Because a bare cupboard and an empty fridge are sad sights to behold, the Urban Forager hunts through food & wine shops bringing home tasty morsels that make your kitchen table the best place to eat in town.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Perhaps a sharp knife is not what you want everyone in your circle of acquaintances to have, but for those who can be trusted (and more to the point, like to cook) getting their kitchen knives sharpened for them just might make a great holiday gift. Sharpening knives is one of those things people rarely get around to doing for themselves. Case in point, myself: a culinary school graduate who cooks regularly and until last week hadn’t sharpened her knives in…this is a little embarrassing…four years. Perhaps I got away with it for so long because I have great knives (Wüsthof). But a sharp knife really does make a huge difference in your ability to cut well and cut quickly, making life in the kitchen much easier. Although when I asked the knife sharpening guy how often I should have them sharpened, he just shrugged and said, “When they need it.”
He did, however, chastise me for not using my steel to give the knives occasional touch-ups, just as a dentist would lecture his patient for not flossing. A steel is a tool used to maintain the edge of the knife, not to actually sharpen it. It was a culinary instructor who scared me away from steels by pointing out everything that could go wrong. “If you hold your knife against the steel at too much of an angle, it will dull the blade!” "If you stroke it against the steel too many times, it will dull the blade!” “If you don’t run the whole length of the knife against the steel it will . . .” – you get the point. But I am afraid no more. I’ll hold the knife at a 20 degree angle to the steel. I’ll make even, light strokes. I’ll do it regularly and once or twice a year I’ll go see the knife guy. It’s inexpensive (several dollars for each knife) but invaluable.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Beware the Stacks!

It’s that time of year again, when we all find ourselves running into wine stores for a bottle on the way to a party. Inevitably, stacked on the ends of the aisle are ginormous displays, cases stacked on cases of wines. The signs promise red wine bursting with some luscious red fruit or another and white wine with what they swear is pleasing acidity. Unless the wine on display is one you have tasted before and like, my holiday advice to you is this: Step away from the stacks. In most wine stores, my friends, the really good wine is in the aisles, never stacked on the ends. Wine stacked on the end is what the employees are supposed to sell because it makes money for the store. If the employees are truly wine lovers, however, what they want to sell you is the non-descript bottle somewhere on the shelf that they drank the other night and thought was fantastic. Here is a short list of a few affordable wines I’ve tasted recently (none of them stacked at my place of employment) and enjoyed:
Artazuri Garnacha, Navarra Spain, $10-13:A great balance of cherry fruit with tannins that are soft enough to be enticing but dry enough to keep the wine from being fruity.
Araucano Pinot Noir, Chile, $12-15: A good, affordable Pinot is hard to find. I brought this one to Thanksgiving dinner and my family lapped it up. Lots of fruit with a little spice. Made by the French brothers Jacques & Francois Lurton who make wine in five different countries.
Domaine du Bel Air “Jour de Soif” Cabernet Franc, Loire Valley $13-16: Organically farmed, this light-bodied red hints at jammy fruit then quickly turns minerally and musty. A nice English Cheddar, or better yet a French sheep's milk cheese, would be a great pairing.
Domaine du Salvard Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnay blend,Cheverny France, $12-15: Tangy, minerally and light. An elegant looking and tasting bottle.
Trapiche Malbec, Argentina, $7-10: Rich fruit with a little kick to it. Trapiche also makes a Cabernet and a Chardonnay, but I haven’t tried them yet.
Cuvee Jean Philippe Brut, Blanquet de Limoux, $11-13: If you’re like me and love Champagne but can only afford those expensive bottles once or twice a year, Jean Philippe will become your new best friend. The sparkling wine is from the somewhat obscure appellation of Limoux in southern France and made with the even more obscure grape, Mauzac, with a little Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc blended in. The people in Limoux (Limouxians?) claim to have started putting wines through a second fermentation in the bottle to create bubbles long before the region of Champagne ever started doing it. Who knows if this is true - all I know for sure is this bubbly is cheap and good, with a rich texture and yeasty,green apple flavor.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Red Wine Headaches

Whenever I get a headache from drinking wine, I have no one to blame but myself. The equation is simple:
One or two (or three) glasses too many = pounding head.

