Sunday, January 29, 2006

Market Recap: 2006: Week 03

The Market Recap went MIA last week, lost in the volley of posts on various things orange. After a skeptical week one though, I think I'm beginning to find my winter market groove. This is due in no small part to the leafy greens of two nice guys who recently began attending the Grand Lake Farmers' Market. I missed the name of their farm, but was all over their various Chicories. Good thing too, they indicated that they wouldn't be available much longer.

The week before I'd picked up some White Peacock Kale and didn't even really know what it was. I stumbled on the answer at Market Hall Produce where they were selling Red Peackock Kale.

Another highlight of the Market these days is the Prather Ranch stand. Yesterday we went with a chuck roast that, just as promised, turned into butter after a 3 hour braise. The broth from this braise is one of the most intensely flavored I've managed. The week before we'd brought home some vitellone they re-sell, it's a kind of red veal produced by Knee Deep Cattle Ranch up in Oregon. Milk-fed and free range for a period of one year before slaughter.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Fruit: Mandarin: Kishu

Given my reluctance to add an entry on satsumas, you may be wondering exactly what the hell gives with all of these citrus posts. To be fair, I was prompted in part by a post over at feed and supply, but what really got me going was the graphic at left from the Churchill Orchards' website.

This sort of thing has the effect on me that a ribald dare does on a drunken frat boy; there's no way I'm not gonna try to eat all of these types of citrus.

So, it was with considerable happiness that I discovered Churchill Orchard Kishus and Cocktail Pomellos in abundant supply at Market Hall Produce. After yesterday's trip to the farmers' market, we were already 3 bowls deep in tangerines. I couldn't resist though.

Looks like the Churchill M.O. is to hybridize tangerine and other citrus varieties until something works. The result in the case of the kishu is a very small and seedless fruit that is tremendously easy to peel. The single most distinct aspect of Kishu taste is its sweetness. While I prefer the intense citrus flavor of Page Tangerines, there's no denying the sheer eat-ability of kishus.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Fruit: Mandarin: Satsuma

I've been meaning to post on satsuma's (Citrus reticulata) for a while now. The "first tangerine of the season" arrived at the Grand Lake Farmers' Market before the holidays. But this year there's a lot going on in the world of satsumas. Apaprently the area around New Orleans is a major supplier of the fruit, and the trees in that region were hit hard by Hurrricane Katrina. I would be remiss to write about the fruit and not this event, and doing so would seemingly require mention of the efforts of the Slow Food people to help rescue samples of these fruits.

Despite what you might think, I'm skeptical of the Slow Foods movement for reasons that are at once political and deeply engrained psychologically(1). These feelings become further complicated when folks that might otherwise be helping individuals who were effected by the hurricane wax urgently and poetically about saving fruit trees. I say these things while absolutely accepting that this may all be for the good of actual satsuma farmers on the ground in and around New Orleans.

This sort of deliberation is one of the things I've been trying to keep to a minimum here, and not seeing any way around it has prevented me from describing this easily peeled and segmented fruit for weeks. Here's the historical skinny, cribbed more or less directly from the Slow Foods site:
The name "Satsuma" is credited to the wife of a U.S. Minister to Japan, General Van Valkenburg, who sent trees home in 1878 from Satsuma, the name of a former province, now Kagoshima Prefecture, on the southern tip of Kyushu Island. During the period 1908-1911, approximately a million "Owari" Satsuma trees were imported from Japan and planted throughout the lower Gulf Coast states from Florida to Texas.
I'm reasonably sure that the fruits in the first photo are from California's own San Joaquin Valley, by way of The Twin Girls Farms. Week in and week out, their satsumas have been the best available at the market. Brightly tart, pleasantly sweet, and rich in sheer citrus taste. They are also pleasingly pocked and blemished, slightly loose at the base of the neck, and about as ugly as they come. Regular readers will no doubt have established some time ago that I have a thing for blemished fruit.

