Dreaming of Rain, and Soup.

Rain and snow, for most of you across the United States, is in ample supply. I've seen your Facebook posts and Instagram shots, highlighting ample precipitation levels. I've heard you lament your icy roads and flooded streams. I have been noting your documentation of freezing yet glorious weather patterns while I've been enjoying my iced latte in the sunshine, outdoors, all. winter.  long.  Enough. California is in the grip of a terrifying drought. If you haven't heard about it yet, you will. When the prices of lettuce and broccoli and almonds skyrocket later this year to beyond levels that we mere mortals can afford, you'll know more than you want to. But perhaps the barest of hopes is shimmering in the background. Thankfully, wonderfully, the first drops in weeks have begun to fall here. With flash floods and mudslides predicted, I can only offer a brief whisper of thanks and prayer to the stormy gods above. Keep going. Not too much, not too hard. But keep going.

This weather also brings the much-missed opportunity for all of the hearty and comforting winter dishes I've been unable to enjoy thus far. And so finally, I can present this recipe for the most deliciously warming and nourishing, incredibly affordable, and unbelievably elegant soup of modern reckoning.

It is a veritable rainbow of soup. Red tomatoes, orange carrots, yellow squash, deepest greens and those unbelievably fat, glossy, gorgeous purple beans. You can use other beans, ones you have on hand, and the soup won't really suffer. In fact, you can substitute so many ingredients for the ones I have listed; you can concoct a whole new entity with the template I am giving you here. But if you do it like this, just like I've given you below, then maybe the rain gods will listen to you too and bless us with enough precipitation to stave off calamity.

Winter Rainbow Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 2-lb Butternut Squash, peeled and cubed into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 bunches Dino Kale, chopped
  • 1 cup dried Rancho Gordo Christmas Lima Beans, soaked and cooked, liquid reserved
  • 4 Carrots, chopped
  • 6 stalks of Celery, chopped
  • 1 large Onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 2 pints or one 16 oz can diced Tomatoes
  • 2 quarts Chicken Stock
  • 1 quart Water
  • 1 or 2 Parmesan Rinds
  • 2 tablespoons Olive Oil
  • To Serve: chopped Parsley, grated Parmegiano Reggiano Cheese, good crusty Bread, cooked Cheese Tortellini

Directions

In a large dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium high heat until it begins to shimmer. Add onion, carrots, and celery with 2 teaspoons of salt, and sauté until the vegetables are soft and just beginning to brown. Add the garlic, stir, and cook for one minute. Add the chicken stock and water and bring to a boil. Add butternut squash and cook for 5 minutes, or until almost tender. Add the kale, beans, bean liquid, tomatoes, and the liquid from the tomato jars and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer gently until the greens are soft, around 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper if needed. Serve with some finely grated parmegianio reggiano, a sprinkling of parsley, and a few hunks of very crusty bread. You might even add a few cooked tortellini to the soup if desired.

The Menu Journal

I have a bit of an issue with food blog photography. While I love taking pictures of food, I am often too focused on the process of actually eating or cooking to remember to pause and set up a good shot. Plus my digital camera recently broke, I lost my Ollo Clip for my iPhone, and said iPhone has decided to insert a bright purple lens glare into the corner of almost every shot. So the pictures I am taking aren't necessarily the best anyhow. And as it will be awhile before I can afford the sweet DSLR I have my eye on, I find myself at a loss for what to do in the meantime. Because photos of food don't just act as pretty eye candy for the blog posts -- they also serve as memory-jabbers to help me recall what I've eaten and how the process came about.

Thankfully, the good people over at The Kitchn posted this a few weeks ago, and Hark! I had my solution! A Food Journal. I have tried to keep food diaries in the past, ones that counted all the calories and fiber content of everything I ate over the course of a day. Those diaries never made it to Day 3. And I have a recipe book, where I will write down a recipe of something once I have made it several times and it warrants recording for posterity (read: future disinterested grandchildren who don't even know how to read a real book with two covers and paper in between.) But this cookbook doesn't really capture all the little joys of my everyday cooking and eating.

