Social Distancing Installment #12:  RIP, America’s greatest wine salesman

Jerry Stiller died earlier this month at the age of 92. He and Anne Meara, also his wife, were a comedy duo for decades. They also made some of the most successful wine radio ads in history, for Blue Nun.  Meara died in 2015.

We don’t see wine advertisements much on TV these days or hear them on the radio.  But from the 1960s through the 1980s there was plenty of advertising for mass-market wines.  I’ve written about these ads before, and how ridiculous most of them were.  But one set stands out for the right time and the right touch – the radio ads Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara made for Blue Nun.

Jerry Stiller died on May 11, and the tributes focused mainly on his recurring role as George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld (and being Ben Stiller’s father).  I watched Seinfeld only occasionally.  But I have vivid memories of family car trips with the radio tuned to WQXR, New York’s commercial classical music station.  Stiller and Meara’s Blue Nun ads were in heavy rotation.

I don’t know how many other stations ran the spots, but they were just right for WQXR’s audience.  Unlike Orson Welles’s Paul Masson TV ads (with the ponderous “We will sell no wine before its time,” despite there being no “time” when Paul Masson wines would taste any better), the Blue Nun radio ads told you that you were getting a pleasant adult beverage.  I can still recite some of the dialogue today:

Meara:  Where have you been?  It’s almost dinner time.

Stiller:  I stopped and picked up a little Blue Nun.

Meara:  Couldn’t you just leave an extra dollar in the collection plate?

The TV ads for Blue Nun didn’t use Stiller and Meara, and were likely intended for some laughs, too.  But they were way too obvious.  The one I remember was a nun dressed in light blue doing a figure skating routine in soft-focus.  Yeah, we get it, Blue Nun on ice.  Whatever.  The Stiller and Meara radio ads were aimed squarely at people who would recognize the style of George Burns and Gracie Allen, along with some of the extra sophistication of “His Girl Friday” and all the “Thin Man” movies.  They got updated for a younger audience first by the couple not drinking cocktails, which would make them seem dated.  Then there was a little innuendo, a clear indication that there would be other activity going on after quaffing the goods.  Who knows how many post-baby boomers were conceived after a little tipple, quite possibly Blue Nun?

There was also a downside.  I think it’s likely that Blue Nun and some of the other mass-market German wines contributed to a general distrust of Riesling and Gewürztraminer (even though Blue Nun and other low-priced German exports were made mostly from Müller-Thurgau grapes – which can be good, but are generally nothing special).  To be fair, it happened with other mass-market wines, too.  Reunite made Lambrusco kind of a joke, and I think that Mateus and Lancers set Portuguese wines back for decades (Portugal’s dictatorship didn’t help in matters of quality, either).  It took an interest in non-US and non-European food, along with a greater awareness of wines in general, to get the US public to come around on what are some of the world’s finest wines.

But that doesn’t take away from the quality and success of Stiller and Meara’s ads.  They were by far the best of the bunch, and they put across the idea that wine could be more of an everyday beverage.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that the ads influenced the naming and marketing of some later, higher-quality wines as well.  Like Randall Graham’s Cigare Volant, for example.  Yes, it has some sort of historical basis, which makes it seem more legit than a Blue Nun.  But what does a flying cigar have to do with wine?  I can only imagine the fun Stiller and Meara would have had with it.

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Social Distancing Installment #11: Deliveries, pandemic style

Only in these pandemic times have I ever received a mask from a customer! It’s much nicer looking than the tee shirt bank robber style mask I was wearing when I made the delivery.

These are strange times for wine shopping and deliveries.  I’ve written about some of my more (let’s call them) interesting deliveries before.  Those had more to do with who was ordering.  These days, it’s all about the circumstances.

When First Vine got its first wine shipment back in 2007, I used to be able to easily zip around Washington, DC in my car to make deliveries.  Within five years, though, traffic was bad and kept getting worse.  I had to spend up to an hour and a half just to make a single delivery, depending on where I was dropping off the wine.

Well, starting in mid-March when DC’s stay at home order went into effect, everything changed.  The increase in DC’s population over the last decade first brought more cars to the roads, and then the number of rideshare vehicles (many registered in Maryland and Virginia) exploded.  But suddenly, poof!  Even less traffic than back in 2007.  Those hour and a half delivery runs got shortened to 40 minutes, tops.

Good thing, because people staying at home have been ordering more wine.  I’m probably in the car even more than I was before, just making more stops and delivering more wine.  But it’s not 2007 and there are definitely things I didn’t anticipate:

  • Even though there’s less traffic, stoplights are still timed for the pre-lockdown days. I’ve sat at some red lights and seen no cross traffic at the intersections at all.  Some of the lights stay red so long that you feel like you could be snatched by aliens, examined, and put back in your car before the light changed.  And there still wouldn’t be any cross traffic.
  • Drivers are tempted to look at their phones more than usual. Some of them may be delivery people checking for addresses, not that that’s a good excuse.  But I doubt that most of them are – they just can’t help themselves after 10 seconds at a red light.  It’s annoying to be stuck at a long light and then have the driver in front of you looking at his or her phone when the light changes.  I normally don’t like using my horn, but I have to admit a little thrill of satisfaction when I beep and see the head of the driver in front of me snap up in surprise.
  • DC government is taking the opportunity of less traffic to do much-needed road repairs.  It’s happening all over the place.  At the same time, building construction doesn’t seem to have abated much, and the construction crews are a lot more likely to block the street than they used to be.  So it isn’t as if I don’t have to sit in any traffic, but at least it’s not because of volume.  This means I’ve learned a couple of new routes, too.  I normally wouldn’t take those streets, but I’ve seen some lovely homes in the process.

Another thing that’s changed about deliveries is getting signatures from customers over 21.  It was something I did routinely for years, but I don’t want to hand someone a clipboard and a pen (and they probably don’t want to touch them, either).  So I put the wine down on the stoop, ring the bell, and then back away at least six feet until the customer comes to the door and picks up the boxes.

