A brief statement of purpose

There are already about a billion food blogs, so what might be a justification of yet another one, and who am I to do it?

What I aim to do in this blog is more than simply provide recipes. While recipes of my own will, in fact, be posted, some of the blog will consist of a variety of comments about restaurants and their practices, food preparation tips, personal annoyances (such as loud restaurants and the epidemic of misspellings on menus), and whatever else pops into my head relating to what we put in our mouths (and swallow, I hasten to add). The whole thing is meant to be somewhat provocative. I hope, if nothing else, it won't be boring. I, of course, solicit reader participation.

As for who I am and why I think I might have something to contribute to public discussions on this essential and pleasurable activity - eating - you'll have to click here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pasta with creamed corn

In some parts of the country, fresh sweet corn is already available. Not quite here in Minnesota, but it’s close. This very easy recipe would be fine in the middle of winter with frozen corn, but if you can get fresh corn, it’s a nice change from corn on the cob - not that there are many foods better than that. The amounts indicated are for a pound of pasta. I used rotini, but if one likes the symmetry or the theme of small corn kernels, one could use orzo or ditalini. 
Fresh corn, 3 ears, kernels removed
One yellow bell pepper, cut roughly the size of corn kernels
Garlic, two cloves, crushed
White pepper
Light cream, 2 cups
Vermouth or white wine
Scallions, minced
Minced pimientos, I small jar, drained
Butter, 1-2 Tbs
Asiago cheese, grated, a cup or more
Reserve one cup of the corn kernels and a cup or less of the yellow bell pepper, depending on the size. Place the remaining corn and bell pepper in a saucepan, along with the light cream, garlic, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and carefully pour into a blender. Puree. Return to the saucepan and add the pimientos, scallions, and vermouth or white wine. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and allow to simmer for a few minutes to thicken slightly. Add some salt. In a separate skillet, melt the butter and quickly saute the reserved corn kernels and the reserved pieces of yellow bell pepper until a bit charred.
In the meantime, cook the pasta. Drain and return to the pot. Add the creamed corn mixture. Plate and add the sauteed corn and bell pepper, finishing with the cheese. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Scallops on potato "risotto"

This is a variation of a long-lost recipe wherein the potatoes were referred to as “potato risotto”. I made it and other variations for the first time probably twenty years ago because the faux risotto is really quite good, and it takes to seafood like a duck to water or Chianti to pizza or some similar analogy. When I made it recently with the scallops I used some blood orange juice I’d had frozen since last winter, blood oranges being available in the winter months here. As I type this, we in the Twin Cities are bracing for a run of 90+ degree temperatures, so summer is definitely making its presence known. Ordinary oranges are likely to be the only type of oranges available. If, however, you use ordinary paprika instead of smoked paprika, much of the appeal of the dish will be lost.
Russet potatoes, 2, peeled and diced
Clam, shrimp, or other seafood broth, or chicken broth, 2 cup
Dry vermouth or white wine, 1/4 cup
Garlic cloves, 2, minced
Pimientos, 1 small jar minced
White pepper
Butter, 2-3 Tbs
Parmesan, Romano, or Asiago cheese, 1/2 cup, grated
Sea scallops, 8 (for 2 servings)
Smoked paprika, 2 Tbs
White pepper
Butter, 2 Tbs
Olive or canola oil, 2 Tbs
Blood orange juice or regular orange juice, 1/2 cup
Lemon or tangerine vodka, 1/2 cup
Heavy cream, 1/4-1/2 cup
Salt if necessary
Place the diced potatoes, the broth, vermouth, and garlic in a large skillet and boil under  the liquid is almost gone and the potatoes are soft but not disintegrating. Add the remaining five ingredients and set aside.
Make sure the scallops are dry. Mix the smoked paprika and white pepper, spread on a plate, and dip the tops and bottoms of the scallops in the mixture, pressing a bit to make sure it adheres. Heat the butter and oil in a skillet over medium high heat, and saute the scallops, about a minute or so on each side, taking great care not to overcook them.
Place the re-heated potato mixture on serving plates, with the scallops on top. 
In the same skillet in which the scallops were cooked, toss in the orange juice and the vodka and boil on high for a minute. Remove from the heat and add the cream and salt. Pour the sauce over the scallops and potatoes. Scatter some chives or scallions.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Meat loaf masquerading as Chinese food

