Cookbook author wine talk with Pati Jinich

Pati Jinich, cookbook author and host of "Pati's Mexican Table" on PBS. She's a natural on TV, and every bit as nice in person.

Pati Jinich, cookbook author and host of “Pati’s Mexican Table” on PBS. She’s a natural on TV, and every bit as nice in person.

Cy and I have never had cable TV, so we’ve always been big PBS watchers.  When digital TV came and we suddenly could watch PBS cooking shows every night, we discovered “Pati’s Mexican Table,” hosted by Pati Jinich.  We loved it from the first episode we saw. Cy and I both thought that she was someone born to teach cooking on TV from the get-go, even with no previous TV experience.  And it’s not just us.  Her fans also include Sara Moulton, one of TV’s best cooks and teachers, so that’s saying something.

Pati and her family live here in the DC area.  For nine years now, Pati has been the chef and teacher for Mexican Table, a culinary program dedicated to showcasing the diversity of Mexico’s cuisines, presented at the DC Mexican Cultural Institute.  Cy and I first got to meet her there, and were delighted to learn that she is every bit as warm and welcoming in person.  And funny and charming and, really, I’m going to have to stop because I’ll just go on and on.  (Seriously, she has that effect on people.  You can listen NPR’s Ari Shapiro glowing about her here.)  And, of course, her food is fantastic.  The Mexican Table classes get repeat attendees year after year (including us now).  Pati says this made her dig even more deeply into research on Mexico’s culinary history and the food of the individual regions and cities.  She’s a native of Mexico City, and didn’t start cooking until she came to the US about 20 years ago.  But her former career as a political/policy analyst and historian gave her the opportunity to travel all over Mexico and, luckily for all of us, begin learning about food across the country.

At a DC event for Pati's new book, "Mexican Today," she told us that the Food Network was interested in her show -- provided she dyed her hair, got a dog, and lost her accent. Luckily for us, she went to PBS instead.

At a DC event for Pati’s new book, “Mexican Today,” she told us that the Food Network was interested in her show — provided she dyed her hair, got a dog, and lost her accent. Luckily for us, she went to PBS instead.

Pati’s second book, Mexican Today, was released last month.  And last week she had a book tour event at the Mexican Cultural Institute, hosted by Bonnie Benwick, Deputy Food Section Editor of the Washington Post.  The interview gave us some insight into her life, and also about cooking on TV.  For example, before she signed with PBS, the Food Network came calling.  But they wanted her to dye her hair red (better on camera), get a dog to round out her already TV-adorable family, and work with a voice coach to lose her accent.  Luckily, she didn’t do them.  (Nothing against dogs, but I’m a cat person.)  Even on PBS, though, she says it took a few seasons for her to be able to be entirely herself.   This, in turn, led to James Beard and Emmy award nominations, all well-deserved.

When I approached Pati about a wine discussion, she told me right away that she’s not a wine expert, so she wasn’t sure she’d have a lot to say.  As you can see, though, she definitely has insight.  I started writing my notes up from our conversation just before her book event last week, and was lucky that Bonnie Benwick asked most of my follow-up questions (and let me use the answers here).  What follows is a condensed version of our conversation, plus follow-up.  I hope it’s as much fun for you as it was for me!


Pati's first book, "Pati's Mexican Table" has many of the recipes she missed once she moved to the US.

Pati’s first book, “Pati’s Mexican Table” has many of the Mexican recipes she missed once she moved to the US.

Your first book, Pati’s Mexican Table, is one of my kitchen staples.  While it’s not completely traditional, you focused on foods that have a history for you and seem deeply rooted in Mexico.  Was it important to you to write the book that way?  When I started writing the first book in 2009-2010, I wanted it to be about Mexican food in Mexico.  I felt it was important to represent the culture, as someone who grew up in Mexico City and also has lived in the U.S. for a long time.  Also, I didn’t start cooking until after I moved to the U.S., and these were the foods I found I missed.  Some of the recipes are traditional, some are newer, and they’re from all over Mexico.  But of course I had to include my childhood favorites from Mexico City.

You seem so completely at home in the kitchen and are really good at teaching through your show and recipes.  It’s a little surprising that you didn’t grow up cooking.  A lot of people say that, and I tell them I was really good at eating growing up!

Did you get a chance to have food from all over Mexico from early on?  Yes, but my first real exposure to food from all over the country was when I worked on a political analysis project and traveled to talk to people in the governments of the states in Mexico.  I ate so much and loved it.  Looking back, I didn’t have any idea I’d be making many of those foods later on.

And have some of them found their way into the new book?  They have.  And I keep learning new things every time I go back.  Even if I’ve visited a city or region a dozen times, I’ll discover something new and wonder, “How did I never see this before?”  So I wanted to include some regional recipes.  But I’ve also focused on new things, and also foods that we’ve pulled into Mexico and put our own flavors into.  Like macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, pizza, and hot dogs.  And then there are lots of things I make for my family, especially dishes that I can pull together in a hurry when we’re all over the place in different directions.

So the title, Mexican Today, reflects all those things?  Yes, exactly!  Plus, the idea that Mexican food today is very exciting, and it changes all the time.  When I started cooking programs for the Mexican Cultural Institute, I began researching the origins of the food in different regions.  Like the U.S. we have Asian, African, and European influences in the food.  But the pace of combination along with “traditional” Mexican food is just amazing now.

When you started the books and the show, did you have trouble getting ingredients, especially here in the DC area?  I worried when the first book came out that people might not be able to find some of the ingredients.  But not for the second book.  Latin and international communities are demanding the ingredients and there’s a real market for them now.  I still can’t get everything in one store, but I can find almost everything.  There are only maybe five things I can’t get here.

What are they?  Acitrón (candied cactus heart), fresh avocado leaves, and some of the Recados – seasoning pastes from the Yucután – which are very specific and delicious, but which you can easily buy in Mexico.  Also fresh Hoja Santa and Epazote.  Although last year Johnson’s (a local DC nursery) got me plants and I grew them myself.  But you still can’t buy them in markets here.

I spent a lot of time in Mexico City doing environmental work in the 1990s and early 2000s.  I rarely saw customers drinking wine in restaurants, even the fanciest ones.  Has that changed?  Absolutely!  Wine drinking has really taken off in the past 8 or 9 years.  Mostly at tablecloth restaurants rather than taquerias, but really, all over the place.

Has the jump in drinking wine also come with an increase in wine production in Mexico?  There has been a crazy surge in winemaking in Mexico.  Much better than when I was a kid.  And you’re even starting to see some of them here in the U.S., like Monte Xanic.

What’s your favorite Mexican winery/vineyard?  I love Casa Madero.  Although it’s not a new winery – it’s one of the oldest in Mexico, going back to the Spanish – it’s has very modern wines.  The 3V is my favorite, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo.

I have to ask you about pairing red wine and Mexican food.  On one hand, there are wine experts who say that the tannins in the chiles interact with red wine tannins in a way that leaves you with more heat and less flavor.  Yet in your cooking classes at the Mexican Cultural Institute, you tell us how much you enjoy red wines with Mexican foods.  I do love red wines with Mexican foods.  Maybe the issue with the chiles is more with Mexican food in the U.S., because there are like 20 different varieties of chiles that you’ll find in Mexican food in Mexico.  They all have different flavors and intensities.  Strong and complex wines definitely work with Mexican foods.

In our conversation, Pati told me this is one of her favorite Mexican wines: 3V from Casa Madero.

In our conversation, Pati told me this is one of her favorite Mexican wines: 3V from Casa Madero.

I also remember you telling us that Mexicans use a lot less cumin than we do in the U.S. for Mexican food.  I’ve always thought cumin can be tough to pair with red wine.  Do you think this might have something to do with the perception that red wine and Mexican food don’t mix?  That’s interesting.  There is a lot of cumin in Mexican food here, although that seems to be changing.  Honestly, I think they’re just choosing the wrong wines!

What are your favorite wines with Mexican food?  I like big reds, and especially Spanish wines like Tempranillo and Grenache.  And also others like Syrah, and of course the 3V.  One of the things I talk about in the new book is how we in Mexico like to take food and make it even more flavorful.  There’s even a word for it – sabrosear.  It also means to have fun.  But you’ll need a big wine.  It’s like watching two wrestlers, you don’t want to have a match between a big guy and a small guy.  With really flavorful food, wine can seem like an afterthought or even a nuisance to me if it’s too weak.

How about white wines?  I like white wines with tacos because whites are so refreshing.  And that really goes well with tacos for me.  Not that there can’t be complex, layered flavors in tacos.  But cool and refreshing wines work with the different flavors and textures.  Lately I’ve really been enjoying Russian River whites.

Back to a couple of food questions.  What do you like to eat when you’re traveling in the US?  I really love to stop in Mexican restaurants when we travel, it’s great to see how Mexican food has regional qualities in the U.S. too.  And to see what they’re doing with Mexican food these days.  But my kids are tired of it – they groan every time my husband and I turn the car into the parking lot of another Mexican place.  We all like Korean food, Italian, pretty much anything and everything.

And a question for people traveling to Mexico City.  When you visit, where are the places you have to go eat?  I mean the ones you’d go to right after you get off the plane.  There are two restaurants we always go to and they’ve been around forever.  The first is El Cardenal, it’s an old, established restaurant.  Traditional Mexican food, no shortcuts.  Delicious!  Then Klein’s, which is like a coffee shop/diner.  I have to eat the enchiladas with salsa verde when I’m there.

And then there’s ice cream.  Chiandoni is an old-fashioned ice cream parlor founded by Italian immigrants.  They make all kinds of flavors, including gelatos that use Mexican ingredients and flavors.  Especially pecans.  Most people here don’t realize it, but Mexico grows a lot of pecans, both for export and for eating in the country.  They’re fresh and delicious!

I had no idea – and I’ll certainly try them when I’m in Mexico again.  Thanks for talking with me, Pati, and for the tip on the fresh Hoja Santa!  My pleasure, Tom, and I hope you and Cy will be back at the next Mexican Table!


Pati and Tom

This photo of Pati and me was taken at the Mexican Cultural Institute in December 2013.  Pati served the Pork Tenderloin with Prune Sauce (recipe below) as part of a program showcasing the foods of the holiday season in Mexico.

I really enjoy cooking from Pati’s first book and I look forward to adding dishes from Mexican Today to my rotation.  But for this week’s recipe, I wanted to give you one that she made for one of the Mexican Table classes.  The subject was the end-of-year holiday season in Mexico, or Fiestas Decembrinas.  It runs from the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe on December 12 all the way through to February 2 (the family member who finds the toy version of the baby Jesus in his sweet bread on All King’s Day – January 6 — has to throw a tamal party that day).  One of the dishes Pati made was Pork Tenderloin in Prune Sauce.  I asked her permission to reprint it for you, and she graciously agreed.  She told us that while turkey is generally the meat of choice for Christmas in much of Mexico, there’s often a pork dish as well.  And holiday pork is served with a fruit sauce.  This one is great for the holidays, or any other time.  I make it for company a few times a year and everyone loves it.  And the leftovers are equally good.

Nothing in the recipe is difficult, but it takes some time – about two hours from start to finish.  Much of it is the pork cooking away in the oven by itself, so you’ll have time to make rice and such to serve with it.  A few things I’ve picked up in making the dish:  While the recipe calls for around 2-1/2 pounds of pork tenderloin, there’s enough sauce for more.  So if you can fit 3-1/2 or so pounds of tenderloin in a single layer in your Dutch oven, go ahead and do it.  Make one and a half times the spice rub for the pork, but use the same amount of sauce ingredients.  Also, while you can toast the chiles in a skillet on the stove, you can also do it in the oven.  You’re heating the broiler to char the tomatillos, onions, and garlic that go into the sauce anyway.  So it’s easy to put another rack near the bottom of the oven and toast the chiles on a small baking sheet.  Just keep an eye on them, because they can burn quickly.

I took Pati’s advice and paired the pork with a big red wine.  Domaine Sainte-Cécile du Parc’s Notes d’Orphée ($19) is 85% Syrah, 15% Cabernet Franc, and the fruit in the Syrah pairs really well with the prunes and Ancho chiles in the sauce.  Then there’s the little bit of freshness from the Cab Franc.  It’s a smooth wine, so no worries about tannin-induced heat. The wrestlers are well-matched here!



Pork Tenderloin in Prune Sauce

By Pati Jinich, reprinted with her permission

Serves 6-8

2 to 2-1/2 pounds pork tenderloin

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Rub ingredients

½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground allspice

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon brown sugar

Sauce ingredients

4 chiles anchos, stemmed and seeded

4 chiles guajillos, stemmed and seeded

2 cups pitted prunes (about 8 ounces)

5 cups water

½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt

¾ pound tomatillos, husked and rinsed (6 small or 4 medium)

6 unpeeled garlic cloves

Half of a large white onion, peeled

In a small bowl, combine the rub ingredients and rub all over the tenderloin.

