going.  Then settle in and stream your favorite Vincent Price movie — and take the opportunity to remember him and Mary Price as the trendsetters they were.

Cheers!

Tom

Tortellini Palermitana

From A Treasury of Great Recipes, by Mary and Vincent Price

Serves 4 to 6

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use

1 clove garlic, minced

2 medium onions, chopped

4 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped (the original recipe calls for peeled tomatoes, but I don’t always peel them)

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 cup beef stock

¼ teaspoon dried thyme

½ bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

2 mushrooms, minced

6 to 8 dozen frozen tortellini (The original recipe specifies two packages or 8 dozen, but you’ll want enough for everyone to have about a dozen each.  The recipe header describes tortellini as small, so 4 to 6 dozen of today’s larger tortellini may be enough.)

¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.  In a large saucepan heat 2 tablespoons of butter.  Add the garlic and onions and cook over moderate heat for 5 minutes, or until the onions are transparent.  Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, flour, beef stock, thyme, bay leaf, salt, and pepper.  Stir to mix well, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Then stir in the mushrooms.

Cook the tortellini in boiling, salted water according to the package directions.  Drain them.  While the tortellini are cooking, heat 2 tablespoons butter in a shallow ovenproof baking dish.  Add the drained tortellini and cook over moderate heat, stirring to coat them with the butter, for 3 minutes.

Pour the tomato sauce over the tortellini.  Add 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese and stir gently to mix.  Top with 1 tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces, then sprinkle with the remaining cheese.  Bake in the hot oven for 10 minutes.  Serve very hot.

Posted in Cookbook Author Interviews, Cookbook author wine talks, Tom Natan, Vincent Price, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Order up!

I've suggested to customers that they could buy wine and take it with them if they're driving to their vacation destination. But sometimes that just doesn't work...(Photo from parentingchaos.com)

I’ve suggested to customers that they could buy wine and take it with them if they’re driving to their vacation destination. But sometimes that just doesn’t work…(Photo from parentingchaos.com)

August is a slow month for wine orders for First Vine.  Many customers seem to prefer beer and cocktails in hot weather.  And it’s certainly hot – we broke 100 degrees about two weeks ago.  Also, people go away.  While they could take wine with them if they’re driving, part of the joy of going away is discovering what’s available locally.  Plus, after taking a driving trip already this summer, I realize that ordering ahead of time puts one more thing on the already long pre-vacation checklist.

So August leaves me time to contemplate past orders and remember those that stand out.  The largest orders are burned in my memory because of their complicated logistics.  But plenty of the more modestly-sized orders are memorable, too.  Of course we love all of you and your orders.  But some are just less unforgettable than others.

1. Customers who have the same last name as the winery or the winemaker.

It’s always interesting to see what comes up when you google yourself.  Sometimes you’ll find a wine or winemaker with your name.  I’ve had probably a half-dozen customers order wine because of these coincidences.  And none of them is related to the winemakers or anyone at the wineries.  These orders peak around the holidays – nothing like a gift with your name already on it!

2.  Customers who are related to the winemakers.

I’ve had two customers who are related to the producers of wines I sell.  One wasn’t a surprise, since she connected me with the producer and then bought the wine once it was here.  The other told me that he was surprised to see his relative’s wines here in the U.S.  Apparently word isn’t getting out to family abroad.  I guess I’ll have to do something about that…

3.  A customer who owns the land that some of a particular wine’s grapes are grown on.

A few years ago, I sent wine to a customer and got an e-mail back telling me that he was thrilled to have it.  He inherited a vineyard from his grandparents in France, and that vineyard was under contract to a local wine cooperative that I buy from, so his grapes go into those wines.  He’d lived in the U.S. since he was a child and never thought he’d see the wines over here.

4.  Customers who tried wines I sell abroad and buy them when they see them in the U.S.

One customer in California tried one of the French wines I sell when he was in Berlin.  Now he orders a case of it every year.  I’ve also had customers who honeymooned in southern France and tried the wines at restaurants there.  But the most unusual circumstance came when I sold wines for a wedding here in DC.  One of the couple is French, and has lived in the U.S. for many years.  She took a look at the cartons and told me that her parents had that particular wine around the house in France – it’s made in a village about a half hour from where they live.  While the wine name wasn’t familiar, she recognized the logo printed on the boxes.

5.  Customers who want to go to great lengths to make their wine gifts a surprise.

I’m required to get a signature from someone over 21 when I make a delivery.  This means I have to make a delivery appointment.  So it’s difficult to surprise the recipients with a gift.  But some customers really want the gifts to be a surprise and have asked me to go along with various ruses to keep the gift secret until I show up with it.  With few exceptions, I can’t because it’s alcohol.  Once I explain the difficulties, most customers understand.  But a couple of them have asked me to cancel their orders because I couldn’t make it the surprise they’d wanted.

