Thank goodness my taste buds are back


My taste buds seem to have returned to normal, and food and wine have me smacking my lips per usual!

My taste buds seem to have returned to normal, and food and wine have me smacking my lips per usual!

Thanks for all the e-mails after the last post about food and wine tasting different after surgery.  I’m continuing to recover well, and can report that most things are tasting the way they should.  I find I’m detecting a little bit more metallic taste in some foods and red wines than I used to, but that will likely fade with time.

Since I’d had surgery and general anesthesia before without any effect on taste, this time came as a surprise.  But as a helpful reader pointed out, it’s a studied phenomenon.  More than 20 years ago, Dr. Robert Henkin published a letter on it in the journal Anesthesiology.  Henkin examined data on 59 of his patients who reported losing some or all taste sensations following surgery that wouldn’t of itself affect taste.  A larger 2014 study by different physicians confirmed those results and suggested possible mechanisms.  On a less scientific note,  I also received a link to an account by a wine writer who reported that wine didn’t taste right after anesthesia.  Apparently, I was in good company.

I’m back to eating and drinking now, although not quite as much as before surgery.  I can’t say that I’ve been engaging in the January healthy eating I read about all last month.  Friends brought over way too much comfort food for that!  And we got a membership to a cheese club as a Christmas gift, so that didn’t help.  So don’t expect something light as a recipe this time.  We wanted to give friends something to eat before dinner when they visited, and we were serving plenty of whites and rosés because it’s been so unseasonably warm.  Cy and I decided to combine bits of leftover cheese together to make a great cheese ball – not like the famed Hickory Farms ball of smokiness, but something a little subtler to go with lighter wines.

This is a trick cooks have known about for years.  Jacques Pépin, the king of using refrigerator leftovers, demonstrated one on TV, making it in about 30 seconds.  It’s a mixture called fromage fort when wine is added to the cheese.  Other typical ingredients are butter, garlic, mustard, and herbs.  I settled on adding thyme, a bit of scallion greens, and a little soft butter.  You don’t have to make the cheese mixture into a ball, but I think it’s festive that way.  Plus, you can coat the outside in chopped nuts.

The combination of cheeses is up to you, but about one-quarter of the cheese has to be fairly soft and sticky to make it work.  We had some Camembert, which did the trick.  It also meant I didn’t have to add other flavorings like garlic because it was nice and ripe.  You could also use soft bleu cheese, or even cream cheese, but cream cheese would probably need flavorings.

Any really hard cheese has to be ground up before mixing the other cheeses in.  I like to use Parmesan or Pecorino Romano for about a quarter of the mixture.  Then the remaining half can be various not-quite-soft and not-quite-hard cheeses.  Use a small food processor, and start with adding one tablespoon of wine at first to see if that’s enough to make it come together.  If you don’t have sticky cheese you may have to add more wine or more soft butter.  Hold off on adding salt until everything’s mixed and you can taste it.  Most cheeses are salty enough.  But definitely add salt if you need to.

If you want a little smokiness, you can add a small amount of mild smoked paprika to some chopped nuts, then roll the cheese ball in them to cover.  Refrigerate for about an hour to firm everything up, then serve.  This is the perfect appetizer for a Valentine’s Day meal, whether you’re eating in our out.  Or serve it as your cheese course instead of dessert.

We’re having a rosé sale this month, and any one of them would be a great choice with this cheese ball recipe.  If you don’t get our e-mail newsletter and want to take advantage of the sale, contact me at the e-mail address here and I’ll send you the discount code.

Thanks again for all your good wishes!  Now that I’m almost back to normal you can expect my usual blog rants to come soon.



Leftovers Cheese Ball

Serves 6 as a light snack

Equipment:  A small food processor, about 2 cups capacity

8 – 10 ounces various cheeses at room temperature, cut in about ½ inch cubes – this is approximately 1-1/4 cups in total.

