Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Grape: From Soil to Sip

This past Saturday, the last of September, was a great day for getting into the wine spirit. I started by trekking up into the Santa Monica Mountains early that morning to visit the vineyard of a local winemaker, someone who actually grows wine grapes within Los Angeles proper. I’m discovering that, as it turns out, a number of people do.

The angle of various aspects of the mountains to the sun and their proximity to the ocean create varied micro climates which produce an array of wines in a relatively small area. Backyard vintners are beginning to craft wines that, while not on the production scale of the big boys in the outlying areas and upstate, are artfully done and quite special. And, truthfully, these people are not interested in competing with the big boys. This is an enterprise of love.

Cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapevines hugged the steep mountainside as the sun bore down on them--and on us--with the intensity of a summer reluctant to depart. The grapes we sampled were sweet and juicy and filled with the more complex flavors of grapes that are NOT intended for juice production. Our host instructed us to press the grapes in our mouths with our tongues and push the seeds to the side. After we'd savored the grapes, he told us to bite into the seeds themselves to register their bitterness on the sides of the tongue. Adequate bitterness and astringency in the seeds, he explained, are the real indicators of whether the grapes are ready to harvest. They still had just a bit of time to go before picking, he said.

Peek-a-boo! Netting over the grapes prevents birds and most bees from getting to the fruit, while allowing the sun, soil and vine to work their magic.

Row upon row of these veiled vines have a wacky hillside-full-of-Miss-Havishams look about them.

This was an admire-the-vines visit, not a tasting visit. I'd mentioned to one of my fellow visitors, Susan, that Andy and I planned to do some wine tasting that afternoon. She immediately suggested Palate, a new restaurant in Glendale. It turns out her husband Octavio is the chef/principal. By the time Andy and I arrived at the door a couple of hours later, he and wine director Steve were waiting for us!

Palate is not just a restaurant, not just a wine bar and not just a wine store. It's all of the above, along with wine storage facilities and even a food and wine library!

It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and we had the wine bar to ourselves, as most people converge on the place at dinnertime. Steve, who is filled with equal parts wine knowledge and wine passion, clued us in on the pedigrees of the wines we sampled and later selected to carry home.

Andy & I appreciate a wine bar where you can consider the offerings on the chalkboard while you're sipping and sampling.

We spent a pleasant couple of hours sampling their wines, which were all appealing, decidedly eclectic--and affordable!--and munching on a variety of artisanal cheeses, salumi, Berkshire pork rillettes, delicately pickled vegetables and homemade butter. (If you've never given butter a second thought, just go looking for the good stuff. You won't want to bother with smearing it on bread--you'll want to eat it right off the plate with your fingers!)

Homemade butter, homemade bread . . .

Pork rillettes, pickled onions and pickled lemon cucumber, backed up with buttered, toasted bread sliced so thinly that it seemed to have only one side!

These guys even feature lardo on their charcuterie plate.
Why would anyone ever trim away the fat--except to showcase it like this!

Chef Gary Menes stopped by with an armload of salumi for his appreciative audience. We ooh'd and aah'd respectfully as thinly-shaved slices of porky heaven melted on our tongues. (Sorry! I'll try not to wade so deeply into Ruth Reichl's food porn territory!)

Chef Gary and enough spicy, cured pork
to keep L.A.'s food enthusiasts purring for awhile.

After sipping and sampling and chatting with Steve, Octavio and Gary, we made our wine purchases, and then trundled home for our postprandial snooze. We didn't eat anything the rest of the day. We didn't need to, as we were quite satisfied with the quality and quantity of our midday meal.

From grapevine to wine stem, it was a good day to be a wine lover.

P.S. I spotted a bucket of wine corks sitting on a window ledge and had to shoot a couple of pix. This is the new desktop photo on my computer.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cookbooks Are Great History Texts

Today I had the pleasure of examining some cookbooks from the 1800s through 1904, all newly purchased by the Culinary Historians of Southern California for donation to the Los Angeles Public Library's cookbook section.

Cookbooks of any era are marvelous eyepieces for glimpsing into a particular time and place and for gathering clues about how people lived, cooked and ate. I'm glad I had the presence of mind to shoot a few photos of what was in front of me--I just wish I'd taken more. These books are treasures, not just for their recipes, but because they provide a unique form of time travel.

Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen, published in 1873, was written by a woman whose name we do not know. Identified as Mrs. B.C. Howard, we are only sure who she married. Some of the recipes are quite simple, as in the instructions for roasting pheasant: Roast the pheasant the same way you do a chicken. The implication is that everyone already knows how to roast a chicken, an assumption you can't make today.

Other recipes are for dishes you just don't see on menus and in cookbooks nowadays, as in "Veal Bewitched":

The recipe notes that veal bewitched tastes like boned turkey. These days turkey costs much less than veal, so during the time in which this book was written, veal must have been the bargain meat, and this description would have encouraged cooks to give the dish a try. Speaking of things you won't find in a menu or a cookbook these days, the words "meat" and "jelly" seldom appear on the same page, much less in the same phrase.