So I got a fresh Leuchtturm notebook ( the BEST notebooks on the planet, far superior to Moleskin) and dubbed it Die Speisekarten, which is German for The Menus. I'm including meals I make at home in my sweet little Dollhouse, as well as particularly memorable meals I eat out in restaurants.  I started it off with what we ordered on our venture to the recently re-opened China Village in Albany, which was truly delicious, save for the Spicy Sour Chitlin Fun. (Ugh. I shudder at the remembrance of the smell of that one.) And since then I have been filling it with my Dollhouse dinners, and it has been very informative to see which ingredients get repeated and re-purposed. For instance, I made a Chive-Basil Pistou one night that, when mixed with some tahini and champagne vinegar, became a lovely salad dressing the next night. Since I don't write recipes for salad dressings ever, it's helpful to have some sort of record of this happy accident for future inspiration purposes.

So the problem of remembering what I have eaten seems to be solved. Now on to figuring out what to do with the mediocre iPhone food photography... Maybe I will just turn to illustration instead!

Au Lait Cru: Part One

Inspiration is a funny thing. When it strikes, I often feel the need to sustain it, to hold on to it so tightly it never leaves my grasp again. This of course has the adverse effect of promptly abandoning me, leaving with a great whoosh of deflated energy. So I vow to relax, let it all flow over me, the next time I feel that gentle intake of breath that lets me know I'm on to something. I often long for that which I don't have, but I always believe that it's near-inevitable arrival is just a few moments away. Marriage, a career that is utterly fulfilling, financial stability, children, travel , a house, publishing a book that becomes a wild success... And sometimes I get so wrapped up in longing I forget that it actually is up to me to somehow gently guide my inspiration with real live action and just do it already. Hm. Maybe I've seen too many Nike ads recently.

camembert
camembert

So when inspiration arrives, fresh off the plane from Paris, in the form of not one but TWO wheels of raw milk Camembert, I think of how best to document this glorious experience. I post a photo on the Facebook. I snap a dozen more iPhone pics with the intention of writing a blog post all about cheese and the demented US regulations that keep such lovely (and totally harmless) products out of our everyday grasp.

But then I eat. And I forget to take notes, instead closing my eyes and breathing in the ripe aromas. I nibble, letting the cheese melt on my tongue. I sip some Vouvray. I smile widely at my boyfriend. And I let inspiration just be, Nike be damned.

*Eternal gratitude to Mike and Angela for acting as illicit cheese couriers.

Authentic Taco

My papa makes a mean taco. When I was little, I would scarf down as many as I could before the feeling of fullness could overpower my will to consume. Apparently my grandmother got the recipe from a Mexican gardener who worked at her Southern California house back in the 50's. Of course, I'm not so sure about the authenticity-- they do seem awfully Americanized. But it's no matter, as they actually are authentic to me. Authentically Johnston. The day before Taco Day, my dad will get his meat mix ready: 1/2 ground beef to 1/2 crumbled chorizo. The meat needs to be mixed the day before, in order to allow the flavors to mingle and marry. Again, not sure if this holds up in the land of real life and absolute necessities, but we follow the rule religiously.

When the day does arrive, it's time to set out bowls of chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, diced raw red onion, thick sour cream, and hot sauce. Oh, and a LARGE amount of shredded cheese. In the past, we'd get bags of pre-shredded "Mexican" cheese and chop up whatever tomatoes were available at the market. Now I reach for a good aged cheddar and combine with with melty jack, organic Straus sour cream, and in last night's case-- the first heirloom tomatoes from the market!

Papa is the only one I trust to do the frying. The oil can't be too high or low, or hot or cold, but in the Goldilocks zone of juuuust right. The meat, now nicely folded in its pliant corn tortilla envelope, begins to hiss and sizzle and I simply can't wait to get my hot little hands on one. Inevitably, I hover too close and am rewarded with a fat explosion of an oil pop that lands right on my arm.

Once they are out of the pan, the crispy shell is piping hot, and needs to be carefully opened to prevent cracking (and steam-burnt fingers.) The debate still rages as to the proper order of the fillings, with everyone only agreeing on the irrefutable fact that the cheese must be placed upon the meat first, in order to allow it to melt.

And then we eat.

Now that the old man is retired, I can only hope that Taco Day comes even more frequently. Authentic or not, they will always be wholly, and totally, ours.

To Drink and Think

Crotchety and tempestuous. Blessed and grateful. Productive and contributing member of society or permanently attached to the chaise with endless reruns of Grey's Anatomy? These are the grand choices I struggle with. Okay, how about somewhere in between? Just finished up with another wine club newsletter, and thought I'd share my favorite wines from one of the best-kept secrets in Sonoma with you this month. These wines aren't available everywhere (what would be the fun in that?) so if you are tempted, you can always get them at my shop, or online direct from the winery.

