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

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

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

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

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

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

2.  Customers who are related to the winemakers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.  Interesting deliveries

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Calamari in Tomato Sauce

Serves 6 to 8

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

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, finely minced

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

¾ cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon tomato paste

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

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

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

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

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

Cookbook author wine talk with Lucinda Scala Quinn

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



Spinach Zucchini Lasagne (with Eggplant Variation)

Serves 8

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

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped

2 teaspoons coarse salt

2 pounds baby spinach

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 quart whole milk

1 packed cup grated Parmesan cheese

¾ teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg

¼ teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

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

8 ounces no-boil lasagna noodles

6 ounces mozzarella, shredded

1/3 packed cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eggplant Variation

In addition to the ingredients above you’ll need:

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

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

1 cup good tomato sauce

4 extra ounces shredded mozzarella (10 ounces total)

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

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







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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



Pasta Risotto

Serves 4 to 6

6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

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

½ cup good olive oil

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons tomato paste

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

2 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

A large pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

2 – 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

½ cup (2 ounces) grated Parmesan

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

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

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Cookbook author (non) wine talk with Michael Stern

Jane and Michael Stern, and the crew of Roadfood. The Sterns changed food writing in the U.S., and were a huge influence on wine writing as well.

Jane and Michael Stern, and the crew of Roadfood. The Sterns changed food writing in the U.S., and were a huge influence on wine writing as well.

“I don’t drink wine, and neither does Jane,” was the first thing Michael Stern said to me as we started our conversation. “So, I hope this doesn’t short-circuit our talk!”

Not a chance. One of the reasons I wanted to speak to Jane and Michael Stern is because I admire their writing so much. They started writing about U.S. regional food in the 1970s, publishing their first Roadfood book in 1977. Their articles in Gourmet and The New Yorker magazines showed their skill at both long and short-form pieces, bringing a new descriptive vocabulary to food. It’s no exaggeration to say that they changed food writing – especially American food writing. And I think their influence has extended to wine writing as well.

The glossy U.S. wine magazines we read today started in the few years after the Sterns began driving around the country and writing about the roadside food places that they encountered. Their food writing, then and now, focused on the connections of the food to the place it comes from, the people who make and serve it, and who farm the ingredients. Those characteristics also started showing up in wine magazine writing, and these days are the main focus of writing outside of wine reviews. But the content and style certainly didn’t come from anything you’d have found in the previous decades. All you have to do is read Gourmet’s compendium of its 20th century wine writing to see that what we have now is a lot more like what the Sterns were doing when they started out than what was available from U.S. wine writers at the time.

Jane and Michael Stern met as graduate students at Yale, both studying art. They had various jobs after they finished school, and began working on a book about long-haul truckers (Jane’s Trucker: A Portrait of the Last American Cowboy, was published in 1975). Doing the research meant that they got in the car and drove to interviews all over the country. And, of course, stopped at all sorts of roadside places for food. At the time, there were barely any U.S. restaurant guides — and certainly not guides to the places where they were looking to eat. So they decided to write one themselves, which became the first Roadfood book. They’ve updated the book periodically, and will publish a new edition in 2017. Along the way, they’ve written cookbooks containing their favorite road food recipes, other books on food and culture, and started the roadfood.com site in 2000.

I first learned about Roadfood from my parents, they had an early 1980s-edition of the book. These days, I consult the site for places to eat while traveling — most recently Cy and I were in Akron, OH, and went to Swensons drive-in for burgers on their recommendation. And I always try to catch them talking with Lynne Rosetto Kasper on “The Splendid Table” radio show and podcast. Hearing them is just as entertaining as reading them. Michael and I spoke recently by phone, and what follows is a condensed version of our conversation.


I have to try one wine question. When you’re visiting places that are in wine regions, do you find local wines there, even if you’re not drinking them yourselves? Mostly no. I recently visited some seafood shacks where people were bringing tablecloths to put on the picnic tables and also wine to drink with their meals. But the kind of places we write about are barbecue joints, hot dog and hamburger stands, food like that. Most of them don’t even have liquor licenses.