Heat a comal or skillet over medium heat.  Once it is hot, lightly toast the chiles for about 20 to 30 seconds per side.  Place them in a medium sauce pan, along with the prunes.  Cover with the 5 cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat to medium and keep it at a steady simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Turn off the heat.

Place the tomatillos, onion, and garlic on a foil-covered baking sheet and place under the broiler anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes.  The ingredients should be completely charred on the outside, and soft.  The tomatillos should also be mushy and juicy.  Peel the garlic as soon as it is cool enough to handle and place it in the blender along with the onions, tomatillos, chiles, prunes, and the simmering liquid (plus any liquid from the vegetables on the baking sheet).  Add the ½ teaspoon of salt and puree until completely smooth.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large casserole or Dutch oven set over medium heat, heat the oil.  Once it’s hot but not smoking, brown the meat on all sides, for a total of about 8 minutes.  Reduce the heat to low, and pour in the pureed sauce.  It will sizzle and bubble.  Turn off the heat.  Make sure the meat is entirely surrounded with the sauce, under and over, and place the casserole, uncovered, in the oven.  Cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes, baste the meat once halfway through.  Take the casserole out of the oven.  Cover it, let it rest for 10 minutes, then slice and serve the meat with plenty of sauce.

Note on the tenderloin quantity:  this recipe makes enough sauce for more meat.  If your casserole can handle another tenderloin without crowding too much, go ahead and use it.  Make one and half times the spice rub amount, but use the same amount of sauce ingredients.  When you add the sauce to the pan, lift one of the tenderloins a little so you get a good sizzle from the sauce.

Note on toasting chiles:  Since I have to heat the broiler anyway, I toast the chiles in the oven.  Put another oven rack down near the bottom of the oven away from the broiler element, and put the chiles on a small pan.  Once the broiler is hot, put the pan on the low rack and toast for about a minute.  Check carefully to see that they’re not burnt.

Posted in Cookbook author wine talks, Pati Jinich, Pati's Mexican Table, Tom Natan, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The divide between wine industry and citizen bloggers

A note before you read this post:  I spent months thinking about it on and off.  And after I first wrote it, I shared it with my husband, a journalist friend, and a couple of wine bloggers.  I’ve never showed one of my posts to so many people before putting it out there before.  But I wanted to know if it was worth posting, and if it was whiny or self-indulgent.  Nearly everyone said yes to the former, and I’ve worked to remove any traces of the latter.  Still, it’s about my experience so you may think I didn’t succeed on that.  Fair enough.  I hope, though, that you’ll find some material for discussion.  And I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it.


Among wine writers, there's also a divide between wine industry bloggers and citizen bloggers. Sometimes too much of a divide.

Among wine writers, there’s also a divide between wine industry bloggers and citizen bloggers. I admit to chewing my fingernails before putting this post out, however.

The deadline for submission of nominees to the 2016 Wine Blog Awards passed a few weeks ago.  For the first time in six years, I didn’t submit this blog or any of the posts in it for consideration.

Obviously, this isn’t the most pressing issue these days.  “First World Problems” and “Sour Grapes” are the things that sprung to mind when I thought about writing this post.  I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like more recognition for the writing I do on this blog.  I mean, doesn’t everyone who writes?  But it brings up two issues about wine writers and the wine industry, and the weird relationship between them.  And yes, I admit up front that I’m going to vent a little about it.

The first is that all “wine industry” blogs seem to get treated as if they’re alike.  Last year, the Wine Blog Awards organizers made a decision that any blog written by someone in the wine industry could only be considered for one award:  Best Industry Blog.   I went ahead and submitted this blog and three individual posts for Best Industry Blog consideration.  Even though I knew ahead of time that I had very little chance of recognition.  The judging for the category is based in part on how well the blog helps enhance the relationship between consumers and the business.   As I’ve mentioned before, this blog doesn’t really do that, mostly because I don’t have the time or resources to devote to making it that way.

I probably should talk about terms here.  Wine industry blogs are blogs written by or on behalf of a particular entity that’s in the business of selling wine.  Think of Journey of Jordan, which is a particularly good one, and teaches readers a lot about winegrowing and winemaking.  Even if the message “Buy Our Wine!” doesn’t appear in every post.  Citizen blogs about wine are written by people who don’t have a direct interest in selling wine.  But they aren’t always far removed.  Plenty of what are called citizen blogs are written by people who have worked in the wine industry, or even now do things like PR for the wine industry, although they don’t explicitly blog about their clients.  Or about where they once worked.

Obviously, blogs supported by large wine companies will have access to a lot more hands and money to create content, take photos and videos, etc.  I’m sure that’s why the award organizers wanted to separate them out from the citizen bloggers.   And there’s also a desire to maintain the image of citizen bloggers as rebellious self-publishers avoiding the iron hand of print and broadcast media, flinging their voices into the world.  So the groups essentially get made into polar opposites with no middle ground.

I fall through the cracks.  Clearly I don’t have lots of money to spend on content geared toward selling more wine.  (And, if I really wanted my blog to drive wine sales, I wouldn’t be writing this post, because it’s not going to make some people happy.)  More than 80% of my blog is general wine talk and recipes.  But under the rules I’m an industry blogger, period.

This brings me to my second point:  The implication that I have less to contribute to the world of wine writing – or even wine discourse — simply because I sell wine.  When I tell other wine bloggers about my blog and my importing/retailing business, especially newbie bloggers, I can see some of them mentally categorizing me with car salespeople, shrinking away a bit so that I won’t wield my evil magic upon them.

It’s a déjà vu for me that I didn’t expect.  I find some of the same kind of attitude by wine writers and bloggers toward the wine industry that I saw in the environmental advocacy world toward the chemical and oil industries.  Granted, it’s not the same level – only the most extreme of wine writers accuse the wine industry of destroying the planet and poisoning people.

How can I tell this is happening?  More than once I’ve heard the word “shill,” as in, “Well, you have to shill for your business in your blog, don’t you?”  My response is that of course I’m going to say good things about the wines I import and sell.  I wouldn’t sell things I didn’t like.  But does it automatically invalidate everything else I have to say?

I've been accused of shilling as a wine writer.  But does that mean that no part of the blog is worthwhile?  (Photo on flickr by Chris Piascik)

I’ve been accused of shilling as a wine writer. But does that mean that no part of the blog is worthwhile? (Photo on flickr by Chris Piascik)

My feelings aren’t hurt by this, because I’m kinda too old to be worrying about it.  What does concern me is that while you don’t get the same kind of talk from more experienced bloggers, it’s clear that some experienced “citizen” wine writers also consider themselves apart from industry writers.  (The exceptions to the arms-length attitude toward industry are for bloggers who are also winemakers.  Obviously, they make wine to be sold and consumed, but they’re also treated like demi-gods.  Even when they work for some of the bigger wineries.  I suspect this is because most wine writers dream of becoming winemakers someday.)

Here’s an example.  Back in 2011 I applied for a fellowship to attend the Professional Wine Writers Symposium.  Since I didn’t work for a winery, and wasn’t a wine marketing or communications professional, I thought I’d be eligible to attend.  I submitted the five requested writing samples and I’m pretty sure I made it to the final round of consideration.  But I got an e-mail asking me if my wine writing had appeared anywhere other than my blog.  As it happened, a few of my blog posts had appeared on a short-lived food website, stripped of recipes and wine recommendations.  It was so short-lived, though, that I forgot about it, and said no.  I received a genuinely regretful response saying that since I didn’t write for a reason other than promoting my business, I wasn’t eligible to attend.

I’m not sure why the symposium organizers don’t want wine industry people there.  Perhaps it’s so that people feel freer to express their opinions, positive or negative.   Still, it perpetuates the idea that wine industry writers don’t belong in the same group with them, or that industry writers don’t have valuable things to contribute to professional wine writing.

You may disagree, and I certainly don’t consider my opinions the ultimate in discourse.   I have to say again, I don’t think this is a world-ender.  I do hope, though, that the Wine Blogger Awards organizers will think about a reorganization of the categories.  What gets recognized gets read – as well as the other way around.  And I hope that good content will be recognized, whatever the source.  Many of you who aren’t wine bloggers may be asking what this has to do with you, and for sure some of it is inside baseball.  But what happens in the blogging community at large has an impact on what everyone reads.


Since we’re getting our April showers in May and it’s a little chilly out, I’ve been making stews and chilis.  And Cy and I have been trying to eat less meat, so some of the chilis have been vegetarian.  My all-time favorite vegetarian chili recipe comes from Cook’s Illustrated.  It takes about four hours to make, though.  And it was designed to have a sensation of meatiness in it, which I don’t necessarily want when I’m trying not to eat meat.

So I played around with a bunch of vegetable-based recipes and combined all the things I like.  And it struck me that what I ended up with was really ratatouille with beans and the kinds of spices you typically find in chili.  Hence, the name Chilatouille.  Not terribly mellifluous, but it will have to do.

I’ve found that roasting the eggplant before you cook it with the other ingredients helps it keep a good texture.  And you can roast it while you’re sauteeing the other vegetables.  But I also don’t brown the zucchini, peppers, and onions, because I want them to keep their shape a bit and also not make the chili into an indistinguishable brown mass.

Finally, I like using whole cumin and fennel seeds, toasting them, and grinding them up.  You can obviously use already ground spices, but you’ll get more flavor this way.  And I also use some dried mint, which is a trick I picked up from Persian recipes.  It doesn’t add mint flavor, but it makes things a little brighter.

I think cumin is a tough spice to pair with red wine.  I like to serve Bodega Hiriart Sobre Lías Rosado ($16) with the chili.  It’s made by aging the rosé on the lees of Verdejo, a white grape that’s also included in the mix.  Aging on the lees gives the wine a bit more body, and Verdejo also contributes acidity.  It’s a plus in hot-weather rosés, because the Tempranillo and Grenache can lose acidity on the vine.  This way, all the grapes’ voices get to be appreciated😉




Serves 6-8

1-1/2 pounds baby eggplant (3 or 4), or an equivalent weight of Japanese eggplant, cut in 1-inch pieces

2 medium to large zucchini, trimmed, quartered lengthwise, and cut into ¾-inch slices

2 large onions, roughly chopped

1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 yellow or orange bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces

4 garlic cloves, chopped fine

1 tablespoon whole cumin seed

1 teaspoon whole fennel seed

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried mint

2 tablespoons chili powder

½ tablespoon ancho chili powder

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon mild smoked paprika

1-1/2 cups vegetable broth

2 15-oz cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes

1 15-oz can petite diced tomatoes

1 15-oz can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 15-oz can chick peas, drained and rinsed

1 15-oz can black beans, drained and rinsed

2-3 tablespoons lemon juice

Olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Prepare a baking sheet with a silpat mat or parchment paper.  In a large bowl, toss the eggplant with 2 tablespoons olive oil, and a quarter teaspoon each of salt and pepper.  Spread on the baking sheet and roast until the pieces are just browning, about 30 minutes.  Take the pan from the oven and set it aside.

While the eggplant roasts, put the cumin and fennel seeds into a small skillet.  Turn the heat to medium, and toast the seeds, shaking every 30 seconds or so.  Within a few minutes you’ll smell them and you’ll see a little bit of smoke.  Pour the seeds onto a plate and let them cool.

While you’re toasting the seeds, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven.  Add the zucchini and a little salt and pepper and cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until just soft.  Add a little more oil if you need it while the zucchini cooks.  Remove the zucchini to a bowl (the one you mixed the eggplant in is fine).  Add 4 more tablespoons of oil to the pot and saute the onion, bell peppers, and garlic, along with the oregano and mint, for about 10 minutes.

After a couple of minutes, grind the toasted cumin and fennel seeds in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder.  When the onions and peppers are soft but not browned, add the ground seeds to the pot, along with the chili powders, the cayenne, smoked paprika, and a teaspoon each of salt and black pepper.  Cook over medium heat for a minute or so, stirring constantly.  It should all smell wonderful.  Add the vegetable stock and scrape up the bottom of the pan to incorporate any spices that stuck there.  Add the zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure it’s not sticking to the pot.

Add the beans and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, and taste for salt and pepper.  Simmer for another 20 minutes.  Taste again and add more lemon juice if needed.  Serve hot or slightly warm with cheese, sour cream, and pickled jalapeño slices.


Posted in Tom Natan, Uncategorized, Wine blogging, Wine writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cookbook author wine talk with Dorie Greenspan

As someone who has tried to recreate the feeling of French food at home, I was excited to talk to Dorie Greenspan -- who has been doing just that in her cookbooks.

As someone who has tried to recreate the feeling of French food at home, I was excited to talk to Dorie Greenspan — who has been doing just that in her cookbooks.

