Friday, June 14, 2013
Monday, June 10, 2013
This is a big deal, honestly. And it happened by mistake. A few friends were over for dinner the other night and someone said that the term "foodie" is dated. That a person who uses the word "foodie" is a little bit charmingly clueless. For example, imagine that you are making brunch at your mom's house and your aunt sees you chopping chives and sprinkling them on scrambled eggs. "Oh, are you a foodie?" She asks. Does she think that chives are so outside of the realm of the typical home cook that your using them means you are a foodie? Or does she mean to say that you clearly enjoy preparing and eating good food?
We laughed and talked some more about words for food and people who love food. At one point I was trying to share an idea and I meant to say "hipster foodies," but that's not what came out. Instead, I said "hippie foodsters." And much as Alexander Fleming's mistake in the laboratory gave us penicillin, I give to you...foodster. Foodster!
I searched for the term on the internet and it seems that some one may have discovered this word at some point, but Urban Dictionary has defined it incorrectly, in my view. It defines foodster in the following way: "The unholy fusion of a foodie and a hipster." I agree with this part. But it goes on to say "Persons that need to be annoyingly cool about using non-mainstream ingredients or techniques while cooking." See, I think that a person can be a foodster without using non-mainstream ingredients or techniques.
A person can make whipped cream, for example, and be foodster about it. There is nothing esoteric about whipped cream. Canned whipped cream - we can certainly do better than that. But imagine a humorless 26 year old guy with a waxed mustache in a lumberjack plaid shirt tucked into a pair of dirty shorts standing behind the counter at the Great Googa Mooga who, after a 45 minute wait on line, treats you to a squirt of his locally sourced, antibiotic and hormone free whipped cream on a Hudson Valley grown buckwheat cracker. His whipped cream might taste great, and I'm glad that people will support locally sourced food products, especially from animals that are not crammed with antibiotics and the like. That's exactly what I want to eat. But this dude and his whipped cream, however, are still foodster.
Foodster is more about attitude than anything else. Same with hipsters, if you think about it. I watched a guy ride up to the food coop the other day. He dismounts, locks his fixed gear bike, removes his helmet. Red hair combed in a side part, red beard, glasses with wood frames, dirty v-neck tee-shirt tucked loosely into shorts, socks pulled high, canvas high top sneakers that were not Converse, something that preceded Converse maybe, and tattoos on arms and calves. He walks into the coop, and then another guy pulls up, this one with brown hair, in exactly the same outfit! Not similar - exactly the same outfit. I'm telling you, these hipsters arrived like planes timing their descent to LaGuardia. Before the second guy walked into the coop, he screwed up his face into a very serious expression, took a worn little moleskin pad out of one of his paniers, and used a knobby little pencil to write something down.
What I appreciate about these guys is that they are absolutely humorless about their whole presentation. It's as though they arrived on Earth this way - they were born in precisely the correct canvas high tops and with that gel in their hair. It's the attitude. They might be guys of true quality with a lot to offer the people in their lives and to their community, but the attitude makes them hipsters.
Same with foodster. Food can be of high quality, made with great ingredients, prepared skillfully. But if the attitude is precious, pretentious, or humorless about it's food culture aspirations, it is foodster. For example, Blanca, the second restaurant by the Roberta's team. It might be utterly brilliant food, but it is foodster. Atera - that place is foodster. Smorgasburg - that's foodster. The Red Hook ball fields food vendors, not foodster. Mayonnaise - normal. Hellman's mayonnaise - hipster. The Empire Mayonnaise store - foodster. A lobster roll is not inherently foodster - quite the opposite. But think of how little attitude you must garnish it with for it to become annoyingly foodster.
Foodster is a vaguely derogatory term. It is both a noun and an adjective. A foodster is a person who adopts a humorless and pretentious affect while jumping on the bandwagon and doing whatever all the other food hipsters are doing, like making their own headcheese from a pig who spent her life foraging in the backyard in east Williamsburg. Foodsters are the people and the attitude that the Portlandia folks are making fun of in "We Can Pickle That."
Here are some other things that are foodster (and there are gazillions - here are merely a few):
- food trucks, especially those selling Korean tacos.
- celebrity foragers.
- celebrity baristas, like Erin McCarthy (do yourself a favor and watch the video).
- restaurants that force you to experience a 4-hour tasting menu.
- $8 ice pops with flavors like plum-lavender or buttermilk-tarragon.
Okay, there you have it. Foodster. Feel free to fine-tune the definition in the comments if you like, label other popular foodstuffs and/or people as foodster, or to suggest other foodster/not foodster combos. I really think I'm onto something here...