This works well for customers I know are over 21.  But DC requires me to check IDs if the customer looks to be under 35 years old.  Since I’ve had new customers, it has been an interesting dance to have contact-free ID checks.  Luckily, most of them have a glass door that I can look through to see the ID.  One customer actually taped her ID to the front door for me to look at, which was pretty funny.  I checked her birth date, rang the bell, and stepped back.  (Her front door was up about 20 steps from the sidewalk, so you couldn’t see her ID unless you were right in front of it.)  She opened the door and waved, and off I went.  Another customer was even more ingenious and took a photo of her driver’s license, blacked out the license number, and texted me the photo.

But by far the most unusual delivery was something that could only happen in times like these.   One particular customer came to the door in her mask and gloves.  She took the box from me and handed me a surgical mask sealed in plastic.  She said that a friend in China had sent her an entire box of them, and she thought it would be a nice thank-you for delivering the wine.  It definitely was – and much better looking than the tee shirt bank robber style mask I was wearing.

I imagine the pleasant delivery conditions won’t last forever.  People will go back to work, and lots of them will be driving instead of taking public transportation.  I expect traffic will get a lot worse.  And people won’t be home all day the way they are now, which probably means more evening deliveries.  I hope people won’t be so stressed out that they’re not happy to see me with their wine.  I’ve never had anyone unhappy with a wine delivery, but the extra twinkle I see in people’s eyes (above their masks) these days has really made me feel like I’m doing something good!

 

 

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Social Distancing Installment #10: Wine sales are up (maybe)

If Nielsen’s sales data are to be believed, everyone’s grocery shopping cart looks like this during the coronavirus crisis.

I get a few daily e-mail summaries of wine news with teasers and links to articles.  This headline in today’s Wine Business Daily e-mail caught my attention:

“Robust Wine Sales Growth as Consumers Turn to Brands They Know: Despite the economic impacts of the crisis, the average price paid at retail for off-premise across alcoholic beverages continues to increase. The wine brands that have led increases in volume and value in Nielsen tracked channels since early March include Barefoot, Black Box, Bota Box, Franzia, Josh, Stella Rosa, Woodbridge, and Yellow Tail.”

I spend a lot of time looking at these kinds of data, and I doubt very much that we can make the kinds of generalizations Nielsen is making for alcohol.  Still, as the country’s largest market research firm, they collect worthwhile data, at least for part of the industry.  What do those data tell us?

Danny Brager, the company’s Beverage Alcohol Practice Senior Vice-President says that off-premises wine sales growth is up over 20 percent from the previous month, and about 30 percent from a year ago.  The other news is about the shift in brands that people are buying.  According to Brager, 16 of the 25 brands with the biggest increases in sales since the coronavirus crisis started weren’t in the top 25 for increases at the same time last year.

Brager summarizes by saying that consumers appear to be making their wine buying decisions based on these three criteria:

  • Bigger, more well known brands;
  • Brands that better fit COVID-19 occasions, drinking at home rather than occasions where people might gather or ‘on the go’ type occasions; and
  • Brands that offer a preferred pack size, for example, larger package sizes.

Lots to unpack here.  As I wrote eight years ago, Nielsen collects sales data from in-store sales mainly at supermarkets and large chain stores, including some large liquor chain retailers.  They don’t include Costco and maybe not state ABC stores, either.  Brager reports that online wine sales are up five to six times what they were for the same time period in 2019.  This figure is calculated from online purchases through stores Nielsen already covers, and from companies like ShipCompliant that assist wineries with shipping (and either share data with Nielsen or publish their own data).

So when you come down to it, it’s not certain exactly how much of the off-premises sales market Nielsen captures.  Eight years ago I estimated it was 50 percent at most.  It might be higher these days, but it still doesn’t include most independent wine retailers, either brick-and-mortar or online-only.

As for Brager’s trend summary, it tells me that consumers are buying their wine when they make their trips to buy groceries.  That explains the brands that top Nielsen’s list, since they’re sold in supermarkets, and those are the data they have.  Many wine shops and liquor stores are open for walk-in purchases, but customers might want to minimize their trips and potential exposure to the coronavirus, making the weekly grocery trip the catch-all for most wine purchases, too.

Given the situation, sure — they’re buying the things they’ve heard of and maybe tried before.  It’s likely they don’t want to spend a lot of time browsing in the supermarket aisle, so that makes sense.  And for the COVID-19 “occasions,” I guess if there are more of them than there were wine “occasions” pre-coronavirus, customers will likely want to spend less money on each one.  Or buy value multi-packs to have on hand.

Brager also reports that there’s good growth in the $20-$25 range, so customers are  buying a few extra nicer bottles to go along with their less-expensive bottles at the grocery store.  What I haven’t seen, though, is an estimate of whether the increase in off-premises (drink at home) sales, both in-store and online, makes up for the loss of sales in restaurants and bars.  Are the nicer bottles people are buying at the grocery store or online the wine they would have had with dinner at restaurants?  And is the surge in sales of less-expensive wine more than people would have spent or consumed at after-work happy hours?

We may be able to get a handle on this question once we have sales tax data from alcohol sales to compare to the previous year.  But for now, who knows?  We can say that people are drinking at home and seem to be buying more of the alcohol they can purchase for drinking at home, at least as far as we know from the data collected.  We don’t know how much, really, or what they’re actually drinking.  I’m looking forward to getting the full story when we’re on the other side of the current crisis.

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Social Distancing Installment #9: WHO wants you to stop drinking NOW

Looks like WHO is channeling Winston Churchill with its latest guidance on alcohol consumption during the coronavirus crisis.

On April 14, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement and fact sheet on alcohol and COVID-19.  There’s no subtlety here:

Alcohol is known to be harmful to health in general, and is well understood to increase the risk of injury and violence, including intimate partner violence, and can cause alcohol poisoning. At times of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol consumption can exacerbate health vulnerability, risk-taking behaviors, mental health issues and violence. WHO/Europe reminds people that drinking alcohol does not protect them from COVID-19, and encourages governments to enforce measures which limit alcohol consumption.

