Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bottle Shock

I just watched a great little movie, Bottle Shock. If you've read my post on good wines then you sort of know where I'm coming from on the subject. My pocket book isn't always willing to satisfy my taste buds. But that was ok, as long as I can manage to keep my taste buds dormant. Right now, I'm in a "need better wine" than I was a year ago. This movie nudged me into a "need much better wine" place.

The movie purports to tell the story of the historic 1976 wine competition in Paris, pitting French wines against uspstart California wines in a blind test. Alan Rickman (Snape in Harry Potter) is excellent in all his snobby Englishness as the instigator of the contest. It was precious to see him driving out to tour the Napa Valley wineries in a rented beat-up yellow Gremlin eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Californians are sort of made out to be hicks and hippies, but darn it! They do know how to make great wine!

The two main subplots going on are: Father/Son friction. Will the dad impress upon the hippie son the value of taking life seriously and making something out of himself? If he can, how will he do it? a) beat the crap out of him boxing, b) fire him

And: Who will get the girl? The cute and hardworking Mexican-American worker who knows more about winemaking than these gringos he works for because he was born with vinyard dirt under his finger nails, and they came later and thought they could just "learn it?" Or the pretty-boy hippie with the really bad hair (hey, it was the 70's; but truthfully, I was in high school in 1976, and Ididn't know anyone with hair quite like that!) who partied, drank, and womanized, but did have a truck instead of a motorcycle with a sidecar. Your guesses are a) the Mexican American, b) the White Hippie, c) both.

The scenes showing people tasting the wines do what well-done food commercials do-- make you want to get some of that. You think, Yes! Sit me by an upturned wine barrel at the edge of a grassy bluff overlooking some of the most gorgeous vineyard scenery in Sonoma County (yes, they filmed it there instead of Napa County) on a warm summer day; surround me with half a dozen wine tastes in tall stemware, and then top it off by having one of the friendly workers bring around a stone bowl of freshly made guacamole and chips.

Come to think of it, that's probably why I bought to two avacodos to go with the Clos du Bois Cab I opened that night...

As the competition approaches, the tense moment of the movie comes when the main character wine maker thinks his wine is spoiled and sends it off to the dump in despair. Who will save the wine? Who will save the day? Yes, it really was tense, but we already know the movie has a happy ending. Yay California! Yay Napa Valley Wines! Makes me proud to be a Californian.

Of course, all the details in the movie can't be true. That's the way "based on a true story" works. But, happily, the important details are true, and even some of the less important details. You can find out what is fact and fiction by going here.

I'd recommend this movie. Just make sure you have a nice California Chardonnay or Cabernet at hand to make it a holistic experience.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In Search of… The Perfect Cup of Coffee.

Grinders I have Loved

Some kids are born coffee drinkers. Some have to learn it. I think I was a born coffee drinker, but didn’t realize it until some time around the 5th grade. My friend and I were at a PTA meeting at the school, (big event of the month when you live in the country and go to a little K-8th country school) and she pointed to the big coffee urn, “Let’s get a cup of coffee!” No one told us we couldn’t, so we acted like it was no big deal and dispensed a cup. She loaded hers with cream and sugar. After trying it, that was when I realized I liked mine black.

My coffee consumption was never quite the same after I married a sailor. We had more coffee makers, coffee cups, Thermoses and other paraphernalia than I’d ever seen in one house. Coffee all morning, coffee in the afternoon, and after dinner coffee. With all this coffee, all that was bad or boring began to rear its ugly head. Namely, MJB and generic. After I struck that from my short list, I started trying to pay attention to what tasted best instead of what was the best price.

The problem was, once in a while, once in a great while, I would get a great cup of coffee. This was before Starbucks, Peets, and all those other little high quality coffee shops. Farmers was the usual restaurant brand. And sometimes, when that cup was made from extraordinarily fresh coffee and clean pure water, and you could taste what it was meant to be. You could shut your eyes and be climbing the mountain with Juan Valdez and his burro, picking only the ripest beans, it would feel like Christmas, the way it was meant to be, you had just discovered a new taste bud, which had finally woken up; in short, coffee that tasted as good as it smelled.

At first, I thought Folgers was pretty good. Then I found that Yuban was a little richer. then I discovered the little one pound cans of S&W.