6.  Customers who give too much information in their gift notes.

I know that ordering online puts a sort of anonymity barrier between my customers and me, particularly if I’m not delivering to them personally.  But I read and transcribe what people have written in their orders onto the gift notes.  Some people have typed in things I’d feel uncomfortable having a stranger read.  And it’s also then a little weird handing the wine to the recipient, knowing that the giver has written certain things in the note.

7.  Customers who ask me to deliver wine to a particular person, and then have another person’s name on the gift note.

I always contact the customer if there’s a mismatch between the delivery recipient on the order and the name on a gift note.  Most of the time the customer is ordering gifts for more than one person and just gets the names mixed up.  But I had one customer thank me profusely for avoiding potential embarrassment.  He sounded so relieved that I immediately concocted all sorts of scenarios to explain why.

8.  Interesting deliveries

Let me say up front I haven’t had any deliveries that crossed the line into movie-fantasy territory.  But since I make appointments for delivery – generally a specific half-hour window – I’m still occasionally surprised when customers answer the door wearing very, very little.  Either they forgot or they like to show off.  Only a couple of customers have  repeated this on delivery, though, so I guess it’s mostly the former.

Selling online makes it tougher to have the kind of customer interaction I’d have if we had a walk-in shop.  So I really enjoy circumstances that allow me to get to know my customers a little better.  We’ve just got a bunch of new vintages in, and I expect that September will be busy.  Here’s looking forward to more memorable customers and orders!

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Cy and I were away in Provincetown recently for our usual summer trip.  It was a lot of fun, and we ate out for pretty much every meal except some breakfasts.  We had plenty of lobster rolls, because, well, we just had to.  And there was lots of other seafood, too.  The one disappointment was a grilled calamari appetizer I had at an otherwise excellent dinner.  The rule about squid and octopus is that to keep them tender either you cook them at a high temperature for a short time, or you go low and slow.  This appetizer must have fallen somewhere in between, because it was tough.

A cooking class in Provence -- Sabine Suter (right) teaches cooking in her home, and you make and eat an entire meal. Great fun, but be sure to budget about six hours! My husband Cy is in the middle doing the chopping, and Jennifer Larsen is on the left. She and Cy have been friends since kindergarten. The photo is by Kara Lenorovitz, Jennifer's wife.

A cooking class in Provence — Sabine Suter (right) teaches cooking in her home, and you make and eat an entire meal. Great fun and great eating! My husband Cy is in the middle doing the chopping, and Jennifer Larsen is on the left. She and Cy have been friends since kindergarten. The photo is by Kara Lenorovitz, Jennifer’s wife.  The rest of us were out of frame drinking and watching them work.

But it reminded me that Cy and I had a wonderful calamari dish in Provence.  We went to a Provençal cooking class with four of our friends; it was led by the wife of a winemaker I met at a wine show.  Sabine Suter hosts cooking classes at her home, which is beautiful – and it’s a fun, casual way to spend an evening.  You’ll be making pretty much everything together, including the bread.  And you get to drink her husband Alex’s excellent wine, too.

Sabine led us through making calamari cooked in tomato sauce.  Cleaning and cutting the calamari was the most labor-intensive part, but it wasn’t difficult.  (You can also buy them already cleaned, with the tentacles and body separated.  Just cut the bodies into one-inch squares and leave the tentacles whole, or cut them in half if they’re really large.)  The most important step was tossing the cut-up calamari in a hot skillet to dry them off.  Otherwise, Sabine explained, they’ll release liquid into the sauce that will make it taste too fishy.  And they let out a lot of liquid, too.  So don’t skip this step.  Also, don’t add salt until just before you serve it.  The calamari have some salt in them and you don’t want the dish to be too salty.

Sabine had us make a garlic aïoli to serve with the calamari — you can dollop it on top or mix it in.  I didn’t include the recipe here, but you can certainly find one online.  It was tasty, but I think the dish is equally good without it.

Sabine used the French equivalent of a tomato passata for the sauce, which you can make using a food mill to puree the tomatoes and remove the seeds.  I like doing it because I think it tastes better than using crushed tomatoes, but go ahead and used the crushed if you don’t have a food mill.  Also, you can serve this with pasta if you like.  But it’s very thick and makes a great dish on its own.  If you use pasta, serve it hot.  On its own, it’s good just slightly warm, too.

We had Alex’s Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret with the calamari, so I’d pair it with Cave la Romaine’s Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret ($15) as well.   Open the bottle and pop it in the fridge for about 20 minutes before serving and it will be perfect.  Just make sure to schedule the delivery when you’ll be home and more than marginally-clothed!

Cheers!

Tom

KST2

Sitting down to enjoy our excellent meal.  Unfortunately, none of us took a photo of the calamari!  Kara’s in the middle (she took the photo above).  Steve Kogut is on the left, and his husband Glenn Hennessey took this photo.  I’m on the right.