Blunt but reasonable.  But the accompanying six-page fact sheet, “Alcohol and COVID-19:  What You Need to Know,” goes beyond a sober warning and, frankly, into moralizing territory:

  • “Avoid alcohol altogether so that you do not undermine your own immune system and health and do not risk the health of others.” (Page 2)
  • “Make sure that children and young people do not have access to alcohol and do not let them see you consume alcohol – be a role model.” (Page 2)
  • “Monitor the screen time of your children (including TV), as such media are flooded with alcohol advertising and promotion; they also spread harmful information that may stimulate early initiation and increased consumption of alcohol.”  (Page 3)
  • “Your time, money and other resources are better invested in buying healthy and nutritious food that will maintain good health and enhance your immune system response. For further ideas, take a look at the food and nutrition tips during self- quarantine issued by WHO.” (Page 3)
  • “Instead of consuming alcohol to pass your time at home, try an indoor workout. Physical activity strengthens the immune system and overall – from both a short-term and a long-term perspective – is a highly beneficial way of spending a period of quarantine.”  (Page 4)
  • “The present situation is a unique opportunity to quit drinking, or at least to cut down considerably, as various social cues and peer pressure situations, such as parties, friends’ gatherings, restaurants and clubs, are (by necessity) avoidable.”  (Page 5)

I admit I’m a WHO fan from way back.  In my environmental advocacy days, I could always count on WHO to say things that US government agencies wouldn’t.  The organization’s precautionary approach – avoid doing harm rather than mitigating it afterward – led them to classify hundreds of substances as suspect long before US EPA did.  WHO’s bluntness was a help in pushing for legislation like the Food Quality Protection Act, which was intended to usher in a new way of setting exposure limits for toxic chemicals.

But there’s a difference between asking governments to protect public health when it comes to things largely out of our everyday control (food and environment) and bullying people into making what WHO considers “better” choices in their daily lives.  It looks to me like WHO is using its well-earned bully pulpit to elevate the issue of alcohol consumption and sees the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to engage in demagoguery, using anti-smoking campaigns as a model.  It’s a little hard to take, especially when we know that even so-called “light” smoking will reduce the length of your life by a much more significant amount and cause far more health problems than moderate drinking will.

Why did WHO decide to go all Helen Lovejoy on us about the dangers of having wine at dinner in front of your kids? Haven’t we been told that exposing your children to reasonable drinking habits was a way to encourage them not to binge drink later?

As I mentioned before, I understand that current isolation measures could encourage people to drink more than they otherwise might.  We should all be vigilant about our own behaviors and helping others who are feeling the strain of lockdown requirements.  Certainly, medical and mental health professionals are within their rights to suggest that their patients reduce/eliminate alcohol consumption if they show signs of stress or anxiety, especially when isolation can encourage some individuals to abuse alcohol.  But I’m not sure most of those professionals would try to generalize to the world at large beyond standard advice about moderation.

I’m a non-smoker and I appreciate laws that protect me from second-hand exposure outside my home.  Laws against public drinking and serving already intoxicated people similarly protect from the dangers posed by others who are intoxicated.  And as a society we have laws that punish those who engage in harmful actions regardless of motivation or circumstances.  Still, as long as we stay within legal parameters, we get to decide on our habits and behaviors.

So, thanks for the facts about alcohol, WHO.  I’d even be OK with it if you added a “we believe that…” when you decided to do some (small amount of) editorializing.  But please don’t present me with your choices for clean living as if they were requirements for my life.  And, really, have a little perspective when we are all trying to get on as best we can during this extraordinary time.

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Social Distancing Installment #8: A day at a virtual wine show

Last week I “attended” my first videoconference wine show looking rather schlubby after making deliveries, sitting at my kitchen table.  Afterwards I thought that perhaps I should cultivate more of this look for the next one — just as soon as I can go get a haircut… (Photo by Austin Ditsel on Unsplash.)

Like other industries, the wine world is adapting to social distancing.  The first activity to get the video treatment has been wine tastings.  Many of you have probably received invitations to video tastings done by your favorite wine store or restaurant, or perhaps a winery or a wine writer.  Reviews on these tastings have been mixed, at least initially – although the quality will likely improve with time and practice.

In the world of wine professionals, wine shows have been the main vehicle for importers and distributors to meet wine producers.  A few of the organizations that organize wine shows have tried video format, and I “attended” my first one last week.  I’m looking forward to more.

I’ve written about the different kinds of wine shows before and how they’re like dating services.  You either have the big singles mixer or something more like a dating app, where you pre-screen.  Last week’s show was the latter kind.  I picked from a list of producers and they then had to decide if they wanted to meet with me.  At least both parties have agreed, providing a degree of enthusiasm going in.  Appointments were set and videoconferencing began.

The one thing missing was the wine.  In a video tasting done by a wine shop or winery, you can buy the wine ahead and taste it with the presenter.  None of the Italian and Spanish producers I met with in this show already exports to the U.S., so it wasn’t possible to get the wine ahead of time.  Normally, at least half of our 20-minute meetings would have been spent tasting and discussing the wines with each producer.  But with the video it was up to us to fill the time.

I always take a few minutes to explain my business, since it’s unusual.  I’m a retailer who imports wines because I’m allowed to do that here in DC, and I sell directly to the public online without a walk-in shop. I’ve got the elevator pitch down now and I know where I’m likely to get questions.  “Wine retailer” has many different permutations in Europe so I have to nail down precisely what I do and don’t do.  And I occasionally still have to explain that Washington DC isn’t Washington State.

But beyond that it’s their time to talk, with some questions at the end.  How they fill the time tells me a lot about them, whether they intend it or not.  I was surprised that only half of the producers I spoke with gave the kind of presentation I used to have to make routinely when I worked for an environmental advocacy organization – giving me a concrete idea of why I, the importer, should want to buy their wines.

In the old days, tasting the wine and seeing the price sheet might be enough.  But that wasn’t an option.  There were some language issues, which was unfortunate.  And the quality of the video feeds were erratic.  Still, I’d have thought that every one of them would have had some kind of talk ready, going from the big picture down to the specifics of their vineyards and winery.

As with virtual wine tastings, it’s early days, and I guess most producers haven’t had to think like they’re making a pitch on “Shark Tank.”  Especially the ones taking over a generations-old family business.  They prefer to let the wine speak for itself.  I’m sure each of them would be a genial, informative host in a two-hour meeting at their wineries.  They just have to translate that into something that works on a short video link.