When I decided to start interviewing cookbook authors about wine, I thought back on the last 20 years’ worth of cooking and baking books in my collection.  I’m hard-pressed to find someone who has given me more fun in the kitchen in that time without actually being in there with me than Dorie Greenspan.  My first of Dorie’s books was Baking with Julia, the companion to the PBS series with Julia Child.  While you don’t see her on camera, Dorie wrote the book and did much of the behind-the-scenes work on the show.  After making probably a dozen recipes from that book, I was on the lookout for more.  I think I have almost everything Dorie has written now, including her fun book on waffles.

I rotate cookbooks between the shelves just off my kitchen and space in the attic based on use.  Dorie’s books stay put near the kitchen.  Her Baking – From My Home to Yours is my go-to gift for friends who love to bake.  (Plus I got to meet her at a DC event promoting the book, so it’ll always be one of my favorites.)  And her latest two books, Around My French Table and Baking Chez Moi, celebrate the joys of French cooking and baking.  They both include recipes given to her by friends and neighbors in Paris, where Dorie and her husband live part-time.   From spending time in France over the past 15 years, I’ve come to realize that French people love to make delicious edibles to serve with wine and drinks.  Around My French Table has become my source for making those things.  Most of them taste complicated but are simple and quick.  Including a version of a Spanish tortilla – a sort of omelet with potatoes – that uses potato chips.  You won’t want to miss it!

I was really pleased that Dorie agreed to talk with me about food and wine.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve spent time trying to recreate the feeling of eating in France at home.  It was great to talk to someone who has helped lots of people do just that, and who can explain the trial and error it sometimes takes.  And I was also glad to hear she enjoys Rhône wines, since they were the gateway to my love of French wines.  As a food writer, she has taken some memorable trips that include wine, and it was a pleasure to talk about them.  Our conversation went over an hour and was great fun.  What follows is a condensed version.  Enjoy!


You live part-time in Paris, and at least three of your cookbooks have been about French food.  What is it that intrigues you about food in France?  A lot of people think of French food as kind of static, but it’s great to know that you can get old favorites nearly anywhere, sometimes with some updates.  I love that the traditional foods of France remain traditional, and that other flavors are coming in.  And not just from the places you’d think of, like North Africa and Vietnam.  I also love that my friends and neighbors in Paris, who come from all parts of France, make and share their family dishes.

I met Dorie in DC at an event for Baking -- From My Home to Yours. A colleague and I snuck out of work one afternoon to attend.

I met Dorie in DC at an event for Baking — From My Home to Yours. A colleague and I snuck out of work one afternoon to attend.

Was it difficult when you started adapting French recipes for American kitchens and ingredients?  It wasn’t as hard as you’d think, or even as hard as I thought it would be.  I settled on a rule:  the dish had to be delicious even if I had to make changes, and it had to bring back France when I ate it.

Are there any ingredients that you can’t get when you’re adapting a recipe?  With one exception, no – it’s amazing what we can get now.  I live part-time in southern Connecticut and found Thai eggplants at a local store.  That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago, maybe not even five years ago.  But the one thing that’s definitely different is flour.  French flour isn’t as strong as American flour, it doesn’t have as much protein.  So the French recipes won’t necessarily turn out as light and tender.

How do you handle the difference in flours?  Do you just use less all-purpose American flour?  I work on the recipes on a case-by-case (maybe I should say ‘cake-by-cake’) basis.  I always have American flour in my kitchen in Paris.  And, of course, all my recipes get tested in America.  What makes the process so frustrating is that in some recipes, it’s just fine to make an even one-for-one swap.  In others, nope.  But, as you guessed, when changes get made it’s usually to decrease the amount of American flour in the recipe.

What American foods do you make for your friends in Paris?  All kinds of things, really.  There’s an image of the French as being a little inflexible in their eating, but my friends are up for trying anything.  Recently I made salmon burgers and everyone loved them.  I couldn’t find Martin’s Potato Rolls so I had to use brioche.  (Not a bad problem to have, I guess.)  I’ve also made fried chicken, which of course everyone likes.  And not just classic American food:  I’ve made stuffed cabbage and things like chicken livers with soy, balsamic vinegar, Sriracha, and five-spice powder.

So I’m guessing that your memorable wine experiences have been French?  Yes, although I didn’t plan it that way.  I can think of two, and both involve Veuve Cliquot.  The first was getting a bottle from my birth year.  I not going to tell you the year, but it was a great experience!

And the second?   I was writing a story for Bon Appetit magazine and met with the chief winemaker at Veuve.  I was there in April and got invited to the big annual April tasting, where a bunch of people taste wines from the different vineyards and decide what’s going to go into that year’s blends.   It’s pretty intense, and there are a lot of people with long memories, including emeritus employees.  I’d hear things like “This is like the ’88,” etc.  It was great to be a fly on the wall.

One of the people tasting was a former head of the cave, 98 years old at the time.  He, in turn, was the son of another head of the cave from the early 20th century.  At the tasting, the chief winemaker told me in confidence that the 98-year-old’s father had made and saved a bottle of Veuve for his son there 98 years ago.  The chief winemaker had a plan:  Two years later, when the former head of the cave turned 100, the chief winemaker presented him with the bottle and they opened it with a group of winemakers.  The son had no idea this was coming, and lots of people kept it quiet for decades.  It was fun to be in on the secret.

Wow — it’s really touching that even at a big wine house like Veuve Cliquot they have a sense of family.  It’s true.  It was touching, and an honor to be part of it.

Where do you buy your wine in Paris?  I’m lucky to have a great wine store around the corner from me.  It’s called La Dernière Goutte.  The owner, Juan Sanchez, is an American who’s been in Paris for more than 20 years.  It’s really fun to shop there.  He has made it his business to get to know his producers and has them in for tastings on Saturdays.  Somehow the tasting experience is always better when you can talk to the winemakers!

What do you like to drink every day?  Wine is an essential part of dinner for me.  I drink every night, so I try to keep it reasonable.  Mostly I gravitate toward Rhônes – I love Syrah, and wines from the Loire and Languedoc, and Chenin Blancs.

How about for nicer occasions?  I like to ask Juan for recommendations.  I usually don’t buy just one wine for a nicer meal, or even for a particular course.  Especially since the meals tend to have a lot of parts:  apéros, first course, main dish, cheese, and maybe dessert.  I like to buy a bunch of bottles and put them out on the table, let people try them with the different parts of the meal.

The latest book -- Dorie's Cookies will be out in October 2016.

The new book — Dorie’s Cookies will be out in October 2016.

Those sound like my kind of dinners, especially when I don’t have to drive!  What are you working on now?  Right now I’m proofing the final pages of my next book, Dorie’s Cookies.  Its birthday will be October 25, 2016 and I’m crazy excited about it.  Its look is stunning and it’s got a great collection of recipes – everyday cookies, holiday and celebration cookies, all the cookies from Beurre & Sel, the boutique my son and I had in New York City, and cocktail cookies, savory cookies meant to be munched with wine and booze.

I love the idea of savory cookies.  I’m always looking for things to serve with wine.  Especially if I can freeze them, either baked or unbaked.  Well, I’d be a bad author if I didn’t mention that it’s available for pre-order now…

Thanks so much for talking with me.  This has been really fun!  Fun for me too.  And you’ve got me thinking about what to drink with dinner tonight!


This week's recipe comes from "Around My French Table." The book has become my go-to for things to serve with wine and drinks.

This week’s recipe comes from “Around My French Table.” The book has become my go-to for things to serve with wine and drinks.  The main courses are equally delicious.

I mentioned Dorie’s recipe for Spanish tortilla made with potato chips earlier in the post, but I decided to include a recipe that’s a main course instead.  With Dorie’s permission, here’s her recipe for Boeuf à la Ficelle, or beef on a string, which is made using beef tenderloin.  It’s an elegant dish that’s great for company.  The meat gets tied up with string, along with a long piece of string that hangs from one end – used to remove the beef from the cooking broth when it’s done.  The broth can be served as soup, or everything can be served together (root vegetables get simmered in the broth before the tenderloin, so it’s a complete meal).

The key to making this dish is excellent beef broth.  Browning oxtail and beef bones may not be your idea of fun in a warm kitchen, but it makes a wonderful both in about an hour and a half.  You can make the broth ahead of time, and even get all the vegetables prepped.  So when you go to make the dish, you’ll have everything ready and can get the finished product made in about 45 minutes.

In the book, Dorie tells the story of trying to buy the right piece of meat tied up for this dish.  The young assistant at the butcher shop had no idea what she was talking about.  But both the older butcher and a woman who was also in line at the shop knew what she wanted.  It’s sort of a lost recipe that’s great to see back in circulation.  In fact, the woman in line also suggested that Dorie add the tomato paste and the beef bouillon cubes.  Most beef tenderloins come tied crosswise, and while you don’t really have to have the long string, it’s easy to put one on yourself.  Tie a long piece of kitchen string to one of the crosswise strings and then proceed up the piece of meat to the other end, making a knot at each successive crosswise string and leaving a nice long piece for grabbing the meat after it’s cooked.

You’ll want to serve this dish with an excellent wine.  I recommend Château de Clapier Soprano 2011 ($18).  It’s Syrah, Grenache, and Pinot Noir from the Luberon in the southeastern part of the Rhône valley, and it’s drinking very well these days.   Or, it can be one of the (many) bottles you put out on the table for your guests!



Boeuf à la Ficelle – Beef on a String

Serves 6

Reprinted from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table, with the author’s permission.

For the bouillon

5 parsley sprigs

2 thyme sprigs

2 bay leaves

2 celery stalks with leaves

2 tablespoons mild oil (such as grapeseed or canola)

3 big veal bones or beef marrow bones

1 oxtail

2 big onions, unpeeled, halved

¼ teaspoon sugar

About 5 quarts water

3 leeks, dark green parts only (reserve the white and light green parts), washed

2 carrots, trimmed and cut in half crosswise

1 garlic head, only the loose papery peel removed, halved horizontally

1 2-inch chunk fresh ginger, peeled and halved

1 star anise (optional)

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

2 beef bouillon cubes

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon coarse salt


For the vegetables and beef

6 small potatoes, scrubbed and halved

6 small turnips, trimmed, peeled, and halved

6 carrots, trimmed, peeled, and cut crosswise into thirds

1 pound celery root, trimmed, peeled, and cut into 2-inch cubes

Reserved white and green parts of the 3 leeks, split lengthwise, washed, and cut into 2-inch lengths

6 shallots, peeled and halved

1 1-1/2 pound beef tenderloin roast, all fat removed, tied with twine (leave a long tail of string), at room temperature


For serving

Fleur de sel or other sea salt

Dijon and grainy mustard, preferably French

Horseradish, preferably grated fresh

A peppermill filled with black peppercorns

To make the bouillon:  Gather together the parsley, thyme, and bay leaves, tuck them between the celery stalks, and tie up the bundle with kitchen string.

Put a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the oil.  Drop in the bones, oxtail, and onions (if you can get everything in without crowding the pot, go for it; if not, do this in batches), sprinkle over the sugar, and brown the bones and onions, stirring as needed.  When all the ingredients are as deeply browned as you can get them – even a little blackened – transfer to a bowl and pour out and discard the fat.

Put the pot back over medium heat and, standing away, pour a cup or two of water into the pot.  Using a wooden or metal spoon, scrape up all the goop that formed on the bottom of the pot, a satisfying job, since you get all the color and flavor from the sticky bits and the scraping does a good job of cleaning the pot too.  Pour in the 4-1/2 quarts of water and toss in all the remaining ingredients, including the celery bundle, bones, oxtail, and onions.  Bring to a boil, skimming off the scum that bubbles to the top, the lower the heat to a simmer, and cook the bouillon, uncovered, skimming often, for 1 hour.

Strain the bouillon into a bowl and discard the solids – they’ve done their job.  (The bouillon can be cooled and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months.  Once the bouillon is cooled, skim off any fat – it will have floated to the top.)

To cook the vegetables and meat:  Return the bouillon to the pot and bring it to a boil.  Lower the heat to a simmer and add the potatoes, turnips, carrots, and celery root.  After 10 minutes, add the leeks and shallots and cook for 10 minutes more.  Check that the vegetables are cooked and, when they are tender, using a slotted spoon, lift them out of the bouillon and into a large bowl.  Cover and set aside while you poach the beef.  (The vegetables can be cooked a few hours ahead, moistened with a little bouillon, covered, and refrigerated until you’re ready for them.)

Drop the beef into the simmering bouillon, keeping the string out of the broth (you can tie it to the pot’s handle) and poach for 15 minutes – it will be very rare in the center.  Pull the beef from the pot using the string, transfer to a plate, cover with foil, and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.  (If you want the beef more well done, you can poach it longer or, better yet, pour some of the hot broth over it at serving time.)

Meanwhile, reheat the vegetables in the bouillon.  Cut the beef into slices about ¼ to ½ inch thick.  For each portion, put a slice or two of beef in the center of a shallow soup plate, surround it with some poached vegetables, and moisten with bouillon.  Have fleur de sel, Dijon and grainy mustard, horseradish, and a peppermill on the table so your guests can season their own dishes.