For me, avoiding the headache is simply a matter of self-control. Not so, however, for countless unlucky wine lovers who seem to get a headache just by looking at a bottle of wine. Red wine takes all the blame, but why?
Many consumers mistakenly place the blame on sulfites. Sulfur dioxide is a naturally occurring substance in wine, produced during fermentation. Most winemakers also add additional sulfites to prevent oxidation, which affects wine’s flavor and stability. There is no such thing as sulfite free wine, but there is a growing market for wine with no additional sulfites added. I haven’t tried too many, but one I can recommend is Casa Barranca’s Arts and Crafts Red. What you’ll get from a bottle of Arts and Crafts Red is a delicious wine, but not one that will cure your headache woes. Unless you are an asthmatic or have a severe allergy to sulfites, there are really no studies out there linking sulfites with headaches.
When I was in culinary school the wine instructor blamed headaches on histamines, and said a sure way to avoid a headache was by popping an anti-histamine like Benadryl before you went to bed after a night of drinking. Many foods contain more histamine than wine, but alcohol can exacerbate the effects of histamine in the system.The Oxford Companion to Wine,a hefty 800-page wine bible, also brings up the matter of histamines, although wisely points out (unlike my wine instructor) that taking an anti-histamine is not recommended when you’re drinking, so you’re better off drinking wines with low histamines levels. Histamines are found in the skins of grapes. Red wine contains more histamines because in order to color the juice red, the wine must soak with the dark colored grape skins.
The Oxford Companion also blames phenolics, which “liberate the chemical messenger 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin) which plays a part in the initiation of migraine.” Phenolics are chemical compounds found in the juice and pulp of grapes, and in much higher levels in grape stems, seeds and skins. For red wine, it’s a double phenolic whammy: phenolics are more abundant in dark-skinned grapes to start with, and then the wine picks up even more phenolics when the juice is soaking with the dark grape skins to add color. While the phenols may give you a headache, they are also the reason red wine is so heart healthy and packed with antioxidants.
This week, a study was released by a group of chemists who have nominated “several culprits for ‘red wine headache,’ including biogenic amines like tyramine and histamine.” Their studies are not entirely conclusive, but they warn headache sufferers to stay away from pretty much everything that makes my life worth living: wine, sake, chocolate, cheese, olives, nuts and cured meats. All of these things contain high levels of amines.
But there is hope. Kind of. The chemists have created a device that can determine amine levels in about five minutes. The device currently only works with liquids (so you can’t test that wedge of cheese) and is about the size of a briefcase. A smaller, hand-held version is being developed, and researchers say you could “take it to a restaurant and test your favorite wines.” But I can tell you that no server in their right mind will open a bottle of wine so a diner can test out their hand-held amine detector. And if the wine has too many amines, what are you going to do, send it back? Perhaps more realistically, the scientists also say the device could be used to test wine before it is bottled, and the amine level could be listed on the label.
Ultimately, I don’t know how useful this study is. But I do love that food and wine has become a topic of discussion in the otherwise dull-sounding “Journal of Analytical Chemistry,” where this study was published. And I don’t think headache sufferers should despair. There’s an exciting and delicious world of low-amine beer and white wine out there just waiting to be discovered!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Location, Location, Location

