Tasting Notes: 2005 Paringa Shiraz, South Australia

2005 Paringa Shiraz, South Australia

Color: Deep, inky red. Nearly purple
Nose: Definite fruits, such as cherry, and a lingering sweet smell not unreminiscent of grape soda. Underlying earth, pepper and spice scents create a full wine experience.
Palate: Big, bold wine. Some alcohol heat, but a solid structure with well-formed tannins and strong fruit flavors. This wine isn't for the timid, but it's perfectly drinkable and not nearly as bold as some old-vine zin I've had in the same price range.
Finish: The tannins sweep the mouth but leave a slight, lingering fruit that really activates the salivary glands and leaves you wanting another sip or another bite.

This was a fine food wine that could be paired with a wide rang of dishes from grilled or roasted chicken to seared salmon and even some steaks. If your meal is incredibly rich, I'd suggest going for something with a more solid structure, though the 2005 Paringa Shiraz's lithe mouth feel and strong tannins should not be overlooked. And it's considerably better than many other wines in its price range.


Charlie Rose interviews Thomas Keller

America's great interviewer with one of America's great chefs.

Cleanliness is next to...

This post marks the beginning of an irregular series of blog entries about the other things cooking can do for us. I hope to convince more people to cook. I've learned a lot by cooking: about food, the environment, and myself.

I often think about transferable skills. It's probably a holdover from my days as a professional resume writer. I had to wrangle people's previous work history into transferable skills they could use to get hired in a new career. So it is with cooking. I think cooking can teach us a lot. It can teach us about health and living well. It can connect us to the land and to our families and friends. And it can teach us about time, productivity and clutter.

When I was in college, my apartment was never cleaner than during finals week. I used to think it was procrastination, plain and simple. After reading Michael Ruhlman's Making of a Chef, I'm not so sure.

Chen was behind in his prep; his mise en place was everywhere but en place and his station was a litter of kale and spinach scraps and shallot cores and burnt paper towel that he'd been using to light burners. It was easy for this to happen. When you were swamped, you could not rationalize spending time to clean up what just going to become a mess again.

I think many of us probably feel this way when we're on deadline. In college, it was the paper due, or the upcoming test. Now it's the back-end database or the front-end entry screen or that troublesome piece of .css that must be finished before the site can be delivered to the client. Or it's simply getting dinner on the table. We can't possibly spare the precious minutes it would take to clean, can we?

But Chef Turgeon walked by and said, not for the for the first time, "Chen, you gotta keep your station clean." Turgeon saw that Chen was frustrated and didn't feel he could take the time. Turgeon, knowing Chen had no time to spare, stopped to chat.

Productivity Professional and Internet Comic Merlin Mann wrote about his war against clutter on 43folders. Generally, clutter--physical clutter--in our world bogs us down. It makes it hard to think, hard to achieve the "mind like water" state so often talked about in David Allen's Getting Things Done. By eliminating clutter we free ourselves to work more efficiently. We can work smarter, quicker and are unfettered by the visual blight clutter causes.

At work, my desk can become a mess. Same with my countertop at home. But I never feel better than when I clean it.

"You know in the weeds, in the shits?" Turgeon asked Chen. Chen nodded. "When I was in the weeds, when I was really in the weeds, I'd stop. I'd say, 'Gimme a second.'" Turgeon had looked up at an imaginary expediter and put his hand up like a batter asking the ump for time to step out of the box. Turgeon had an actor's body language. He was on stage; his movements were big, a caricature of what they were meant to portray. "Gimme a second," he said, hand raised, head down toward his station. Then he reached below, pulled a blue Handi Wipe from the sanitation bucket and again, slowly, exaggerating with large round shoulder motions, he wiped down Chen's station, thoroughly and methodically, till it was a clean open field of stainless steel, saying, "And I'd wipe down my station." Somehow he managed to convey service swirling around him, as he ignored it to methodically polish the stainless steel station.

The demo over, Turgeon tossed the wipe into the bucket, stood straight, and said to Chen, " 'Cause when you're in the weeds, this clutter starts to build up." He put his palms on the station and then lifted them slowly to chest level. "And if they cut you open," he said, "that's what your brain would look like."

