Food, Wine, Good (and Evil) Spirits
I haven't met an herb I didn't like. Right now in my garden have more than a dozen varieties of herbs growing. I have different uses for all of them. Some I love to use when roasting meats or vegetables, like rosemary and sage. I put parsley and mint in my salads. I also use mint in my teas. I use cilantro in guacamole, which I make almost every week. And of course I have a bush of basil for when it comes time to make homemade tomato sauce.
This year I've tried growing Greek basil and Thai basil with great success. My stir-frys and Thai curries are so much better with the addition of Thai basil, which has an anise-like flavor. For years I've been growing lovage, a perennial herb that grows four feet tall every year. Its flavor is a lot like parsley and celery combined, and its tall stalks look much like celery except that they are hollow like bamboo. You might have come across lovage used in a Bloody Mary but not have known what it was. The stalks make very nice straws.
Picture this: you’re enjoying a wonderful outdoor party. Great food and libations are flowing freely, laughter spills through the air, things are good. You notice one of your guests in need of a refresher, so you run back to the kitchen for another round.
Fast forward about 40 minutes. You’ve just burned 3,000 calories, your neatly pressed party outfit is covered in booze and sweat, and all of a sudden this party you’re hosting doesn’t feel like much to celebrate. A major reason for summer get-togethers is to well, get together, not to spend time in the kitchen playing bartender. That’s why pitcher drinks are the perfect solution.
I love a good martini, a freshly muddled mojito or caipirinha, a perfectly proportioned mint julep, but when it comes to quantity it’s just easier to subscribe to the "make-ahead-in-batches" school of thought. It works, it’s just as tasty, and more importantly it keeps you out of the kitchen and with your guests.
You never forget your first love...and mine was Merlot. Up to that sip of Chilean juice all my encounters with red wine brought mouthfuls of tannic unhappiness. I had no idea red wine could taste so smooth and juicy and, yes, fruity. I remember seeking it out and buying versions from Mill Creek, Lambert Bridge and Chateau Souverain on my first trip to Sonoma. And then, overexposure hit, causing many wineries to plant Merlot where they shouldn't – just to make a quick buck – and the lack of quality made many wine lovers, like me, desert the variety and move on to other grapes. It doesn't take many mediocre versions to turn people off, especially when you're paying good money for the pleasure.
This decline happened long before Sideways. The movie just brought the
problem to a national audience. Miles' cry "I'm not drinking any
f**king Merlot!", while funny, was all too true for many of us everyday
drinkers. This once luscious grape was ruined by rampant
commercialization, which was sad for drinkers, but had to be horrifying
to the wineries who considered this a flagship variety. Lucky for us
the ones in it for the long haul, held on and concentrated their
efforts into making wines that would turn around Merlot's maligned
reputation. Or so I've heard.
I got the opportunity to see whether they succeeded at Learn About Wines "Revenge of The Merlot" tasting. While clearly devised by the wineries participating to get people talking about and tasting merlot again, it was interesting to actually hear first hand the effects, if any, they had experienced since Sideways supposedly put the nail in Merlot's coffin.
From the NY Times
I hadn’t thought of making tiramisù since the 1990s when it was all the rage, but in March friends asked me to bring dessert to their party, and it came to mind. Fashionable or not, it’s perfect for a crowd but also foolproof enough to assemble with my toddler daughter underfoot. It was a hit, extremely satisfying in a creamy, trifle-esque kind of way, yet more sophisticated thanks to the espresso and shot of sambuca moistening the layers.
I filed the recipe under “good for hungry hordes,” and planned to fish it out for a weekend away with friends. But as that weekend drew closer, I reconsidered. Baskets of plump, scarlet strawberries had finally appeared at the farmers’ market, and I really wanted to make them the focal point of dessert.
The creamy mascarpone and ladyfinger layers in tiramisù are a natural with strawberries. But the espresso is too overbearing to match well with the sweet fruit. All I had to do was swap out the liquid. It was early evening when all this pondering was going on, so naturally my mind leaped to the coming cocktail hour. What would be a good, boozy pairing with strawberries?
Like many of my seasonal affectations, I’m always delighted when citrus season rolls around for three main reasons: One: because it means the plump, juicy oranges from my tree will soon be ready and two: meyer meyer meyer meyer meyer meyer lemons, and three: blood oranges. And now that all are here I really don’t know what to do with myself. I’m pretty sure the guys at my farmers’ market are glad I’ve stopped running up to them each week asking the same question over and over again.
Unlike autumnal produce (which always seems so exciting but after about 2 weeks I am ready to move on), I could never ever tire of blood oranges. I wish I had them year round. And here’s where my craziness really kicks in: I enjoy them just as much for their color as their flavor. Correction: even more so, I think. There’s really nothing else like that color. Crimson with hints of sunshine, pink with a touch of vermillion. And the juice? Such an amazing coral and ruby hue, depending on how the light hits it. I’ve been known to juice several oranges and stare at the pitcher for hours in appreciation of that color I hardly see throughout the year. And trust me, I know my colors.