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CameraAwesomePhoto(5)

Porter Creek This has got to be one of my favorite producers in Sonoma. It's super-small, the tasting room is an old shed located next to their chicken coop, and the wines are superb.  Their dedication to the land and the grapes is nothing short of amazing-- and the wines prove it. Winemaker/owner Alex Davis focuses on minimal manipulation in the cellar, which allows the authentic nature of the grapes to shine.

2010 Fiona Hill Pinot Noir Retail: $43

Truly a delight, the Fiona is rarely available, as every vintage sells out almost instantly. Feminine and sensual, with notes of crushed cranberry and raspberry, with a shot of minerality and woodsy depth in the midpalate. Try to hold off for at least six more months, though it is unmistakably gorgeous now. Would be perfect with a springtime appetizer of morel mushrooms on brioche toast.

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CameraAwesomePhoto(6)

2011  Mendocino Carignane Retail: $27

Carignane, a traditional Rhone blending grape, is full of rustic and charming character. This bottling from old vines is brash and a little bit spicy, with some brooding dark fruits thrown in for good measure. Think about pairing with short ribs, grilled quail, or even a hefty, grass-fed burger.

2012 Sonoma County Rosé Retail: $22

My darling, my love-- Rosé. No I am not biased. This bottling is FANTASTIC. $22 might seem like a bit steep for picnic wine, but Good Lord. This wine is usually only available to Porter Creek's wine club members, but guess who managed to get her hot little hands on a case? Moi! Fresh and vibrant, this wine races with acidity and delights the palate with strawberry, rhubarb, kiwi, and a touch of orange blossom. Drink this with charcuterie. Drink this with cheese and olives. Drink it with fried chicken. Drink it with pork tenderloin, ham, pasta, sandwiches... Drink it alone, standing up in the kitchen while you do the dishes and listen to Nouvelle Vague. Just drink it, and smile.

Is Wine a Reason?

I sell wine. Every week, my distributor reps come in and we taste new wines, searching to fill holes in my current inventory and try out new producers. I get to write shelftalkers and wine club newsletters, using my words to tempt customers into trying something new and different. I talk to every single person that comes into the shop and assess their needs, budget, and preferences in order to match them with their perfect wine for that particular moment. Oh, and I get to take home samples and leftover wines at the end of the day.

But what is it, really, that I do? I love the wine industry, and I love the fun parts of my job. Honestly even the unglamorous aspects like washing tasting glasses and spit buckets, breaking down hundreds of cardboard boxes, and dealing with an astonishing number of snooty wine snobs are just a small price to pay. However, at the end of the day, I sell wine. Is this to be my contribution to society? To provide you with one great bottle for one night's worth of fleeting happiness? If I do my job correctly, you take a bottle of wine home, to a dinner party, and while drinking it, you remark upon it's remarkable taste and glorious finish. Perhaps you even take note of the producer and vintage and vow to buy more (hopefully from me.) But is this it?

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CameraAwesomePhoto (7)

I don't mean to denigrate my industry and my small place in this world. I love wine with a sometimes overwhelming passion that threatens to subsume all other considerations.  And in these moments, I turn to the only thing I have ever turned to in times of frustration and aimlessness-- I turn to writing. I work on my book and I type these blog posts and continue to search for that which will satisfy my yearning soul. But I fear this is a question that not only I struggle with. Across all industries, do we all sometimes wallow in doubt? I despise regret and have no wish to visit with it. But if we chase the goal of regretting nothing, do we perhaps move too fast to see the truth in our actions? I make nothing. I give no tangible objects or benefits to the world at large. Is wine then, reason enough for being and breathing?

I'm not sure. I think I shall open up a bottle of vintage champagne and contemplate this some more.

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CameraAwesomePhoto (8)

The Girl's Guide to Bourbon

It's a funny thing to say to someone. It feels boastful and full of unearned pride.  Almost like an emotional masquerade. "I'm writing a book."

To which the other person in the conversation replies with any number of appropriately enthusiastic responses, and generally inquires as to the subject, how I got into it, who is going to publish it, when it's coming out... And I am left to piece together a reply that is factual, fair, succinct, and above all, something that doesn't make me sound as if I am an overinflated balloon of hot air and narcissism.

