When the official Covid lockdown began back in mid-March of 2020, many people made an abrupt shift to working from home. For those first months, at least here in DC, most businesses were closed except for “essential” ones, and restaurants had to make the change to outside dining or takeout only. We were encouraged to stay home as much as possible, even limiting our trips to the grocery store. And because there was a lot that public health officials didn’t know about the virus, many of us cleaned pretty much everything that crossed the threshold into the house with disinfectant.
Since Covid vaccines are now in wide distribution, most restrictions on businesses have eased. We’ve learned a lot more and aren’t sponge-bathing our groceries any longer. By the end of this month, many things will seem “normal” again in terms of shopping, eating out, and travel. With appropriate use of masks, of course.
So I thought I’d look back on the past year and see what a difference knowledge and gradual reopening has made on my small part of the wine world. Alcohol sellers were considered “essential” from the start here in DC and were allowed to continue operating only with restrictions on capacity, plus distancing and mask requirements. My online business basically had no restrictions, other than safety concerns for delivery.
Being only online was definitely an advantage at first. Even though most local walk-in wine shops had websites, they weren’t necessarily designed to sell everything online for pickup or delivery. This seems counter-intuitive, for sure. But in many cases the sites weren’t connected to the stores’ point-of-sale inventory control systems. And they were really more like browsing spaces – just like many wine stores are – but without the in-store help you get from the staff. Not necessarily the thing for a quick strike.
[Note that I’m talking here about ordering from local wine shops and liquor stores, rather than national online wine-selling websites or buying direct from wineries across the country. While First Vine ships all over the U.S., most of our sales are for local delivery.]
Thanks to my working website, orders poured in. People staying home wanted wine delivered! After eight weeks I had sold out of all of my least-expensive wines and after three months I’d made a huge dent in the mid-range selections, too. I put my most expensive wines on sale for the duration of the shutdown, which also pleased my regulars. I’d estimate that 60 percent of the orders came from new customers, which was something that hadn’t happened in years.
Naturally, things slowed down at that point. The new customers who had come only for the cheaper wines didn’t order more expensive ones. I’ve discussed the impact of how the pandemic changed finding new wines and slowed ordering from Europe in other posts. And by June, people were less afraid to go into wine shops and liquor stores. I remember thinking that any errand was a chance to get out of the house, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t just me. People still tried to minimize excursions, but were less stringent about it. Finally, there was eventually more competition: wine stores, to their credit, adapted to online ordering. They had the same supply problems I did if they were getting non-U.S. wines from importers and distributors, but they caught up on the basics. Still, monthly sales in 2020 beat their 2019 counterparts even after people were less reluctant to leave their homes.
Pre-covid, the general rule was that most decisions about food and wine were made within an hour of people having a meal (according to people who study such things). Having to plan and limit our visits to grocery stores and other shops changed that. But we’re almost certainly headed into a summer of reopening and more people going to the office. People will also eat out more, and buy their wine there to have with dinner at restaurants. Will there also be more last-minute shopping for wine and groceries, tipping back to less online wine sales? Or has wine become more like pet supplies on Chewy.com, which we’ve all found are easier to order online than to lug home? (Glass bottles are heavy, after all…) Or, a third option: will there be more of a hybrid of online sales/delivery and impulse buying – online shopping to stock up and some on-the-way-home shopping for something different for tonight?
Obviously, I don’t know the answer. I’m a look at the data kind of guy, and as I’ve said before, we don’t have good data on wine sales. It’s too early to project based on one kind of crazy year. But I’ll certainly report back this fall once we’ve got something to analyze.
I’m still cooking at home a lot and making new things. When the pandemic started, I was happy to read through cookbooks and make shopping lists for those once every 10 days or so trips to the grocery store. But I have to admit to being lazier about it all now. Well, maybe not lazier, but I definitely need something to point me toward a particular type of food or a new recipe. Otherwise, I’ll fall back on the old standbys.
Last week I read a lovely, touching article by Yasmin Khan, author of Persian and Middle Eastern cookbooks. She talked about a dish that her mother made for her when she’d be home sick as a child, and later during very difficult and painful times in her life. She associated that dish with comfort and nurturing, and makes it now when she needs those things.
It’s called Loobia Polo, a dish featuring a sauce containing lamb or beef (usually), lots of green beans, potatoes, and tomato that gets layered with rice and gently steamed on the stove. With a suitable amount of butter the rice on the bottom of the pot gets nice and crusty, and that layer becomes the top when you turn the whole thing out of the pot.
My husband Cy is half-Iranian, so I asked if he’d ever had this. He hadn’t, and while he’d had plenty of rice dishes, he’d never even heard of this one. Of course, I had to look it up. Ms. Khan has a recipe for it in The Saffron Tales, but I also looked at about half a dozen more. Some had a layer of potatoes on the bottom of the pot instead of mixed in, so the finished dish has a layer crusty potatoes on top. There was a huge range of spices in the various recipes. So I decided to make a conglomerate.