Calamari in Tomato Sauce

Serves 6 to 8

1-1/2 to 2 pounds calamari (6 to 8 large ones), cleaned, bodies cut into one-inch squares and tentacles left whole or cut in half if they’re large

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, finely minced

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

¾ cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon tomato paste

28 ounces peeled, canned Italian tomatoes, put through a food mill, or a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat until hot.  Add the calamari and toss for a minute.  They’ll release a fair amount of liquid – around a cup.  Spoon off almost all the liquid and cook for another minute to make sure the calamari aren’t releasing any more juice.  (You can save the liquid and freeze it to add to seafood stock).  Drain the calamari in a colander and wipe out the skillet with paper towels.

Heat the olive oil in the same skillet.  Add the onion and red pepper flakes and saute for about 5 minutes, until the onion is translucent.  Push the onion to one side and add the tomato paste, toasting it for about a minute.  Then stir it all together, clear another spot in the pan, and add the garlic, cooking for a minute or so, until you can smell the garlic but it’s not browned.  Stir everything together and add the wine.  Cook over medium-high heat until it reduces to just a couple of tablespoons.  Stir in the tomatoes, and bring to a simmer.  Add the calamari and simmer, partially covered, for at least an hour, stirring occasionally.  Add a little water if needed to keep the mixture from drying out or getting so thick that it sticks to the bottom (this can happen even in a non-stick pan).  Taste a piece of the calamari after an hour to make sure it’s tender.  If not, cook for another 15 minutes and try again.  It shouldn’t take more than 90 minutes.  Taste for salt, and add a little pepper.  Stir in the parsley.  Serve hot or slightly warm.

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

Cookbook author wine talk with Lucinda Scala Quinn

Lucinda Scala Quinn and I had a wide-ranging conversation about food, cooking, and wine. It was tough deciding what not to include in this post! (Photo by Richard Phibbs.)

Lucinda Scala Quinn and I had a wide-ranging conversation about food, cooking, and wine. It was tough deciding what not to include in this post! (Photo by Richard Phibbs.)

I first saw Lucinda Scala Quinn on the Martha Stewart-produced PBS cooking show “Everyday Food.”  The show, with short segments each featuring a different person – all of them working for Stewart’s company and all making good food – is pretty low-key in tone.  But Lucinda definitely stood out for being totally at ease on camera, telling great stories as she cooked.  I later heard her on The Splendid Table radio show, discussing her mom’s awesome-sounding meatloaf recipe with Lynn Rosetto Kasper.  That made me decide to get her then-latest cookbook, Mad Hungry Cravings – 173 Recipes for the Food You Want to Eat Right Now.  It’s a book that clicked with me immediately, and I turn to it again and again.  And yes, the meatloaf was awfully good, in case you’re wondering.

While it’s clear that Lucinda loves to cook, neither Mad Hungry Cravings nor its predecessor, Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys, starts with the premise that everyone reading them will love to cook all the time, the way most cookbooks do.  It’s a refreshing attitude.  Instead, the idea that emerges is that people want good food for themselves and their families.   Cooking is a great way to do this, because you have more control over what goes in your food that way.  It’s something she takes seriously, growing up in a family of six and cooking for her own family of five.  “It can be a joy to make food for the family, but everything in the books has to be bulletproof,” she told me.  “People won’t make anything else from them if one recipe doesn’t work.”

She definitely has the experience to make that happen.  First, starting out as a restaurant line cook at 16, then moving through various chef, cooking, and food writing jobs.  And up until about six months ago, she was Executive Director of Food and Entertaining at Martha Stewart Omnimedia.  She left that job to pursue the Mad Hungry concept as a resource to encourage people to do more cooking at home.  Her third Mad Hungry book, out in September, takes on this task in a big way.  Lucinda pours her years of cooking for her family – and teaching her sons to cook for themselves as well – into an examination of why we cook for ourselves and others.  Especially these days when there are potentially so many options for food.

I asked Lucinda for a half hour of her time, and ninety minutes later I felt like we still could have kept talking.  Of all the food and wine conversations I’ve had so far, this post was the most difficult to write up.  Not for lack of material, but in deciding what to leave out.  I hope you’ll have as much fun reading it as I did talking with her.

———————-

I really love Mad Hungry Cravings.  Especially the recipes for food that I’d either be eating out or ordering as take-out.  It’s great to be able to make them at home.  What made you decide to create home recipes for take-out food?  Living in New York we have take-out everywhere, and with kids of course they’d try everything they could get their hands on.  Especially once they were a little older and had some money in their pockets.  Some of that food is really good quality, but the aim of take-out places is to make it taste good and make it in volume.  That likely means a lot of salt, fat, etc.

So these recipes will be better for you, first of all.  Yes, definitely, but they’ll taste better than most take-out, too.  Try eating take-out food slowly, you find that when the flavor first hits the front of your palate it probably tastes pretty good.  But by the time you swallow it, it’s kind of yucky on the back end.  So the solution is to just keep shoveling it in to keep that bad flavor away.  But if you use the best ingredients you can at home and coax the flavor out of them, it’s just so much better.