Invariably, it comes out something like this:

"Well, it's a book about whiskey. Sort of a guide book for women on how to understand and appreciate a spirit that is so rooted in masculinity." [Uh-oh. Feminist ideals seeping out. Do I sound pretentious?] "But it's just a work in progress!" [It is unfinished, and I don't have a publisher yet.] "Of course, I think it has so much potential, and there really is a huge market out there, I mean, there's just scores of women out there who feel so intimidated and unsure, and I really just want to help them." [What's that -- altruism in the midst of a violent flurry of self-consciousness?] "So, I'm in the organization and research phase." [Which is why I am drinking this lovely Whiskey Smash at two o'clock  on a Wednesday afternoon.]

In fairness to myself, I have been working on it. And it is progressing, picking up steam, taking off, take your pick o' clichés. I'm networking and talking to other writers and fellow industry professionals. I'm learning. And I'm feeling more and more, that cocktails and the spirits and ingredients behind them are just as fascinating and complex as wine and food.

Now, in the name of research, let's taste some vermouth and analyze which one goes best in the Rittenhouse Rye 100 Manhattan we are making.

A Georgian Feast

Did you know that in the tiny country of Georgia, they drink wine out of little clay bowls? Did you know that they also make excellent wine in this strange little land of east meets west meets north? And who would have thought that the most amazing collection of Georgian wines outside of Georgia lives in a tiny wine bar called The Punchdown in Oakland, CA? Well, I now know all of these things, plus I was lucky enough to get to participate in a Georgian feast hosted by said wine bar and The Satellite Republic, famous for delicious Georgian eats and a moped-driven tandoori-style oven.
Georgian wines are rustic, earthy, and full of a tangible minerality. The cuisine is diverse, unusual, and ever bit as exciting as one could hope for. If you ever get a chance to sample either, it goes without saying that I heartily recommend it. Especially if you are surrounded by charming people in downtown Oakland.

Drink More Rosé!

I'm starting to see the first 2012 rosés come into the shop, and I couldn't be happier. It's always disconcerting to see people come in and so readily dismiss rosé as frivolous or sweet or something only for picnics on hot summer days. I keep hearing other industry people write and talk about how the tide is turning for rosé, but I'm not feeling the love yet.

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My current personal favorite is the Raventos 1999 Cava ($25), which is supremely elegant without being precious or too austere. And in the land of still rosé, I find myself unable to get enough of the 2011 Casamatta Rosato of Sangiovese  ($13), which is such a good match for grilled flank steak, it's hard to imagine ever pairing that lean meat with a red wine ever again.

Rosé is also just about the most versatile wine around. Its acidity makes it supremely food-friendly, and the character extracted from the juice sitting around with the skins for a day or so makes it stand up to heartier dishes you would normally reserve for a pinot or a cab.

Please do yourself and the entire wine industry a favor: pick up some charcuterie and an inexpensive bottle of dry rosé. Go home and dig up whatever cheese you have leftover in your fridge. Maybe track down a can of these. Add some good crusty bread, and call it dinner.

Seriously. Go do it right now! I promise you will thank me later.

Egg Quest: The Peeps

The search for truly rich and delicious eggs has been quite a little journey. It began well over a year ago, and since then I have searched grocery stores, farmer's markets, roadside signs, and private farms. And while I did find some amazing eggs, nothing sparked the A-ha, Eureka, I've Found it! moment. The eggs that have come the closest are from two local farms, Tomatero Farm in Watsonville, CA and Soul Food Farm in Vacaville, CA. Both farms feature their extremely good eggs in some of the highest end, sustainability-focused restaurants such as Nopa, Chez Panisse, Coi, and Frances. Yet still, something was lacking. The richest orange-yolk shades continued to elude me. And the prices (usually around $7/dozen) were seriously straining my struggling writer / wine-slinger budget. So what's a bona-fide egg fanatic to do? Crazy as it sounds, we decided to go straight to the source. Well, actually, we brought the source to us.

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Yes, we decided to keep chickens. Pretending we were living in the country and not country-club adjacent, we picked up 6 precious little chicks at Rivertown Feed Store in Petaluma, CA, and hand-raised them until they were old enough to start producing their own easter egg-colored beauties. We were so excited about the whole process of caring for the ladies, we failed to document anything and preserve the experience for friends, readers, and our future reminiscing selves.

The peeps.
The peeps.

So this spring, when we were feeling adventurous again, we decided to add to our little flock and raise four new peeps (so dubbed for the adorable yet incessant sound they constantly emit.) And this time, I swore we would spend more time with them and document as much as possible, so that in a few months, we have more than just incredible eggs and big squawking chickens to show for it.