The best presentations all had a few things in common.  The producers first put their wines into the context of their region in terms of tradition and the recent trends of wine making.  Then they got down to more specifics about the vineyards and the winery, including some of the history of both the property and their families (since they’re mostly family businesses).  Finally, to the wines more specifically and what they were trying to accomplish with them.

This sounds formulaic, but there’s plenty of room for individuality.  No one sounded rehearsed, and they got the information across with a good dose of their personalities as well.  They made me exceptionally sorry I couldn’t pick up a glass and try the wines – which I hope I can do in the coming weeks.

 

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Social Distancing Installment #7: Keeper recipes

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I love to use dried beans, especially chickpeas, in recipes.  But even these days, when I’m in the house more, I don’t always want to take the time.  So I modified a killer recipe for dried chickpeas to use canned — it’s done in about an hour, but tastes like you cooked it all day.  (Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.)

This is the first of what I’m calling “Keeper Recipes,” things I made because I wanted to use pantry staples I had on hand — but they turned out so well I’ll want to add them to my non-social-distancing repertoire.  Enjoy!

—————–

I’ve been making lots of recipes with beans these days – dried beans, canned beans, fresh beans.  I have a pressure cooker and a slow cooker, both of which seem to be made for cooking beans.  Generally, I like using dried beans, especially when the pressure cooker has them ready in under an hour without soaking.  The cooking liquid is great for soups and is a good start to making a luxurious vegetable stock, because it gives the stock a nice texture.

But even with the pressure cooker’s relative speed, canned beans are convenient and usually tasty.  And although the staying at home thing renders an actual meal schedule less urgent, there are times when I want dinner that tastes like it cooked for hours but really didn’t.  The other advantage of using canned beans is that since they’re already cooked, you can cook them with acidic ingredients like tomatoes and get them flavored up pretty quickly.  If you cook dried beans with too much acid, they take a lot longer to cook – and sometimes won’t soften at all.

Recently, I made one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s one-pot (or pan) recipes for chickpeas: Braised Chickpeas with Carrots, Dates, and Feta.  It starts with dried chickpeas soaked overnight, then cooked in a covered casserole in the oven for a couple of hours.  Then you top it with a mixture of feta, caraway seeds, lemon zest, and parsley.  It was amazingly good.  But I wondered if I could modify it to use canned chickpeas and still get the same result without planning the night before.  It turned out really well, using a simple trick.

As I mentioned, one of the perks of cooking dried beans is the cooking liquid.  And in this casserole, all of the goodness from the chickpeas stays in the pot.  But canned chickpeas come in liquid.  So I thought if I drained them and saved that liquid, I could use some of it to enrich the result in the final dish.  You don’t want to use all of it, because it can be salty (I personally don’t use salt-free canned beans because they don’t taste as good – and it takes a long time for salt to penetrate inside them if you use them in a dish.  Lower-salt beans are a good compromise if you can find them).  And it’s pretty concentrated.  But using about a half a cup of the liquid here gives the dish a nice silkiness and a flavor boost, too.

You’ll need between four and four and a half cups of drained chickpeas, from two or three cans depending on the size.  They should give you more than a half cup of chickpea liquid, but don’t worry about it if they don’t.  Just make up the rest with water.

This is a recipe where you shouldn’t sweat about not having everything you need, there are plenty of substitutions.  I didn’t have any jalapeños or other fresh green chiles so I used a chopped up dried chipotle chile instead.  Or use some canned pickled jalapeño if you have it.  The feta topping calls for caraway seeds, which might not be in everyone’s spice rack.  You could also use cumin seeds, which would be tasty.  Finally, since I was out of fresh parsley, I used dried parsley in the topping.  Not much flavor, perhaps, but it gave everything the little bit of green color it needed.

Lots of explanation here for something that’s actually simple.  I hope you’ll try it – it made a wonderful, comforting, and flavorful dinner.  And that’s pretty much all we can ask for some days.

Cheers!

Tom

Braised Chickpeas and Carrots with Feta Topping

Serves 4-6

Adapted from a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi in the Guardian, January 19, 2019

3 15.5 ounce cans of chickpeas, drained in a sieve or colander set over a bowl to collect the liquid — or you can use other canned beans or a mixture of beans to make 4 to 4-1/2 cups (make sure you still collect the liquid)

1 large onion, finely chopped

6 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and finely chopped (seeds and all) – or 1 dried chipotle chile, seeded and blitzed into small pieces, or 1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder, or about 2 tablespoons finely chopped pickled jalapeño, or ½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

3 tablespoons olive oil

1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 large dates, or 3 prunes, or 4 dried apricots, chopped

1 pound carrots, peeled and trimmed, each cut into 4 pieces if small or medium-sized, 6 pieces if they’re humongous – or use a combination of carrots and parsnips

Vegetable stock (optional) or water

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Zest and juice of 1 large lemon

6-8 ounces crumbled feta cheese (whatever size package is on sale) — or queso fresco, or labneh (strained yogurt cheese)

1 teaspoon caraway seeds, toasted and coarsely chopped — or use ½ teaspoon cumin seeds, or ½ teaspoon fennel seeds

A little chopped fresh parsley — or 1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes, or ½ teaspoon dried thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried oregano

Measure out the chickpea liquid and reserve ½ cup.  (If you don’t have ½ cup, then use what’s there and add water to make it ½ cup.)  Rinse the chickpeas and taste one.  If it’s really soft, that’s fine.  If not, put the chickpeas in a large saucepan and put in enough water to cover by about an inch.  Bring the pan to a boil and simmer the chickpeas for about 15 minutes while you start chopping and cooking the rest of the dish.

In a large high-sided skillet with a tight-fitting lid, or in a lidded Dutch oven, heat the oil until shimmering.  Add the onion, garlic, ginger, and jalapeño (if you’re using a fresh one) plus 1 teaspoon of salt, and cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion is translucent.  Add the cumin, cinnamon, dates (or other dried fruit), tomato paste, some ground black pepper, and the chipotle or pepper flakes or pickled jalapeño (if you used any of them instead of the fresh jalapeño) and cook for a couple of minutes.