  • One quarter to one third should be a soft cheese like Brie or Camembert with the rind cut off. You can also combine some blue cheese or feta with cream cheese.
  • One quarter should be a sharp, hard cheese, like Parmesan or Pecorino Romano.
  • The remainder can be any combination of cheeses like Cheddar, Manchego, Gouda; cheeses that aren’t too hard or too soft

1 tablespoon softened unsalted butter

1-2 tablespoons dry white wine

½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

3 tablespoons chopped scallion greens

¼ teaspoon black pepper


1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts or pistachios

Pinch of mild smoked paprika (optional)

Grind up the hard cheese pieces in the food processor first.  Add the softened butter and process to blend.  Then add the rest of the cheese, the pepper, the thyme, scallions, and 1 tablespoon of the wine.  Process with pulses until the mixture stops moving.  Check the texture – you should be able to squeeze the clumps of cheese together.  If not, add another tablespoon of wine and process again.  Taste for salt and add a little if you think it needs it.

Put the chopped nuts on a small plate and mix in the paprika if you’re using it.  Remove the cheese from the processor and put it in a small bowl.  Use your hands to mash it together into a ball.  Then roll the cheese ball in the nut mixture and press the nuts in lightly.  It won’t be completely covered, and some bits of cheese will be visible.  You can use more nuts if you like, but I think this is the right amount flavor-wise.

Wrap in plastic and chill for an hour.  If it’s in the fridge longer than that, take it out about 20 minutes before you plan to serve it.

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Wine and healing — not so perfect together?

Normally, the suggestion of wine makes me react much the way a cat does when the treat bag is opened.  But since my hip replacement surgery, wine just doesn't taste the way it should.

Normally, the suggestion of wine makes me react much the way a cat does when the treat bag is opened. But since my hip replacement surgery, wine and food just don’t taste the way they should.

I had hip replacement surgery a little more than two weeks ago.  Things are fine, and I’m recovering well.  My physical therapist tells me I wield my cane like a pro.  (No kids on my lawn, believe me!)  But there have been a few unexpected side effects.  The most annoying of them is that food and wine don’t taste the same as they did before surgery.

One reason may be my medications.  My husband Cy commandeered one of our bread baskets to hold the panoply of pills I have to take.  It makes a lovely centerpiece on our table – a still life in pill bottles.  Friends have been bringing us all kinds of wonderful food.  But I noticed that the tastes of most things don’t live up to their aromas in terms of depth of flavor.  Not that they don’t taste good, just not as flavorful as I thought they would by the smell.  And believe me, our friends are great cooks, so the food’s not the issue.

Of course, we’ve been serving wine when friends bring food to eat with us.  And I found the same taste thing was happening.  I didn’t drink any alcohol while I was taking opioid pain meds.  But I got off of those pills almost a week ago.  The wines’ aromas are as they should be.  And the initial fruits, acidity, tannins, etc., are there, but the expected second wave of deeper flavors isn’t.  Naturally, this got me thinking about the interactions of smell and taste to try and figure out what’s going on.

I’ve found that most wines, even the lighter-bodied ones, don’t really taste the way they smell.  It makes sense from a temperature standpoint.  Much of our sense of taste comes from smell.  But the flavor molecules that evaporate from wine at serving temperature – around 50°F for whites and 65°F for reds – aren’t the same flavor molecules that evaporate once the wine heats up to the temperature of your mouth, 98.6°F.  (And your mouth could be warmer depending on what you’re eating.)  Smelling your wine, which I definitely recommend, isn’t necessarily to tell you exactly what it will taste like, but more to prepare you for the experience to come.  And it’s pleasurable in its own right, which is reason enough to do it.

Hot food, on the other hand, is more likely to taste the way it smells, since all those flavor compounds evaporate at higher temperatures.  I can still smell things properly, because my nose tells me that the dishes our friends made will be full of rich flavor.  There’s just something not translating from smell to taste with the less-volatile flavor molecules for me at the moment.  (Pardon the techno-speak here.  The lower the temperature at which something evaporates, the higher its volatility and vice-versa.)

