Tuesday, May 31, 2005
I can’t stand Bobby Flay (I’ve always wanted to say that, I mean really, how many variations of Mango, Papaya, Jalapeno, Pork Loin Teriyaki Skewers can you really make?). And like most “Celebrity Chefs” Flay never explains “Why”. Like many of his brethren, Flay spews out recipes that don’t allow for deviation, or explanation of techniques, or tools. The “Why” is the most important question that never gets answered. It is assumed that if we understand the “Why”, the rest of the cooking puzzle instantly becomes less mysterious. I have never had any formal training, but I have sat through an inordinate amount of cooking classes, I have asked annoyed chefs of every nationality a thousand questions, but nothing, and I mean nothing, has satiated my cooking curiosity like Alton Brown and Good Eats.
The show: Good Eats. Sure, you’ve probably seen it on the channel guide, maybe you even watched it for a few moments, only to wonder what this guy is doing in a grocery store riding in a shopping cart. It’s a very goofy show. Maybe I should start from the beginning. Alton Brown is a Film Guy. He spent many years in Hollywood, directing all sorts of stuff. Eventually, he became disenfranchised with a) Hollywood, b) cooking shows. He and his wife up and moved to Vermont to go to Culinary School to do something about it. After graduating, he started his show, Good Eats. With a serious goal: To teach people how to cook without relying on recipes.
Each episode of Good Eats is wrought with cultural references the likes of which haven’t been seen since Dennis Miller went to the Dark Side. So it is entertaining, for people with a certain sense of humor. But the format is so insanely common-sensical, it’s a wonder Food TV survived as long as they did before Brown came around. The premise is very simple; Alton tackles a specific topic. Then he guides you through the “Great American Mega-Mart” to show how to shop for the topic. Then he talks about different preparations, and invariably ends up at a “Bed, Bath and Beyond” or similar store, talking about equipment. The right knife, toaster, blender, egg-slicer, spatula, etc is of paramount importance, with absolutely no deference to brand or aesthetic. Functionality, ease of use, and value are the prerequisites for any item. To reinforce his opinions, he often brings in a wide array of experts from his local neighborhood Fish-Monger, to Nutritional Anthropologists, to Food Scientists, For visual aids, he uses a standard mix of styrofoam balls, garden hoses and finger puppets, which further help to explain the science behind the way we cook. All to answer that allusive question, “Why?”. And yet, each episode is just 30 minutes long.
Check your listings for Good Eats, times may change, but it usually air Monday-Friday at 7pm, 10pm, and 10:30pm. I just TiVo it, and watch it whenever I am in the mood. I even watch episodes that I’ve already seen repeatedly. Aside from The Simpsons and Seinfeld, nothing holds up to repeated viewings better than Good Eats. It simply re-affirms, and re-ingrains what you have already learned.
His, is the most noble of pursuits, to teach. And while entertaining and silly, Alton Brown has greatly improved my quality of life. He has taught me how to do something that I thought I already knew how to do, cook. And now, I’m a pretty good cook. I still make plenty of mistakes, and I need to practice some techniques, but, if I fail, I always know why. Cooking should be like playing music or painting, not like assembling a swing set. Alton Brown gives you the tools to make cooking a form of art.
BBQ season is upon us. Now, to many Midwesterners, including myself, traditionally this meant one of a few types of cuisine: Either the Sausage subset (a gourmet approach would be to marinade in beer for several hours beforehand), or the burger subset. Deviation of either of these two disciplines usually resulted in charred, relatively expensive cuts of meat that I felt best served in a restaurant on someone else’s tab. And next to the grill would be copious amounts of beer, preferably canned, perhaps eventually instrumental in the demise of aforementioned expensive cuts of meat. This scenario really refers to my college years and early 20’s. Since I have been involved in the Wine & Food industry, I have found the necessity to feign some level of sophistication, along the way, I discovered that a good bottle, or more, of the right wine, can elevate the event of grilling to levels never seen during the reign of the mind numbing, canned Old Milwaukee’s Best Ice Light.
