The Moral Equivalent Of Playboy

Growing up, there was a point at which I discovered my Uncle’s old Playboys in my Grandparents’ attic. They were from the mid-sixties to early seventies- the golden age of the swinging Playboy lifestyle. It was a special little stash, and provided a useful education in its way.

Today, of course, such a thing is an anachronism; the Internet has taken care of that. Now I’m no prude, and have no problems with depictions of nudity or sex of any kind as long as all parties are consenting adults. That’s not where I’m going here. The main problem is that so much of it is contrived and awful, but specifically that between the implants and shaving most of the women look more like inflatable dolls than live human women. And I believe that in large part the fault for this is Hugh Hefner’s.

He gets and deserves props for helping to open up society, defeating attempts at censorship, and relaxing people’s attitudes about sex. But once the boob job was invented, he squandered an opportunity to come down on the side of good taste by declining to publish pictures of surgically enhanced women, instead enthusiastically embracing (and embracing, and embracing) women with implants. His imprimatur meant that the girl next door quickly morphed into the stripper next door, and today’s synthetic aesthetic derives directly from that choice; pre-internet he was the world’s foremost erotic tastemaker and thus had huge influence. Now, of course, he doesn’t, and Pandora’s box is waxed and wide open.

I’m not saying it’s all his fault; I’m just saying he had a chance to use his powers for good at a time when it could have made a big impact, and he didn’t. And his unfortunately immature taste no doubt played a big part in that decision.

Bear with me; this is going somewhere. Here’s an excerpt from a great recent post on Peter Liem’s blog that got me started on this rant:

While surfing the web recently, I ran across Robert Parker’s review of the 2003 Côte-Rôtie La Turque by Guigal, a wine to which he awarded 100 points. Parker writes, “This is a prodigious effort that may eclipse any other vintage Guigal has ever produced! It possesses similarities to the 1999, but it is even higher in alcohol, more unctuously textured, thicker, and longer. Encapsulate the character of this single vineyard in a top year, add more depth, intensity, alcohol, and power, and this describes this freakishly rich 2003.” Lavish praise for Parker, but to me, freakish is the operative word here. He goes on to say, “This is the stuff of modern day legends. As for what it actually tastes like, just take my notes for any of the great vintages and add more power, glycerin, alcohol, tannin, and concentration… that about defines this 2003!”

This review made me think of the third wine of our evening’s trio, the 1979 Hermitage by J.-L. Chave. The Chave estate is still one of the appellation’s greats today, but the wines of that era and this one are markedly different, and it’s hardly a surprise as to where my preferences lie. Of the magical, heartbreakingly sublime 1979, I could write, “This is the stuff of legends, a glimpse of a bygone age. Just take my notes for any of the great vintages of the modern day and add more finesse, elegance, subtlety, delicacy, complexity and grace. Take away glycerin, power, tannin and excess concentration, and subtract two percentage points of alcohol to create an even more weightless, hauntingly ethereal expression of the Hermitage hillside. That about defines this 1979.”

My taste in wine continues to evolve, and I have much to learn. But the one constant in the evolution of my taste has been steady divergence from Robert Parker’s. Prompted by his effusive raves, about 5 years ago I went through an Australian wine phase, drinking it with great pleasure. Now it makes me gag. Much New World wine does too, and the “modern” style of winemaking that is overtaking Europe leaves me cold and working overtime to find producers who reject the Parkerization of the business.

The wines he appears to like best are as fake and unbalanced as the most egregiously enhanced porn star. Top-heavy, alcoholic, reeking like candy-flavored makeup, they have abandoned Nature to become ghastly, exaggerated über-wines with too much of everything jammed into an untenably forward-leaning silhouette- all in the service of getting the big RP point score and moving more product. Whether they have any aging potential depends on where and how they are made, but in my experience many of them fall apart pretty quickly.

Parker defends himself by saying that he’s brought a higher standard of winemaking to many winemakers and regions that were sloppy and underperforming, and it may well be true; he certainly has pushed many producers away from fining and filtering. But as the first super-critic of the global wine era, he wields far too much power over producers and consumers alike. And, like Hefner, that power is in the service of a distressingly adolescent aesthetic. I have no doubt that he likes what he likes, and I have no doubt that he could crush me 1000 times out of 1000 in a blind tasting of wines from anywhere in the world. But I also have no doubt that as great and knowledgeable a taster as he may be, he has bad taste. Like Hefner, he prefers the easy lay who leads with her tits.

