Summer recipes, part 1

It has definitely been a summer of eating so far.  And Cy and I haven’t even left for our week of lobster rolls and twice-a-day cocktails.  So many good things to eat this year!  I didn’t get a chance to post a recipe last week, so here’s one I think you’ll enjoy — sweet corn chowder.  It’s vegetarian, and I’ve also put in a variation with salmon.

I don’t mind cutting corn off the cob, although I realize it’s not everyone’s favorite thing to do.  I learned about using a bundt pan several years ago and it has made things a lot easier.  After you shuck and silk the corn, put the stem into the hole on top of the pan (trim the stem if it’s too thick.  If the stem is completely broken off, I jam a small knife in there to hold the ear in place).  Run your knife down along the cob and the kernels will fall (mostly) into the pan.

The good news is that with or without the salmon, it’s a great soup to eat at room temperature or slightly chilled.  Try it soon, since we’re starting to get great sweet corn.  And it’s a great match for Château de Clapier Soprano White ($20).  I normally go with a light, crisp wine in the summer.  But the chowder is pretty rich, and the Soprano can stand up to it.  



Summer Corn Chowder (with or without salmon)

Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a first course

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 large onion, cut in medium dice

1 stalk celery, including leaves, cut into ¼-inch dice

1 large carrot, peeled and cut into small dice

1 large russet potato, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces

4 ears sweet corn, shucked, kernels cut from the cobs and the cobs reserved

6 – 8 cups vegetable stock

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons dry sherry

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Optional:  1 pound skinned salmon fillet, cut into ¾-inch chunks


In a 4-quart or larger pot, melt the butter over medium heat with the vegetable oil.  Add the cayenne, onion, celery, carrot, some black pepper, and a half-teaspoon of salt.  Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables soften.  Add the potato and cook for about 5 minutes.  Stir in 6 cups of the vegetable stock.  Cut or break the corn cobs in half and add them to the pot.  Bring to a boil and the lower the heat to a simmer for 20 minutes.  Remove and discard the corn cobs.  Add the corn and simmer 5 minutes, then stir in the cream and sherry.  Turn off the heat and let the soup sit for a few minutes.  Taste for salt and pepper, and add more vegetable broth if you think the soup is too thick.  The soup is ready to eat hot, or you can let it cool down to room temperature.


Salmon variation:  If you want the soup hot, turn the heat back on to low after you’ve let the soup sit, then add the salmon pieces.  Cook for five minutes, then serve.  If you plan on serving the soup at a lower temperature, don’t bother heating the pot when you add the salmon – the fish will cook in the soup as-is.  You may want to add more vegetable broth if you think the soup is too much like a stew.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Perhaps you can buy happiness after all

Well, at least we now know that the happiness can come in the form of experiences or material possessions.

As part of looking back on 10 years of importing and selling wine, I wrote a post a couple of months ago about how my millennial customers generally don’t buy the same wine twice.  The most common explanation for this, as I mentioned in the post, is that millennial customers prefer to have experiences over acquiring things.  Drinking wine counts as an experience (or at least part of an experience), and not sticking with the same wines makes for new experiences with each bottle.

There’s even a body of research suggesting that people (not just millennials) are happier, in general, when they prioritize experiences over consumption.  Part of that may happen naturally, as you acquire more things.  I’ve noticed that the wine trips Cy and I have taken in the past few years have been more about the places and people there and less about acquiring souvenirs than they used to be.  We love and use our French table linens and ceramics, but we also don’t necessarily feel the need to get more stuff.  And I have anecdotal evidence that it’s not just us.  A friend in the fine jewelry business tells me he’s concerned because, at least at this point, younger customers aren’t looking for pieces the way they used to.

So I was intrigued to read a piece in Slate a few days ago suggesting that the perceived experience/consumption ratio for happiness might not be the case.  Nick Thieme reports on a Hungarian study on data taken as part of an annual household survey.  The results show that people who spend money on experiences are equally as happy, on average, as those who spend money on consumer goods.  While experiences come out slightly ahead in the number-crunching, the difference for experiences vs. consumption is negligible and not statistically significant.

What makes the new study interesting is that it’s a different approach than previous researchers took.  The older studies typically divided people into two groups.  One was asked about recent experiences and how happy they made the individuals.  The other group was asked about material purchases.  The results showed that the experiences group was, on average, happier with its spending than the material purchases group.

But the Hungarian study took a different approach:  asking people how they had spent their money over the past month, three months, and the past year, and then separately for a numerical measure of their happiness.  The purchase data was easily separated into experiences and non-experiences.  The researchers found that those who spent more on experiences vs. material purchases didn’t consider themselves any happier.

It’s an interesting comparison.  Both methodologies are valid, although they come to different results.  And both could be tweaked to be more similar:  in future, Hungarian researchers could ask people directly whether they thought that their spending had influenced their happiness, and the other researchers could ask their subjects about overall happiness instead of just happiness with particular spending.  But the Hungarian study definitely suggests that the idea that experiences make us happier than other purchases isn’t as strong as previously indicated.  It also points out that things aren’t as clear-cut as they might seem in behavioral studies like these.

As a wine merchant, I found the study interesting, of course.  Wine is an experience but also a material purchase.  So perhaps it’s not a bad thing to stress both aspects in pitching to customers.  I’m also glad to see that my non-millennial customers (who are repeat buyers of wines they like) may be just as happy as the new-experience-seeking millennial crowd, too.  I’d hate to think they were having all the fun.  Plus it makes me think maybe it’s possible to buy your way to happiness after all!


Happy post-July 4th!  We went to a slew of cookouts, with one genuine barbecue in there too.  I’ll have a couple of recipes for you soon.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Making wine Instagram-mable again

A very long ago, pre-Instagram tasting area photo of Cy and me at a winery in Sonoma. The tasting room and patio were designed to draw your eye to the lovely vineyards, so naturally, that’s what people focused on — not the wine, and not anything else in the tasting room, either.

Even though I have lots of wine-loving friends, I’ve noticed that more of them post food photos on social media than wine photos.  Not that they don’t take wine-related photos, just that there are barely any featuring a particular wine.  They’ll post plenty of lovely vineyard/winery scenery shots, and maybe some collections of bottles, or an interesting label here and there.  And, of course, selfies with wine glasses in hand.

Contrast this with their lovingly-shot photos of glistening plates of food, taken from various artistic angles, showing interesting things in the restaurant in the background.  The food is definitely the star, based on its own visual qualities, along with how it’s plated and how it fits into the surroundings.

I admit to being somewhat social media impaired.  So while I noticed the wine photo deficit, I didn’t think too much about why.  Then one day I listened to Alton Brown interviewing Gaby Dalkin, a southern California food blogger and social media wizard.  Her “What’s Gaby Cooking” blog is gorgeous and full of interesting recipes.  Dalkin pretty much perfected the use of Snapchat for short cooking videos (she and her mother named them Snapisodes).  She also posts a lot on Instagram and does Facebook Live videos. Naturally, she has gained some knowledge about social media food photography.

Gaby Dalkin’s author photo from her What’s Gaby Cooking blog. In an interview with Alton Brown, she said she’s determined to make Bruschetta the trend of 2017, so of course I had to use this photo.

Dalkin talked about Instagram in particular and said that chefs have been heavily influenced by it, knowing that people would be taking and posting photos of the food.  This has definitely made for more colorful and casual-yet-totally-staged plating, and may even have contributed to the (to my mind, inexplicable) small plate craze.  She and Brown both agreed that multiples of the same thing look better on plates and in photos than just one – they’re more visually appealing.  Hence, two tacos, a pyramid of four Albondigas, three Bruschette, small cribs of perfectly squared-off fries stacked like firewood (or all standing upright in a small copper pot), etc.  Dalkin also said, just a little sheepishly, that she sometimes chooses what she’s going to eat based on what will look best on Instagram.  (Brown accused her of “Instajudging,” which she readily admitted was true.)  Colorful salads, tacos, most pastas, and pizza make the best photos, according to Dalkin.  They have enough visual interest so that you can even photograph them from directly overhead.