Last week I was visiting with Jim Heltebrake of Anderson’s on Talmadge. He asked about what my next article topic would be, and I told him that I was working on an article about wine and grilling. His eyes lit up, and he spoke in an inspired tone about how grilling and wine can be ritualistic, and how opening a bottle when you first light the grill can, and should be a symbiotic experience. As you pour your first glass, the wine helps to get your juices flowing, both creatively, and digestively. So, with source of inspiration in hand, how do you select the perfect grilling wine?
Anyone that knows me will roll their eyes when they read this next line: Dry Rosés are summertime in a glass! I beat this drum incessantly, and every time the weather warms up, I tell myself that this will be the summer that America finally gets it! Dry Rosés are perfect for a warm summer day, lighting the grill, and noshing on any number of classic BBQ (The noun, not the verb) starters. Rosés are, essentially red wines, with less concentration (yes, they are pink, but that doesn’t make them any less manly). They generally have less structure and extraction than their red brethren, but are made from red grapes such as Pinot Noir, Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Franc or a host of other red varietals. They are best served with a slight chill, and they are never, ever sweet unlike White Zinfandel.
Speaking of Zinfandel, the red version, or as most people like to call it, just Zinfandel, is perfect for many types of grilling as well. For under $20, you can usually score with a Spicy, ripe, juicy Zin from Sonoma. I have been fortunate enough to sample Wine & Cuisine from some of the best chefs and winemakers in the world, but the single greatest wine and food pairing moment for me came unexpectedly last year. My Chef Friend Chris, made his signature Chipotle Ribs for an event, and I non-chalantly paired it with a $13 bottle of Zinfandel. It was the most perfect pairing I have ever seen, and it was so, American.
As I began experimenting with the grill, and bringing in new proteins, and sauces, I found that if it’s grilled, it’s easy to match wine with. I always recommend a Spanish Grenache, a Cru Beaujolais, or the right Aussie Shiraz with the grill. Don’t take my word for it, try it yourself, and send me your results. And as always, shop for wine only in an establishment where the staff is based in the wine department, and are knowledgeable, otherwise you are just giving your money to people in a marketing department somewhere.
An open letter to Toledo,
You can affect change in this city. The food and wine culture can be improved. The resources are available, and it won’t cost you a thing. When we speak of Great Cities throughout the world, one of the first things we mention is Restaurants. Museums and Architecture are important too, but, that’s not the focus today (although, Toledo pretty much has the whole Museum and Zoo thing covered).We need to collectively change the way we think about food and wine in this city.
I know that Toledo is referred to as a restaurant capital. There is some sort of stat. out there that says that we have more restaurants per capita than any other city. So Toledoans are accustomed to going out to eat. Also, Toledoans have as much if not more discretionary income than most Midwest cities, and believe it or not, they spend as much per capita as most cities in Ohio. So, a conclusion can be drawn that Toledoans, relatively speaking, have cash to burn, and they spend it, and they go to restaurants at a record setting rate. Only one problem, Toledoans love Chain Restaurants.
Now I worked in Chain Restaurants. They can be well-run organizations that treat their employees and customers quite well. They can be also be quite involved in community events, and they can be very charitable. But in a city like Toledo, they suck the personality and culture out of the restaurant scene. Take anybody on the street, blindfold them, and stick the back of a van (just an example, please don’t do this), drive around for 3 hours, and drop them on Dussel Drive. Then, ask them what city they’re in. It would be impossible to determine, because every city in the U.S. with a population between 100,000 and 600,000 has countless streets with Freeway access that look exactly the same. Sure, you’d recognize the Maumee Water Tower, but that’s about it. Homogenization is the arch-enemy of a distinct wine and food culture.