This week at work I tasted three Napa Valley Cabernets, all three costing between $20.00 - $30.00, and all three were wines that I did not feel the least bit bad about spewing into the spit bucket.
If I got on a plane, I could be in Napa Valley in just over an hour. The French wine I am drinking right now is half the cost and twice as good. How, I ask, is it possible for a guy in France to grow grapes, harvest them, turn them into wine, buy a bottle, buy a label to put on the bottle, buy a cork to seal the bottle, ship it across the world, and then still have that bottle show up on a shelf at a retail cost of $16.00? Why can’t our friends up in Napa do that?
Real estate, baby.
Livin’ in Napa ain’t cheap, whether you’re a person or a grape.That guy in France is probably pulling his grapes from a vineyard that is sitting on land that was paid off a hundred years ago or so. His land is less costly to own, therefore his grapes are less costly to grow, therefore you can buy his wine for $16.00. Not so for a winemaker in Napa.
It’s a simple and obvious fact that the cost of grapes is one of the things that affects the cost of wine, but one that consumers often forget about in the wine aisle. Sometimes you are paying for an address, and that’s it. Drinking those Napa Cabs this week was like living in Manhattan in a crappy little shoebox studio apartment. Sure, you live in Manhattan. But some guy living in the far outskirts of Brooklyn probably has a much nicer apartment, for a quarter of the rent. When you’re apartment or house shopping, it pays to venture into lesser known neighborhoods; likewise, when you’re shopping for wine, the real bargains are usually from regions that are a little less hyped up. The $16.00 wine I'm drinking tonight is French, but is it from from Bordeaux or Burgundy? Nope, it’s from the much lesser known region of Anjou.
In the states, that same theory applies. In my opinion, if you venture out of Napa Valley, the odds of finding a wine that is both affordable and delicious go up. According to my buddies at Wine Press Northwest,Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in the Napa Valley cost upwards of $2,266 per ton. Roughly speaking, one ton of grapes makes around 700-750 bottles of wine. That puts the cost of the juice itself at less than $4.00. But then factor in labor and rent and supplies and the general cost of doing business in an area like the Napa Valley, and charging $20.00 for a bottle of wine doesn't put a lot of money back in the winemaker's pocket. Winemakers in regions like Napa simply have to charge more for their wine to survive. In comparison, if a winemaker in Washington State wants to buy Cabernet grapes, Wine Press says it will cost them only about $1,261 per ton. In Sonoma County, Pinot Noir grapes cost $2,507 per ton. In Oregon, on average, it costs around $2,130. Now, Pinot Noir grapes from Washington State cost a measly $910 per ton, but this doesn't mean you should run out and stock up on Washington Pinots (if you’re actually able to find any). Washington has a hard time growing a good Pinot grape, so buying a bottle of Washington Pinot is likely to be more of a mistake than a bargain. Like all purchases, educate yourself first and if a deal seems too good to be true, it usually is.
Continue to buy Napa Valley wines: there are some truly delicious wines made in Northern California that don’t cost an arm and a leg.(Joel Gott is one to check out) But in comparison, wines from the Northwest often give you more for your dollar. This might not be the case for much longer. So get in, while the gettin’s good.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Fungus Among Us

It was with much disappointment that I realized I’d missed one of those great geek-meets-food events I've come to depend on Seattle for. No, it was not a Cheese Festival this time around; this time it was a (insert drum roll). . .
Wild Mushroom Show!
Each Fall, the Puget Sound Mycological Society hunts down more than 200 varieties of mushrooms within 150 miles of Seattle and puts them on display. The show features a “Feel and Smell” area, a black-light room for UV-sensitive mushrooms, microscopes to view the reproductive cells of spores, and an identification table where you can bring in specimens to see if they’ll make a great meal, or kill you. (Speaking of which, there are also chef demonstrations throughout the day).
I penciled next year’s mushroom show on my calendar, and then trotted down to my grocery store to create a mini-mushroom show of my own. I came back with three fresh mushrooms I’d never cooked with before: the Lobster ($39.99/lb), the Wood Ear ($4.99/lb) and the Porcini ($29.99/lb). You can, of course, also buy dried mushrooms that spring back to life with a soak in a hot liquid, but they aren’t inexpensive and always look like dried leaves to me. (I've worked in many gourmet stores where the dried mushrooms arrive in giant plastic bags, and it makes you wonder what warehouse they’ve been sitting in gathering dust for the last few years.)
As I cooked my fresh specimens, they each revealed distinctly different characteristics. In a hot pan with olive oil, the Wood Ear made a fantastic crackling and high-pitched hissing noise that sounded just like a campfire. Unfortunately, it tasted like biting into wood, too. Commonly used in Asian Cuisine, this is a ‘shroom that performs much better in a soup, to give it flavor and texture.
The Lobster Mushroom is a beauty, and technically, more of a wannabe than a “real” mushroom. The reddish color is actually a seperate fungus that grows on top of unsuspecting mushrooms and basically swallows them whole, known unofficially as “Mycological Cannabalism”. The two fungi become one, and the resulting flavor is mild and slightly nutty with a heavy, meaty texture. I assumed the name "Lobster Mushroom" came from its reddish color, but when The Husband came home while I was sautéing it, the first thing he said was, “It smells like fish in here!” So, there you go.
My favorite by far was the Porcini. It has a definite woodsy aroma and taste. A little sea salt heightens its delicious, earthy flavor. I can imagine it as the star of a pasta dish, or next to red meat or asparagus.
With all this talk of fancy mushrooms, however, let’s not forget the real work horse and everybody’s friend, The Button. Button mushrooms are a regular in my kitchen, and play a starring role next to(gasp!)canned mushrooms in one of my favorite old-school recipes from my Mom’s recipe box. Trust me on this one. The ingredients will make you skeptical, but I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t love this stuffing served next to salmon. As with most recipes handed down from Mom, the amounts are approximate, which is half the fun of cooking.
Mary’s Mushroom Stuffing with Salmon
1 cup or so of chicken broth
¼ cup minced celery
¼ cup minced onion
1 3oz can mushrooms
A few handfuls sliced button mushrooms
1-2 Tablespoons minced parsley
2-3 Tablespoons minced dill
A few shakes of poultry seasoning (found in most grocery stores)
2 cups coarsely crushed Saltine Crackers
Drain canned mushrooms. Keep the juice and mix with chicken broth. In a bowl, pour over crushed crackers. Sauté celery and onion in butter until golden. Add canned and fresh mushrooms and cook until browned. Add herbs, poultry seasoning, and crackers with broth. Place stuffing around salmon. Bake at 350 until salmon is done. Garnish with sliced lemon and fresh dill.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Defining Chocolate