It also occurred to me that it might not just be the meds.  Maybe my body is suppressing some of the flavor so that I don’t eat and drink too much.  I’ve noticed that even the idea of drinking wine isn’t as appealing as it was before surgery.  Usually the suggestion of wine lights up my brain the same way our cat reacts to the sound of the bag of treats being opened.  And I don’t get as hungry as I did, even though I’m eating less.  Generally, not feeling hungry or thirsty hasn’t stopped me from fully enjoying food and wine when they taste the way they should.  But perhaps my body is telling me that there’s still healing that needs to happen, despite the progress I’ve made.

Whatever the reason, there’s a silver lining.  With luck, the taste of food and wine will serve as another indicator that everything is back to normal.  The first meal when it all comes together will be something to remember – pretty much no matter what it is!



PS – no recipe this time.  But I promise there’ll be one soon.  After all, I’ve been served a lot of wonderful things lately!

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Any excuse for a #hashtagholiday

Cy and me about three weeks before the first anniversary of our first date on January 9, 2000. Now January 9 has been taken over by #nationalcassouletday. We'd feel cheated if we didn't love eating cassoulet...

Cy and me at the White House about three weeks before the first anniversary of our first date on January 9, 2000. Now January 9 has been taken over by #nationalcassouletday. We’d feel cheated if we didn’t love eating cassoulet. (Note this was pre-2001, when mere mortals could go see the White House Christmas decorations without waiting two weeks for a security check.)

On January 9, 2000, my now-husband Cy and I had our first date.  Little did we know that 15 years later, January 9 would also be claimed as National Cassoulet Day – presumably gaining a little more attention than we did by going to a movie and then to dinner.  But we got the day first.  And, to be honest, the way we chose January 9 as our first date came about far more organically than anything having to do with a hashtag holiday celebrating cassoulet.

When I first heard about National Cassoulet Day, I figured it must at least have been a product of some regional food association in (or with links to) Southwestern France, where locals claim the dish originated.  But no — as far as I can tell it was created by Alain Ducasse for his Restaurant Benoit in New York.  And it morphed from being just one day into an entire week.  The excuse given was the unpredictable nature of the weather in January in New York.  One night of bad weather, and sacre bleu, you’ve missed it.  Maybe so, but I’m sure that Ducasse and his fellow restaurateurs were happy to have a week-long excuse to drive people out to eat in early January, normally a slow time for dining out.

And even France’s yearly homage to cassoulet isn’t without its own marketing strategy.  The town of Castelnaudary, which claims the honor of being Cassoulet Central, holds a festival each August that has definitely been around longer than just a couple of years.  This seems a little less hashtag-gy at first glance.  Except that cassoulet is a winter dish.  I suppose you could say that August is when the beans used in the dish get harvested.  Or maybe some of the regional red wines get released then as well.  But it’s not a stretch to think that the city elders of Castelnaudary thought it would be easier to attract people in August rather than in the dead of winter.

The land of cassoulet -- traversed by Paula Wolfert in her book

The land of cassoulet — traversed by Paula Wolfert in her book “The Cooking of Southwest France.” Never has there been such contention over breadcrumbs!

Although Castelnaudary claims to be the place that originated cassoulet, it’s not necessarily so.  Other nearby towns and cities also make the claim.  I recently read the cassoulet chapter in Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France, first published in 1983.  Wolfert traveled from Carcasonne to Toulouse, trying cassoulet as she went and talking to chefs of the region’s restaurants.  It’s a charming read, all the more since the chefs Wolfert met with both extol cassoulet as a local dish (with a marked preference for their local versions) and disparage it as peasant food at the same time.  One chef was even so artfully dismissive as to send Wolfert to meet with a friend at her home to make cassoulet, because he claimed that cassoulet was a dish far better made at home than in a restaurant.  (Apparently his restaurant was a little too fancy-pants to serve cassoulet but he didn’t want to say so outright.  And perhaps there’s a little sexism there too, since most home cooks were likely to be women, at least at that time.)

