My seminar (with Pedro Rusk) at Saturday’s K-J Heirloom Tomato Festival reminded me once again of what a powerful interest people have in learning about wine-and-food pairing and how to make fabulous foods. It’s interesting when you consider that people in this country are absolutely inundated with information about food. It’s a never-ending avalanche: columns in the papers, POS materials in supermarkets, online sites, T.V. cooking shows and cookbooks, cookbooks, cookbooks up the yin yang. Most of us have access to more recipes and how-to’s than we’d be able to use in several lifetimes, and yet we still show up at seminars like Pedro’s and mine for more.
It’s an almost religious quest. People go to Mecca or Lourdes, or just to their favorite house of worship on Sunday, in order to connect with something bigger than themselves, and hopefully become more than they feel they are. They buy self-improvement books, they meditate and pray, they’re constantly on the alert for something that will make their lives more complete and happy. And they go to large public events, like the Tomato Festival.
Of course, there’s an element of just wanting to be in a large, happy crowd on a glorious September day, listen to live music, drink some good wine and eat fabulous food—and man oh man, was that food great! I still feel like I inhaled a bowling ball on this, the morning after. To think that chefs can do so many things with a single ingredient—the tomato—is mind-boggling.
I’m talking about the seminars, though. It’s odd that some of us are so driven to always “up” our food game. In order to investigate the phenomenon, I turn to myself, and my own head, which is at least as curious about new approaches to food as is yours, in all likelihood. My first impression, in examining myself, is puzzlement. Why do I still subscribe to Bon Appetit? Why am I drawn, like a moth to a flame, to the Food Section of the S.F. Chronicle? I don’t subscribe to the other local papers, but when I’m at the gym and someone has tossed aside the Contra Costa Times or Oakland Tribune, I’ll pick it up and see if there’s a recipe somewhere inside. I have at least 40 cookbooks, have given away at least that many to friends, and I go to online sites like The Food Network several times a month; and yet, with all that data at my fingertips, I’m still hungry (forgive the metaphor) for more. I sometimes wonder if this almost obsessive search for perfect recipes and wine pairings isn’t a form of psychological compensation for a spiritual emptiness I feel inside; but such self-introspection can be morbid, and leads nowhere, so I try to avoid it. Still, do I really expect to find another pasta pesto recipe that will bring me to glory? Is there a way to roast a chicken that’s more orgasmic than the ones I’ve practiced for decades? Can there be a risotto more perfect than the ones I’ve cooked most of my adult life?
I suppose, if I were really, really into it, I’d master some new form of cooking, like baking. But who’s got the time, and besides, within a half-mile of my home are stores where I can buy every kind of bread there is, almost fresh from the oven (the San Francisco Bay Area has got to be one of the world’s greatest sources of bread). If anything, I’m shortening the amount of time I spend in the kitchen. Twenty years ago, especially if someone special was coming for dinner, I’d start prepping the day before, and the afternoon before the meal would be consumed with chopping, dicing, slicing and reducing sauces. Nowadays I look for the most delicious food I can make in the least amount of time. That’s not likely to change, even when I retire and don’t feel the pressures and time constraints of work. So why this relentless drive for more recipes?
Maybe it’s as simple as this: To eat is to be alive, and moreover, to indulge in one of the most pleasant aspects of being alive. (I’m reminded of those old commercials for Carl’s Junior: “Don’t bother me, I’m eating.”) It is imaginatively possible that we could have a powerful drive to eat and not necessarily possess an accompanying capacity for the intense satisfaction of eating. Therefore, to be interested in food—to anticipate eating, to think of the next opportunity for great, delicious food—is to authenticate our lives, to celebrate the fact that we are still alive and not dead, to exult in our physical health. When my mother was dying, in the hospital, yet still conscious until nearly the very end, she did not relish the meager foods that were brought to her, and I doubt (although I don’t know for sure) that in her private thoughts she thought about food at all. But then, she already had one foot in another world, a world in which eating (so far as we know) is non-existent or at least non-essential. So she had let go of food-thinking, which was replaced by a form of thinking most of us have yet to experience.
But for those of us who remain alive and kicking, eating is (along with one or two or three other activities) the most glorious thing we can do. As full as my belly feels at this moment, I know that, in a few hours, I will once again have that craving that starts as a vague desire at the fringes of consciousness, then gradually invades the thinking process until, finally, I arise from my seat and head toward the shrine of the refrigerator. The religious symbolism is apt: my search for another great recipe is no less than a quest for purification and redemption. The Most Perfect thing in the world, which is the subject of every religious and moral philosophy, may not be obtainable in this life, and certainly isn’t through eating. But the Almost Most Perfect food is always out there, beckoning, promising, tantalizing with salient possibility. When we stop heeding its call we, too, will have one foot in the other world. Until then, we live, thrive, love, drink, and eat.