Posted in Dorie Greenspan, french wine, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My secret wine crush

The gorge at Watkins Glen State Park, one of the sights we took in on our way to Toronto, and right near several good wineries.

The gorge at Watkins Glen State Park, one of the sights we took in on our way to Toronto, and right near several good Finger Lakes wineries.

Often when I’m leading tastings people ask me what wines I like to drink.  Of course, I’m tempted to point to one of the wines I’m pouring.  That’s what sales are about, after all!  But depending on who’s asking I have two different replies.

The first is that it depends on what I’m eating, since I generally don’t drink wine without some food, usually as part of a meal.  While I’m not a strict wine/food pairing person, I also like each to have a nod to the other, for a better experience.

The second – and I only say this to people I think will understand – is that I love Alsatian wines, and also some German wines made from the same varietals.  The combination of a bit of residual sugar along with the acidity (and great fruit flavors too) just lights up the right parts of my brain.  Many wine folks I know recoil from sweetness.  But when it’s balanced, you don’t so much register it as sweet.  For example, think of really good Thai food.  There’s always a bit of sweetness to round out the other flavors and sensations.

Two weeks ago, Cy and I got to taste some excellent Alsatian- and German-style wines in the Finger Lakes region of western New York state. We drove from DC to Toronto by way of Seneca Lake, so naturally we decided to visit some wineries.  We didn’t have much time, but we got lucky and based on good recommendations managed to stop at two that were excellent:  Hermann J. Wiemer and Kemmeter.

The two wineries are a study in contrast.  Wiemer is well-established and very well-known.  Hermann Wiemer, the founder, was one of the pioneers of grape growing and wine production in the Finger Lakes region.  Decades later, he turned operations over to winemaker Fred Merwath and agronomist Oskar Bynke.  The other, Kemmeter Wines, is practically brand new.  Johannes Reinhardt, the owner and winemaker, bought land and started planting only a few years ago, although he comes from a winemaking family and has had more than a decade of experience as a winemaker for another Seneca Lake winery.  He plans to do more planting and phase out buying grapes from other producers in the future.

We got a tour and tasting at Wiemer by Oskar, who is a friend of a friend of friends (hey, we take these connections anywhere we can find them!)  The main feature of the tasting room, other than its beauty (it was designed by one of those friends in the friend chain), is an ingenious map that manages to show location, soil types, terrain, planting orientation, and age of the vines all at once.  It really is a wine-lover’s dream.  I’m not showing you a detailed photo because I wasn’t sure how to take one that would do it justice.  You really have to go and see it.  Cy, who studied geography and worked as a cartographer, was entranced by it too, even though he’s not the wine geek that I am.

Oh, and you’ll want to taste the wines, too.  Wiemer has two different vineyard properties along Seneca Lake, and the varying terrains (and amounts of breezes off the lake) make for different styles of grapes – more or less acidic, more or less lush, etc.  Some of the original Riesling clones planted by Hermann Wiemer are still thriving.  They tend to produce the more austere juice, and while some of the wines are blends of grapes from the different properties, you can also taste the single-vineyard wines and see the differences.  That’s just the kind of tasting I love to do, so I really had fun.  And, of course, the wines are tasty and well-balanced, too.  We had various Rieslings, Chardonnay, and a white blend, plus two reds:  Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch (also called Lemberger, the name used at Wiemer).  We left with a late-harvest Riesling (my favorite) and a bottle of the Chardonnay-based sparkling Cuvée Brut, which we didn’t get to taste at the winery.

Oscar Bynke, an agronomist working at Willem J. Wiemer Winery on the left, I'm in the middle, and the very cool map of Wiemer's vineyards on the right.

Oscar Bynke, an agronomist who co-manages Hermann J. Wiemer Winery on the left, I’m in the middle, and the very cool map of Wiemer’s vineyards on the right.

The tasting at Kemmeter made me re-evaluate one thing I thought was a truism of winemaking:  that the vines have to have a little age on them, like at least five years, to start making juice that will make good wine.  As I mentioned, Johannes at Kemmeter just planted his own vines a few years ago and is using the juice from those grapes in his wines.  A couple of his 2015 wines contain grapes from these young vines.  I’d never had wine from vines that young before, but they were well-made and delicious.  Since production is small, I’m not sure that there’ll be enough bottles sitting around in a few years to see how they age, but that won’t stop me from enjoying them now.

Johannes makes one wine entirely from his own young grapes and it’s an interesting one.  He calls it his Pinot Cuvée:  63% Pinot Noir and 37% Pinot Blanc.  The juice has no skin contact, so it’s a white wine.  In fact, it tastes very much like wine you’d taste at a champagne house before it undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle.  (If you’re lucky enough to taste the pre-champagne wine, that is.)  Delicious and unique.  His new-vine Riesling grapes also go into the 2015 Seneca Lake Riesling, which contains some grapes from another producer.  Johannes describes his grapes as adding “sparkle” to the wine, which I think is apt.  I’m putting a bottle away for at least a year to revisit it.

I’ve singled out these two wineries in this post, but we also had a nice tasting at Glenora Wine Cellars, which is one of the few regional wineries that produces Gewürztraminer.  The vines are less tolerant of extremely cold weather, so a bad winter means fewer wineries will be producing it unless they replant.  Glenora has enough land in the right spots to produce Gewürztraminer consistently.  It’s worth seeking out.  And we decided to stop at Finger Lakes Distilling after having Manhattans made with their McKenzie rye whiskey.  Definitely worth a visit.  Be warned, they take their responsibilities in preventing drunk driving seriously there – you are allowed three small pours in a tasting, and can only have one tasting per day.  I didn’t feel shortchanged by any means.

So if there are other closeted Alsatian-type wine lovers out there, it’s definitely worth the drive up from DC for a long weekend.  The scenery is beautiful, and there’s the Corning Museum of Glass nearby if you want a day without wine tasting.  Even we wine pros want those occasionally!


Cy and me at Maison Kammerzell in Strasbourg in Alsace in 2009, eating Choucroute Formidable.

Cy and me at Maison Kammerzell in Strasbourg in Alsace in 2009, eating Choucroute Formidable.

Alsatian wines pair with a number of different cuisines, and you’ll see them on Asian and Indian menus.  But Alsace also has its own hearty cuisine, and the wines go beautifully with the food.  I decided to open the bottle of Wiemer Late Harvest Riesling with a classic Alsatian dish:  Choucroute.  It’s the French word for sauerkraut, but it’s also a dish based on sauerkraut with potatoes and any number of smoked and unsmoked meats.  You’ll also find seafood and vegetarian versions, but I can’t personally vouch for those.

In October 2009, Cy and I visited Alsace and had a meal at a very old, famous restaurant in Strasbourg right next to the cathedral, Maison Kammerzell.  Our dinner companions told us we were there at the right time because the sauerkraut was young – the year’s cabbage had been harvested, then shredded and packed in layers of salt to ferment – and we were getting some of the first results.  We decided to have what the menu called “Choucroute Formidable,” which was the new sauerkraut, potatoes, and about eleventy-seven different kinds of meat on it.  Truly amazing.  And the wine, beautifully balanced with acidity and residual sugar, really made everything sing.

It’s probably easier these days to get young, fresh sauerkraut, but I came up with a way to approximate it:  Mix some raw shredded cabbage with drained packaged refrigerated sauerkraut (the kind you get at the deli counter in plastic bags).  You can shred your own, of course, but I bought a 12-ounce package of finely-shredded cabbage for cole slaw because I didn’t want to work that hard.  The result was very good.

While all the ingredients get layered and cooked together, you will have to pre-cook the potatoes at least mostly through.  The acidity of the sauerkraut does something to the starch in the potatoes that prevents them from cooking properly in a reasonable amount of time if you put them in raw.  And if you cook them long enough to get soft, everything else will be unrecognizable.  On the other hand, the acidity also prevents the pre-done potatoes from overcooking, so the extra work is worth it.

The choice of meats is up to you.  Pork tends to predominate, and I made my Choucroute with bratwurst, kielbasa, and thick slices of bacon.  But you could use turkey-based smoked sausages if you like, and they’d be very tasty.  Be sure that the bacon is very thick, like about 1/3-inch.  One of my local supermarkets will slice bacon to order, and you may have a store that will do it near you.  Otherwise, I’d go with a good smoked ham because thinner bacon won’t hold up well.

Mr Chicken

We didn’t check the menus of local restaurants for Choucroute, but we did stop at this one in Watkins Glen. Who could resist that sign?

If you don’t have an Alsatian style wine on hand to serve, Viognier is a good choice.  While Cave la Romaine Viognier ($16) isn’t sweet, the floral aroma gives the impression of sweetness.  We tried it with some leftover Choucroute and it was very good.  You might even call it “formidable!”



Choucroute Formidable

Serves 6 to 8

1-1/2 pounds unsmoked fresh bratwurst links (6 to 8 links)

1 pound smoked kielbasa

5-6 ounces very thickly sliced bacon (about 1/3-inch, this will be about 3 slices), or ham slices

3 pounds packaged refrigerated sauerkraut

12 ounces finely-shredded fresh cabbage (a bag of coleslaw mix is fine, with or without carrots)

1 Granny Smith apple, cored, and cut into matchsticks

4 large red-skinned potatoes, about a pound

1 large onion, sliced

1 cup vegetable or chicken stock

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Vegetable oil

Cut the potatoes into 8 wedges each.  Put them in a large saucepan and cover with cold water.  Add about a teaspoon of salt to the water, and bring to a boil.  Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are just barely tender.  Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat a little vegetable oil in a large Dutch oven.  Cut the bacon slices crosswise in thirds.  Prick the bratwursts with a fork in a few places on each link.  Cut the kielbasa into 6 or 8 pieces.  When the oil is hot, add the bacon and cook for a couple of minutes per side, until lightly browned.  Remove them with a slotted spoon and add the kielbasa.  Cook, turning occasionally, to brown them a little.  Remove the kielbasa and add the bratwurst links.  Brown well on all sides and remove the links.  Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of fat and cook the sliced onion with a little salt and pepper.  Make sure to scrape up the bottom of the Dutch oven and incorporate the browned bits into the onions.  Cook until the onions are lightly browned and remove them from the pot.

While the meats are browning, drain the sauerkraut (but don’t rinse it) and put it in a large bowl.  Stir in the shredded fresh  cabbage.  When the onion is browned, stir it in, too, along with the apple pieces.  If there is still some browned stuff clinging to the bottom of the Dutch oven, then pour in the vegetable or chicken stock and heat up the pot, scraping the bottom.

Put the sauerkraut mixture into the bottom of the Dutch oven (right into the stock if you added it already).  Put the potatoes on top in one layer, then the bacon slices and the various sausages.  Pour the stock over if you haven’t already.  Cover the pot and bring it all to a boil.  Lower to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes to an hour.  You’ll know it’s all cooked when you prick one of the bratwursts with a knife and the juices are yellow or clear.  Replace the lid, turn off the heat, and let the whole thing sit for 20 minutes or more.

Taste for salt and pepper.  Serve hot or warm, giving everyone some of each of the meats, some potatoes, and lots of sauerkraut.

Posted in Finger Lakes Wines, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cookbook author wine talk with Rose Levy Beranbaum

Dessert and cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum. Photo by Matthew Septimus

Dessert and cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum. Photo by Matthew Septimus

If you’re a person who likes to bake, even a little, you will have made a recipe created, inspired, or improved by Rose Levy Beranbaum.  Even if you’re not using one of her books.  Nearly every baking or dessert cookbook I own mentions her in the authors’ acknowledgements, testimony to her influence on bakers since she began writing cookbooks in the 1980s.  And it’s not just from the ever-increasing crop of new dessert book authors.  The foreword to Beranbaum’s 1988 The Cake Bible was written by Maida Heatter, the undisputed dessert cookbook authority of the 1960s and 70s.  In it she says, “It is seldom that I really want to make every single recipe from cover to cover in a book.  I do in this book.”

The reason?  Do what she tells you and the recipes will work.  They’ll come out exactly as she describes, taste great, and look beautiful – with or without adornment.  It’s not only a product of her food science education, but her innate artistic sense (both taste and visual), along with a lot of trial and error.  In The Bread Bible, published in 2003, Rose describes making recipes over and over and putting the remains of loaves cut side down on the kitchen counter, creating a sort of Zen landscape of varying shapes.