Tuesday, June 04, 2013
The fish people are back at my market after their winter vacation. Actually they've been back Since the beginning of April but I've only recently gotten into the swing of things. And now all of the sudden we are eating a lot of seafood in my house. Here are some recent favorites, and the wine pairings that love them:
That's it, just a little gratuitous seafood. You know, to whet your appetite.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
"I judge a chef based on their roast chicken."
"The best way to judge a sushi chef is to order one piece of tamago, or omelet sushi."
I don't know who said those things, but I understand the idea. Skilled preparation of the seemingly simplest dishes is one of the marks of a great chef. Carbonara might be the roast chicken of Italian cuisine. It is a dish comprised of no more than 5 or 6 ingredients and even the unskilled cook can make a decent version of the dish. But good ingredients and good cooking, as with roast chicken, can elevate carbonara to something spectacular.
Carbonara is simple, on paper, and apparently there is an argument about virtually every aspect of the preparation. Spaghetti? Bucatini? Egg yolks only or whole eggs? Onions or no onions? Guanciale or pancetta? Parmegiano or Pecorino? Good lord...
I've had spaghetti alla carbonara three times in the past week, and that's equal to the number of times I've had it in the past decade. So why now, with the carbonara? A good pal invited me to his out-of-town house for Memorial day weekend and he knows that I have a line on the good meats so he asked me to bring some guanciale, or cured pig's jowl. He had been working on his carbonara and wanted to make it for me during the weekend. Nice. I brought a bunch of wine for the weekend and tried to include things that would pair with carbonara.
In general, my pal makes his carbonara like this:
-Salted water, bring to a boil.
-Slice guanciale, fry in a pan to render the fat.
-Pour off some of the fat, add a good glug of white wine and cook down.
-Crack two very fresh eggs, beat.
-Add a generous amount of grated Parmegiano and chopped fresh parsley, beat some more.
-Take the cooked spaghetti out of the boiling water, allowing some of the pasta water to come along, and add it to the egg mixture, tossing all the while.
-Toss, toss, toss some more so the egg doesn't cook, but instead forms a sort of glaze on the pasta.
-Add the cooked guanciale and some salt and cracked black pepper to taste.
Later in the weekend my friend made another carbonara and this one was perfect, to my taste. He rinsed off some of the curing seasonings before cooking the guanciale and added no black pepper or salt.
So, when Peter and a few others came over for dinner earlier this week I knew that carbonara would be one of the things I would make. And I wanted to try another kind of wine. But what? I decided to ask friends for advice, friends who know something about Italian food and wine. Jeremy Parzen said that a slightly chilled Cesanese del Piglio, a peppery red wine, would be ideal. "It has just enough meatiness to complement the egg and lardons and its natural spice is great with the heat of the dish," he said. Jeremy also said that if I wanted to drink white wine he would recommend a Frascati, a Lazio Bianco, or an Orvieto. "Acidity obviously is a must but the wine needs some spiciness to go with the freshly cracked pepper of the carbonara," he said.
I asked Alfonso Cevola what he thinks is the perfect pairing for carbonara. "Something white and simple," he said. "Maybe a good Frascati or a Verdicchio like Bucci or La Monacesca. Coenobium is a bit out there but I'd try that for an exotic choice. From Abruzzo La Valentina makes a nice Trebbiano (not to be confused with the more expensive Valentini). Something interesting from Apulia is the Masseria Li Veli Askos Verdeca." Some similarities with Jeremy's recommendations, and although most of the wines these guys are recommending are unknown to this Italian wine ignoramus, I began to understand what they were getting at. "Essentially one needs something light with good acidity to cut through the fat of the dish, not too sweet but not lacking in fruit either, and not too dry," Alfonso said. Okay, makes sense.
The problem is, I own literally two bottles of Italian white wine and they are both from Friuli and made mostly of Friulano, and they are richer, more herbal wines. Not what those guys described. So I thought about my cellar. What do I have that is simple, fruity, and with good acidity, but not too much of either? Something dry, but not too dry. Something that would stand up to pungent guanciale and also be easy drinking.
Friends, I'm here to tell you that I served a Provence rosé with my first ever attempt at Carbonara. The incredibly reasonably priced and very delicious 2012 Domaine les Fouques Côtes de Provence Cuvée de l'Aubigue. And it was a very good pairing. WAY better than the Prager Riesling, which is a far better wine, objectively speaking. A better pairing also than the Stony Hill.
