Saturday, December 27, 2014

New Year, new you: try French wine

It's like this. In the store the aisles of domestic red wines, especially the cabernet aisle, are a mess. It's not that the nice young fellow who takes care of them isn't tidy, although there is that. Rather, so much product is crammed into the space, so much sells through and so many new things arrive so often, that it's a tough job to squeeze it all in and still make it "shoppable," as we say in the trade. Meanwhile, the shoppers agonize over all their choices. Will this wine, or that one, taste right with this meal? Will it please these guests? "We always try one new cabernet a year." Will it be the perfect experience? What if my favorite wine has gone to a new vintage? How do the 2012s compare to the '11s?

It's not that I'm making fun, although there is that. Rather, just five steps away from these hundreds of Domestic Reds lies the French wine aisle -- two of them, both sides -- where few people venture. It's tidy. Everything is shoppable, "double-faced" as we say in the trade (two bottles of each wine face the consumer, prim and at attention). There are choices, not just among two superb grape varieties made in the two best vineyards in Napa Valley in the last two years, but choices ranging from Alsace's rieslings to the Loire's Vouvray and Sancerre to all of Burgundy's options, red and white, to all of Bordeaux's options, red and white, to all the Rhône Valley's options, red and white. Champagne has its own aisle, as does Sauternes. More of everything lies behind lock and key, in "the cellar."

There are also choices in the French aisle because not much sells through. Are you worried about vintages, or about whether a wine is ready to drink now? Go to the French aisle. You will find wines from 2005, '06, '09, look closely and you may even see an '03 or a 2000. Lots of 2010s, 2011s, and '12s of course. You can pick up a "vertical," a selection of wines from one producer made in different years, without too much trouble. As for cost, you can spend as little or as much as you like. I'm told that some of the $10 Bordeaux on the bottom shelf are actually the closely guarded and always-prestigious "futures" of yesteryear.

As for taste, now here I suppose is the nub. Why drink French wine? In a way, everyone agonizing over the exuberant mess in the California cabernet aisle is drinking French wine; cabernet sauvignon is the grape of Bordeaux and if we were to confine ourselves truly to our native grapes, we would be very moderately enjoying things like Muscadine (scuppernong) and catawba. Why not go to the source? When people hesitate, I tell them this: it seems to me that whereas California cabernets and red blends tend to coat the tongue in a delicious, spicy and lush and somewhat flabby way, French wines have a core that you almost eat. I say this with a straight face, and so far no one has laughed.

Why do they hesitate, still and always? Why is there little to do in the French wine aisle except dust the bottles? I suspect it has to do with the novice's fear (yes, yes, aren't we all) of not getting the very best of any product whose reputation, vague but mammoth, precedes it. Of course the language barrier is no help. "I have no idea what I'm looking at with all these 'Chateaus,' I'll just stick with Howell Mountain." 

So I exhort you. Go to the French aisle in your liquor store. An experiment costing $12 there may please you just as much as a sure thing from the Russian River Valley of $20 or above. Remember, RRV -- as we say in the trade -- is essentially trying to imitate the French anyway. As for quality assurances, i.e. the novice's fear of wasting his money on less than the very best, I suppose it's mostly the famed classification of Bordeaux in the 1850s that freaked everybody out for generations and still does. In 1855, some guys running a World's Fair in Paris ranked several dozen French wines as the best to show off to the world. Sixty were red Bordeaux and one was a sweet white dessert wine, also from Bordeaux (Château d'Yquem). All those classed growths are still there. But Bordeaux produces 800 million bottles of wine every year (Herbst, The New Wine Lover's Companion). Don't worry about it all. Just try something new.

2009 Château de Lisennes Bordeaux Supérieur (a notch above "basic" Bordeaux, like Mouton Cadet), retail, about $13.  Curiously, this particular wine is only available, in the U.S., in Illinois. There are many other nice French wines

For more information on affordable Bordeaux wines, see Planet Bordeaux. Or in French, cleverly, Planète Bordeaux. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

New cocktail: MAILER-DAEMON failure notice: "Mailbox full"

Why on earth anybody responds to a famous author's writings is beyond me. I guess we all think we're going to give the great man pause in some superb way, or we're going to be discovered, too. All we get is a ding in our inboxes, encouraging us to subscribe to whatever online magazine the famous author writes for; or we get a MAILER DAEMON failure notice. This time it was "mailbox full," which I gather is unusual in these post-floppy-disk days. Oh well. Here's what I wrote him. His groupies, know him as VDH.  

Dear Mr. Victor Davis Hanson,

Every once in a while, I think your editors ask you to write something optimistic, and the "Still Dazzling" article seems to me to be the latest. Right on schedule too, around Christmastime. They always seem to follow a more heartfelt (and depressing) piece chronicling the disintegration of life in rural CA. Anyway thank you for the dose of good cheer.

You're right, it's all about ordinary people carrying on, the trouble is it's also the ordinary people who foot the bills, and I sometimes think authentic crisis will come when ordinary people figure out they have no voice left except tax revolt. Then we may see what the government is willing to do to get their hands on the money.

I also agree with something Dennis Prager said years ago, that liberalism is a religion. Using politics to fight it does not work. Eighteenth century political cycles, i.e. voting every two years, move too slowly to keep up with 21st century, left-wing compassion tyranny. Or royal edicts, for that matter. I sometimes think a true opposition leader, when he comes, will be a religious figure -- not even necessarily a pastor or Bible-thumper, but someone with some kind of inner core that will be impervious to the weapons of the entrenched media/academic elite. I look forward to the first president who does not have a White House press corps, and sends no representatives to "the Sunday morning shows." I think maybe he'll choose to live in Detroit, or Branson, or maybe even (if he has a lot of imagination) Mexico City. Why not? 

You said the ordinary American keeps on working, taking care of his family, ignoring pop culture, and doing what he excels at. Good for you, yes, I think you're right. Years ago when I still read the Chicago Tribune I read an article of yours in which you wrote that what distinguishes today's America from earlier, declining empires was the presence in our midst of an elite which loathed the country and fought hard for its worldwide contempt and collapse. Even the Romans, you said, did not have that. I've always thought that was the best thing you have ever written and the thing historians will remember you for. 

Thanks again for the dose of Christmas cheer. Looking forward to next year's version.


Drown your frustrations with a little something from a very pre-floppy-disk era. We're going to resurrect and re-christen the Calvert Party Encyclopedia's [1961] "Princeton cocktail," a delight not only from 1961 but from the early 1900s. Paul Clarke at Serious Eats records that the Princeton was created by "New York barman George Kappeler, who mixed it [ca. 1900] along with other Ivy League-named drinks at the Holland House bar." It must be true, since our Encyclopedia lists the recipe for the Yale on the very next page. The Princeton is simpler. It requires two of our favorites, gin and port, plus orange bitters.

Specifically it requires Old Tom gin, a style sweeter than today's usual gins. Mr. Clarke says that if you can't find new makers of Old Tom, the flavor can be approximated with a mix of regular gin and a bit of simple syrup. I suggest regular gin and -- why not? -- a bit of apple cider, or possibly even apple cider liqueur. Let's try Journeyman Distillery O.C.G. (Old Country Goodness) apple cider.

Therefore, our new cocktail becomes --

1 jigger (1 and 1/2 ounces) gin
generous dash -- say, 1/4 teaspoon -- apple cider liqueur, such as Journeyman
1/2 ounce -- a little less than half a jigger -- port
2 dashes orange bitters
Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with 4 ice cubes. Strain into a cocktail glass. The usual garnish is a twist of lemon peel, which seems to me a jarring note. Port and lemon? No. A little cube of apple with peel seems better. Mr. Clarke by the way says the gin and bitters only should be mixed together with ice; after they are strained into the cocktail glass, the port is poured carefully down the side of the glass, so that it  may settle prettily at the bottom. Kind of like voters.  

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Food and Wine's Herbed Meatballs with Rich Tomato Sauce and Ricotta, plus a barbera

From the January 2014 "Readers' Choice" issue. I think you may give yourself some leeway with the gigantic list of ingredients. If you happen not to have fresh mint or enough ground cumin on hand, do not fret. The main point is not to skimp on (1) the milk-soaked ground almonds and (2) the fresh basil leaves and garlic; these latter two ingredients have made all the difference in the last three meatball recipes I have prepared. I must write a book about meatballs, after I write one on lemons.

