May 27, 2010

Best & Worst U. S. Supermarkets for Seafood Sustainability

The fourth update to Carting Away the Oceans—a sustainability scorecard for the US seafood retail industry undertaken by environmental organization Greenpeace—was released late last month. Complete rankings from 1-20 follow at the end of this post.

Says Greenpeace: “Supermarkets feed the growing appetite for seafood in the U.S. and ring up approximately $16 billion each year in seafood sales. Consumers buy half their seafood at supermarkets, yet as our report reveals, few supermarkets meet this consumer demand with any regard for the marine environment.”

The update reveals that Target has moved up from fourth place to receive top ranking, displacing Wegmans to second place in the process. Whole Foods has maintained third place from its June 2009 ranking. Trader Joe's—once ranked a very low #17—has moved to tenth place (TJ announced last March that it is taking specific steps to develop a sustainable seafood operation). Safeway climbed from 5th place to 4th, while Costco dropped four places to a failing rank of #14.

Of the 20 largest supermarket chains in the United States, several have made no visible effort to increase the sustainability of their seafood operations and continue to ignore scientific warnings about the crisis facing global fisheries and the marine environment. These include: H.E.B., Meijer, Costco, SUPERVALU (and associated banners), Publix, and Winn Dixie.

"A significant divide is developing among the major retailers,” said Greenpeace’s Senior Markets Campaigner, Casson Trenor. “It’s now clear that Wegmans, Target and Whole Foods are making substantive progress reflecting their commitment while others such as H.E.B. and Costco remain committed to selling endangered species and destroying marine ecosystems.”

If you shop at any of these low-ranking stores, encourage them to cultivate sustainability. Supermarkets can help the oceans and meet consumer demand for sustainable products by refusing to sell seafood from fisheries that:
  • exploit endangered, vulnerable and/or protected species, or species with poor stock status;
  • cause habitat destruction and/or lead to ecosystem alterations;
  • cause negative impacts on other, non-target species;
  • are unregulated, unreported, illegal or managed poorly, and
  • cause negative impacts on local, fishing dependent communities.
Here’s the ranking of leading stores—the lower the number, the better the job they’re doing with seafood sustainability.
  1. Target
  2. Wegmans
  3. Whole Foods 
  4. Safeway (Dominicks, Genuardi's, Pavilions, Randall's, Von's)
  5. Ahold USA (Stop & Shop, Giant) 
  6. Harris Teeter 
  7. A&P (Food Emporium, Pathmark, Super Fresh, Waldbaum's
  8. Delhaize (Bloom, Food Lion, Hannaford Bros., Sweetbay
  9. Walmart 
  10. Trader Joe’s
  11. Price Chopper
  12. Aldi  
  13. Kroger (Baker's, City Market, Dillon's, Fred Meyer, Fry’s, King Soopers, Ralph's, Smith's, Quality Food Center - QFC)
  14. Costco
  15. Supervalu (Acme, Albertson's, Bristol Farms, Jewel-Osco, Save-A-Lot, Shaw's)
  16. Giant Eagle
  17. Publix
  18. Winn Dixie
  19. Meijer 
  20.  H.E. Butt (H.E.B., Central Market)
Download a free copy of the complete report, Carting Away the Oceans.

The 19-page report contains in-depth looks at each of the 20 stores, although Aldi, Costco, Giant Eagle, Winn-Dixie, Meijer and H. E. Butt did not even bother to respond to Greenpeace queries. Stores like this will not change their tune about sustainability practices until shoppers take their money elsewhere.

Says Greenpeace of the lowest-ranked of the low-ranked stores, H. E. Butt: “Supporting a company like this is simply not a feasible choice for any consumers who care about the welfare of our planet.”

My sentiments exactly.

May 24, 2010

June’s Philippine Food Festival in S. F.

Last week a couple of travel writer friends and I were invited to the official launch of the 2010 Philippine Food Festival, which will take place around the S. F. Bay Area all through June. Diners in the participating restaurants can take advantage of special promos. They’ll also get a chance to win prizes, including a trip to the Philippines.