Wolfert carefully reports what she saw and ate, and it’s interesting to read about the regional variations in the dish over a distance of about 60 miles.  They all use white beans – except for one chef who claimed that cassoulet predates the introduction of white beans to France, so he uses fava beans instead.  The range of meats is impressive, pretty much everything poultry from goose to duck to chicken, and various parts of the pig, some smoked, some not.  And, of course, sausages.  Some versions have lamb or mutton in them.  But what really sets the various chefs and cooks off is whether or not to have bread crumbs on top.  Some claim it’s absolutely traditional, while others say the opposite.  Wolfert speculates that the bread crumb crust was a way to both stretch the dish to feed more people, and also prevent too much evaporation.  The name cassoulet comes from the wide clay pot without a lid that it’s traditionally cooked in, called a cassole.  Covering the cassoulet with the bread crumbs would allow it to cook for longer without drying out.

In the end, Wolfert presents a few different styles of cassoulet and encourages you to pick the things you like and make it your own.  I came up with my version of cassoulet after eating it in France and trying different recipes, from Julia Child through The New Basics Cookbook.  Most recipes call for partially cooking the beans in water and then mixing all the other ingredients together and cooking for a long time.  I found that cooking the beans with various meats and chicken stock gives them enough flavor that entire dish doesn’t need to cook together for very long.  I also do the final cooking in a roasting pan – which allows the browned chicken thighs I like to add to stay crispy on top.  And I prefer not to use bread crumbs.

This is not an easy dish, although you don’t have to do much hands-on cooking.  If you want to serve the cassoulet for dinner on Monday, January 9, start on Saturday night, January 7 by simply soaking the beans overnight.  On Sunday, cook the beans in the slow cooker with a few other ingredients, and then refrigerate them.  On Monday, brown the sausages and the chicken thighs, then bake everything together for a half hour.

My version of cassoulet, developed from a bunch of ones I've tried, both from recipes and in restaurants. Assembling and baking it in a roasting pan concentrates flavors and allows the chicken skin to stay crisp.

My version of cassoulet, developed from a bunch of ones I’ve tried, both from recipes and in restaurants. Assembling and baking it in a roasting pan concentrates flavors and allows the chicken skin to stay crisp.

I use dried cannellini beans, although you can use Great Northern or any other medium-sized dried white bean.  I like Rancho Gordo and Zursun brands because they’re always the freshest, and you can find them in specialty markets all over.  But the supermarket brands are fine too, just check the date and make sure they’re not too old.  If the skins look wrinkled on the dried beans, it’s probably better to pass them up.

As far as meat goes, I like to cook my beans in chicken stock with cubed pork shoulder, a ham hock, and a duck leg.  For sausages, I like half smoked, half unsmoked.  But you can use any combination of meats you like.  I have made a chicken/turkey version using turkey thigh meat instead of pork shoulder, smoked turkey wings instead of a ham hock, then various chicken and turkey sausages.

And, of course, there’s wine to serve with it.  Cassoulet comes from the Languedoc, which produces more wine than any other part of France.  So, in the spirit of “What grows together, goes together,” what can I do but offer some wine choices from the Languedoc?  In fact, it was through a tweet by the Languedoc Wine Producers’ Association that I found out about National Cassoulet Day, so you know they’re on it.  Red wines from the various official Languedoc appellations are made from Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Carignan.  The Château d’Assas Classique and Réserve we import have the appellation Grès de Montpellier, an official cru of the Languedoc.  The Classique is Syrah and Grenache, and the Réserve also contains Mourvèdre.

But you’ll also find other red varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Merlot, in wines labeled Vin du Pays.  We carry single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc wines from Domaine de Mairan.  And some producers make combinations among the varietals in both categories.  While Domaine Sainte-Cécile du Parc’s Notes Franches is a Vin du Pays made from Cabernet Franc and Merlot, their Notes d’Orphée is made from Syrah and Cabernet Franc.

Of course, you could go off the board and drink something else.  But Cy and I know you’ll want to join us in celebrating our 17th first date anniversary by raising a glass, whether or not it’s from First Vine!