It occurred to me that, among the fifty billion versions of meat loaf I’ve made over the past four decades, I probably haven’t made one with Chinese flavorings. Mexican, Middle Eastern, German, etc. Never, loosely construed, Chinese. Here it is. 
Dried mushrooms such as shiitakes, a small handful
Rice wine or dry sherry
Ground beef and ground pork, in a 2:1 ratio (or not)
Jalapenos, 3-4 seeded and deveined
Garlic, 3 cloves
Ginger, a slice
Egg, 1
Soy sauce, 3 Tbs
Black bean garlic sauce, 3 tbs
Onion, about 1 cup, minced
Bread slice, 1
Milk, 1/2 cup
Hoisin sauce
Cilantro, minced
Thick noodles
Hoisin sauce
Sesame oil
Cover the mushrooms with the rice wine or dry sherry and allow to rehydrate for a couple of hours. Mince.
Soak the bread in the milk for ten minutes or so.
Place the meats and the next seven ingredients in a processor and mince. Squeeze some of the milk out of the bread and add the bread to the processor and mince again.
Transfer to a bowl and mix in the mushrooms. Now pack it all into a loaf pan, spread some hoisin sauce on top, and cook for around an hour at 350 degrees.
The noodles you see in the photo are dried Chinese noodles (actually Taiwanese, depending on your position regarding that dispute). They have a meaty taste which goes well with . . . meat. I added hoisin, scallions, and sesame oil after cooking and draining. Cilantro is spread about. If the meat loaf is a bit too dry for your liking, spread some more hoisin over it after plating.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pasta with brie and mushrooms

I had some left-over brie and I felt like pasta - felt like eating pasta; I myself didn’t feel “like” pasta. I then remembered a recipe from Cooking Light a couple of years ago, which involved brie and pasta, so I pulled out that issue. This isn’t the same recipe, as I’ve made some significant alterations, but credit where credit is due: I got the idea from that Cooking Light recipe. This is very creamy-tasting in spite of the use of skim milk instead of cream. It’s also, as can be seen, very, very easy. Fresh mushrooms can, of course, be substituted for the shiitakes. 
Tubular pasta (so the sauce can get inside), 8 oz
Skim milk, 2 cups
Flour, 3 Tbs
Salt, 1 tsp
White pepper, several grinds
Ripe brie, 6 oz, cut into small pieces
Asiago, 1/2 c, grated
Olive oil, 1 Tbs
Butter, 1 Tbs
Dried shiitakes, several. sliced
Scallions, 5 or 6, sliced
Truffle oil
Cook the pasta according to package instructions.
While this is occurring, place 1/2 cup of the milk in a saucepan with the flour and heat over medium heat, stirring, until it’s thoroughly mixed. Now gradually add the rest of the milk, stirring, until it thickens. Add the salt and pepper. 
Add the cheeses to the sauce and melt.
Heat the olive oil and butter in a pan and saute the mushrooms.
Drain the pasta and return to the pot, adding the sauce, and mix. Distribute to serving plates and put the mushrooms on top. Drizzle some truffle oil on top of the whole thing.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Crab, potatoes, prosciutto, and chive oil

  This recipe involves very few ingredients, and by far the most important of which is the crab meat. Ideally, one should get Dungeness crab meat, but in this part of the country it isn’t widely available (Coastal Seafoods in Minneapolis and St Paul usually has it, cooked, extracted, and frozen in one pound containers). Failing that, buy the most expensive you can find. Do not - repeat, do not - use those small cans of alleged crab meat found next to the minced clams and tuna. That stuff has no taste. 
Dungeness crab or blue crab meat, 1 lb.
Potatoes, 3 or 4 depending on the size
Salt and ground pepper
Olive oil
Prosciutto, 4 to 6 oz., cut in small pieces
Chives, a “bunch”, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup
Salt and ground white pepper
Minced pimientos
Place the chives and the half cup of extra virgin olive oil in a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Pour the contents into a sieve over a bowl. Press down on the solids. Discard the solids and keep the clear green liquid. You now have chive oil. Add a bit of salt and some ground white pepper.
Peel the potatoes, cut in half (to speed the cooking process), and boil in salted water. Drain, and when they’re cool, slice 1/4” thick. Brush both sides of the slices with oil - olive, canola, or vegetable. Salt and pepper one side and place on a cookie sheet in one layer. Heat the oven to 425 degrees and bake for ten minutes or so, long enough to begin to brown.
Heat a teaspoon of oil in a frying pan and cook the prosciutto pieces until just barely crisp. 
Heat the crab meat in a microwave until just warm. It’s already cooked, you know. You just want to take the chill off in case it’s been in the refrigerator.
Place some potato slices on each plate (this recipe is for three or four servings), then some crab on top, then some prosciutto, and finally drizzle some chive oil over the whole thing, garnished with minced pimiento.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thai shrimp and noodles