Toledo has ethnicity, and historic restaurants. We need to stop flocking to these chain restaurants in such droves, as long as alternatives exist. We need to make a statement to the corporations that we prefer interesting food, with interesting (not always convenient) locations. And we appreciate individuality in dining. A single restaurant is the only way to convey the true vision of a great chef, artists in their own right. Ask yourselves this, If you are entertaining guests from out of town, where do you take them to impress them? Applebees? Olive Garden? Mancy’s? The Docks? Duh! It is your responsibility to make sure that these restaurants exist in between your guest’s visits. It is also your fault we have so many chains. But it’s not too late. Again, we have a burgeoning downtown restaurant scene, downtown is 15 minutes from anywhere. Ironically, people will wait 90 minutes for generic Italian food, but ask them to drive 8 more miles, and they say it’s too far. The Drive-thru from lunch must be making them logy.
Next time you go out to eat, try someplace new. Try something you’ve never had before. There is a difference between eating and dining. Dining doesn’t usually involve toys, lunchboxes, nostalgia or any other crap on the walls. Sometimes you may even find art when you dine, again promoting that whole culture thing. Plus the independently owned restaurants don’t cost any more than the chains, and you’ll get more bang for your buck. Hey, you might even be supporting your neighbor’s business. Food and Wine is all about Discovery.
Why Pinot, Why Now?
O.K., it's because of "Sideways." But this question runs quite a bit deeper. The wine industry has seen a large increase in the amount of interest in this great varietal. Trends come and go, but it seems Americans are truly beginning to discover and fall in love with this wine for the first time.
"Because it's no f-in Merlot!"
Not eloquent, but true (at the moment). In "Sideways," Miles loathes Merlot, which isn't to say that all Merlot is bad; he just hates everything it stands for. Merlot was a varietal that saw a huge jump in popularity in the last 2 decades for 2 reasons: a) easy/ fun to say (no one knows how to say Gamay, Sangiovese, Mourvedre, or a smattering of other foreign names) b) The resulting wine was often non-offensive, non-challenging, and fruity, sort of a "hey ma, look at me, I'm drinking wine" but leaving a lot to be desired in the way of inspiration. This is all because giant conglomerate factory wineries overgrow, overfarm and under deliver a very easy grape to grow. With the exception of some vineyards in Napa, Bordeaux and a handful of other spots, Merlot is best used as a blending grape, sort of a backup singer providing harmony for the lead singer, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Pinot Noir is an ironic challenger to Merlot's throne. Pinot Noir is a grape that can't be grown just anywhere. You'd be hard pressed to find a grape that cares about its real estate more than Pinot. The soil, sun, temperature, humidity, etc, all need to be just right in order to grow this grape with any degree of success. Pinot Noir is a diva, but when it's great, it can be a religious experience. Some of the most prized and valuable wines in the world are Pinot Noir; Red Burgundy (not to be confused with hearty Burgundy) is 100 percent Pinot Noir. Echezeaux, Pommard, Gevrey-Chambertin and Domaine Romanee-Conti are all made from Pinot Noir.
In a manner of speaking, Pinot Noir has some serious wine street-cred, but why is it beginning to take hold among the masses? Well, it's good wine, and unlike some other wines, it doesn't always require that you acquire a taste for some of the flavor profiles. It is abundant in red-fruit flavors (think of fruits that are red: cherries, raspberries and strawberries), and readily pairs with just about any type of cuisine. It is arguably the most versatile wine for food pairings. It will go with anything from a spring salad to sushi to grilled lamb to heavy, hearty dishes like beef stew, and practically everything in between.
Here are a few things to remember when buying Pinot Noir:
1. Location, location, location! Burgundy is great from Oregon, specifically, Willamette Valley and Yamhill County. Carneros is great; Russian River is great; Sonoma Coast is good to great; Monterey, Santa Lucia Highlands, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande, Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley are all good to great.
Be wary of "California" bottlings. Without specific appellations, it may be difficult to determine the origin of this wine.
2. Be prepared to spend a little bit more on Pinot than you would on Merlot, but you can't compare apples and oranges. A $15 Pinot will blow the doors off of any Merlot in the same ballpark; there just aren't too many Pinots at the $8-$12 price range.