Drain the chickpeas, reserving the liquid if you cooked them further.  Stir the drained chickpeas into the onion mixture so that they’re nicely coated.  Stir in the carrots, again until everything is nicely coated, and then add either enough of the chickpea boiling water or plain water or vegetable stock to just cover everything.  Stir in the half-cup of chickpea liquid you saved from the cans.  Bring to a simmer, cover the pot, and cook over very low heat for 45 minutes.  Check every 15 minutes and stir to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot and that there’s enough liquid.  Add some more water if needed.  You want to end up with the liquid no more than halfway up the chickpeas and carrots – not dry, but not soupy, either.  If there’s too much liquid after 45 minutes of cooking, let it boil uncovered for a few minutes to reduce.

While the pot is cooking, combine the feta, caraway, lemon zest, and parsley, and set aside.  When the 45 minutes are up, stir the lemon juice into the pot and taste for salt and pepper.  Let the chickpea mixture sit, covered, for 10 minutes.  Scatter the feta topping over the chickpea mixture.  Serve hot.

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Social Distancing Installment #6: Earth Day and wine

Clusters of new wine grapes in spring. This time of year the vines expend lots of energy and take more from the environment. Will the recent lockdown that has led to less transportation pollution have a positive impact on the 2020 crop? (Photo by Raychan on Unsplash.)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970.  It’s hard for us to imagine (or in some cases, remember) the state of the air, water, and land back then.  Practically all of the major U.S. environmental laws came into being after 1970, and they have had a huge impact on our world.

But the virtual standstill over the past couple of months due to the coronavirus has showed us that we’ve still got a long way to go.  The drop in transportation, industrial activity, and power generation from people staying home has made for less smog and less water pollution.  Clearer skies over big cities and dolphins in the canals of Venice are things we should be expecting during the regular course of our lives, not just during a pandemic lockdown.

Likewise, if we look at agricultural practices in the 1960s and 70s, we’d be stunned at the variety of now-banned pesticides that were in use.  I remember that Chlordane was sold in hardware stores for people to kill Japanese beetles on their lawns.  One of my wine producers described that time as a chemical free-for-all.  Thanks to regulation and changes in production mindset, chemical use has decreased by huge amounts.

Obviously, there’s still further to go with wine production and the world at large.  The cleaner environment over the past couple of months has made me wonder if we’re going to see a difference in the 2020 wine grape harvest.  As I mentioned before, grapes that show little to no detectable contaminant residues aren’t just a product of not using chemicals on the vines – they also come from vineyards that are protected from chemical drift and transportation pollution by geography, topography, or prevailing winds.  Transportation particulate pollution often contains heavy metals, as well as droplets of condensed organic chemicals.

Vineyards near well-traveled roads are normally subject to more of this pollution.  But with fewer non-essential trips happening, these vineyards are getting a reprieve.  This time of year is important with bud break, flowering, and fruit set happening.  The vines expend a lot of energy producing the grapes, and take in more of what’s in the environment.  It’s not unrealistic to expect that the longer the shutdown lasts, the less transportation contaminants will end up in the grapes.  In addition, less smog would allow more direct sun and that could reduce spring molds that might otherwise develop.

Will this cleaner period have a measurable impact on public health and the environment down the road, let alone on wine grapes?  In terms of public health, we may not get a definitive answer – especially if people aren’t seeking medical attention that would help tally results of respiratory illnesses.  Even if we knew that there was an improvement, it could well be swamped by coronavirus cases.   For wine grapes, I assume that winegrowers who test for chemical residues at harvest will continue doing those tests, so perhaps we’ll get some data, especially from organic vineyards if they choose to release the information.  But the vast majority of publicly-available data from residue tests are done by public interest organizations, not winegrowers.  Residue testing is expensive, and unless those testing organizations get more funding we probably won’t see any results.

Obviously, there are other differences from year to year that influence the flavors and quantities of grapes, including prevailing winds, so transportation pollution effects might not even be detectable.  But if we do find a difference in the grapes that we can pin on a quiet spring, it would be a great data point to add to other evidence that could influence future regulation and practices.  Helping drive government, industry, and individuals to find ways to lessen our environmental footprints without economic disruption and a public health crisis could be a small silver lining to these difficult times.

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Social Distancing Installment #5: Eat and drink what you like

If your fond memory of a perfect food and wine pairing — where each enhanced the other to the point of transcendence — also contained a view like this one, then you’re not likely to experience the same frisson again even with the same food and wine. (Photo by Anthony Delanoix on Unsplash.)

A friend e-mailed me after my last couple of posts.  While she enjoyed reading them, she said she missed my not-so-long-ago format of recipes and wine pairings.  She asked if I’d get back to it, at least occasionally, with more pantry staples given how we’re cooking now.

It got me thinking that these days, when substitution is key to making meals with what you have on hand, the traditional ideas of how to pair wine and food may not work that well anymore.  Despite the e-mails I get from wine delivery websites promising help with any and all wine pairing questions.

This has been a bit of a controversy recently, as veteran wine blogger Alder Yarrow declared earlier this month that wine and food pairing are essentially junk science.

Yarrow’s post is worth reading, not least because he makes points I’ve stressed before in posts on pairing wine and food.  Like that everyone perceives taste differently, and that what we remember as a transcendent food and wine pairing may have had as much to do with the situation and the company as the actual wine and food.

He starts with a discussion of what could be considered “old world” wine and food pairing:  if the wine and food are both locally-sourced and traditional to the region they will go together well.  This kind of pairing is still valuable, he says, but it falls apart in our current marketplace of worldwide food and wines.

Yarrow particularly dislikes special restaurant food and wine pairings – flights of wines to go with multicourse tasting menus.  He stops short of blowing off the sommeliers who create those pairings, however, saying that somms who seek out new and different wines can give you a great wine experience that doesn’t have to pair with your meal.  (Frankly, a wise move on his part, since somms would no doubt have their sabrage swords at the ready the next time they saw him…)

Here’s where it gets interesting for me.  Yarrow dismisses what he calls the “new rules” of trying to match the intensity of flavor in the wine and food and how the chemical characteristics of wine and food (acidity, sweetness, bitterness) can be combined or avoided.  Too many exceptions occur in real life because of people’s individual tastes, he says, and they pretty much make these rules useless.