Serves 6 – 8

You can make this to serve on National Cassoulet Day Monday January 9, 2017, if you start soaking the beans Saturday night.  If you forget, don’t worry – on Sunday you can cover the beans in a pot with two inches of cold water and add a tablespoon of salt.  Bring the pot to a rolling boil and boil for 1 minute.  Then turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let it sit for 1 hour.  Drain and proceed to the bean-cooking step.  I like to use a slow cooker to cook the beans, but you can also do it in a large pot on the stove if you prefer.  Then on Monday, brown the various meats, and combine everything in a roasting pan and bake for 30 minutes before serving.


1 pound dried cannellini or Great Northern beans, rinsed

1 pound boneless pork shoulder, big pieces of fat trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 duck leg and thigh (optional, but easier to find in grocery stores these days)

1 ham hock

1 onion, peeled and cut in half

6 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half

6-8 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

12 ounces Italian-style sausage, cut in 12 pieces

12 ounces smoked Kielbasa-style sausage, cut in 12 pieces

6-8 chicken thighs, bone-in and skin-on

Olive oil

Soaking the beans:  Put the rinsed beans in a large pot or the crock of the slow cooker.  Add enough cold water to cover by 2 inches, and let sit overnight or for 8 hours.

Cooking the beans:  Drain the beans and put them in the crock of the slow cooker.  Stir in the pieces of pork shoulder.  Nestle the ham hock, duck leg, and the onion and garlic halves in the beans and pork.  Add enough broth to cover the beans by 2 inches (it’s OK if the duck leg, ham hock, and vegetables stick out of the liquid).  Add some cold water if 8 cups of broth aren’t enough to cover.  Sprinkle on ½ teaspoon of salt and some ground pepper.

Cover the crock and cook on low for 4 hours.  The beans should be tender – if not, cook for another hour on low.  Remove the onion halves, the duck leg, and the ham hock.  Drain the beans, pork, and garlic, reserving the liquid.  Shred the meat from the duck leg and ham hock, then add those to the beans and pork shoulder.  Refrigerate the beans and meat separately from the liquid.

Cooking the meat and assembling the cassoulet:  The day you plan to serve the cassoulet, take the bean mixture and the liquid out of the fridge.  In a large skillet, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and brown the sausages.  Transfer the browned sausages to a bowl or plate.  Sprinkle the chicken thighs with salt and pepper, then brown them well, starting skin-side down.

While the meats are browning, skim the fat from the surface of the liquid and discard.  Pour the liquid into a large saucepan and bring it to the simmer.  Put the beans and meat in a microwave-safe container (if they aren’t already) and heat them up to warm.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Pour the fat out from the skillet, then deglaze the skillet with a half cup of the stock liquid.  Add the deglazing liquid back into the rest of the stock.  Spread out the bean and meat mixture in a metal roasting pan or large ceramic baking dish with high sides.  Push all the pieces of sausage down into the beans, then the chicken thighs skin-side up.  Carefully pour the hot liquid into the pan to just about cover the beans – but you want to make sure the chicken skin stays dry.  Bake for 30 minutes, checking after 20 minutes to make sure there’s still a little liquid in the pan:  when you shake the roasting pan you should see things move a little.  If they don’t move, add some more liquid.  After 30 minutes, you should see what looks like a skin forming over the beans – this is fine (and, in fact, just what you’re looking for).  You can cook it for up to 10 more minutes if it doesn’t seem hot enough.

Let the cassoulet cool for 5 minutes, then serve.

Posted in Cassoulet, Castelnaudary, France, Paula Wolfert, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Six things I learned about wine and food this year

Counting down the days until the end of 2016.

Counting down the days until the end of 2016.

It’s that time of year when we reflect back – or not, as some of my friends tell me that 2016 was a year they’d rather not dwell on.  Nonetheless, if you ignore the election-related memories (not easy, I grant you), you’ll probably find some things you appreciated learning.  I know I did.  Here are six of the things I found out about wine and food this year, in no particular order.