   Here’s an ostensibly Thai preparation that I put together one night because I didn’t want to go the grocery store and because I had all the ingredients on hand. This kind of Thai recipe is very commonplace, but I did two things that make it ever so slightly different. I used a can of mango nectar which I reduced by about half to intensify its fruitiness, and I tossed in some corn. 
   The green curry paste can be found in many grocery stores in small jars, along with red and yellow. One tablespoon is enough to give this just a bit of a kick, but it’s by no means incendiary. Do not confuse Thai curry paste with Indian curry powder. Big difference, not that the latter would make a terrible dish here by any means.
   The lemongrass is best found in Asian markets. I’ve seen it available in ordinary grocery stores in those little clear plastic containers alongside fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, and sage. The typical price for all of these things is about $3, which is absurd for the two sticks of lemongrass that you get. Pay it if you like. An alternative is to simply squeeze a tablespoon or two of fresh lemon or lime juice into the finished dish.
   I used dried Japanese spinach noodles because they’re a pale green, and they appealed to my sense of aesthetics. Any spinach taste is quite subtle. Use another noodle if you like, and, of course, jasmine rice would be good, too.
Canola oil, 1 Tbs
Garlic, 1 or 2 cloves, minced
Ginger, 2 tsp, minced
Green curry paste, 1 Tbs, more or less depending on your heat tolerance
Coconut milk, 1 13.6 oz can
Mango nectar, 1 11.3 oz can
White pepper, several grinds
Salt, 1 tsp
Lemongrass, 1 4” or 5” inch length, split
Bamboo shoots, sliced, half of one small can
Corn, 1 cup
Basil, several leaves
Shrimp, 8 oz, shelled and deveined
Scallions, 3 or 4, sliced
Noodles, 4 or 5 oz
Reduce the mango nectar over high heat until it’s about half its original amount.
Cook the noodles according to package instructions.
Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok. Sauté the garlic and ginger for a minute or so, taking care not to burn the garlic. Now put in the curry paste and continue sautéeing for another minute. Pour in the coconut milk and reduced mango nectar. Add the white pepper and salt, the lemongrass, the bamboo shoots, the corn, and a few torn basil leaves. Turn down the heat and simmer for five or ten minutes. Now add the shrimp and cook for ten minutes. Add the sliced scallions and serve atop the noodles.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Butternut squash pasta with walnut sauce

   I encountered some butternut pasta the other day - dried, not fresh - and its yellow color was appealing. Of course, pastas made with various vegetables have, at best, only a subtle hint of those vegetables. One isn’t going to taste tomato pasta and say, “Damn! San Marzano tomatoes picked in mid-August from the leeward side of the Valle del Sarno, southeast corner!” Still, knowing this, I purchased it and now having consumed it, can confirm that the squash flavor is indeed subtle. But since its color didn’t fade at all, it was still aesthetically pleasing on the plate. If you can’t find dried butternut pasta, cook some winter squash and puree it along with the other sauce ingredients.
   I wanted a smooth sauce but I also knew mushrooms would pair nicely with the sauce I had in mind, so I simply ground some dried shiitakes. Just put several of them in a coffee grinder and grind as you would coffee beans. One doesn’t necessarily want coffee flavoring in this sauce, so ideally you have a grinder dedicated to spices and such. If not, clean your coffee grinder thoroughly.
   I also wanted a relatively light sauce; i.e., no butter and no heavy cream. So I used skim milk (although I indicate below that cream can be used), and some of the pasta water to thin the sauce.

Butternut squash pasta, 1 lb
Dried mushrooms, ground
Walnuts, 1/2 cup, toasted
Bread, a couple of slices, crusts removed, torn into pieces
Cream or milk, 1/2 cup
Shallot, 1 large, minced
Garlic, 1-2 cloves, minced
Salt and pepper
Fresh basil, several leaves
Pasta cooking water
Walnut oil on the cooked pasta
A small jar of minced pimientos

Place the ground mushrooms and the remaining sauce ingredients in a food processor and puree. Remove to a saucepan, heat and keep warm.

In the meantime, you will have cooked the pasta, but before you drain it, scoop a half cup or possibly more of the cooking water into the sauce, enough to make a good consistency which is neither too thick nor too thin. This might be called "The Goldilocks Principle".
After you drain the pasta, mix in a couple of tablespoons of walnut oil. Olive oil can substitute. Put the pasta on the plates, the sauce atop, with minced pimientos and parsley as garnish. And there you have it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Scallops with pureed potatoes and green pea cakes