That might be true.  For me, these “new rules” work pretty well and are the basis of most of my food and wine recommendations.  But the fact is that if you like a particular food and a particular wine, you may well like them together even if they’re not in line with anyone’s ideas of pairing wine and food.

And I think we’re coming to a different understanding of what we eat and drink.  We’re well into what I’ll call the Salt Fat Acid Heat Era, named for Samin Nosrat’s cookbook and Netflix series.  We’re learning to balance flavors and (for lack of a better term) chemical and physical properties in our food – or at least coming to appreciate that the great cuisines of the world already do this.  It could be that a wine adds an element that a dish may lack, and creates balance through pairing the wine and food.  But if all is in order, does well-balanced wine work with well-balanced food more often than not?  I don’t want to throw more somm terms out here, so perhaps it’s as simple as good-tasting things can be surprisingly good together because they’re each made to have that balance.

As with everything concerning wine, words and tone matter.  The idea that every recommended food and wine pairing is going to be the best thing you’ve ever had (particularly if they’re expensive) is ridiculous.  It’s an opinion.  No one has to follow it, and everyone’s choice is valid for them.

Of course, I will continue to recommend food and wine pairings — it’s what I do.  I started because people asked me my opinion, and they seem to enjoy (or at least tolerate) my giving it.  I hope I haven’t given the impression that any of these pairings will change your life.  Think of them as suggestions, something to try if you can.  Or feel free to ignore.

One last thing:  when you’ve changed your usual cooking to less familiar territory to keep to what you have on hand, you may want something familiar and comforting, or off the charts fancy, or cheap and cheerful to drink with it, screw the pairing.  Honestly, as long as you’re drinking wine and enjoying it, that’s enough for me – and anyone in the wine industry, for that matter.

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Social Distancing Installment #4: Sourdough madness

Although it has puffed up to about 2 cups, this is a cup of sourdough starter ready for use. I was reluctant to try it since lots of starter recipes waste flour. But with this one you start small and end up with enough for a loaf of bread plus some left to keep the starter going.  I’ve decided to name my starter Château Whoopdie-do, since, like wine, it’s all about the fermentation.

I’ve seen lots of social media postings for two things lately:  banana bread and sourdough.  Who knew people had so many overripe bananas around?  I don’t like bananas at all, but I love bread and making my own.  So I was intrigued by the sudden surge of posts on sourdough.

At first, though, I wasn’t tempted.  Most sourdough starter recipes use an awful lot of flour and I didn’t want to waste any.  They direct you to throw half of your starter away every day and feed it more flour and water.  If you didn’t, you’d end up with about a half-gallon of starter after a week (the amount of time it usually takes for the starter to mature), and even the recipes for the biggest bread rounds use at most a cup of it.

But after a few days of social distancing, I started to see recipes for small batches of sourdough starter.  By small, I mean that you end up with at most one cup of starter, and some make even less.  Best of all, the people posting them also made Instagram live videos to show how it all works.

That sounded a lot more reasonable, and manageable.  Leftover starter keeps well in the fridge, and you only have to feed it a little flour and water once a week.

(Of course, you can save the discards and make other things with them.  There are all sorts of posts for crackers, pancakes, muffins, waffles, etc.  And if you want to go that way – and have enough flour and planning energy to make all those things – then by all means go ahead.)

I decided to try the starter method from David Atherton, the 2019 Great British Bake-Off champion.  Mainly because he seemed the most relaxed about the whole thing – bread flour, all-purpose, whole wheat, rye, you can use them all, pretty much anything you’ve got on hand.  You can see his Instagram posts and short videos @nomadbakerdavid.

Looking around for a bread recipe, I really liked the one by @ellie_croissant.  She also writes a blog called The Flour of Love, and her Instagram TV video of her bread process is the best.  You can find her recipe here, she also gave me permission to post it below, where I’ve added my notes and a few small changes.  You should look at the photos in her post, though.  You can really see what’s going on, and I almost never remember to take photos as I go along.

This is not an immediate enterprise.  You’ll need a week to make the starter, mostly leaving it alone and letting it ferment.  Then you’ll need two days for making the bread.  Again, you’re not working all the time, although the bread dough requires more of your attention the first day.

There are about four cups of flour in this bread.  It’s mostly white bread flour with a little whole wheat in there.  And you’ll use almost no flour shaping the dough, so you won’t

Here’s the dough ready for proving in the fridge overnight. @Ellie_Croissant recommends using gluten-free flour on the work surface and for the rising basket (which you don’t need to have, btw) and that works really well if you have it. GF flour doesn’t absorb as much liquid as wheat flour, and the dough won’t stick to the basket as much.

waste any.  You can make it entirely by hand or use a stand mixer (which is what I did).  Since I make bread often I have a banneton, which is a spiral-pattern rising basket.  But you can also let the dough rise in a greased bowl, so no need for anything fancy.  The one thing that’s essential is an enameled cast-iron pot with a lid.

I loved the result – the bread is beautiful, tastes great, and has a lovely texture with the kind of big holes you find in artisan bread.  Best of all, it worked as described.  Seriously, I’d have been more than a little ashamed if I couldn’t get fermentation right, being in the wine business and all…  And it’s a link to the past.  This is the way bread was made before commercial yeast became available.  The best part is that everyone’s sourdough tastes just a little bit different, because we all have different yeasts in the air around us.  So, as with wine, you’ve got built-in terroir.  Feel free to name your starter after your favorite wine château, or (for that matter) anything you like – it’s your terroir, after all!

Cheers!

Tom

Sourdough Starter

Method from David Atherton, on Instagram and Twitter @nomadbakerdavid

This starter requires seven days of sitting around.  On day eight you’ll be ready to make bread.

Day 1:  Start with a clean jar with a lid that’ll hold at least a pint.  Put 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon flour in the jar, along with two tablespoons of lukewarm filtered water (80 – 90 degrees F), and ½ teaspoon of plain yogurt or sour cream (look on the label to make sure it has active cultures) if you have it around.  No worries if you don’t.  Mix well, put the lid on, and let it sit for 24 hours in a warm-ish place (around 70 degrees F).  If you’re leaving it on the counter, put it on a coaster or a potholder – even though the counter is the same temperature as the air in your kitchen, the starter cools off more quickly if it’s in direct contact with the counter.