Eggs from our Hens
Eggs from our Hens

While to many people this this may be a ridiculous or overly precious endeavor, I think even more people are inspired by the idea of keeping chickens, as evidenced by the huge, though mostly undocumented, growth in raising backyard chickens. The benefits are many, and the hassle, work, and expense involved are not burdensome. It's a hobby of sorts, but one that promises a sustainable, healthy, and humane way to involve ourselves with a key element in our food sourcing. Modern writers and thinkers have long been lamenting the lack of direct connection we have with our food and our land -- keeping chickens is a revolutionary way of reconnecting with both.

Plus, they are super-cute.

The Dearth of Decent Dive Bar Wine: A Bit of a Rant

I relish the modern upscale wine lounge. A place where the list includes dozens of wines by the glass, where one can relax on a plush sofa or a charming bistro table with some friends or on a date. I also enjoy dining out at the bar in nicer restaurants where one may order a light meal and an interesting glass of wine, usually region-specific and almost always agreeable for the given price. And the sheer value of opening a lovely bottle at home and either sharing it with a few select friends or alone and in cosy pajamas is simply undeniable. But every once in a while, I just want to hang out in a place that's more casual. A place with an interesting mix of people, where the patrons are a cross-section of society and where you are guaranteed a cheap drink and a slightly sardonic bartender.

The dive bar is an institution probably  as old as wine itself. The tavern, the pub, the kneipe, the lokal, the taproom, the saloon, and countless others in all various forms and languages are all examples of this type of establishment. The dive bar is the modern incarnation of that age-old place where one can get a decent drink at a fair price and there are no real qualifications for admission, other than being of legal age and reasonable sobriety. Basically, if you can pay for a drink, you're old enough to do so, and you're not too drunk to stand, you'll fit in just fine.

Dive bars get a bad rap sometimes for being less than reputable, but they really are fascinating places to spend an hour or two on a lazy Tuesday evening. There isn't just one kind of patron; rather, there are all sorts of people from all different professions, backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, and education levels. No matter where you go in to world, the dive bar is a place where, if you know the general rules of common courtesy and have a mild-to-fair appreciation for alcoholic beverages, you can spend some time in a welcoming and oftentimes fascinating environment. At least it's never dull.

The one black mark of a dive bar is the utter lack of decent/tasty/quaffable wine. At least here in the states, I have noticed that it is next to impossible to acquire a drinkable glass of wine-- and I live in Northern California! There is a huge microbrew movement that has been pretty phonomenal in the bar and restaurant scenes for at least the past couple of decades. You can now go into just about any dive bar and have your choice from all manner of beers: from the humble Miller High Life or PBR, to the hoppy craft brew IPAs, to the elegant Hoegaarden white beers and Trumer Pilsners.  So why, pray tell, it is so enormously difficult to get a simple yet well-made glass of wine in these establishments?

If you don't believe me, please visit your local dive and notice the refreshing variety of beers. Then ask for a glass of wine. I can almost promise you that the response will likely be, " Red or White?" Then there will be two options: either a cheap chardonnay that has been aged with oak chips to give it that lovely sour-wood quality, or a cabernet sauvignon-based blend that tastes bittersweet in its undeveloped and saccharine nature.  Yuck.

I have asked various bar managers and owners, and all I seem to get for  a response is a shrug of the shoulders. Various reasonings supplied have run along the lines of, "no one is interested," or "it's too expensive," or "it doesn't fit with our vibe." To which I reply, Yes! We are interested! People don't ask for wine because they know it will be awful plonk and they'd rather not subject their taste buds to that drudgery. And No! Decent wine doesn't have to be expensive! There are plenty of bottles you can get that wholesale for $7-12, that you can turn around and sell for $6-8 per glass. You just need to put an ounce of effort to find them. And while you may claim it isn't in your bar's particular style, keep in mind that fancy microbrews hardly fit in with the vibe back in the 1980's, but they sure seem to be indispensible now.

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Needless to say, there are plenty of establishments that do cater to the needs of the wine lover. I love these places and have no wish for them to disappear. I would simply like to see the humble dive bar continue to display its welcoming and egalitarian nature by offering all its imbibers something to get excited about.