(1) I have some kind of psychological blind spot with regards to the word "slow". Its connotations of sub par intelligence and a lack of speed constitute a 1-2 punch directed at my perception of myself as both learned and quick. Any analyst could tell you that this clearly also has something to with a rare genetic condition that afflicts my sister and has left her subject to unkind characterization as slow.

These issues are so front and center for me that I'd heard the phrase "Slow Food" several times before it even occurred to me that the phrase was a play on "Fast Food". From an entirely me-centric view of their movement, the only way these guys could have got it more wrong would be to have called it "Sloe Food". Sloe seeming to me like some perverse mutation of an already challenged descriptor.

Fruit: Tangerine: Page

We bought these at the Grand Lake Farmers' Market from the Lagier Ranch folks. The guy who works their booth right now is just astonishingly nice, and I'm a huge fan of their Bronx grapes, so I was disappointed to find that their satsumas were good but not great. It was with considerable happiness that I spied their Page Tangerines today, a bright orange that was visible from 20 or so feet away, providing an opportunity to spend some more money with the friendly guy.

Strictly speaking Page Tangerines are not, well, tangerines. Just what they are is up for debate:
The Churchill Orchard folks, describe them as a "tangor" - a tangerine and orange hybrid.

New Seasons Market (pdf) suggest that the parent varieties are the Clementine Mandarin and the Minneola Tangelo.

The University of Florida offers this deep dive: "While the Page (Figure 1) is considered an orange by some, it is actually a hybrid of Minneola tangelo and Clementine mandarin. Since Minneola is a grapefruit-tangerine hybrid, Page is actually 3/4 tangerine and 1/4 grapefruit. The cultivar was released in 1963 and came from a cross made in 1942 by Gardner and Bellows of the United States Department of Agriculture facility in Orlando."
I'm tempted to go with University of Florida, only they also describe the things as medium-thick skinned and relatively easy to peel. For my money, page tangerines are actually exceptionally thin-skinned and difficult to peel. The Lagier Ranches guy took pains to tell this to everyone who stopped by his stand.

Either way. the flesh of the fruit bears this hybridization out. It is intensely orange, and a good deal more densely juicy than satsumas.

Wine: McLaren Vale: Shiraz: Two Hands Angels Share 2004

My wine buying and drinking habits tend to keep me well north of the Equator. When I do head south, it's often for a wine from Chile or Argentina. This was the case even after our visit to the St. Chinian region of France, where a winemaker who'd apprenticed in South America indicated that one popular oaking method there was to throw chunks of wood into stainless steel vats. My few experiences with wine from Australia in general, and McLaren Vale in particular, have left memories of uncommonly huge, nearly thick, wines that were more sweet than I prefer. I'm also skeptical of the movement toward screw cap tops for red wine.

This bottle was a gift though, and after several years of sticking to my viticultural comfort zones I was eager to try it - screw cap and all. The ever-present Robert Parker reviewed the wine to the tune of 95 points. While he cited blackberry and cassis nose, the fruit had more of the dusty and muted quality of ripe blue berries for me. While the nose was complex, the mouthfeel and drinking experience were strictly crowd pleasing - massively full bodied and palpably sweet.

The packaging of the wine has been carefully considered, everything about the bottle suggests substantiality and darkness. "Two hands" are represented on the label in a variety of ways; debossed on the front, stamped in red on the back, and in the mildly moody main graphic as well.

Few wines offer so much for your consideration or dining table discussion at this price point. Less common geography, references to the wine makers idiom(1), sheer drinkability, pumped up alcohol content. attractive and detailed packaging, the screw-top controversy.