And how do you coax the flavor out?  It’s really a matter of technique – a bunch of things I’ve picked up being in the food and cooking business for so many years.  Nothing is really complicated, but it also allows you to use things you probably have on hand or can find in your local supermarket.  In fact, as I get older, I like investigating the simplicity of each ingredient instead of piling them on.

I was really impressed with the two Indian recipes I tried, the Chicken Tikka Masala and the Vegetable Biryani.  Was it tough to get them to taste the way you wanted them without a lot of different spices?  I’m happy to hear you say that.  My husband spent time in India so I worked hard to get those right with a more critical audience across the table.  It was great to be able to nail big flavors with ingredients in the cupboards at home.   With the Chicken Tikka Masala, just blooming the spices in the oil after cooking the onion made all the difference.  It’s not anything unusual, but a lot of recipes skip that step – and not just for Indian food.  So I found I could keep the spices down to Garam Masala, cumin, and cayenne pepper instead of a whole bunch of them.  Making a spice/ginger/onion paste with coconut milk in the blender was the key to more flavor in the Biryani.

Lucinda's Mad Hungry Cravings is a book I turn to often.

Lucinda’s Mad Hungry Cravings is a book I turn to often.

What are some of the other techniques and ingredients you found made the food taste better?  For what I call “Fake-out Flautas,” preheating the sheet pan means they’ll come out really crispy without frying them or even using more than a little bit of oil.  When you’re using the oven for things like these instead of frying, brush the food lightly with oil rather than oiling the baking sheet.  You’ll use a lot less oil that way.  Then two random ones:  first, food professionals have been taking fish sauce for granted for years now, to add a little more oomph to dishes without tasting fishy.  And finally, something as simple as pouring an herb vinaigrette over hot lamb chops, or really, any broiled or grilled meat or fish gives you a huge flavor hit, too, and the herbs smell fantastic.  You’re drooling by the time you tuck in.

When I e-mailed you about doing this interview your response told me that you really, really like wine.  How did that start for you?  At first it came through food.  I had a job as a line cook in a restaurant at 16.  When I was 18 I took a trip around the UK and tasted Claret, which I really enjoyed.  Then, after college I went on my own to France and made a food tour, starting in Paris and ending up in Savoie and Alsace.  I was already a food person but the trip made me a wine person too.  I made it my business to find the best wine I could wherever I was.  And a lot of the time, the best wine was the Vin du Pays rather than something more exalted.  One sip at a time, I began to understand what I liked.

Was wine a part of eating as you were growing up?  My family comes from Calabria and my great-grandfather was a food purveyor for workers on the Erie Canal around Rome, NY.  Family events have always had a bunch of food and wine.  Just what you’d expect in a big Italian family.  But in terms of wine at home, my father was an old-school Italian wine snob.  He had a cellar of high-end wines with tags that said “Yes” or “No,” for OK to drink or keep your hands off.   One of my brothers brought the last of the “No” bottles to a family birthday event not long ago.

So wine was a serious thing for your father?  Absolutely.  I first realized it wasn’t just any old beverage to him when I was 14, before I was drinking wine.  Dad came home and went to the cellar, then asked my mother where a particular bottle was.  She and her friends had drunk a vintage Lafite, and he definitely wasn’t happy about it.  I don’t want to make him seem like a dictator or anything, because he wasn’t — it’s just that very good wine was important to him.  But his attitude toward wine became part of my overall rebellion and I decided to learn what I liked without being told what that ought to be.

It sounds like an excellent way to rebel and learn about yourself at the same time.  There was also some rebellion against the whole Italian patriarchal thing I grew up with.  My father thought wine was a man’s game – those good bottles went to my brothers, not me.  Unfortunately, I still see some male-centric attitude about wine today.

How so?  You haven’t met me, so you don’t know I have a big nose – maybe that’s the reason I’m really sensitive to off-odors and flavors in wine.  If I’m out at a restaurant and I order a wine that I think is off or oxidized when I taste it, I’m more likely to get pushback from the server about it than if a man at the table orders the wine and complains about it.  I’m not sure why that is, but it has happened enough that I notice it.  And it’s made me think as a woman about how I’m going to say something when it happens, which is kind of silly, because I’m a polite person and of course I’m not going to be rude.

That’s crazy – and really poor service, too.  But I understand about being more flavor-sensitive.  I’m also pretty sensitive to some off-flavors, particularly oxidation.  It once put me in an unpleasant situation at a dinner at an expensive restaurant with people I didn’t know very well.   It certainly can make things awkward.  A few years ago my family had dinner at the home of a famous movie star – our families have known one another a long time, it’s not like we’re intimate friends with a movie star, blah, blah – and we were all in the kitchen cooking.  The actor asked what we’d like to drink.  I am a fanatic for French Burgundies, so I figured he’d have one and asked for it.  Well, he brought up a bottle of Domaine Romanée-Conti from his cellar.  Like it was nothing.  My eyes just about popped out of my head.  The trouble was, it was corked.  Not extremely bad, but I could taste it.  And I had to tell him.