You can use bread flour, whole wheat, or rye flour depending on what you have.  All-purpose flour works too.  Organic flour will likely start bubbling faster, but don’t worry if you don’t have it.  Atherton also mentions that you can add a couple of organic grapes or raisins to the starter and they’ll help it along quicker.  But again, don’t worry if you don’t have them.

Day 2 and 3:  Add the same amount of flour and water to the starter and mix well.  Don’t add any more yogurt or sour cream.  Cover and let stand.

Day 4:  If you’re seeing bubbles in your starter, hooray!  If not, don’t panic.  Sometimes it won’t start bubbling for another day or two.  You’ll notice that it may look separated (even on Day 2).  This is fine.  The warning signs are anything pink – if you see it, throw the starter away, clean the jar well, and start again.

Remove the grapes or raisins if you used them, they’ve added everything they’re going to at this point.  If the starter is bubbling, then add half as much flour and water (1 tablespoon water, plus 1 tablespoon and two teaspoons of flour).  If it isn’t, then add the same amount of flour as Days 1-3.

Day 5-7:  Follow Day 4 again.  Your starter should be bubbling by Day 6.  At this point if it’s bubbling you’ll notice it really rises up and then falls.  All of this is OK.  It should smell slightly sour.  A little grayish or greenish tinge to the liquid on the top is perfectly fine.  Beware of pink stuff, and any foul smell.  You may notice that the starter puffs up a lot when you take the lid off the jar — again, perfectly fine.

I have heard some people say that it can take up to 10 days to get a starter going, depending on where you live, what flour you use, and what the temperature is like in your kitchen.  So you can continue feeding the starter if it’s not active, but after Day 7 you can use the smaller amount of flour and water from Day 4.

The lovely boule out of the oven! I made the vertical slash but the horizontal one happened in the oven. So I modified the instructions to make a cross in the top instead.

Beginning on Day 8, you’re ready to make bread dough.  Congratulations on making the starter!  Put any starter you don’t use in the fridge and feed it once a week with the smaller amount of flour and water from Day 4.  If you want to use it again, take it out of the fridge, feed it the Day 2-3 amount of flour and water and let it sit overnight.  It’ll be ready to use the next day.

And what about if it doesn’t get active but doesn’t spoil?  You could start again.  Or, in the interest of saving flour you can add some of what you have to another bread recipe that uses yeast.  The starter is equal weights of flour and water.  I’d use 100 grams of starter, and subtract 50 grams each of flour and water from your bread recipe.  The starter will give the bread great flavor even if you’re using commercial yeast.

Sourdough Boule

From @Ellie_Croissant on Instagram, http://theflouroflove.wordpress.com.  Reprinted with Ellie’s kind permission, with modifications by me.

Ingredients

108 grams sourdough starter

380 grams lukewarm filtered water

54 grams whole wheat flour

488 grams unbleached bread flour

2 teaspoons salt

Equipment

A large bowl, or the bowl of a standing mixer [standing mixture instructions in square brackets]

A 4-5 quart enameled cast-iron Dutch oven with a lid

Dough Scrapers – one flexible one to get the dough out of the bowl, and a stiffer one for shaping the dough

A well-floured banneton, or a greased bowl with a diameter slightly smaller than the Dutch oven

A thin bladed serrated knife (for slashing the bread before baking)

Sliced after cooling for an hour. The texture is just what you find in artisan breads!

Instructions

.1.  Weigh out your starter into your mixing bowl [or the bowl for your mixer]. Pour the lukewarm water into the bowl and use your fingers to vigorously mix the two together, until you have a large bowl of muddy-looking water.

.2.  Add your two flours to the bowl and mix until well combined. [If you’re using the mixer, use the paddle and mix on low speed until combined. Clean off the paddle and remove it.]  Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave to rest for thirty minutes.

.3.  Once the mixture has rested, use your scraper to scoop it out of the bowl, and onto your (clean, unfloured) kitchen worktop. Pour your salt onto the dough and add a tiny splash of water to help it dissolve. Using your hands and the dough scraper, incorporate the salt, and knead your dough for ten minutes. This will feel like a long time, I’d advise putting the radio on- three songs should do it! [For the mixer, sprinkle the salt over the dough and put the dough hook on. Mix on low speed for a minute, then raise the speed to medium and let the mixer knead for about 7 minutes more.]

.4.  Once your dough is kneaded, scoop it back into the bowl [or leave it in the mixer bowl], cover with your tea towel, and leave for another thirty minutes.

.5.  Now it’s time to ‘turn’ your bread every thirty minutes for three hours (six turns), which is a way of helping the gluten strands stretch out and create structure in the dough. Wet your hands with a little water and use your scraper to scoop the dough into your hands. Let it relax for a second, then fold it in on itself in thirds like a business letter. Rotate the dough a quarter-turn and fold, then rotate the dough and fold again, until you have a slightly tighter ball of dough. Don’t force the folds — you want to be stretching the gluten, not tearing it! Put the dough back in the bowl, cover it with the towel, and let it rest for 30 minutes. Repeat this step over the next few hours; you should feel the dough tightening and becoming less sticky as time progresses.

.6.  After your sixth turn, lightly flour your worktop, and place your dough, fold-side up, onto the flour. Press your dough gently into a square shape, allowing any large pockets of air to escape. Pull the top right corner in toward the center line of the dough and press gently to make it stick. Repeat with the left corner, and continue alternately on each side, essentially knitting that side of the dough together to create a tube of dough. The take the end closest to you and roll it away from you onto itself to create a tight roll of bread dough. Leave the dough, seam-side down on the work top covered with your tea towel and leave for another thirty minutes.

.7.  The dough will have spread a little as it relaxes, so use your dough scraper to flip it over, so the seam is back on top. ‘Knit’ the two edges into the middle again, once again rolling the dough into a tight ball with the seam underneath. Using your dough scraper again, pick up your ball of dough and flip it into your floured banneton or greased bowl, with the seam on top. (Note: Ellie recommends using gluten-free baking flour for flouring your banneton and the work surface, and it works well because the gf flour doesn’t absorb water like wheat flour does.) Put your banneton or bowl inside a plastic bag and leave to prove for around 12 hours in the fridge.  If you’re going to make a round loaf instead of an oval one, you’ll want to pull all four corners in as described.  Then pull in the sides in between the corners.  Keep going like this until you have a nice smooth round ball of dough.