1 — In talking with a Naturopath Physician on the health effects of wine, I learned that some people are genetically predisposed to experience cardiovascular benefits from drinking wine, while others will find exactly the opposite, all else being equal. Most of us aren’t predisposed to either extreme.  I’m slogging my way through the studies and plan to write about it next year.

I tried to get myself tested since I drink a fair bit of wine.  My doctor told me that the gene controlling the wine effects is also a marker for a particular form of Alzheimer’s disease.  That meant my insurance wouldn’t pay for the test if I didn’t have a family history of the disease.  And while I could pay to have it done myself, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out what it might tell me – not to mention that it could inadvertently become part of my medical record.

2 — I have always been puzzled by cookie-making instructions that tell you to chill the dough before rolling and cutting it. Cookie dough made with lots of butter hardens like steel in the fridge.  You’ll sprain your wrists trying to roll it out.  So the conventional wisdom is to take it out a few minutes before you plan to roll it.  But by the time it’s soft enough to roll, it will stick to any surface, including parchment paper.

Well, help is here!  In Dorie’s Cookies, Dorie Greenspan’s new baking book, she details a better way.  Make the dough, then roll it out right away between pieces of parchment paper until it’s the thickness you want.  Put the whole parchment-surrounded package in the fridge for a couple of hours.  Peel off the paper, put the dough back on one of the pieces of parchment, and cut out your cookies.  You can bake them on that same parchment, too.  No sticking, no wrist fatigue.  (I admit this is an issue for me, as you’ll see below.)

My blogger friend David White wrote a really fun book about champagne. I don't normally enjoy reading wine books in my spare time, but this one was great.

My blogger friend David White wrote a really fun book about champagne. I don’t normally enjoy reading wine books in my spare time, but this one was great.

3 — You might be surprised to know that I don’t really enjoy reading books about wine in my spare time. It’s probably because I spend nearly all day every day in the wine business, and already have some required reading to do to keep up.  The exception, though, is a wine book with a great story.  And this year, my blogger friend David White wrote a fun one:  But First, Champagne – A Modern Guide to the World’s Favorite Wine.  It’s getting a lot of good press, all well-deserved.  David gave me an early manuscript copy to read for comment, which is why I didn’t write a separate post reviewing it.  There’s history – regional, wine, and individual makers – plus a whole bunch of interesting facts.  Even though I sell champagne and have been in the region a few times, I learned a lot.  The photos are stunning, too.  All of which leaves you wanting to drink more champagne.

The pork belly of Iberico acorn-fed pigs is called the

The pork belly of Iberico acorn-fed pigs is called the “Secreto.” It’s one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten.

4 — One of my Spanish wine producers also raises pigs in western Spain, along the Portuguese border. These lovely animals are used to make the fabulous Jamón, for which Spain is justifiably famous.  But only the hind legs, and sometimes the shoulders, get used for the ham.  My producer told me that the rest of the pig is of course delicious too.  (He even tried to convince me that I should import the meat, which would be a logistical nightmare.)  But it wasn’t until this year that I got to try the ribs, loin, and belly from an acorn-fed pig.  Oh. My. Goodness.  While the Jamón may be available in the U.S. in certain places, you won’t find the other meats over here.  So I guess now you have an excuse to visit Spain, Portugal, or southwestern France if you want to try them.  You’re welcome!

5 — This year I had to move my alcohol license and wine stock to a new warehouse location. As you’ve probably found in your own wine collections, there are bottles that are past their prime, even if they’re still tasty.  Well, I’m sure you can imagine what happens when you have pretty much unlimited space for storing wine.  Some of them I can put on sale or donate to a worthy cause.  But there’s a limit to how many of these bottles I wanted to take to the new warehouse.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t just leave them to be recycled without emptying them.  So over five days I emptied out 10 cases (120 bottles) per day, opening each bottle and dumping the wine down the drain.  And I tried a bunch of different styles of openers to see which would work the best.  The answer is, well, none of them was ideal for opening this many bottles.  Plus, I ended the five days with sore wrists.  And I didn’t even have to open the bottles cleanly or contort my arms to make sure customers could see the label at all times.  I’m kind of surprised that we don’t hear about carpal tunnel syndrome or shoulder problems in the wine industry.  Sommeliers, take note!  I hope your employers’ workers comp is current.