We ate our pasta and my friends were happy. While we ate I asked Peter, who knows a lot about all wine and food, what he thinks is the best wine to pair with carbonara. Now this is a guy who at home drinks almost exclusively white wine - Champagne and Sherry. "Carbonara is a good red wine pasta dish," he said. He has a friend out west who loves carbonara and who loves to open old Nebbiolo to pair with it. "Now that's good," Peter smiled.
Clearly, more research is needed. And by the way, does anyone know a good Brooklyn cardiologist?
Friday, May 10, 2013
Not too long ago I had the opportunity to meet and taste with Bianca Miraglia, the woman who founded Uncouth Vermouth. Uncouth Vermouth is made in Brooklyn from fortified wines made from Long Island grapes, using herbs that Bianca forages mostly in Long Island. I knew almost nothing about uncouth Vermouth before meeting Bianca. I read Alice Feiring's piece last year in the Times and I remember being curious about the wines. Turns out that the wines are interesting and delicious and that Bianca is a smart, principled, and fun person too.
Bianca makes about 2,500 cases of vermouth in a year but she plans to double production soon. She makes her wines at the Red Hook Winery, and lost almost all of her stock in the Hurricane Sandy flooding. So although right now her wines are as popular as they've ever been, she cannot supply the demand for her wines. Hopefully this will soon change.
This is terribly short notice, but Bianca is pouring her vermouth later today (May 10th) at Chambers Street Wines, and you should go taste them if you can - they are compelling.
-- Bianca's father's name (Miraglia) means "Admiral" in Italian. He grew up in Greenpoint and had a part in starting the local textile workers union. An original Brooklyn hipster!
--She is in her 20's - she is still so young! I envied her for the strength of her conviction, and for the fact that she is doing the thing she cares about and finding success at such a young age.
--She left the NYC area maybe 6 years ago on a whim, went to Oregon and worked at wineries for a while.
--She was searching for a vermouth answer for the dry martini and made the answer herself - apple mint uncouth vermouth.
--Bianca never uses sweeteners of any kind. If her vermouth is sweet it's because the wine it's made from is sweet.
--There are no fewer than 20 different herbs in any vermouth she makes.
--She strains her vermouth but never filters - she wants to leave the compounds that add flavor and aroma in the wine.
Here are some of the things Bianca said while were were talking:
"Mauro Vergano makes the best Vermouth in the world, but his style already exists. I want to do my own thing and make something great."
"The longer my Vermouths are open, the more they smell like wine. These are wines, fortified wines, more so than they are cocktail ingredients. They should be served chilled but not cold."
"Did you see Jiro Dreams of Sushi? Like he said, if you cannot impress yourself you cannot impress others. I want to love my Vermouths, I think of myself as my own best customer."
"You can make great cocktails with my Vermouths, but they're perfect on their own and that's how I love to drink them. Or with a dash of bitters and a splash of soda. They're 18% alcohol and you're still going to catch a buzz, by the way."
"I won't mail samples of my wines, even to Food & Wine, I just don't do it. I'm one person and I do everything with my own money. The finances make it so I cannot mail samples, but I don't want to anyway. Samples are unnecessary. I respect your money and time and I expect the same. If you want to taste the wines, let's meet and do that together and talk about them."
"I love Red Hook Winery. They select so carefully and always try to adhere to their principles of chemical free and healthy farming, but if they have to spray because of weird weather, they're transparent about it."
"I spoke with several distributors a while back and they said that if they were going to sell my wines they had all sorts of demands about how I do what I do. Then after a few articles and the Vermouths started to become well known, they came back to me with a different attitude. This time it was do whatever I want and they'll make my brand huge. But I'm not looking to sell my brand. I'm looking to wake up happy every day and to do what I like to do."
I wish I could be in my 20's again, with the same unadulterated optimism and strength of opinion. It's good for us older folks to be around young whippersnappers so we can be reminded not to compromise our principles, if possible.
Uncouth Vermouth Beet Eucalyptus - made of Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Viogner. Smells strongly of eucalyptus, fresh and enticing. Tastes like beets and eucalyptus, which sounds trite, but is true. It seemed like an odd combo to me, but it works. The wine is fresh tasting and the finish is mellow and complex. If not drinking it straight, Bianca says this Vermouth makes an amazing Negroni.