 The Food Festival's Organizers at the Launch

Sponsored by the Consul General of the Philippines, last week’s launch brought together 15 of these Philippine restaurants to showcase some of the best in that nation’s diverse and multi-layered cuisine. The Philippine nation, made up of more than 7,000 islands, has seen many flags sail into its ports over the centuries...and many times the newcomers have stuck around. The cuisine has Malayo-Polynesian origins, but has thus been influenced over centuries by the techniques and ingredients of Spaniards, Portuguese, Chinese, Americans, and a great many others. In short, Philippine food is incredibly complex, offers bold flavor combinations, and is filled with surprises.

At the launch, which took place just off Union Square in the Social Hall of the Philippine Center on Sutter Street, some of that delicious complexity was on display. Long tables, arranged in a big U-shape, were covered with specialties from the 15 restaurants on hand.

 At the Launch: Tastebuds Restaurant

The beautiful display didn’t last long. After the Consulate General and assorted dignitaries did their thing, the hungry crowd went wild. I felt like a little kid let loose in a chocolate factory as I wandered around with my plate, sampling whatever seemed interesting: paella, chorizo, ceviche, roasted pig, adobo chicken skewers, pancit, lumpia, black rice…oh, that black rice! I’ve got to learn how to make that.

 At the Launch: Intramuros

And of course I had a favorite restaurant: Intramuros. Located in South San Francisco, Intramuros features a tantalizing Filipino-Spanish cuisine with a modern twist—fusion at its best! Their food presentation at the launch was breathtaking: small, elegant, and modern containers holding black rice topped with a prawn were my favorite, although the incredible ceviche came close. A great deal of thought had been put not just into the food preparation but in the way it was arranged. Kudos to you folks at Intramuros! If any readers are curious, here’s the Menu from the restaurant.

For that matter, kudos and thanks to all who made that evening a special event.

More Info

Download a brochure, 10 Things To Do in the Philippines
Learn more online about the Philippines
Details about June’s Philippine Food Festival

The Culinary Gadabout Recommends

With more than 100 traditional and modern adaptations of Filipino recipes, this cookbook is perfect for Americans with little to no experience of Filipino cuisine, and for Filipino-Americans interested in learning new and easier ways to try traditional dishes. A comprehensive guide, The Filipino-American Kitchen includes a brief culinary history of the Philippines, an explanation of ingredients, a guide to navigating Asian grocery stores, and10 chapters of recipes organized by course. 

Buy "The Filipino-American Kitchen: Traditional Recipes, Contemporary Flavors"

May 22, 2010

Culinary Gad News Roundup (5-22-10)

A good many press releases come my way devoted to my favorite subjects: food, wine, spirits, and/or travel. Occasionally something comes along that I find interesting or newsworthy enough to bring to your attention, but yet I don't want to turn it into the subject of an entire post. So beginning today I'll compile such items into periodic Gadabout Roundups.

Wine Delivered in Kegs

Wine kegs in restaurants are  nothing new—in other parts of the world, anyway. Traveling in the French countryside I’ve sometimes been served local wines from a small barrel delivered to a restaurant by the winemaker. In fact, one of my fond memories involves being in the Beaujolais region in late November—right around the time that the Nouveau arrives in the U. S. Le propriétaire recommended a local Nouveau, and we were delighted when he dipped a pitcher into a wooden barrel on the counter and carted it to our table. It was, as he had predicted, fantastique!

In the U. S., wine in kegs is a fairly innovative concept—but one that’s becoming accepted (read this NYT article by Eric Asimov). And now a company called Silvertap has begun providing quality organic wines in tappable plastic kegs to restaurants and bars. They’re going about it in a business-like fashion, so this may really turn into something. Among many virtues, kegs do away with the cost of bottles, corks, labels, foils, and boxes, decreasing the wine cost by as much as a 30%. This by-the-glass reduction will hopefully be passed on to the consumer (call me a cynic, but I’ll take a wait-and-see approach on that). Current Silvertap wines include the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc and 2007 Merlot, both from Sonoma County. More wines will be on the list by year’s end.