(1)This clause is itself a reference to the phrase "Angel's Share" - a poetic description of the evaporation that occurs during the wine making process. Tough to know how to handle this sort of thing. I suspect many folks who get this far in a review of a wine are probably familiar with the term, also it is described on the label. Even casually mentioning this sort of thing outside of a deliberately self-conscious foot note is obviously pulling an Alex Trebec. For the record, I was first introduced to it at Clos Pegase, which features a cupola of sorts over the bottling line that was included in the design of the building to "capture" the angel's share.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Cocktails: Martini: Seoul Train

I came late to the Martini; nursing a suspicious contempt for guys clutching the stems of their perilously proportioned glasses. The foundation of my contempt was a dislike for clear spirits. My weapon of choice in bars was scotch and soda, something I'd probably picked up from a movie. The decision was perversely validated for me every time I saw Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.

I would later learn than my disregard for clear spirits was actually a dislike for gin, and so began a years long commitment to the vodka martini. Many of my co-workers and, increasingly, my wife like their vodka martini's dirty. I find that the pungent and salty aromatics of quality olive brine disguise the alcoholic punch of my beloved Ketel One.

Over the recent holiday break, while shopping in Oakland's China Town, I was overwhelmed by a sudden need for Kim Chee. A few nights later I threw together a vodka martini and dirtied it up with some of the larger cabbage chunks from my jar of kim chee. I chumped out some and threw in a slice of Key Lime. Not necessary, the Seoul Train was born.

The vinegar in the kim chee performs a function similar to the salt in olive brine; the spiciness of the kim chee is akin to, say, a jalapeno stuffed olive. The photo above doesn't quite do it justice, the Seoul Train is in back after all. I'll upload another when the opportunity arises.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Wine: Zinfandel: Rafanelli Vineyards 2003

Unbeknownst to me, the 2003 vintage was troubled for Dry Creek Zinfandels. The first rumblings I heard about the difficulty were brought up by Alder Yarrow over at Vinography. He described a tasting of 2003 Dry Creek Zinfandels conducted by the Appelation America folks, where Dave Rafanelli was quoted as saying,"2003 magnified all the defects of the Zinfandel grape.”

When I dropped by Rafanelli on Mother's Day of this year though I was, like a good cultist, buying on faith. I took my allotment of three bottles and was happy to get them. I might have talked about the vintage with Dave but, just as he began signing a Terrace Select Cabernet I'd picked up, his daughter came by to let him know that someone had made off with his credit card number.

Difficult vintage aside, when I returned to the winery this past October there was no Zinfandel to be had. Part of what fuels the cult-like appreciation for these wines is their intensity and depth. Throw in their relatively small production, the low prices at which they are offered, and there you have it.

The 2003 Zinfandel is characteristically deep and intense. It also tastes of brighter red fruit than the last several vintages I've had, tastes slightly of raisin. The cummulative effect of all this is to suggest more lively acid, possibly increased alcohol.

After market retail prices for bottles of the wine have nearly doubled to about 60.00 per.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Restaurants: Berkeley: Gregoire

Most years when my birthday rolls around, I have a specific place in mind for dinner. This year my wife surprised me with a trip to Gregoire. The week before the big night I'd been fighting a cold, and as we piled into the car a steady rain was falling. If you've been to Gregoire, you may think this post will be a sad tale of failed expectations an damp card board boxes. Instead, in spite of some all too loud banter between one of the cooks and one of the diners, the night turned out to be a kind of perfect.

Gregoire occupies a small storefront on Cedar Avenue a block south of Cesar and Chez Panisse. Outside the restaurant there are two small tables (not quite 4 tops) and inside there are three bar stools - that's it. The focus at Gregoire is on "high end" take out, which is served up in hexagonal boxes lined with white and black checkered wax paper. For instance, tonight's dishes include:

- Stuffed semi boneless quails with foie gras, raspberry demi glaze.
- Baked Day Boat scallops on puff pastry, creamy bonito fish sauce.
- Sautéed Montana beef bavette, Dijon cream.
- Roast of curried pork tenderloin

A big part of each dish is the small container of sauce that comes with, usually aioli-based. Throw in potatoes prepared four different ways., the guilty pleasures abound.