.8.  Take your dough out of the fridge and let it rest for about an hour at room temperature. Then set the oven to 450 degrees F with a rack on the bottom rungs. Whilst it’s coming up to temperature, put your pot with the lid on into the oven to heat up, too.

.9.  When the oven is heated, turn your proofed bread out onto a piece of parchment paper. Gently press the paper onto the dough and turn the whole thing over – it should come right out. Dust the top of the dough with flour and use your bread razor or serrated knife to score a cross along the top of the dough that’s about ¾-inch deep and at least half as wide/long as the dough is. Do this gently, you don’t want to press down hard and push out all the bubbles you’ve waited to form.  The cross allows the bread to expand as it bakes, and can look pretty too if you’ve time for fancier designs!

.10.  Carefully remove the Dutch oven from the oven and take off the lid carefully pop your bread (still on the paper!) into your pot and put the lid on. Shake it gently side-to-side to center the dough in the pot. Cook in the oven for thirty minutes.

.11.  After thirty minutes is up, take the lid off your pot and turn the oven down to 425 degrees F. Cook for another thirty minutes.

.12.  Remove from the oven and let your lovely new loaf cool on a cooling rack. Try and wait at least an hour before diving in!

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Social Distancing Installment #3: Cook with what you’ve got

Trying to cook with the ingredients at home these days — and no one is better at using pantry goods for meals than Jack Monroe. She has started a Twitter feed to help people with questions, and that has led to a BBC show recently.

I’m the kind of cook who usually shops nearly every day.  Since we are encouraged to stay at home as much as possible, though, I’m trying to cook from what’s around here instead of shopping.  I’m pretty good at coming up with combinations of odds and ends – at least within the mindset of the styles of food I usually cook.

But that’s sometimes limiting.  So I’ve been turning to Jack Monroe for inspiration.  I had seen her on Twitter and then read about her in a Washington Post profile.  She’s definitely a home cook and not “chef-fy” in any way.  Her cooking drive came from necessity.  Faced with unemployment and a child to raise, she had to find a way to eat from the weekly food box she received from a local food pantry, supplemented with other low-cost ingredients.

She started blogging about her experiences, and the blog turned into cookbook opportunities.  She’s now working on her seventh cookbook.  They’re full of ideas and different flavors.  Monroe has great instincts for flavor combinations.  (Check here for the recipe that made her famous – Carrot, Cumin, and Kidney Bean Burgers.)  These days, lots of cookbooks seem to be specialized by cuisine or region of the world.  And while it’s fun to see collected recipes from individual cuisines we don’t know much about, it’s also great (and face it, a lot less reading) to have different styles of recipes together.

In these home sequestration days, Monroe has been using her skills and knowledge to help her Twitter followers make meals with things they find in their pantries.  You can check them out using the hashtag #JackMonroesLockdownLarder.   Obviously, she’s way ahead of the curve on this – and she’s going to be on a daily BBC television show soon to demonstrate recipes and share more ideas.

It’s great to see her so successful, since things didn’t always go this smoothly for her even after she started finding an audience for her books.  She got plenty of criticism for using  “expensive” ingredients like wine in dishes when she’s supposed to be helping poor people cook (and I guess they don’t deserve nice ingredients?  Even when you can get an inexpensive bottle of wine and make four different dishes with it?)  And at the start of the coronavirus crisis, some UK publications were turning to “celebrity” chefs for the kind of things she does much better.  Frankly, it’s hard to imagine some of these folks ever reaching for the packaged products that Monroe uses so well.

For example, one of the things I admire about her is her ability to use existing pantry staples to make new, more interesting pantry staples.  Like her idea for pickling canned beans.  She inspired me to come up with my own version and some variations – there are plenty of things that will work, so try something that appeals to you.

Cheers!

Tom

Basic method

Drain and rinse a can of cannellini beans and put them in a mason jar with a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, a big pinch of red pepper flakes, a quarter-teaspoon of dried oregano, and a big pinch of dried rosemary that you’ve crumbled a bit.  Combine ¾ cup white or apple cider vinegar and ½ cup water with a teaspoon of sugar and 1/4 teaspoon of fine salt in a small saucepan.  Add a small clove of garlic that you’ve thinly sliced.  Heat until the liquid boils.  Stir and let it boil for a minute to cook the garlic through and dissolve the sugar and salt.  Pour over the beans, put the lid on, and cool to room temperature.  (If the liquid doesn’t cover the beans, you can add equal parts vinegar and water to top off.) Then put the jar in the fridge for a couple of days or up to a week to flavor up.  Drain the beans and stir in a little olive oil and you have a great mixture for serving on pieces of toasted rustic bread.  You can also mix them into prepared hummus as a spread, add them to salads, mix into tuna salad (add some chopped olives too), etc.

A few riffs

First, if you don’t have a mason jar you can use a heatproof bowl.  Cover the bowl with a plate until everything cools, then switch to another jar or plastic container and refrigerate.  Then, switch out beans and flavors.  The cannellini bean flavorings will work with other beans, certainly, or try these:

Black beans (or pintos, or red kidney beans) — a half-teaspoon of cumin seeds (toast them in a small pan first if you can), ½ teaspoon ancho chile powder (or use regular chili powder, or crumble up a bit of a dried chile), and a half-teaspoon of oregano into the jar.  You can also put a couple of slices of jalapeño or serrano if you have it around.  You could stir some into guacamole, use as a garnish for chili or soups, or mix with avocado and tomato for a salad.

Chickpeas – a quarter-teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cumin seeds, and coriander seeds.  Put in a pinch of red pepper flakes and a couple of cardamom pods that you’ve crushed lightly (or add a pinch of ground cardamom).  If you have some bell pepper (any color) dice up about ¼ and add it.  This makes a great salad with some grated carrot and radish.  Or cook some ground lamb or beef with a bit of the same spices and stir in the pickled chickpeas.  Serve with rice or couscous.

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