Wow, a sad thing to have a corked DRC, but it makes a great story.  Any other wine moments that stand out for you?  There’s one about not drinking wine while pregnant, which of course we rightly have as advice.  When I was pregnant with my second son, my husband, older son, and I were in a village outside of Lucca having dinner.  I was drinking water, not wine.  The old patroness of the restaurant tried to get me to drink the wine, which I’m sure was delicious, and I kept saying no.  Finally, she brought a glass with a cut-up peach in it covered in wine to entice me.  She couldn’t believe that anyone wouldn’t want to drink the wine!

Well, you probably would have if you hadn’t been pregnant!  I’m guessing you don’t drink great Burgundies every day.  What do you look for in everyday wines?  I wish I could drink them every day!  One of my sons worked in Burgundy for a little while – one day after he came home we were out shopping and I suggested he pick out some wine at a store we passed.  He was pulling down $50 bottles because those were the kind of wines he was drinking like water over there.  I had to put a $20 cap on him.  So a lot of times we get Bordeaux blends and Rhône blends.  For me they’re the best value in that price range with enough complexity to drink on their own or with food.

Let’s talk about the philosophy of your new book, Mad Hungry Family.  From your description on the Mad Hungry site, it goes beyond just feeding ourselves.  I have been thinking after the shooting in Orlando that our kitchens are safe havens, among their other roles.  They provide a kind of connective tissue for family and community.  They’re an anchor, in a way.  So I’m not sure why people want to spend less time in them.  I recently saw an ad for a food delivery service that said, “Cooking Is So Jersey.”  [For those of us outside NYC, this is a phrase we don’t see — as you can imagine, it implies that New Yorkers have much better things to do with their time to even consider cooking.]  That night, I said to my husband, what’s next?  Are they going to crawl into bed with us, chew our food, and spit it into our mouths?

Only if we let them in!  What do you think of the services that bring you portioned ingredients but you cook it yourself?  My husband and I tried one on and off for a few months.  I liked that it pushed me to things I wouldn’t necessarily have made, but I found it limiting after a while, which seems kind of odd considering that menu variety was a reason I liked it.   Not really – because part of cooking for you is deciding what to make, getting the ingredients, and preparing them.  I think the once-a-week box could be a good way to get people started cooking.  Especially for people who wouldn’t do it at all otherwise.  But they leave out the idea of budgeting for your food, plus they’re expensive.  Ten dollars per person per meal may not sound like much, but you can make a lot of food for that amount of money.

Lucinda told me this ad for a take-out delivery service made her even more determined to promote home cooking. As you can imagine, the ad didn't run outside the five boroughs of New York. I wonder what ad they'll use in New Jersey.

Lucinda told me this ad for a take-out delivery service made her even more determined to promote home cooking. As you can imagine, the ad didn’t run outside the five boroughs of New York. I wonder what ad they’ll use in New Jersey.

That’s true, especially once you have a little experience under your belt.  You don’t have to be wealthy to enjoy good food at home.  Few things have made me happier than seeing my sons cooking on their own for themselves and for friends, budgeting for food, buying some staples, and cooking out of their pantries, no matter how small.

Best of all, they’ll know how to pay that forward in the future.  Thank you so much for talking with me!  I really enjoyed it – but you’re making me want a glass of rosé and I have a meeting in less than an hour!

—————-

It was tough picking just one of Lucinda’s recipes to use.  But part of our discussion was riffs on recipes, so I thought I’d include one that I had put my own spin on.  Lucinda calls her Spinach Zucchini Lasagna “1970s redux,” and it is – it’s something I remember seeing back then, when vegetarian food had to be smothered in cheese.  It’s a béchamel-based dish with two layers of something like creamed spinach, and a top layer of browned, sliced zucchini.  Delicious as is, but one day I decided I wanted a layer of eggplant between the spinach and zucchini.  And since the dish was creamy already, I decided to use a little tomato sauce in the eggplant layer instead of more cream sauce.  It added a nice zip.  I told Lucinda about it and she liked the idea, so you have her recipe below with my variation as an option.

Lucinda browns her zucchini in a skillet, but I roast them, particularly if I’m also using eggplant – the oven is on anyway and I can get everything else done while they’re in there.  Put nonstick mats or parchment on two baking sheets.  Lightly brush the vegetables on both sides with olive oil and put them in the oven for about 30 minutes, until lightly browned.

I like a medium-bodied red with this dish, and Domaine de Mairan Cabernet Franc ($13) fits the bill nicely.  It doesn’t have the green pepper flavor you sometimes find in Cabernet Franc, just nice fruit and enough tannins to interact with the milk and cheese.  Plus it’s a Vin du Pays, so I know the rebellious Lucinda would approve!

Cheers!

Tom

Spinach Zucchini Lasagne (with Eggplant Variation)

Serves 8

From Mad Hungry Cravings, by Lucinda Scala Quinn.  Reprinted with the author’s permission, and courtesy of Artisan Books.