Russian River Valley’s “Single Night” Celebration

A group of next-generation farmers, winemakers and other wine industry folks in California’s Russian River Valley is hosting a big celebration on June 5. Dubbed Single Night, it will take place from 6:30 to 10 p.m. at C. Donatiello Winery in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg. The event includes tastings of small-lot Single Vineyard wines from the Valley; an auction of “adventure lots” (kayaking/clam bake on the Russian River, hot air ballooning, etc.); and dancing with music provided by DJs Franco Finn and Samantha Vegas. Get more details or a List of participating wineries

Peru’s Pisco Liquor Gaining Popularity Worldwide 

Pisco, a three-centuries-old liquor from Peru, is making big inroads in the U. S., according to its #1 exporter, Gran Sierpe Pisco. This is probably due to the growing (and nationwide) popularity of classic cocktails. With its 19th century roots, the Pisco Sour—Peru’s most well-known cocktail—fits right into this trend. Gran Sierpe saw a whopping 67.5% growth in Q1 2010 exports as compared to the same period in 2009. The company’s major growth markets included Japan (591%); Chile (236%); and the US (59%). Download a Pisco Sour recipe

Read my review of an outstanding Peruvian restaurant in San Francisco, La Mar Cebicheria Peruana

Fair Trade Vodka

FAIR Vodka is not only the world’s first vodka made with Fair Trade Certified ingredients, it’s also the world’s first vodka made with Quinoa. Worshipped as the “mother of all grains” and an excellent source of protein, Quinoa has been a staple in the diet of Peruvian Andean people for centuries. But in vodka? Apparently it works! FAIR Vodka, the first product in the premium spirits line from The Fair Trade Spirits Company, won the Gold Medal (93 points) at the November  2009 Chicago Beverage Institute and was nominated “Best Tasting Vodka 2009” at the New York Spirits Award last June.

May 17, 2010

Breaking News: Luxury Train Between Napa & Santa Fe Coming in 2011

I had heard rumors of this, but today got solid word: a new luxury passenger train company, Denver-based American Railway Explorer, will begin offering Western and Transcontinental excursions in the summer of 2011.

Excursions will showcase much of the country and several national parks, providing a "rail cruise" experience that includes fine cuisine prepared by an onboard executive chef and staff using sustainable and locally-produced ingredients. With three excursions originating or ending in Napa Valley, and the fourth traveling through California's agricultural belt, chefs will have plenty of local sources from which to choose.

Last year American Railway Explorer purchased 1950s-era vintage railcars (currently undergoing restoration and improvements). The company's equipment includes 11 sleeper cars, one lounge/piano car, two dining cars, two dome cars and an observation car. Passengers will have onboard luxury accommodations (the train will also include staff accommodations). The trains will travel largely at night, allowing passengers to disembark for day excursions, which can include interpretive guides.

Here's the lineup of excursions:
  • The eight-day Southwest Explorer will operate between Napa, California and Santa Fe, New Mexico.This excursion will include guided Napa tours; Yosemite National Park; Santa Barbara, Calif.; Grand Canyon National Park; Williams, Ariz.; Albuquerque, N.M. and Santa Fe, N.M.
  • The Northwest Explorer, also an eight-day trip, will travel between Napa and Jackson, Wyo. with stops in Crater Lake National Park; Glacier National Park; Helena, Mont.; Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. This excursion will also include a narrated daytime run through the Columbia River Gorge along the Oregon-Washington border.
  • The Transcontinental Explorer will be an 11-day tour operating twice in 2011 between Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. with stops in San Francisco, Sacramento, Denver, Chicago, Niagara Falls, Shenandoah National Park and Washington, D.C. This excursion will also feature narrated daytime runs through the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the Rocky Mountains through Utah and Colorado and along Lake Erie.
  • The four-day West Coast Explorer will operate between Napa and Los Angeles with Napa Valley winery tours and stops at attractions along the way, including the Hearst Castle and Monterey Bay Aquarium.
As you'd imagine, all this luxury won't be cheap. Rates will start at about $900 per day for the West Coast Explorer, and run up to $1500 for the Transcontinental Explorer.