  Some may have seen my lecture on scallops elsewhere on this blog, but here it is again: Scallops have been my favorite edible aquatic creatures for as long as I can remember .  . . (pause for effect) . . . provided they are good scallops in the first place and provided they aren’t overcooked and transmogrified into hockey pucks. Far, far better to undercook scallops than to overcook them, particularly since undercooked, or for that matter, uncooked scallops can be very good. Another personal preference: Big, fat sea scallops are better than small bay scallops or calico scallops which frequently masquerade as bay scallops. Yet another qualification: Buy only dry scallops, not wet. The latter have been marinating in a phosphate preservative which causes the scallop to absorb moisture which adds to the weight (so you’re paying for the preservative) and makes it almost impossible to brown the scallop. 
   All right, enough of the prefatory information. This recipe will be good without the truffle oil and truffle salt, but not as good. I don’t care that some “foodies” have alleged overuse of truffle oil, claiming that it’s faddish. I don’t put it on my breakfast cereal; in fact, I’m quite selective in its use. Leaving aside the fact that most truffle oil on the market isn’t actually made with real truffles - it’s made with truffle “flavoring” - it’s actually very good in some preparations, and its aroma certainly bears a similarity to the real thing. The truffle salt is icing on the cake here. 
   The dish is improved by pureeing the potatoes, not just by mashing them. Use a ricer for this purpose as well as large amounts of butter and cream. Eat less the next day. Don’t ever put cooked potatoes in a food processor unless you want something with the consistency of glue on the plate. 
   The green pea cakes are a nice accompaniment. I’ve lifted it from a cookbook by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Simple Cuisine (Prentice-Hall Press, 1990). 
Sea scallops, 12 oz or so for two people
Smoked paprika
White pepper
Canola or other vegetable oil
Mashed (pureed) potatoes
Prodigious amounts of butter and heavy cream
Frozen green peas, 1 1/2 cups, thawed
1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 Tbs flour
5 Tbs butter
Salt and pepper
Dried chervil, 1 tsp (optional)
Truffle oil
Truffle salt

Cook red, low-starch potatoes or a combination of low-starch and baking potatoes. Drain. When it’s cool, run them through a ricer. Return to a pan and add a lot of butter and cream, along with some salt and pepper. Keep this warm. 
Combine the peas, egg, egg yolk, cream, and flour in a food processor and process until smooth. Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter, add to the pea mixture, and process, adding salt and pepper. If you have some dried chervil, add a teaspoon to the mixture.  Over medium heat, melt the other 2 tablespoons of butter in a non-stick pan, or use non-stick spray. Drop about 2 tablespoons of pea mixture into the pan and cook until the  pea cakes are browning around the edges and firming up enough to flip them without destroying them. Brown the other side. Keep warm until time to serve the dish.
Remove the small muscle sometimes found on the sides of sea scallops. It’s whiter in color than the pearl color of the scallop. Combine some flour with the smoked paprika and add some white pepper. Make sure the scallops are dry. Press the tops and bottoms of the scallops into the flour mixture. Heat the butter and oil over medium high heat and add the scallops. Depending on their size and the heat of the pan, it should take no more than a minute or, at most, two minutes per side. I’ve already emphasized the importance of not overcooking them.
Put the pureed potatoes on the plates with the scallops on top. If there is any butter/oil remaining in the pan, drizzle it over the scallops. Place one or two pea cakes alongside. Now drizzle a bit of truffle oil on the scallops and potatoes and finish with some truffle salt. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Smoked salmon and wild rice

  What you want here is hot-smoked salmon, not cold-smoked. The former comes in the form of recognizable salmon fillets, sometimes with flavorings such as peppercorns or “Cajun” spices. The latter is thinly sliced, such as would go on a bagel with a schmear (that’s New Yorkese for cream cheese). This is rather important because cold-smoked salmon is just too delicate for this preparation.
  A second note about ingredients involves the wild rice. Some wild rice is grown in California. I’ve tried it and found it inferior to Minnesota wild rice. There are subcategories of the latter such as Chippewa/Ojibwe hand-harvested rice, commercially grown paddy rice, and others. Hand-harvested is the best and most expensive, but commercially grown will suffice in this recipe.
Hot smoked salmon, skinned, about 10 oz for two servings, 
Olive oil
Bacon, thick-cut lean applewood or hickory smoked, six slices, chopped
Chicken broth, 2-3 cups
Carrot, 1, quarter-inch slices
Potato, 1 medium sized red, half-inch pieces
Garlic, 1 clove, minced
Onion, 1, chopped
Tomato paste, 2 Tbs
Bay leaf, 1
Dried thyme, 1/2 - 1 tsp
Wild rice, 1/2 - 3/4 cup
Scallions for garnish
Cook the bacon in a skillet. Remove the pieces and reserve, leaving the fat behind. Put the chicken broth in the skillet and add the following seven ingredients. Bring to a boil and add the wild rice. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pan. It will typically take 45 minutes to an hour for the rice to be done. The individual grains should have begun to split, and the will be tender but still have some bite. When this occurs, turn off the heat but keep the lid on while you prepare the salmon.
The preparation of the salmon is very simple. It’s already cooked, you know, so all you want to do is heat it. In, preferably, a non-stick pan, heat the olive oil on medium high and quickly sear the salmon on both sides.
Turn the wild rice mixture onto serving plates and place a salmon piece atop each, with a scattering of scallions.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Rigatoni with sausage, chard, and red bell pepper sauce