When you live, breathe, eat and sleep food, it can sometimes be hard to muster excitement. This doesn’t mean I’ve grown weary of food and all it involves, it just means that it takes a little extra or a tiny bit of sumthin’ sumthin’ to really knock my socks off. Not that they need constant knocking off. They don’t. I’m happy with plain most of the time.
The pleasures of food and discovery happen when you least expect it. I can remember a moment 20 years ago when I had my first Meyer lemon and I thought the earth would swallow itself. My mind was expanding with each taste of that glorious citrus and I knew life would never be the same. The same can be said of having Jamon Iberico de bellota, a proper supplì, even Wisconsin cheese curds for the very first time. I can count those moments on one hand.
Last month in Italy I had another one of those moments at dinner. It was a fish dish with a very simple aioli––or so I thought. It turns out that the aioli was made with Colatura, an extremely flavorful Italian condiment made from fish and salt. My eyes must have given my excitement away as our dinner neighbor Fabio looked at me and said “It’s Colatura. There’s Colatura in here.” He explained how it’s made, telling me fish sauce has been used for thousands of years in Italy.
From the North Coast Journal
It happens every year about this time, in magazines and newspapers, online: an outpouring of effervescent enthusiasm for holiday sparkling wine bargains. "The best of West Coast bubbly has rarely been better," trumpets San Francisco Chronicle Magazine. The online wine merchant www.novusvinum.com features the "Top 20 American Sparkling Wines," from a modest $19 for Francis Coppola 2008 Sofia Blanc de Blancs to a staggering $100 for Schramsberg 2002 J. Schram. Words like "festive" and "elegant" promise a transcendental experience.
They lie. Well, they pretty much have to lie. No one would be long in business selling wine or print ads if they told the truth: American sparkling wine at its best is not in the same class as even the least expensive imports from Champagne. The fact is, it may never be.
The world of cuisine is fertile ground for happy, often accidental inventions: the 18th century discovery that oil and vinegar could, by careful blending with egg yolk, be emulsified into Sauce Mayonnaise. Peking Duck: an ancient dish, eaten by wealthy Chinese, consisting of just the crisp skin of a fattened duck, slowly roasted to a glossy brown in a long process taking a whole day. Distilled spirits, a byproduct of 8th century alchemy that produced what an Arabic poet described as, "a wine that has the color of rain-water but is as hot inside the ribs as a burning firebrand."
But the ultimate adventure may have been the one that produced gold from straw.
After about a decade of studying and drinking wine, I've become the
de facto "expert" amongst our group of friends. Which is to say I've
read more wine books, taken more classes and wine tasted in more
regions than them, but what I've learned is just the tip of the wine
iceberg. That being said, since I have this website, I get asked a lot
of questions about wine, but there are two that always seem to come up
with the answers usually engendering surprise.
1) What are my favorite Napa wineries?
2) Do you really LOVE white wine? Really?
My response that I don't make a pilgrimage to Napa several times a year is akin to saying something like "I hate puppies." The shocked looks are quite amusing to me. I've been all over California, tasting in every region where wine is grown, including Napa, yet there are just other places I'd rather go. I've come up with an equation that should explain this apparent break down in my mental faculties.
(Too far away x snotty attitude + $$$$ bottle price = Unhappy Wine Traveler)
A dear friend, Valerie Peterson, has published her second book and just in time for the holidays. Her first book, Cookie Craft Christmas, extolled the virtues of cookies and gave detailed directions on the care and baking of the most imaginative cookies I've ever seen.
Now she has turned her sights on holiday drinks. She has written a funny, nostalgic handbook of holiday drinks called Peterson's Holiday Helper: Festive Pick-Me-Ups, Calm-Me-Downs, and Handy Hints to Keep You in Good Spirits. Each drink has specific instructions with photographs that recall a more settled time.
I recommend her book to anyone who wants to discover a new favorite drink or as a stocking-stuffer gift for the holidays. Peterson's Holiday Helper is a keeper.
The other day I took a walk through Wally's, my local wine emporium's
autumn sale and was bottle shocked by the number of kosher wine choices
on display—Ninety-seven Jewtique labels. From Israel to Australia to
the Valley of Napa, there are rabbis rendering grapes right for Jewish
tables the world over.
Although pleased as wine punch that my brethren can sip with confidence from so many vineyards at all the holiday tables to come, I felt drowned in a sudden wave of nostalgia, for, over in a less popular corner, I spied some "Man Oh Manischewitz – What a Wine" languishing, neglected for a mere $4.99 in its own dust.
And a flood of bittersweet tasting memories ensued…of my parentally enforced Prohibition. The years of my youth when I was served Welch's grape juice in a grown up glass at the holidays to placate my longing for the real deal. I sipped the faux, while the elders were slurping Manichevitz, the manna of the God, the only choice in that era, with lip-smacking satisfaction. I'd lift my grape laced goblet, toast and boast—'Lookit! Lookit how fast I can drink it!"