People get nervous about baking because they think of their grandmothers, who, according to legend, didn’t use recipes and made perfect pies and cakes every time.  But when they try it themselves, the results aren’t always as perfect.  What their grandmothers had was the benefit of experience that most people don’t get these days, first watching and helping, then making things enough times to get the feel of them.  Rose explains the basis of that intuition with instruction.  She makes sure, first and foremost, that we measure ingredients precisely.  By weight, not by volume for greatest accuracy – although she also gives instructions for measuring by volume for people who don’t have a kitchen scale – and how to account for the vagaries of working in variable weather.    The headnotes for the recipes describe how each was created, who inspired them, who helped.  There’s nearly always a story of an unexpected dessert here or there that led her down a path to making something new.  They’re fun and entertaining.  The recipes also contain an “understanding” section, so you can learn how they work and why.  After you’ve made a few of them, the understanding becomes part of you, too.

I first met Rose when David Hagedorn, a neighbor who writes for the Washington Post food section, wrote an article on making pie crusts featuring her.  It takes a few people to prepare for the setup and photo shoot, so I went to help and had great fun.  We chatted some about wine – I had just started First Vine a year before – and she was the first cookbook author I thought about interviewing when I decided to start this series.  I asked her for a 15-minute phone conversation, but we spoke for more than an hour.  I could tell when I met her that she knew a lot about wine, but I didn’t know that she herself was also a wine writer.  After our talk she sent me two of the wine articles she wrote for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, as well as a copy of her electronic wine journal that goes back to 1996.  We talked about her books and what’s in the works as well as wine.  What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation and some clarifying e-mails afterward.

We’re in chocolate season with Valentine’s Day and Easter – how do you feel about wine and chocolate together?  I find I have to work very hard to make acceptable pairings and others don’t necessarily agree with me.  I have to confess I don’t drink wine after the main part of dinner is over.  And I don’t pair it with any desserts.  It just seems like too much, because I just don’t think that wine and desserts go well together.  There have only been two times when I thought they did:  the first was a grilling event I was judging and the wine actually made a not-great dessert taste better.  And the second was a very carefully paired dessert and red wine I had at Daniel in New York.  [After our conversation, Rose told me she tried some red wine left over from lunch with a chocolate dessert as an experiment and they worked together.  But she’s still not going to make a habit of drinking wine with dessert.]

So no dessert wines?  Port is one wine that I like better than any food I’ve ever had.  But I still don’t have it with dessert.  And I love Eisweins, which I first tried on a trip to Germany.  I wrote about Eisweins and other German wines for the L.A. Times, this was back when neither one was on anyone’s radar.  I actually had to write a defense of that piece for my editor that was nearly as long as the article itself!  He thought no one would be interested.  That may be a reason I wasn’t a wine writer for too long.

The village of Pomerol in Bordeaux, origin of the wine for Rose Levy Beranbaum's first great wine experience. Photo from

The village of Pomerol in Bordeaux, origin of the wine for Rose Levy Beranbaum’s first great wine experience. Photo from

Was there a first great wine experience for you?  One of my great uncles worked for a wine importer, and whenever we’d eat with him there was alcohol in everything – I hated it when I was a kid!  But when I was 22 or 23 my tastes began to change.  I was out at dinner with him and a few others and he gave me the choice of wine.  One was a Pomerol, and I can’t remember the others, but it was the Pomerol I chose.  I could tell by my great uncle’s face that he had hoped I’d choose it.  I’ve been joining wine clubs ever since, trying to find a wine of the same quality as that Pomerol.

Have you found one?  Well, I suspect there was more going on in my head at that dinner, so not exactly.  But there were definitely memorable ones.  I attended a Château Margaux dinner at the Four Seasons that was really something.  I wrote about that for the L.A. Times, too.  They served us a 1961 Margaux that was out of this world, although the dinner and the rest of the wines were amazing.  Also, I had a Screaming Eagle at the Four Seasons that was so good I kept the cork.  And there were a few wines I tasted on the Germany trip that were excellent.  Oh, and Château d’Yquem, too – although everyone probably says that, right?

It does get mentioned now and then!  Have you done other wine traveling?  Yes, including a great trip to Champagne.  It’s a fun story – I asked the wine maker at Dom Perignon if I could have some of the yeast he used in the champagne to make bread with.  He looked at me like I’d asked him to reveal state secrets!  It’s not like I was going to turn around and sell the yeast to someone else.  I still wonder what that bread would taste like.  I was going to call it Pain Perignon!

Well, the yeast used for dosage in making champagne adds yeasty flavor.  The champagne stays in contact with the yeast in the bottle for a long time.  So who knows what flavor it might give the bread.  I’ll see if I can get some when I visit the producer I buy from, assuming I can smuggle it back on the plane.  That’s interesting.  For the most part you don’t want to taste the yeast in bread, but you do in champagne.  So if you can get some for me, I’ll definitely try it!

What do you like to drink at home?   My husband Elliot prefers reds, Pinots and Zins, so we have them often.  We really like Wild Horse Cheval Sauvage.  I take notes on nearly every wine I try, and when I like it I buy cases of it.  Recently I tried some 2013 Carmenere from Anakena and it was great – and cheap too.  I have to get more of that.  We also like some Malbecs, Crozes-Hermitages, and Joseph Swan’s Russian River Pinot.

I made a few cakes from your Rose’s Heavenly Cakes and The Baking Bible and everything was great.  As an opera fan, I love that you dedicate desserts to your favorite opera singers!  What’s in the works for you now?  I’m working on Rose’s Baking Basics, which is going to be a comprehensive book with 500+ step-by-step photographs.  I want everyone to see how things look at all stages of baking instead of just describing them.  I’m really excited about it, because my editor agreed to put all measurements in grams first, then volume, and nothing in ounces.  Weighing in grams is so much more accurate, since most digital scales only go down to ¼ ounce, if that.

I always weigh out ingredients for baking if the weights are in the instructions.  But I have to admit there’s something satisfying about dipping the measuring cup into sugar, and I miss doing it.  That’s probably because it brings back memories of playing in the sandbox!  Actually, granulated sugar is one thing that measures pretty accurately by volume.

What’s the timeline for the new book?  The basic baking book’s not going to be out until 2018.  When I finished The Baking Bible it was too long to include a wedding cake chapter.  So I’ll be doing a wedding cake book that will come out in 2022.  Meanwhile, I’m also working on an ice cream book – which I had some trepidation about writing.

Why trepidation?  Well, it’s not baking, and that’s what I’m known for.  But ice cream is one of my favorite desserts, so I thought, why not?

I imagine, knowing your other books, that it will contain a lot of useful information.  Your experience with custards and frostings was probably a great base for it.  Can you give us a hint of something we’ll be learning?  That’s why I’m excited to do the book, beyond the great flavors.  I’ve discovered the best ways to make frozen ice creams totally creamy.  But you’ll have to wait until fall of 2019 or spring of 2020!

That’s probably the best teaser you could give!  Thanks so much for spending all this time talking with me.  This was a lot of fun.  I don’t think I’ve spent this much time on the phone with someone I wasn’t related to in a while!


While Rose is known for her baking books, she also has two cookbooks that aren't just desserts. Rose's Melting Pot is the book that contains the recipe posted below.

While Rose is known for her baking books, she also has two cookbooks that aren’t just desserts. Rose’s Melting Pot is the book that contains the recipe posted below.

Since her reputation is for baking, people are sometimes surprised to learn that Rose has two cookbooks with plenty of non-dessert foods in them.  I bought a copy of Rose’s Melting Pot – A Cooking Tour of America’s Ethnic Celebrations when it came out in the early 1990s.  Not long after moving to the DC area, I got invited to a dinner and asked what I could bring.  The hosts suggested Kasha Varnishkes, which is cooked buckwheat kernels with noodles or pasta.  It was something I’d never had or made.  But I remembered seeing the recipe in Rose’s book so I thought I’d give it a try.  It was really good.  In fact, I’ve never had Kasha Varnishkes that good since.

One of the ingredients is dried porcini mushrooms, something I had never used before and couldn’t easily find here in DC.  (I hadn’t yet discovered Litteri’s or the Italian Store in Arlington).  My parents had bought some in New York and sent them to me.  I was amazed by the depth of flavor they gave the Kasha Varnishkes.  Nowadays you’ll find them in a lot of recipes, but in 1993 they were a revelation.  And typical of Rose’s way of finding things to enhance the flavor of food she makes.

Rose very kindly gave me permission to reprint her Kasha Varnishkes recipe, with the proviso that I include the weights along with the measurements.  Her recipe calls for goose fat or unsalted butter.  I couldn’t find goose fat and since it was for Passover and I didn’t want to use butter, I used chicken fat instead and it was delicious.  (Actually, Rose reminded me that the noodles would have been verboten for Passover too – so apparently my hosts weren’t that strict!  Still, you can keep it kosher by not using butter.)  But goose and duck fat are easier to find now, and the dish is also delicious with butter for non-kosher occasions.  I’ve found coarsely ground kasha at Yes and Whole Foods, and everything else is easily available.  If you want to use vegetable broth instead of chicken, I recommend Kitchen Basics unsalted vegetable broth.

Kasha Varnishkes is usually a side dish, even though I could happily eat just that for dinner.  So you’ll probably have a protein with it, which is just fine from a wine point of view.  The mushrooms cry out for something earthy.  I’m recommending Cave la Romaine Puyméras 2010 ($15).  It’s a Côtes du Rhône Villages wine from a village at the base of Mont Ventoux.  Smooth and earthy, with just a little wildness in there.  It’s also great with lamb or roast chicken, even salmon.

Just remember, no wine with your dessert if you’re making this dish!



Kasha Varnishkes

Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish

From Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Rose’s Melting Pot, reprinted with the author’s permission

14 grams/ 0.5 ounce — dried porcini mushrooms, well rinsed

160 grams/ 5.6 ounces/ 1 cup — coarsely-ground kasha

1 large egg (57 grams/ 2 ounces, weighed in the shell)

71 grams/ 2.5 ounces/ 1/4 cup — goose fat OR 56 grams/ 2 ounces/ 4 tablespoons — unsalted butter

1 large onion, chopped (255 grams/ 9 ounces)

1 teaspoon sugar (4 grams)

454 grams/ 1 pound/ 5 cups — fresh mushrooms, sliced

1 teaspoon minced garlic (3 grams)

6.7 grams/ 1 teaspoon — salt, or to taste

3 grams/ 1-1/2 teaspoons — freshly-ground black pepper

1 tablespoon dried oregano

390 grams/ 13.75 ounces/ 1-3/4 cups — low-salt chicken broth, preferably College Inn

128 grams/ 4.5 ounces/ 2 cups — bowtie noodles (farfalle)

14 grams/ 0.5 ounce/ 1 tablespoon — goose fat or unsalted butter

Soak the dried porcini mushrooms in about ½ cup of warm water for 10 minutes until softened.  (The soaking water may later be added to make up part of the chicken broth).  When soft, drain, cut them into small pieces and set aside.

With a fork, stir together the kasha and the egg.  Set it aside to dry for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally with a fork.

In an 11-inch or larger skillet (at least 11 inches, preferably broiler-proof), with a tight-fitting lid, melt the ¼ cup of goose fat or butter.  Add the onions, sprinkle with the sugar, and fry, stirring often, until deep golden brown, about 7 minutes.  Add the sliced mushrooms and garlic, cover and cook for about 5 minutes or until the mushrooms give up their liquid.  Then continue cooking uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the liquid evaporates and the mushrooms are lightly browned, about 7 minutes.

Add the kasha mixture, salt, pepper and oregano and cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes.  Stir in the broth and porcini mushrooms, cover tightly, and simmer 20 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed.  Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, cook the bowties according to the package directions.  Drain, and stir in the 1 tablespoon of goose fat or butter.  (The recipe may be prepared up to this point 6 hours in advance of serving.)

If the skillet is not broiler-proof, turn the kasha mixture into a broiler pan or baking pan.  Add salt to taste.  Broil several inches from the heat, stirring occasionally for even browning and to prevent scorching, 7 to 10 minutes.  Mix in the bowties and broil for about 3 minutes more, just to crisp the top edges of the bowties slightly.  Serve hot.

Posted in Rose Levy Beranbaum, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sustaining our wine, Part Two

Jérome Bezios of Domaine la Croix des Marchands is the first of First Vine's producers to get a sustainability certification, from Terra Vitis in France.

Jérome Bezios of Domaine la Croix des Marchands is the first of First Vine’s producers to get a sustainability certification, from Terra Vitis in France.

Way back in 2012, I wrote a post about sustainability and wine. I had promised a second one but I got distracted by life and too many bright, shiny objects. Four years later, I’ve decided to get back around to it, for two reasons:

  •  News from a First Vine producer.  Jérome Bezios of Domaine la Croix des Marchands in the Gaillac region of southwestern France, is the first of my producers to seek and obtain certification for sustainable wine agriculture and winemaking. Terra Vitis, a French organization founded in 1998, has awarded Jérome a certificate of completion. Actually, he got his first certificate a few years ago and, in his typically modest fashion, didn’t broadcast it to the world. I only found out a few months ago. He doesn’t even put “Certified Sustainable” (or the French equivalent) on his wine labels.
  • Lots of other sustainability news.   The Wine Economist blogger Mike Veseth has turned his attention to sustainability, which means we’re reading more about it. In a rundown of sustainability topics, he mentions the goal the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission set two years ago to have 100% of its vineyards certified sustainable by 2019. As Veseth says, it’s an ambitious undertaking.