For the rich tomato sauce:
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup tightly packed basil leaves, torn
  • 2 Tbsp. oregano leaves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper
  • 2 (28 ounce) cans whole Italian tomatoes with their juices, crushed
  • 6 large anchovy fillets, chopped. (You may please yourself about this. I understand that anchovies are a basic, ancient, and respected flavoring, approved of by no less a source than Sylvia Windle Humphrey, whose A Matter of Taste must forever stand as one of our Culinary-Hall-of-Fame, retro favorites. Still, the only can of anchovies I ever opened reminded me, in all their red segmented glory, so vividly of earthworms that I have no desire ever to open another. You might replace them with a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce, the composition of which I believe owes much to anchovies.)  

For the meatballs:
  • 1/2 cup raw almonds, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 and 1/2 pounds ground lamb
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves, plus more for garnish
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley -- also called Italian parsley or cilantro, this is the opposite of the curly, decorative, slightly peppery but mostly inconsequential kind we see on restaurant or Passover seder plates. I was just beginning to appreciate the odd tinny flavor of flat-leaf parsley when I read somewhere that, traditionally, Western cuisines have rejected it because its smell is that of bedbugs. 
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped mint
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped oregano
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp. chopped thyme
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. dry red wine
  • 1 and 1/2 tsps. ground cumin
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. ground fennel
  • 1 and 1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
Ricotta cheese, for serving

I reiterate that we must feel free to play with this immense and specific list of ingredients. Where, let us say, not only mint or cumin but perhaps fennel and oregano are missing, I see no reason why the cook may not substitute rosemary, curry powder, celery salt, or that wondrous Chilean merquen, smoked chili pepper flakes. The mishmash of spices will taste nice, provided you have provided yourself with the keys, which -- I reiterate --  are fresh garlic, fresh torn basil, almonds and milk. 

Task one: make the sauce. Not difficult. In a large sauce pan, warm the olive oil  Add the garlic, basil, oregano, bay, and red pepper. Warm over moderate heat for 30 seconds. We do not want burned garlic, that horror of horrors, the smell of which you can identify upon walking into any not-so-well-run pizza joint. 

Add the tomatoes and simmer over "moderately low" heat until the tomatoes are "saucy" -- excellent word -- about an hour. [Stir in the anchovies, and] season with salt and pepper. [Maybe.]

Task two. Make the meatballs: Soak the finely chopped almonds in milk for about 10 minutes, until they are thoroughly moistened.  Add the ground meat, the eggs, herbs, and all the spices. Form into small balls and saute briefly in the heated 1/4 cup olive oil, in batches a few at a time, until all are nicely browned.  

Then, either return all the meatballs to the skillet and ladle on the tomato sauce which has already cooked for an hour, bring to a boil, and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through, about another half hour or so; or else simply add the half-cooked meatballs to the simmering sauce, bring to a fresh boil, and simmer another half hour.

While they finish cooking, you may assign yourself task three, which is to cook a potful of pasta. 

To serve all forth, spoon little dollops of ricotta cheese over a helping of pasta and these herbed meatballs in rich tomato sauce. Your accompanying wine should be any red of your choice, but nothing too full of California-style spice or blueberry jam. Why not something more bracing, more cleansing and Italian? A Valpolicella? A barbera, my new go-to wine of choice? I used to have an Italian co-worker named Lorenzo who said, "you really can't find a much better wine than a barbera," -- I think he meant, "in the ordinary course of life, assuming you are not buying Chateau Lynch-Bages as a regular thing" -- and I think he was just about right.

Stefano Farina Barbera d'Alba, retail, about $10.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Retail rant: among the top 5 worst Christmas songs (plus a cocktail)

They used to play over the radio at a former workplace, you see, and so one became slowly irate. I am sure I could make a new list for the new workplace. And why yes, these are in order. 

1.) Etta Jones, "It's Christmas time." A maundering voice screeches and drones on, rather like a vaguely lecturing teacher, about "peekin' out the window," ting-a-ling-ling. Maundering trumpets try to make some sort of desultory melody to fill in the blank spaces. Very, very bad.

2.) Lena Horne, "Jingle Bells" -- Lena of the fierce smile, fierce eyes, hard face, harder voice. When she sings about not knowing where she is going on her sleigh ride -- "with my baby by my side, I don't really cay-uh" -- one is reminded of wintry Russian stories about the bride being thrown off the sledge to the pacing wolves. In this scenario, Lena is the fierce-eyed chucker-out, not the bride.

3.) James Brown, "Santa Claus (go straight to the ghetto"). Tough call. What he does isn't music, yet one can't ignore the screams.

4.) Brad Paisley, "Santa-looksa lot like Daddeh." Santa-wasa much too thin. And he didn't come down the chimney, so momma must have let him in. As Miss Mapp would say, such a new idea.

5.) Brenda Lee, "I'm gonna pop-pop Santa Claus (with a water pistol gun)." Squirt, squirt! Storied career or no, in my house we call this performer "the swamp child in a bottle," because that's what the voice sounds like.

I feel better. Enjoy a new cocktail, the Honeysuckle. The honey does give the drink an unusual flowery character.

  • 1 jigger (1and 1/2 ounces) light rum
  • the juice of a small lime (or half a large lime)
  • 1 tsp. honey

Shake all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker, and strain into a cocktail glass. Have two, depending on your schedule. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Brown and gray, or -- another essay (a try) at fashion blogging

We tried this once before, and now we're going to try it again. In a small camera, combine:
  • One day off
  • One gray silk dress, worn as a tunic
  • One pair last year's boots, -- full disclosure: not leather, and so alas already showing signs of, um, wear and tear; note to self, next time invest in real leather
  • One faux fur vest, from when Daisy Fuentes was still making things for Kohl's or maybe it was Target, and maybe she still is
  • One slightly garish Victorian-style necklace from (if memory serves) the Lia Sophia direct sales company, which coincidentally just announced it is closing down as of this December
  • One pair earrings
  • One hat
My favorite fashion bloggers are beautiful young things who never tire of snapping and posting photographs of themselves in their latest "street style" or vintage mixes. Since I recently unearthed from the back of the hall closet a small tripod for my camera, and also found instructions online for the camera's self-timer capability, I can more or less mimic their technique. They seem to do lots of the downcast-eyes thing. Also some artful, sort-of-caught-off-guard "candids."

In the next photo, below, my point was to show (sort of) the boots. I'm always amazed when, in professional spreads in Bazaar or Vogue, even though I don't take in Vogue anymore because it's too fawningly leftist, things you can't even see are credited. A manicure; a barely glimpsed ring; a watch, "Kate's own," or "Gwyneth's own." My watch is my own, my favorite Anne Klein pink porcelain with the 52 tiny crystals all around the face. "I love it to pieces," as the fashion bloggers say.

The day was one of those utterly dolorous, brown and gray early winter ones which some people find hateful, but which I think you can make the best of, "if you approach it in the right spirit" as Georgie says of planchette in Mapp & Lucia. Think not of hopelessly vanished summer weather but of cozy fires, smart hats, of steaming pots of tea and English novels read by lamplight. Interior voyages to stormy moors and mysterious gray castles and things. Anticipate the warming glass of port before bedtime. If you are like me, you will have spent last evening listening to a live-streaming re-broadcast of Maria Callas singing Norma at La Scala in 1955, strangely mesmerizing and soothing, plus reading -- on another open "tab" -- about the Cathars (because Joan Sutherland once sang Esclaramonde, and who on earth was that? We must know). So you see even on a day of brown fallen leaves and gray skies, you will have plenty to think about. One thing you might think about is that the beautiful young fashion bloggers tend to live in Portland or Seattle, where they can go out and set up their tripods on Puget Sound or in front of some temperate-climate rain forest bursting with ferns and redwoods. I live elsewhere. 

Now we come to the hat. Victorian Trading. I used to be convinced I could not wear hats, my face being too absurdly small to support them as it were. However this one, called "Winter Sky," proved delightful beyond resisting. I am sorry you cannot really see the little green bird who is the centerpiece of the decoration. Only if you look very closely will you spot his small beady black eye. 