The best wines are marvels- the apotheosis of collaboration between us and Nature- and the best wines have pleasure to offer for the length of a human lifetime. They also capture some of the mortality that makes life so precious; when there’s a whiff of decomposition intertwined with the flowers and fruit it makes us savor the fleeting beauty of both wine and life. And that tangy, funky, earthy quality is sexy, and thus delicate. It needs to harmonize with the more hedonistic attributes, not be buried beneath them. Over time, in a great wine these two extremes- Heaven and Earth- fuse together into a sublime, holographic tapestry that comes as close to actual equivalence with our own humanity as any of our creative endeavors ever gets.

I like my wine with natural curves, some pubic (and even armpit!) hair, and a heart-shaped ass I can really sink my teeth into. I like wine that gets better, wiser, gentler, and more elegant over the course of many decades. And I like wines that are different from other wines from other places, whether they’re simple or utterly mind-blowing. The ubiquitous technological techniques like reverse osmosis and micro-oxygenation- often done secretly by high-end consultants and firms- have robbed many wines of their sexy, unique regional accents and made them into boringly similar television pageant contestants.

I now make a deliberate point of ignoring Parker ratings on wine. I buy no Bordeaux made after 1995 (not that I buy any Bordeaux any more, but that’s just a taste thing) since that’s the year that all the spoofulation machines rolled into town like a Panzer division. And I tend to look for lower-alcohol wines (though in the case of California pinot- another wine I pretty much ignore- more and more producers are artificially reducing their alcohol.) I don’t have any illusions about my influence, but I do know that there are a lot of people who feel similarly, and share my passion on the subject. For the rest of you, I will condense the full extent of my accumulated wine-drinking experience into one convenient sentence you can take with you like a wallet card next time you go to the local wine mart, and which sums up my entire problem with both of these men and their impact on their respective fields:

You can fake the tits, but you can’t fake the ass.

All Your Bouillabaisse Are Belong To Us

On Martin Luther King Jr. day we went to a splendid dinner party with the crew. The main dish was Leanne’s fish stew, which I helped prep for, and which then evolved into a collaborative effort. The base was fish broth, to which she had added shrimp (shell on) monkfish, and scallops, plus lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, ginger, garlic, and a bunch of other things, but she still wasn’t happy. John and I stood there with Jackie, tasting and adding (hot sauce, pickled stuff, mirin, salt, nam pla, shoyu, strange dried things in packages) until it reached a certain level of ooh-ness. It’s hard to quantify, but you know it when it gets there. The whole process reminded me of our time together in Hawaii, when John and I did all the cooking for the group for two weeks; it’s the closest I’ll ever get to playing with him as an equal, and the food was fucking amazing.

We finished the soup with the customary accompaniments of Thai basil, cilantro, and jalapeños, but with snow peas in place of bean prouts and a jar of our kimchi we brought over. There were many other dishes that I won’t bother to list here; it was really all about the soup. And the magic elixir, but that’s another story.

The other night when I was sick and phoned in the curry I neglected to mention a dream I had previously, served up hot and steaming from the warped place where low-grade fever and melatonin overlap: there was a black-tie event of some kind, and I decided that I didn’t want to be a waiter, so I stole a tux and bolted. The performer, a hybrid of Bob Dylan and Patton Oswalt, pointed the spot at me and made comments as I dashed through the assembled hoi-polloi to find a refuge in which to change my clothes. I ended up in the swank hotel room of some English countess and her Russian wife, who dug my subterfuge and wanted to help. I explained to their gigantic French butler that I needed some shoes, and he obliged me by bringing me two wine bottles for my feet. Before I could figure out how to break them cleanly enough to wear without lacerating myself to death, and while the countess tried to make a scarf into a bow tie, Milo came in and woke me up.

True story.

Tonight, Chris and Sirkka came over; he’s on a break from touring so we’ve gotten to see a bunch of them lately and it’s been a treat. They brought ribeyes and I took care of the rest. Using the steak as a jumping-off point, I decided to recreate the signature dish from The Good Fork which we had enjoyed so much in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago. I made brown rice, then tossed it with chopped kimchi and kimchi juice, sliced seared steak over it, and topped it with a fried egg and a sprinkle of shichimi. I made a pan sauce with drippings, our own BBQ sauce, agave, and kimchi juice and dribbled that around it all. On the side we had daikon and black radish pressure-cooked with dashi; I tok the dashi and blended it with olive oil, cilantro, and lecithin to make an emulsion. I also cooked shredded kale slowly in more dashi with lots of garlic and ginger. The kids had the last of the blood orange-grapefruit sorbet I made a few days ago (stolen partially from Brittany.) It was a pretty damn good dinner.