   I think what makes this preparation pretty good is the red bell pepper sauce. There is no cream in it, yet it tastes rich. The sausage already contains spices, but add basil or fennel or whatever you like if you prefer. To me, it isn’t necessary, though. Don’t be tempted to use purchased roasted red bell peppers in a jar. While these are quite good for some uses, you would lose the significant additional flavor obtained in this recipe with the shallots and garlic.
Rigatoni or other tubular pasta, 1 lb
Olive oil + some on drained pasta
Italian sausage, 1 lb., either mild or spicy
Swiss chard, a bunch, leaves trimmed and chopped 
Red chile flakes (optional)
Pine nuts or almonds, 1/4 cup, toasted
For the red bell pepper sauce: 
2 red bell peppers
2-3 Tbs olive oil
2 garlic cloves
2 shallots
around 12 oz chicken broth
Remove the stem, seeds, and veins from the peppers and chop.
Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the peppers, shallots, and garlic and cook over low heat for several minutes. Now add the broth and continue simmering for another 20 minutes or so. Put the mixture into a food processor and puree. Return to the pan, add salt and pepper, and keep warm at a simmer. If it gets too thick, add some more chicken broth.
If the sausage is in casings, remove the casings.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet and add the sausage, breaking up any clumps as it’s cooked. (I had to mince the cooked meat in a food processor.) When it’s sufficiently cooked, place on top the chopped chard, turn down the heat to low, and put a lid on the pan. The chard will reduce in size within a few minutes. It may be necessary to add a small amount of water or broth to prevent burning. Stir the cooked chard into the meat.
Cook and drain the pasta, return to the pot, and toss with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Now toss the pasta with the sausage-chard mixture. 
Place the pasta on serving plates and top with the red bell pepper sauce and then a scattering of pine nuts or almonds.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Chicken with Indian spices and pasta

   Rice is the more typical accompaniment for this sort of thing in India, but noodles aren’t unheard of on the Asian subcontinent. Besides, there’s no law prohibiting this combination.
   I was apparently feeling energetic, so I made the pasta. If you utilize a food processor, as I did, that part could hardly be easier. If you have a manual roller-type pasta press, producing flat pasta is also easy. If you don’t, you can use a rolling pin to achieve the desired thinness. (Don’t look too closely; I made it too thick.) For a pasta recipe, consult any Italian pasta cookbook, or failing that, the web. Look for recipes for all-purpose flour and egg. For visual effect and for a bit of flavor, I added 3 tablespoons of good paprika and 2 tablespoons of tomato paste to 2 cups of flour. If you don’t want to make your own, just purchase flat lasagna (not “oven ready”), and add the paprika and tomato paste to the chicken mixture.
   Dark chicken meat is better than breast meat for this recipe, because it has more flavor. If you can’t find already ground dark chicken, buy boneless thighs and trim some but not all of the fat before mincing it in the processor.
Ground chicken dark meat, 1 lb
Green jalapeno, seeded, deveined, and chopped (unless you like heat)
Red jalapeno, seeded, deveined, and chopped (same here)
Shallot, minced
Ginger, 1 Tbs, minced
Garlic, 2 cloves, minced
Almonds, raw, 1/4 cup
Vegetable oil, 2 Tbs (Mustard oil if you have it)
Nigella, 1 Tbs (AKA kalonji or onion seed; omit if you can’t or don’t want to get it.)
Spinach, 6-8 oz
Saffron, 1/4 tsp
Plain yoghurt, 10 oz or so
Paprika, 3 Tbs (See above)
Tomato paste, 2 Tbs (See above)
Flat, lasagna-type pasta
Remove 2 or 3 Tbs of the yoghurt and set aside. Crumble the saffron in a small bowl with a tablespoon of warm water and set aside.
Combine the meat and the next six ingredients in a food processor and combine. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet, add the contents of the processor plus the nigella, and cook until the meat is done. Add the spinach and cover to allow it to reduce in volume. Mix into the chicken. Just prior to serving, add the reserved 2 or 3 tablespoons of yoghurt. 
Place one sheet of the lasagna on a plate and spread some of the chicken mixture atop. 