Incidentally, I wonder if at my age it is about time to start wearing makeup. Remember I'm a child of the 1970s, when everybody was natural and wore "Earth shoes" and burlap blouses. Quite an emotional handicap. It's just that I have spared you a few of today's downcast-eyes photos, in some of which the horridly liverish colors of les paupières made me look as if I were ready for the coffin. The beautiful young fashion bloggers never look like that. A bit of eyeshadow might help, only we don't want shadows, we want brightness. Incidentally also -- scarf, "Florentine paisley wrap" from the Acorn catalog, coat, Vince Camuto by way of Macy's.  

For more of my favorite young fashion bloggers, go here --

Delightfully Tacky
Vixen Vintage (who on earth gets skin like that plus gets to be named Solanah? She could at least be Pam or Debbie like everyone else)
Keiko Lynn (ditto -- and she seems to be a big deal in the fashion blog world, #84 of Signature 9's top 99 most influential, for those who are keeping track)
The Soubrette Brunette
Finding Femme (a bit wacky in a pink flamingo sort of way -- you'll see what I mean when you visit)
ChiCityFashion (Chi stands for Chicago. Hey! the same gray skies as me! The same dead native grasses in the concrete planters downtown! And I've walked on that wooden footbridge over Lake Shore Drive!)

And, some heavy lifters:

The Cherry Blossom Girl -- in Tahiti this week. Black sand beaches. Black scallop bikini. Endless pictures of me, me, me, and me. But beautiful. As Nigel purrs over Andrea's lofty puzzlement in The Devil Wears Prada, "Yes, that's what this billion dollar industry is about -- inner beauty."
Le Blog de Betty.  Paris.
Cupcakes and Cashmere
The Sartorialist. Ranked at Signature 9 the #1 most influential fashion blog there is. Puzzling choice. Deeply joyless, distinctly un-wacky. You're better off with Cupcakes, or with me, even.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

Pillsbury's "Simply From Scratch" Apple Cream Cheese coffeecake (1981)

My notes were very brief. 
quite a project
baking pamphlet, picked up in a thrift store
cardamom $14 a jar
Let me give you the recipe first, so that you may begin to judge what a project it was. You are going to make three things, a cake, a filling, and a topping, so you will need three good sized bowls just for a start. (What luck that we happen to be reading Bee Wilson's Consider the Fork (2012), whose first chapter, "Pots and Pans," delves into the history of why we have so much duplicate stuff in our kitchens). You will also need two cups of peeled and chopped apples, plus two sticks of butter and an 8 ounce package of cream cheese set out beforehand, to come to room temperature.

Pillsbury's "Simply From Scratch" [that's the baking pamphlet,1981] Apple Cream Cheese coffeecake  

First, grease and lightly flour a 13 x 9 inch baking pan. Then, for the cake, combine:
3 cups flour
1 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/3 cups milk
2/3 cup butter, softened  (yes, you will work softened butter into an already thick and milk-moistened dough)
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.

Next, make the filling. 
one 8 ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 cups chopped apples
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom (this is the delicacy that costs $13.99 a jar)
1 Tablespoon flour
2 Tablespoons butter, softened 
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl, and spoon the mix over the cake batter. Use a rubber spatula to gently swirl the apples partly into the batter.

Now is a good time to preheat the oven to 375 F.

Finally, make the topping. Mix together:
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup chopped nuts
Sprinkle over the cake. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. "If desired, top with whipped cream."    

It is most scrumptious, but I must ask whether one teaspoonful out of the $14 purchase of cardamom made that much difference in the end. I am inclined to think not. The gunmetal gray powder once had a distinct lemon fragrance in the jar, a fragrance which seemed to lose itself amid the cream cheese, the apples, and the butter. Nutmeg might have been more to the point.

Besides, some time has passed since I made this cake. When I opened the jar again to smell whatever was left -- almost all of it -- the first words that came to my mind were model airplane paint. My brother used to make very nice model airplanes, painting and gluing with utmost care. I have not smelled that paint since I was maybe twelve years old. Not for nothing do we hear assurances that the sense of smell is the most evocative of all. I threw out the jar of cardamom.

Still, I'd like briefly to discuss its marvels, for apparently it has them. There is no better way to enjoy them vicariously than to quote the strong lovely prose of Sylvia Windle Humphrey, whose A Matter of Taste (1965) is our spice-and-herb bible. She says: 
Cardamom (Elettaria cardamom maton) ... a jewel of a spice, it is the second most expensive spice in the world (saffron comes first), so dear because every delicate little seed pod has to be snipped off the plant by hand with scissors. The yield is low, too, only about 250 pounds per acre. It is native to India, but most of our supply now comes from Guatemala. [Mrs. Humphrey seems to be still right about this last, even fifty years later.]

Cardamom, a clean flowery-spicy breath sweetener, is put up by nature in handy little-fingernail-sized, bleached-white capsules, each containing ten to twelve pungent black seeds, easy to fit into pocket or purse. As a member of the ginger family it has some of the properties, but not the taste, of that invaluable plant. It is sweeter than ginger, with less edge, yet has authority. Like ginger, it awakens the whole tongue, making it, in moderation, a good ingredient in a spice blend which is to be used to bring out the flavor of main dishes. Like ginger it belongs with fresh melon. Like ginger, it is good for the stomach.

Cardamom is most familiar in sweets. Fine Danish pastries and coffee cakes are frequently seasoned with cardamom, both in the dough and in the filling. In all the Scandinavian countries it has been both a favorite seasoning and flavor ever since Viking sailors first carried it home from the markets in Constantinople more than 1,500 years ago. In Norway, the Christmas season reeks of cardamom, and the Swedes consume fifty times more cardamom per capita than does the United States. 
She goes on to rhapsodize about its "clean warmth," "floral perfume," etc. I begin to think that perhaps there never was very much authentically going on in my jar of cardamom, even perhaps that I can't source the real thing because I don't know any Vikings. We will have to let our Apple Cream Cheese Coffeecake do the work of reeking-of-Christmas on its own.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A little bit of perfection -- new cocktail -- the New Job

Cocktails, like other good things, must surely have their recipes tweaked and perfected very slowly over the course of time. They must surely change, grow, and come to fulfillment depending on who liked what foundational thing, capital T, and who had what ingredients on hand to improve the Thing. Remember Mrs. Wakefield at the Toll House, who had only to cut up some chocolate bars into a plain butter cookie dough to create the immortal chocolate chip cookie; remember also King Louis XV, who is said to have invented French onion soup from only onions and a bottle of flat champagne "after a joyous night in eighteenth-century Paris" (Madeleine Kamman, The New Making of a Cook). 

When it comes to cocktails I like a sour, like my master Charles Schumann (American Bar). A sour is a large category of drinks, fundamentally lemon juice, sugar, and a spirit. We here at Pluot, by way of At First Glass, have mixed and enjoyed whisky sours, gin sours, Boston sours -- in which we learn that an egg is many things, but it is not refreshing -- and of course our longtime favorite, rum sours. When recently we availed ourselves of a stash of good Calvados, we tried and very much liked the "Arc de Triomphe," or Calvados sour. Once upon a time we even invented -- didn't we? -- something new, the Sour Blossom martini.

Today we tweak again, based on ingredients to hand, and devise a delectable cocktail very much in need of a name and a wider audience. It goes like this.

The __________ 

In a shaker, combine:
the juice of half a lemon
a dash of sugar or simple syrup (perhaps a quarter teaspoon at most -- or equal parts to the juice, if you like your drinks less tart)
half a jigger Calvados
half a jigger good bourbon, plus a tiny extra splash of  it (I used Bulleit)
Squeeze a splash of fresh orange juice into your cocktail glass -- perhaps half a teaspoon or so. Stir all the other ingredients in the shaker with a few ice cubes. (We prefer our drinks stirred, not shaken, because stirring keeps the ingredients a tad warmer and more flavorful. To shake is to anaesthetize.) Strain the lemon-and-bourbon/Calvados mix into the glass with its waiting orange juice. Garnish any way you like, provided it is simple, say a grape or a cherry, or don't garnish at all. The prettiest choice is a blushing yellow Rainier cherry, but they are only in season for a short time, and we must enjoy our new creation, The ____________,  in other months besides May.

Now what shall we call this little tweaking and approximation of perfection? It's tart, it's sweet, it has bourbon's rich fruitiness and Calvados' whiff of the apples of Normandy. For all its homey-ness, the orange juice adds a plump touch of the exotic. Though calling the drink the New Job seems downright prosaic, still we think we'll leave it at that. After all we are about six weeks into this life milestone, and are gratified to have pretty thoroughly learned the fundamentals.