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped

2 teaspoons coarse salt

2 pounds baby spinach

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 quart whole milk

1 packed cup grated Parmesan cheese

¾ teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg

¼ teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

2 medium zucchini (about 1 pound), sliced lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick planks

8 ounces no-boil lasagna noodles

6 ounces mozzarella, shredded

1/3 packed cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F with a rack in the middle position.  Heat a large pot over medium-high heat.  Add 1 tablespoon of the oil.  When it shimmers, add the onions and ½ teaspoon of the salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, about 3 minutes.

Add the spinach, a few handfuls at a time, to the pot and cook, stirring frequently, until wilted, 3 to 5 minutes.  Transfer the spinach to a mesh strainer set over a bowl and press against it with a wooden spoon to remove as much liquid as possible.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over high heat.  Add the flour and cook, whisking constantly, until the roux is golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes.  Add the milk, whisking, and continue whisking until the sauce begins to boil and thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.  Remove from the heat and stir in the Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt, the nutmeg and pepper.  Cover with plastic wrap pressed against the surface.

Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Working in batches, add the zucchini and cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side.  Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain and sprinkle with the remaining ½ teaspoon salt.

To assemble:  Spread 1 cup of the cream sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.  Arrange one-third of the noodles over the sauce in a single, overlapping layer.  Top with 1 cup sauce and half the spinach.  Repeat with a second layer of noodles, sauce, and spinach.  Top with the remaining noodles, remaining sauce, zucchini, mozzarella, and Pecorino.

Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil and continue baking for 15 minutes longer, until the cheese is golden in places and the lasagna is bubbling around the edges.  Remove from the oven and let stand for 20 minutes before slicing and serving.

Eggplant Variation

In addition to the ingredients above you’ll need:

2 baby eggplant (about 8 ounces each), trimmed and sliced lengthwise into ¼ inch planks

3-4 extra no-boil noodles (enough for an overlapping layer)

1 cup good tomato sauce

4 extra ounces shredded mozzarella (10 ounces total)

Put another rack below the middle rack when preheating the oven.  Line two baking sheets with Silpats or parchment.  Put the eggplant and zucchini slices each on their own sheet, brush the slices lightly with olive oil on both sides, and sprinkle with salt.  Put the vegetables in the oven for about 30 minutes, until lightly browned.  Remove the sheets from the oven and set them aside until assembly.

Put the dish together as directed through the two spinach layers.  Make a layer of noodles, then spread the cup of tomato sauce over them.  Top with the eggplant slices, and about 4 ounces of the shredded mozzarella.  Then put on the remaining layer of noodles, the last of the cream sauce, the zucchini, remaining mozzarella, and Pecorino.  Bake as directed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Cookbook Author Interviews, Lucinda Scala Quinn, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eat at the restaurant, but don’t necessarily buy the cookbook

If only they really were always "easy" -- restaurant cookbooks often have complications and may seem as though the recipes were never tested in a home kitchen.

If only they really were always “easy” — restaurant cookbooks often have complications and may seem as though the recipes were never tested in a home kitchen.

Spending time interviewing authors of some of my favorite cookbooks has made me think a lot about cookbooks in general.  Why do I like some and not others?  I asked a bunch of friends about books they enjoy and cook from, and those they bought hoping to enjoy but didn’t in the end.  The likes were all over the board – different cuisines, TV chefs, classics – but the disappointments mostly fell into one category:  cookbooks from famous restaurants.

I got pages and pages of complaining e-mails about restaurant cookbooks.  It isn’t because my friends can’t cook.  I’d put them up against any team of amateur cooks anywhere.  But it turns out the reasons for dislike distill down to two things:  some of these books are just not made for home kitchens, and some don’t feel like they came from the restaurant listed on the cover.

By far, though, the first reason predominates.  I don’t know if the authors didn’t try the recipes at home (or pay recipe testers to do it), but some of the recipes just don’t work out when you try to make them, even following the directions to the letter.  I’m not talking about the obvious candidates here, like the super-artisan-niche ones or molecular gastronomy books.  They were probably intended as coffee-table books rather than cookbooks.  And they’ve spawned a cottage industry of bloggers who spend a lot of time trying to make the recipes work and publishing the results.

No, I’m talking about books from great restaurants that just don’t make sense.  And in addition to the disappointment of the recipes not working well, you have likely spent a lot of money on pricey ingredients.

So here are my eight ways that restaurant cookbooks can make for a less-than-stellar home experience.  I’m not naming names here, since most of these complaints applied to more than one book.  First up, those that show that the book never saw a home kitchen on the way to the publisher:

1.  Ingredient lists in fractions of grams. I always like to see ingredients by weight.  But when you see fractions of grams, that’s a red flag.  Most kitchen scales only go down to 2-gram increments.  When you see something like 3.7 grams of salt, you can be pretty sure someone sat there with a calculator and just cut down a big restaurant recipe to make it serve four or eight people.  I find this is more of a problem with baking books than cookbooks.