The Commission is using the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program (CSWP) and its certification arm, Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW). I decided to dig deeper into the program, via its California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Workbook, which program participants have to complete and follow. (Unfortunately, my French isn’t good enough to do the same for Terra Vitis, although the English summary of the organization’s goals sounds a lot like CSWP’s, at least in the abstract.) As of January 2016, 64% of the county’s total vineyard acreage had been evaluated by its owners using the workbook, and 43% of the grape growers had received certification.

Sonoma County winegrowers are on track to be 100% certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program by 2019.

Sonoma County winegrowers are on track to be 100% certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program by 2019.

Reading the workbook reminded me of my early enviro days, when I was a third-party evaluator for a state’s pollution prevention planning program. I visited industrial facilities and reviewed the statutory plans they’d created and the goals they’d set – as well as the data they had to back up those plans and goals. In order to be certified sustainable after completing the CCSW workbook, vineyards and wineries also have to submit to third-party verification. With my own evaluation experience, plus talking with Jérome and two of my producers who have European organic certifications, I have a pretty good idea of what this third-party process is about, from the perspectives of the evaluator and the producer.

Before I launch into the nitty-gritty, though, a reminder of what sustainability is supposed to mean. It’s a balance that satisfies as much as possible the economic and environmental health interests of the producer, the workers, and the surrounding community and environment. It’s not necessarily intuitive to think of the community as having economic interests in the environment. But tourism, water and wastewater treatment, and a host of other factors – generating revenue or costing money for the public at large – come into play in that sort of calculation, even if they’re not explicit.

I also recommend you read my old post if you have time. Nothing has changed in the big picture from what I wrote there (and, uncharacteristically for me, I don’t want to repeat myself too much). I still think that the blanket designation of “certified sustainable” could create the impression of greater uniformity and environmental protection than may actually exist. What has changed for me is that I’ve had more interactions with producers at conferences, trade shows, and tastings. The one thing they all tell me is that they’re looking to communicate better with consumers about how they make their wines. Many of them think that a certification of some kind — sustainability, biodynamics, or organic production — will help.

I definitely get that producers want to demonstrate that they are doing their best. Because that “best” is subjective, they want a level playing field for evaluation. That’s partly what makes organic certification appealing. And, to a lesser extent, biodynamic certification. Both of these are more rigidly defined than sustainability.  So my question is whether the CCSW program will do what producers want it to.  (If you’d like to stop reading here, my answer is maybe, but I have my doubts.)

The workbook is pretty darned thorough in its scope, from field practices and pest management to human resource management, energy and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and responsible purchasing. Vineyard managers/owners answer the exhaustive list of questions and get a rating from 1 to 4 for each, depending on responses. The goal is to get a 3 or 4 for each question. If the answer is a 1 or 2, then the manager has to develop a plan for improvement.  (A 2 may also be acceptable, depending on circumstances.)


The three interlocking rings of sustainability (like a mini-olympics!)  My concern is that the economics ring is going to dwarf the other two in some circumstances.  Not that it’s not important, but in my experience it can be a convenient excuse for keeping the status quo.

Regarding the environmental and health issue that probably concerns people most, producers can’t do anything illegal in their operations, including pesticide use or treatments with potentially dangerous substances. They have to follow federal, state, and local laws, and also must follow label instructions on pesticides. Also, presumably, any regulations regarding their appellations. They’re encouraged to engage in integrated pest management and use less of particular substances than the law would allow them to. For the substances they use, maximum care should be taken to get them in the right place and avoid their getting into groundwater, surface water – basically anywhere beyond the application points.

After the vineyard manager completes the workbook and plans, the third-party examiner comes in to evaluate and validate what’s in the workbook and on site. Not only do producers have to provide the summaries of how they rated themselves, but they also have to produce documentary and even physical evidence. This can take the form of purchase receipts, time-stamped detailed photos, etc. Some producers get a little creative. I heard a story about a producer who kept fungicide containers and recorded the fill levels after each use, with accompanying dates. Sort of like recording your children’s heights at different ages with pencil marks on a wall. With a little geometry, you can figure out what got used.

All of this sounds pretty straightforward, although time consuming and probably expensive, too. The thing is, though, both the producer and the evaluator have a lot of wiggle room. This is set out right away, in the first chapter of the workbook:

“Economic feasibility is one of the three tenets of sustainability. Therefore… it is important to recognize that, because grape prices vary significantly by region and variety, economic constraints will influence the degree to which some of the practices… can be implemented.”

When I did the environmental evaluations I described above, I examined the cost analysis facilities did for each project in their plans. The plans were mandatory, but the projects weren’t. It was up to the facility to decide if they were going to implement plan projects. Often, even if projects had good financials, facilities decided not to do them. For some smaller facilities, the problem was access to money. But even for larger facilities with more resources, many projects I thought were no-brainers didn’t get done.

The same is true for the winegrowers. It’s their decision to make. The evaluator can verify the math, and perhaps suggest changes or give additional information that might change the analysis. Evaluators can also request periodic re-examination of the numbers to see if the situation changes. For some producers, peer pressure might convince them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t if left to themselves. But, to a great extent, the evaluators still have to take no for an answer. Probably more often than they’d like to.

Some things are easy to examine for all participants. CCSW strives for continuous improvement, and it’s possible to measure improvement for certain parameters: water use, energy use, nitrogen use, and greenhouse gas emissions. But what about a producer who decides, for good financial reasons, that 1 or a 2 ratings is all he or she is going to achieve in certain areas of the program? Is that producer as “sustainable” as another who, in similar financial circumstances, makes the decision to invest in getting more 3 and 4 ratings anyway? Producers who don’t see a way to all 3s and 4s may decide to opt out from certification. But at what point do the evaluators decide that a currently-certified producer isn’t making enough of an effort to improve those 1s and 2s? Or do they ever? And, is that fair to those that do make the improvements?

I really like the self-evaluation portion of the program, and I think it’s worthwhile for all California wineries to at least go through it. Unless I’m grossly mistaken about the actual certification process, though, I’m not convinced that CCSW provides the level playing field that producers are looking for at this point. However, the Sonoma project could provide an opportunity to assess some of the variability. Having a number of vineyards undergo the process with many of the same grapes, terroir, and economic issues for producers will be a good test for CCSW. I’ll be interested to see how it’s going in 2019 and in years after.

As for Jérome, he is happy that he has something he can point to for his vineyard and winery. Knowing him and how he operates, I’m sure he aced the process. Still, I’m going to have to improve my French and figure it out for sure. Once I do, maybe I can become a third-party certifier of French vineyards for Terra Vitis. I imagine there are worse jobs in the world!


My first attempt at roasting a chicken in a Bundt pan. You don't need to use one if you also have a vertical chicken roaster. But hey, how often do you get to use this pan anyway?

My first attempt at roasting a chicken in a Bundt pan. You don’t need to use one if you also have a vertical chicken roaster. But hey, how often do you get to use this pan anyway?

March weather is unpredictable. Last week we had daytime temperatures in the high 70s and also the low 50s. Planning a meal ahead of time can be difficult if you’re looking to match your meals to the weather. One thing always seems to work for me as long as it’s not too hot, and that’s roast chicken.   You might not want to keep the oven on for nearly two hours in the heat of summer, but it’s still OK even in our warmer March temperatures.

A couple of months ago I came across a food article that contained the word “hack” in the title. As someone who grew up thinking a hack was a taxicab, a person trying something he or she isn’t skilled at, or (as a verb) to cut away at blindly, I’m still getting used to using the word hack with computers. How in the world did we get to a place where this word has come to mean any idea that the reader may not have heard of before? Maybe if it’s a super-duper idea, but chances are if it’s in a Facebook or Twitter post it’s not going to change your life.

So I had to choke back my hatred for this incarnation of the word (I’m adding it to my list) to make myself read the article, which was about using a Bundt cake pan as a vertical roaster for chicken. Cover the center pillar of the pan with foil, then put various combinations of vegetables tossed in oil, salt, and pepper, in the bottom of the pan. Fit the chicken opening-side down onto the pillar, put the whole thing in the oven, and roast away. The vegetables in the pan will get cooked in the chicken fat and juices, and the chicken itself will brown beautifully.

Obviously, you could do the same thing with a vertical chicken roaster sitting in a small baking pan. But having all sorts of baking pans at home, I welcomed the chance to make something other than cake or meatloaf in the Bundt pan. (I also use it to hold an ear of corn when I’m cutting the kernels off: put the stem end of the corn in the center hole, then run your knife down along the cob. The cut kernels will fall into the pan instead of spraying all over. At least most of them will, anyway.)

One of my favorite old-school roast chicken recipes has potatoes, onion, artichoke hearts, and red bell pepper in the roasting pan along with the bird. So I’ve put those in here. Feel free to use an equivalent amount of other vegetables – just don’t use ones that cook too quickly. Even though the chicken pretty much covers the vegetables, and they’re definitely going to be soft, some like asparagus will start to disintegrate.

For wine, I’d go with Jérome’s Vieilles Vignes ($17). Equal parts Syrah and Braucol, it has a unique flavor – a little bit of clove and allspice in there that goes well with everything. Great to drink while you hack away at the chicken!



Bundt Pan Chicken with Potatoes and Artichoke Hearts

Serves 4

1 3-1/2 pound chicken, dried inside and out with paper towels

1 9 or 10-oz package frozen artichoke hearts, thawed

2 red onions, peeled

1 red bell pepper, cut in half vertically, stemmed and seeded

2 large red potatoes, cut lengthwise into six pieces each

Olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1-1/2 teaspoons dried thyme

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Cover the center pillar of the Bundt pan with a small piece of foil and set aside.

Trim about ¼-inch of the top leaves from the artichoke hearts (they can be tough) and put them in a large bowl with the potato wedges. Cut the top off the onions, but keep the root end intact. Cut the onions in half lengthwise, then cut each half lengthwise in three pieces. Add the onion to the bowl. Cut the pepper in one-inch strips and add to the bowl.

In a small bowl, combine the oregano and thyme with a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Add half the mixture to the bowl of vegetables, along with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss the vegetables, oil, and herb mixture together, and spoon into the bottom of the Bundt pan. Add another 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the rest of the herb mixture and combine well. Fit the cavity opening of the chicken onto the center pillar of the pan, moving the legs out to stabilize it. Brush the oil and herb mixture all over the chicken.

Bake for an hour to an hour and a quarter. Using an instant-read thermometer, check the temperature of the joint where the thigh meets the body. It should be about 170 degrees F. Roast longer if necessary. Carefully remove the chicken to a cutting board (I use wads of paper towels to do this.) Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, turn the oven off and put the Bundt pan with the vegetables back in while the chicken is resting.

Carve the chicken and serve with the vegetables and their juices.

Posted in Sustainability, Sustainable farming, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cookbook Author Wine Talk with François de Mélogue

Chef, restaurateur, blogger, and author François de Mélogue. As part of a discussion of his new cookbook, he and I spent a lot of time talking about wine. I thought our conversation deserved a post of its own, and because of it I'll be doing a monthly feature discussing wine with my favorite cookbook authors.

Chef, restaurateur, blogger, and author François de Mélogue. As part of a discussion of his new cookbook, he and I spent a lot of time talking about wine. I thought our wine conversation deserved a post of its own, and because of it I’ll be doing a monthly feature discussing wine with my favorite cookbook authors.

This post marks the début of a new monthly feature – a discussion on wine with authors of some of my favorite cookbooks. I got the idea after a conversation with chef and author François de Mélogue about his new cookbook, Cuisine of the Sun. As our chat got to be more and more about wine, I realized that it would be fun to talk to other cookbook authors about wine, too.

Some cookbooks feature wine prominently, both in the recipes and in discussions of what to drink with them. Others don’t necessarily, even if wine gets used as an ingredient in many of the recipes. But wine is an important part of the food experience for many, if not most cooks. And in the few conversations I’ve had so far, there’s been a wide-ranging discussion.

I’m not a journalist by training, and have little experience with formal interviews. I tried to be respectful of people’s time and prepared a few basic questions to ask everyone. But the discussions quickly became longer ones. Really fun, and I’ll be writing condensed versions of our conversations. I hope you enjoy them.




Cuisine of the sun cover

A couple of years ago, I asked blogger friends which blogs I should read for examples of good food photography. Among the responses were some recommending a blog called Eat ‘till you Bleed. It’s written by chef, restaurateur, blogger, and now cookbook author François de Mélogue. I started reading the blog on and off, and the photos were amazing. Then, a couple of months ago, I got asked if I wanted to see a review copy of his new cookbook, Cuisine of the Sun, and I agreed. I wrote about the book in my last post, which also contains some of our conversation.