Speaking of which, it's a curious thing -- and I must ask, is your workplace like mine? -- at the New Job, everyone does the same four or five tasks all day. Each task has about four or five components all of which are subject to a specific clerical error. Committing one of these errors, in other words getting one-fifth of any task wrong, nullifies the whole thing and creates cascading problems for everyone else "down the line," which is exactly the right, mass-production metaphor to use. A manager who has done the work for ten years can spot an approaching clerical error long in advance, whether I make them at my six weeks' experience, or whether a colleague makes them at his three or four years' experience. And of course the corrective is to "pay attention" to all things. Only, sometimes, that exhortation seems to backfire. It reminds me of a scene in 30 Rock when boss Jack asks earnest page Kenneth whether he can walk and talk at the same time. "I always could, but now I'm not sure," Kenneth blinks, and then carries on doing both, awkwardly. In order for any workplace ritual to become second nature, you almost have to stop paying attention, don't you? Being New, however, I think I will keep that little bit of perfect wisdom to myself.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Food, art, freedom -- Pol Roger for Churchill's birthday

In honor of the birth of Sir Winston Churchill (November 30, 1874): his favorite, Pol Roger Champagne.

Food writing can't help but seem unserious in an age when serious things are afoot, that is to say in any age. You remember how we discussed whether it might not be a civilizational divide: Lin Yutang, My Country and My People (1935), noticed that in China it has always been normal for scholars, poets, and generals to write books about food, a sign of maturity he thinks, whereas in the West cookery writing has been considered "worthy of Aunt Susan only ... there is no such thing as a Galsworthy cutlet [John Galsworthy published The Forsyte Saga in 1922]." It is a nice problem. Does effetely thinking about food siphon off energies that should go to worthier matters? 

Food, the arts, seriousness, is on my mind today because I happen to be enjoying the (re-)acquaintance of two long-dead but great artists. One is Maria Callas, again, seen through some YouTube videos. (Is her French as fluent as it sounds? Brava for being able to understand the five men interlocutors surrounding her couch on a Parisian talk show set in the '60s, but when she says things like "je suis libre parce que je ne fais pas les concessions" [I am free because I do not make concessions] I wonder if Madame, my French language professor, would not sniff patiently. "You are speaking English." Still, I love the fact that Callas' French interviewers quickly get to asking about the state of her soul, whereas the English Lord Harewood seems to stick to musicality and to follow the prima donna's lead. Like so -- the French -- Q: But when you speak of the duty to justify your place in life by the greatest and most perfect effort possible, it sounds as though there is another woman inside you, hectoring you. Do you not feel resentment? A: Mais non, c'est l'amour! Then, in The Callas Conversations -- Callas begins: "Of course, singing Wagner is much easier than singing Donizetti." Lord H.: "In some ways, yes." Callas (a swift look): "In every way."

The other artist in my life now is the Czech writer, gourmand, and musician Joseph Wechsberg, whose book Blue Trout and Black Truffles (1953), among others, I have long been aware of but had never yet read. Both these people, the prima donna and the epicure, either began their careers in, or drew material for their art from, serious places not exactly awash in the twentieth century's scant helpings of safety or good fortune. Callas matured in Greece just before World War II, Wechsberg in the former Czechoslovakia and in the great capitals of eastern Europe as they fell under the twin jackboots of that war and socialist control afterward. In both situations, I can't help but startle, a little, though I fear it marks me as an innocent barbarian. Like so -- what business had Athens under storm clouds to run royal opera companies for young Maria Kalogeropoulos to debut in? As for her later roles in Verona in 1947, was Italy not then busy doing serious things, "rebuilding"? Then there is this quote, from Wechsberg's essay "A Balatoni Fogas to Start With." It is all about the Hungarian restaurateur Charles Gundel, "ranked by connoisseurs all over the world in a class with Escoffier and Fernand Point." **   
Some restaurants on the European continent still carry on [circa 1950] along the lines of the highest gastronomical tradition, but practically not one of them is located in the vast, bleak area behind the Iron Curtain. No meal can be perfect if the ingredients that go into it aren't, and in the countries under Soviet domination it is impossible to obtain perfect ingredients. Often it is impossible to obtain any ingredients at all. People in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rumania and Hungary liked to eat well; the best restaurants in Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest, and Budapest ran a close second to the best restaurants in France. But now food is rationed in all these places. It is no longer a question of getting good food, but of getting any food at all.
People in Poland and Rumania liked to eat well. What a thought. Yes, I suppose being human they would, just as people in Athens even under storm clouds -- developing into Axis occupation no less -- and in Verona rebuilding, liked to go to the opera.

Note how such pleasurable things come to a crashing halt when people who want to rule daily life for everyone's good take over. Especially the food part. Apparatchiks seem able to maintain a state opera company or a traditional imperial circus if it is a question of displaying national pride, but good eating and drinking is such a private, everyday thing. It relies so on the individual's creativity if he is the chef, and on his freedom to go out to eat where and when he likes, to pursue his own tastes, if he is the customer. Both need the freedom to buy and sell unhindered by equality police or nutrition police or by Economic Police. Wechsberg says these latter did exist in Charles Gundel's Budapest. They controlled the prices he could charge for meals, and visited his restaurant to spy on which guests were spending unfair amounts of money. Naturally, because some animals are always more equal than others, it ended up being just these apparatchiks, as well as the black marketeers, who could afford to patronize what few good restaurants survived in mid-20th century eastern Europe. Not that state flunkies had any interest in what they were eating. And all this is not to speak of the efforts everyone had to make to "get any food at all." Wechsberg closes this essay:
Last year, Gundel's restaurants were nationalized. Now Hungary's Communist commissars entertain their honored guests at Gundel's. The name has remained, but nothing else has. The food is bad. Gundel himself was permitted to leave. He lives in quiet retirement somewhere in Austria. 
He was permitted to leave. Though food writing may seem unserious in a serious world, reading Joseph Wechsberg made me suddenly reflect otherwise. Deeply unpleasant people, committed you would think to far loftier ideals than belly-filling, can nevertheless affect so basic a thing as what food there is around. We in the West have mostly been spared the fury of these scold-scourges. The only one who comes to mind as active today is the current President's wife. Perhaps the mayor of New York, too. Fortunately we are free enough to disobey the former, and even to laugh. Disobeying the latter is more problematic.

So in a way, worried about seriousness and food, we come full circle and meet a startling truth. Perhaps a perfectly good defense against the deeply unpleasant types -- assuming we do not actually have to go to war with them, in obedience to Churchill's dictum that civilization requires we "show ourselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will stand in awe" -- is to record, savor, develop, and resurrect all those roasts and "ragoos." attention to which seems frivolous, but is not because everyone must eat; and because barbaric and atavistic forces will gladly progress from the control of ragoos to the control of bread and water if they can. And they always exempt themselves.

Now we began with Maria Callas, but have not talked much about her because as a Western woman pursuing her career in the West, she was free. "Libre." No equality police hounded her, insisting she sing less well. However, we're glad to discover she seems to have been a gourmande herself. Almost ten years ago, The Guardian ran a feature on her passion for food and for collecting wonderful recipes that she savored only vicariously, out of concern to manage her weight. "Tomato omelettes, veal l'orientale, sauces, cakes, and chocolate beignets" all went into her handbag in the form of scribbled notes on paper, often from restaurants. Then they found their way to her chef and her dinner parties. Guests indulged while she ate a few morsels and drank a little champagne. It's said to be less caloric than still wine. We hope that she and Aristotle Onassis (the rat) offered Churchill his Pol Roger when they entertained him on Onassis' yacht. There's an old video of the great man being helped into a tender (I think it's called? a small boat that brings people to a big boat) and giving his V for victory sign as he tootles off with his hosts. Never surrender.

** Strangely enough, John Galsworthy, he whom Lin Yutang thought would never name a cutlet, seems to have known of Gundel's. Joseph Wechsberg records that Gundel himself showed him a poem which the author of Forsyte wrote in the restaurant's guestbook one night in the 1920s, after a fine meal. It is called simply "The Prayer," and was published in Verses Old and New in 1926.
If on a spring night I went by 
And God were standing there, 
What is the prayer that I would cry
To Him? This is the prayer. 