She went on to say that Instagram also heavily influences restaurant design.  For example, food photos almost always look better in natural light.  So getting natural light into the restaurant is key – along with colors that are going to enhance rather than detract in photos.  After listening to the interview, I did some research and found quite a few articles on Instgram’s influence on restaurant design over the past couple of years.  It has led to things like putting interesting objects on the walls instead of paintings or large photographs, because they make for better food photo backgrounds.  As well as great photo subjects in and of themselves.  Another area of influence is utensil design, which has become even more important lately.

Glasses of wine suffer in comparison to glistening food.  Even multiple glasses together aren’t that interesting.  A few posts ago, I asked Joanne Weir – a chef, TV cook, and cookbook author who makes a point of talking about wine – why she didn’t do more with wine in her television shows.  Her reply was that it’s really not compelling visually.  Even the color we see with our eyes doesn’t necessarily show up on camera.  And you have to spend a lot of time talking about it since only the most experienced wine drinkers might be able to imagine the flavor from the visuals.

This made me wonder if Instagram and other social media could start to have an influence on winery tasting room design – finding ways to overcome wine’s visual shortcomings and help make it the focus of photographs.  In my experience, winery tasting rooms are designed to show you the beauty of the surroundings – rolling hills, rows of grapevines, trees, lovely outbuildings, etc.  Or if the tasting room isn’t right on the vineyards, then you’re looking out at beautiful gardens or something like that.  There are often huge windows, which certainly help with natural light for photos.  But very little in the tasting rooms themselves that will draw your eyes to the wine or the inside surroundings to make you want to photograph them.  Of course, many were designed in an era that didn’t consider customer photography.  So I wondered if perhaps newer or newly-redesigned wineries might have considered Instagram, etc., in planning.

After contacting a few, I didn’t get any indication this was true.  Even for brand-new tasting rooms, like the one at Lokoya in St. Helena, CA, customer photos weren’t a consideration in the tasting spaces (which are gorgeous).  While the design brings the outside in, it doesn’t draw your attention to the wine.  Everything looks designed for wide-angle photos rather than close-ups.  In a way, this makes sense – the design should be somewhat timeless because it’s expensive to build, and you want it to look good for a long time.  Wineries probably aren’t going to make over their tasting rooms until they’re old or they need to expand them, they’re going to put their profits into making the product instead.

I then thought that urban wineries/tasting rooms might be different, since so many have started since Instgram’s 2010 launch.  And in many cases, they’re more like bars than tasting rooms, and may have kitchens to serve food.  But I contacted the managers/owners of several and couldn’t find any who would definitively say that the tasting rooms were designed with photography/social media in mind.  And among the few that Cy and I visited in Oakland, CA a couple of months ago, only one had plenty of natural light coming in.  Not because it was designed that way, but because the space had been a sandwich shop and juice bar before the winery moved in.  The manager called it a “fishbowl” because people could see in, but it was enjoyable being in that space.  And it did bring the wine into greater focus, rather than the view beyond the windows.

It’s not surprising to see so many fairly dark spaces.  Natural light can be the enemy of wine – after all, that’s why so much of it comes in green bottles.  Many of the spaces themselves are in more industrial buildings that don’t have a lot of windows to begin with.  It’s easier then to keep the tasting area dark and cozy rather than light and airy.  And even a small batch winery requires a fair amount of space, which won’t be cheap in many urban areas, and certainly not in the retail core.  The Oakland urban winery I mentioned with the big windows had been in an industrial building with few windows before this more retail-oriented space opened up.

I don’t mean to imply by any of this that tasting room designers should entirely cave to the “If it didn’t happen on Instagram, it didn’t happen” meme.  But it might not hurt to consider making the urban spaces less like dark bars and providing more interesting and photograph-worthy surroundings and décor.  Obviously, I didn’t contact dozens of wineries or tasting rooms for this post, so it’s entirely possible I’ve missed some that were designed with customer photography in mind.  Still, my small survey leads me to believe that hasn’t been an issue, at least not yet.  Wineries may be missing out on an easy way to gain potential customers’ attention through social media, so it’s worth thinking about.


Grated, salted, and drained zucchini mixed in with orange pepper, onion, and tomato. Draining the grated zucchini gives it more flavor.

Speaking of social media, a friend posted recently on Facebook that she hates zucchini.  It reminded me of watching Sara Moulton on “Sara’s Weeknight Meals,” when she said that she had also hated zucchini for a long time.  Until she realized she could concentrate the flavor by grating, salting, and draining it.  The result is a great addition to lots of different dishes.

I decided to try it in couscous a few nights ago, and it was delicious.  You can serve the couscous as a side dish, mixed in with salad greens, or as a base for a protein and sauce.  I made this one vegetarian by cooking the couscous in vegetable stock, but you could use chicken broth if you’re making a chicken dish.

The salted, grated zucchini only needs to sit in a colander for 10 minutes or so.  Then you can either press on it with a spoon, squeeze with your hands, or squeeze it all in a clean kitchen towel to remove the liquid.  You’ll be surprised at how much comes out.  If you want to be super thrifty, collect the liquid you squeeze out and use it to cook the couscous.

You can serve the couscous hot, warm, or at room temperature – it’s great to do ahead and serve with summery meals.  Your choice of protein might determine which wine you pick.  But if it’s served like a salad, try Bodega Traslagares Verdejo ($13).  It’s got great acidity and just the right amount of floral notes.  Put it in a nice glass and it will look beautiful on Instagram next to your plate of summery zucchini couscous!

Here’s the vegetable mixture with cooked couscous. This makes a great summer side dish.



Zucchini Couscous

Serves 4

2 medium or 3 small zucchini, washed and trimmed

1 small onion, chopped

½ of a yellow or orange pepper, minced

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 small tomato, diced, or 8 grape tomatoes cut into pieces

1-1/2 cups quick-cooking couscous

1-1/2 cups vegetable stock

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Grate the zucchini in a food processor or using the large holes of a box grater.  Mix with ½ teaspoon of salt and put in a mesh-style colander set over a bowl.  Let sit for 10 minutes.  Press on the zucchini with a large spoon to extract as much liquid as possible.

In the meantime, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet.  Add the onion and pepper with some salt and pepper and cook until they’re soft, about 7 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute.  Then put in the tomatoes and cook for a couple of minutes until they shrivel.  Stir in the drained zucchini and cook over medium-high heat.  The grated zucchini will shrink a bit and will just start to brown.  Taste for seasoning, then turn off the heat, cover, and set aside.

When you add the zucchini to the skillet, bring the stock to a boil in a small saucepan that has a lid.  When it boils, add a quarter teaspoon of salt, some pepper, a tablespoon of olive oil, and the couscous.  Stir to combine.  Then turn off the heat, put the lid on, and let sit for 5 minutes.  Remove the lid and fluff the couscous with a fork.

Add the cooked, fluffed couscous to the skillet with the vegetables and stir to combine.  Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Posted in Alton Brown, Gaby Dalkin, Uncategorized, Wine Tasting Room Design | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

10th Anniversary Musings, Part 2

That’s me leading a wine tasting in 2013 at DCanter, a DC wine shop that carries some fine First Vine selections. We got to video chat with one of our producers and hear him talk about his wine — something that wasn’t really possible when I first started the business.

I’ve done a lot of wine tastings in 10 years of importing and retailing.  From pouring in a shop that sells our wines to guided wine tastings in people’s homes.  I’ve served as entertainment for corporate events, bridal showers, and birthday parties, and as a handy source of alcohol for slightly drunk people at wine and food shows.

You might think these different situations/venues would lead to many different questions from people.  But by and large, they boil down to just a few categories.  The one most asked by far is some variation on “What would you serve with that wine?”

It’s a great conversation starter.  As you know, I can go on at length about wine and food, so I love to launch in.  I start by asking what kinds of things people like to cook and eat, and we go from there.  I hope I’ve led people to try food and wine combinations they might not have thought of before.

While we’re talking, though, especially when I’m pouring in a market that sells food as well as wine, I’ll see a bunch of people quickly picking random bottles off the shelves to drink with the food in their baskets.  So other than a way to make polite conversation, what is it about tasting a wine that makes people more curious – and to some extent, anxious – about what to serve with it?  And why, even if the wine is relatively inexpensive, are they afraid of making a pairing mistake?