The road to writing the book was a long one. François grew up in Chicago, attended cooking school in New England, and then worked in restaurants in the U.S. and Paris. He opened Pili Pili in Chicago 2003, and it was named one of the top restaurants in the world by Food and Wine Magazine. He and his wife, Lisa, settled in Portland, Oregon, and François decided to step away as a full-time chef so they could have a more regular family life with their son, who is now five years old. In addition to blogging and food photography, François is a sales representative and, as he calls it, “de facto chef” for a company specializing in foods of the Pacific Northwest.

Who is the audience for your book?  I notice there are things in there that people might not ordinarily make, like fish stock and foie gras sauce.  I hope people will approach it with a willingness to play around.  There’s a lot of dumbing down in cookbooks because people don’t know how to cook anymore.  I’m hoping that people who use my book are a little adventurous, no matter how experienced they are.  And fearless and sophisticated, too.

I have to say, the photos are stunning.  I want to eat everything in there.  I appreciate that, it took me a lot of practice to figure out how to photograph food so that you see pretty much just the food, yet still get a sense of where it comes from.  I hate over-stylized food photos, because I think most food looks great as it is.  Both ingredients and finished dishes.

I’ve been hearing that the locus of home cooking first moved from France to Italy in the 1990s, and now it’s more in the eastern Mediterranean.  So why a French cookbook?  Especially one that’s got classic dishes that might seem a little more complicated.  French isn’t the primary fancier cooking of the world anymore, and I think people need a reminder of how good it is.  It’s like reacquainting with an old lover, you meet after a long time and remember all the things you loved about each other.

I’m guessing by your name and the book that you’re partial to French wines? I’m definitely Eurocentric in my wine tastes, although I spent time working for a winery making Pinot in the Anderson Valley and enjoy U.S. wines. But my introduction to wine was absolutely French – champagne got smuggled into the hospital when my mother was giving birth to me, and I got a taste of it right away. I talk about it in the book. I’m sure the doctor wasn’t too happy about it, but he knew better than to argue with her.

And how about growing up? You and I are about the same age, and I remember my childhood in Connecticut as not very wine-friendly.   There was a lot of Bolla on the shelves, and that was as far as foreign wines went, at least before the Blue Nun invasion. I remember the Bolla and some old Chianti bottles, too. But we were lucky in Chicago, we could get some good French wines, and my parents liked to entertain. My mother cooked French food, but not because she learned cooking in her French childhood – she used Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But she certainly had lots of excellent food in France, both made by her father’s cook and from great restaurants.  My parents loved eating at great restaurants.  We also had Italian neighbors who made meals for friends, including my family, and I got exposed to great Italian food and wine through them.

My grandfather owned a hotel and auberge in the Perigord, and at least once a year he would visit his favorite Bordeaux producers to buy wine to serve and drink. When we’d go over to visit, I got to try a lot of wine. And, of course, a lot of wonderful food, too. It’s great having those memories, and they get called up when I have certain foods and wines. It got me interested in southern French food, and also Mediterranean food in general.

It sounds like a great, natural food and wine education. Was there an early wine experience that stood out for you? My grandfather gave me a bottle of 1964 Château Margaux since I was born in 1964. I won’t ever forget it. I’m putting milestone wines away for my son now.

What wines do you like to have on hand to drink every day at home?  You can imagine, we drink a lot of wine. Twice a year, a local wine store has a big sale. My wife and I go and buy single bottles of things that interest us. We take them home, try them all right away, they go back and get cases and cases of the things we liked. In general, we go for wines from Provence, and also Beaujolais Villages, which are a great value. We drink a lot of rosé, too.

I think rosés are underused outside of the summertime. My French producers drink them all year round. True, but there’s just something about them in the summer, plus they’re a great summer value as far as wine goes. I think my family’s consumption supports at least one small winery in Provence.

How about nicer wines? I make a big lunch on Saturday or Sunday at home. That’s when I bring out the Bordeaux, sometimes a Burgundy, Rhônes, or maybe an Italian or Spanish wine too. I don’t necessarily think you have to serve “nicer” wines with nicer food, but they help elevate an already great experience even more.

This was my first interview-type chat about wine that wasn’t with a winemaker, wine writer, or wine merchant, and it was really fun. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I had fun, too. I could go on for at least another hour about wine, but I think it’s time for us both to have a drink!


I asked François for permission to reprint one of the recipes in Cuisine of the Sun, Chicken in Half Mourning. The version below contains my clarifications after talking with him about the recipe. It’s a dish that became popular in Lyon in the 1920s, thanks to Eugénie Brazier, who is considered the mother of modern French cooking. François uses her recipe with a few modifications.  It’s kind of a simple preparation, despite the luxury ingredients.

Yet another of the beautiful food photos from François de Mélogue's Cuisine of the sun, taken by the author.

Yet another of the beautiful food photos from François de Mélogue’s Cuisine of the Sun, taken by the author.


The name Chicken in Half Mourning comes from the slices of black truffle under the skin of the chicken breast. It makes the chicken look covered in black, like a woman in mourning. (You can see the effect more in the photo in the last post.)  The bird gets poached in chicken stock, leeks, and carrots, and is served with a sauce made from foie gras. You can also serve the poaching liquid as a first course, it will be delicious.

This isn’t a recipe you’re going to decide to make on the spur of the moment. For one thing, the chicken with the truffle slices has to rest in the fridge overnight. And you need really good chicken stock, so if you don’t have it around you’ll have to make that, too. (Sorry about that, normally I’d say you could doctor up some boxed chicken stock. But you’ve got truffles and foie gras in this recipe, so I’m going to have to say no…)

A couple of things to note about the ingredients. You should find the best chicken you can. And François calls for using Grade B foie gras in the sauce. Grade B tastes as good as Grade A, but doesn’t look as nice. You may not be able to find it. But D’Artagnan sells trimmings from Grade A foie gras at a pretty good price (pretty good for foie gras, anyway), so you could use those as well. You only need 4 ounces, and it’s difficult to get that small a quantity from a mail-order source. But you can definitely freeze the rest, particularly if you want to make this recipe again, or make patés or terrines with it. Fresh black truffles aren’t necessarily easy to get, and you’ll need two of them, so plan to make the dish when you can get your hands on them.

Everyone should get some slices of breast meat with the truffles, and some pieces of dark meat. To serve, remove the breast halves from the bones, then slice crosswise. I’d bone and cut up the thighs, too, and then keep the drumsticks and wings for the people who really like them. As I mentioned before, you can serve the broth as a soup, with or without straining it. Keep a little to moisten the chicken on the serving platter.

For wine, I’d go with a red that has some earthiness because of the truffles. Cave la Vinsobraise 2011 Emeraude ($18) is 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah, made from old-vine grapes and aged lightly in oak. Wines from Vinsobres are earthier than others in the southern Rhône valley, and it would work really well here.

Chicken in Half Mourning

From Cuisine of the Sun, by François de Mélogue. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

Serves 4 to 6

Preparing the chicken

2 fresh black truffles

1 3-1/2-pound whole chicken

Use a small paring knife to remove the skin of the truffles. Put the peelings in the Madeira you’ll be using for the sauce and set aside (see the sauce instructions, below). Cut the truffles into 1/8-inch slices. Using your fingers, gently separate the skin on the breast from the meat. Gently tuck the truffle slices under the skin. The chicken will almost look black, like a woman in mourning. Put the chicken on a plate and let it sit overnight in the fridge, uncovered, to let the truffle flavor permeate the meat.

Poaching the chicken

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 leek, sliced thin and washed

2 carrots, peeled and sliced thin

1 sprig fresh tarragon

1 sprig fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

2 teaspoons sea salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

2 quarts chicken stock

Find a sauce pot large enough to hold the chicken and all the chicken stock. Melt the butter and add the sliced leeks and carrots. Sauté for 5 or 6 minutes, until soft, stirring often to prevent browning. Add the herbs and the bay leaf and cook a bit more. While the herbs are in the pot, sprinkle the chicken all over with salt and pepper. Add the chicken stock to the pot and bring to a boil on high heat. Lower the chicken in and bring back to a boil. Lower the heat and poach for 40 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let the chicken rest in the liquid for an additional 30 minutes.

Let the chicken rest on a cutting board for 15 minutes before slicing and serving. Keep the chicken moist with a little of the poaching liquid. You can also serve the liquid as a soup, strained or unstrained.

Foie Gras Sauce

¼ cup Madeira

Truffle peelings

½ cup heavy cream, warmed

Juice from half a lemon, or 1 tablespoon Verjus

4 ounces Grade B foie gras, at room temperature

Flaked sea salt

Cracked black pepper

Put the Madeira in a small non-metal bowl and heat it briefly in the microwave to warm it. Add the truffle peelings and leave them in the Madeira while you poach the chicken. When you’re ready to make the sauce, remove the peelings. Combine the Madeira and the lemon juice in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Off the heat, start whisking in the foie gras in about 1 tablespoon amounts. Add some of the cream as you do this if needed to make it into a sauce. Then whisk in the remaining cream. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep the sauce warm, but don’t boil it. Put into a sauce bowl and serve with the chicken.

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Occasional Cookbook Review – Cuisine of the Sun by François de Mélogue

This is one of two posts in a new series for the Vine Art Blog. Once a month or so, I’ll be interviewing cookbook authors and part of our discussion will be about wine. Some of the authors and their books are well-known (how’s that for a teaser?) but others you might not know about. This particular post is for a new book that many of you won’t have heard of yet. So I’ve written a book review in addition to the wine interview with the author. This won’t happen every time, but I hope you’ll enjoy both the review and the interview posts.

What follows is a sort of hybrid review and interview. I started out writing it as a strict review. But part of my wine conversation with François de Mélogue got into a discussion about the cookbook and the food in it, so I thought I’d incorporate those into the review as well as the wine discussion. Let’s call it an “interreview” until I come up with a better word for it.




Cuisine of the sun coverMy husband Cy and I decided to start the business that became First Vine after a 2002 trip to France. I’m not sure the word “enchanted” is enough to describe how we felt about being in the southern Rhône Valley. A big part of our fascination was the food and wine. That’s an old story for many, probably told most famously by Julia Child. Certainly, there are other places in the world where you can experience the culinary confluence: what grows together goes together and extreme care to use the best ingredients no matter what you’re serving, and then somehow make it all look as appealing as possible. But for Cy and me, this was our first, and you never forget your first.

We tried our best to recreate the magic when we got home. It’s easy to get French wine in the U.S. And there’s plenty of French food around, and lots of French cookbooks. Over the past 20 years it has been easier to find books that get down to the regional level, like Provence and southwestern France. Some of them, and their recipes, are quite good. But I never opened a cookbook and felt like I was there in Provence until reading François de Mélogue’s Cuisine of the Sun.

De Mélogue told me that he had originally intended to write a pan-Mediterranean cookbook, and started out with the food of southern France. By the time he finished even a small part of the region’s food, though, he realized that the level of detail and trying to give you a sense of being there would make it difficult to go beyond in one volume.

As you might guess, de Mélogue is French by heritage, although he was born and raised in Chicago. His mother’s home cooking and entertaining were in the French style, and he spent summers at his grandfather’s in the Perigord. He doesn’t cook only French food. But he wants to remind people just how good French food can be. “It’s not the primary fancier cooking of the world anymore,” he told me. When it’s well done, though, there’s nothing like it, and it takes people by surprise when they haven’t tried it in a while. “It’s like reacquainting with an old lover, you meet after a long time and remember the things you loved about each other.”

One of the many beautiful photos in François de Mélogue's book. This is Chicken in Half Mourning, and the recipe appears in the next post.

One of the many beautiful photos in François de Mélogue’s book. This is Chicken in Half Mourning, and the recipe appears in the next post.

The first thing you’ll notice even without looking at the recipes is that the food photos are stunning. De Mélogue took them himself. He told me that he hates the look of over-stylized food. Most food is beautiful all by itself, and doesn’t need a whole lot of fussing to look appealing. But I know from my own experience that good food photography is difficult. These photos rival any you’ll find in the most beautiful cookbooks today, and are miles ahead of those in any other self-published cookbook I’ve ever seen. They make you want that food, and give you a sense of what it’s like to be in a place where food like that gets made. Even without any Provençal scenery in them.

De Mélogue is a chef and former restaurateur, and many of the recipes in the book are ones he made in Pili Pili, his Chicago restaurant. I spoke with a few people who have eaten his food and they all raved about it. There are lots of French classics here, modified by de Mélogue. You’ll find Tapenade, Bourride (he created his version as a result of a boast to someone he didn’t think would call him on it), Beef Daube, Provençal Fish Stew, and Chicken in Half Mourning, plus a bunch of dishes that don’t necessarily have famous names but are definitely foods you’d recognize as Provençal by their ingredients and how they’re used.