This takes a while, no doubt about it. It’s not simple, although nothing is particularly complicated. You’ll end up with plenty, and it reheats well. And, as Ms. Khan described, it’s incredibly comforting.
I served the Loobia Polo with Domaine la Croix des Marchands Vieilles Vignes ($17). It’s made from Syrah and Brauchol, a grape that’s indigenous to the Gaillac region, where the wine is made. Aged in older oak barrels so it’s not oaky, but smooth, deeply fruity, and more full-bodied than you might think when you take a sniff. It’s as comforting as the meal, and a great accompaniment.
2 cups basmati rice, rinsed in cold water a few times to remove excess starch, and drained
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
A large pinch of sugar
¼ cup freshly-boiled water
1 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into about one-inch pieces
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground beef, lamb, or turkey, around 90% lean, or 2 pounds cremini mushrooms (see note below)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon cayenne
6 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup water
¼ cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1 large russet potato, scrubbed and cut crosswise into ¼-inch slices
2 tablespoons butter
Use a 5-quart nonstick pot with a lid – combine 2 quarts of water with 3 tablespoons of salt in the pot and bring to a boil. Add the rinsed rice and boil for 6 minutes. Drain and then rinse the rice in cold water to stop the cooking. Let it drain again thoroughly. (It seems like a large amount of salt, but this is the only chance to season the rice, and any salt on the outside of the grains gets rinsed away.)
Grind the saffron and sugar together in a small mortar (or rub them with your fingers in a small bowl), then stir in the ¼ cup of boiling water and set aside.
In a large skillet that has a lid, heat a tablespoon of oil. When hot, add the green beans and a bit of salt. Stir-fry over fairly high heat until the beans are just cooked and have some browning, 8-10 minutes. Transfer the cooked beans to a bowl. (You’re going to cook the beans again, but with acidic ingredients so they won’t really soften more. They need to be reasonably well-cooked or they’ll still be crunchy at the end.)
In the same skillet, heat another 3 tablespoons of oil and add the onion and the turmeric. Saute until the onion is soft and beginning to brown on the edges, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for a minute. Add the ground meat and cook, breaking the meat up with a spoon, until it has lost all its pink color and any liquid from the meat has evaporated. Add the cumin, coriander, pepper, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne, black pepper, allspice, and cloves, plus a half-teaspoon of salt and cook for 30 seconds or so. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes. Then stir in the green beans, add the cup of water and the lemon juice. Mix well. Heat the mixture until just boiling, then reduce the heat to simmering, put the lid on, and cook for 20 minutes. The sauce should be nearly dry, so cook it uncovered for a few more minutes if it’s not, or add more water if it’s starting to stick. Taste for salt. Set the sauce aside.
Heat the butter and 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat in the 5-quart nonstick pot until hot. Cover the bottom of the pot with potato slices. Cover the potato with one third of the rice and press to compact a little, then drizzle one third of the saffron mixture over the rice. Spread one third of the sauce on the saffron-tinged rice. Continue with another two layers of rice, saffron water, and sauce. Pour 1/3 cup of water around the inside edge of the pot.
Take a kitchen towel and place it on the counter. Center the lid for the 5-quart pot on the towel, then gather the towel edges together so that the towel conforms to the shape of the lid. Put the lid on the pot and secure the towel edges to the lid handle so that there’s no towel sticking beyond the pot (or at least only a little) – you don’t want the towel to burn. (My pot has a round lid handle, and I secure the towel around it with a rubber band.)
Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, then turn the heat to low and continue to cook for another 35 minutes. Turn off the heat and let everything sit for 5 minutes. Then remove the lid. Place a serving dish over the pot, and carefully turn the whole assembly over (using potholders, of course) and set it down on the counter. You should hear a satisfying “plop” sound as the contents slide down on the dish. There may be some potatoes that stick to the bottom. If so, use a spatula to get them off and put them on the top of the Loobia Polo. (Mine definitely had some stuck potato slices.) Serve hot.
Note: If you’d like to use mushrooms, chop them roughly. After cooking the green beans, heat 2 tablespoons of oil until roaring hot. Add the mushrooms and a little salt and cook for a minute to coat the mushrooms in oil. Turn the heat to medium and put a lid on for 3 minutes or so. Then remove the lid and cook the mushrooms to evaporate the liquid and get them a little browned. Put them in the bowl with the green beans. Cook the onions and garlic next as described, add the spices, then add the mushrooms and green beans. Then add the tomato paste and cook it, and proceed as directed with the water and lemon juice.