We had some good wine, too: for an aperitif a 2007 Caves de Lugny Mâcon-Lugny “Les Charmes” that- gratifyingly, and impressively for a $10 end-cap wine- offered some interesting minerality and citrusy character, followed by a bottle of 2006 Cereghino/Smith syrah; I went to interview them on Monday for an article (he’s the bass player from Television, and he and his wife have been making wine from Cali grapes near here for 4 years) and they gave me this bottle from our tasting to take home. It sat, open, on the counter since then because I was sick, and showed handsomely after all that time- a sure sign of something well made. They call it “San Giuseppe” after her Grandfather; it’s a play on St. Joseph, from the Northern Rhône, and one of the greatest expressions of syrah in the world, falling just short of Hermitage to the North.

By way of comparison, I opened a 2003 St. Joseph by Cave de Tain to follow it, and it was instructive. There’s nothing like the real thing, which I wrote about in the last post- the unity of fruit and architecture in the Northern Rhône is unlike any other syrah in the world- even for a simple version like this (which is not as exciting as the Cheze from the last post) but theirs is a serious effort, and offers rich pleasure wedded to substantial structure, without some of the bosomy excesses common to Cali syrah. The fact that it’s locally made- and with an immaculate punk rock pedigree- makes it even better.

An Interesting Piece Of Strange

Mired in a microbial morass, sleep-deprived, and with a heartless wife abandoning me for some girl time out at a restaurant with friends, I scoured the cupboards for something quick, easy, and kid-friendly to make for dinner. There was ground turkey in the fridge, and I was just going to make a stir-fry with that and some kale with kimchi and egg when I spotted a little jar of Poubelle Blanche‘s homemade Thai eggplant chutney. On the (half-assed, non-woodblock printed) label, she helpfully suggested mixing it with coconut milk for insta-curry. Right next to it on the shelf was a little can of coconut milk. Wheels turned.

So I took the turkey meat and mixed it with garlic, various spice powders, minced onion, and a little ginger, then used the ice cream scoop to make meatballs. I browned them in some oil with more onion, removed them, and added the eggplant paste and coconut milk. Then the meat went back in and simmered while I cooked some kale in a little leftover pork stock with fenugreek, coriander, and mustard seeds and then blended it smooth to make a pseudo-saag. We ate the kofta and kale over (also leftover) brown rice. The eggplant chutney added a nice measure of someone else’s home-cooked flavor, and surpassing convenience; such was the ease of making this that I actually had the strength to do the dishes and I was hardly crying at all when Christine got home.

The Biscuit Also Rises

We had some gravy left from the roast chicken, and the crepinettes were calling from the freezer. It was a cold, grouchy sort of day, sorely lacking in inspiration, and some serious comfort food seemed like an appropriate antidote. Biscuits popped into my mind, though I’m pretty sure I’ve never made them before; originally the thought was to make these for brunch the next morning, but then I quickly succumbed to the trashy pleasures of breakfast for dinner.

I took two of the approximately Italian-seasoned sausages and got them going in a skillet while I banged out a simple biscuit dough. Since we had no buttermilk, I combined yogurt and soymilk to pretty good effect, and my mad butter-cutting skillz ensured good loft and moisture. The crepinettes rendered off a fair amount of fat, and since there was flour on the counter I took them out and made still more gravy with their fat using some leftover pork stock from Milo’s lunch of broth and rice (he has a cold.) To this sausage gravy I then added the chicken gravy and whisked them into an unholy goodness. And I steamed some kale, not having time to do the slow-cooked thing.

To drink, a bottle of 2003 Domaine Cheze Saint Joseph cuvée Ro-Rée, which to my taste is as fine a $20 bottle as is available today. It’s such a classic Northern Rhône syrah, where the fruit never comes out in front of the structure, and that structure is so tangy, leathery, and seductively earthy that one forgets that it’s grape juice at all- it’s more like impossible spiceberries mixed with centaur sweat. I would rather drink this than a $100 California syrah any day of the week, and with the exception of say a 1998 Grange, anything at all from Australia.

Getting Baked With Medeski

When John and Debi got married, Andrew and Melissa came to stay with us for the weekend. They brought us two loaves of his mighty bread and some of the sourdough starter required for its making, and I reverently put the culture in the fridge and kept meaning to do something with it but never did. Then, recently, A&M sent us a thank you-holiday gift of some cookies and an array of bread-making tools. Shortly thereafter, Andrew put the recipe for his insane sourdough up on his blog. And then Debi called to say that they received the same toolkit, and asking would I be interested in getting together to tackle the alchemy in tandem. I said yes, yes I would.

Debi does the stretch-and-fold.