Place a second sheet on top of this. Drop some of the saffron yoghurt on top of this and add some cilantro. Repeat for additional servings. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Monday, March 14, 2011

Calamari steaks, curry coconut vegetables, and black rice

   If you happen to find calamari - which is to say, squid - steaks, here’s something to do with them. But first, you might ask, what is a calamari steak? It’s simply the body of a large squid, not the small ones out of which the ubiquitous fried calamari appetizers are made. The body is split and laid out flat; hence, the name “steak”. They’ll almost certainly be sold frozen. Best to thaw them overnight in the refrigerator. They might still be covered with some ice crystals, so scrape them off with a knife and blot the steaks dry with paper towels. The idea is to be sure they’re dry when they hit the heat so they brown rather than steam. If you’ve never cooked with it before, here is the most important thing to remember: Do not cook it longer than, at most, two minutes per side. Otherwise, it will turn to rubber. 
   Squid itself doesn’t have a great deal of flavor. Like tofu, it’s best considered a flavor absorber, and what better flavor to absorb than a curry-coconut milk sauce? The following recipe is quite easy. Thai curry paste in small jars is widely available in ordinary grocery stores. If it isn’t in yours, I suggest you take your business to a larger, better equipped one. I used red curry paste, but green and yellow would be fine, too. Black rice is also called “forbidden” rice because, as legend has it, Chinese emperors forbade anyone else to eat it besides themselves. It might be a bit more difficult to find, but I’ve noticed that it’s becoming increasingly available. It’s worth searching out because it’s both highly nutritious and tasty in a nutty way. Plus, as you see in the photo, it adds some aesthetic interest on the plate compared with ordinary white rice, which you may use instead if your search turns up empty-handed.
Thai red curry paste, 1 or more Tbs depending on your heat tolerance
Coconut milk, 1  13.5 oz  can
Baby corn, 1  16 oz  can, rinsed and sliced
Green beans, several, trimmed
Shallot, 1 large, minced
Red jalapeños, 2, seeds and veins removed unless you want the heat
White pepper
Scallions, 3 or 4, trimmed and sliced
Cilantro, chopped
Calamari steaks
Peanut or canola oil
Salt and pepper
Forbidden/black rice, 1 cup
Chicken broth
Place the curry paste and the coconut milk in a large saucepan and heat to boiling, toss in the corn, green beans, shallot, and jalapeños, and reduce to a simmer. Add the white pepper and salt. If you’re going to be serving the dish quickly, you should parboil the green beans before adding them to the mixture; otherwise, they may not be sufficiently done.
Cook the rice according to package instructions, using chicken broth instead of water.
If you have a ridged, stove-top grilling pan, heat it on high. Brush the steaks with some oil, salt and pepper them, and put them on the grill pan. Two minutes a side, maximum.
If you don’t have such a pan, use any other pan, although cast iron is preferred.
Throw the scallions and cilantro into the simmering vegetables.
Place each steak on a plate, with the vegetables and rice alongside.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wine descriptions and ratings: Pretense and Unreliability?