Traveling in Place

We dream of traveling to far off countries filled with things exotic and unusual. We long for experiences unlike that which we have encountered before. Even something as simple as market day in an unknown land is rich with newness and unique sensations. When we are prevented satiating this hunger for the unknown, we can often feel confined and lonely—as if somehow the trappings of our everyday existence stifle us and make us feel less like ourselves. If our true self only emerges when we are exploring, how are we ever to feel at home?

This is when we must turn the act of exploring to something more local. Familiar though this territory may be, we can put ourselves in the boots of those traveling here - see what they are seeing for the first time. While it may not be so fresh to us as we are now, trapped in our mundane masterpiece of monotony, it can be wholly new to us—the renewed adventurer.

For me personally, the Point Reyes shoreline is well-known and beloved. But on a typically foggy day, with wines in tow from both local Sonoma County and distant New Zealand (a memory of previous adventures), Hog Island Oyster Company is fresh and new when taken in as a distinctive experience. Never again will we have these particular succulent divinities known as oysters paired with these particular cheeses that near mystic experiences. Never again will these wines from these vintages be open together with this simple yet delectable feast.

And we are, right now, wholly joined in laughter and contradictory ponderings. We can share this inimitable moment and yet still be lost in our own dreams and longings.

When the worlds of responsibility, economics, obligations, and frustration collide to keep us tethered against our will, we must survive by exploring that which might be less unusual to our personal identities—yet can also be exceptional in its imaginative freshness. And we can do it together or alone, as we somehow always are, no matter the company we keep or where we are in the world.

Wine Country Chronicles: Barrel Tasting

Every year, an organization called Wine Road Northern Sonoma County puts on an all-weekend-long event for wineries to offer barrel samples for their soon-to-be released vintages. It's a lovely opportunity for people to get a sort of "sneak peek" at what the last year's harvest has in store for them. It's a simple enough arrangement: At any participating winery (this year there were 130!), you pay $30 and receive a souvenier glass and a wristband that allows you to access tastes from the barrels, current releases, and delightful nibbles at ANY of the participating wineries for the ENTIRE Friday thru Sunday weekend. It's an incredible value in these days where some wineries are charging up to $40 to sample 2-3 wines.   There are minor downfalls, as with any deal this wonderful. The low price tag and sheer number of wineries and tasting rooms involved create an irresistible opportunity for local college kids, large groups of giggling housewives, and others looking more to get down and party than those looking to seriously taste and explore the possibilities of each wine. However, these large groups of people probably are the only reason why it is possible to hold an event of this magnitude! But as long as I can get a little wine in my glass and am able to say a few words to those pouring (often the winemakers themselves,) it really isn't much of a complaint at all. Especially if it exposes those who might not have a huge passion for wine to some really neat stuff. Anything that has the possibility to spark interest in the uninterested is great for wine industry... right?

And of course, there's the wine. It was wonderful to be able to do a vertical tasting of the wines from several different wineries. Wilson Winery let us taste their 2008 still in the barrel, as well as their '05, '06,  and '07 vintages. What is remarkable about doing a vertical tasting is how amazingly different each wine can really be. It's a fantastic opportunity to see how nature affected each year's grape harvest and how the personality and style of each wine really is varied. 

wine road glass
wine road glass

Attending barrel tasting also gives us an excellent opportunity to purchase "futures." Basically, this means you have the opportunity to buy the not-yet-released wines you are tasting before they are available to the public. You don't get to take them home right away, of course. You have to be patient and wait until the wine is in the bottle and officially released! But most wineries offer these futures at a pretty little discount-- sometimes as much as 50% off what they will eventually retail for! So it's a special deal, especially if you are excited by what you taste in the barrel.

Mustard
Mustard

What a fantastic way to ring in the spring! To taste some delicious wines straight from the barrel while taking in the gorgeous scenery... The bare vines, so naked and vulnerable, with the riotous streaks of yellow mustard bursting through the rows... Already I'm looking forward to next year, when I can take possession of our futures and start exploring the new season's offerings!

Local New Zealand

One of the greatest ways to move oneself out of a rut is to travel. And one of the greatest travel destinations in the world must be New Zealand. How lucky for me then, that we had an opportunity to spend three full weeks in the land of Kiwis and Lord of the Ring filming locations. Feeling creatively stagnant before this trip, I'm thrilled to be exploding with new ideas for poems, articles, recipes, photos, general life-plans. It helps that this trip came right at the beginning of the new year, when the excitement of New Year's resolutions hasn't worn off to grim resignation or shamed defeat yet.  I will eat less cheese! I will drink less wine! I will eat more leafy greens and less cream and more root vegetables! I will do yoga every day and some sort of cardiovascular activity at least 2-3 times a week! Right?! 