6 — Finally, something that’s more of a trend. When I interviewed cookbook author Lucinda Scala Quinn about wine, she told me that her cooking has started to focus more on the simplicity of individual ingredients rather than a bunch of them together.  I definitely heard more about recipes where the main ingredient is the star in 2016.  Especially vegetables.  A couple of years ago, I wrote about how flavors in general were getting bigger for all kinds of dishes, but not necessarily due to the main ingredients – additions of things like bacon and hot sauce.  I’ve got nothing against either of them.  But they tend to make everything taste the same.

Admittedly, some of the single-ingredient stuff can go too far.  Like a restaurant recipe I heard about for carrots that were roasted, chilled, and smoked.  I’m sure they’re delicious, but probably too much work for most home cooks.  In general, though, if you go to the trouble to buy good ingredients, a return to relative simplicity is a welcome direction.

I’ve found that this is finally happening with wines, too, at least on restaurant lists.  There are more medium-bodied wines on lists than I’ve seen in the past couple of years, and not just on seasonal summer lists, either.  As someone who sells a lot of medium-bodied wines, I’m happy to see them touted as great with food.  And they tend to be better values, too.


There’s no shortage of suggestions for holiday foods around.  Most of us tend to go for the things we’ve always made, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But if you don’t have family traditions for your December/January festivities, try one from my family:   French onion soup on New Year’s Day.  My father has been making it forever.  Even before he retired, he made it a multi-day process by making beef stock ahead of time.

As you can imagine, it’s delicious – definitely worth the time it takes.  But I have developed a substitute recipe that tastes good and is less work.  There are three things that make it turn out well.  The first is taking boxed chicken and beef stocks, mixing them with wine, and reducing them down.  Go ahead and add the peels and trimmings from the onions while you’re at it.  Just make sure to use low-sodium stock.  I like Kitchen Basics unsalted stocks.  Their unsalted beef stock is sometimes hard to find, but it’s OK to use another low-salt brand as long as the chicken stock is unsalted or low-salt.  Cooking the wine down mellows it out and the tannins get a chance to bind with the stock proteins for extra deliciousness.

The second is to cut the onions the right way.  It may seem silly, but I have found that they brown better if you follow these instructions:  cut the peeled onion in half through the poles.  Then put each half cut-side down on the board and cut crosswise into thin slices.  You can use the food processor for this as long as you put the onions in the feed tube correctly.

Finally, there’s browning the onions.  This takes about 45 minutes, and can’t be rushed.  You want the onions really brown, with a nice brown layer on the bottom of the pot, too.  But you don’t want it all to burn – if it threatens to burn, add some water and scrape everything up, then keep going.  You will end up with what looks like practically nothing in the pot compared to the amount of onions you put in initially, but what’s there will have a lot of flavor.

I am not a fan of soggy bread, but you can do the traditional bread and cheese on top if you like.  (I prefer to toast my bread and cheese separately and eat them with the soup.)  Naturally, you’ll need red wine to serve.  This is one time where you can pull out the stops – despite my extolling medium-bodied wines in the post above, a great big red wine will work wonderfully here because there’s so much flavor.  Cave la Vinsobraise Thérapius ($26) is 100% Syrah and tastes like something much more expensive.  In his Washington Post review a couple of years ago, wine columnist Dave McIntyre rated it a great value, and said it tasted like a Côte Rotie.  No worries with using it for the half-cup of red wine in the recipe.  But you can also use something not quite as special if you have it around – leftover wine works well here since it’s going to get cooked enough.

Many thanks to you all for reading this blog and buying wine this year, and every year so far.  I appreciate the opportunity to share things I feel strongly about, and it’s gratifying to know that many of you feel the same way.  Happy Holidays to everyone, and a very happy new year too!