Fair enough! Along with the food I found through your books and site, I really enjoy the writing. It’s so descriptive and I feel like I’m right there with you. Was writing something that came naturally to either you or Jane? I appreciate the compliment. Writing didn’t come to either one of us naturally.  We weren’t journalism or English majors, we were studying art. But I do think that being an art historian helped. Describing art, its appearance, textures, etc., is good training for describing the appearance and taste of food.


What was that process like at first? We made the connection that flavor could be thought of as a work of art. And in writing about it, we had to consider the emotional, visceral, and tactile elements of what was in front of us and find a way to make what we wrote convey those things. As opposed to just describing what was on the plate.

We were self-taught at it, but we had help from great publications we wrote for. Especially writing “Talk of the Town” pieces for The New Yorker. It can be really hard to keep a piece under 500 words, you have to get right to the point of what’s interesting. That was great training for writing short pieces for the website when it came along.

Today, lots of people are interested in the provenance of their food and the people who make it. But was that a tough sell to a publisher when you started the first Roadfood book? Definitely. In the 1970s, we were told that the idea of writing a book about American food was preposterous. We had to twist our publisher’s arms because they thought there wasn’t enough interesting American food.

How did you convince them? We were always interested in the cultural context of the food we were eating, and that was the way in. And it happened to fit the food we were writing about. Here in the U.S., we don’t have — for lack of a better term I’m going to call them The Cordon Bleu Set of Standards — in other words, a common, universally known set of rules or whatever for what constitutes fine French food. And people who want to read about that type of cuisine are going to understand those standards, so the writer can simply focus on describing what’s on the plate; the food, its appearance, etc.

But here in the U.S., where you have something like 500 different types of barbecue, we took a different approach. Each one of those 500 reflects the people who make it, the place it comes from, the people who grow or make the ingredients, the people who serve it, and the people who eat it. It’s uncodified cuisine. So we wrote about the cultural context and that opened up the path for us.

Have you written about food outside the U.S.? Gourmet sent us on a few trips abroad, like to Paris. I think they saw it as a sort of “fish out of water” story. We certainly had fun on the trips and writing about them. But we didn’t feel like we had the same kind of cultural understanding of the people, places, and food abroad as we had developed in the U.S. And without that understanding, “Roadfood France” wasn’t going to work.

Cy and I visited Swensons drive-in while we were in Akron, at the recommendation of Roadfood. What's not to love about a place where you flash your lights and they bring you food?

Cy and I visited Swensons drive-in while we were in Akron, at the recommendation of Roadfood. What’s not to love about a place where you flash your lights and they bring you food?

That’s interesting — I feel the same way when people ask me why I don’t import new-world wines. And I think that’s why my favorite of your books is Blue Plate Specials & Blue Ribbon Chefs. It’s like talking to my wine producers, who often are just the latest generation to make wine on land their families have owned for more than a century, and they have similarly deep community roots. Well, I’m happy you said that — I really like that book as well. It gave Jane and me a little more opportunity to satisfy our interest in the connections of people and their food, their families, and a little community history and heritage, too. Especially since we had launched the website a year before and were trying to keep those entries shorter.

When I was in my 20s, I cooked my own food, but mostly had to buy whatever was in the supermarket. Today, my 20-something friends frequent local food markets and farmers’ markets and cook from what they find. They want their restaurants to do the same. It’s really an extension of what you and Jane started doing in Roadfood 40 years ago. Does it surprise you to see how far the local aspect has come these days?  It really does.  The consciousness about food and ingredients has definitely increased.  A few weeks ago I was at an ice cream stand in rural upstate New York and saw “Bluebarb” on the menu board.  I went up to the counter where a teenager was working and asked, “So, that’s blueberry and rhubarb, right?”  The guy replied, “Yes.  And we get the blueberries from X farm on W road, and the rhubarb from Y farm on Z road.”  Maybe in the old days customers would automatically know where those ingredients came from, but I was surprised — and glad — to hear it.


Well, I think you and Jane definitely played a big part in making it happen. Thanks so much for talking with me! My pleasure, Tom, I don’t know how much credit we can take, but lots of good memories here!


Blue Plate Specials is my favorite of Jane and Michael Stern's cookbooks. It reminds me of my visits to my wine producers.

Blue Plate Specials is my favorite of Jane and Michael Stern’s cookbooks. It reminds me of my visits to my wine producers.

One of the reasons I love listening to the Sterns on “The Splendid Table” radio show is because Jane sounds almost exactly like the mother of one of my high school friends. Jane’s voice and laugh take me right back to my friend’s house all those years ago. Inevitably, I’d be over there until late on Christmas Eve, helping them get Christmas in under the wire. They’d make most of their gifts and of course there was a lot of last-minute finishing, each of them in a separate room with instructions to everyone but me not to wander in without warning. Most years I’d be putting up and decorating their tree starting at about 10 pm.

As I remember it, they’d usually have takeout food for the Christmas marathon. But they’d also make side dish casseroles to serve. So this week’s recipe is for a great side dish, from the Blue Ribbon Chefs book — Mrs. Rowe’s Summer Squash Casserole. It comes from Rowe’s Restaurant in Staunton, Virginia. Here’s some of what Jane and Michael wrote about the place:

“Even before the creation of this restaurant, Mildred Rowe was destined for renown. Her first cafe, opened in the 1940s in the small town of Goshen, was named The Far Famed Restaurant after a customer from California stopped by and declared, “This food is so good that everyone ought to know about it!” Once Mildred married Willard Rowe, proprietor of a forty-five-seat cafe in Staunton called Perk’s Bar-B-Q, the die was cast. She cooked during the day and waitressed at night. Perk’s was transformed into Rowe’s Steak House. Gradually, more of Mrs. Rowe’s strapping specialties were added to the menu, which became an encyclopedia of classic country cooking.”

They continue: “Many locals come to Rowe’s every day at lunch for a vegetable plate: three or four from that day’s roster, accompanied by warm dinner rolls and iced tea. In the summer, as gardens ripen, squash casserole is a frequent choice.”

I’ve made this squash casserole many times over the past 15 years. It’s hard to go wrong with bacon, cheese, and sour cream. But what makes it different than others is simmering the squash in water with some beef bouillon granules — it adds a little richness to every bite of squash. Of course, you can leave out the bacon and use vegetable bouillon for simmering the squash and it will still be very good. Add 2 tablespoons of melted butter to make up for the bacon drippings. I have made the casserole with yellow summer squash, pipians, zucchini, and pattypans, so pick what you like. It tastes good hot, warm, or at room temperature.

You’ll probably serve the casserole with some sort of protein and that will likely determine what kind of wine to serve. But the casserole is also good on its own with a side salad — in that case, I’d serve Bodega Traslagares Verdejo ($13). It has some acidity to counter the richness of the squash casserole, and goes well with most salads. Before long, you’ll be looking for excuses to make this recipe, wine pairing or not.



Mrs. Rowe’s Summer Squash Casserole

Makes 10-12 servings

From Blue Plate Specials & Blue Ribbon Chefs, by Jane and Michael Stern. Reprinted with the kind permission of Michael Stern.

2 slices bacon, fried and crumbled (reserve drippings)

6 cups diced summer squash (about 5 small but not tiny squash)

1 teaspoon beef bouillon granules (or 1 small cube, or half of a large cube)

1/4 cup grated onion

1 green pepper, chopped

1 cup sour cream

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

1 2-ounce jar pimento pieces, drained (or chop up 1 whole jarred pimento)

1 cup fresh bread crumbs (or enough to cover the casserole)

Butter for greasing casserole dish

1. Fry, drain, and crumble bacon, reserving drippings.

2. In a pot or pan, cover the squash with water, add the bouillon, and cook over medium heat until the squash is tender, about 20 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

4. Drain the squash and mash it up as much as you’d like. Add bacon, droppings, and all other ingredients except the bread crumbs. Pour into a buttered casserole dish (13 by 9 inches works) and top with bread crumbs. Bake one hour, or until browned and bubbly.

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What a difference a font makes

I haven't seen gothic font used for anything except Halloween party invitations in many, many years.