I know that you can buy scales that will measure more precisely, but a quick survey of my friends showed that few of us have them.  And in any case, would 4 grams ruin a recipe that calls for 3.7?  If not, then why not use 4?  I could see it if that fraction of a gram made it a level teaspoon or half-teaspoon, but generally it doesn’t.

2.  There’s a photo showing shapes, things, or ingredients not listed in the recipe, even as alternatives. Presentation is a big part of the restaurant experience, and it often looks like dishes shown in photos from restaurant cookbooks were taken right there at the restaurant.  Lovely (usually) and perhaps even inspirational.  Except when the photos show things that contradict or aren’t found in the recipe.  Like a pasta restaurant cookbook where the pasta shape in the photo is completely different than the one the recipe instructs you to make.  You’re making the pasta for the dish, not buying it, so you’d think they’d at least try to get that right.  In other cases, a mysterious sauce magically appears.  Or there are clearly recognizable things in or on the dish – like nuts, for example – that aren’t in the ingredient list.  Maybe the recipe will still work, but couldn’t they have photographed the home recipe version?

3.  Too many complicated sub-recipes. Yes, many great books have sub-recipes apart from the main recipe.  Like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for example.  That book was designed for home cooking, and the sub-recipes fit well with the main recipes.  But for a lot of restaurant recipes, the sub-recipes are way more difficult.  The chef has plenty of people making those complicated things and probably doesn’t give it a second thought.  And the book editor doesn’t want the main recipe to look too complicated, so we get the truly difficult parts shunted off so we don’t notice them right away.   I’ll resort to sub-points to list three of the ways this becomes infuriating.

(a) The sub-recipes aren’t easily divisible and make vast quantities of something, and then the main recipe uses only a small bit of it. What are you supposed to do with the rest of it, especially if it’s perishable?  (Believe me, it’s not always obvious.)  Either you have no instruction or a way-too-cheery list of the other recipes in the book that you can use it in – assuming you’re going to make any of them, that is.

(b) Some of the sub-recipes take hours, which pushes the full recipe into days, not just hours, to make. Of course, we all should read everything carefully before we begin.  But for really long lead-times it would help if there was something up-front that listed the time required to make the recipe and all its parts.

(c) Sometimes sub-recipes contain “ingredients” that should really be additional sub-recipes. But for some reason they’re lumped in together, with one hugely long step telling you how to make this “ingredient.”  I suspect, again, this is so things don’t look too complicated on first glance.  Or perhaps the publisher was trying to save on printing costs.

4.  Bad math. Often when a restaurant recipe gets cut down, someone forgets to do the division on all the relevant numbers.  Or, things just don’t add up.  A friend sent me this example:  Slow cook 3 onions in 8 cups of oil for 10 hours, and the yield is 5 cups.  Really?  The three onions are going to cook down to maybe 2 cups at most, and the oil isn’t going to evaporate, so how do you end up with 5 cups?  Maybe it’s a reverse loaves-and-fishes miracle, and stuff just magically disappears.

I'd expect a place like Alinea to have a cookbook that most mere mortals couldn't easily use at home. In fact, it has at least one blog devoted entirely to deciphering it. But you should expect restaurant cookbooks to work when you try the recipes at home.

I’d expect a place like Alinea to have a cookbook that most mere mortals couldn’t easily use at home. In fact, it has at least one blog devoted entirely to deciphering it. But shouldn’t you expect less exotic restaurant cookbooks to work when you try the recipes at home?

5.  Weird or wrong pan sizes/shapes. This seems to happen more often with dessert books, but not always.  There are a few ways it plays out.  Do you have an 11 x 4-inch baking pan?  Nope, me neither.  And I’m not going to buy it so I can try one recipe I may or may not like.  Then, I’ve tried recipes where there’s too much batter for the listed pan.  Maybe restaurant baking pans have higher sides?  You’d think they’d try the recipe in a home pan, though, even just for kicks.  Or the cake recipe makes a thin batter but says to bake it in something like a bundt pan – which means it won’t bake properly and you’ll never get it out of the pan intact.

In non-dessert recipes, I’ve sometimes found that the pan is too big.  Like for roasting chicken with potatoes and vegetables.  Obviously, the restaurant roasts multiple chickens on a large pan with a ton of vegetables around them.  But then the home recipe cuts down to one chicken and much less vegetables, but still asks you to use a too-large pan.  The result:  burnt vegetables by the time the chicken is barely cooked.  (I realize you could also categorize this as bad math, but I like having a longer list…)

6.  No (or grudgingly-given) alternatives for exotic ingredients. Part of the reason we eat out is to have things we can’t get or won’t make at home.  So I have a tiny bit of sympathy when a chef tells you that some exotic ingredient is an absolute necessity.  However, if it’s nearly impossible to source (even online), only comes in industrial-size quantities at enormous cost, or appears in only one or two of the book’s recipes, find something else to use.  And please, don’t be a jerk about it.  You can tell us it won’t be quite the same and encourage us to try to find the right stuff, but spare us the snark.  Because if I try the recipe with the alternative and like it, I’m more likely to find and buy the real ingredient you asked for.