Part of it is that once people taste a wine, they’re more invested in potentially making it into an experience.  I tend to ask people tasting how often they drink wine, and generally the people who stop to taste tend not to drink wine routinely with meals.  This was a surprise to me initially, because I thought that habitual wine drinkers would be the ones tasting.  But people also seem to look at the tasting as an educational opportunity, so I guess it makes sense.  And since wine with meals probably feels more like it’s a special occasion thing to them, they want the food to be special, too.  Or at least not just something thrown on the table with minimal thought beforehand.

It reminds me of something I heard just two years ago at a wine conference:  for most people, wine still is not like other beverages or foods.  This despite the fact that we wine writers and wine sellers have tried hard over the years to demystify wine. I’d like to think we’ve succeeded somewhat.  More people ask questions at tastings than when I started out.  And while many used to preface their questions with “I don’t know anything about wine, but…” or “This is probably going to seem like a dumb question,” I don’t hear those anymore.

A recent tasting at Each Peach in Mt. Pleasant. The two wines on the right are from Cave la Vinsobraise, and were two of the first wines we imported.

But clearly we’re not even halfway there yet.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I still think that food is probably the best entrée to wine.  Certainly, more people drinking local wine as they increasingly eat locally-grown food should help. And more travel to places where people have wine in all price ranges with their meals as a matter of course, too.  I’d love to see the day when newspaper food sections ask the food and wine writers to spend a few minutes pairing the week’s recommended wines with particular recipes in the same issue.   (And if they’re lucky enough to have beer and cocktail writers, get them in on it too.)

On the other hand, I don’t want us all to go too far in making wine absolutely ordinary.  As someone in the business, wine still has magic for me, and I don’t want that magic to disappear entirely for my customers.  Or the idea that wine makes a meal more special, because I think it does.  But I’d definitely like to eliminate people’s fears of “bad” food and wine pairings, or that there are only a few carefully chosen options with any given meal.

This week’s recipe is not only easy, it will prep your taste buds for summer tomatoes to come.

I can’t not give a recipe after that lead-in, can I?

I’ve been cooking a lot lately, especially things to go with wine.  After all, toasting 10 years requires plenty of food!  I’ll have a bunch of new things to share in coming posts.  But this particular dish is something that’s so easy I had to put it up sooner rather than later, Roasted Tomatoes with Feta.

Cy and I were out in California visiting friends in early April and of course there were already some tomatoes available.  But they weren’t yet the wonderful tomatoes they’re probably getting now.  Still, when our friends Davey and Cameron roasted the tomatoes with Feta as a side for lamb, they turned out beautifully.  And I realized that’s probably for the best.  After all, why cook a really magnificent tomato?  You’ll want them for your tomato, cheddar cheese, and mayo sandwiches.  Or at least Cy and I will, anyway.

So, while we’re in the pre-tomato season, there’s no better time to prep your taste buds for the glories to come.  I made the recipe using grape tomatoes, which are always at least passable.  And I found Campari tomatoes at a local supermarket, they’re generally good tasting, sweet, and not too acidic.  The combination of Campari and grape tomatoes proved to be ideal once they were roasted, and a little bit of red wine vinegar at the end brought everything together.

The prep and cooking couldn’t be much easier.  Slice the Camparis, halve the grape tomatoes, crumble the feta, strip the leaves off some herbs, and you’re good to go.  Twenty to 30 minutes in a hot oven and you’re done.  You can double or triple the amount of tomatoes depending on the size of both the baking dish and the crowd you’re feeding.  And if the dish is safe to put on the grill, go ahead and keep the oven off.

All sorts of wine work really well here, but I’m going to recommend Cave la Vinsobraise Côtes du Rhône Blanc ($13).  Cave la Vinsobraise was one of First Vine’s first producers, and is the only one of the originals we’re still buying from.  The wine is equal parts Viognier, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc.  In a long-ago blog post I touted the virtue-out-of-necessity of Rhône white blends.  They draw on the strengths of their constituent varietals, since it’s rare that any one of them will have the right balance of fruit, nuttiness, acidity, floral notes, etc., on its own.  Winemakers vary the blend from year to year if necessary (within AOC parameters, anyway), making good wines even in off years.  I think they’re not nearly as well-known here in the U.S. as they should be.

As I said at the end of my last 10th anniversary post, thank you all for the support over the years.  And I hope to meet more of you at tastings to come.


Roasted Tomatoes with Feta

Serves 4-6 as a side dish or as a bruschetta topping

18 ounces Campari tomatoes (1 or 2 packages, depending on size), or 4 Roma tomatoes, cored and sliced

2 pints grape tomatoes, halved

Leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh thyme

Leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil

4-6 ounces crumbled Feta cheese, depending on your taste

½ teaspoon red wine vinegar

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Use somee olive oil to oil the bottom and sides of a 13 x 9-inch ceramic or glass baking dish.  Ceramic-coated cast iron works well, too.  Layer the sliced Campari tomatoes in the dish.  Drizzle olive oil over the tomatoes, then salt and pepper them.  Sprinkle the fresh herbs on, and about 1/3 of the Feta.  Make the next layer with the grape tomato halves.  Drizzle with oil, salt and pepper the tomatoes, and sprinkle on the remaining Feta.

Bake at least 20 minutes, up to 30 minutes.  The Feta will be lightly browned, the tomatoes will have shriveled but not be dried out, and most of the juices will have evaporated.  Remove the dish from the oven, and drizzle the vinegar over the top.  Let sit for a few minutes, then serve.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

10th Anniversary Musings, Part 1

10 candles

Hard to believe, but we got our first wine shipment 10 years ago, almost to the day.  A lot has happened in a decade, and I hope you’ll indulge me in a few memories.

Happy Winoversary to us!  First Vine officially started selling wine 10 years ago, almost to the day.   Our first shipment arrived on May 14, 2007.  Seven wines from four producers, all in the southern Rhône valley.  I wrote a post on our fifth anniversary detailing all the issues we encountered getting started, and I’m not going to repeat myself.  At least not too much, anyway.  But I think 10 years is a good point for reflection.  Both on how things have changed, and how they haven’t.

So, over the next few months I’m going to do just that, one or two subjects at a time.  The first is about customer demographics.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had more first-time millennial customers than I did when I started the business.  It shouldn’t be surprising to me, since news reports say that as of January 2016, millennials drink more wine than any other generation.  While they’re not in the lead among high-frequency wine drinkers – that’s still the baby boomers — they do consume the largest share of the current wine marketplace in terms of volume.

But I wouldn’t have predicted this would happen even five years ago.  Admittedly, my limited experience with millennials in the marketplace wasn’t exactly definitive.  It came mostly from sessions at wine conferences I attended from July 2011 through January 2015, too early to catch what appears to be a sea-change.  Not much changed in millennially-based wine-thought during my conference-going years except that there was more and more alarm over the surge in craft beer sales and how that might be bad for wine sales.  The beer industry, given its shorter lead time for production, certainly seemed better able to capture the social/commercial things that researchers said were of interest to millennial drinkers.

Well, millennials definitely drink craft beers.  Evidently they’ve also cunningly sidestepped winerati panic.  They drink a lot of wine and seek to educate themselves about it.  What makes millennials different from my slightly older customers is that they’ll run through completely mixed cases of wine and I don’t see them ordering the same thing twice.  Even if they tell me they really liked something, they’re probably not going to order it again.  Whereas my customers who are just a few years older tend to settle in on favorites, ordering multiple bottles of them or even single-selection cases.

And once my millennial customers have run through their choices in our 70-plus selections, they’re done and they don’t order again.  It’s not because they don’t like the wines, since they tell me they do.  It’s probably because I only have a limited number of wines and they’re just from France, Spain, and Italy.  The Fortune article I linked to above indicates that millennials spread their wine largesse across all the world’s wine-making countries/regions and don’t necessarily focus on just one or two.   Even the built-in variety that new vintages bring rarely entices them back.  And targeted discounts don’t really work, either.