It had been years since I dined at the Stanford Court Hotel, on top of Nob Hill, so I was looking forward to meeting some folks there last night—not for dinner, just for a few drinks. Still, I wanted to check out the restaurant menu. Reading—no, make that devouring—Joyce Goldstein’s new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, I was curious to see how the menu had evolved from 20 years ago, when Fournou’s Ovens, the hotel’s grand restaurant, served what I recall as rather rich food, French-influenced, and heavy on the meat.
Alas, the menu has evolved, but not as I’d anticipated; as it turns out, there is no restaurant at the Stanford Court, just a rather plain bar menu (sandwiches, steak and such). I asked the concierge about that, and he replied, “New ownership—changing times.” Indeed.
Which brings me back to Inside the California Food Revolution. The mark of a great book is that it gets you thinking. I loved the juxtaposition Joyce, and many of the chefs she interviewed, set up between the Los Angeles and San Francisco culinary scenes of twenty years ago. L.A. was “food as fashion,” in Joyce’s words, as well as “overdone, very over-manipulated…places to see and be seen,” according to another restaurateur. By contrast, S.F. chefs were obsessed with purity, quality ingredients, seasonality and eclecticism.
The problem with appealing to fashion is that, quoting the former owner of a famous L.A. restaurant, Citrus, “the life of a restaurant is very short [in L.A.]..very trendy. You’re good, you’re busy, and then, when a new restaurant opens, say good-bye to your business.”
Well, you can say that about any restaurant, to some extent (Daniel Patterson’s Plum just closed in Oakland, after a run of several years), but San Francisco and the Bay Area seem more willing to bless a great place, like Boulevard, with longevity than L.A. is. There is, of course, a wine tie-in to all this: I have often wondered about the lifespan of some of these super-expensive California lifestyle wineries, which pop into existence (often in Napa Valley) with the alacrity of mushrooms after an autumn rain, only to disappear just as quickly. With a hired “name” winemaker, the brand enters the “you’re busy” phase, which is quickly succeeded by the “good-bye” phase, unless the owner is so wealthy that he can afford to ride an ocean of red ink.
Still, there was one thing both the Southern and Northern California founders of the California cuisine revolution shared in common: a passionate ingenuity bordering on the naïve. As one of them told Joyce, “Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of chefs weren’t [classically] trained. That was freeing. You weren’t tied down to a set of rules and told, ‘You have to go this way.’ No, I don’t, because I don’t even know what the rules are.”
It was that disregard for “the rules” that enabled chefs, including Joyce Goldstein, to do their own thing. They figured that, if they liked something, others would, too. There’s a connection, I suspect, between that approach and the loss of Fournou’s Ovens: the grand hotel restaurant, with its banquettes, snooty somms, heavily-sauced food and pontifical atmosphere, is no longer suited to today’s dining needs, which are more casual. Joyce anticipated that at Square One, her own restaurant, when she opened it (after leaving Chez Panisse) in the mid-1980s. Today, I look at a place like Boulevard, which I think and hope will never close. It’s as California-cuisine-y as you can get: the California Lamb Prime T-bone, “wood oven roasted, served off the bone, with zuckerman banana fingerling potatoes with fresh turmeric, aleppo & coriander sauteed bloomsdale spinach, thumbelina carrots, our cardamom orange blossom yogurt, huckleberry molasses, sicilian pistachio aillade, and roasted lamb jus” is a triumph of World ingredients, a happy concoction of elements no one would have conceived of before the California food revolution tore down the walls. Yet Boulevard is noisy, happy, relaxed and fun—all the elements I associate with California (and Northern California, especially). And when you think of it, that’s what we want in wine, too, isn’t it?
In the 1980s and early 1990s, I was a fairly frequent visitor to Square One, the restaurant Joyce Goldstein had opened, in 1984, in the Jackson Square neighborhood of downtown San Francisco.
There, I was treated like a regular, mainly through my acquaintance with the sommelier, Peter Granoff, whom I had met earlier when he’d served in the same capacity at the old Mark Hopkins Hotel. Well do I remember strolling into Square One on any given night, usually by myself after an evening of doing something else that had brought me to the area from my home in Noe Valley. I’d take a seat at the bar and order something off the chalkboard menu—a little pizza or focaccia, some fettucine, wood-fired grilled shrimp—while Peter surreptitiously brought me tasting sips of the most interesting wines of the evening. Peter also held regular wine tasting classes in a small room of the restaurant. It was there that I learned, more than anyplace else, about Condrieu, Cote Rotie, Spanish sherry and other wines to which I would otherwise have had little access.