And so we did. It’s a two-stage process, with a wait of a few days in between so the dough can achieve full souritude. They came by on Monday and we mixed up a double recipe, stretched and folded it (I continued after they left for another couple of times) and put it in the fridge. Yesterday I baked off one loaf so we would have something to enjoy while we shaped, proofed, and baked theirs. It rested over night, intact, though I did have to carve off one slice to try before bed. We used the rest of it, toasted, with boucheron de chèvre on top to make a salade de chèvre chaud for lunch while we waited. I walked them through the second part, including using a Dutch oven to give the loaf a professional crust, and for the second day in a row the house filled with the divine, tangy perfume of good bread baking.

See those bubbles? Those are delicious yeast farts.

This recipe is derived from the much-ballyhooed no-knead bread that blew up the internets a while back like the Mud Shark swept the ocean, but with a little more physical handling of the dough and a longer wait. The result has has better crust and crumb, and lasts longer once baked, but the principle is the same: make the microbes do all the heavy lifting. It’s so very, very good. Now I know that most of you do not have access to this starter. But making your own really is easy, and once made it’ll last forever if you remember to feed it every month or so. This bread is so much better than anything you can probably get your hands on that the learning curve and initial effort to get going will be wiped from your mind the minute you bite down on the first crackling, tangy, chewy slice with a little cultured butter on it. Andrew has just updated his blog, and added another- exclusively for recipes- where the formula for this marvel can be found. Go there. Make it. Roll your eyes in a state of ecstatic transport. Repeat. Never buy bread again.

Hurts so good, don’t it?

Same Shit, Different Day

As inevitable as dawn, pursuant to a now-in-regular-rotation roast chicken (because we all love it so) came chicken broth. And lacking anything that screamed inspiration from within fridge, freezer, or cupboard, risotto thus seemed like a pretty good idea. I mustered spinach, leeks, and a surprise bag of frozen corn that Milo insisted upon to make what looked to be a decent complement of flavors and got to work. Working at home does allow for this sort of thing to happen on the same day, rather than needing to make the broth ahead of time; I just come in around lunch time and get the broth going, and let it simmer until I come in to make dinner. Another side benefit of this is that the house smells like my Grandmother is still alive all afternoon, as the chickeny goodness permeates the whole space.

Really the only thing that made this even a little bit special was the fact that I took one chopped leek and crisped it up in a separate pan while its sibling got all silky and melty with the broth and rice. I added the corn with about 3 minutes left, and the spinach just before serving, along with some grated parmigiano and a spoon of yogurt. Christine likes her risotto on the brothy side, unlike me, but I indulged her because there was a little broth left over and I wasn’t about to put it in a tiny container and then forget about it until it became a biological weapon in the back of the fridge. I’m altruistic like that. So it ended up nice and soupy, with extra crispy leeks on top for a crunchy garnish.

In a perfect world, I would have crisped the leeks in duck fat, but I forgot. It’s bad enough that I’m posting risotto again, but to have left out the duck fat- well, what can I say? Coming in to make the broth at lunchtime was my big culinary exertion for the day. I will say that another Ada Nada Barbaresco played a pretty ornate counterpoint to these humble embellishments on chicken soup with rice, and then even went so far as to provide a startling and awful dessert in the form of big crunchy shards of sediment at the bottom of the last glass.

Making Do

Since the gratification of the pigs’ head terrine was necessarily of the delayed variety, I was planning a stop on the way home to grab some of the good ground beef with which to make chili. Kidney beans were already a-soakin’, so it was all worked out. Then my intrepid editor handed me a nice packet of venison loin, and thus saved me a detour. It was a perfect happy delicious coincidence. I called home and Christine put the beans in the pressure cooker and fired it up.

So upon my return I gave the meat a quick sear and added it to the beans with a bunch of seasonings and a can of crushed tomatoes. After about an hour of gentle simmering, we had ourselves a pretty seriously good dinner. There was enough left that we had ourselves an even better lunch the next day; the pity of all these stewy dishes is that most of us never have the time or foresight to make them 24 hours ahead of time.

Then, on Tuesday I swung by the restaurant to see Rich and Maya and Brian again (his office is next door, lucky man) and pick up my half terrine. We sampled it there, cold, with a glass of Picpoul, and then I rushed home with our share and some provisions to complete the meal. It could have been more elegant, but I was wiped out from a party the night before (which I’ll post about if our host emails me the picture I took with his camera.)

So it ended up super-simple: the terrine, gently warmed, with toasted crusty baguette, good mustard, and some of Debi’s sauerkraut. I had planned to make banh mi with it, since head cheese is not something we often find ourselves in possession of, but I just didn’t have it in me. Honestly, this was pretty damn good, and we just about polished it off. To make up for my phone-in, the next morning I took the last bit and made a sandwich on the end of the baguette with the terrine, bacon, kimchi, and lettuce that was not the worst breakfast ever made or eaten in this world.

It’s Slobberin’ Time

I’m behind on posting, and since a couple of recent culinary activities have revolved around the pig and its myriad uses I’m going to combine two events into one porktacular post.

The other day- during our frigid cold snap, where it barely made it into double digits- I fished a big bag of pork shoulder pieces out of the freezer so Milo and I could make sausage as a fun and useful indoor activity. He loves to control the mixer speed and watch the meat come pouring out of the die. And since I had recently received some caul fat to play with, crepinettes were on my mind. Someday I’ll get a stuffer and order casings, but this way is so easy and clean I’m honestly not in much of a hurry. For the first grind I added in chopped garlic, salt, and pepper, and pushed it all through the large die. Then I divided the meat into two containers and seasoned those differently before the second grind.

The first one was a pretty straightforward Italian mix: red pepper, fennel seeds, wine vinegar, and herbes de Provence. I think I’m forgetting a couple of other things, but you get the idea. For the second half, I went in an Asian direction, using ginger, 5- and 7-spice, yuzu juice, sesame oil, and tamari. I let the mixtures sit in the fridge for a few hours to unite the flavors, then portioned them out onto rough squares I cut from the caul fat and rolled them up into packets. All told we ended up with about 6.5 lbs. of goodness, which all got bagged in portions, sealed, labeled, and returned to the freezer.

Then, on Sunday I was lucky enough to be invited to join my editor in helping to make head cheese at the home of Rich and Maya who own Elephant in Kingston. I like their food, and I was excited to participate in making something I’ve never done before. When Brian and I arrived, Rich had already been simmering one and a half heads with some aromatics for about 4 hours.

He pulled them out, set them on a sheet pan in the snow to cool, and strained the stock into another pot to reduce while we ate lunch. He made us a fitting and exquisite lunch of Spanish blood sausage, bratwurst on braised cabbage, potted chicken liver spread, and a variety of pickles, chutneys, and mustards. I brought a pint of the new batch of kimchi and it fit right in. We gorged on this while the heads cooled off enough for us to work with them. Their poor dog was hysterical, writhing and whimpering by the sliding door as she gazed at the steaming heads just outside.

Once cool, we pulled all the meat off, separating out the fat and skin, and giving Rich the ears and other bits to chop and add in.

He seasoned it with softened mirepoix, pickle juice, some tamarind chutney, wine, herbs, spices, salt and pepper, the ladled it into terrines with a little of the reduced broth.

All in all, it was a delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Good people, good food, lots of wine and laughs, and the anticipation of knowing that some of the result would be waiting for me a couple of days hence.

So Sue Me

Now I realize that this is the first time in the history of the internets that a food blogger has ever posted a meal out of order, and I humbly beg your indulgence for the inexcusable affront to all that is decent and proper that is this post. The meal in question dates from before my trip to the city, and will have to suffice because the culinary adventures of the last two days have not resolved into the kind of finished yummies that make for satisfying postage. So, to sum up: you’ll read this, and you’ll like it.

The first course was a pretty heavenly puréed soup of lobster broth with roasted kabocha squash and a dribble of heavy cream. Who knew this combination would be good? Seriously- lobster and cream in a soup? I should get an award for this. Lobster shells are probably the single best means of amortizing the cost of a luxury item across at least one other meal, and this one did not disappoint. Sweet, rich yet light, creamy, complex, lobsterlicious- it was a perfect bowl of soup.

Next up was some “good” farmed salmon- a term which is open to debate, but I believe that those (few, unfortunately) places that are trying to do it responsibly deserve our support- broiled with a smattering of dried herb and spice and served atop leftover black rice tossed with caramelized and then broth-steamed brussels sprouts. This one also worked out pretty well; it wasn’t exactly a stretch, but it’s nice to work with standards sometimes since they deliver reliably and don’t make my head hurt.

I honestly have no idea what wine we drank with this, though I’m pretty sure it was wine. Likely one of the now increasingly endangered Pleiades XV that I discovered recently. You will all doubtless be happy when they’re gone- because I’ll move on, and drink something else- but I will be a mere shell of the man I am today, already pining for this lovely wine.

Exit, Pursued By History

Get out. Stay out. Please let the door hit you (hard) on the way out. You miserable, lying, torturing, murdering economy-wrecker of a war criminal. Go fuck yourself. And eat more pretzels.

Yours Truly

I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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