O Lord of courage grave, 
O master of this night of spring, 
Make firm in me a heart too brave 
To ask Thee anything!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Apple ginger squash soup for Thanksgiving

This is a handwritten recipe from a friend, dating from the days when our group of young stay-at-home mothers organized toddler playdates and Christmas recipe exchanges. (And yes, tempus fugit and two of them are grandmothers already.) It's been tucked away in a binder ever since I tried it for the first time one appropriately wintry day, and found the combination of squash and fresh ginger too bizarre for my innocent tastes. Thank God, time flies -- looking over it anew, I saw how simple it was, and so made it for our Thanksgiving. As my friend wrote at the bottom of the page: "On Thanksgiving Day keep pot simmering -- keep covered -- on stove or in crockpot. Serve as a warm beverage in mugs. Adds wonderful aroma throughout the house. Really! Really! Wonderful!" And it is.

You'll need:

3-4 Tbsp butter
1 and 1/2 lb. butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut in chunks
1 medium onion (sliced)
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
2 cups chicken broth
1 sprig of thyme or 1/2 tsp dried
2 Tbsp fresh ginger
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup heavy cream

Saute the squash, onion, and apple in the butter about 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth and the thyme, bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer 40 minutes until squash is tender. Remove thyme sprig if using, and let soup cool.

In blender, puree soup in batches, adding the fresh ginger with each batch. Blend well.

Scald cream, and stir in the pureed soup. Reheat to a simmer. Ladle into mugs, and sprinkle with chives or scallion tops before serving. The recipe is rich but serves only six -- it could be easily doubled for a larger crowd.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Here come the Thanksgiving pinot noirs

-- among which, and starting off in no particular order, is 2010 Llai Llai, from Chile's Bio Bio Valley.

In Llai llai, pinot noir's distinctive earth-tar-hung game-forest floor-musk aromas lean more toward (very clean) forest floor and wholesome chewy bread crust; be forewarned the delicate, fresh berry flavors that follow will not last beyond the first night, so if you open this for Thanksgiving, drink up. That seems to be true for many of the good, inexpensive holiday pinot noirs I have been lucky enough to sample lately.

Llai llai pinot noir retails for about $12 to $15.

The next two are from R. Stuart Winery, McMinnville, Oregon. Big Fire is their more approachable pinot, R. Stuart Autograph the "step-up" label. I preferred the latter.

2008 Big Fire pinot noir

very pale, clear red
earth, fresh, faint floral --
very light, very subtle fruit (too light?)
almost as gentle as water -- a little burst of acid and tannin at the end
will accompany any food

Retail, about $20

2008 R. Stuart "Autograph" pinot noir

All of the above, only this time a gray charcoal drawing colored in --
more berry-like fruit, more of a pinot's earth and musk
more acid, more body, more interest

Start here?

Retail, about $30.

The Crossings

Awatere Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand --

startlingly light, bright currant jelly color
that pinot noir scent -- earthy, tarry, "gamy"
light silky acidity, berries

... and very good with a baked short rib stew and garlic mashed potatoes. A pinot noir's musky delicacy can be as surprising as its clear, jewel-like color when it sloshes into the glass, especially if you have spent several weeks sloshing cherry-sweet malbecs, thick, black carmeneres, or chocolate-coated zinfandel blends (all the rage) into that same glass.

Which leads me to admit that, really, I am suffering an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the samples that nice people at wineries and winery PR firms send me. (Thanksgiving pinots is the theme of the latest shipments. Remember when I used to drop broad hints that I'd be delighted to be offered a sample one day? It's true, I am delighted.) Or, as my daughter complains when she ventures into the little pantry to get some comestible, and turns around and stubs her toe on yet another cardboard box -- "We're tripping over wine in this house." Followed by an equally frustrated  "...and we're tripping over cats," as one or other of our large furry roommates, absorbed in rubbing meaningfully against a human leg, trots away in alarm from a misplaced human foot. The pantry is where we keep the kibble, too, so of course the lords of the manor imagine any darkening of its threshold is all about that.

Absent a short rib stew with garlic mashed potatoes, will The Crossings pinot noir complement Thanksgiving? Yes, I think so. Delightful. 

Retail, about $15 to $20.

And finally, FogDog. They also make a marvelous chardonnay.

Bright lush color
Bursting, almost fizzy with strawberries --
typical musk or tarriness is not so evident
a little vanilla
Excellent -- pair it with something rich and creamy --

-- or your Thanksgiving turkey, of course.

Image from Freestone Vineyards

Monday, November 24, 2014

I am your ultimate Thanksgiving wine pairing guide

It is really all so simple. You must plan to serve more wine. At least four types, and preferably five or six.

Our ancestors would never have dreamed of forcing one or two wines to be all things to all guests at this, the most important meal of the year. Here is a suggested menu for Thanksgiving dinner, from the Boston Cooking School Cookbook, written by Fannie Farmer and originally published in 1896.

Oyster soup, crisp crackers
Celery, salted almonds
Roast turkey, cranberry jelly
Mashed potatoes, onions in cream, squash
Chicken pie
Fruit pudding, sterling sauce
Mince, apple, and squash pies
Neapolitan ice cream, fancy cakes
Fruit, nuts, raisins, bonbons
Crackers, cheese, cafe noir

Opulent as this repast is, it still does not constitute a "full course" formal dinner, which would have proceeded precisely and graciously from shellfish to soup to fish to roast (beef) to vegetable to sorbet to game to salads to jellies, puddings, ices, cakes, bonbons, and then the inevitable crackers, cheese, and cafe noir. As to the wines at either style of meal, full or not, Miss Farmer's advice is brief.

"Where wines and liqueurs are served, the first course is not usually accompanied by either; but if desired, Sauterne [sic] or other white wine may be served. 

"With soup, serve sherry; with fish, white wine; with game, claret [Bordeaux, e.g., a cabernet-merlot blend]; with roast and other courses, champagne."

That's all. Unless of course, you wish to add after-dinner cordials to the festivities.

"After serving cafe noir in the drawing room, pass pony of brandy for men, sweet liqueur (Chartreuse, Benedictine, or Parfait d'Amour) for women; then Creme de Menthe to all."

You'll be relieved to know that the very last thing "passed" was Apollinaris, sparkling water. And can it be that Miss Farmer did not much like Burgundy? For she seems to have forgotten it, whereas the table settings drawn up in the era's equally popular White House Cookbook make prominent room for it. To the right of one's plate at a formal dinner in Washington in Gilded Age days, one found six glasses, arranged in a sort of anchor pattern: glasses I, II, and III, the arms of the anchor, held Sauternes, sherry, and Rhine (German riesling) respectively; glass IV at the anchor's throat held water (thank goodness); glasses V and VI, making up the shank, held champagne and Burgundy.We know for example, from this same White House Cookbook, that General Grant's birthday dinner allowed for the serving of "Ernest Jeroy" along with filet de boeuf a la Bernardi. Ernest Jeroy seems to have fallen off the planet -- look for it in books in vain, google it and you will find it only turns up in retellings of General Grant's birthday dinner --  but it sounds like a Burgundy, doesn't it? The fact that it was also served at a state dinner to accompany saumon and then grenadines de bass leads me to suspect it was everything a supple, beef- and fish-friendly pinot noir should be. Perhaps Miss Farmer simply preferred her claret.

At any rate, the holiday wine and food pairing challenge is easy to face. Let our ancestors guide you. To each course, its appropriate wine. The good people at Epicurious appear to have some inklings. They suggest a trio of food pairings for each of several possible wines, based on the flavor profiles of some suggested recipes for the turkey, the stuffing, a vegetable, and so on. Chardonnay to match sweetness, a pinot noir to match anything herbal, a zinfandel to marry with Italian flavor profiles. All fine. But to General Grant, or Miss Farmer, I suspect such anxieties might have seemed rather mean. Rather too much concerned with efficiency and not pleasure. For heaven's sake, they might have said, all this has been thought out for you long since. Look at the six glasses beside your plate, and be glad to anticipate all the good, right things coming your way.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Chestnuts 101

Every autumn and holiday season, I vow that I will cook chestnuts this year. I forget why I ever got the idea. Somehow I recall reading a French cookbook, which enthused about chestnuts and made them seem glamorous and wonderful. This year became the year, because I read a post at An Obsession with Food and Wine which dropped broad hints that chestnuts are a pain in the neck. I thought, aha! If a professional has difficulties with them, then I perversely have the courage to try them. So I bought a small bag from the grocery store, brought them home, consulted my cooking bible, Marion Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and set to.

