The Girl and the Grapevine

How to Pack a Picnic
September 1, 2010, 8:54 pm
Filed under: Miscellaneous, recipe, Travel | Tags: , ,

I love a good picnic, really truly.  Maybe too much, but I don’t think so; it’s a combination of so many things I love: sunshine, nice scenery, good company, and delicious food of course.  And while I could be content with a peanut and jam sandwich (a genius combination in my opinion) as long as the other elements are in place, sometimes (often) I want to go the extra mile and put together the kind of meal that makes other picnic-ers look unprepared.  Not that I’m a competitive picnic-er, but if making and eating a meal outside were a sport, I’d like to think that I’d at least get near the podium.  That’s all.

And so the picnic bug bit me when the temperature soared to a very uncharacteristic 90 degrees in Oakland.  Excited, we planned a trip to Carmel “By-The-Sea” to enjoy the beautiful sandy beach and kitschy-cute town.  This would naturally include a meal by the water, so there was work to be done!

I had just finished a batch of tomato marmalade from an awesome Sunset preserving cookbook from the ‘70s and gorgeous farmers’ market tomatoes, so what hadn’t made into a jar would come along for the ride.

I love its color!

And lately I’ve been craving pâté, but I don’t trust the store bought kind, so I made my own following this recipe for Pâté de Campagne.

In place of the ham steak, I made an inlay of pistachios because, really, does a recipe mainly comprised of 2½ pounds of ground pork and roughly 24 strips of bacon need a decoration made of ham? No, no it does not.  It needs pistachios, apparently.

Cross Section

Thusly, here is our picnic:

Brie and tomato marmalade on sweet batard.  I didn’t make the bread, but next time I’m totally going to. Because maybe I do get too excited about picnics.

Pâté de Campagne with grainy mustard, cornichons, radishes and pickled onions, also on sweet batard.

We washed it all down with Domaine de Fontsainte’s 2008 Gris de Gris from Corbières, a subappelation of Languedoc-Rousillon in southern France.  The name technically translates to “gray from gray”, but it really means “light from light”.  This refers to the light color of the wine and the light color of the grapes used, Grenache Gris, a lighter and thinner-skinned relative of the more familiar Grenache.  A “Gris” wine is generally made from red-skinned grapes but without any maceration unlike rosés, which have an abbreviated amount of skin contact time, so the finished product is slightly lighter than a rosé but still has a distinctly pinkish hue.

Picinic fun!

The wine had light red fruit on the nose, raspberries and wild strawberry, with some light floral and mineral notes.  The minerality was more pronounced on the palate, reminiscent of wet slate, along with medium to high acidity.  The fruit in the wine complemented the tomato marmalade, while the high acidity was crucial to cut through the very rich pâté.  Also, Pâté de Campagne is from the countryside, so it seemed fitting to have drink a wine from one of the more rustic wine regions with it.  What grows together grows together. Or something along those lines, since pâté doesn’t exactly grow per se.

Oh, and we had delicious Scharffen Berger dark chocolate with cacao nibs, courtesy of Beth and Rob.

Lunch was so tasty that it called for a proper nap afterwards.

Notice how were all wrapped in towels? That is because Carmel was absolutely freezing, complete with billowing pockets of fog rolling through the air.  It was unbelievably cold, despite Oakland being a toasty 80-something degrees.  Such is life. I didn’t let it rain on my… picnic?


Back in the Bay
August 29, 2010, 8:15 am
Filed under: Free Time, Miscellaneous, recipe | Tags: , ,

Well, it’s good to be home for a second before going on my big adventure.  The weather is gorgeous and never sticky-humid and the farmer’s market is in full swing as usual.  Here are few more reasons that make me love this place:

Tomatoes from my garden

The (un)official beer of wine country

The most elegant, fiercest cat around, Nekko

Eating chili and cornbread outside as the fog rolls in

Making pie with farmer’s market fruit


Padron peppers!