Uncouth Vermouth Serrano Chile Lavender - made of Finger Lakes Riesling (which was made by Abe Schoener). Both were excellent but this one really moved me. First of all, it's spicy, and not blunted so that all can enjoy it. It's legitimately spicy. Especially after swallowing. There is subtle lavender on the nose but more prominently, a smell that it took me a while to figure out, but it's the smell that I get from high quality silver tequila. Green, succulent like a cactus, and spicy. Agave? I have no idea. I would drink this chilled straight, but it seems like there are many cocktail possibilities here too.
Go Bianca! I hope that you refresh your stocks and can sell your Vermouth to everyone who wants to buy it. And that in 10 years, you still apply the same principles you do today to whatever it is you may be doing.
Sunday, May 05, 2013
Thanks again to you all for your thoughtful recommendations. General impressions? From the very small sample I experienced, SF chefs are clearly concerned with the freshest and most seasonal of produce, and they clearly have access to high quality material. Seafood was uniformly excellent. Service was uniformly friendly and competent. Reservations were uniformly hard to come by. Wine lists were not terribly exciting, but there was almost always something good to drink. Very high quality food is available, and if it were NYC, it would be two-three times more expensive and created in a far more precious atmosphere. Overall, I had a great eating experience and look forward eagerly to the day I can go back.
I ate dinner at Bar Tartine and it was outstanding. It's a comfortable and stylish space without any pretense. We tried 8 dishes and all but one was excellent, a few were superb. The assortment of pickles was skillfully done - the apex of pickling, if you will. Red cabbage, for example, was enlivened with just the right touch of ginger. Mushrooms were toothsome and not oily at all, chioggia beets were draped in buttermilk and the result was thick but lively, and completely delicious. Terrine of beef tendon with horseradish and fresh greens was complex and delicious. Raw halibut with seaweed was excellent, so was fisherman's stew with green chili, so was spätzle - the lightest I've ever had. We drank two excellent wines with this feast. 2004 Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Spätlese was in a great place for drinking, so balanced and lovely, so good with the food. And 2010 Knoll Riesling Smaragd Ried Schütt, which was young, reduced, and altogether reticent, but still after 45 minutes showed how good it's going to be. We loved our dinner at Tartine and I would recommend it to anyone without hesitation, and I cannot wait to go back myself.
That same buddy and I ate an impromptu early dinner at Commonwealth one night. We tried to go to State Bird Provisions, but could not get in. We arrived at 5:07, the restaurant opens at 5:30, and there was already a line of about 24 people in front of us, none with reservations. That place must be interesting, and probably quite good, and one day I will try again. Commonwealth was a fantastic replacement. Okay, so I was with a good old pal and we would have had fun wherever we went, but Commonwealth really delivered. So comfortable and airy, everything so beautifully presented, so fresh and balanced in flavor. We had the tasting menu and it was a perfect meal. Yup, I said perfect and I mean it.
I took a long walk from the Embarcadero to the Mission one day and ate lunch at Local's Corner. Everyone I mentioned this to said they like Local's Corner, and I liked it too, but I didn't love it. There was no wine I wanted to drink and the beer taps were down, but my lemonade was very good. People were genuinely friendly, and it felt good to be there.
Taconic on Bedford, so that's something. I would go back if some one else suggested it, but I doubt I would return on my own.
Zuni Cafe was a bit disappointing.The food was tired, that's the best way to describe it. Nothing was plated in a terribly attractive way, salads were overdressed, lamb was underwhelming, but none of this mattered one bit because I was with good friends and had a ball. I don't remember what I had for dessert but it was delicious. But I suspect that this place is past its prime. One thing - we drank very well at Zuni - Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs was delicious, as was 2010 Roulot Meursault (!). We had a weird experience with our red wine, but that's a story for another time.
Oh, and by the way, I stopped by Terroir one late afternoon, not having planned to, but I was 3/4 of the way through a tremendous walk, and it was relaxing and nice. The dudes who worked there were friendly and there was a load of enticing wine on the wall. Not a lot of which was actually for sale at Terroir, but that's fine. After asking for 5 different wines that turned out not to be available, I took the guy's recommendation and drank a glass of 2009 Puffeney Savagnin. It was delicious and I enjoyed taking it upstairs and lounging on a comfy club chair, leafing through Jay McInerney's wine book.
Local's Corner and Zuni aside, it's obvious to me from Tartine, Commonwealth, and Hog Island that there is fantastic eating to be had in SF. Thanks again for your recommendations.