There was a time not so long ago when there was always a bag of chocolate chips in my cupboard. At night I’d dole out however many I needed (because chocolate is a need, not a want). I would then line the chocolate chips up in a perfect row and eat them one by one. The Husband became accustomed to finding rows of chocolate chips around the apartment, which he generously said was endearing instead of pointing out that it was the obvious sign of an addict. I have since moved on to a chocolate bar phase, always dark chocolate, usually without nuts, although sometimes accompanied by a spoonful of peanut butter. So you will understand why, when I came across a website called “Don’t Mess With Our Chocolate” that I could immediately relate. The website is run by Guittard, and is one of many bringing attention to a potential change in the Food and Drug Administration’s “standard of identity” for chocolate. The change, backed by various food industry groups, would allow manufacturers to replace up to 100% of the cocoa butter in chocolate with inexpensive vegetable oil and use milk whey instead of whole milk, and still call their product chocolate. Currently, in products with the word “chocolate” on the label, the addition of vegetable fats other than cocoa butter can’t exceed 5% of the finished product. Insisting that manufacturers use real cocoa butter instead of inferior ingredients protects the flavor and texture of real chocolate. It also protects you from having to read the fine print on a chocolate bar to make sure you’re getting the real thing, not some watered down version of chocolate filled with ingredients you don’t want to be eating. For manufacturers backing the change in chocolate standards, it’s all about money. It’s cheaper for them not to use real cocoa butter. It’s not just “gourmet” chocolate makers that are against the proposal; even Mars, which makes M&M’s, Snickers, Three Musketeers and Twix, just announced last month that they are opposed to diluting the definition of chocolate. The battles been waging all year and it’s still unclear when the FDA will make a decision, but it’s never too late to let your voice be heard.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Milking It

I have to admit the first time I bought Straus Family Creamery half and half, it was the cute factor that got me. Who can resist a tiny glass milk bottle with a picture of a little cow on the front? Pouring cream into my coffee from a bottle like this one just makes me feel good, and it also makes me feel nostalgic; for what, I don’t know, since I’ve never lived on a farm and grew up in an era when the Milk Man left plastic jugs that didn’t have the satisfying clink of glass bottles. But charm isn’t the only thing glass bottles have going for them. Glass is easier on the environment than plastic or paper cartons. The bottles can be recycled, or, if you buy a brand like Straus, return it to the store and it will be returned to the creamery, sterilized, and re-used. Glass does not impart any flavor into the milk, like a plastic bottle might, and glass stays cold longer than a paper carton does, which keeps your milk colder and fresher when it’s traveling between the store and your home (or sitting out on the counter). It is true that light causes a chemical reaction in milk that diminishes some flavor and nutrients, but I’ve decided to file this information in the “life’s too short to be worried about everything” category. Maybe milk in glass bottles loses a few vitamins, but I like to think that the milk from Straus Creamery (a family-owned company with completely organic practices) has more nutrients to begin with; if it loses a few, its still healthier than most of the milk out there from god-only-knows-where. Parents who are buying glass bottles for themselves are also buying glass baby bottles for the wee ones. Increased sales in glass baby bottles can be traced to alarming (but still potentially unfounded) fears that hard plastic baby bottles release the chemical bisphenol into milk. It wasn’t this complicated in the good ol’ days. My Mom remembers being a kid on the farm and squirting milk directly from the cow into her mouth. She swears that no cream she’s had since has been as good. As much as I love Straus Family Creamery’s half and half, I have to say that my Mom probably has a point.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Viva La France