French Onion Soup

Serves 6 – 8

Unsalted butter or olive oil

4 large red onions, peeled, cut in half through the poles, then sliced thinly crosswise (save the peels and trimmings to put in the stock while it reduces if you like)

7 cups low-sodium chicken broth*

3 cups low-sodium beef broth*

½ cup dry red wine*

½ teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

½ teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

12 to 18 baguette slices

1 cup grated Swiss cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put the stocks, wine, thyme, and bay leaf in a nonreactive saucepan (along with the onion trimmings if you still have them), heat to boiling over high heat.  Reduce the heat to keep it at a good boil and reduce until it all measures 8 cups, about 15-20 minutes.  Remove the bay leaf and the onion trimmings if you’ve used them.  Set the stock mixture aside.

In a large Dutch oven with a lid, melt 2 tablespoons of butter or heat up the same amount of olive oil.  Add the sliced onions and ¾ teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of pepper, and the sugar.  Stir everything up to coat the onions.  Then put the lid on and cook for 15 minutes over medium-low heat.  Take the lid off and stir.  There will be liquid in the pot, and maybe a little browning.  Continue to cook, stirring frequently.  The liquid will evaporate and the onions will start to brown.  You’re looking for a nice deep brown color, and a good bit of brown stuff stuck to the pot, too.  If you see that it might be burning, add ¼ cup of water and stir everything up, including scraping the brown stuff off the pot and into the onions – then keep going.  All in all, this will take up to 45 minutes.  You will have something that looks like jam but also has some visible onion structure.

Add the stock/wine mixture, and scrape up the bottom of the pot to incorporate all the brown stuff one last time.  Add the vinegar and simmer for 10 minutes.  Taste for salt and pepper.

In the meantime, assemble the bread and cheese.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.  Brush the bread with a little butter or olive oil, then put them on a baking sheet and into the oven for 5 minutes, until lightly golden and a little crisp.  Remove the pan from the oven, mix the two cheeses together, and top the bread slices evenly.  Put them back into the oven to melt the cheese and get it just a little brown, 5 to 7 minutes.  You can float the bread on individual servings of soup, or serve the toasts alongside.

*  You can also start with 9 cups of low-salt vegetable stock and 1 cup of red wine and boil them down to 8 cups.

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Last week’s missing recipe

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

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

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

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

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

Lentil and Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie

Serves 6-8

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

1 cup dry red wine

1-1/4 cup dried lentils, rinsed

1 large onion, cut into large dice

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

1 pound button or cremini mushrooms, trimmed and sliced

4 large russet potatoes

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

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon tomato paste

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

2 – 3 tablespoons cornstarch

Nonstick cooking spray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Out in the wine industry, part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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How identical are individual bottles of the same wine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving!


Stuffing Croquettes

Serves 4 as an appetizer

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

3 large eggs, or 6 egg whites

1 cup all-purpose flour

1-1/2 cups Panko bread crumbs

1 quart peanut or canola oil, for frying


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

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

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

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

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Out in the wine industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Baked Stuffed Acorn Squash

Serves 4

2 medium acorn squash, 3 pounds or so total

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 cup cooked rice (white or brown)

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

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

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, or ¾ teaspoon dried thyme

3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

1 small onion, minced

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

¼ cup grated, peeled apple

1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 tablespoons white wine

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in LGBT people in the wine industry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cookbook author wine talk with Domenica Marchetti

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Rosetta’s Tuna-Stuffed Cherry Peppers

Makes 3 pints

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

2 pounds (907 g) hot cherry peppers

2 cups (473 g) white wine vinegar

2 cups (473 g) water

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

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained

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

Extra-virgin olive oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s 500 years between friends?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mauzac, an indigenous French grape, has all the Pet-Nat attributes listed here. This is why it has been used to make sparkling wines in southern France for 500+ years. (Photo from

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Liptauer Cheese Spread

Serves 4-6 as an apéro

8 ounces small-curd cottage cheese

6 ounces softened cream cheese

2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

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

1 teaspoon caraway seeds, coarsely cracked

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

A pinch of ground allspice

3 tablespoons drained capers, chopped

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

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

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