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
It was a glorious Saturday, sunny and warm but not too hot, clear blue skies, and I was with people I work with, people who have over the years become good friends. I had never before been to the Napa Valley, or to any California wine region. We drove north from San Francisco and at times it was startling in how lovely it was. As we approached Napa we hit traffic, the first sign of the popularity of this place as a tourist destination. I saw a sign for Domaine Carneros and then another for Beaulieu Vineyards. We saw large flat vineyards with rows of skinny vines supported by posts and wires, all draped with thin hoses for irrigation purposes - it gets very hot in the Napa Valley and months can go by in the summer without rain.
We, however, were going to visit Stony Hill, the iconic Chardonnay producer, physically located in the tourist carnival that is the modern Napa Valley, but philosophically located somewhere else entirely. Sarah McCrea, the granddaughter of the founders of Stony Hill Winery, and its current Sales and Marketing Director, told us to drive through St. Helena 3 miles past the Chevron station and onto Bale Grist Mill road to find Stony Hill. We literally inched through traffic, finally reaching the town of St. Helena. It took us almost an hour on a Saturday early afternoon to drive perhaps 10 miles, allowing us plenty of time to look at the various shops of St Helena. I saw that I could buy some very cool and fancy outfits for my dog, if I wanted. I'd have to get a dog first, I suppose. I saw a restaurant that looked like what a Hollywood producer's stylized image of a rural California lunch counter should have looked like circa 1972. It looked good.
And then, finally, Bale Grist Mill Road. We began to climb and immediately we left the tourist world behind for this one lane country road.
Stony Hill Winery was created when Fred and Eleanor McCrea bought this land in 1943. They planted Chardonnay grapes in 1947 and offered their first wines to friends in 1952. The vines are a lot older now, younger McCreas run the place, there is some new equipment and the barrels turn over, but not a whole lot else has changed. Obviously this in itself says nothing about the quality of Stony Hill wine, but it happens that Fred and Eleanor got it right in the first place. The vineyard plots are mostly exposed to the east, and are on hills with natural springs running underneath - this is how they avoid having to irrigate in the intense heat and dry Napa summers. They ferment and age their Chardonnay in old neutral wood, preferring to highlight the natural aromas and flavors of their grapes, and they avoid malolactic fermentation, preserving the intensity of the acidity in their grapes. People who know about Stony Hill have for decades prized their Chardonnay for its purity and grace, its unadorned intensity and complexity, and have appreciated its ability to improve with time in the cellar.
Inside the barrel room we sampled the new Chardonnay vintage, the 2012. Sarah said it was a great year for Stony Hill, as opposed to 2011, which was very hard for everyone in the Napa Valley. 2012 produced balanced wines that show the typical Stony Hill intensity and purity, she said. If the barrel sample I tasted is representative, I wholeheartedly agree. The wine was fragrant and intense with fruit and rock and left a lingering spicy and almost grassy taste after swallowing.
I have been drinking Stony Hill wines, when I can find them, for a few years now. I love the Chardonnay because it is delicious and unadorned and it seems to me that it expresses the greatest aspects of Napa Valley terroir. It is rich and intense - this is a hot place. But it is also acidic and finessed - Stony Hill vineyards are 600 feet above the valley floor. I asked Sarah why her family chose to plant Chardonnay instead of Cabernet, the more popular grape.
"At the time we first planted Stony Hill, no one had really given much thought to where certain grapes should be planted," Sarah's father wrote in an email. "My father just planted what he liked, which was Chardonnay, and three other varieties that U.C. Davis suggested - Pinot Blanc, White Riesling (then known as Johannesburg Riesling), and Gewurztraminer. It turned out that because of the eastern exposure the property was ideally suited for growing white grapes. By the time we needed to replant the vineyard, we had already become quite famous for our white wines, so changing to reds didn't make much sense. It is worth noting that our new Cabernet comes from a relatively new vineyard that has a western exposure that is more suitable for growing red grapes."
If you visit Stony Hill you will not taste old vintages, it's not that kind of place. You will taste whatever is current, whatever they still have in stock. And as fun as it is to taste the wines, the viscerally moving aspect of the visit is walking the vineyards with Sarah, Milo, and whoever you came with, experiencing this place high in the hills.
Tasting these wines I could feel how different they are from the typical Napa wine. These are made to showcase the juice from the grapes grown on their hillside vines, and the soils they come from. Nothing more, nothing less. Now that I've seen the gorgeous setting where these wines are grown and made, I feel like I have a richer understanding of why these wines smell and taste the way they do. And the prices are quite reasonable - current release Chardonnay shouldn't cost more than $45. I think of Stony Hill Chardonnay as the best wine, dollar for dollar, that's made in the US, but take that with a grain of salt, as I have less experience with California wine than some who are better qualified to make such a statement.