The 1904
Blue Grass Cook Book by Minnie C. Fox (well, this is a step in the right direction, as there's no indicator this time of marital status) includes a collection of photos, not of particular dishes or ingredients or even kitchens. No, throughout the book are photos like this one:

I doubt it was the author's intent to make us all cringe while looking through her cookbook (she probably never envisioned someone from 2008 even finding it). But it's difficult not to, when you see images like this with captions like this. I have to keep reminding myself that this is simply the way it was then. This is history preserved for our consideration.

Her recipes include instructions that few home cooks have to follow anymore: "Kill your hogs when the wind is from the northwest." If you are unsure about how to cook your ham, on account of its age, you're instructed: "Never bake a ham under a year old." If it's an old one, you're instructed: "Scrub well and soak an old ham in plenty of water for 48 hours."

It includes instructions for opening and dressing a terrapin. How many people today even know what a terrapin is without googling it? (And how many people 104 years from now will know what "googling" means in this dusty old blog that somehow has survived?)

By the way, I just love the author's name, Minnie Fox. Wonder if she was petite, with red hair, pointy features and a fondness for barnyard fowl?

One particularly rare and valuable cookbook was set down by hand in a most beautiful pen. No one writes like this anymore:

I'm guessing Esther made an A in penmanship.

This cookbook is in two volumes, one of which includes an index of recipes. I'd say our scribe had a thing for organization. Unfortunately, I can't read Spanish, beyond the rudimentary (abierto, cerado, baños), so I must leave the secrets of history locked in her recipes for someone else to discover.

I began this line of thought back in the summer with a blog that mentioned my 1930s New Orleans cookbook. Makes me want to revisit it (if you're interested, take a look at my blog of July 30, 2008, "Hand-Wringing Over Neck-Wringing"). There's a world of New Orleans history inside that tiny tome on cooking, just as there's a world of history inside most every cookbook.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Backyard Treasure Chest: avocados are my emeralds

The few, the proud, the un-nibbled . . .

I’m in my free-food excitement mode again. Well, yes, technically we paid for the avocado tree when we bought the house, but since it isn't a Haas, I've never given its yield much respect or much thought. Also, most of the avocados have bites missing, courtesy of the squirrels who nibble-and-toss, nibble-and-toss, leaving the ground covered with avocados every day and making the territory under the tree a hardhat zone. (I’ve been conked on the noggy before by an avocado-chucking squirrel, and believe me, it HURTS!)

I’m thrifty, but you have to draw the line somewhere. I will NOT carve off the squirrel gnawings and eat the rest! The idea of squirrel cooties just doesn't sit well with my appetite.

It irks me to have to throw away so many avocados. So if I find any on the ground that have dropped of their own accord and have no bites missing, I grab them up and trot inside with them. Since I can gather so few for our own use (occasionally I manage pull one off a low branch with the edge of the hoe), it's as if they're a wild plant that I've happened to run across. And if you’ve been following my blog, you know that I also get excited about harvesting and eating things like nettles, dandelions and chickweed that grow wild in my yard.

Okay students, let's review: the young dandelion and the chickweed just starting to grow in and among these chives are as important to me as the chives themselves.

I recently found a book on avocados and ID'd the type that of tree grows in our yard. It's the fuerte, so named because of its vigorous nature. It turns out that you really can do a lot with this variety. The book even suggests roasting, which I’ll have to try.

Considering how expensive avocados are, and increasingly so in this economy, I'm going to have to develop a taste for our variety. It's nice not having to drop lots of green on this quite pricey green.

Hmm, let's see, dips, shakes, soups,
sandwich filling, salad ingredient, omelet topping . . . This could involve more avocados than I can rescue from the greedy little paws of the squirrels we collectively call Chunky. Perhaps squirrel stew with an avocado garnish? . . .

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sandwich Thieves Beware!

A quick note:

Check out this clever new way to protect your lunch from thieves. The Anti-Theft Lunch Bag
is a great idea for throwing off those with sticky fingers who might be inclined to steal your lunch. One look and they'll move on to someone else's stash in the fridge at work.

Funnier and more legal than rat poison.

Bravo to the creator of this one!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

WWGE? (What Would Granny Eat?)

"Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize."

This is one of Michael Pollan's primary tenets in The Omnivore's Dilemma that help cut through all the confusion about which foods to eat and which to avoid.

Traditionally this has been sound advice. If you ate something in my maternal grandmother's kitchen, she'd made it. In my paternal grandmother's kitchen, about the only food you'd find that she hadn't made was ice cream, so this advice holds pretty well for me.

But how about people who were kids in the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, the 00s? Problem is, we've had enough years of fast food and junk food that these days grandmother and great-grandmother most likely recognize all sorts of unhealthy pseudo food options and possibly feed them to their grand kids. Life's busy, and fast food's convenient. It fills the hollow spot, but at what cost? How many things do we spend time on that are actually more important than taking good care of ourselves and our families?

Now that granny knows her Ho Hos, her Ring Dings and her Yoo-hoos, it's becoming ever more crucial that we follow the advice of nutritionist and molecular biologist Marion Nestle in her book What to Eat, and shop only around the periphery of the grocery, where the fresh produce, meat, dairy products and eggs are. These are all things that even a modern, multitasking granny would recognize. Well, I'm from rural Tennessee, so maybe not the starfruit or the ostrich steaks. But you get the idea.

I admit it, I love Cheetos, but a small bag every now and then is not the same as supplementing a meal with them on a regular basis. Who decided that a sandwich had to have chips next to it to make a meal? Whatever happened to carrot sticks? or even a pickle?

If you have to ease into wiser food choices, that's better than not doing it at all. So if you're stuck on your machine-extruded faux cheese slices wrapped in cellophane (which no cow would ever own to having helped produce), at least snuggle them into a couple of pieces of whole wheat bread with some lettuce and tomato. That's not so very difficult. Next time you might even get adventurous and find yourself some real cheese. And guess what? It will taste worlds better than that stuff you used to eat.

Real food for real people. How about it?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Uses For Overripe Tomatoes, part 2

While rummaging about in the fridge for the makings of today's lunch, I found a way-past-its-prime tomato hiding in the bottom of the veggie bin. Not moldy and unsafe, just soft and a bit leaky. It was one I'd gotten from my friend, Ann, who lives in a community where they compost to beat the band and grow an amazing garden full of great vegetables, including some intensely flavorful tomatoes. What it was doing in there I'm not sure, since I don't usually refrigerate tomatoes--that environment is tough on them.
Rather than toss out the sad specimen of my neglect, I puréed it on the grater and used it as the base for a salad dressing. I whisked in some banyuls, a splash of garum, some chopped shallot, salt, pepper and olive oil. Of course, this is completely open to interpretation--it would still be good with sherry vinegar or balsamic, a bit of anchovy paste, a touch of dijon, maybe even the yolk of a boiled egg and some smoked salt.

When there's a really good tomato at stake, why toss it out? It's loaded with flavor, and that would be a pity to waste. Using a grater is the way to go with this, because it's a quick, easy clean up, and since you're not mechanically puréeing the tomato, you don't have to worry about the bitterness of its seeds. And the skin stays in your hand while the flesh goes into the dish beneath the grater.

The tomato dressing was great on my salad, and I mopped up the remaining juices with a piece of crusty bread. I just can't let any of the good stuff go to waste.

As much as I appreciate the anarchy of the occasional food fight, I've never understood what takes over people in Bunol, Spain, who annually engage in a citywide tomato tossing frenzy. I'd rather fling something I'm not so crazy about (I once accidentally instigated a food fight in my college cafeteria when I chucked a dish of fried okra at someone, but that story's for another time.)

It would be okay by me if the tomatoes they throw in Bunol's "Tomatina" were of the hothouse variety. However, I have a feeling that if I were to blow into town during that event, I'd be mopping the streets with loaves of bread. And I'll bet that if the citizenry of Bunol were ever forced to eat hothouse tomatoes, that's the only type they'd ever throw.

Canning tomatoes is good, but could you canonize one?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Slow Food Nation in Retrospect

I attended Slow Food Nation in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend and am still processing the experience. I belong to Slow Food but have had a love-hate relationship with it all along. Love its great intentions but strongly dislike (perhaps hate is too strong a word) the self-importance I perceive in of much of its hierarchy.

My impressions from the weekend? There's more to love than to hate, as there typically is with most things in life. I was glad to find such an array of people interested in the work of Slow Food--not just food professionals and not just the wealthy. I was surrounded by everyday people who appreciate good food and who realize that you won't find it in a fast food restaurant or in the local mega-grocery with its canyons of processed, oversalted, oversugared, partially-hydrogenated, artificially colored and high-fructose-corn-syrup-injected body rotting tastelessness. (But tell me, Carol, how do you REALLY feel?)

We talked about and explored good food, from how to grow it, make it, prepare it and enjoy it, to how to teach kids about it, push for legislation to ensure it and make it available to everyone.

I met some really inspiring people. Among them: a young man who works as an engineer but who enjoys curing meats in his free time. He makes his own pancetta, bacon and the like, in his tiny apartment. He says they taste vastly better than what the grocery offers and cost a fraction of what the grocery charges. And I met a woman who tired of a career in information technology, so she's opening a gourmet store in a rather smallish town in the Midwest. I found similar stories again and again.

It amazes me how many professionals decide at some point to ditch their careers and plunge into some aspect of food. Perhaps it's more than the desire to eat something tasty and healthy. Perhaps they crave the social aspects of it and the goodwill you generate when you share good food with others. I don't know. But I DO know that that works for me.
Slow Food Nation's Taste Pavilion, along with workshops and author readings, took place at Fort Mason on San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

In the end, I appreciate that Slow Food provides an outlet for learning about and sharing responsibly produced food. Decent food shouldn't be exclusive or out of reach for anyone. And insofar as Slow Food is able to chip away at the problems in providing an adequate, safe, nutritional food supply for all, I'm on board.