These were not mere wine tastings. Peter’s boss, Chef Joyce, provided delicious little plates to wash down the wine. One night, a blind tasting of Monterey County Chardonnays (Estancia, Morgan, Pinnacles, Talbott, Chalone, Wente and so on) was paired with a signature crab cake with mango salsa, and ginger-marinated pork loin on a bed of corn pudding.
That food was, of course, California cuisine, or what came eventually to be called California cuisine, although Joyce herself, after extensive research for her new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, writes that exactly who coined that phrase remains a mystery. Not mysterious at all, though, is what California cuisine means. Joyce Goldstein: “…restaurants broadened from formal and ceremonial to more democratic and casual. Kitchens that had been hidden were opened up to become part of the dining room. Chefs who had toiled behind closed doors in anonymity became stars. Ingredients such as arugula, baby greens, and goat cheese, virtually unknown previously, became household items…”. California’s fabulously diverse ethnic constitution, including Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American cultures, also became part of the mix that contributed to the new, complex combinations that constituted California cuisine, whose “one common element,” Joyce writes, was “fresh, seasonal ingredients, preferably raised nearby.”
I hadn’t known Joyce had written this book until I ran into her son Evan, an old friend, at a wine tasting event. I’d told him how much I’d always longed for a formal history of California cuisine, which was restaurant-based long before it became a staple of home kitchens. Evan smiled and told me there was one: He arranged to have the publisher, University of California Press, send me Inside the California Food Revolution. If you’ve ever hankered for an insider’s account of everything and everyone from Alice Waters and Chez Panisse to Wolfgang Puck, Jeremiah Tower, the French Laundry, Laura Chenel, Zuni Café and, yes, Joyce Goldstein (as insider as they get), this is the book. It recounts, in loving terms, what Mark Miller (Fourth Street Grill and Santa Fe Bar and Grill, both in Berkeley) describes as “California cuisine[‘s] revolutionary [nature], in terms of not only its fashion, its style, but also its culinary ethos.”
The California food revolution cited in Joyce’s title spilled over, of course, to the California wine revolution—or perhaps it’s fairer to say that both were the result of the revolutionary attitude that always has characterized California. In the book, too, you will find references to Paul Draper and Ridge (whose wines Alice Waters celebrated early at Chez Panisse), Randall Grahm and Bonny Doon, Josh Jensen (Calera), Dick Graff (Chalone), Bob Long (Long Vineyards) and others. Interestingly, Joyce, in retrospective hindsight, goes back to this period to foreshadow wines “with overly hard tannins, too much oak, and in time, higher alcohol levels”—shades of today’s ongoing debate. But that is another story.
The conventional wisdom in wine-geek land is that the highest scoring wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, are often not the best ones to drink with food, because the wine overpowers the food. I think this is a valid point.
I’ve given extraordinarily high scores this year to Cabernets from Shafer Hillside Select, Marita’s Select Private Reserve, Flora Springs Hillside Reserve, Freemark Abbey Sycamore, Clos du Val JG’s Joie du Vin and others, but if I were cooking dinner at home (or ordering in a restaurant, for that matter), I’d have to think long and hard about what to pair them with. Notwithstanding the fact that all these wines are tannic and need age, the problem is that they’re so potent in themselves–almost a separate food group–that any pairing runs the risk of not doing justice to either the food or the wine.
The 2009 Shafer, for example, is one of the most massive Napa Cabs I’ve ever reviewed, which would count against it were it not for the fine balance of acids, tannins and oak, all of which gives it a sense of wholesome completeness. The default pairing for a wine like that is grilled steak; you can’t go wrong. The wine’s tannins will stand up to the meat’s fatty richness, while a smoky sweetness extends from charred protein to the fire-roasted oak barrels the wine was aged in. But beyond this simple steak recipe, I’d be hard pressed to come up with something more elaborate that wouldn’t rob the wine of its complexities. Of course, you could always slather the steak with gorgonzola cheese, which would amplify the Cab’s fruity sweetness, but that’s not really making it more complicated. It’s just making it, well, cheesier.
Now that I’m only days removed from our Thanksgiving feast, I think I would never have put that Hillside Select on the groaning board. We had all the usual stuff–roast turkey with sausage stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, buttered sweet potatoes, green beans, Brussels sprouts with crumbled bacon, and a fantastic arugula, fig and blue cheese salad with Sherry vinaigrette. It was as delicious as could be, but quite frankly the Shafer would have been a minor disaster in that setting. It would have been pulled this way and that, like a galaxy being torn apart by a black hole, with the various sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami tastes of the foods making the wine clumsy and stripped of its glory. Its center of gravity would have been discombobulated. That’s no disrespect to the wine: it’s just saying that these pairing decisions matter.
What did work? A Hendry 2011 Block 24 Primitivo, bearing a Napa Valley appellation. In itself, this is not a great wine. There’s plenty to find fault with. It’s too fruity. It’s too alcoholic. It’s overripe. Compared to the Shafer’s tailored power, the Hendry is rustic. It’s not the sort of wine that does well in a tasting, and so does not earn a high score.
But on that Thanksgiving table, it was ideal. Everybody liked it. They want something they can enjoy with whatever is going into their mouths, and the Hendry did exactly that: it provided yeoman’s service. In fact, most of the foods on the table made it taste better, not worse, as they would have with the Shafer. The sweet foods echoed its fruit. The rich foods tamed its tannins. The creamy foods mitigated its super-ripeness. Throughout it all, the wine was strong enough to preserve its identity. It went with the punches, so to speak. When I practiced traditional Wado karate, we were taught the concepts of nagasu, inasu and noru. Briefly, these refer to the fighter constantly shifting his position, moving out of the enemy’s way, deflecting his attacks, parrying his thrusts, all while remaining in control, looking for eventual dominance. It’s fair to say that the Hendry exhibited this sense of countering everything the food threw at it, and remained harmonious and centered. It ran no risk of losing its center of gravity, because it doesn’t have a center of gravity. It’s all free-floating, a shape-shifter whose protean character made it be friends with just about everything it encountered.
The irony of all this is that a rustic wine can often perform better under such circumstances than the most exquisitely refined wine. Still, I feel comfortable giving higher scores to wines like the Shafer, whose very extraordinariness makes them rather less versatile at the table. The score refers to the wine, in and of itself. What you do with it is another matter.
But it wasn’t always. If you came of age before the era of Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali, you might be surprised to learn that, until comparatively recently, men were considered genetically and temperamentally unfit to cook.
That was certainly true when I was a little boy. Mom’s place was in the kitchen. Dad’s place was in front of the T.V., there to remain until Mom announced, “Dinner’s ready.” The only time dads were allowed to cook was in the backyard, over the barbecue.
I was reminded of all this when I bought a book in one of our great used bookstores in Oakland. “Cooks, Gluttons and Gourmets” was written by Betty Watson and published in 1962–well before the modern era of cooking began. Fifty one years ago, “cuisine” in America meant French food, snootily served in restaurants with heavy red leather banquettes. Italian meant lasagna, Chinese meant chop suey, Jewish meant corned beef, and that was that. It was the age of iceberg lettuce and frozen T.V. dinners. And nobody had ever heard of Julia Child.
In the 1960s that began to change, albeit quite slowly at first. “It was the popularity of outdoor barbecues that led most American husbands to take an interest in cookery,” Watson writes. “While the kitchen had come to be regarded as woman’s sphere from frontier days onward, cooking out of doors was different. It reminded grown men of Boy Scout days when they roasted hot dogs over campfires. [!!!] Building up a good fire in the charcoal grill was thoroughly masculine. So was the cooking of a steak.”
We’ve come a long way, babycakes! Building a good fire always makes me feel more masculine.
Yet Watson, in her research for the book, was “astonish[ed]…to learn…that cooking in ancient Greece was regarded as an art and cooks were men of stature.” For emphasis, she adds, “Men, yes–note that.” Citing Athenaeus, a second century Greek writer, she refers to his masterwork, Deipnosophistae, in which he “mentions by name twenty authors of cookery books and not one by a woman.”
(Incidentally, here’s one of Athenaneus’s recipes, for Gastris, a sweet nut cake:
Ingredients: 100g each of poppy seeds, ground walnuts, ground hazelnuts and ground almonds; 100g of dried and stoned dates and dried figs; 150g sesame seeds; 75g clear honey; 1/2 tsp ground black pepper; Olive Oil .
Chop the dates and figs then place in a pan with 30ml of the honey, 4 tbsp water and a little olive oil. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the fruits are soft. Take off the heat and allow to cool, then turn into a mortar and pound in the ground poppy seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and black pepper until your have a smooth, thick, dough-like paste. Turn into a pan and cook until the dough is thick and of a consistency that can be rolled out. Roll out the fruit and nut paste and cut into squares. Heat the remaining honey in a pan, dip the fruit and nut paste in this then coat in the sesame seeds.)
Men were the chefs to royalty for most of history, and even royalty took a turn in the kitchen. Peter the Great “would often go into the kitchens to knead bread dough with his own hands or pour cheese into molds,” Watson writes. Thomas Jefferson was as interested in food and cooking as he was in wine. Watson tells us he introduced spaghetti into the Americas, was “the first to serve French fries with beefsteak” (and we can imagine that at one time French fries were considered special), “the first to use vanilla as a flavoring,” and “learned to make ice cream while in France, writing down the recipe in his own hand…He imported olive trees” and grew “many rare vegetables such as broccoli and asparagus.” Once in the White House, he “personally supervised the planning of state dinners.” Can you imagine a modern U.S. President being a foodie? He’d be mercilessly mocked, especially by Fox News.
When did men drop out of the kitchen? It seems to have been a by-product of the Industrial Age and of the rise of American capitalism. The man was expected to leave the home early in the morning, work all day, and come home, late and hungry. The little woman was expected to remain barefoot and in the kitchen, and have dinner ready for her man. (See almost any episode of “Mad Men” with Betty Draper in it.) This model remained the dominant one throughout the first half, even the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.
By the 1980s, it definitely had changed. Why? Historians of American culture will have the last word on that. Certainly the re-entry of the man into the kitchen paralleled the rise of the boutique winery movement in California. I can’t prove it, but I suspect the two were related.
Wine Enthusiast released our Top 100 Best Buys in wine of 2012 last week. They’re all below $20, and represent the best value for the money you can find in today’s market.
It’s particularly important in these tough economic times for a wine magazine to identify good values. When I’m in the position to designate a wine in this special way, it makes me happy. Unfortunately, California wine prices seem like they’re creeping up, so this year, only eleven wines I reviewed made the Top 100 cut:
90 Kendall-Jackson 2010 Avant Chardonnay
89 Pomolo 2011 Sauvignon Blanc
90 Annabella 2010 Chardonnay
88 Gnarly Head 2010 Pinot Grigio
88 Snap Dragon 2010 Riesling
89 Napa Family Vineyards 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
90 Firestone 2010 Riesling
90 Cameron Hughes 2009 Lot 271 Pinot Noir
90 Leese-Fitch 2010 Sauvignon Blanc
90 Black Box 2009 Merlot
90 Liberty School 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of additional California wines that represent an excellent quality-price ratio. Here are some others. All are wines I reviewed since last February and gave Best Buy status to:
89 Kendall-Jackson 2010 Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc; $13
88 Avalon 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon; $12
88 Chalone 2010 Chardonnay; $13
87 Mirassou 2011 Chardonnay; $12
87 J. Wilkes 2011 Pinot Blanc; $12
87 Oak Grove 2011 Reserve Pinot Grigio; $8
87 Double Decker 2010 Pinot Grigio; $10
87 Smoking Loon 2008 Pinot Grigio; $8
87 Clos La Chance 2011 Estate Sauvignon Blanc; $11
87 Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi 2011 Sauvignon Blanc; $8
I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, please don’t dismiss a wine just because it scores below 90 points! Don’t forget, 87 points is a very good wine–not just good, but very good. These may not be wines to drink with your finest cuts of meat, expensive seafood entrées, pricy cheeses and elaborate sauces, but then again, who among us eats that kind of fare every day? I don’t. For instance, I love a simple dinner of pesto pasta with garlicky shrimp–give me one of those Pinot Grigios anytime! I’ll wok up a bunch of veggies and poultry or fish in garlic and ginger, dress it in sesame oil, tamari, fish sauce and rice vinegar with a sprinkle of brown sugar, toss it with toasted black sesame seeds and happily wash it down with that K-J Avant Chardonnay or the J. Wilkes Pinot Blanc. That Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon is rich enough to drink with a grilled flank steak and roasted potatoes. I love a buttery, creamy bowl of polenta with green peas and shredded chicken or chunks of crab, topped with razor-thin shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, then liberally sprinked with black pepper, with which almost any of the above white wines will be fine. Even a simple salad of bitter greens, ripe tomatoes, red onions and roasted red peppers, maybe with some ripe avocado, tossed in a little EVOO and red Balsamic, will be happy with the Leese-Fitch Sauvignon Blanc. Roasted chicken is versatile enough to drink with any and all of these wines.
“Simplify, simplify!” Thoreau said, for which our modern day equivalent is K.I.S.S. It’s a good lesson to apply to our cluttered, overwrought lives, which also tend to be overweight these days! The best everyday food, for me, is the simplest, made with fresh ingredients, low in fat, high in nutrition, prepared quickly but lovingly, and savored for sheer deliciousness. These are the kinds of meals to enjoy with inexpensive wine, which, fortunately, today’s marketplace abounds in.