That's all I know at this point. I'm trying to ascertain where the operation in Napa will be located. The official website has not yet launched. I'll keep you informed.

All aboard!

May 12, 2010

Napa Voted World's #1 Food & Wine Destination


This news just in: the Napa Valley has captured the prestigious number one spot as the World's Best Food & Wine Destination in the 2010 TripAdvisor Travelers' Choice Awards. Now in its 8th year, the Award honors the world’s top destinations based on millions of reviews and opinions that actual travelers share with each other on the TripAdvisor website. Top destinations are determined by a combination of travelers' favorite places and overall popularity on TripAdvisor.

As you can imagine, the Napa folks are delighted. “Millions of travelers on TripAdvisor have identified the world’s most amazing destinations,” said Clay Gregory, CEO of The Napa Valley Destination Council. “We are honored to be selected as the world’s #1 Food and Wine Destination.”

Napa also came in as the world's No. 3 Romance Destination, No. 3 U. S. Relaxation & Spa Destination, and No. 12 in Top 25 U. S. Destinations overall. Job well done, folks!

To read more, visit TripAdvisor's awards pages.

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May 11, 2010

Wine Country Walks 1: Glen Ellen, California

My first "Wine Country Walk" article—about wining, dining, and walking in Glen Ellen, with a little history thrown in—has just gone online at Weekend Walk.

This article is the first in a series that will explore the many ways people can enjoy the wine country on foot. Most of the time that will mean slipping into a good pair of walking or hiking shoes to travel from inn to inn. But it could also mean being based in one inn and walking out to nearby attractions, or getting around via bike rather than foot. The essential ingredient is to leave the car behind, hitting the trail to enjoy nature. Since I live in the town of Sonoma, California, I'll be doing many Wine Country Walks in Sonoma and Napa Counties, certainly. But expect walks from any other excellent wine region in the U. S., Canada--and even beyond.

And just because we're walking doesn't mean we have to suffer. Wine Country Walks will probably never involve a tent or dehydrated food. Don't get me wrong: I've done plenty of backpacking and  enjoyed it. But these ambles through wine country are something different. I'll sleep between quality sheets, quaff excellent wines, and dine well—even superbly.

In Europe, walking from inn to inn is commonly done. For a small fee, innkeepers and hoteliers will pack a bracing lunch for the next leg of your trip. While you're on the trail, they'll cart your baggage to the next accommodation on your itinerary. When you show up 10 or 15 or 20 miles later, the bags are waiting in your room.

Why we don't embrace such a system in this country is puzzling. Over the years I've had many conversations with people on the subject, and everyone agrees it's a great idea. But nothing ever happens. The founders of Weekend Walk hope to change that by highlighting the joys of inn-to-inn walking.

So check out my first Wine Country Walk: Glen Ellen, California and then go hit the trail!

May 7, 2010

Recipe and News from Ceja Vineyards

 Ceja Vineyards Founders Amelia, Pedro, Armando and Martha Ceja

During this week of Cinco de Mayo celebrations my thoughts turned to family-owned Ceja Vineyards, One of the nation's first wineries founded by Mexican-Americans, Ceja has a winery in Sonoma and a popular wine-tasting/art gallery/salsa dancing bar in downtown Napa. Everyone in the family seems to play a big role in the company, which is headed by Amelia Moran Ceja. The first Mexican-American woman to lead a U. S. winery, she was named Woman of the Year in 2005 by the California Legislature for her contributions to the state’s wine industry.

So at this  Cinco-de-Mayo time of the year I decided to get a bit of culinary inspiration from Amelia Ceja herself. That's easy to do since a large part of the winery's website has long been given over to multi-cultural recipes and an extensive collection of "how to" video demonstrations starring Amelia and other family members.

Now Ceja is going a step or two further by constructing Salud! Napa, a "bicultural cooking show that embraces world cuisine, wine and the arts." It looks to be informative, delicious---and fun. You can catch a glimpse of what awaits when the site is finished by going here.

Meanwhile, in honor of Cinco de Mayo, here's an intriguing (and really easy!) recipe from Ceja that I'm going to try out soon:

Chicken Stuffed Pasilla Pepper 
with Pumpkin Seed and Cilantro Sauce

  • 1 Rotisserie Chicken
  • 6 Pasilla Peppers
  • 1 cup of Parmesan Cheese (grated)
  • ¼ cup of Dried Cranberries
  • 1 ¼ cup of Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
  • 2 cups of Arugula
  • 2 bunches of Cilantro
  • 1 8-oz jar of Mexican Crème Fraiche
  • Salt and Pepper (to taste)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. To prepare the rotisserie chicken pull the white and dark meat off the bone in bite size pieces leaving the skin off. In a bowl mix the chicken, arugula, cranberries (leaving a few for garnish) and parmesan cheese. Slice one side of the pasilla peppers and stuff with the chicken mixture. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes at 375 degrees.

While the peppers are baking you can now prepare the simple yet tasty cilantro sauce. In a blender or food processor puree the washed cilantro, toasted pumpkin seeds (leaving a few for garnish), crème fraiche and salt and pepper. If the sauce is thick, just add a touch of water to thin it out. Keep the sauce at room temperature until the stuffed peppers are done.

To present this dish, pour the sauce on a plate and place the pepper right in the middle. Scatter a few of the reserved cranberries and pumpkin seeds around the plate and’ve created a decadent dish. (Serves 6)

Amelia Ceja is one of 21 wine-industry women interviewed in this book, which covers everything from the crush to the shoes to the perfect pregnancy timetable when working among the grapes. Besides the glory and success, there's plenty of angst and adversity (disappearing funds, gender discrimination, and family). 

May 4, 2010

The World's Best Spirits & Wines for Cocktails

The best spirits/wines for cocktails? Maybe. At least that's what a dozen or so expert judges seem to think.

For three days in mid-April, the judging panel spent three days in New York City participating in a tournament competition called The Ultimate Cocktail Challenge. Their job: sampling 58 popular cocktail recipes spanning 13 spirit/wine categories The point? To ascertain, on a 100-point scale, which spirit/wine brand works best in each cocktail—for example, which gin makes the best Gin & Tonic.

I know, I know: I wanted to be a judge, too! Here’s a list of the lucky ducks that got to do the deed.

Actually, there’s a serious purpose behind all this. According to David Talbot, co-founder and managing director of parent organization Ultimate Beverage Challenge, his organization is only “following what’s been done with wine for a long time” through competitions.

He’s got a good point. Up to now the “best” brands to use in cocktails have become known through word of mouth, good advertising, social media, and so on. It doesn't seem that anybody, until now, has ever tried to undertake an objective measurement. So it will be interesting to see whether and how this and future taste-offs change perceptions of the best brands for spirit/wine cocktails in the future.
This nifty little book (160 pages, 4-1/4"x5-3/4") includes more than 150 recipes, a comprehensive glossary, and amusing anecdotes. A concealed wire-o binding allows it to lie flat for ease of use, and an elastic band keeps your place. Buy The Little Black Book of Cocktails: The Essential Guide to New & Old Classics
Keep in mind that the Ultimate Cocktail Challenge and the resultant ratings, below, are not about how well the spirits/wines match up to their categorical peers (as in a vertical wine tasting). They’re about which spirits/wines perform best in a specific type of cocktail. An Ultimate Spirits Challenge—which did rate spirits/wine against categorical peers—took place last March. You can download the results here.

But back to the recently-completed Ultimate Cocktail Challenge. Here’s a quick peek at the Top winner in each category: