Saturday, December 31, 2005

Meat: Cured: Salumi Artisan Cured Meats

The short version of my introduction to the cured meats of Armandino Batali would describe an impulsive mid-week trip to Napa just as the most significant flooding of the last several years was beginning to get underway. As I've no editor though, I can provide some additional color.

After several years of trying to keep up with our daily subscription to the New York Times, we pared back to weekend delivery about a year ago. Most of the time this works out just fine, but I broke down on Wednesday this week and dropped four quarters into the NYT box down on Lakeshore Avenue. The Dining Out section was a love letter to certain of my interests, with multiple articles about Napa, including Blue-Collar Napa Joins the Gold Rush.

On the strength of the articles comments on Pilar, we made a 7:30 reservation for dinner the next day. The food there was good. Curiously plump and moist mussels with a chorizo broth were a revelation. In anticipation of seasonal excess we'd elected to make a night of it, and booked a room at a local hotel offering terraces with a view of the meandering Napa River. After dinner, we watched as local officials told concerned meteorolgists that they were very concerned about a series of approaching storms (as I write this, residents of Napa are being asked to seek shelter and to avoid downtown in particular).

By the time we made it to Dean and Deluca the next afternoon, sections of Highway 29 had already flooded. Getting into the parking lot meant crossing through a twelve inch deep puddle just as the rain started to pickup. I made a beeline for the cured meat counter and two items immedaitely got my attention.

They were the Cinnamon Pancetta and Mole Salami of Salumi Artisan Cured Meats. For good measure I picked up a Salumeria Biellese Wild Board Cacciatorini and a quarter pound of their prosciutto, but the idea of the flavors in the other two meats stayed on my mind for the duration of the hour-plus long ride home. The mole salami had an assist, as my wife and I had a slice each at the standing room only tables at the back of the store.

The meats are produced by Armandino Batali, the father of Mario Batali, at his shop and restaurant in Seattle, Washington. The Salumi website has an informative newsletter of sorts that offers great detail on little known meats like Culatello. Regular readers (I think there are at least two of you) probably know that I'm down with Mario cause. My wife and I loved our meal at Babbo, and I thoroughly expect us to take a trip back to NYC so that we can check out Dave Pasternak's food at Esca.

It would be easy to dismiss the interest in these salumi as a function of the industry that Mario Batali has become, it would also be a mistake. Any perpetuation of the cured meat tradition of Italy is something to support, and these flavor combinations make an immediate kind of sense. The cinnamon pancetta has a savory depth that grounds the bright salt flavors that permeate the meats' fat. The spices in the mole salami accomplish a similar result.

You can order both directly from Salumi.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Wine: Vinography: Trying To Pin Down an Apellation's Flavors

A post to Vinography today describes a 40 bottle tasting of Dry Creek Valley zinfandels. The express purpose of the tasting was to establish what Dry Creek on the whole tastes like. This got my attention because the Dry Creek Valley is just about the only American wine growing region that I have had a sense of tasting a particular way. Namely, like cherries.

I've mentioned this before in relation to two wines in particular — a 1996 Peterson Winery Zinfandel and the 2002 Somers Ranch Zinfandel. The Dry Creek Vineyards folks prefer to describe the fruit as pomegranate, which has an attractive specificity but seems a little willful.

It would be tempting to say that Paso Robles also has a distinctive terroir, if pressed though I could only describe wines from the area as characteristically huge and high in alcohol content. Which isn't to say that Dry Creek doesn't have it's fair share of full-bodied and 15+ percent wines. We had one from Hop Kiln last month that gave the well known Rosenblum Rockpile Road a run for it's money. Both also evoke cherry.

Still... regardless of my sense that wines from Dry Creek Valley taste a particular way, an attempt to isolate the characteristic taste derived from that place in particular seems almost necessarily quixotic. The idiosyncractic sensibilities of the wine makers are part of what make Dry Creek so attractive in comparison to Napa.

I have never heard of an effort to isolate the taste unique to wines from Napa. What I do tend to hear when people describe cabernet from Napa, is how characteristic a given wine is with relation to some groupthink archetype of the varietal. I believe a tremendous effort goes in to ensuring that this is so, and it was never more clear to me than during a visit to Cakebread Cellars.

After years of steering clear of the larger wineries of Napa and Sonoma, we took a tour of Cakebread after spending a week in and around Anderson Valley. Our guide described an elaborate system of sensors planted among the roots of each head vine in the vineyard. Any fluctatuation in the precise moisture and mineral content of the soil of a given head vine triggered an actual alarm in the wine maker's home. The financial stakes that encourage this sort of approach to viticulture are clear enough, but the end result is almost necessarily increased homogenization - precisely the opposite of terroir.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Food: Holidays: Christmas Dinner

Actually able to pre-post about the meal we'll be putting on tonight, which means I've an opportunity to let you in on one of the dirtier secrets here at Consumptive HQ. Many of the photos of dishes which have shown up here over the months are actually shot the day after they have been served. Leftovers, alas.

This has everything to do with my uncanny ability to underestimate just how much time will be required to pull off a five course meal for eight, or a four course meal for sixteen. Pre-posting though means that we've been cooking off and on for three days, and even now my wife is removing brussel sprouts from a stalk.

Here's the menu:

· Lilet with Key Lime Twist
· Local lettuces with pomegranate (seeds & vinaigrette) and a single walnut
· Spicy tamales of Moscovy Mallard served with a Cilantro sauce
· Roast Beast et al. - Goose, Stuffing, Brussel Sprouts, and Roast Fennel.
· Four cookies for your delectation
· Buche du Noel with Meringue Mushrooms, a la Jacques Pepin

With the house being new to us, and our not knowing exactly where we'll be putting everyone or what they'll be sitting on, my comfort level is not crushingly high. but we're t-minus six hours from having to throw down. So now, we wait.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Wine: Syrah: Alban Vineyards: Pandora 2001

I picked this bottle up about 9 months ago over at Paul Marcus, and we've been meaning to drink it for a few weeks now. We knew what we were getting into. I'd fallen for the creative bottling a couple of years ago on the way to a friends' Thanksgiving dinner. The cork is sealed in bright red wax, the label is evocative of a Haight-Ashbury magic carpet ride, and the base of the bottle is as agressively tapered as the neck is long. It's a stand out and a crowd pleaser, though you may find as I did that sharing such a bottle with a crowd can leave you wanting for more.

The label et al. are particularly arresting because the more widely available wines produced by John Alban are already fairly striking. Uniformly heavy, with a stylized grape vine motif that makes me want to rethink my ambivalence toward the word classy.

Pandora is a small production blend of Syrah and Grenache. The percentages vary from year to year, but production holds steady at 200 cases. The wine hits the dominant strains of various cult favorites. It's exceedingly high in alcohol, coming in at 15.9%. A few bottles I can think of top this number (The Jackass Hill Zin, at over 18 percent for instance), but at 15+ percent the Pandora packs a wallop. The wine is dominated by dark berry fruit and spice, but manages to pull in some of the flint and earth that I've come to associate with other Alban Vineyards wines. Not as much flint as some, but it's certainly there.

We drank about two thirds of this bottle with some Buffalo Osso Bucco, and then proceeded to try and assemble our buche du noel to comic effect. I would realize the next morning that I had freewheeled my way through techniques 228 and 229 in Jacques Pepin Techniques unintentionally concocting a recipe on the fly. Magic carpet ride indeed.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Fruit: Lemons: Meyer

Meyer lemons are a bay area staple; all over recipes in cook books from Chez Panisse and the restuarants of Chez Panisse alums. It is easiest to describe the flavor of these lemons in relation to more familiar varieties. They are less tart, less brightly acidic, have a thinner skin, and are more sweet.

According to the Splendid Table, the lemon variety was introduced to California in 1908 by Frank Meyer, a "plant explorer" for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Peak season in most areas is November, December, and January, but can extend to April.

As they ripen, the yellow skin of Meyer lemons becomes more golden, even slightly orange. Scientists speculate that the lemon is actually a hybrid of lemon and oranges, possibly mandarins. The Splendid Table maintains they were found growing near Peking. Four Winds suggests that the species was used decoratively in door ways - of course they also describe the flavor as mystical.

Similar to my sense of Fuji apples, I maintain that experience of eating a Meyer lemon has less to do with it being exceptionally sweet than it does a depth of taste and flavor that borders on savory.

A woman I work with brought these lemons into the office. At the time they were bright yellow, and the skin felt thicker than I was accustomed to. I speculated that they might be Lisbon lemons, and over the course of a day squirreled away six of them.

Vegetables: Cylindra Beets

Picked these up at the Grand Lake Farmers' Market
today, where the folks at Tip Top Farms described them as "Italian Beets". Googling for Italian beets mostly returns results on chioggas. So, to some extent I am speculating that these are cylindras because, well, they appear to be cylindrical.

My childhood experience with beets was limited to the canned variety. I disliked them. Apparently beets still have a bad rap though. As a result, seed hawkers resort to the nutrition pitch:
Double duty crop. Beets return double your money – the roots are delicious and nutritious, while the greens are edible and attractive.
When you are hawking seeds for an unusually shaped beet, still and yet more inventiveness is required:
Elongated 6-8 in. beets, with more uniform slices than round types.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Food Writing: Criticism: To the Moon, Alice?

About a month ago Daniel Patterson published an article in the Sunday New York Times. If you have a NYT account, you can still read the article "To the Moon, Alice?" here.

You may be asking yourself if you are about to read a spirited rebuttal of some month old piece of food writing. Alternatively, you may be asking if there will be any photos in this post.


D.Patterson's article asserts that the food stylings of Chez Panisse have had a tremendously limiting effect on restaurant cooking here in the bay area. He is focused on this assertion:
Today, there are two points on which most people seem to agree. The first is that the majority of the food in the Bay Area is delicious; the second is that it is not very innovative.
The tremendously frustrating thing about the article isn't this assertion (which in addition to being wrong is small of both mind and heart), but how the author manages to undermine it by tossing around oddly out of whack observations about our local food scene while failing in anyway to support his argument.

Let's take a look at some of those observations...
1. Delfina, Quince, A-16, and Pizzaiolo are highly regarded.
I contend that Delfina, Quince, A-16 and Pizzaiolo are not "highly regarded" but rather popular. My overwhelmingly neutral view on Pizzaiolo in particular, is somewhat established.

2. Zuni & Oliveto Are A Lot Like Chez Panisse
Very few people are given the forum that Daniel Patterson was afforded by dint of his successful run at Frisson; an actual shot at NYT ink. To squander any portion of this opportunity to say something meaningful about food, by taking the time to observe that two chefs who were themselves influential in defining what we think of as the Chez Panisse sensibility, have gone on to cook food that evokes the same sensibility is just wrong.

3. The Slanted Door is Too Chez Panisse-Like
To be fair, Patterson makes an almost off-hand comment that even The Slanted Door owed something to Alice Waters' vision. Tough not to imply a note of disdain for ethnic food in this one. I wish everyone stuffed my spring rolls with organic greens.
Instead of dishing out smack on local restaurants that are known quantities, Patterson could have discussed what actually constitutes innovation. He could have sought it out, rather than implying that it oughta be where it is in fact more or less beside the point.

Or, more basically, I don't want Alice Waters, Paul Bertolli, Judy Rogers, or their current crop of chefs to make me a foam.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Book: Original Tastes

I've begun discussing an idea with my wife about original tastes in food. It first occurred to me when I took photos of Arizmendi Sourdough Beer Rye back in October, particularly the one at left. In brief, the idea is that mass produced foods deliberately evoke certain attributes of what cultures once recognized as intrinsic to a specific foodstuff, in the absence of the domestic and commercial practices that established these original attributes though the evocation has replaced the source material.

Now, this is plainly not a new idea. But unlike cultural fields where it would be passe to even address the ubiquity and ubiquitous consumption of a knock-off --fashion comes to mind-- I haven't seen it addressed with food.