These last two fall into the category of not being representative of the restaurant rather than the recipes not working properly at home.

7.  Signature dishes not included. Here’s an example.  I was lucky enough to travel for work to a southwestern U.S. city with a lot of great restaurants and went to one in particular a few times.  I asked for the cookbook as a Christmas present, but found that two of the things I ate – considered staples of the restaurant – weren’t included in the book.

Seriously?  I could understand if the book were an old one and a dish was a fairly new addition to the menu.  Or, if it’s outrageously complicated and difficult, then it might be a good move.  But if not, what’s the deal?  Are you trying to protect a mail-order business or make sure people keep coming back?  Is there something in there that shouldn’t be, like an endangered species?  Or maybe it’s not really the chef’s recipe and he or she can’t get reprint permission?  (I’m picturing a former employee who developed that recipe and is letting the chef keep using it, but will sue chef’s ass off if it’s in the restaurant book.)

8.  No wine/beverage information. Of course, I had to get something about wine in here, but it’s legit.  If wine or cocktails are an important part of what the restaurant offers, then we should get some drink recipes or wine recommendations.  I realize that specific wine pairings can be a turn-off if they’re too hoity-toity.  Plus, every restaurant wants to seem on top of current trends – while Zweigelt is hot today, it might seem lame in a year when we’re on to the next trendy red.

Still, if the chef has discovered a terrific pairing for a recipe, why not tell us?  Or why not have a chapter about the wines and other drinks you serve, how they fit in with the food, etc.?  Generally they’re not shy about sharing their concepts (or “point of view,” as they say on TV) when it comes to food, so why not with wine, beer, and cocktails?

Thanks to all who gave me ideas for the post.  After I compiled the list, I spoke to a friend who is also a chef.  He gave me a piece of advice that I think works for everyone who has been burned by restaurant (or non-restaurant) cookbooks:  Browse the new book for a couple of recipes for things you know how to make and look at them carefully.  If the versions you see don’t make sense, then don’t buy the book.  And I’ve got a suggestion for the chefs/authors.  There will be errors and omissions even if you’re scrupulously careful, so put some contact information in the book for questions or possible corrections.  Post answers to the frequently asked questions on your website, along with a separate page for recipe corrections.  We’ll all be grateful – and maybe that will lead to a second edition with the opportunity to put the corrections in.

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At this point, I should as a good blogger give you a recipe I’ve made from a restaurant cookbook I like and have tweaked to make my own.  Well, I’m just back from being away for 12 days and my mind hasn’t recovered from jet lag yet.  So perhaps in a couple of posts, but not this time…

A few weeks ago I was watching Pati Jinich’s TV show, Pati’s Mexican Table.  In this episode, she went to the home of one of her long-time viewers and cooked a meal with her.  Together, they made a chicken, chile, and pasta dish that reminded me of one of my old standbys from way back – pasta risotto.

We’re normally told to boil pasta in a large quantity of salted water.  The pasta releases starch, which makes the thin pasta water a great addition to sauces when you add the pasta to them to finish cooking.  But if you cook the pasta in a lot less liquid, the starch makes its own sauce with the liquid.  Taking it a step further, you can cook the pasta like risotto, adding the liquid a little at a time until it’s absorbed, stirring to release the starch to make it creamy.  Be sure to toast the pasta in the olive oil first, and then add in some grated onion, garlic, tomato paste, and red pepper flakes before adding the liquid.  At the end, stir in the cheese and a little lemon juice to brighten everything up.

I used to make this as a side dish, but it’s a good, simple meatless meal if you serve it with a salad.  Eat it right after making it, though, it doesn’t sit around well.  I think it’s perfect with a complex white wine, like Cave la Romaine Viognier ($16).  You know I couldn’t let this post go by without a wine pairing, especially after giving the cookbook chefs a hard time!

Cheers!

Tom

Pasta Risotto

Serves 4 to 6

6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 pound dried tubular pasta, like ziti or penne (don’t use elbows here, they’re too soft)

½ cup good olive oil

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/3 cup grated onion (about half a small onion)

2 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

A large pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

2 – 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

½ cup (2 ounces) grated Parmesan

Heat the stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan.  In a Dutch-oven or a heavy pot of similar size, heat the olive oil over medium heat until it’s just shimmering.  Add the pasta and turn the heat up to medium-high.  Stir and cook until the pasta is just starting to brown on the edges.  Stir in the onion, garlic, herbs, salt, and pepper flakes to coat, cook for about 30 seconds.  Lower the heat to medium-low.

Add the hot stock, one ladle-full at a time, and stir until the liquid is almost completely absorbed before adding the next ladle-full.  Adjust the heat to keep it at a simmer while the pasta cooks.  Cook until the pasta is al dente, cooked but not thoroughly soft.  This will take at least 15 minutes, but likely no more than 20.  Turn off the heat, stir in 2 teaspoons of lemon juice, then the cheese.  Taste for salt and lemon juice, and serve immediately.

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