Dec 30, 2009

Two Great Food Products of 2009

As a food writer, I'm occasionally sent products for review. I'm happy to try them out, but it's rare that I find a product to be so exceptional that I'm willing to fork over valuable real estate to write about it. In fact, all this year I only reviewed two products: chocolates from Jean-Philippe Patisserie (in the Belagio, Las Vegas) and Fever Tree's new Ginger Beer.

However, there were two more new products this year that I wanted to tell you about. Since time is running out on 2009, I'm going to do quick reviews on both:

Donsuemor French Almond Cakes: Last year I wrote a review about Donsuemor's Madeleines, which were sinfully delish--as good as any madeleine I've ever had in France, and better than many. So earlier this year, when I received these French Almond Cakes, I approached them with a bit of skepticism. How could they possibly improve on the madeleines?

And, in fact, they don't actually improve on the madeleines; but they're not supposed to. These petite and elegant cakes head in a different direction, one that's equally luscious. They have a more "cakey" mouth presence, while being moist and light and almond-ish. I savored them slowly, one a day, always with a glass of milk. They are just heavenly. Donsuemor does a fabulous job with their packaged delights; they really do seem to be bakery-fresh. I continue to be really impressed with this company. For more info and to buy a supply of your own, visit Donsuemor's website.

OliVaylle Extra Virgin Olive Nectar: An Australian company, OliVaylle unabashedly describes this ultra-premium product as "the finest extra virgin olive oil in the world." It just might be! I have treasured every drop of this taste-explosion, saving it for simple salads where the nectar's slightly biting taste can rule in all its glory.

Australian olive oil imports are something new, but at one time the importation of Australian wine was new, too--and just look at what's happened with that. Australia's climate is similar to other wine- and olive-producing regions in the world: California, Italy, France, etc. So, really, it should come as no surprise that Australia can turn out a fabulous olive oil.

OliVaylle was founded in 1997 by Jorge de Moya with the express intent of producing the world's best olive oil. Moya's family-owned olive plantation and olive oil producing facility are both located in Victoria.

Why do they call it nectar? Simple: in classical mythology, nectar is considered the life-giving drink of the gods.

Visit the Olivaylle site, where you'll find lots of info and recipes for an Australian Family Dinner, a Cuban Fiesta, an Italian Date Night, a South African Fusion meal, and an evening of American Entertaining Elegance. You can also order Olivaylle's olive oil nectar in the site's shop.

Pop those corks tomorrow night, readers, and here's to a great 2010!

Dec 28, 2009

Bottle Shock: A Must-See for Wine Lovers

 Bottle Shock's  Jim and Bo

Over the Holidays I finally had a chance to watch Bottle Shock. This somewhat fictionalized 2008 movie recounts the stunning wine competition of 1976 that has come to be known as The Judgment of Paris. This blind tasting pitted then-upstart California wines (mostly from Napa Valley) against “unassailable” French wines such as Mouton Rothschild and Puligny Montrachet. To the shock of everyone involved, California's wines won easily in both white and red categories. At that moment, California wines stepped from obscurity and onto the world stage, where they have not only remained---but ruled.

Bottle Shock's judges

“The contest was as strictly controlled as the production of a Chateau Lafite,” wrote Time Magazine on June 7, 1976. “The nine French judges, drawn from an oenophile’s Who’s Who, included such high priests as Pierre Tari, secretary-general of the Association des Grands Crus Classes, and Raymond Oliver, owner of Le Grand Vefour restaurant and doyen of French culinary writers. The wines tasted were transatlantic cousins---four white Burgundies against six California Pinot Chardonnays and four Grands Crus Chateaux reds from Bordeaux against six California Cabernet Sauvignons.”

“The French judges,” stated the New York Times, “voted the 1973 chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and the 1973 cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars the two best bottles in the tasting. Both wineries are relatively new; both are in California’s Napa Valley.”

We don’t really hear about Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Bottle Shock, which focuses on Napa’s Chateau Montelena and its owner, as well as on the tasting’s organizer. Jim Barrett, played by Bill Pullman, owns the winery; he’s assisted, sort of, by his hippie son, Bo Barrett (Chris Pine). Alan Rickman plays Steven Spurrier, the British wine shop owner who lived in Paris and organized the event.

Chateau Montelena

There was plenty enough in the actual events to provide lots of interest and dramatic tension, but for some reason the movie makers threw in a couple of side plots. Bo Barrett’s romance with a beautiful winery intern really didn’t add much (I’ve no idea if it was fictional or true, and don’t care). The other side plot was better: a real-life winery worker at Chateau Montelena named Gustavo Brambilia (Freddy Rodriguez) added color and depth to the Napa Valley story. However, after doing a little research today, I learned that Brambilia didn’t join the winery until after all these events had occurred. So even though he himself is not fictional, his actions in the movie were. Today Brambilia is in partnership with Thrace Bromberger in the Napa Valley winery, Gustavo Thrace.

The real Bo and Jim today

But the above paragraph is a mere quibble. If you’re at all interested in California wine, you’ll enjoy Bottle Shock. It's not brilliant, but it's amiable and fun. The Judgment of Paris is big and important history in the wine world, so it’s worth knowing about. And the Napa scenery is gorgeous--almost as good as driving through it yourself.

Also, one of my favorite-ever wine movie moments is in this movie. Alan Rickman, as Spurrier, travels all over Napa Valley, sampling wine to come up with the best selections for the blind tasting. You see him in hotel rooms, sitting on farm porches or in restaurants, always sniffing and tasting. In my fave scene he’s sitting at a small table outside, on a hill, with vineyards all around him and fading into the distance. He’s gazing at a glass of red wine in his hand.

Alan Rickman at work

The humble-looking winemaker walks to the table and places a small bowl of Guacamole and another bowl of chips on the table. Rickman, the proper Brit with French appetites, gazes curiously at the bowls and then takes a chance, scooping the guacamole onto the chip and into his mouth. It tastes good…he thinks, though he’s not quite sure. Then he lifts his glass and takes a sip. Rickman’s face lights up. It is the perfect pairing of moment, food and wine. If you have ever had a moment like that, and I hope you’ve had many, you will know exactly how he feels.

À votre Santé!

The Culinary Gadabout Recommends:

Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine -- a book by George M. Taber

From Publisher's Weekly: In 1976, a Paris wine shop arranged a tasting as a gimmick to introduce some California wines; the judges, of course, were all French and militantly chauvinistic. Only one journalist bothered to attend, a Time correspondent, looking for a possible American angle. The story he got turned out to be a sensation. In both red and white blind tastings, an American wine won handily: a 1973 Stag's Leap cabernet and a 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay. When the story was published the following week, it stunned both the complacent French and fledgling American wine industries—and things have never been the same since. Taber, the Time man, has fashioned an entertaining, informative book around this event. Following a brisk history of the French-dominated European wine trade with a more detailed look at the less familiar American effort, he focuses on the two winning wineries, both of which provide him with lively tales of colorful amateurs and immigrants making good, partly through willingness to experiment with new techniques. While the outrage of some of the judges is funny, this is a serious business book, too, sure to be required reading for American vintners and oenophiles. Photos.

Dec 19, 2009

A look at mythical NYC restaurant Le Cirque

Starchefs, a website devoted to professional chefs, has begun an interesting new series of articles devoted to the nation's "Mythic Kitchens." The articles will explore historic eras in famous kitchens---times when the stars lined up just right to combine the kind of food and chefs that helped build the definition of American cuisine.

First up in the series is an article by Heather Sperling that examines New York City's Le Cirque under Chef Daniel Boulud (whose legendary years at Le Cirque were 1986-1992). Below you'll find the first two paragraphs, and you can continue reading here.
Le Cirque, 1989
It’s 8:30pm, and kitchen of Le Cirque is working at a frenetic, feverish pace. The pre-theater crush has passed, the tourists are midway through their meals, and the crème de la New York crème have just settled into their coveted 8pm seats. Owner Sirio Maccioni strides into the kitchen: “Chef! I forgot to tell you that Paul Bocuse and Roger Verge are here, and the King of Spain is going to be 12 people, not eight.” Daniel Boulud nods tersely. As soon as Maccioni disappears back onto the dining room floor, the chef begins tearing through boxes of produce picked up at the market that morning. Truffles, foie gras, and Tuscan lardo di Colonnata, smuggled into the country after Maccioni’s last trip to Italy, are gathered and lie ready to be spun into special courses for the VIPs. As the kitchen buzzes around him, cooking for the nearly 100 other guests, Boulud puts down his head and begins to create. It’s 1989, and it’s just another night at Le Cirque.

“Sirio was such an unpredictable madman,” says Boulud, “and the greatest restaurateur in New York City.” Le Cirque always was—and remains—Maccioni’s creation. It was 12 years old in 1986 when Boulud took over for Alain Sailhac, and critic Bryan Miller had praised it in a recent three-star New York Times review: “Nowhere in the United States, nor anywhere else as far as I have seen, is there a dining room that crackles with the high-voltage energy of Le Cirque.” The restaurant was utterly vogue; the food, under Sailhac, was mid-century French with a touch of Italian, by request of the Tuscany-born Maccioni...  Continue reading

The Culinary Gadabout Recommends: Want to cook like Daniel Boulud? A good place to start is with Daniel Boulud's Cafe Boulud Cookbook: French-American Recipes for the Home Cook. Says Publisher's Weekly: "Echoing the French-American accent of food from his casual Café Boulud, the New York City chef also acclaimed for Restaurant Daniel encourages home cooks to prepare meals as he does, by attending to four inspirations: his own French tradition, seasonal foodstuffs, international flavors and the kitchen garden."

Dec 14, 2009

Top 10 Food Trends for 2010: The Food Channel

Not surprisingly, the economy is a big influence on food trends for 2010, leading to less time spent in restaurants and more cooking at home; more experimentation in dining; a boost in purchase of foods that are beneficial to health, and more. That’s according to Cable TV’s Food Channel, which lists as the upcoming year’s hottest Top 10 Food Trends:
  1. Keeping it Real: In a back-to-basics economy perhaps it is natural to return to basic ingredients. This isn’t about retro, or comfort food, or even cost. It’s about determining the essentials and stocking your pantry accordingly. It is about pure, simple, clean and sustainable. It's a shift from convenience foods to scratch cooking, now that we have more time than money and more food knowledge and concerns. Read more
  2. Experimentation Nation: Restaurant concepts are in flux as people redefine what going “out” to eat means. Gastropubs, fusion dining, shareables, and communal tables are all being tried. While this started because of the economy it will finish because consumers will indicate what works for them and what doesn’t. New concepts around “fresh” and DIY will do well. Experimentation is the trend, so we’ll see concepts come and go. Read More
  3. More in Store: The Food Channel predicts growth in grocery stores, particularly as private labels assume prominence. Those old generics have morphed into their own brands, so that there is a blurring and less of a caste system—there is no particular glory in using a “name brand” anymore (unless you are ketchup). And that’s not the only way grocery stores are growing. They have been paying attention to the trends and are doing things such as upgrading their delis and fresh take out sections, and are even returning butchers to a place of prominence. Just as in restaurants, the stores that can help redefine the family dinner table are going to show the most gains. Read More
  4. American, the New Ethnic: This is all about flavor delivery. Immigration has come to the plate, and we are now defining a new Global Flavor Curve. Part comfort, part creativity, the latest flavors are coming from the great American melting pot. So, it’s about grandma’s food, but the recipes may be written in Japanese. American food is distinctive in its lack of identity outside of the hamburger—until, that is, you mix in our heritage. This is the year we’ll do it in a big way. The presentation of food, the flavor, and the experimentation is coming into its own in 2010. Read More
  5. Food Vetting: You are what you eat, and we are big into understanding ourselves! That’s what’s leading this trend—our constant need for assurance that we are eating the right things, that our food is safe, that we are not ingesting pesticides or anything that will someday prove harmful. If we can provide jobs, help the economy, protect animals and ensure a sustained food supply at the same time, well, that’s all the better. Call it food vetting, sourcing or whatever you want—the issue is that people are asking where their food comes from. We call it the “new luxury food” because it can be more expensive to include that traceability into delivery, but we want it anyway. Read More
  6. Mainstreaming Sustainability: Sustainability has become mainstream. Unlike a year ago, when we were somewhat afraid to use the word, now it flows trippingly off the tongue. America is just now learning how to be sustainable, and Americans are holding themselves responsible. In 2010 we’ll see people and companies becoming sustainable for authentic reasons; they are doing it to make a difference. After all, that’s what comes with understanding. Read More
  7. Food with Benefits: Call it what you will—nutritional, healthful, good-for-you—but this trend toward beneficial foods is growing at a pretty big rate. Expect food to either have nutrients added, or have the word “free” (gluten-free, allergy-free). Just last year we talked about “functional food,” which was really about adding ingredients to pump up the nutritional value. Before that, it was “fortified.” Next year we see this idea morphing into a grown-up version. Read More
  8. I Want My Umami: The “foodie” has settled into a more universal designation of someone who loves food—not a food snob. The point is experimentation and a willingness to try new things. They are the ones who find their adventure leaning over the cookstove rather than climbing the mountaintop—although a mix of both would be just fine. The new foodie is driving all kinds of adventures in flavor, too. Read More
  9. Will Trade for Food: What do we do in a bad economy when we have more time than money and skills that we still want to put to use? We barter. The Food Channel predicts that we’ll all see more of the barter system come into play now that technology can assist with the connections. Read More
  10. I, Me, Mine: It really is about you. It’s the rise of the individual. While sharing has come into its own in restaurant concepts (goodbye additional plate charge), there is a separate but equal trend toward individuality. It’s part of the reason why we are making our own cheese, smoking our own meats, and making our own specialty desserts. Expect more attention to the individual, but it’s not just about portion size—it’s also about food that reflects personality. With the decline of the economy, it’s more important than ever that you have a voice. Read More

Dec 4, 2009

Great ways to use canned salmon

Fresh, wild-caught salmon is one of my favorite things to eat, but it’s expensive. So for a few years I’ve also gotten into Alaskan canned salmon. I really like it because:
  • It’s made from salmon caught in the wild, in cold Alaskan waters, with nothing added except a bit of salt
  • Like fresh salmon, It contains massive amounts of omega-3 and calcium, and is a good source of vitamin B12
  • It’s inexpensive
  • It’s versatile in the kitchen
For years I’ve been using canned salmon only to make salmon burgers, but lately I’ve been branching out. That’s thanks to a website I discovered run by the Alaskan seafood industry, which has an entire subsite devoted to canned salmon.

This subsite serves up a generous helping of recipes using canned salmon. Some of them don’t do much for me, but others open new possibilities for enjoying salmon in a can:
There are many more recipes for you to enjoy here.

From left: Salmon Meatball Soup,  Salmon/Spinach Pasta, Salmon Chili