   Wine and pretense are two words that seem to go together quite naturally, don’t they? There are multiple definitions for the word pretension or pretense, but the usage intended here and, in fact, the usage intended in most contexts for most people is, “a claim to superiority or to superior judgment”, with the strong implication that it’s “pretended” or based on weak evidence.  Sometimes the claim to superior judgment or taste is actually grounded in some fact, but the pretentious person is seen as too eager to display that knowledge in an effort to impress others. 
   Wine has no monopoly on pretense. Society if full of manifestations of pretension, in clothing (otherwise, why do people pay far more for an article of clothing with a status symbol logo?), in motor vehicles, in television sets, in furniture, jewelry, and so on and on. One could even make the case that, were it not for pretension and status-seeking, our economy would be even further down the toilet than it is. Be that as it may, this particular post concerns food and drink. More specifically, I want to examine two different yet intricately related questions: One addresses whether the critics and winemakers can make the taste distinctions I ridicule in the following paragraphs. The other asks whether the critics are really as expert as they claim in distinguishing the quality of different wines. 
   First, let’s take a look at the plethora of terms used to describe the taste of wine. In short, they are hilarious. Unless you don’t partake of the fermented grape, you have surely noticed vintners’ descriptions on the labels of wine bottles and aficionados’ fanciful attempts to explain the contents by references to ingredients which are completely absent in those contents. Note that I am not denying that some adjectives can be very useful and detectable even by novices. A couple of examples might be a “buttery” chardonnay particularly if compared to a non-buttery one, and a “grassy” Sauvignon Blanc. Neither ingredient is found in these wines, yet one’s palate can discern the applicability of these adjectives, which, in turn, can be helpful to the consumer in selecting wines in the future. Similarly, one can recognize a “tannic” character and differences in sweetness in wines. There are many other descriptions, too, that, with some tasting and practice, can be perceived as making some sense. But we’ve gone far beyond the sensible, and some “experts” make a living doing so. Consider:
   A few years ago, in the now defunct magazine, Cottage Living, there was an article titled, “20 Luxury Wines under $20”, written by Amy Zavatto, co-author of The Renaissance Guide to Wine and Food Pairing; hence, an official wine aficionado(aficionada?). I’ve used this article, not for the purpose intended by the author, a number of times since then as an object of amusement, flavored with more than a hint of scorn. Here are some of her characterizations: “Mixed berry pie”. Pie?! Mixed berries? “Stone fruit”. Meaning peaches? Apricots? Alas, she doesn’t tell us, so we’re left adrift, not knowing just what type of stone fruit. “Lemon hard candy”.  Hard? Candy? This is Viognier, by the way. “Lemon meringue”. Meringue? Not just lemon? “Cherry cola”. Does she mean it brings back memories from childhood at the corner fountain – for those of a certain age? And . . . a pregnant pause to build anticipatory tension  . . . “snapped saplings”!! What in the name of all that is right and good is that supposed to mean? (It’s a Cabernet.) Picture yourself going into a well-stocked wine shop before your big dinner party and saying, “I’m serving some choice cow slabs tonight to the influential cognoscenti of our city, and I think a wine which tastes of snapped saplings would be perfect and would cement my reputation as S/he Who Cannot Be Out-Pretensioned”. How do you think the proprietor would react? Would he say, “A fine choice, Sir/Madame, but we have many wines with the nose of snapped saplings. I must know the species of tree to which you refer, as well as its age to advise you properly”.
   This person is hardly the only one guilty of such pretentious hilarity. Look on the wine labels. An inexpensive Aussie Grenache-Shiraz tastes, we are told, of “eucalyptus”. Next time I have a bad cough, I’ll rush to the store to purchase it. Gala apples characterize a well-known California vintner’s Chardonnay. Damn! I could’ve sworn it was Fuji apples! We’re told to expect red currants, not black currants. Not just raspberries but “wild” raspberries. Leaving aside the fact that they weren’t part of the winemaking process at all, are we expected to believe that any mortal can distinguish between store-bought fresh raspberries and wild ones in a wine? What about raspberries you’ve grown in your back yard garden? They’re neither wild nor store-bought. Hell, what about frozen raspberries? Another label claims that grapefruit and white peaches will be found in the bottle - white peaches, not yellow.   
   Can the “experts” really distinguish between a wine which has notes of Gala apples from a wine with notes of Fuji apples? Of course not, although simply “apples” might very well be applicable to some wines. 
   Now having said this, I should acknowledge that flavors are combinations of chemical components. Think about it: What exactly is blueberry flavor? It’s a specific combination of chemical compounds with a specific molecular structure. So is it possible that there are certain combinations present - currants, for example - in certain wines, and the palates of the experts are so sensitive and finely tuned that they can detect them? So when they claim their presence, they’re being both truthful and accurate? This would be a very interesting area for further research, although its importance pales in comparison to research into cancer and heart disease. Unless and until the day comes when it’s convincingly demonstrated that wine experts’ taste buds are so far superior to normal peoples’ taste buds as to be virtually supernatural, I think we have to say no one can distinguish between red and black currants, not to mention snapped saplings and lemon meringue.
   “Suggestibility from Authority” can be very powerful. The “expert”, the authority, says his much deeper knowledge and experience - much greater than yours - permits him to tell you what to thin and, in the case of wine, taste. The impressionable then simply accept what they’re told. This human dynamic is commonplace in many areas of communication. One should, in fact, often yield to claims made by the truly knowledgeable. Who am I to question the latest findings in quantum mechanics and string theory? A physician may or may not be correct about a diagnosis, and I should ask her many questions, but I’m in no position to contradict her. But, particularly in such impressionable and subjective areas as wine, and particularly given the results of some recent research, the old adage “Question Authority” or even “Ignore Authority” should prevail. There’s, of course, an easy way to test the critics’ superhumanly sensitive and imaginative palates. It’s called blind tastings paired with statistical analysis.
   So now, as promised, let’s take a closer look at the experts’ expertise in rating wines on ordinal (ranked) numerical scales. There’s a long history of scientific research calling into question the palates of wine critics. Some recent evidence has emerged that these wine “experts” are, if not full of it, at least half full of it, and by “it”, I’m not referring to wine, rather to the “end product” of wine and food that has been consumed.
   Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist at the California Institute of Technology who has authored a number of books, most recently The Grand Design, co-authored with Stephen Hawking. He also likes wine. The Wall Street Journal published an article of his “A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion” back on November 20, 2009. It’s quite interesting. 
   He first summarizes some past contretemps concerning wine fraud and wine tastings, which have had the cumulative effect of raising the question of just how legitimate wine ratings and descriptions are. For example, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology demonstrated that even the experts can’t identify more than three or four flavor characteristics in wine, yet one finds far more in many descriptions. A Silverado Cabernet Sauvignon (at $100) was described in The Wine News as having “dusty, chalky scents followed by mint, plum, tobacco, leather, and tasty cherry with smoky oak accents.” I’ll leave aside the question of just why dust, leather, and tobacco might taste good in any beverage. But The Wine Advocate described the same wine as having “promising aromas of lavender, roasted herbs, blueberries, and black currants.” This is a total of twelve flavors or “presences”, none of which clearly overlap. And what are “promising” aromas? Aromas that once upon a time had potential? “That lavender is really going to be a contender some day.” Was that potential not realized? Quelle tragédie!
   Mlodinow describes some studies done by Robert Hodgson, the proprietor of Fieldbrook Winery in California. Hodgson had been curious about how a given wine from his winery would win gold in some competitions and nothing at all in others. He convinced the organizers of the California State Fair competition to allow him to conduct controlled experiments over four years. His conclusions: “The probability that a wine which won a gold medal in one competition would win nothing in others was high” and the distribution of medals “mirrors what might be expected should a gold medal be awarded by chance alone.” Mlodinow also notes a the case where an individual at a “a well-known Paso Robles winery who had conducted his own test, sending the same wine to a wine competition under three different labels. Two of the identical samples were rejected, one with the comment ‘undrinkable’. The third bottle was awarded a double gold medal.” Now, do you really think the first two “undrinkable” bottles were spoiled en route? Or had bad corks? No, not likely. 
   Perhaps when a critic says a wine is reminiscent of, specifically, wild raspberries, not store-bought, we should take this as simply a kind of literary license, an attempt to spruce up the language and neither he nor we should take it seriously. not take it literally. If we removed all the adjectives, adverbs, and similes from the great novels, would they still be great? Of course not. But the wine raters give every impression that they’re completely serious about their descriptions, and they intend those descriptions to guide consumers. They aren’t writing literature; they’re writing what they contend are at least somewhat objective analyses of the liquid in question. If they think otherwise, then it’s all just a joke among the cognoscenti.
   Similarly, perhaps we shouldn’t take too seriously the awarding of 92 points for a particular bottling. All that apparently means is that that critic really liked that wine at that specific moment in time. We might be able to conclude that the wine isn’t best used for cleaning toilet bowls, but that’s about all. Even then, another critic or judge, as the evidence demonstrates, may give the same wine only 80. But if it’s this variable and unpredictable among the experts (the problem of intercoder reliability in social science jargon), why should the whole point business matter to us as ordinary wine drinkers? 
   As for me personally, I’ve been drinking and enjoying wine for well over forty years, but even if my financial wherewithal had permitted the serious pursuit of wine collection and investment, I’ve always been reluctant to put a great deal of money into something which one only “rents” for a few hours. Perhaps more accurately, my wife and I are more comfortable spending on food than on wine. (Yes, I could pursue the “rent” imagery, but I won’t.) Occasionally, more like rarely, I’ll splurge on a real French premier cru Chablis or on a $40 bottle of real champagne, but the bottles reposing in our 35 bottle wine rack right now are in the $6 to $15 range. I suspect this is the range into which many people’s wine purchases fall. So based on this experience and on these tastes, here is what I suggest when it comes to how one might approach the business of ratings, label descriptions, and price. 
   First, ignore the ratings. Sometimes in wine shops and liquor stores there’ll be a small handwritten tag under some wines showing someone’s point rating of it. Ignore these little signs. Also ignore any indications of medal awards.  
   Experiment. Here’s an example: Buy a bottle of three-buck Chuck Chardonnay and a bottle of three-buck Chuck Cabernet. These are, of course, the wines available at Trader Joe’s. If there’s no TJ’s where you are, buy something in the $4 to $5 range. Now purchase four additional bottles of the same varietal (a Chardonnay and a Cabernet), one pair for around $10 or $11 and the third pair for $20 to $30. Do a blind tasting with friends. Look up on the web how to do this properly. Have everyone take some notes. Nothing at all formal or structured, just impressions and, of course, whether they like it and how much. If one happens to detect an apple flavor component, that’s fine. 
   I’m guessing that most people will be able to accurately distinguish the lowest priced wines from the highest priced. That isn’t to say they’ll all prefer the highest priced, but most, I think, will. There are unmistakable differences between three-buck Chuck Chardonnay and a $30 Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay. Whether the individual is willing to pay for the highest priced is a separate question, of course.
   Tasting parties such as this will accomplish the following: You will liberate yourselves from the judgments of the experts; you’ll educate yourselves on the differences among wines, even among wines of the same grape; in time, you’ll be a better informed consumer; and it’ll be fun. All of this without the highly questionable “guidance” of the self-claimed experts.
   De gustibus non disputandum est . . . usually.