As you’d probably expect from a French-inspired cookbook written by a resident of Portland, Oregon, there’s a big emphasis on the quality of ingredients in the book. De Mélogue even profiles some of the local farmers from whom he buys ingredients. He also sets out a thought process for using and respecting those ingredients. In a nutshell: you shouldn’t make a recipe that’s meant to have the freshest ingredients if those fresh ingredients aren’t available. At the same time, though, you should be able to use the fresh ingredients you do have to make something that captures the spirit of the recipe. It might not end up with the same Provençal flavors, exactly, but it will be “Provençal” in using great local ingredients.

After a careful reading, I think most people who cook reasonably well could make about three-quarters of the dishes and be happy with the results. The recipes aren’t for beginners, though, and de Mélogue told me that he wrote the book for the more adventurous cook, regardless of skill level. What you won’t find is too much hand-holding. As an experienced cook, I appreciate that. Still, I found myself wishing for a bit more standardization in ingredient lists and instructions. And although I understand that even the most careful proofreading can miss some things, there are a couple of glaring errors. No doubt there will be a corrected electronic version in the future.

I have to admit that the errors gave me pause. But while writing this, I read an interview with NPR arts critic Bob Mondello. He said, “When you come out of something that you’re excited about, the first thing you want to do is call somebody and tell them how great this thing is. When you come out of something that you really hated, the first thing you want to do is have a drink.” When I read this book, I definitely was excited about it and wanted to call my Francophile friends and tell them to buy it right away. I’m looking forward to cooking my way through this one.

Cuisine of the Sun: A Ray of Sunshine on Your Plate, by François de Mélogue. Available at his blog, Eat ‘till you Bleed. Electronic version $7.99 (regularly $9.99); hard copy $24.99.

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A new First Vine home, and how we’re getting there

I'd like to think I look this good with my headphones on.  But I found it's far better to read a book or newspaper when you're waiting for your number to be called in DC government offices.

I’d like to think I look this good with my headphones on. But I found it’s far better to skip the hipster fashion statement and read a book or newspaper when you’re waiting for your number to be called in DC government offices.

It has been a long time since you’ve seen a blog post from me.   The winter blogging doldrums are partly responsible. This, despite a slew of “I can’t believe they sent these things,” PR come-ons from wine brands with goofy names.  (Little Black Dress wines?  Seriously?)  Even they couldn’t get me to put fingers to keyboard.  But mostly I’ve been busy, and not just selling wine.

What’s been going on?  The big news is that the warehouse where we’ve been storing wine is getting out of the storage business. So we’re moving the location of First Vine’s DC liquor license.   Every liquor license here – even internet-only ones – are tied to a commercially-zoned location. And not just any location, either.  When we first applied for our license back in 2006, we had to make sure that the business wouldn’t be within 400 feet of any other business with the same type of liquor license. And not within 400 feet of a public park, school, senior center, or daycare center, either.

We threaded the needle back then and set up First Vine. Luckily, though, the distance requirement isn’t mandatory for internet-only businesses anymore. So it was much easier to find a new location. We got one, signed the lease and buildout agreement, and then embarked on getting the license moved.

You might think this would be a simple thing. After all, we already have a liquor license and all. Well, no…we pretty much had to start from the beginning. What follows is a list, not a complaint. Everyone I met with, spoke to by phone, or e-mailed has been helpful and courteous. It’s just that there’s a lot to do. It has pretty much been a second full-time job.

First off, this has meant lots of paperwork (literally half of which had to be notarized), five separate visits to DC government offices other than the alcohol regulators (including police headquarters), plus a letter to the local neighborhood government for the new location introducing First Vine and setting the stage for what’s to come, including:

— Posting official signs that a new alcohol-related business will be operating at the new location. The signs have to be up for 45 days, and the license is only granted after the posting period ends.

— Separate paperwork that allows us to start moving wine into the new location once the buildout is done, while we continue to operate the license from the old location.

— A request to the local neighborhood government to allow us to start operating before the official posting period ends.

— Final approval by the city’s alcohol board and issuing of the new license.

Like I said, no complaints. Things have gone surprisingly well so far (furiously knocking on wood right now). In fact, my liquor license attorney has suggested that I consider a job as a paperwork expeditor for other businesses.   I’ve also learned a few things that will stand me in good stead for the future.  And you, too, should you find yourself in a similar situation (assuming you don’t hire me as your expeditor):

  • Do not don headphones to listen to music, podcasts, etc., when you’re waiting to see anyone in DC government. Do things the old-fashioned way and bring print material. You won’t miss your name or number being called and you’ll get to catch up on your reading. Yes, you can use your electronic reader or your phone for this, but paper makes me feel retro. And if you bring a newspaper, you can share it with others waiting. I’ve met a few very nice people that way.
  • We all know that not all Starbucks are created equal. However, the one down by the office of the DC Regulatory Administration in Southwest DC is ridiculously sub-par. I’ve had two terrible lattes there, so they’ve got one strike left. (Yes, a first-world problem, I know.)
  • Giving credit where it’s due: the Safeway at the Waterfront metro stop has good, cheap grab-and-go lunches. So you won’t be hungry, even if you’re under-caffeinated.

No recipe this week. But starting next time, I’ll have a new occasional feature that involves wine, recipes, and even interviews. How’s that for not giving too much away?



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Deck the halls without wine?

'Tis also the season for novelty wine labels. But resist the urge to drink wine with Christmas carols!

‘Tis also the season for novelty wine labels. But resist the urge to drink wine while belting out Christmas carols! (Photo from

This time of year, every wine blogger struggles to come up with a holiday-themed post. Unlike Thanksgiving, where most people still eat turkey, the winter holiday season is filled with a huge variety of food, making generalized pairings difficult. There’s a lot of defaulting to champagne or other sparkling wines. Not because they necessarily go with the food (although they probably will), but because they seem more festive. And who doesn’t want festive this time of year?

But lo and behold, I have a piece of holiday-specific pairing advice: Don’t pair wine and Christmas carols.

A few weeks ago, I listened to an interview with Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University. Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen questioned Spence about his experiments on sounds and flavor. In particular, the interaction of wine and music, and whether music can enhance particular flavors in wine.

My own experience working in food product development reminded me that all sorts of stimuli can affect the flavor of food. What we perceive of as the “right” color for a particular food can make us believe that the food tastes better than it does – even over something that tastes better in a blind tasting but has the “wrong” color for that particular food item. But I’d never heard anything about sound affecting the taste of food.

Dr. Spence’s research is publicly available and remarkably jargon-free, and I recommend you read some of his work. Here are a few findings that stood out for me:

Yeah, OK, you can call me a grinch for my banishing wine and carols. But if you really like your wine, you'll thank me.

Yeah, OK, you can call me a grinch for banishing the combo of wine and carols. But if you really like your wine, you’ll thank me. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

  • In general, pleasant – or at least, conventionally melodic – music makes food taste better, while unpleasant (dissonant, irregularly rhythmic) music either suppresses flavor or actively makes food taste bad.
  • Very loud music or noise also suppresses flavor, and can make food taste bad. (Take that, you trendy hipster/millennial restaurants – I’m not just an old coot after all!)
  • As for wine and music specifically, Spence found that higher-pitched music tends to enhance the sweetness of wine, while lower-pitched music can make tannins more pronounced.

So how did we get from here to my warning about Christmas carols? (Yes, I’m the one being the Grinch, not Dr. Spence.) While Christmas carols are generally pleasant (and conventionally melodic), they definitely become less pleasant with repeated hearings. And it’s one thing to have them on as background music, but if you’re singing them, they’re definitely loud. Finally, all those jingling bells and angel choruses are most likely high-pitched. So unless you’re setting out to drink sweet wine, you might find yourself unpleasantly surprised at how the carols make your wine taste unintentionally (if only slightly) sweet.

Of course, there are plenty of things other than wine to drink with your carols. I think a smoky single-malt scotch would be great – particularly jingly carols might suppress some of the bitter notes and give a slight sweetness that might not otherwise be noticeable. Or try something with a dash of bitters, like a Manhattan.  You could take a completely different tack and try sweetened, spiced wine with your carols, too.  (You won’t catch me doing that, though.)

Spence admits up front that the idea of music and wine enhancing each other doesn’t sit well with everyone. And also that a professional taster might want to eliminate sound distractions because they’ll potentially interfere with concentration, not necessarily that they’ll affect the taste of the wine. Still, I think it’s certainly worth exploring, and I’ll try to remember to find some fitting music to play the next time I open a really good bottle.

In the meantime, I’m hoping that Christmas carols don’t really make wine taste bad.  Maybe I’ll have to experiment and see if there are just the right carols to go with particular wines.  An excuse to drink during the day for science — that’s my real holiday gift!


You may remember a post I wrote lo these many years ago about the eggnog party Cy and I host every December. This year will be our 15th one. We make three different kinds of eggnog, all without booze, and let our guests put whatever they want in their glasses.

And every year we make a bunch of sweets to go with the eggnog. Because the nog itself doesn’t have enough sugar, right?😉 Although we have a core group of cookies and such that we make every year, we do occasionally try to add something new. Last year, we thought it would be fun to make a figgy pudding – like the carol commands. We looked for recipes, but “puddings” aren’t exactly finger food. And they seemed like more trouble than even the most demanding of cookies.

Instead, we decided to go with a recipe I found for shortbread cookies with some fig jam in them. The recipe was easy enough (bar cookies are definitely your friend when you have to make a lot of them), but seemed a little bland. So I spiced them up, with cardamom, ground cloves, ground mace, and cinnamon. I also added a little ground white pepper, an ingredient in some spice cookies. The result was delicious, and I think they’ll enhance any holiday table. A few tips: definitely use parchment paper and make the sheet long enough so you can lift the cookies right out of the pan, using the paper as a kind of sling. It will make your life easier. Also, it’s worth investing in a straight-sided 13 x 9 inch pan for baking. The corners all come out perfectly, and you don’t get slanty or curvy end pieces. Finally, I found that two jars of fig spread were still not enough to get the 1-1/2 cups needed for the recipe. So I added about a quarter cup of apricot preserves. The cookies are really rich, so a little zip is nice.

Bernard Mante's new Blanc de Blancs champagne is made from 100% Chardonnay. According to a recent study, it won't give you the health benefits found in champagne containing red wine grapes. But why are you looking for a health beverage at the holidays anyway?

Bernard Mante’s new Blanc de Blancs champagne is made from 100% Chardonnay. According to a recent study, it won’t give you the health benefits found in champagne containing red wine grapes. But why are you looking for a health beverage at the holidays anyway?

Fig jam isn’t necessarily easy to find unless you’re in the southern U.S. But you can probably find Adriatic Fig Spread at a supermarket that has a good cheese section. It’s often served with cheese, especially blue cheeses. But it’s delicious on toast, too.  And really intense, because it’s made with dried figs.  You’ll know there are figs in these cookies.

I’m going to default to the typical blogger recommendation this season and go with champagne. Why fight tradition if you don’t have to?  There’s something wonderful about buttery goodness along with champagne. All of our champagnes from Bernard Mante are good. But if you’re looking for something exceptional, try his new Blanc de Blancs ($52). It’s 100% Chardonnay. According to the latest health study hoo-ha, Blanc de Blancs won’t give you that extra cardiovascular and possible memory protection that you’ll find in champagnes with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. But were you really expecting a health drink to go along with your butter and sugar? ‘Tis the season folks, don’t fight it!

Cheers and Happy Holidays!


Fig and Shortbread Cookies

Makes 4 dozen cookies

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1-1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

1 teaspoon salt

4-1/2 cups all-purpose flour (measured by dipping the dry measure cup into the flour and sweeping the top level with the cup)

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg

1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground white pepper

1 1/2 cups fig jam, preserves, or dried fig spread

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray. Cut a length of parchment paper long enough to line the bottom of the pan with a little extra to hang over the short sides. Spray the paper and the uncovered sides of the pan again.

In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and spices. Combine the butter and sugars in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer set at medium speed, beat until creamy, about 4 minutes. Beat in the vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract. On low speed, mix in the flour mixture in four parts, beating just until incorporated. Once all the flour is in, beat for about 30 seconds if the dough doesn’t seem mixed.

Press one third of the shortbread dough into the prepared pan, in an even layer. Wrap the remaining shortbread dough in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge. Bake the bottom crust until it is firm and just beginning to turn a pale golden brown, about 30 to 35 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven, and spread the jam or preserves evenly over the crust. Using your fingers, crumble all of the remaining chilled shortbread dough over the jam to form a pebbly, crumbled topping. Return the pan to the oven and continue baking until the topping is firm and pale golden in color, 35 to 45 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Use a knife to loosen the bars from the edge of the pan, then grab the overhanging parchment and lift the whole thing straight out and onto a cutting board. Peel away the parchment paper. Slice the bars in any size you like – you should get at least 48 small cookies from the pan.

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