I haven’t seen gothic font used for anything except Halloween party invitations in many, many years.  (Photo from fonts101.com.)

I’ve written before about evolving styles in wine labels – from parchment with Olde Worlde calligraphy, to the endless etchings of farmhouses and vineyards, through minimalism, and now to something more representative of the winemakers’ philosophies.  But I got reminded a few weeks ago that wine lists have undergone a similar transformation.  Not just in what they contain, but also how they’re presented.

My husband Cy is the Library Director for a think tank here in DC.  One of the things the library is responsible for is maintaining and digitizing the organization’s archives.  You’d expect to find some pretty neat stuff in a place that has hosted world leaders within its doors.  And there is, definitely.  But also a lot of things that are less important for historic reasons, but interesting to see because they say something about a particular time.   Like documents about making arrangements for a 1985 board meeting and dinner in Chicago, complete with catering menu and a wine list.

It’s a neat kind of time capsule for a particular style of dining and drinking.  The dinner was held at The Chicago Club, a private club that still exists, and appears – at least from the photo on its homepage – to be every bit as leather-bound as you’d expect.  The main course for the dinner was “The Chicago Club Bone Tenderloin.” I’m guessing there wasn’t a vegetarian on the premises, or likely within miles.  What really caught my attention, though, was the wine list that the club sent to the client for a dinner selection.

No mistaking this for some piddling little wine list.  Big and impressive wines, like the food.  The pages labeled “Red Wines of France” have a number of lovely Bordeaux and Burgundies.  Among the domestic wines my 2016 self would be happy to get a bottle of the Stag’s Leap Cab if I were there.  Especially for $28.  I used an inflation calculator to see what $28 would be now, and it’s $62.26.  Can you imagine being able to get a bottle of six-year-old Stag’s Leap Cab for $62 in a restaurant today?  I’m guessing that you’d pay something more like $110 to $150, based on some random searching.  The 80s were clearly a prime time to be drinking great wines on the cheap.  Too bad I didn’t know better back then.  Imagine the insufferable prig I could be now, going on about the glory days!

Part of the first page of a wine list for a think tank board dinner in 1985. Note the very important font for the very important wines.

Part of the first page of a wine list for a think tank board dinner in 1985. Note the very important font for the very important wines.

And then there’s the font.  Because this is a very serious list of very serious wines.  It must be: Every. Single. Word. Is. In. Gothic. (including the prices).  I’ve looked at a number of restaurant menus from the 70s and 80s, and it wasn’t unusual to see gothic used on menus and wine lists, at least for white tablecloth restaurants that were more than, say, 20 years old.  This one has more gothic on it than usual, which doesn’t surprise me considering where it came from.  It definitely made things seem established, old-world, and reliable.  It says you can trust us to do right by your wine needs.  Just leave it to us, don’t worry your little heads about making a bad choice, because we’ve taken the guesswork out.

It’s as comforting now to have a well-selected wine list that’s designed to set off the food as it was in 1985.  Certainly that would include more than the usual suspects of California Cabs, Bordeaux, and Burgundy these days, even for a steakhouse.  But really, can you imagine people using gothic on a wine list today?  Even the Chicago Club, which looks like it hasn’t changed in 100 years, doesn’t use gothic on its website.  I’d like to be able to call it retro-kitsch, but I can’t – it just seems old and stuffy.  How did we ever take wine, or ourselves, that seriously?


I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t appreciate a good steakhouse meal, even if I made fun of it earlier.  It somehow feels more decadent to me than other meals.  Maybe because of all the red meat/saturated fat warnings we grew up with.  But also because the side dishes – often my favorite part of the meal – are drenched in butter.  That’s what makes them taste so good.  Creamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, potatoes made many ways, they’re all delicious.

So I thought I could try and make a dish that’s a combination of all those steakhouse sides, and maybe make it a little lighter.  (Not too much lighter, though.)  The result is a big hash brown topped with spinach, mushrooms, and a little cheese.  Cut it into wedges and serve it as a first course, a side dish, or a nice main dish with a little salad.  It’s also great for breakfast with eggs.