I was so excited to find these at the farmer’s market, from not one but TWO stands.  These are sometimes called “roulette” peppers because some are mild and some are quite spicy, so eating them is like playing a game of Russian roulette with your taste buds. We got a couple with some spice, but most of them were salty, smokey, slightly sweet deliciousness.  And they’re ridiculously easy: Get a little olive olive hotter than you think you should in a big saute pan. Then, dump in the pepper and toss around until blistered.  Salt generously. I used a little smoked salt, just because I like it.

First Classin’ It
August 25, 2010, 8:25 am
Filed under: Miscellaneous, Neat Experience, Travel | Tags: , ,

This morning, as I’m standing in line to check my baggage at the American Airlines terminal in JFK to fly home, I received the call that no one wants to receive: an automated voice informing me that my flight has been cancelled. First of all, since when do airlines call their passengers’ cell phones? Has this been around and I’m just behind the times? Am I wrong it being a little weirded out by this? It reminded me of the time when my future (at the time) college called me to tell me that I was accepted in lieu of a letter or email.  It just strikes me as odd to receive such official, impersonal calls on my cell.  Never mind.

So for a few minutes I felt my day switch from mildly annoying, as most traveling days are, to really, really dreadful.  But what’s that you say? You’re getting me onto the next flight? In first class? For no extra charge? Well, I guess I’ll go with that.

An hour and a half of delays later (due to more technical difficulties… maybe it’s time to replace those planes, AA?) I truly appreciated my upgraded seat.  I got to collapse into a seat that was actually comfier than the waiting area seats and was promptly offered water, orange juice or Cava.  I couldn’t help but feel more than a twinge of guilt as I watched the coach passengers boarding the plane—I know their pain, I really do.  They charge eight dollars for a fleece blanket and square foot pillow back there, and here I was with a puffy comforter and fully reclining seat. I even wore sunglasses so people would think I was famous, since only celebrities get to ride first class.  I’m pretty sure  it worked.

As they passed out the menu, I had a flashback to middle school, when all three grades would draw cards with a number one, two or three, which represented different economic statuses.  Of course there were by far the most threes who would be stuck with just rice and water dyed with brown food coloring, followed by a large number of twos whose lunch consisted of rice with beans and tortillas, and just a few ones, who got a fancy sit down lunch complete with soda (!).  Drawing a one was a Big Deal.  I felt like I had just drawn a one.

The nice thing was that I was sitting next to a boy who had also been given an upgrade and was riding first class for the first time, so we got to ooh and aah at things together.  I felt like Corduroy Bear, saying, “I’ve never had (blank) before”.  Though it could have been funny to sit next to someone really disaffected about the whole thing, getting impatient for their warm towelette and such.

Here’s the menu:

And the wine list: (I had to text my dad before take off to check if this was free) (It was)

And so the journey began with warm nuts and a glass of North Coast Cab, Lot 205 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 to be exact.  It was a true California Cabernet in so many ways—hugely driven by red and black fruit, ridiculously ripe and juicy and the palate, with a strong dose of oaky spices and a stronger dose of alcohol.  In real life, this would never be my first choice, but at thirty-something-thousand feet in the air, in a seat that rivaled the comfort of my dorm bed, it somehow felt right in its excess.

I couldn’t help but picture the glass-stealing scene from the original Home Alone.  No, I did not actually do a reenactment.  And I’m pretty sure the stemware was not crystal.

I chose the Cabernet Sauvignon because my main course was filet of beef, and I so rarely eat intense red meat like that, so I wanted to try the classic combo.  You know, while flying in first class.  Drinking red wine with my dinner entrée.  The usual.

Next came the appetizer course:

A green salad with tomatoes, mozzarella and balsamic vinaigrette along with some prosciutto and melon puree and a warm roll.  The salad was tasty, as was the prosciutto though it was a bit dry.  The dinner roll, though not a hockey puck, was also pretty dry, but I was okay with that, since I had so much other food.