As I mentioned in my last post, these boxes were a staple in our apartment when we lived in Berkeley. Shortly after moving to Oakland, I went with a friend to pick up take out. Gregoire greeted me enthusiastically enough that one friend, who'd been working his way up to regular status, expressed actual chagrin.

Over the years we'd seen groups of people eating at the restaurant a few times and, driving past, it seemed almost as spontaneous and nose thumbing as eating Cheese Board pizza in the median on Shattuck Avenue. And so we gave it a whirl.

They gave us paper cups for our wine, and we huddled under an awning as the rain fell. My steak was a bit tough, the potato puffs weren't quite as we remembered, but the bread pudding (with one slim candle) was dense and moist. One of the chefs chatted us up, shared our wine, and sang an improvised version of happy birthday that included numerous insults. All of which was kind of perfect.

He also said that their new spot on Piedmont Avenue would be much bigger, that they would have maybe six tables.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Coming and Going: Volume 01

It looks like the folks at Cesar will be opening a new set of doors on Piedmont Avenue, taking over the space that was previously occupied by Le Boulanger (4039 Piedmont Avenue). The Inside Scoop reported this a while back, but I heard the news first from a bay area restaurant veteran over Thanksgiving Dinner. A much cooler way, I think we'll all agree, to find out about such things.

While I'm a big fan of the signature Cesar Martini and also their Salt Cod, I was just as excited to find out that Gregoire --another North Berkeley mainstay-- is opening up a space on Piedmont. After opening his first location back in 2003, Gregoire Jacquet (the owner and chef) quickly became a neighborhood fixture. Handing out biscuits to passing dogs and barking French greetings to everyone who stopped by. When we lived around the corner, we ate there most weeks - maintaining a perilously tall stack of their stylish take-out boxes in the corner of our studio apartment.

I'm also curious to see what will come of the space on Lakeshore previously occupied by Albertsons. The liquidation sale at the Lakeshore Albertsons got underway on Christmas Eve, and seems to be just about done. Probably too much to hope for our own Market Hall on Lakeshore, though I've always thought the neighbohood was just one butcher away from being rock solid.

Speaking of butchers, I'm also hearing rumblings of a shake-up at Niman Ranch. A curious refusal to meet customer demand for festive cuts of cow and lamb over the holidays, new CEO, that kind of thing.

Market Recap: 2006: Week 01

Headed down to the Grand Lake Farmers' Market for their first market-day of the year yesterday. It had been a couple of weeks. Despite a fortuitous schedule and the wishes of numerous vendors, the market had been closed on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. This meant going without certain household staples for weeks, and the need to visit Berkeley Bowl in advance of two major holidays. I was happy to be back.

But, so, here we are in the January doldrums of many varieties of leafy green and carrot. Red carrots, spherical carrots, and very small carrots. The most interesting thing I observed this week is how dark the apples have become. I'll resist my urge to throw up side by side comparison photos of Crimson Gold Crab Apples from October and Crimson Gold Crab Apples from early January.

Maybe I'm being unfair about nature's early winter bounty. After all, Russian Imperial Kale is a thing to behold. I'm just back from Las Vegas though, my inundation hangover abating after the sights and sounds of the The Rio Hotel, The Ghost Bar, Circolo, and Red Square. The food everywhere was better than I'd expected, occasionaly even innovative, and absolutely re-affirmed my conviction that Daniel Patterson is cracked. I'm totally embracing the point of view of the carrot.

Here's were the highlights from this week:
  • The Twin Girls Farms Satsuma's are a little less glorious than they were a month ago, but are still top of class. I think they are also imported from some place warmer and very far away. We grabbed some from the Lagier Ranches booth, and they had more integrity but less flavor.

  • A lot of vegetables seemed to have a rough go of it with the rain here the last couple of weeks. We witnessed some abused brussel spouts, and meculin had certainly seen better days.

  • The Prather Ranch folks had lamb sausage on special, a four pack for $10.00. This doesn't do for me quite what a 10.00 buffalo Osso Bucco 2-pack does, but I'm still down with the cause.