According to a New York Times article, Chase Sapphire is eclipsing Amex among millennials. They’re marketing to millennials’ desire for experiences over things.

A recent New York Times article on credit cards illustrates the divide in terms of American Express vs. Chase Sapphire cards.  Amex is the ultimate concierge card, providing services that made the company’s reputation among previous generations.  However, millennials don’t appear to need or want these services.  The company is having a hard time attracting millennial-age customers, who are (at least for now) flocking to Chase.  Chase claims to focus on experiences and less on the snobbery of owning things, and has tweaked its rewards system to give customers more of them more quickly.  Although, as the author, Charles Duhigg, points out, there’s definite snobbery in “an Instagram post from [an] Iceland spelunking adventure or a lament about how hard it is to find a charging station near Burning Man for [an] electric sports car.”  They’re still purchases, although not necessarily the sort of high-culture ones that their parents’ generation enjoyed.

Still, Duhigg’s likely exaggerated cynicism inadvertently gets at a real issue.  For some (possibly many) millennials, sharing an experience via social media is an important part of having that experience.  It stands to reason that you can’t keep sharing or posting the same thing over and over, so constantly new experiences are the way to go.  It doesn’t have to go as far as “If it didn’t happen on Instagram it didn’t really happen” for this to be true, either.

Of course, the sheer availability of things compared to what previous generations could access is a big part of it, too.  If it had even occurred to me that it was possible to have an Iceland spelunking adventure in my 20s, I’d have had to find a specialty travel agent to help me.  Or find and read obscure travel guides, and spend months planning the trip.

My guess is that both of these factors come into play.  For wine, it means new bottles as new experiences.  Whether or not they get posted on social media.  And as we’re all aware, it’s possible to get more and more wines and learn more and more of the stories behind them than ever before.  Those of us who are older don’t necessarily avail ourselves of all those choices, partly because we didn’t necessarily have the same choices and habits when we were in our 20s and 30s.

Despite all the gloom and doom I heard at wine conferences about millennials drinking mostly craft beer, it turns out that millennials drank more wine than any other age cohort last year. Evidently they didn’t get the wine conference memos.

Variety and experiences are the order of the day, at least for now.  The question is whether they’ll keep going as people settle into careers, property, and parenthood.  Wine certainly offers an ever-increasing variety of options, so it’s possible that millennials can keep it going, at least where drinking is concerned.  Or they could decide that sticking to a reasonable number of favorites works for them.  As a small importer, I’m hoping for a bit more of the latter, since I can’t bring in loads of new selections each year.

Still, I hope they don’t completely shed their interest in variety.  And that goes for the rest of us, too.  I know I definitely could benefit from being a little more adventurous!

No recipe with this post, but I’m trying a bunch of new things out and will have some great ones later this spring.

Posted in Millennials and wine, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cookbook author wine talk with Joanne Weir

Joanne Weir is a chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, cooking teacher, and culinary travel guide. Her books and television shows about cooking in the California wine country are filled with great recipes and lots of information on wine.  Of all the wine interviews I’ve done so far, hers is the best wine awakening story.  So of course I had to include a photo of her with a glass of wine!

In 10 years of being in the wine business, I’ve seen a lot of cookbooks on wine and food.  But the one I turn to most often is Joanne Weir’s Weir Cooking – Recipes from the Wine Country.  The book was published in 1999, before I had started educating myself about wine, but the advice on cooking with wine and serving it with food is every bit as valuable today as when I first read it.  The book was also the companion to a PBS series that brought wine into the kitchen as an everyday ingredient more than any cooking show had before – or since, for that matter.  And the recipes are still wonderful, too.

Surprisingly, I learned that Joanne grew up not drinking much wine, even though her mother worked with Charlotte Turgeon, author and editor of French cookbooks beginning in the 1940s (Turgeon was also a college classmate of Julia Child).  But love of food and care in selecting good ingredients definitely were there in her family of farmers, chefs, caterers, and restaurateurs.  Her great-grandmother operated a restaurant in Boston at the turn of the 20th century.  And about a century later, Joanne opened Copita, a Mexican restaurant and tequileria in Sausalito, California.

Of course, plenty of things happened between growing up in Massachusetts and becoming a leading food writer and chef in California.  (You can read about some of them on her website.)  Joanne started her working life as a junior-high school art teacher in the Boston area in the 1970s.  Taking a local Mexican cooking course sent her exploring the various food markets to get ingredients, which in turn led to exploring all different kinds of foods and cooking them for friends.  A couple of years later, a trip to California and lunch at Chez Panisse made her want to work there (“It changed my life, really,” she told me).  And she did, but not until she’d had formal training with Madeleine Kamman, both in New England and in France.

With five years at Chez Panisse under her belt she still had the urge to teach, only this time the subject was the art of cooking.  Joanne started teaching classes in California, and this led to offers to teach in Australia, Italy, Spain, France, and Morocco.  Which in turn led to being a culinary travel guide and organizer.  And writing cookbooks as well – teaching cooking was a great way to learn about putting cookbooks together.  Then television, more books, more television, the restaurant, awards, etc.  Her cooking memoir, Kitchen Gypsy: Recipes and Stories from a Lifelong Romance with Food, provokes cravings and envy on every page.

But reading Kitchen Gypsy you also get a sense that she’s a really delightful person, which was confirmed when I spoke with Joanne by phone.   We packed a lot of talking into a short time, and what follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

Joanne’s 1999 book of recipes from the California wine country is still one of the best food and wine cookbooks out there. The wine advice holds up, even with all the new wines and wine guides out there. And the recipes make wonderful food.

You grew up in Massachusetts not far from where I grew up in Connecticut.  As I remember, the area was a vast wasteland for wine in the 1960s and 70s.  But with your family in the food business, did you have access to better wines?  I don’t remember anyone in my family drinking wine more than occasionally when I was growing up.  Although my great-grandfather may have had a strong interest in it.  I don’t think I’ve told anyone this before, but he had a book called The Grape Culturist that was a gift inscribed to him by William Cullen Bryant, the 19th century poet and philosopher.**  So maybe he was thinking about growing grapes and making wine.  The other side of my family came from Lithuania.  I have a memory of my grandparents drinking Manischewitz from water glasses.  But that was about it.

That surprises me, especially since your mother worked with Charlotte Turgeon, who wrote and edited French cookbooks.  I can see how you’d think so, and maybe she and Charlotte had occasional glasses of wine together, but if so it didn’t translate to our drinking wine at home.  My mom loves wine now, though!

So was it moving to California that sparked an interest in wine?  No, it was something that happened when I got a job teaching art.  My friend Charlotte and I had moved into an apartment in Cambridge, and we got a bottle of wine as a housewarming gift.  It took us two nights to drink the bottle, that’s how non-wine-oriented we were!  We were pouring and out came a dead fly – you’re probably thinking it had flown into the bottle after we opened it, but it hadn’t.  I got absolutely indignant in that way you can only be when you’re young and have time on your hands.

I wrapped the fly in foil and sent it back to the winery along with a letter of complaint.  The name didn’t mean anything to me, but it was Château Mouton-Rothschild.  A couple of months or so later, I got a reply from Xavier de Eizaguirre, the export manager of the château.  He apologized, thanked me for sending him the fly (if you can believe it), and invited me to come to lunch with him at Mouton-Rothschild if I were to find myself in France.  I was amazed!  As a teacher I had the summer off and it happened I was turning 25 that summer, too.  So Charlotte and I made plane reservations as soon as we could.

It seems like it would be pretty daunting, getting invited to lunch at Mouton-Rothschild.  Did you do anything to prepare?  I wasn’t intimidated yet because I didn’t know any better, but thought I should learn at least a little about wine first.  So I went to the Harvard Coop and bought two books to read.  One was Hugh Johnson’s World of Wine, and I can’t remember what the other one was.  But I read them and learned as much as I could.  I was absolutely stunned to find out that Château Mouton-Rothschild was one of the world’s finest wineries.  The photos were absolutely beautiful!

What was it like walking in there?  Xavier and his assistant were both utterly charming, and it was elegant and lovely – handwritten menus, flowers, beautiful china and cutlery.  Amazing food!