Also, whereas the fashion industry has a top-down influence on the clothes we wear, food has a bottom-up influence on what corporations produce. There are lots of examples of this kind of bottom-up influence (McDonald's going green, grocery chains embracing organic, etc.), but I'll save lengthy discussion of those for another post. Bear in mind though that all of these choices are about opportunities to make more money.

Still, with fashion detail-for-detail replication is the point of commoditization. And this is if anything the opposite concern of something like Walter Benjamin's essay The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. With mass produced food, reduction of the complexity of tastes and textures to a low --if not lowest-- common demoniator seems to be the point.

There is a corollary to this idea that has to do with what I described as "vegetable terroir" in my first post on Wild Boar tomatoes. We are generally reluctant to consider food in terms that we reserve for other cultural products. This even relates to terms that are used for wine, like terroir. I talk about food a lot, with people who enjoy food a lot, and I have never been asked for my views or been offered a view of whether I prefer tomatoes from one part of the state over another.

I have had discussions with people about efforts like the Slow Food Ark of Tastes. These discussions are born largely out of food discoveries, like the arrival in my life this year of Bronx Grapes.

Hopefully lots to chew on here, but I'll stake out grounds for future discussion with this closing argument:

While any discussion of the corporate sponsored erosion of idiosyncratic values and attributes is necessarily involved in a larger debate about globalism, and is also necessarily political, I think we can agree though that a really good tomato is a really good tomato. That a lot of people will probably never get to eat one, and that it is for lack of a better word somewhat un-American to not want to at least ensure that they have an opportunity to consciously decide whether or not to.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Wine: Zinfandel: Chez Panisse Zinfandel Week

About five years ago, we began having dinner with four friends at Chez Panisse each year during Zinfandel Week - the event usually falls during the second or third week of December. Zinfandel from coveted vintages (1994 and 1997) and a few cult wines (Martinelli Jackass Hill, Turley Wine Cellars Black Sears Vineyard) find their way on to the list.

The reasonable prices these wines are offered at, along with the high alcohol content the varietal tends to pack, have led to some memorable evenings about which very little is actually remembered. My personal favorite involving a stomach-clutching after dinner tour of the all too fragrant prosciutto room.

This year though travel plans and the birth of a baby boy took two couples out of the mix for most of the week. Luckily, our travelling friends --who happen to work at the restaurant-- made it back to the bay area in time to secure 5 half-bottles of wine from the list. Here, in the order we drank them, was the line-up:

1999 Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Napa Valley, Mayacamas Range
1997 Sky Vineyards, Napa Valley, Mt. Veeder
1997 Franus, Napa valley, Mt. Veeder
1996 Peterson Winery, Dry Creek Valley
1997 Ridge Vineyards, Geyserville

Grapes for the first three wines were all harvested from moutain (that is, not valley floor) vineyards, and at least two were dry farmed. We expected these similarities to play out more assertively across the wines than they eventually did.

The Storybook had some characteristic plum & dark cherry fruit, was medium-bodied, and there was also another dark element to it which we identified variously as tobacco, leather, or dust. In comparison the Sky was considerably brighter, this expressed itself in both the fruit and acid - so lively that it seemed almost effervescent. The Franus was elegant by comparison. The color and body were more akin to the Storybook. Softer almost velvety mouth feel, and cabernet-like earth and spice. This wine was from the Brandlin vineyard on Mt. Veeder, and the Franus website offers a good description of the vineyard and wines.

On a side note, I have opted to not select wine from Franus on more that one occasion because of a deep and abiding label-hate. Imagine my considerable joy at seeing the flash movie on their homepage depicting the old label being literally fragmented by an oh-so helpful rebranding effort.

The Peterson had the bright cherry flavors that I tend to associate with Dry Creek wines. This taste range isn't a favorite of mine, but the intensity of flavor and sheer depth of Dry Creek wines always win me over.

Ultimately we made it to the Peterson Winery bottle, but not the Geyserville. Full of wine and full of beef bourgogne and garlic mashed potatoes.

Stopping after two bottles worth of wine prompted a round of serious self-examination. Though I suspect our host may have been acting on behalf of the bottle, which by all accounts was one of the better california wines of the 1997 vinatge. I hear it is scheduled to make an appearance at our Christmas dinner later this month.