Now the entrée:

Beef Fillet with Demi-Glace with mashed potatoes and vegetable medley.  The beef portion was huge; I definitely couldn’t finish it.  To their, whoever “they” are, credit, it was actually fairly moist and still slightly pink inside.  If I were in a steakhouse, not that I’ve ever actually been to a steakhouse, I would probably consider it over done, but this being an airplane I’m not sure I would want it less cooked.  The mashed potatoes were ok, once I got over the sour cream flavor that I didn’t see coming.  And the carrots, onion and squash were… very, very soft.  But I do appreciate vegetables, so thanks for that American Airlines.  The real problem was actually just the tiny little serving dish it came piled on, making it really difficult to cut the steak.  Good thing they had given me three or four napkins by then.

And just before landing they gave us cookies that are apparently somehow baked on board, and a glass of milk.  It was a pretty good cookie, not gonna lie.

Now I realize that I recently compared eating Iberico ham to riding first class, and claimed that tasting said ham made going back to other cured pork difficult.  I’m afraid the same is likely true for air travel.  But, like cured hams, experiencing the less fantastic options only makes the more fantastic even better.  Assuming I ever wiggle my way onto first class again.

My favorite kind of class
August 22, 2010, 2:13 pm
Filed under: Free Time, Travel | Tags: , ,

Last Saturday, a friend and I went to Millbrook Vineyard’s and Winery for a wine and food pairing class given by Professor Weiss, the wine teachers here at school who’s class I tutor (the same one who invited me to this).  The seminar focused on New World versus Old World wines, with tasting plates of food made to pair well with the nine featured wines, each course pitting one of Millbrook’s Reserve wines against an Old World wine or two.

I had tasted Millbrook’s wines at school, but never been to the vineyards and winery, so it was a pleasant surprise to see how pleasant it is.

Peach tree

The seminar took place under a big white tent in front of a lake, set up with rows of small tables.  We took our seats as the staff finished setting out the glassware.  Before diving into eating and drinking, Professor Weiss gave an abbreviated lecture on the basics of food and wine pairing—complementing ingredients in a dish with similar flavors in the wine, contrasting fatty foods with highly acidic wines, etc.

Then came the first course, a composed plate of watermelon and cucumbers in a light vinaigrette with chunks of feta cheese and a crostini.  The wines were a Portuguese Vinho Verde, Cave Spring Riesling from Canada, and Millbrook’s Tocai Friulano.  The Tocai Friulano has an interesting story: Tocai is a grape varietal from Friuli, Italy, where the wine used to go by the same name.  But now Italy legally can’t label its wine “Tocai” because Hungary makes a famous sweet wine called Tokaij (pronounced the same way), which they are very protective of since it is all they’re really famous for in terms of wine so they filed a lawsuit against Tocai Friulano.  The whole story sounds very charmingly European to me, though I doubt that Italy finds it charming.  Long story short, Millbrook is legally allowed to call they’re wine Tocai Friulano, and are therefore one of the only wineries in the world to make such a wine.  It’s basically their claim to fame.

But how does it taste?  The Tocai had aromas of white stone fruits and minerals that both carried through on the palate along with lemon and little herbal bitterness, almost like parsley.  It was very refreshing with the cucumbers, and the salt in the feta played well with the slate-y flavors, but the watermelon was too sweet for the very dry wine, making it taste almost sour.  The Riesling, on the other hand, was a delicious match for the entire dish, due to the touch of residual sugar and very high acid, along with a somewhat vegetal finish of green apple and celery leaves.  But, I’m also just a fan of Riesling to begin with.  The Vinho Verde was good too, but I can’t help but have trouble taking it seriously—it’s very low alcohol, very cheap, and a little spritzy.  I’ve heard it called a patio pounder on more than one occasion.  That said, it too was very refreshing and went well with the entire salad, the citrusy flavor complementing the watermelon and the spritz cutting through the fat and salt of the cheese.  That’s Old World 1, Millbrook 0.