Two days ago I returned from an eleven day vacation in the South of France, where The Husband and I drove our little rented Citroën through the winding cliffs of Cote d’Azur and the tree-lined roads of Provence. The last time I was in France was ten years ago and my impression then was the same as it was this time: There’s something great about being in a country where non-fat milk doesn’t exist, smoking is still acceptable, wine flows like water, and a bakery is on every corner. What really hit me this time, however, was not how far ahead the French are, gastronomically speaking, but how far we’ve come. An overwhelming amount of the same brands of products lining the shelves of food stores in France are readily available here in the States (salts, butters, cheeses, chocolates, oils, etc). I thought I’d come back with a suitcase full of culinary finds, but it was silly to pack food back from France that I can just buy at the gourmet market here in the States. The beauty of France, however, is that there aren’t “gourmet” markets, there are just markets. What we consider “gourmet” food is seamlessly integrated into their daily eating habits. In the medieval hill town of Castillon du Gard, The Husband and I wandered into a tiny store that was essentially a neighborhood mini-mart, but in addition to toilet paper and potato chips and canned soup, there was also a selection of local produce, handmade cheeses, and these delicious little Kalamata olive crackers.
Thankfully, there are more and more store owners in the U.S. that are getting the hang of this idea, which is not at all a new one, not even in the States. It is, essentially, the return of the corner grocer, or, if you will, a re-imagined version of a 7-11 convenience store. The growing wave of convenience stores on the West Coast all share the same traits: They are small, locally owned, and most importantly, located in the heart of a residential neighborhood. They lack the snobbery that a strictly gourmet store can have, and unlike the 7-11 stores we all grew up with, they sell real food, not just junk food. These stores are not afraid to sell Saltine Crackers and toilet paper next to Italian Olive oil and brie.
At Robin’s Nest in Los Angeles you can buy kitty litter and Heinz baked beans as well as Mushroom Truffle Risotto puffs and a divine cappuccino. At The Icebox in Seattle, residents of the Queen Anne neighborhood can stroll in for fresh herbs and wine or a gallon of milk and a box of cereal. In Spokane, WA, Rocket Market is a gas station convenience store that has grown into a "small market of epic proportions." In addition to gas, Rocket Market offers a stellar selection of wine, artisan cheeses, and fresh baked desserts.
Like the French, these little stores have figured out that good food can and should be sold at the same place where you pump gas and buy a bar of soap. In an ideal world, there should be a pleasant little store close to your home where you can pop in on a Saturday night for a bottle of excellent wine and the dog food you just realized you ran out of. Food magazines will be telling you next year what I'm telling you now: In 2008 fancy-pants gourmet stores will be out and the new breed of neighborhood convenience stores will be in.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Back to School

Yesterday when I was driving to and from work, the radio discussion during both commutes was about school lunches. Kids need to eat healthier, they need more fruits and veggies, they need more real food. I agree with all of this, and I’m a huge fan of a pioneering program in Berkeley, The Edible Schoolyard, that introduces kids to growing and cooking fresh food. So why, then, when I started thinking about school lunches could I not get Tater Tots off my mind?
The Tater Tot, in all its greasy splendor, is a food that brings me instantly back to Badger Mountain Elementary.The aroma of the greasy little potato morsels even hovers around my memories of high school and could probably be bottled and sold as “Eau de School Cafeteria” . The Tater Tot never disappoints. It is always as starchy, greasy and salty as you remember it being. Last night I bought a bag in the freezer section (100 tots for only $1.99!), baked ‘em in the oven and dipped the little taters in a healthy portion of ketchup. I probably won’t crave them again for another year, but man, did they hit the spot. For the record, the salty snack pairs much better with an ice-cold vodka martini than it does with a half-pint of school milk.
You may know this food by another name such as Potato Puffs or Spud Puppies. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest it was always Tater Tot, as coined by a “local” Oregon/Idaho company called Ore-Ida (now owned by Heinz) that trademarked the name in the fifties. Tater Tots may have even been invented in the Pacific Northwest when the workers at Ore-Ida were trying to find a way to use the scraps left over from their French Fry production. Sure, we exported Microsoft and Starbucks and and Pearl Jam, but Tater Tots? Now that’s something the locals can really be proud of.
On a school related side note, if you’d like to mark the beginning of the school year in a way that is much classier and substantive than Tater Tots, I highly recommend A Class Apart, a fascinating book written by a good friend who also happens to be an award-winning journalist. Twenty some years after graduating from Stuyvesant high school in Manhattan, Alec Klein went back. His non-fiction account of the students who currently attend the ultra-competitive school is inspiring, humbling and thought-provoking. I highly suggest it as a fall read and expect the book will attract a great deal of attention - you heard about it here first!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Chilling Out