Chestnut instructions always begin with the cutting of a slit or cross on the flat side of the nut.

Then, we drop them into boiling water "for a minute or two." Voila -- they do come out with the shell and skin looking ready to peel.

Then, we peel them. The inner skin is not papery like the skin of a garlic clove, but gluey and rather thick. It also adheres to the wrinkles and bumps of the nut meat. The nuts grow more difficult to peel as they cool, which is why the cookbook recommends another dip in boiling water for the stubborn ones.

My first chestnut came out beautifully. It looks exactly like a little brain, which makes me wonder why chestnuts aren't a bigger deal for Halloween snacking fun.

It took two of us about fifty minutes to peel about a pound or so of chestnuts. I begin to think there is something sensible in the old song's instructions to roast them on an open fire. And none of them emerged as pristine as the first. Perhaps it would be best to host a chestnut-peeling bee whenever you feel the urge to include these in your holiday menu, so that a dozen people can make headway against the little brains while they are still hot.

The next day, I simmered them in a cup of chicken broth,

as the cookbook recipe directed (although it did specify beef broth, which I did not have), and then after 20 minutes, added 2 tablespoons butter and some salt and pepper. All might have been well, but in the final five-minute rush of getting Thanksgiving dinner on the table, I kind of forgot about the chestnuts. They overcooked and turned a tad mushy, and did not look appetizing enough to photograph.

Their flavor was mild, smoky, and unremarkable considering all the effort of preparing them. Needless to say they were far too dry, as dry as a mouthful of unbaked pastry dough -- in fact, to combine them on a fork with cranberry sauce was to create an effect just like pie. Perhaps a new pie crust idea for those with gluten problems?

Derrick at OFW endured Chestnut-aux-pain in the neck and then paired his particular recipe with a wine called a vin jaune ("yellow wine") from the Arbois appellation of the Jura region in eastern France: a 1997 Stephane Tissot, to be exact. This is a wine made from a local native grape, the white Savagnin. The wine sits in a half-full barrel for six years under a coat of natural yeast scum, "during which time" (says Oz Clarke in the New Encyclopedia of French Wines) "it oxidizes, develops a totally arresting damp sourness like the dark reek of old floorboards, and yet also keeps a full fruit, albeit somewhat decayed."

How I do admire professionals, and all they know. We enjoyed our Thanksgiving dinner, complete with Chestnut Meh, with a standby grocery store riesling that I (ridiculously) decanted because the decanter is pretty. Good times.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Thanksgiving necessity: creamed onions

This is a big one: over 2,800 views, in At First Glass' day. It's amazing how often people start googling "creamed onions" in October and November.

Creamed onions were not on my family's Thanksgiving table when I was growing up, but I have added them to my menu because I found them listed among the suggestions for the feast at the back of Miss Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896). They seemed so authentic and historical as well as delicious-sounding, and easier to attempt than oyster soup (first course) or fruit pudding with sterling sauce (sixth course).

So here they are. You begin very simply, with fresh whole pearl onions. Drop them into boiling water and simmer them for three or four minutes. Drain them, run cold water over them, and then peel them by cutting off the root ends and squeezing the onion out of its skin. By this procedure you will probably squeeze the onion out of its first layer or two of flesh, as well. It looks and seems wasteful, but can hardly be helped.

Over the years I've learned a variety of ways to simplify the rest of the story. The best and richest way to prepare creamed onions is to make a standard cream sauce, based on a roux of equal parts melted butter and flour stirred into a bubbling paste, to which milk is added; stir and cook until the sauce is smooth. Proportions for this are easy to remember: 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour will need 1 cup of milk, 4 tablespoons each will need 2 cups of milk, and 5 tablespoons of each will need 3 cups. Once the sauce is done, you can put the onions to finish cooking in it -- they are done in about five more minutes -- and then leave them to stay hot on a back burner, until you are ready to serve them.

Or, if you have a gluten allergy problem, you can cook the onions in milk themselves,

and then when you are ready to serve, thicken the milk with a free form, GF (gluten-free) flour and water slurry. You can also simply sprinkle potato flour over the bubbling liquid, and stir it in until it dissolves. Keep on adding a little more potato flour until the cream is as thick as you want it. Both these methods serve the purpose, although these sauces don't cling to the onions as nicely as a traditional sauce does.

Salt and pepper and a dash of nutmeg are all that is needed to finish any of them.

Now you may move on to the rest of your dinner. Don't forget to give thanks, really.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Me first! Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, 2014

Beaujolais is made from "gamay the gulpable," as Jancis Robinson called the grape in her small book Grapes and Wines. Gulpable it is, and by that we mean fresh, full, and simple, exactly as if plain grape juice had a slightly older cousin who had been, not quite around the block a few times, but had perhaps dashed across the street on a dare, once. There is absolutely no trace in a Beaujolais Nouveau of the adulthood other wines show. No tannins, no acids, no hints of vanilla or leatheriness, no earth or figs. Just juice. Drink it up on the night of Thanksgiving, my fatheads, because in my opinion delightful and easy going as it is, it will not last even one extra day. 

In his small but excellent thumbnail-sketch book, Windows on the World: the Complete Wine Course, Kevin Zraly says that the quality of a Beaujolais Nouveau in any year can predict the quality of other Beaujolais from that same vintage. The various producers are in less of a hurry about those, releasing them the following spring. These additional Beaujolais types come from better (but still gamay) grapes grown in villages "which consistently produce better wines." Note that the producers can remain the same. And producers are not the same as villages. To talk about better Beaujolais than the Nouveaus of Thanksgiving is not to slur, for example, Georges Duboeuf, producer, whose Nouveau is pictured above.

Do we agree that a sample of a Nouveau predicts what's coming? Perhaps we should try to clear up a few small matters first. We are after all in Burgundy, where the vineyards have been so carefully tended and mapped for a thousand years that they outrank their owners; everybody jealously jostles to own and manage a few rows of vines in this celestial vineyard or that, or near this renowned village or other. In the Beaujolais subregion of Burgundy, the delineations are fairly simple. Three quality levels stand above the "Nouveau" of the bright flashy labels and November's "c'est arrivé!" excitement. In ascending order, there is "basic" Beaujolais made of gamay grown anywhere in the region; there is Beaujolais-Villages, blended from grapes of some of the 35 villages which consistently put out better wines; and there is Cru Beaujolais, made from grapes of 10 specific villages only. These villages -- and I still say French village and sometimes grape names provide an endlessly delightful resource for anyone puzzling over what to name a cat -- are Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and Saint-Amour.  The village names will appear on the label of a Cru Beaujolais. And lots of different producers, jealously jostling, can make their versions of the various Beaujolais Villages or Cru Beaujolais, depending on what parcels of what vineyards they own. You can find, for example, a Georges Duboeuf "Morgon." More serious wine, as Beaujolais goes, far less flashy label. Or you can find something like this. 

Now about the harvest, and vintage quality predictors and so on. Note that this Chateau de La Chaize Brouilly carries a vintage date of 2010. Might it taste good today? From Kevin Zraly we can infer, yes, most likely a Cru Beaujolais four years old is just about ripe for opening. He says Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages are meant to age perhaps one to three years. Crus longer, but not much beyond ten years. Four seems perfect. In fact, according to the useful website Beaujolais and Beyond, the 2010 vintage was good: "Much celebrated, a Beaujolais lover's vintage and a triumph of winemaking after adverse weather conditions." So our Chateau de La Chaize is right on time.

As for 2014, Beaujolais and Beyond says -- based on Nouveau samplings, or merely on weather records? -- the year looks promising. Though I am a bit perturbed by the wine's utter loss of flavor the next day (well, maybe that's normal), I kind of think so, too.

Beaujolais Nouveau, retail, about $9. Beaujolais Villages, about  $12. Cru Beaujolais, about $14.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Gourmet's Cider-braised pork shoulder with caramelized onions, plus how we're all descended from royalty

My fatheads, you must forgive the quality of the picture. Think of it as rustic and homey, somehow.  Medieval ... Norman.