I like to use cooked potatoes for hash browns, it takes less time to brown them and you can cook the potatoes ahead of time.  In fact, it’s better that way – boil the potatoes in their skins and then put them in the fridge to cool completely.  They’re easier to grate and the hash browns hold together better.  And the inside gets just a little creamy, so you’ve got a hint of mashed potatoes in there as well.  While you’re cooking the hash browns in a small skillet, you can prepare the mushroom and spinach topping.  Other than precooking the potatoes, you’ve got it ready in about 45 minutes.

The mushrooms and cheese are naturals for red wine, even if you’re not going to have this with steak.  Choose something medium- to full-bodied, like Cave la Romaine Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret ($15).  It’s 70% Grenache, 30% Syrah, aged in concrete.  Séguret gets a lot of sun, so there’s a little more fruit and spice than you’d expect from so much Grenache.  But there’s still enough earthiness for the mushrooms and cheese.   Be sure to present it to your guests with gothic font on your exquisitely-printed menus (NOT)!



All-in-one Steakhouse Sides

(Hash browns topped with creamed spinach, mushrooms, and cheese)

Serves 4

2 large russet potatoes, scrubbed

8 to 9 ounces baby spinach

6 white or crimini mushrooms, sliced

1 large shallot, minced

1 tablespoon flour

¾ cup milk

1/3 cup grated Gruyère cheese

Unsalted butter

Olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

Put the potatoes in a saucepan and cover with water by at least an inch.  Put the pot over high heat, bring to a boil, then simmer the potatoes until tender, about a half hour.  Drain the potatoes and put them on a plate in the fridge for at least 2 hours, until cold.  You can also do this a day ahead.

Peel the cold potatoes, then grate them on the large holes of a box grater.  You should have between 2-1/2 and 3 cups.  Heat 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-inch nonstick skillet.  When the foam subsides, add the potatoes, a big pinch of salt, and some pepper.  Stir with a heatproof spatula to get everything well-coated, then press the potatoes into a flat layer in the pan.  Let it cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes or so, shaking the pan occasionally.  It should be nicely golden on the bottom.

In the meantime, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet, and saute the shallot with a pinch of salt until just starting to brown.  Add the spinach a handful at a time, and cook until the spinach is wilted.  Scrape the mixture into a small-holed strainer/colander and let it drain and cool for a few minutes.  Wipe out the pan, add a tablespoon of butter, and heat until the foam subsides.  Add the mushrooms and a little salt, then cover the pan and cook for about 5 minutes so the mushrooms release their liquid.  Uncover the pan, raise the heat, and cook until they start to brown, about 3 minutes more.  Set the mushrooms aside in a small bowl.

At this point, you’re ready to flip the potatoes.  Have a dinner plate at the ready.  Turn off the heat and move the skillet to a cool spot.  Put the plate upside down on top of the skillet.  Using potholders or kitchen towels, grab the whole thing –plate, skillet, and all – and turn it over.  Take the skillet off.  The potatoes will be cooked-side down.  Brush the top, uncooked side with a little olive oil.  Then put the skillet upside down over the potatoes and flip the whole thing again so the potatoes are back in the pan.  Press the potatoes down with the spatula, and let cook over medium-low heat for another 15-20 minutes, until browned on the bottom.

When the spinach is cool enough to handle, put the whole bundle in a large, clean kitchen towel (I have a green one just for this purpose).  Wrap up the sides of the towel, then squeeze over the sink to remove as much liquid as possible.  Set it aside.

Melt a tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan, then add the flour.  Stir well, and cook for about a minute.  Add the milk, and stir or whisk until it’s smooth.  Bring to a boil over medium-low heat, stirring constantly.  The mixture should thicken a little.  Turn off the heat, add the Gruyère and mix well.  Stir in the spinach and mushrooms.

Slide the potato cake onto a serving platter and top with the spinach/mushroom/cheese sauce.  Cut into wedges and serve right away.

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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 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 , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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.

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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 www.map-france.com

The village of Pomerol in Bordeaux, origin of the wine for Rose Levy Beranbaum’s first great wine experience. Photo from http://www.map-france.com.

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.

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