Of course, one must not attempt all these things when on holiday, that would be detrimental to experiencing the most a country has to offer, the totality of the national culture. So we've been on a hiatus from the grey, dreary weather as well as those pesky resolutions.

Thankfully, we were able to explore New Zealand, through hikes in the mountains and along the beaches, through restaurants and street food, farmers markets, grocery stores, and wineries. Though we weren't  huge fans of most of the local beers, we did love some other things uniquely Kiwi.

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For instance, at a local Saturday market, we were able to sample a whitebait patty, which seems to have consisted solely of eggs, butter, and tiny little briny fish. Fairly mild, it's served on a buttered slice of white bread. Though it is not quite "gourmet," it was delicious and savory, perfect for nibbling on while strolling in the hot New Zealand sun. 

When the heat turned into a heavy humidity that wouldn't be stirred by the slightest breeze, I turned to Real Fruit Ice Cream. Advertised by wooden placards as we drove through small towns, it was irresistable in its cooling, frozen-fruit and chocolate-y way. I haven't eaten an ice cream cone in years, and this was well worth a break in the fast! You are asked what ice cream you want (I chose plain frozen yogurt) and then a fruit (raspberries) and if you would like chocolate added (obviously yes.) Then the whole thing gets whirred up in a big stainless steel machine until its almost totally blended, leaving you with the tiniest bits of frozen fruit and chocolate chunks. Creamy purple goodness! 

There were lots of delicious morsels and great meals, including a three-course meal we created using only local New Zealand ingredients! It featured lamb three ways (meatballs, a braise, and roasted rack of lamb,) local cherries, potatoes, eggs, yogurt, herbs, greens, cheeses... It was fun to be able to reach for summer ingredients in January and not feel guilty! 

But now we're home, and I'm back to making rich winter stews and using only canned tomatoes. Sigh. At least I have the memory of the warm sun and dramatic mountains to sustain me until we reach summer here, or I embark on another excursion. And thankfully this trip has provided me with bucketfuls of inspiration that will hopefully also sustain me creatively as well. 

NZ mountain
NZ mountain

"Asparagus in January"

Unless you've been living under a rock in the mountains of Tibet, you've no doubt seen the beginnings of the great revolution of our time: The Food Revolution. If you've heard recent mention of the words organic, local, sustainable, biodynamic, non-GMO, horomone-free, free range, grass-fed, or pastured, then you've heard of it. It can be difficult to sort out what each of these words mean, and indeed there can be many varying definitions within each word itself. It's far too much to describe in one humble blog post, so I will just focus on the most important of words: revolution

We tend to hear revolution and think of historical wars within nations, like the French or American revolutions. It conjures up visions of battlefields and raised fists and shouts of freedom. In a way, these images could be appropriate for the Food Revolution as well-- except we're fighting to be free from the industrialized food system that is threatening our health, our environment, and our collective conscience.

But at the core of the word revolution is the word revolve, or "to turn over" or "roll." This word comes from the Latin revolvere, or, "to  roll back" or "cause to return." And here we see the true roots of the modern organic, local, sustainable movement-- it is a return to a world where our food system is not being run by large corporations, super mega-markets, and fast food chains. A return to a world where people used to buy their food at the village market or grow it themselves. The Food Revolution embraces technology and innovation while remaining true to the principles of producing and consuming food that were standard from the beginnings of human existence. 

The Food Revolution is thus both a desire to return to our roots and a revolt against the destructiveness of our current and fairly recent industrial food system. The disconnect most people have from their groceries is something we've only really seen in the last few generations. The convenience of the modern supermarkets and the influence they wield is nothing short of amazing. 

We can enter a Safeway or a Lucky's on any day of the year and find tomatoes, lemons, green beans, or shrink-wrapped packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. We've simply forgotten that the tomato or the green bean were once seasonal products and only available for a few months of the year. And just because we can get them in the dead of winter doesn't mean that we should. They don't taste as good and they're more expensive.

This notion of eating seasonally, even if we have access to produce from other far-off regions is by no means a new concept. The point is made quite clearly in a dialogue excerpt from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, first published in 1866: 

"...the way I see it, the great thing for getting on in the world is, always keep to the seasons; if you don't insist on having asparagus in January, you keep your money in your purse!"