3. Say this as your daily mantra: "I will not shop for wines in a chain grocery store." The only exception in Toledo would be any of The Anderson's Stores. The reason is very simple. Grocery stores have hundreds of locations. To have consistent product selection from one store to the next, you need mass quantities of a particular wine. This is never a good thing, especially when it comes to Pinot Noir. Remember: small lots, small production. Walk into any of the following stores - Any Anderson's, The Vineyard, Joseph's Beverage Center, Maumee Wines, Churchill's Monclova - walk up to a person in the wine department, and trust them to put a great bottle of pinot in your hands. You can trust them, they've already tried everything on the shelves!
The once and future King…
Are you finished with your Freedom Fries yet? Good, because it’s time to revisit French Wines. Regardless of your politics, it is absolutely essential to understand and appreciate French Wines.
Now I know that the French can be infuriating. I worked for French Chefs for nearly 7 years. Some I hated (I mean, curl up in a fetal position sobbing myself to sleep, hated), and some were inspiring (Michel Richard, not to name drop, but I have to give credit to where credit is due). The French culture has such an acute understanding of wine and food. It is in their blood. The French can be an easy target. Nobody said they were tactful, that’s why we have Switzerland. But, the French are not just historically significant; they make the absolute best examples of most of your favorite varietals.
California stands on the shoulders of wine giants in most cases. Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and many more grapes that we think of as inherently California, are actually French. I love California, I lived there very happily for many years and most of my friends are in the industry, but it’s not quite the same as in France.
So the birthplace of all of the aforementioned grapes has learned where to grow these grapes through hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years of successes and failures. What that means is that most vineyards in France have the perfect varietal for that location. In the U.S. we only have the benefit of the 20th century. In California, vintners are constantly pulling up vines, and replanting, in hopes of finding the right grapes for the right place. Furthermore, these are varietals that have great names in France, but, in theory, may not be best the best grapes for the job in California. But because of varietal name recognition, we continue to buy subpar versions of many of these grapes.
The best example of the difference between French and American winegrowing (it’s really about the growing, not the winemaking) is in Chardonnay. Chardonnay is a very divisive varietal, most people love it, or hate it. But, many people are only familiar with California versions. The best Chardonnay in the world (this is a widely held belief), is from Burgundy. Yes, white Burgundy is not a Crayola Contradiction. The reason Chardonnay is so great in Burgundy is 2 reasons, long, cool growing season, a long growing season does the same thing for grapes that slow cooking does for meat, it brings out subtle characteristics, and generally makes flavors more unified. As well as helping the grapes to attain natural acidity, which is a vital structural component. And second, the soil composition. The soils in Burgundy are wrought with fossilized sea shells. This affects the drainage of the soil, as well as contributing to the ph of the wine. Again, acidity. Generalization Alert! Drink a California Chardonnay side by side with an equally priced French Wine. You will find that the California Chardonnay tastes like tropical fruit, with accents of vanilla, oak and butter (depending on the winemaking style). Can be very tasty, but is sometimes difficult to pair with food because it is missing structural components. That French Chardonnay from Burgundy will show more subtle fruit, most likely, sweet melon, maybe peaces, ripe citrus fruits, a real sense of minerality, and a mouth watering acidity, that makes it perfect for food pairing. The winemaking can often be similar, the difference is soil and climate. Technology will never replace this.
I do drink California wines, and I truly enjoy them, and sometimes it is a question of which wine I am in the mood for. I am simply trying to illustrate a sense of diversity. Wine should not be a political football. It should be something for the people from all winegrowing regions of the world to share. Boycotting French wines didn’t affect governments, but it put many Family Owned Wineries and Vineyards out of business. Not rich multinational companies, but working class farmers that only knew winegrowing for many generations back. But the real tragedy (maybe Instant Karma) is that Americans stopped experiencing many great wines from the greatest winegrowing country in the world.