There must have been some amazing wine, too.  Oh yes!  We did a vertical tasting, after champagne and some of the same wine I’d found the fly in.  First a 1964, then a 1944, then a 1918.  And more amazing food, followed by an 1892 Château d’Yquem.  Can you imagine getting to try wine from the 19th century?  All accompanied by tasting lessons from Xavier.

It sounds like an excellent first lesson!  I’m happy I had the wherewithal to appreciate it.  And it really did open a door for me.  Had I not studied food I’d have studied wine.

What did you do to continue learning about it?  Cooking can give you a great wine education if you’re open to it.  Working with Madeleine Kamman in Haute-Savoie taught me a lot more about French wine.  And working at Chez Panisse I learned to take as much care with wine as we did with all the other ingredients.

Talking about Chez Panisse reminds me that I wanted to ask you about the concept that things that grow together go together when it comes to food and wine.  You also hear it a lot on cooking shows these days.  In Europe, the cuisines and wines developed together.  But is that true for California too?  Especially considering that the wine industry there isn’t centuries old.  It’s true, and I first encountered it when I was in France.  But as I talked about in the intro to the wine country book nearly 20 years ago now, the 38th parallel runs through the Mediterranean and through California wine country north of San Francisco.  So you find that the things that grow here are similar to things in Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Spain.  And I learned that the Mediterranean/Provençal cooking at Chez Panisse is a good match for California wines and vice-versa.  They really grew up together.

How has California wine changed in the time you’ve been there?  From the late 1970s through not all that long ago we couldn’t get much more than Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from California back here in the east — apart from Zins and some sparkling wines.  I’ve been in California since 1980, and I think a Wente Chardonnay was the first wine I had when I got here.  But you know, the whole 38th parallel thing applies to wines, too.  The Europeans who came here in the 19th and early 20th century knew it and planted their home varietals.  We’ve had them here ever since, even if they didn’t travel outside of California.  But certainly, the pendulum has swung back to much greater variety of wines, even on the shelves here in the state.

What do you like to drink these days?  I love all wines, and I love red wine.  But I’m really a fanatic for crisp white wines.  Txacolina, Albariño, Grüner, I’m really loving white wines, especially from Spain, Portugal, and Italy.  And you can do a lot with them food-wise.

When you’re planning a special occasion, what comes first, the food or the wine?  I always think about the menu first, then the wine.  Like this weekend I’m doing a Moroccan dinner and I’ve figured out what I’m going to make, so now I’ll start pairing the wines.  Maybe if I had wines around like those Mouton-Rothschilds that would be different!

I imagine so!  Finally, I wanted to ask about some of the visual aspects of wine – I’m working on a blog post on them.  It seems that you can’t escape seeing everyone’s photos of their food when they eat out.  But apart from occasional photos of a bottle label, you don’t see wine photos the same way you do food photos.  As someone who has worked with wine on television, why do you think that is?  Everyone has some experience with a lot of different foods, and will have some idea of how they’re going to taste when they see them.  But unless you have a lot of experience with wine, the visual doesn’t provide the same cues.  And it probably doesn’t even for more experienced drinkers, either.  There’s not much to see, and you really have to smell and taste it.  I’ve tried to come up with more ways to include wine in the shows, but it just doesn’t work that well on television as a general rule.  You have to do too much talking.

Well, thanks so much for talking with me about it!  Your wine country cookbook has been a favorite for a long time, and it’s exciting to get to talk to you about it.  I really had fun, too – so glad to know you’ve enjoyed the book, especially after nearly two decades.


I had a hard time picking just one recipe from the wine country book to share with you.  But I think that this recipe for stuffed pork tenderloins shows off everything I like about the book.  Interesting combinations of flavors and ingredients, and a beautiful presentation.  You might not think off the top of your head that sherry vinegar and cloves would taste great together, but they do.

Prep isn’t quick for this although nothing is particularly hard.  The marmalade stuffing takes about an hour of cooking, although you’re not standing over the pan.  And the tenderloins have to rest in the fridge for at least two hours after you rub them with garlic and spices.  However, you can stuff, roll, and tie up the tenderloins and then leave them in the fridge overnight if you’d like, that way you can skip the initial two-hour wait.

Tying up meat is something I’ve never enjoyed doing, but it’s totally worth it here.  I find it’s easier to have the pieces of string already cut.  Lay them out on a cutting board at one-inch intervals, then put the butterflied tenderloin on top.  Spread on the stuffing, then roll it up.  The strings are ready for you to then tie it.  It’s still a lot of work, but you want to keep the stuffing inside.  It’s also easier to slice with the strings still on it, I think, but that’s up to you.  Since you’re not browning the tenderloins, the strings don’t get embedded in the meat and will slip off pretty easily.

One final note I’ve put in the recipe – depending on the sweetness of the oranges, you may find that the stuffing needs a bit more acidity.  Taste it to see, and you can always add a little bit more sherry vinegar at the end.

Joanne recommends using Sauvignon Blanc for cooking the tenderloins, and it’s great to serve with it too.  Bodega Traslagares Sauvignon ($13) from Rueda in north-central Spain is sort of a cross between the austere Sauvignon Blancs from France and the more tropical New Zealand versions.  It works really well with the warm flavor of the cloves and has enough acidity to balance.

If you have the wine country cooking book already, you’ll notice that the version of the recipe below is a little different.  Joanne has changed it some over the years, and sent me her latest incarnation.  There’s more orange and she’s added garlic, which wasn’t in the original.  For most of us, recipes evolve over time – mine are filled with scribbled notes reminding me of variations I’ve tried and liked.  It’s always a process, and even after 35-plus years in the food business, one of the first things Joanne told me is there’s always something to learn.



**  I did a little research and learned that The Grape Culturist:  A Treatise on the Cultivation of the Native Grape was written by Andrew S. Fuller, who lived from 1828-1896.  He also wrote books on cultivating nuts and small fruits beginning in the 1860s.  He was a horticulturist and amateur entomologist, born in Utica, New York.  One obituary credited him with rescuing Ridgewood, New Jersey (where he lived most of his life) from being more or less barren and turning it into a liveable place.  As an entomologist, he amassed a huge collection of insects, which were later donated to Harvard University.  He was quite well known in his time, so it’s possible that he knew William Cullen Bryant personally.

Pork Tenderloin with Orange, Onion, and Raisin Marmalade

Serves 6

From Weir Cooking — Recipes from the Wine Country, by Joanne Weir.  Reprinted with the author’s permission.

2 large pork tenderloin, about 1 pound each, trimmed

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Large pinch of cayenne

Freshly ground black pepper

2 oranges

6 tablespoons sultana or golden raisins

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar (see note, below)

2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon sugar


8 cloves garlic, peeled

3 sprigs of parsley

1 bay leaf

6 whole cloves

1/2 cup dry white wine, like Sauvignon Blanc

3 cups rich chicken stock

Butterfly the pork by slitting the pork lengthwise almost all the way to the other side so it opens up to make a flat piece. Flatten slightly with a meat pounder. In a bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the minced garlic, paprika, cumin, cayenne, cloves, and pepper. Rub the pork with the mixture, place in a baking dish, cover, and refrigerate 2 hours or overnight.

Using a vegetable peeler, zest one of the oranges. Juice the oranges. In a small saucepan, combine the orange zest, orange juice, raisins, and sherry vinegar. Simmer very slowly, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, add the onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft, 20 minutes. Add the raisin mixture, sprinkle with sugar, and continue to cook very slowly, covered, until the onions are very soft, 30 minutes. Add 1/4 cup water and continue to cook, uncovered, 20 minutes, until almost dry. Season with salt and pepper.

Place the pork on a work surface, cut side up. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the onion mixture on the pork, spreading evenly. Roll the pork back up to the original shape, enclosing the filling. Tie at 1-inch intervals with kitchen string.   This can be done 1 day ahead to this point.

Place the pork in a casserole with the peeled garlic, parsley, bay leaf, whole cloves, white wine, and chicken stock. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to very low and simmer until the pork is done, 30 minutes. Remove the pork and keep warm. Reduce the broth by one-half to thicken or until the sauce coats the back of a spoon, 10 to 15 minutes. Strain. Season with salt and pepper.