That's what your brain would look like. Truer words were perhaps never spoken. We can't function with clutter--aural, visual, or mental. When I cook, I also clean. I establish my mise en place, crush the garlic, dice the onions, and while I'm waiting for them to brown, I clean. I wash and rinse the small ramekins I used for oil, onions, garlic. I wipe down the counter and cutting boards. I make sure my surroundings are clean before moving on to the next step. You'd be amazed at the cleaning you can get done while waiting for water to boil.

Cooking--learning to cook has made me more conscious of my surroundings. I have a better understanding of time and being able to use it to its utmost effectiveness. And just as I can't cook well in a cluttered kitchen, I know I can't work well with a cluttered desk, or write well with a cluttered office. So next time you find yourself in the weeds, in the shit, take a second. Wipe down your station. Get rid of the paper piles, coffee cups and Post-Its. Clear out your surroundings. As you do so, you'll also effectively clear out your mind, enabling you to work better, faster. The productivity equivalent of the Six Million-Dollar Man.

And next time you cook? Use those stolen moments to wash a pan, wipe the counter, or toss scraps into the compost container. Getting it done while you cook means you won't be thinking about it while you eat.


News bites: Kentucky Grilled Chicken? It'll never fly


Cheap-ass Wine: 2003 Three Thieves Syrah

Sometimes you just don't have the money: rent's due, you had to gas the Hummer, or the heroin addiction is acting up again. Whatever the reason, you find yourself forced to cut back on the wine budget and navigate the world of value-priced wines.

It can be a tricky business. The wines I normally review on this site hover in the ten to fifteen dollar range. They're mostly good, with some exceptions being some California and Australian wines I bought from the local supermarket. The wine's I've picked up from my local wine merchant, Dorn's, are solid wines, well-balanced given the wine's intent (a drinking wine as opposed to a food wine). Recently, however, I noticed a big run on dirt-cheap wines. I don't know whether even to classify them as value-priced--$2.99 for 750ml goes beyond value-priced, I would argue, and right on into the realm of cheap-ass wine.

But why not cheap-ass wine? We're facing tough economic times. I've an adventurous food spirit. And if I can find something drinkable for less than five dollars a bottle? Well, I can halve the wine budget at your next party.

First up, a 2003 Three Thieves Syrah, bottled in a screw-capped, one-liter jug by Rebel Wine Co. and sold for $5.99. If you want to skip the tasting notes, I'll leave you with this small adage: be wary of wines packaged like moonshine or maple syrup.

2003 Three Thieves Syrah

Color: Dull, deep red fading to brick at the edges. A slight browning that suggested oxidation and age.
Nose: Slight smokiness coupled with dark fruits and deep berry aromas. Plum, strawberry
Palate: surprisingly silky mouth feel, with roasted caramel sweetness (could be antifreeze), and a hint of roasted root vegetables
Finish: Not too bad, after a couple sips. The initial alcohol heat dissipates rather quickly leaving the mouth mostly clean with a lingering sweetness.

This isn't horrible wine. It's not great, but it's not too bad, either. And after half a glass, it drank just fine paired with seared scallops and sauteed asparagus tips over ziti with olives and capers. It's a fine food wine and really could be served at a party where you've decided to play grown-up. Just not one with actual grownups, because they aren't that much fun anyway.


New York Times reports on 'Fat Pack'

Photo credit: Dogwelder

The New York Times today reports that people who eat a lot--especially those who eat out--get fat. Shocker.

The journalists, bloggers, chefs and others who make up the Fat Pack combine an epicure’s appreciation for skillful cooking with a glutton’s bottomless-pit approach. Cramming more than three meals into a day, once the last resort of a food critic on deadline, has become a way of life. If the meals center on meat, so much the better.

Even to those who have been in the game long enough to have seen more than a few cycles of food and diet fads, the Fat Pack culture is a shock.

“Most of us who are in this profession are here as an excuse to eat,” said Mimi Sheraton, the food writer and former New York Times restaurant critic who has chronicled her own battle with weight loss. Still, she said, “I’ve never seen such an outward, in-your-face celebration of eating fat.”

I'm sure Mimi Sheraton is aware of a singular fact: fat is delicious. It makes food taste good, and provides mouth feel that can't be found with any other ingredient (ok, maybe collagen). I'm sure she's also aware that you don't have to eat a meal in order to taste it.

Jason Perlow gets it, to a certain degree:

“The whole foodie lifestyle and diet I used to participate in — I’m not going to say it is unhealthy, but it is excessive,” [Perlow] said. “I think you can still keep the food very interesting, but do it in moderation. That’s what the food community of the future is going to have to be.”

To which many members of the Fat Pack say: Shut up and pass the pork butt. Among a certain slice of the food-possessed, to suggest that indulgence might put one’s health in peril is to invite ridicule.

“I think enjoyment of food has never proven to be harmful to anyone’s health,” said Mr. Shaw, who turned from practicing law to writing about food in the late 1990s with an article for salon.com defending fat guys. He still cultivates a persona in print and online as The Fat Guy, and at 5-foot-10 weighs about 270 pounds.

I clock in at 6-foot-2 and tip the scales at 185. When I get up to 190, I know it's time to integrate some more spinach into my diet. I will say I benefit from pretty good genes: small-boned Jewish folk and tall, thin Scandanavians. But I'm not an idiot, either.

Restaurants usually serve about three portions on every plate they bring to the table. If you finish that plate, you've just eaten three meals. A woman I worked with solved this problem by asking for her to-go box at the beginning of the meal. She'd take half her plate, put it in the to-go box, and eat the remainders. She didn't eat what she couldn't see. And at over 40 (there was some speculation) she stayed thin and fit and dated men 15 years her junior. For her, the portion control seemed to work just fine.

In America, we're trained to stop eating when the food is gone, not necessarily when we feel full. Perhaps it stems from issues of waste that came out of the Great Depression or WWII. The French, on the other hand, have learned that food is a pleasure. It exists to fuel our bodies, yes, but it's also there for enjoyment. And like that anything that's to be enjoyed, you don't want too much of it at a sitting.

It seems like the Fat Pack could use a little self-discipline. Those braised pork ribs swimming in grease, that double-cream sauce, or those delicious cheese fries aren't going to vary considerably from one bite to the next. Well, the fries will. They'll just get worse and worse and worse as they cool on the plate. So, my advice is simple: stop eating so damn much! If you want to review five meals a day, take three bites of each, and fill that gut with vegetables and good, wholesome foods between meals. Your heart (and my ultimate healthcare bill) will thank you in the future.


Make your own pizza

Recently the local supermarket chain began offering pre-made pizza dough in their bakery. I'm not talking about the Boboli pizza disc or some other par-baked monstrosity. I'm talking about real dough with flour and yeast that you can take home and knead yourself. Last weekend, that's exactly what I did, and I came away with a fantastic sausage pizza done to absolute perfection.

Put down the phone, make your own
  • Bagged pizza dough (if you can't find it at your supermarket, ask around at local pizza places. They'll often be willing to sell you dough. Plus, it'll give you a chance to talk to your local pizza guy)
  • Two links organic mild Italian sausage
  • Approx. 1.5 cups of shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Approx. 3 tablespoons of your favorite (sensible) pasta sauce

Follow the directions on the dough to prep it. Mine required being left on the counter for an hour in order to rise and help activate the gluten.

Note: gluten's not some weird additive. It's protein found in wheat and it helps give pizza crust that wonderful crunchy/chewy texture that all great crusts have. Also, while prepping the dough, you'll want to cook the sausage, if you're using it for a topping. Raw sausage on the pizza will tend to render too much fat and you'll end up with a grease slick.

To prepare the dough, work it into a ball on a cutting board dusted with flour or cornmeal. Press the heel of your palm firmly in the middle of the dough. Then, pick up the dough and begin working it in your fingers, pinching along the outside edge (you can also just roll-out the dough with a rolling pin to your desired thickness, but that won't give you the great raised edge we associate with pizza). Just keep working around the perimeter of your dough, carefully pinching and allowing the weight of the dough to pull itself to the desired shape and thickness. If you bought two, and are feeling adventurous, go ahead and rest the dough atop your fists or across the backs of your hands. Slowly work in a circle, allowing the dough to stretch down over your hands. If it begins to stretch out of shape, rotate your hands and fling the pizza into the air. Let it fall back on your hands. Sing fake opera.

Once you have the pizza dough worked to your desired thickness, go ahead and spoon on the pasta sauce (not too much! We Americans have a tendency to over-sauce our pizza. Just a little goes a long way) and sprinkle on the cheese. Top with the sausage pieces, and brush the exposed crust with olive oil to help browning. Put the pizza in the oven. About 15 to 20 minutes later, you'll have a delicious, hot, bubbly pizza ready to scald your mouth and chin with molten cheese.

There are several things I love about this approach to pizza. First, working with dough is fun. It harkens back to playing with clay as a child, though no one will get after you for eating this. And it's something you could make with your kids, should you have some around and should they be so inclined. It's also quick, easy, and inexpensive. The best part though? I know exactly what's going into the pizza I make. I did some quick nutritional searches on Pizza Hut and Dominos. For the most part, the two chains seem to stick with fairly simple ingredients, until you get into chicken, pork toppings or some of their sauces. When I make my own pizza, though, I don't have guess or wonder. If I want to eliminate all traces of sugar, I can make my own sauce. If I want to switch up the cheeses and use some parmesan? Not a problem at all. When you make your own pizza, you're in control of the ingredients. You make the call. Just don't make it to some giant pizza chain.


Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried green tomatoes

Food column as it appeared in the March issue of Satellite Magazine

While most of the nation must wait until August or September for in-season tomatoes, we get to enjoy fresh, local tomatoes for much of the year, including spring. Tart, sweet and complex in flavor, local tomatoes are worlds better than the tomatoes you'll often find at the supermarket. Growers in other states and countries breed supermarket tomatoes for transport and sacrifice flavor and texture for shipability. And even if the local tomatoes aren't quite ready, you can still work wonders with the green ones.

Fried Green Tomatoes

  • 2 large green tomatoes sliced 1/4 - 1/3 inch thick
  • 1/4 cup flour (for dredging)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup corn meal
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika (for depth of flavor)
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • Kosher salt
  • fresh ground pepper
  • Bacon (optional)
  • 3 - 4 tablespoons cooking oil (if you forgo the bacon)

You'll want to get all the materials together on your countertop--flour, egg, corn meal--and then lightly salt each of the tomato slices. Once you begin frying, things move pretty quickly.

First, mix 1/4 cup flour, 1/4 cup corn meal, paprika and garlic powder in a bowl. Place the other 1/4 flour on a plate or similar surface. This will be used to dredge the tomato slices before coating them with the egg. Make sure the egg is in a bowl big enough to handle your tomato slices.

Traditionally, green tomatoes are fried in bacon fat. If you go that route, you can serve the tomatoes with a bacon garnish and present a simple, modern twist on the bacon and tomato sandwich (the lettuce was always just for show). However, you can use vegetable, peanut or canola oil and they'll still taste great. Just make sure you get an oil with a relatively high smoke point and neutral flavor.

If you go the bacon route, now's the time to fry up the bacon. Once it's done, set it aside and bring the heat up to medium-high. There should be enough fat or oil to fill the bottom of a heavy, medium-sized skillet. When the pan has come to temperature, begin by dredging the tomato slices through the flour. Just drag them through, enough to coat both sides. Dip the slices in the egg (again, enough to coat both sides) and drop them in the corn meal mix. Make sure they get a generous coating on all sides, then gently lay them in the hot oil. Fry them for about a minute on each side. DO NOT overcook the tomatoes. If you do, you'll end up with a mushy, tasteless mess.

When they're done cooking, remove them from the pan and lay on paper towels or a cooling rack to drain. To serve, place a single slice on a plate and garnish with crumbled bacon. Add a dollop of mayonnaise on the side. The singular tomato slice makes a great appetizer, especially in preparation for a mail like fried catfish. However, if you want to make a meal out of it, you can cook up some grits (please, avoid the instant ones -- quick cooking is fine), place them on a plate, and set the tomato slice on top. Garnish with crumbled bacon and sliced chives.


The American predicament: fast food, nutritionally bereft

This food thing is new to me. I've always enjoyed cooking, but only over the past two years have I really paid attention to how food works and how much better it can be when you use fresh, natural ingredients. It's something I've been talking about a lot at work, much to the chagrin, I would imagine, of my colleagues.

Michael Ruhlman (I'm beginning to sound like such a fanboy) rants this week about food, ingredients, economics and the French.

As ever the French can teach us about a healthy relationship with food.  American’s scratch their heads over the so-called French Paradox—how can the French eat all that rich fatty food and have lower levels of heart disease and associated problems.  I’ll bet their red wine does help, as has been suggested, but what is more likely the case, in my opinion, is that the French eat more natural foods than Americans, and they eat it in appropriate quantities.  That, I would bet money, is the root of their ability to eat a heavily salted duck confit, dripping with duck fat, and not have a problem with it, to luxuriate in Epoisse and Reblochon.  They can do this precisely because they don’t eat “low-fat” granola bars and blueberry muffins that have more sugar than flour and eggs.

The French paradox. It can’t be their diet—given all that evil stuff they eat. Must be that red wine they drink!  Can we really be so stupid?  You bet! 

In 2000, I worked for an Internet startup in Orlando. The company went bankrupt in the end, but before then, it limped along month after month, sometimes not meeting payroll. During those times, eating was difficult. Seriously. My family could afford two types of foods: those that took a long time to cook and those that were nutritionally corrupt. With long commutes, my wife and I often didn't get home until nearly 7:00, and neither one of us felt like spending an hour in the kitchen after a 12-hour workday. So we resorted to fast and cheap, which meant food that was horrible for us--frozen dinners and lasagnas and burritos. Or we ate out, and I don't have to tell you that a McDonald's value meal isn't the path to rude, red health.

In for a pound

Good eating and health devolved to a daily struggle, as I figure it does for many of the working poor in America. Those citizens who can least afford to be unhealthy are forced to it. They don't have a lot of free time, and they don't have much disposable income. So they commute and work and eat in the unhealthiest combinations. Some might argue that it's education, but I would bet that most everyone they should eat fiber and fruits and vegetables. What I think they don't know is they can make a delicious serving of peas in about 10 minutes.

I would also think everyone knows by this point that physicians recommend a certain amount of daily exercise. This, of course, is the second part of America's unhealthy relationship with food. We're sedentary, as a culture. If we continue to cite the French as an example, we can claim the French get regular exercise as part of their everyday routines, in cliche. Think of your imaginary Paris. Think of chic women and suave men cycling cobblestone streets and walking to and from market with paper sacks bursting with a fresh baguette and unnamed cascade of greens (Why they would walk to market with a sack of groceries is anyone's guess. But it's our daydream, and they're French. So go figure, right?). Anyway, the point here is that many peoples across Europe incorporate exercise into their daily routine. It's probably why so many New Yorkers are in fair shape. They have to walk places. And it's why so many in Houston are overweight. They drive.

So how can we create a nation of healthy eaters? I don't know. I think we have to pay attention to the scale at which we operate. 90-minute commutes are no way to live. Nine--ten-hour workdays are no way to live. And a high-sodium, high-sugar meal-in-a-box that advertises itself as "a pound of food!" is the fast-track to an early grave. But I think things are slowly changing. I think people are becoming a little more conscious of their food. Those with enough time and disposable income have finally begun to sway advertising and marketing--have finally begun to prove to retailers that healthy food is important.

And now it's up to the rest of us. Share those fast, simple recipes. Make others understand that good food, fast, is possible. Not ideal, but possible. And keep cooking. For yourselves, for your families. It's probably the best thing we can do at this point. Cook and talk about it.