One day I noticed what I had never seen in a grocery store: coffee beans. Bins of roasted coffee beans for sale. They were such a novelty, I didn’t want to run them through the store grinder, but take them home and see what I could do with them. Maybe, just maybe this was the key to good coffee. Fresh grind! I pulled out the little German made hand coffee grinder and ground what was probably its first batch of beans in its life. It’s former life as a shelf decoration was over! The grounds were very coarse, but smelled wonderful. For probably a year we ground away, making coffee from coffee beans.

When blade grinders hit the market, I was ready. So far I have gone through about 4 of them. Advantages: a fine grind, fairly convenient. Disadvantages: noisy, can heat up the grinds. There was always a routine in the daily grind. Measure out, cap it, plug it in, press the button, shake shake, SHAKE shake, slap, slap, shake shake, let go the button, turn upside down, SLAP SLAP, shake. Pull lid containing grinds off and dump into coffee filter.

One thing we only did in emergencies—use the supermarket grinder. Because somebody before you ground chocolate raspberry coffee. Even in the one that is off limits to flavored coffee. Trust me.

Getting tired of the grinding routine, I’ve done a little research on grinders and discovered that the grinder to have is a conical burr grinder. Not just a burr grinder, but a CONICAL burr grinder (translate: expensive). Well lo and behold, the gourmet kitchen store in town was going out of business and had their stock at 40 percent off. On the table was a Breville conical burr grinder, for about $50. One left. My husband snatched it up.

We’ve been using it for several weeks now, and I love it! It is quiet, precise, grinds out the perfect measure and only requires a little tap tap to cut the static electricity from sending the grounds flying when you open the lid.

So I’m that much closer to the perfect cup of coffee. But I’ve been thinking lately, how much better could it be if I roasted my own beans?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Me, Hungry?

For some reason hunger has been on my mind lately. Before I go any further, I should make a disclaimer, I haven’t been hungry lately. In fact, I have rarely been more than moderately hungry at times throughout my life. I should be hungry, seeing as how I am still on my New Year’s Resolution diet, but I find hunger to be unpleasant, and somehow I always find myself in the position of trying to fix it when I feel a twinge of emptiness. One of our goals of this current eating plan has been to fix boring food. We had the idea that if the meal was boring, we would only eat enough to kill the hunger and not be motivated by taste or other eating pleasures. There have turned out to be two things wrong with that. For one, I love to cook and take pride in the finished product. I thrive on compliments. So far, I just have not been able to make myself cook up a big pot of beans and rice to eat from all week long. Secondly, even the lowliest food can surprise you with its savory delectableness. A few days ago, I thought I’d try something new and cook up a pot of red lentils. All I did was to fry up a little minced bacon, cook chopped onions in the bacon grease, add a mashed garlic clove, and then boil the lentils in it, seasoning with a little vegetable bouillon and pepper. I’ve eaten it for lunch three days in a row now; one bowl for my stomach, one bowl for my mouth. Boring is not working well; hunger is being held well at bay. How many mothers have tried to guilt their children into finishing the food on their plate by telling them to “think of all the starving children in China!” Trying to make sense of that, I’d guess it’s more an admonishment to not be wasteful, since the issue of starving Chinese children doesn’t come back up. My mother always felt that unwanted, unneeded food on the plate was better off in the garbage than in the stomach—it was wasted either way. Famine in China isn’t in the news today, but many innocent and na├»ve schoolchildren bumped up against the idea for the first time when they had to read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. There were a few shocking and unpleasant themes in the story, such as the lowly status of the peasant wife whose feet had remained unbound and uncrippled, dooming her to a lower place in society. But one scene has left a gritty taste in my mouth, when the family eats dirt to fill their starving bellies. Some months ago, I read stories of “starvation cookies” consumed by many poor people in Haiti. These cookies have always been around, mostly for medicinal purposes such as the dangerous, unproven method of adding calcium to a pregnant woman’s diet. They are cheap, about 5 cents each. A little bit of butter and salt is mixed in with “edible” clay, shaped into a small disc, and left to dry in the hot sun. With the steeply rising food prices and general poverty in the Caribbean nation of Haiti, many people have turned to eating these mud cookies for their 3 squares a day. And now, of course, after the earthquake, millions more may be starving. I’m grateful to live in America, where hunger is at least a step further away than it is in many countries, and we have more of a choice in determining our own destinies. But while I’m taking care of my own little hungry munchies, I hope that I can remember the “starving children in China,” not just to feel guilty, but to give or do something to help my neighbor, or my neighboring country, in need.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Decorating With Food

Food is wonderful! It smells good, it tastes delicious, it is attractive. It makes nice sizzling or crispy sounds. It feels lusciously creamy or munchy in the mouth. All together, when a plate is well-arranged with the meal, it is indeed, a three dimensional work of art!

But sometimes, food enters that other realm of art. That is, well, art. For some reason, the concept of using food to create arts and crafts is highly interesting to a kid. And adults have relied on this well-beloved tool for years to handle sessions of craft projects for kids in Sunday School classes, summer camp, grammar school, and at home in the kitchen. First, let’s consider the King of Decorative Food- Pasta.

I can’t believe that any kid has not gotten through childhood without creating a masterpiece of macaroni. I well remember my very first macaroni marvel. I was in the 5th or 6th grade when the teachers introduced the Christmas Gift project of the year. We were to bring in some kind of round carton, oatmeal containers being the most common. I brought an empty cardboard can of Jolly Time popcorn, which was about the size of a number 2 tin can. We glued elbow macaronis here and there about the container and then applied the ingredient that made the magic-- gold metallic spray paint. The idea was to fill them with candy and give them to a deserving old person. I reasoned that my grandma was old, so I gave mine to her.

The other glorious thing about macaroni is that it is jewelry-like. That is, it has holes you can string yarn through. A breakthrough came for me as a parent and Sunday School teacher when I learned how to color it with paste food color and isopropyl alcohol. I think the kids actually preferred Froot Loop necklaces, but at least they still had something to take home when we used noodles.

Potatoes are an under-rated resource for Decorating with Food. A potato half, a butter knife, poster paint and paper can help the creativity flow for a young artist. Admittedly, the butter knife was more of a hindrance than a steak knife would have been, but then again, I was only in second grade. In the meantime, I have learned that very respectable Asian artists make fish prints, in which they take a fish, dip it in paint, and press it on paper. And then sell it. Yes. At least with the potato, I carved a C for Carolyn, did a little work to clean it up, and then start printing.

A very beautiful craft project from church camp utilizing seeds and beans in a mosaic sort of way is one I remember well, mostly because I never got to finish mine. They ran out of most of the seed varieties before it was my turn. It was a rooster, cut out of corrugated cardboard with the different sections outlined, and written in each was the kind of seed or bean that needed to be glued in. It used lots of popcorn kernels. Which makes me think of the corn palace in the Midwest, created out of corncobs.

One crafty food project that I’m just as glad I never knew about when I was a kid is finger painting with pudding. That just seems too wrong, somehow…

Of course, once you get into high school, the whole emotion changes in Decorating with Food, as you know if you have ever been in the cafeteria during a food fight.

What are your favorite decorating moments in which food was the primary ingredient? It doesn’t count when the final aim is to eat the project!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Suzy Homemaker

When I was a kid, my favorite book around the holidays was the Christmas catalog. Between that and commercials in between cartoons on Saturday mornings, I always knew the things that would bring me happiness. I can't remember exactly how old I was when I coveted a Suzy Homemaker oven that really baked. I didn't know just how it baked, but the commercials showed little girls my age pulling out cute little cake pans with baked cakes in them, and then the finished product: charming little frosted layer cakes the perfect size for a tea party.

It's really a good thing for a kid to have time to want something. That allows the most fun of a toy: the fantasy. For probably a year I dreamed of how adorable, how fun it would be to make the little cakes, the little pies, the tiny cookies. I'd make them by the dozen; I'd serve them to my sisters and my friends. I would heat up little pots of soup or hot chocolate on the burners. It would be my VERY OWN kitchen appliance! Now, just so you know, I was already baking and cooking things in the regular appliances in our kitchen. This just seemed so much more personal!

Lo and behold, I got one for Christmas! It looked just like the picture except mine was an earlier model that had silver colored burners. From the beginning, there was one minor setback- the burners were just for looks; they didn't heat up. Oh well, I could enjoy pretending. When we opened the box, we found out how the oven cooked: a 100 watt light bulb. It hadn't occurred to me that there wouldn't be a regular burner, but I was game to try it.

Along with the Suzy Homemaker oven, I got a wonderful assortment of miniature pots and pans. There were tiny animal cookie cutters and a cookie sheet, various pots with lids, little metal fry pans, and a little muffin pan that made little bundt shaped muffins that was only about 3" by 4". I couldn't wait to get started.
We didn't buy the little cake packets made for it; we bought the little boxed Jiffy Cake Mixes and I tried to be sparing about how much batter I put in the little prepared pan.
Do you know how long it takes for a 100 watt light bulb to bake a chocolate cake 4 inches in diameter and about 3/4 inch high? About an hour. But that wasn't the worst part. Of course it ran over, since it's almost impossible to fill a pan that small only halfway. When I saw what was happening, I tried to open the oven door to wipe it up before it baked on, but the door was locked! It had a temperature-controlled safety switch that kept tender little fingers from burning themselves on the hot oven contents. So I had to finish baking the cake, then unplug it, then wait about another 20 minutes for it to cool down enough to release the safety switch. My intentions had been to bake two layers and then frost them in a pretty little layer cake-ette, but I was hungry by then, and ate it straight out of the pan. Then I scraped up the spill.

If I were my mom at that time, I would have ripped out the safety device and let my budding cook use potholders like normal people!

Though the oven lacked a great deal in practicality, it had a lot of play value. My dolls and I cooked a lot of little pots of dirt-water soup. My fondest memory is of the summer that my Grandma McConnell stayed with us. She made me a batch of sugar cookie dough for my oven. I kept the ball of dough in the refrigerator, making a couple of little sheets of animal cookies every day for weeks, it seems. I remember her in the kitchen with me, cleaning things, talking to me as I rolled out my little patch of dough, making cookies and baking them in my Suzy Homemaker oven with the 100 watt bulb. I like thinking back on that time. Thank you Suzy Homemaker!

Friday, January 8, 2010


Guest blogger here! This is the oldest and most pretentious daughter of Carolyn, from over at Boots and Saddles.
Pork Roasts were a good deal at the supermarket so I decided it was high time to use some of that advice my mother had been throwing at me for 25 years. Now, I faintly remember something about pork butts being cut into 2 pieces and labeled the same for resale, HOWEVER (and this is where my mother became adamant) they are NOT the same, even if they are the SAME price. One of the pieces as a bone that looks small but gets larger and larger. You want the other half. The half that just has a tiny little bone in it.

She had gone into how to recognize the halves by shape - knowledge I could NOT bring forth as I stood forlornly at the meat department. Of course the pieces were placed in the trays as to disguise their bone content.

By much prodding and poking and glares from the meat manager, I managed to determine which of the pieces had the smallest bone and lugged my prize home.

Ugg it was big.

Decided to make pulled pork. Referenced my recipe book out that has never failed me - Better Homes and Gardens in the red plaid cover - and set to work. Soon I had piles and piles of pulled pork.
At work the next morning I announced my intention of making tamales. As I work with a predominantly mexican demographic, there was no end to the advice, the most important being:

"You can't screw it up" (apparently you can screw it up by not following the proper tamale "ritual" as I discovered after I made it and told everyone what I did)

The rest of the advice I received is in italics throughout.....

Apparently the stores only carry premade masa during a certain time period I seemed to have missed by hours.

Fortunately my co-workers came to my rescue ("masa is just masa flour and water! Sometimes lard is mixed in") and I found the masa flour.

I decided that since I had to make my own masa, I was buying sauce. I picked out the most authentic looking Mole sauce I could find, and a can of chipotle peppers in adobe sauce (my favorite). After all, I was told "Put whatever you want in them. Raisins, cheese and veggies!"

I pulled down my trusty cookbook (as aforementioned) and was horrified to see no mention of tamales! I then looked at my very authentic ingredients and realized that all directions were in spanish. Ooops.

Oh well.

Masa (corn) flour + water = masa dough. I was a bit skeptical but "voila!" like magic, just by adding water I did not create papermache paste, but rather a dough that looked, smelled and tasted like masa! Hurdle #1 crossed.

Crunchy cornhusks got soaked.

Pulled pork was mixed with enough mole to moisten and cover meat with sauce, then added 1/2 can of the peppers. It looked, smelled, and tasted like tamales. Hurdle #2 crossed.

The cornhusks were carefully laid out, a ball of masa placed on it and then smashed flat. A dollop of meat and then wrap. A couple of cheese and veggie ones made just for fun.

Now to cook. I knew they needed to cook because my co-workers had said ""Steam them until the dough is done". Very glad this was mentioned as it had never occurred to me the masa needed to cook....I used my Great Grandmothers cast iron bean pot with a steam plate in the bottom. The pot wasn't tall enough for them to stand uprights so I stuffed them in layers into the pot.

Voila! I had made tamales and they were delicious. And even better they were fun.
Apparently, at the mention of making tamales (as in, future tense), the attitude is gay and joyous. I discovered after making said tamales (as in, past tense), the attitude changes to very serious as they grill you to determine whether you followed the proper protocols for tamale making.

Apparently there are all sorts of rituals I had failed to observe:
  • The masa is only applied to the smooth side of the husks. Never the rough side.

  • The small scraps of husks left over are used to make a cone in the center of the steaming pot, around which the tamales are placed upright for proper steaming.
  • To determine whether the amount of mixing is sufficient for the masa, you must plunk little balls of masa into water to see if they float

  • Some of the sauce is mixed in the masa for ease of mixing and flavor.

  • After making tamales, it is an obligation to share with co-workers.

I was only released after a lady assured them that I would be invited to her house the next time she made tamales, so that I could make them "properly".

In the meantime, I may be able to tell good wine from mediocre, but a tamale is just a tamale!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Comfort Food

The days have been cold, damp and foggy. We have been keeping a fire in our wood-burning stove smoldering all day long for the last week. In the morning, I stir up the leftover coals and add a fresh stick of oak to bring the temperature up to my comfort level. It’s so dim because of the dark foggy day, that I turn on lights wherever I go. Each morning, I enjoy a few minutes of bright warm sun in my face. I slowly wake from sleep at 6 a.m. feeling the bright beams of summer sun flooding through my eyelids. As I become more awake, I try to prolong the fantasy by silently repeating to myself, the sun is shining, the sun is shining… until I open my eyes and it’s only my sunrise clock and the windows are black. These are perfect days for Comfort Food.

Comfort Foods are very interesting to me, because they have nothing to do with favorite foods. Favorite foods are for a night out at a nice restaurant, for a party, or for impressing your dinner guests. Favorite foods are what you choose for your birthday dinner. My favorite foods are nicely seasoned, piquant, spicy, have a mix of textures and even a mix of temperatures. I like the hot fudge dressing the cold vanilla ice-cream on a sundae. I like a crunchy salad topped with creamy, tart goat cheese and candied pecans. My favorite Chinese restaurant dish is hot and spicy basil chicken. I love a well-cooked ham, salty, tender, and covered with a honey glaze. But when I’m depressed, sick, or cold, I turn to Comfort Food.

I believe that Comfort Foods are mostly created in childhood. Not only is it good food, but it brings back nostalgic homey feelings of being cared for and nurtured. It’s easy food; no theatrics or issues surround it. It was made often and has an inherent identity in your family, sometimes ethnic, sometimes regional.

My Comfort Food is long-cooked plain pinto beans with either a few strips of bacon or a ham bone for seasoning. Salt to taste. Add a pan of cornbread. One big piece goes in the bowl of beans. For this reason the beans must have plenty of liquid to soak into the cornbread. The other piece of cornbread on my plate has a pat of butter and a spoon of honey pushed into it. As a kid, I never would have chosen this meal to be my food therapy, my Comfort Food. It was boring. It was all too frequent. There were other effects. So it was with some surprise that, once I was grown, I recognized what my Comfort Food was. You don’t choose it; It chooses you.

What is your Comfort Food? Stew? Meatloaf? Chicken soup? What connotations does it bring? To what place in time do you go back when you eat it? Or is it a new food you have discovered?

And now, excuse me while I go medicate myself with some pintos and cornbread.