Remove the strings and slice the meat into 1/2-inch slices. Place on a platter and drizzle the sauce over the top.

Note:  depending on how sweet the oranges are, you may find that the marmalade needs a little bit of acidity after you’ve cooked it.  Taste it to see, and add 1/2-teaspoon additional sherry vinegar if you think it needs it.

Posted in Cookbook Author Interviews, Cookbook author wine talks, Joanne Weir, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Occasional Cookbook Reviews – Pinot, Pasta, and Parties by Dee Dee and Paul Sorvino

Dee Dee and Paul Sorvino’s cookbook is a good source for recipes for some of the most popular Italian foods served in the U.S.  It’s a fun read, and fans will enjoy the conversation between the Sorvinos that starts each chapter.

One of the hooks for selling books by well-known people is that the authors themselves give brand recognition.  Especially for celebrity cookbooks.  I’m sure the publishers’ fondest hope is that the personality traits that fans think the celebrities have will shine through with the recipes.  And, at least to the extent of my small celebrity cookbook collection, they do.  Both Stanley Tucci’s and Dolly Parton’s books are exactly what I expected they’d be from movies and television appearances through the years.

But when I got asked to review Dee Dee and Paul Sorvino’s cookbook, Pinot, Pasta, and Parties, I realized I’d heard of the Sorvinos but didn’t know much about them or their work.  I haven’t seen Goodfellas, the best-known of the dozens of Paul Sorvino’s movies.  And I don’t watch much television news, where Dee Dee Sorvino appears as a political consultant/GOP strategist, after serving as an advisor in the Bush administration.

With no preconceptions, I decided to approach the book by reading just the recipes in Pinot, Pasta, and Parties first, and then reading the introductory chats with the Sorvinos that open each of the book’s chapters.

Overall, it’s a good collection.  If you’re looking for a simple-to-use cookbook that gives you plenty of recipes for what we think of as classic Italian food here in America, this book does that well.  If you already make your own marinara, meatballs, Carbonara, or Amatriciana, you won’t find anything out of the ordinary for those kinds of dishes, so you should look carefully before you buy it.  But there are about a half-dozen recipes that go beyond the food you’d expect from standard Italian-American fare.  These include a few things I thought were downright ingenious.  Like using cannoli filling as a dessert dip for cookies or broken up waffle cones.  Or cooking a pork shoulder roast (bone-in or boneless) with the spice mixture used for porchetta — great flavor without rolling and tying up a giant pork belly.  (Not to mention finding a pork belly if you don’t have a butcher nearby.)

The book is arranged in thematic chapters, most of which include cocktails, appetizers, mains, and desserts.  The Sorvinos introduce each chapter with a sort of conversation about the chapter subject, their lives, and food in general.  Most of the banter is fun, in a “Celebrities are really just like us” way, and you can definitely sense their affection for one another (as well as for food).  In the end, I was happy to be drawn into the Sorvinos’ world a little.  You can picture them actually eating the food from these recipes, which ought to be the aim of every celebrity cookbook.

Overall, a good collection of recipes and a fun read.  I had one quibble, as you’ll read with the recipe below.  But there’s always at least one for me with every cookbook.  What put this over the keeper category line for me was the two-pager on Italian wines in the appendix.  It’s a very good primer for wine novices, just the right amount of information, well-presented.  But even people who know Italian wines will learn something from it.

The main ingredients for Leeks in Wine Sauce over Penne, a vegetarian recipe in the Sorvinos’ book. It was the first recipe I tried, and it’s really simple and tasty.

Now for a recipe.  I was tempted to put the pork roast recipe in this post, but thought that something more versatile and less time-consuming would be better.  Leeks with Wine Sauce over Penne is a recipe that caught my eye. First, because I haven’t seen leeks over pasta before, and I love leeks.  Also, it’s simple and meatless, but also a perfect canvas to add chicken, sausage, or shrimp if you’d like to.  I’ve added a meat-ed variation at the end.

One thing in the book that may trip up novice cooks:  I noticed that while most of the pasta recipes tell you to add the pasta to the skillet/pan where the sauce is cooking, they don’t necessarily tell you to add pasta water to get the sauce to coat.  This particular recipe doesn’t include pasta water in the instructions, and I found it didn’t mix in easily if I didn’t add some of the water. Adding the water and cooking the pasta in the sauce for a minute will get it to the right consistency and also helps get flavor into the pasta as well as on the outside.  I always ladle some water out of the pasta pot when I’m cooking pasta in case I need it.

As the recipe hints, leeks are dirt traps.  You have to rinse them really well under running water, and even then you might still end up with a little grit in the sauce.  I’ve decided it’s part of the charm of cooking with leeks.  But if you really want to eliminate as much grit as possible, put the rinsed, thinly-sliced leeks in a large bowl of cold water.  Swish them all around for about 15 seconds, to get the dirt off them.  Then let them sit for a minute.  Get your hands under the leeks without disturbing the dirt at the bottom of the bowl, and move the leek pieces to a colander to drain.  They don’t have to be absolutely dry – since you’re sautéing the leeks anyway the water will cook off.

Finally, you can cook the leeks ahead of time and let them sit in the skillet until you’re ready to cook the pasta and serve.  They’ll lose a little of their pretty light-green color, but you can add more parsley and it’ll still look beautiful.

I used our Bodega Traslagares Sauvignon ($13) both to cook with and serve the pasta.  It’s Sauvignon Blanc from Rueda in north-central Spain.  Dry with good acidity, and a combination of citrus and tropical fruit.  I think it makes the leeks taste sweeter.  After all that leek washing, you’ll want the most flavor you can get!



The finished dish!

Leeks with Wine Sauce over Penne

Serves 6 as a first course, 4 as a main course

Adapted from Pinot, Pasta, and Parties by Dee Dee and Paul Sorvino.  Recipe reprinted with permission.

5 – 6 medium-diameter leeks (about 2 pounds)

¼ cup olive oil

½ cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons minced parsley leaves

1 pound penne

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil for the pasta.

Trim and discard the dark green parts of the leaves from the leeks, but keeping the white and light green parts.  Trim a thin slice from the root end of the leeks (cutting off any root pieces but not allowing the leek to fall apart) and cut each leek in half lengthwise.  Wash the trimmed leeks under running water.  Spread the inner layers gently to remove any trace of soil without separating the layers.  If the leeks are very sandy, soak them a few times in clear water.

Put the leeks, cut side down, on a cutting board and slice crosswise into very thin strips.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the leeks and saute until wilted, about 10 minutes.  Reduce the heat if the leeks start to brown.

Add the wine, salt, and pepper, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the sauce thickens a bit and the scent of wine fades, about 5 minutes.  (At this point, you can set the leeks aside for up to a couple of hours, see note below).

Stir in the parsley.  Taste to see if additional salt and pepper are needed.

While the sauce is cooking, cook the penne according to package directions until just al dente.  Ladle out a cup of the hot pasta water just before draining and have it ready.  Drain the pasta and toss it immediately with the leek sauce in the skillet.  Add ½ cup of the reserved pasta water and stir everything together, cooking over high heat for about 30 seconds to a minute, until the pasta looks a little creamy without visible water in the bottom of the skillet.  Add more pasta water if you need to.  Turn off the heat and stir in the grated cheese, mix well.  Serve immediately.

Note:  If you want to cook the leeks ahead, they’ll sit for a couple of hours at this point.  The color will be a little duller in the final dish, but you can compensate by adding a total of four tablespoons of chopped parsley instead of two just before you put the pasta into the skillet.

Variation:  Cut one boneless chicken breast into ½-inch dice, and remove the casings from two links of chicken Italian-style sausage (about a half pound each of chicken and chicken sausage).  Cook the chicken and sausage in the olive oil, then remove to a plate with a slotted spoon.  Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, then the leeks and proceed as directed.  Toss the chicken in with the pasta when it goes into the skillet.