And what on earth do you say to a very kind young man who is interested in ancestry, and thinks he can trace his descent from the earliest American pilgrims, and English and French royalty, and all royalty going back to the Roman Empire? Apart from the glaring fixation -- no one is ever descended from plumbers, or even artists -- I would think a fourth-grade arithmetic class would disabuse any of us, permanently, of the notion that we get to have our own private family tree, which we can then imagine to be leafed out however we like. Ancestors double, you know, with each generation. You have only to go back a little more than a hundred years to find, already, your 32 great-great-great grandparents. Don't you think it's likely that they were also somebody else's great-great-great grandparents? Maybe even your co-workers', or the man in the street? Step back another generation and the number is 64. And so on. Henry Adams in his great book Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904) mused on "arithmetical ancestors," because he had computed even further.
Since the generation which followed William to England in 1066, we can reckon twenty-eight or thirty from father to son, and, if you care to figure up the sum, you will find that you had about two hundred and fifty million arithmetical ancestors living in the middle of the eleventh century. The whole population of England and northern France may then have numbered five million [note: Fordham University estimates eight million], but if it were fifty it would not much affect the certainty that, if you have any English blood at all, you have also Norman. 
In other words your many-times-great-grandfathers, including the odd, titled roisterer-doisterer who may have visited some humble cottage with a glint in his eye, were your same many-times-great-grandfathers many times over. It's the only way everyone's arithmetical ancestors can fit into population levels of bygone eras. We're all descended from and related to everybody. Far from this news seeming -- to my young royal friend, or to anyone -- therefore disappointing, anonymous and dreary, Adams infuses it with romance:
If we could go back and live again in all our two hundred and fifty million arithmetical ancestors of the eleventh century, we should find ourselves doing many surprising things, but among the rest we should pretty certainly be ploughing most of the fields of the Cotentin and Calvados; going to mass in every parish church in Normandy; rendering military service to every lord, spiritual or temporal, in all this region; and helping to build the Abbey Church at Mont Saint Michel. From the roof of the cathedral of Coutances over yonder, one may look away over the hills and woods, the farms and fields of Normandy, and so familiar, so homelike are they, one can almost take oath that in this, or the other, or in all, one knew life once and has never so fully known it since.

Never so fully known it since!  
My gentleman friend listened to all this and told me I should have tweaked the young royal about his math illiteracy -- innumeracy, do we call it now? -- and his idée fixe. I said, no. I think there is no harm in letting someone natter on about a harmless and pleasant fantasy. Perhaps when he is older a fabulous, fiery girl will give him the rough side of her tongue about birth records from the Roman Empire. He will be much amazed, grow up overnight, and will throw himself into a love affair to astonish them both. Then he can read Henry Adams, and find a truer level of mystic romance in anonymous things. 

Meanwhile, in honor of the Calvados that Adams mentioned -- the region, not the apple brandy, but we're fine with both -- we'll make this delectable winter dish. Pork shoulder, onions, and apple cider. Gourmet does not call it Norman per se, but our arithmetical Normans would have liked it very much.

Gourmet's cider-braised pork shoulder with caramelized onions

3 to 4 pounds fresh pork shoulder, sometimes sold as "Boston butt" (or, according to Gourmet, "arm picnic")
2 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
2 Tbsp. olive oil -- for a Norman touch, use butter
5 to 6 medium onions, chopped
3/4 cup apple cider
salt and pepper

Score a crosshatch pattern on the meat and insert the garlic slices into the cuts. (Or, simply toss a couple of whole cloves into the pot later, before putting it into the oven.) Season the pork with salt and pepper. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Heat the oil or butter in a heavy oven proof pot. Brown the meat on all sides, turning occasionally until it is all browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Add the onions to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden. Add 3/4 teaspoon salt and keep cooking until onions are golden and caramelized, about 10 to 15 minutes total.

Stir in the cider -- or, deglaze the pot with a few Tablespoons of Calvados, stir, and then add the cider. Return pork to the pot. Cover with aluminum foil and the lid, and put into the preheated oven. Bake about 2 and 1/2 to 3 hours. When the pork is tender, transfer it to a clean plate and boil the sauce to reduce it to about 2 cups. 

What wine to serve with this? In her chapter on Norman food in When French Women Cook, Madeleine Kamman often suggests dry ciders to accompany the recipes, including of course those featuring pork and butter. We forget, if we ever considered it before, that on a map of the wine regions of France, Normandy is not set off and color-coded at all. This is a land not of grapes but of apples and dairy cows, of Calvados and cream. So a cider would be tasty. Or possibly a fully dry or "Trocken" German riesling?

And we'll close with a little more of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. (It's a book about Gothic cathedrals and stained glass, but also about much more.) Why did Henry Adams, in 1904, think that in medieval Normandy "we knew life, and have never so fully known it since"?

Never so fully known it since! for we of the eleventh century, hard-headed, close-fisted, grasping, shrewd, as we were, and as Normans are still said to be, stood more fully in the centre of the world's movement than our English descendants ever did. We were a part, and a great part, of the Church, of France and of Europe. The Leos and Gregories of the tenth and eleventh centuries leaned on us in their great struggle for reform. Our Duke Richard-Sans-Peur, in 966, turned the old canons out of the Mount in order to bring here the highest influence of the time, the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino. ... Our activity was not limited to Northern Europe, or even confined by Anjou and Gascony. When we stop at Coutances, we will drive out to Hauteville to see where Tancred came from, whose sons Robert and Roger were conquering Naples and Sicily at the time when the Abbey Church was building on the Mount. Normans were everywhere in 1066, and everywhere in the lead of their age. We were a serious race ....

Saturday, November 15, 2014

My third (I think?) Barolo

Picture this: the upstairs office. The big wooden table. The blue sky up in the skylights, the sun shining in the east windows, the slim lovely Italian woman with the messy ash-blond curls, the fetching lisp, the delicate brows and the skin of I-cannot-tell-you-what-perfection: its smoothness and faintest mocha color calls to mind a chamois skin -- but no, that's for waxing cars, that's all wrong -- perhaps then it calls to mind gloves, silk lined and described as "buttery soft" in old catalogues. One imagines a gloved hand softly touching that skin  And why is it that European women can wear the plainest clothes and look completely sensual? I vow to you that she had on olive green pants, plain beige ballet flats, a crew-neck white t shirt and a bright green sweater over that  Sweater sleeves pulled down to the wrists: no fussing with them and no exposure of flesh. 

Together we and the nice salesman tasted five Italian wines, the third of which was a luscious California-style nebbiolo (the grape) called "Bricco Magno." I exclaimed over it partly with relief at being able to recognize a flavor profile I knew. And I am sure she knew that. Yes! I thought. Fruit bomb! "Wow, that is good." What wine should taste like -- now this I can hand-sell.

The fifth wine, well. The fifth wine that morning below the skylights was a Barolo. As with my first Barolo and as with my second, I was mystified and underwhelmed. Remember when my former boss and I, equally inexperienced, thought that a Barolo resembled only "a weak pinot noir"? And remember when our esteemed colleague with thirty-five years in the trade shook his head patiently and said that was because "it was too big for us"? By now I can recognize the sugariness and thickness of "fruit bomb" New World red wines, but still I must admit I like most of them unless they topple right over into peanut butter and jelly territory. (Try Concannon's "Crimson and Clover.") The Barolo, now ...

The Barolo was light, thin, and clear. If it possessed a certain something which the lesser wines of the day lacked, I suppose it might have been a flavor that was not just sweet and rich. It might have been a depth or length of interest that was not just fruity. It's awkward to appreciate or put into words the taste of a wine that seems underwhelming but that you have always been assured is beyond the ordinary. As we were leaving the upstairs office I threw caution to the winds and asked the lovely, buttery-skinned Mika why it is that a Barolo is considered "bigger" than a California wine that is all stewed plums, spice, and port-level alcohol.

"It's big but it's elegant," she lisped promptly, and so I had to think about that.

What other things might be called big but elegant? And what is the opposite of elegant? -- tacky. It seems such a harsh word. (Note however that it also means sticky, as in, from a spill of something sweet.) Perhaps let us say, overripe.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

History in the basement/Borden's Peanut Clusters, 1941

October 9, 1941.

My mother was twelve and a half.  My father turned eighteen the week before. Very likely their parents and households, living in the Chatham/South Shore neighborhoods of Chicago, took in a copy of this paper: the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Someone in the house I live in, in what are now the far southeast suburbs, used a sheet of the newspaper that day -- I presume -- to line a drawer of a (really magnificent) sideboard. It's a great heavy piece of furniture, I don't know my woods but I think it is made of something better and redder than oak, of simple and very austerely (maybe even clumsily) curving thick side panels, two deep recesses, and a central tier of four plain drawers. The whole thing is about eight feet long, the top a foot and a half deep. One imagines Sunday breakfasts of eggs and sausages laid out in silver salvers here; but perhaps the great hulk merely displayed the family china. The handles on the drawers, simple metal loops clearly "all original" as antique guidebooks say, are falling to decay. When the house was the only farm around, this sideboard must have been among the family's prize possessions.

What it must weigh! Who decided it was too great and ugly for use, and put it into storage in the basement? When? When was the last time it was moved? For twenty-five years now, one of the recesses has held a large, stuffed glossy bag, which looks for all the world like something you would collect grass clippings in. Twenty-five years ago, my mother was sixty, my father just turned sixty-six. I moved in as a young newlywed looking forward to starting a family. I spotted the old crumpled newspaper in a half-open drawer even then.

Why on earth Vichy France decreed that one may only drink aperitifs and digestifs for four hours a day, and never on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, is beyond me. Note that wine and beer seem not to have been a problem. Perhaps the information was simply totally garbled in translation, or perhaps there have always been French killjoys, and collusion with the Germans brought them out.

Below, a finely sketched lady contemplates, or "is romantic." It's a refreshing look in advertising, isn't it? -- accustomed as we are to full-color photographs of endlessly smiling maniacs. The perfume is "Houbigant's Chantilly." The lady wears gloves and carries a fan, but has her hair tied up in a strangely juvenile ribbon. I had thought we were to understand that the ball is over, and she is preparing thoughtfully for bed, but why would a lady keep her gloves on that long? Possibly the hair ribbon was not juvenile at all, but was rather the latest in fashion. 

Below, one crumpled page, entire. Look carefully and you may also spot a tiny beer ad -- it's near the windmill -- and some good looking shoes.

On the other side of the sheet there is one big article about the war going badly for the Soviets against Nazi Germany. Elsewhere one finds little blurbs about Churchill refusing to call Iran anything other than Persia, and about George Burns and Gracie Allen opening a new radio show on WGN that night. Otherwise what we have here is the back end of the paper, mostly ads. Liquor for $4 or $5 a fifth, a man's "topcoat" for $19.

Now in the intervening twenty-five years while the sideboard sat, the children have grown up, mother is 85 and dad died nine years ago. I dig up the paper from that jammed drawer and photograph it and write about it, because after this long time renting from (now ex)-in-laws, my goal is to live somewhere else by next year. Time flies, apartment hunting solo will be a new experience, moving is hectic. So this is just a little project that I did always want to take care of.

And, yes, there's a recipe. Please try some really retro Peanut Clusters, from 1941. Just think, since printed material has a copyright life of 75 years, if I had waited only two more years I could have safely proffered this creation as if it were my own. As it is I am content to credit the Borden milk company, by way of the Chicago Daily Tribune of that day. I would, however, suggest substituting dark chocolate for the sweet chocolate called for. Look at the amount of sweetened condensed milk required, and you will understand why. 

Peanut Clusters

1/2 pound sweet chocolate
2/3 cup (one 7 and 1/2 ounce can) Borden's sweetened condensed milk
1 cup whole peanuts

Melt chocolate in a double boiler, then remove from heat and stir in condensed milk and peanuts. Drop from teaspoon onto a buttered baking dish or plate, and let cool and solidify for several hours.

There is this, too.


Monday, November 3, 2014

An interruption -- the death of Brittany Maynard

A food and wine blog is hardly the place for this, and yes, it will be tagged "unpolished." But some things seem serious enough to warrant comment, even if they are private things -- which other people made public -- and even if they are interruptions in what you normally do with your day.

People magazine tells us today, via Drudge, that Brittany Maynard killed herself in Oregon on Saturday November 1, the day she said she would. She is the beautiful 29-year-old woman who became famous recently for publicizing her diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, and her decision to move to Oregon so she could take advantage of the state's law allowing terminal patients to commit suicide with legally prescribed barbituates.

This story caught everyone's attention, and it caught mine too especially because Brittany Maynard's disease, glioblastoma, seems to be exactly the one that Bette Davis' character suffers in the movie Dark Victory. I hope that will not sound trite to the point of being grotesque. It's just that the association leaped out at me, and I was a little surprised that, in what I have read of Ms. Maynard's decision, no one mentioned it. Perhaps it is too trite, or perhaps the movie is so old everyone has forgotten it. It used to be that people remembered it as "the one where she goes blind in the end."

Yes, her character does go blind, but she also dies. She says goodbye to her dogs, climbs the steps to her bedroom, kneels at the bed for a minute, and then lays down. The maid comes in and lays a blanket half over her, and she says she doesn't want to be disturbed. The maid leaves, you hear a sort of angelic choir, and then the camera close-up on Davis' face washes out and goes black. 

Earlier in the film, Davis' character Judith, exhausted, says to her best friend, "It's the waiting, Ann ... would it be so terrible if I were to make it happen?" Ann recoils in dread and says, "You mustn't even think of doing such a thing!"

There it is. You mustn't even think of it. It's only a movie and it was 1939, but if movies can reflect something true about their societies, then why was it understood, 75 years ago, that suicide is wrong even for the deathly ill, whereas today Brittany Maynard types a farewell statement to the world which she concludes by saying "Spread good energy. Pay it forward"?

There is nothing good to pay forward here. I am not even talking about the likelihood that societies which embrace "death with dignity," a cause Brittany Maynard charged us all to work for, end up using euthanasia more than they thought they would. I am talking about a mindset completely missing from Brittany Maynard's life, apparently, and that is the mindset that life is not something we made, control, or understand. I don't mean life as in the way we spend our days, I mean life as in the utter mystery of why a collection of atoms or minerals or carbon or whatever it is, should move, think, be aware, grow. Live. If you have no conception that someone or some force outside yourself perhaps made or understands or governs, even cherishes, life, then you probably will see yourself as a wholly autonomous being, bar nothing; you will probably not be able to see why you should not kill yourself if it seems logical. You may regard people who disagree with you as "evil." "They are trying to mix it up with suicide, and it's not that," she told People. Yes it is.     

I don't for one second doubt that it was a "huge relief" to Brittany Maynard, as she put it in her first video, to have those bottles of pills in her cabinet, given what she was told about the process of death from "glioma" (as it's called in Dark Victory). I too would have fondled those bottles gratefully, and I might have used them, as she decided to do two days ago. Not for one second do I want to hear the usual comments (not that I think I'll get any) about how I have no right to decree that someone else must wait and suffer a hideous death because Life is Sacred and God is "good."

It's the missing mindset that worries me. If Brittany Maynard was, in her own person, sacred enough and special enough to refuse to be degraded by a full-on death from brain cancer, then what actually made her special? Youth and beauty? The last tatters of health, quickly vanishing? Being still of sound mind? Or was she, herself, uniquely sacred, and as Brittany Maynard, would have remained sacred and deserving of life and care -- not to be killed under any circumstances -- through all suffering and all needs, until the end?

An ancient pagan of Greece or Rome might easily have seconded her decision. In Pagans and Christians Robin Lane Fox writes that when Christianity got underway, worshipers of the old gods did not understand why the new believers permitted a text, the Bible, to infiltrate their minds and cause them to self-govern from the text's outside standards. To them, this seemed a crazy imposition on adult thinking. By the same token, in his book Introduction to Christianity Pope Benedict writes that in order for the English to outlaw suttee, the burning of widows in India, they had also to impose the idea of the unique worth of each person. The widow is not A Widow among hundreds or thousands; she has a name and a worth; she is not anyone's to kill.       

They are two entirely different mindsets and it's Brittany Maynard's mindset now seeming brave, compassionate, and normal that is the problem. Her choice is the sign of a society living off the fumes of an old supply of fuel, abundant in our grandfathers' day, that yes the individual is of supreme value and dignity. She just didn't really know why. She did not know all that the word dignity encompasses. The writers of so trite a thing as Dark Victory still did.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...