The grapes are almost ready for harvest

The next course was grilled polenta with grilled zucchini, paired with a Chassagne-Montrachet from the Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France and Millbrook’s Reserve Chardonnay.  Putting your own wine against a premier cru? Gutsy move, Millbrook, gutsy move.  In general, I’m not really a fan of most New World Chardonnay, finding the oak to be overpowering.  Sure enough, the first thing I smelled in the Millbrook glass was butter and toasted marshmallows, neither of which I’d like to drink.  The taste was more balanced than I expected, with some fruit and acid, but I still wasn’t sold on it.  The Chassagne-Montrachet was much more restrained, with both oak and fruit on the nose, namely yellow apple and peach along with some lemon zest—very sunny.  (As a note, the majority of the attendees agreed that they preferred the Millbrook wine, so maybe I’m just weird) However, the rich polenta overpowered the Burgundy, making it taste almost watery, but the fuller body (a product of oak) of the Millbrook stood up to dense texture and smoke from grilling.  Lesson learned; OW and MB tied one to one.

Obligatory barrel room

The third dish was salmon with tomato confit, but the salmon was ridiculously over cooked, which I think affected how it paired, since it was very dry instead of moist and fatty.  It was paired with a Chambolle Musigny from Cote de Nuits, Burgundy and the Millbrook Reserve Pinot Noir.  Another very risky move, cocky even, on Millbrook’s part.  And again, I preferred the French version.  I found it to be more complex, with ripe cherry aromas that became under ripe on the palate, backed by a hint of mushrooms and high acidity.  The Millbrook Pinot Noir was ripe on both the nose and the palate, as is common for New World wines in many cases.  It was in no way unpleasant, just less intriguing.  Again, a majority of the other attendees preferred Millbrook’s version.  In terms of pairing, both worked, although I wish the salmon had been a little less dried out, to see how the higher acid of the Burgundy would interact with the fat.  The tomato confit actually complemented both wines, bringing out the fruit in each while adding a rich mouthfeel to stand up to the acidity.  OW 2, MB1.

The final course consisted of a Moroccan spiced lamb kebab with mint pesto, Israeli couscous and seasonal vegetables.  This was paired with Millbrook Reserve Cabernet Franc and Joguet Chinon, a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley in France.  I have only tasted a few Cabernet Francs, so I was less sure of what to expect with this one.  The Chinon had plum, rasp- and blackberry aromas along with an almost dirty note, like wet forest floor or a kalamata olive pit, in a good way.  The Millbrook was distinctly more fruit driven, with red plum, berries and baking spices on the nose and palate. The spices on the lamb contrasted the damp earth of the Old World Cab Franc while complementing the warm spices in the New World wine.  I must secretly like the taste of dirt, because I preferred the Chinon to the Millbrook, though I did enjoy both; I’ll give them both a point on this one.  OW 3, MB 2.

For desert we got to pluck the juiciest, fuzziest peaches off of a tree right outside the tent, and then tipsily try to eat the whole thing before nectar ran down our arms.  This may have been the highlight of the evening.

The End

August 9, 2010, 11:20 pm
Filed under: Miscellaneous, Neat Experience, recipe | Tags: ,

So one day I got a call from the department that hooked me up with Teen Kids News, asking if I would do a short press release for the school website.  When I got to the room where they said they would meet me, I found it was a TV studio that I had not known existed.  Interesting.

I met Paul Wigsten, a local farmer who is also in charge of all of the produce buying for CIA.  I’m pretty sure he could answer everything I could ask about fruits and vegetables, and then tell me about the things I don’t even know to ask about.  He just wrote a book about produce, which is why we were doing this press release, and since it’s august the topic was melons.  Here it is:

Ok, it’s a little silly and a little awkward, but considering that we shot it in one take, I’d say it’s not too bad.  And I really did learn something about melons.  Didn’t you?

Pigging Out
August 7, 2010, 9:27 pm
Filed under: Free Time, Miscellaneous | Tags: ,

Though I’ve heard some claims that bacon’s fanatical popularity is waning, it seems to be as disputed an allegation as that the economy is on the verge of resurrection.  Especially when there are so many events devoted solely to cured pork products. Like Hog Heaven at the Pasta Shop in Berkeley.  There was certainly no lack of enthusiasm for sausage there, though bacon was slightly under represented compared to prosciutto and various sausages (there was even some domestically made speck, though it wasn’t as smokey as most of the imported kind).  The way the event was set up reminded me of the Madeira Tasting I went to, except with ham on toothpicks instead of glasses of wine, and it was open to the salted pig-loving public.  Check it out!

Fra’Mani actually brought their own electric slicer.  Those are really heavy!

The wild boar sausage from Creminelli had a relatively distinctive flavor, much deeper and gamier than the rest of samples.

There has to be at least some bacon at an event devoted solely to preserved pork.  Right?

Iberico ham! Yes! The rest of the tastings were all delicious, but nothing can compete with Iberico ham.  It’s like comparing tobiko to Osetra caviar, or flying American Airlines coach to first class on AirFrance .  Really, two basically separate experiences.  Iberico ham has this creamy sweetness behind the initial salt flavor, and it just melts on your tongue. And this guy was cool enough to cut it by hand.  I kind of wanted to hug him.

I can’t see cured pork losing very much ground in the near future.

Mmmmm Ricotta
August 4, 2010, 5:53 am
Filed under: Free Time, Miscellaneous, recipe | Tags: , ,

I can’t think of anything easier than making fresh ricotta.  Seriously, it’s easier than pasta (the timing of cooking pasta stresses me out, and tongue burns are not unheard of).  Ricotta on the other hand comes together in a snap and tastes at least 22 times better than the store bought stuff.

Still don’t believe me?  Check it out:

Combine one gallon of whole milk and one quart of buttermilk in a large pot (or any amount, keeping a 4:1 ratio of milk to buttermilk) I try to use the least pasteurized milk possible, since I’m pretty sure that ultra-pasteurization messes with the milk’s ability to form curds.  And ultra-pasteurization strikes me as unnecessarily sterile as it is.  Just plain silly, really.

Before turning on the heat under your pot of milk, set up a cheesecloth lined colander over a bowl to catch the whey, which can be used for lots of fun side projects, like lacto-fermented pickles!

Now that we’re all set up, turn on the heat to medium high and stir the mixture occasionally with a strainer.  At first nothing will happen, but all of a sudden tiny curds will form and separate, leaving a milky-watery liquid (this is whey). Use your strainer to scoop out the curds as they form and let them drain in the lined strainer. Repeat until curds stop forming. At this point there will be a mass of watery cheese curds in the colander:

Pink spatula is necessary

Now let the warm curds drain until they look like ricotta:


If it’s the first time you’ve done this, I highly suggest simply mixing your cheese with sea salt and black pepper, drizzled with a little good olive oil and eating it with a spoon, or maybe on a delicious piece of sourdough toast.  I do love sourdough toast.

Having made it a few times, I was in the mood for an experiment, so I MacGyvered a stove top smoker out of an old roasting pan, a wire cooling rack, some wood chips, the colander of cheese and a lot of tin foil:

a little ghetto

After about an hour of making the house smell like a campsite (I think it would take less time in a real smoker, since there would be far less smoke leakage), my cheese had taken on a pleasantly smoky flavor and an oddly chewy texture.

The steam fogged up my camera lens

Not done yet, I mixed my smoked ricotta with some flour and eggs to make gnocchi dough.  The final dish was smoked ricotta gnocchi with fresh English peas, mint and pine nuts, served with a white Bordeaux.