Posted in Cookbook Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A dish for most seasons

We’re still not having calendar-appropriate weather, but at least it’s not 80 degrees!  Still, we don’t know what it’ll be like from day to day, so I started looking through my old recipe file for dishes that could be served hot or at room temperature.  That way, if you’re having people over, you can decide that day based on the forecast.

This is my recipe file — lots of hand-written recipes, some of which date back to when I was 12 or 13. Plus random cut-outs from newspapers and magazines. It’s a memory trip each time I open it.

My recipe file isn’t a binder, it’s a collection of loose paper in an expandable letter file with alphabetical slots.  Its arrangement is pretty much alphabetical, although sometimes by major flavor/ingredient rather than dish.  This can sometimes lead to confusion, as I found two recipes for different chocolate tarts, one filed under “C” for chocolate and the other under “T” for tart.

This makes for interesting reading, though.  And a nice memory trip, too.  Some of these pages were recipes I copied when I went off to college.  And some of them are even older, copied from library cookbooks when I was 12 or 13.  I won’t make every one of these things again, but I like looking at them every once in a while.  Like the cannoli recipe I copied from one of the Time-Life foods of the world books.  My mother and I made them once.  They were delicious, for sure, and worth trying.  They took pretty much all day, though, and I haven’t made them again.  Especially since these days I can go to 2 Amys here in DC and have great cannolis.  But looking at the oil-stained page reminds me vividly of making them.  I wouldn’t dream of tossing that piece of paper.

And the bonus of the search is finding something that I’d completely forgotten but deserves to be made again.  Like this beef tenderloin recipe.  It’s pretty simple, too.  You coat the filet with a mixture of coffee, cocoa powder, and cinnamon, then roast it.  No browning necessary.

I have no idea where it came from, and I have several penciled-in notes changing nearly everything about it.  I made it often in the early 2000s and it’s a great dish for a dinner party.  The original is served hot with a heated sauce.  But tenderloin is also good at room temperature, so I also came up with a different sauce that you could serve on the side or put in a sandwich.

The recipe calls for finely-ground coffee in the rub.  If you have an espresso machine, you’ll probably have coffee that’s really finely ground for it.  If not, get out your coffee grinder and grind some yourself – even if you’re already using coffee ground for a drip coffee maker, you’ll need it to be finer.  The sauce is a mixture of onions, garlic, chicken broth, chili powder, Mexican crema (or a mixture of heavy cream and sour cream), thickened with tortilla chips.  The original recipe I have uses a corn tortilla, so you can use that if you have it.  But I tried it with a handful of tortilla chips instead, which also gives you the bonus of having the chips to serve before dinner.  The cold sauce has many of the same ingredients, but folded into mayonnaise instead.  I also added the roasted poblano peppers, I like the flavor they add.  Plus, they’re particularly good with the mayo sauce.

Since it’s beef, and pretty flavorful, I think a red wine is the way to go, whether the tenderloin gets served hot or not.  I’d go with Domaine la Croix des Marchands Vieilles Vignes ($17).  It’s a blend of Syrah and Braucol – a grape native to the wine region around Gaillac, where this wine is made.  It’s medium-bodied, but plenty of flavor.



All-season Coffee-Roasted Tenderloin

Serves 4 to 6

2 poblano peppers

2 pounds beef tenderloin, tied in 1-inch intervals

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons finely-ground coffee beans (espresso grind)

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1 large pinch ground cinnamon

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon mild chili powder

A big handful of corn tortilla chips, crushed, or 1 small corn tortilla, torn into pieces

1 cup chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup Mexican crema (or ½ cup each sour cream and heavy cream)

Additional salt and pepper

For cold sauce:  1 cup good mayonnaise and ½ cup Mexican crema (skip the stock and the other ½ cup of crema from the warm sauce ingredients)

Roast the poblanos under a broiler or on gas burners until the skin is blackened all over.  Put them in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let steam for 20 minutes.  Then remove the skin with your fingers, and seed and stem the peppers.  Cut them into strips and set them aside.

Combine the coffee beans, cocoa, and cinnamon and spread the mixture out on a baking sheet – spreading to an area as long as the tenderloin.  Rub the tenderloin with the salt and pepper, then coat it with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.  Roll the tenderloin in the coffee mixture, getting it well coated all over.  Set the tenderloin on a part of the baking sheet that’s clean, then wipe up the rest of the sheet with paper towels.  Set the oven to 400 degrees F, and let the beef sit for 30 minutes.

Saute the onions and garlic in the remaining tablespoon of oil over medium heat until very soft and just starting to brown, about 10 minutes.  Add the chili powder and the crushed tortilla chips, and saute for another minute.  Then add the chicken stock.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.  Let it cool for a couple of minutes, then puree it all in a blender.  (Be sure to remove the plastic insert from the top, and put a folded kitchen towel over the blender cover and hold it down with your hand.  The blender shouldn’t be more than about one-third to one-half full when you blend it.)

Strain the sauce to get out any unblended chip pieces.  Put it back over low heat, and warm it to just under boiling.  Whisk in the crema, and taste for salt and pepper.  Cover the pot and keep the sauce warm.  You can reheat it, but don’t boil it.

Put the beef on a roasting rack and put the rack on the baking sheet.  Roast the beef for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 250 degrees F.  Cook it to an internal temperature of 125 degrees F for medium rare, that’ll take 20 minutes or so.  Remove the beef from the oven and let it rest on the carving board loosely covered in foil for 10 minutes.  Cut off the strings, and slice the beef into ¼-inch thick slices.  Serve with the warm sauce and poblano strips.

For warmer weather:  Saute the onions and garlic as directed.  Add the chili powder and cook for another minute.  Scrape the mixture into a bowl and let it cool completely.  When cool, whisk in the mayonnaise and crema.  Taste for salt and pepper.  Serve this sauce with room-temperature tenderloin slices, along with the poblanos.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sustainability and the value of customer knowledge

In a perfect world, this would be the illustration of sustainability — environment, economics, and community (including workers) equally balanced. As recent surveys show, however, the environmental aspects get the most play. And even then, it’s mostly higher-spending and more wine-aware customers who are willing to spend more on wine with a sustainability certification.

I was thinking that perhaps y’all were getting tired of my blogging on sustainability.  But in the two weeks since my last sustainability post, a whole bunch of people have downloaded the back label I posted.  So there must be some of you out there who want to know more.  Luckily, I can go on and on about it!

Seriously, though, the topic needs to be better understood.  As I mentioned in the previous two sustainability posts, two surveys done in the last couple of months have started, in a rudimentary but necessary way, to examine sustainability beyond whether people think it’s a good thing or not.  This post — most probably my last on the topic for a while (don’t want to push my luck, after all) — looks at two issues:  non-environmental aspects of sustainability, and the additional cost that consumers claim they’ll pay for wines from producers that are certified sustainable.

Whatever my qualms about the real environmental benefits of sustainability, it’s understandable that wineries and sustainability organizations would play up that aspect.  Pretty much everyone wants maximum environmental protection in winemaking – providing it doesn’t cost so much that the wineries can’t stay in business.  And clearly, that is the message out there.  Every environmental factor listed in California Sustainable Winegrowers’ survey of people in the wine trade was ranked as necessary for sustainability by nearly two-thirds of respondents, and some factors went as high as 85 percent.   Virtually all the rest of the respondents thought the environmental factors were important if not necessary, and less than six percent thought that any of the environmental factors was unimportant or unnecessary for sustainability.  ***

This wasn’t true about non-environmental attributes, however.  Less than one-quarter of the respondents thought that greater benefits for employees and the surrounding communities were necessary components.  On the one hand, I wasn’t surprised to learn that people in the wine trade weren’t aware that this was a requirement of sustainability certification.  But I was surprised to see how few (47 percent) thought it was important even if it wasn’t necessary.  And that a quarter of respondents thought it was neither important nor necessary for sustainability.

What should we make of this?  People in the wine trade certainly don’t want winery workers to be poorly-treated and subject to greater health and safety risks.  Nor do they think that wineries should be bad corporate citizens.  But do they think that worker protections and good neighbor relations just happen as a matter of course?  As someone who has sat in on many meetings between representatives of chemical companies and the people who live around their plants, I can assure you that those relationships don’t come without a lot of work.  Of course, in many wineries, especially small ones, the winemakers/owners live on the property and try to be good neighbors because they want good neighbors in return.  You can’t say the same of the CEO of XYZ Chemical.  But it’s not a given that an on-site owner makes for good community relations, either.

I’m not sure that California Sustainable Winegrowers’ criteria for certification in these areas represent actual best practices.  And, as I’ve said before, economic viability figures into all aspects of sustainability certification, so wineries may not have to achieve best practices if they don’t think they can afford them.  Even certification doesn’t mean that a winery is doing the best it can.  But the fact that a winery owner is willing to submit to a non-legally-mandated third-party inspection of his or her labor practices and corporate citizenry is something that should be encouraged.  The value ought to be understood in the industry beyond the owners submitting to certification, too.

Finally, on to the dollar value of sustainability.  Sustainable Sonoma’s survey led them to conclude that many customers are willing to pay between $5 and $10 more for a wine that’s certified sustainable.  A closer look at the survey itself is more revealing, though.  The $5 to $10 figure is for customers who were also willing to pay more for wine in general, and showed more knowledge about winegrowing and winemaking.  Almost two-thirds of those customers were willing to spend more money for the certification on the label.  Among less aware and lower-spending consumers, only 40 percent would pay $5 more a bottle for a wine labeled certified sustainable.  So, I guess the takeaway is that if you are more aware about winegrowing and winemaking techniques and already spend more on wine, you’re more willing to spend still more for the certification.  I imagine that’s true for organic and biodynamic certifications, too.  (And, as I’ve said before, both of those certifications are better-known than sustainability.)

But what does it mean for the winery?  Taking the $5 more that the customer pays back through the standard markup on wines in the production chain means that the producer gets $1.48 more per bottle.  That’s not an insignificant amount of money.  Of course, the winery owners will have to balance that return against the costs of the improvements necessary for getting and maintaining certification.  But it’s nice to have a dollar figure to look toward.  Adding the more qualitative benefits of being a certified good employer and good neighbor might tip the balance further if the winery owner is on the fence about getting certified.

Clearly, more information on sustainability needs to be out there, though.  It’s a heavy ask for wineries to change their operations significantly if increased revenue depends on a highly knowledgeable customer base.  Or on customers who already pay more for wine and are willing to pay still more.  More information about the worker and community protection aspects of sustainability could be helpful here — especially since that message hasn’t made it out to the wine trade or the public.



*** Respondents marked whether particular elements were “necessary” for sustainability, “important but not necessary,” “neither necessary nor important,” or “no opinion.”  In theory, this should add up to 100% for each element.  All of the environmental factors were much more likely to be ranked as “necessary” than the non-environmental ones.  And if you add the “necessary” and “important” percentages, every one of the environmental factors totaled at least 93%.

Posted in Sustainability, Sustainable farming, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How do you solve a problem like the weather?

Our weird weather makes eating typical winter foods less palatable.

We’re having a ridiculous winter this year in DC.  This was what my phone told me today, March 8.  Seriously.  I can’t imagine how this won’t result in a summer full of mosquitoes, no matter what the temperature.  The weather people are all a-tingle because it may snow on Sunday.  I’ll believe it when I see it.

I’d normally be making hearty soups and stews.  Or pot pies.  Or vegetable tagines.  I feel robbed, really, because those are some of my favorite foods.  Sure, I could make them anyway.  But when it’s warm enough to have a cocktail on the porch before dinner IN FEBRUARY AND MARCH you kind of lose all sense of what’s right and proper.

So what kind of meal works for weather like this?  Cy suggested fried rice earlier this week and it was a perfect choice.  I started looking for recipes, and put the parts I liked together.

Normally, fried rice is the king of leftovers – already cooked meat or seafood, already cooked rice, and (in most cases) those frozen peas and carrots thrown in.  (Sometimes there’s corn, too, because it’s the frozen peas, carrots, and corn.)  If you have the leftover rice and meat/seafood and a few fresh vegetables, it’s a snap.  But if you don’t have leftover rice, you can still put a great fried rice on the table with about 40 minutes of total prep/cooking time and an hour to let the rice cool off before the final cooking and assembly.  Plus a little help from some pre-cooked items at the grocery store.

It’s important to use either leftover rice or to let your freshly-cooked rice cool off for an hour on a large cookie sheet before frying it for the dish (it is called fried rice, after all…) The starch dries out and the grains separate.  When you fry the rice, there’s a little crisping that happens, which wouldn’t if you used rice you’d just cooked.  About five minutes in really hot oil gives the pre-cooled rice a great texture, not at all gummy.

The second tip is not to use too much sauce.  Some recipes call for up to a cup of sauce for around 3 cups of cooked rice.  But that means you’ll mostly taste the sauce and not the rice, which has great flavor after frying.  I found that 4 or 5 tablespoons of soy sauce, plus a little chili-garlic paste, was just enough to add the salt and flavor necessary.

Finally, a lot of recipes tell you to scramble the eggs in the pan with the rice after frying it.  I found this doesn’t work very well, I like the egg pieces to be separate.  It’s easy enough to fry the eggs in a separate small nonstick skillet while you’re frying the rice.  You want the eggs just set but a little soft, they’ll cook a bit more when you add them into the skillet.

The warm weather also means you can drink lighter wines.  And since this dish is mostly rice, whites and rosés work well.  All our rosés are on sale through the end of this month, be sure to e-mail me here to get the discount code if you don’t already have it.  If I had to pick a favorite for this dish, it would be Bodega Hiriart Lágrima Rosado ($13), which has more oomph to it, good with the little bit of heat from the chili paste.

And if it does snow this weekend and you’re making this dish, never fear.  Red wines work too!



Fried Rice

Serves 4 for a main course, 6 for a first course

1-1/2 cups leftover chicken or ham, cut into ½-inch dice (a rotisserie chicken works well for this), or ¾ pounds pre-cooked small shrimp, or a 12-ounce package of extra-firm tofu, drained, patted dry, and cut into 3/4-inch cubes

2 carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice

2 stalks celery, trimmed and cut into ½-inch dice

3 eggs, well-beaten

6 scallions, roots trimmed, cut in ½-inch slices

2 cups broccoli cut in 1-inch pieces, microwaved for 4 minutes

3 cups cold leftover rice, or 1-1/2 cups raw long-grain rice

4 tablespoons soy sauce

½ to 1 teaspoon chili-garlic paste (depending on how hot you like it)

½ teaspoon black pepper

8 tablespoons vegetable oil for frying

If you’ve got leftover rice, spread it out on a large baking sheet, rubbing the rice gently between your hands to separate the grains.  Let the rice warm up to room temperature, about a half hour.  If you’re cooking rice, bring 6 cups of water to a boil.  Add the rice and 1 teaspoon of salt, bring back to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes.  Drain the rice, then spread it on the baking sheet, and let it cool for an hour.

Put the meat or shrimp or tofu on a microwave-safe plate and heat for 30 seconds, to take the chill off.  Set the plate aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat.  When the oil shimmers and moves easily, add the carrots and celery.  Cook for 2 minutes, stirring, then turn the heat down and cover the pan for 2 more minutes.  Uncover the pan and cook for another minute – the vegetables should just be starting to soften but still have some texture.  Put them on the plate with the meat or shrimp.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium nonstick skillet until very hot.  Add the eggs and scramble them until they’re set but look just a little wet.  Put them back into the same bowl you beat them in initially while you fry the rice.

Mix the soy sauce, chili-garlic paste, and black pepper together and set aside.

Heat up 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil in the same skillet over high heat.  This time, bring the oil just past the shimmer point, you will see a tiny wisp of smoke come up.  Add the rice, and stir fry it, moving the rice around continuously.  It will start to smell good and roasty, and the rice grains will look just slightly yellowed.  Add the scrambled eggs and break up the egg into about ¾-inch pieces.  Then stir in the meat/shrimp and all the vegetables and the scallions and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring everything around.  Stir in the soy sauce mixture, tossing to combine everything.  Taste, and add another tablespoon of soy sauce if you think it needs it.  Serve immediately.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment