News You Can Use

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celtuce

Celtuce

With holiday parties gearing up this bit of news seems appropriate. Did you know you are drinking Champagne wrong? According to Hannah Goldfield, and various wine experts, the Champagne flute is not the best way to taste Champagne. Yes, it concentrates and displays the flow of bubbles to the top of the glass, but it is too narrow and of the wrong shape to capture the aromas or allow the wine to breathe and develop in the glass. The flute is great for visual display, not so good for taste. Instead we should be using an ordinary wine glass for tasting Champagne.

And if you are tired of all those kale salads, kale chips, kale-topped pizza, and kale chiffonade dishes gracing every table in the U.S this year, it might please you to know that Kale is no longer the “in” green. That prize goes to celtuce, a type of lettuce bred in China that is beginning to show up in the dishes of innovative chefs. Never heard of celtuce? Exactly.That’s my point.

How might this news be useful? With all the get-togethers planned for the holidays, where champagne and Kale are bound to make many appearances, you can use information like this to insult your host and generally be a pain in the ass.

Is Home Cooking on the Decline?

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home cookThe conventional wisdom, often repeated by leading pundits in the food world, is that home cooking is disappearing with deleterious consequences to our health and the environment.  Americans, especially women trying to earn a living while being primary caretakers,  are simply too busy to bother spending hours in the kitchen when there is a whole industry out their ready to supply us with prepared foods at a modest price.

But food historian Rachel Laudan pushes back against this idea.

So what’s the truth of the matter?

*There’s been no decline in home meals in the last twenty years

*Two thirds of all calories are consumed at home

*Each day, more than one in two Americans between 19 and 65 cooks (or so they report)

*The poorer the people, the more they eat at home

The research she relies on suggests that food supplied from home decreased precipitously from 1965 to the mid-1990’s (when more women were entering the work force) but has leveled off since then.

As Laudan points out, there is some ambiguity in the research. It measures food from the “home supply” which could include prepared foods purchased at the supermarket. It also doesn’t seem to control for the lack of a fresh food supply in poorer, urban areas of the country. Poor people might eat more often at home if they had better access to markets. But the research is encouraging in that it shows that the home is still the site where Americans consume most of their food.

Why does this matter? As Michael Pollan and others have argued, food cooked at home tends to be healthier than prepared foods, and locally-sourced food is better for the environment.

But I want to point to other benefits of home cooking. This research shows that the kitchen, one central area where aesthetics and creativity enters daily life,  still plays a role. We can all use more beauty and creativity in our lives and kitchen activity can be the site of daily creative practice. But, in addition, it is important to create space in our lives where commercial interests do not rule. Yes, the food industry can supply us with the calories we need to function. But why turn our lives into profit centers for someone else? Why lose control over something so important as eating?

Presumably, we work hard to earn money in order to control the conditions of life. Why then relinquish that control to corporate interests?

Wine Review: Domaine de la Vougeraie Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2009

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domaine de la vougeraieThe quest for the perfect Pinot takes a big step forward.

Most wine lovers have an “aha” moment early in their drinking career in which, quite unexpectedly, they discover a wine of such extraordinary beauty and power they become a slave to the grape forever. But, as one gains experience, those moments become fewer and farther between (not to mention much more expensive) as the baseline for extraordinary rises and revelation gives way to ordinary enjoyment and pleasure. Which poses the philosophical question—How many “aha” moments should humans be allowed to have?

So I was enjoying my monthly blind tasting put on by WineElite San Diego, tasting through some really lovely wines that had appeared on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list. My job is to help explain blind tasting methodology and report on how I arrive at my conclusions (which are often wrong but that’s another story.) I encountered this glass before me which was quite obviously Pinot Noir, quite obviously Burgundian Pinot Noir and the best thing I’ve tasted since, well, at least since last month at the Reynvaan release party. Now, at these blind tasting events I’m supposed to be sober, analytical, and articulate about what I’m tasting. And I guess I was outwardly calm, at least I wasn’t forcibly removed from the room. But inside I was speaking in tongues, writhing on the floor in pagan rites of orgiastic fervor, dancing with St. Vitus in paroxysms of daemonic hysteria—oh, sorry, the tasting note:

A very intense, perfumed nose of raspberry, anise and juniper berry comingle with aromas of fresh loam and strong vanilla notes that with aeration becoming smoky. On the concentrated palate a seam of iron lifts the fruit and gives this wine a kinetic, racy aspect that belies its well-toned, compact structure. The finish is gloriously long and elegant supported by sleek, but dense tannins. Subtle and seductive yet disciplined and focused, it is already well-integrated and will age for years.

This wine is so good mere mortals should not be allowed to drink it.

Consume while listening to whatever music suggests metaphysical transcendence to you. For me it was always Peter Gabriel’s San Jacinto.

 

Score: 95

Price: $162 (ave.)

Alc: 13.5

Budget Wine: Trader Joe’s Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast 2013

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trader joes cabernetWhen I pick up a wine for $5 I always expect the worst and I’m seldom disappointed. There is something to be said for not being disappointed.

This time is a minor exception. Black cherry and generic berry notes with some earth and wood in the background so its smells like wine but there is no intensity or life—you have to hunt for the aromas. On the palate, the opening is juicy but the flavor drops off sharply. Very diluted, low viscosity and a short oaky finish, very light on the palate for a Cabernet. Low acidity, low tannins, low viscosity, medium minus intensity. I can tell it’s not water because of the color. Given that most wines at this price are dreadful, this innocuous bottle represents reasonable QPR.

Agreeable and inoffensive, but without any mark of distinction, this is the Micheal Bublé of wines.

But for $5 what do you expect—Sinatra?

 

Style: Smooth, low intensity

Score: 82

Price: $5 at Trader Joe’s

Alc: 13.5%

Loners Unite!

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nighthawksEenmal is a pop-up restaurant in Amsterdam that caters to single diners. They describe themselves as  “the first one-person restaurant in the world and an attractive place for temporary disconnection.” As the editors at Symposion write, this raises a variety of interesting issues:

Is eating with others, as Julian Baggini ponders, a social experience that is existentially quite distinct from mere feeding? Do we miss anything ethically or existentially significant when we dine alone? It also raises questions about the ethos of our day and the place of dining in it. Does dining alone reflect a dystopic trend toward a society of disconnected loners nurtured by the individualist ethos of our market society? Would the EENMAAL concept be seen as glamorizing this trend? On the other hand, we should not ignore that solo dining might be our ‘delicious’ way to intimacy with ourselves in our hyper-connected world obsessed with sociality and extroversion.

I think the answer to most,  but not all, of these questions is yes. Eating with others is a distinctive, existentially significant social experience that we miss when dining alone. But the fact that we sometimes dine alone (by necessity or choice) does not suggest a “dystopic trend toward a society of disconnected loners”. Our mobility and individualism are also existentially significant experiences that should not be denigrated, especially in our “hyper-connected world”. The more we are with others, the more valuable those moments of solitude become. What better way to celebrate those moments than with a meal.

Sociality isn’t a zero-sum game. It is not compromised but is strengthened by the occasional solitary meal, a respite from the constant demands of being always “on”.

It is to be hoped, however, that Eenmal serves wine by the glass.

Cheesy Science?

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pizza cheeseIf you are curious about why mozzarella is the perfect cheese for pizza, this article will explain it.

All of these factors – elasticity, moisture, and oil content – need to be just right to get that particular pattern of blistering. The researchers found that cheddar, colby, and edam were not elastic enough to form large bubbles. Gruyere and provolone formed large bubbles but contained too much oil to create a brown coating. Emmental had only enough moisture to make flat bubbles that never broke the surface. Mozzarella, it turns out, is a rather unusual cheese. It alone combined enough moisture, the right amount of stretchiness, and the right amount of oil to make the browning pattern we all associate with pizza.

Of course, we already knew that mozzarella is best. We don’t need science to tell us that. So why is it important for chefs to know the science? Because knowing the science can help avoid fruitless experimentation and can provide direction and focus to creativity in the kitchen. The science explains why you should not bother with cheddar if you want melted goodness on the pizza.

But this article at MAD, a community for chefs,  (h/t Symposion) suggests that a lot of food science is not very useful in the kitchen. This is in part because food scientists do not often work with chefs to find out what they need to know. (They are too busy working with the food industry to discover how to make crap taste less crappy)

While a rigorously designed sensory descriptive analysis of novel vinegars, for example, helped earn me a PhD, I am dubious that it will help anyone produce a better dish, or if the kind of work that would help is even possible within the confines of the academic establishment. To date, in-depth food research has been limited to exploring questions academia and the commercial food industry deem important. The result is that most of what we know about how food works is confined to a very narrow set of issues, much of it hidden away in cryptically-written journal articles that most non-academics can neither access nor understand, and very little designed with any sort of practical application in mind.

So chefs and home cooks should pay more attention to food scientists, but only if food scientists pay more attention to chefs and home cooks.

Food and the Fine Arts

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The German philosopher Immanuel Kant has, arguably, been the most important philosopher in the tradition when it comes to questions about art and aesthetics. And according to Kant, the culinary arts cannot be genuine fine arts because they don’t engage the intellect in the way painting or music do. In my Three Quarks essay this month, I explain why Kant was wrong.

Ayers Pioneer Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge 2012

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ayresOn our recent trip to Willamette Valley, this was one of my favorite wines. The medium intensity nose is complex with great dimension—black cherry and blackberry are encased in seductive, musky mushroom and  chicken fat aromas. With aeration, black olive notes and caramel become more prominent. You can get lost in this olfactory orgy for hours. On the palate, cola is added to the mix. Medium bodied and lively, a swelling tide of mid-palate acidity gives this wine momentum and introduces a long, spicy, almost peppery finish with refined, very firm, dry tannins. On the continuum between light, elegant, perfumed Pinot Noir and big, bombastic fruit bombs, this is right at the midpoint in style. The alcohol is restrained at 13.5% and the nose is pretty enough, but the wine exudes subtle power with an undertow of seriousness, great balance and structure.

Think of how Billie Holiday did “pretty”.

Score: 93

Alc: 13.5

Price: $47

Budget Wine: Drytown Cellars Red on Red NV Amador County

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drytown cellarsChocoholics will like this. A seam of chocolaty essence wanders through the nose and palate melding nicely with blueberry and spice, though with a whiff of alcohol that is occasionally distracting. Medium body and lively in the mouth with good balance, a burst of mid-palate acidity makes this a versatile food wine. The tannins are dry but soft, yielding a medium length finish with more lingering chocolate notes.

This is what a budget wine should be—pleasant, comforting, nothing too loud or complicated but assertive with plenty of life. Highly recommended as a daily drinker. The winery website says nothing about the varietals that make up the blend. I strongly suspect it is Zinfandel with some Cabernet Sauvignon to add length to the finish.

 

Score: 87

Price: $10

Alc 14.5%

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