And while keeping money in our wallets certainly is at the forefront of our minds in this economy, we must also remember the costs we do not see every day-- the costs to our health, our land, air, water, and animals. It can be so tempting to bury our heads in the sand and buy the Oscar Meyer or Smithfield Farms package of bacon instead of the pricier Niman Ranch or local farm stuff. But if you take five minutes and read just a little about what the big corporate pig farms do to their animals and how they are simply and blithely destroying the environment, you might just think twice about buying that "cheap" bacon. 

Click here for a short explanation of some of the issues surrounding factory farming from sustainabletable.org. This website is a fantastic resource for information on all sorts of issues relating to the Food Revolution. Take a few moments from your busy day to explore some of these concerns.

There are also some incredibly enlightening books out there that are very helpful in understanding our current food system. The most popular, and probably the best, is Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Delimma. Click here for a synopsis. 

The Food Revolution is here. It is up to you to educate yourself and ask yourself where you stand. After all, it's just food. It's also money, the environment, our health, animal and laborer rights, a whole host of issues. But at the end of the day, it's what we buy, prepare, cook, store, serve, and consume. So ask yourself-- what exactly do you want to eat?

Wine Country Chronicles: The Shyness of Taste

Most of us have heard about the infamous tasting of 1976, where French and California wines were tasted blind by a panel of snobby French judges in Paris. The California wines rocked the house, much to everyone's surprise. They've made movies and written books all about it. If you haven't yet heard this fascinating tale, read the original Time article here Needless to say, I thought it would be fun to kick off my informally-formalized independent wine education with a mini-tasting here in the house. With Chris otherwise engaged preparing us dinner, I started off with two whites I had picked up at Cost Plus that morning. From France I had the Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuisse, a white burgundy. And my representative for California chardonnay was a Gundlach Bundschu from Sonoma. Both wines were from the 2007 vintage. I opened them up, gave myself some generous pours, and set about to write what I thought of them.

All of a sudden, I felt strangely nervous. Who do I think I am, that I can just presume to open some wines I know nothing about and then write what I think of them? What if I think it tastes like something that's not really there? What if I don't notice something about the wine that is painfully obvious to everyone else?

Why this sudden reticence? I'm certainly not one to shy away from speaking my mind, no matter what the subject. So it should be no different when it comes to my opinions about wine, right?

See, this is the funny thing about the wine world. It can be so intimidating to explore, with different people proclaiming opinions with an air of absolutism, magazines assigning points to "grade" wines and a plethora of different varietals and styles. Most of us simply don't have the knowledge, time, or money to be able to give ourselves a thorough education in all the dizzying aspects of the art of enjoying and understanding wine.

Plus, isn't the idea of taste subjective? I don't care for the taste of peanut butter, but it might be your favorite foodstuff in the pantry! Additionally, two people can like an identical dish but for different reasons. So, couldn't it be the same for our tastes in wine?

As our tastes vary, so shall our opinions. And if I think a wine tastes like hibiscus or seems flirty, that's just my way of expressing a personal opinion. There shouldn't be any reason to be shy about that.

Taking a deep breath, I sipped. Pen in hand, I boldly wrote my first impressions. The Pouilly-Fuisse was slightly sweet. It was crisp at first, then softened to something silky. It was pale. Light-colored. It had a fragrant perfume. And then came the chardonnay. It was so different! It was richer, golden-colored. It tasted like butter. It coated my mouth in a way totally unlike the French wine.

Excitedly, I sipped more. Chris jumped in, cautiously proffering his opinion as well. We were so taken with our new roles as wine critics that we forgot the whole tasting-in-moderation aspect of the wine tasting. Hm. I had planned on doing a red wine tasting that evening as well, but we polished off the last of the two bottles of white, I thought I might just postpone it for a day or two.

But we had so much fun! I liked writing about the wine -- it made me think about it more, and enjoy it even more than if I'd just absent-mindedly sipped it. Wine has always stimulated conversations, daydreams, pleasures, and friendships. Too often it can also stimulate depression, discord, and strife. I think the balance can be struck not just in moderation, but in always remembering to savor and enjoy the experience of drinking-- and feeling a little gratitude for the blessing that is wine.

Shyness simply cannot mix with unbridled enthusiasm. And so, I vowed that night to dispense with my hesitations and embrace this magical world of wine and words, sans fear.