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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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!

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.