The thing about drinking wine is there are too many rules. Drink red with this and white with that, age this wine, serve that wine in only this specific glass; its enough to take all the fun out of it. The other night, feeling rather rebellious and more importantly, extremely hot and sweaty from a day of 100 degree heat, I put a bottle of red wine in the refrigerator for an hour before opening it. And you know what? It was delicious! This wasn’t an expensive bottle – I wouldn’t recommend putting a $40.00 Pinot Noir from Oregon in the fridge – but for my $7.00 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon, it was the perfect solution. I didn’t feel like drinking white yet I wanted something refreshing, and since in your own home there aren’t any wine police that will come rushing out when you break a wine “rule,” why not chill a red a little? After all, there are some reds, like French Beaujolais,, that do have a tradition of being chilled which proves that even the French aren’t entirely opposed to the idea. In fact, Americans are often accused of serving red wine too warm and white wine too cold. Keeping a bottle of white submerged in a bucket of ice or stored indefinitely in your fridge can kill any delicate nuances of flavor. Serving red wine at room temperature, as is common practice, means serving it at a temperature that is below 68 degrees. I guarantee you, my house the other night was well above 68 degrees, so that poor bottle needed some time in the fridge. A co-worker I once had at a wine store swore that the best thing to do with a cheap, red party wine was to put a slight chill on it. The reason? You know how you’re always being told to bring cheese up to room temperature before eating it so the flavor will be more pronounced? Well, the opposite of this theory can be applied to wine. That $7.00 Cabernet I bought is a decent wine and one I drink often, but not every flavor in it is absolutely amazing. In this case, I don’t mind if some of the wine’s flavor is toned down a bit, and chilling it does just that. If you try chilling a red at your next dinner party, be prepared for people to start whispering and throwing disapproving glances your way. They’ll try to make you feel like your doing something wrong, but don’t listen to them. They obviously have no idea how to live outside the rules and have a little fun.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Strange and Hairy Fruits

This week I was not exactly in the countryside, but while house-sitting for a friend with a backyard I found I could trick myself into believing I was. Butterflies and hummingbirds pollinated bougainvillea, squirrels stole figs from a tree, a raccoon dared to cross the patio in the middle of the day, and lemons and mint were begging to be picked and made into lemonade. After living for so long surrounded by the concrete and noise and rush of city living I’d forgotten how amazing mother nature really is. I discovered yesterday, however, that you don’t necessarily have to be in nature to appreciate her. A stroll through the produce section at a grocery store can be awe inspiring as well when you happen across a strange fruit called a Rambutan.
The Rambutan I bought was from Guatemala, but Rambutans are native to Malaysia and commonly imported from southeast Asia. Loosely translated from Malay, Rambutan means “hairy” and this is an apt description of the fruit. Its hairy tentacles are apparently edible, but its more palatable to cut the outer skin away and go straight for the fruit inside. Slightly more palatable anyway. I’ve posted some of the more G-rated photos of the opened Rambutan, but, how can I put this delicately . . . there’s something oddly erotic looking about this fruit when you cut into it, but not in an appetizing way. It is, however, a completely fascinating specimen, from its hairy exterior to the soft lychee-flavored fruit that is wrapped around a surprisingly large pit. While I won’t be snacking on them regularly, I may buy Rambutans from time to time. When the world starts seeming dull and dreary its good to have a fruit like a Rambutan around to remind us how truly amazing this planet we live on really is.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Growing Grapes

During a quick trip to Santa Barbara wine country this weekend, I was filled with grape envy. I didn’t necessarily want to become a winemaker, I just wanted those beautiful rows of vines to come home with me, giving me something to gaze at out of the window of my city dwelling.
While a grape trellis isn’t exactly a vineyard, its not a bad substitute for anyone with a little bit of outdoor space. With proper, regular pruning and lots of patience (it can take a few years for the vines to produce fruit) you will be plucking amazingly sweet, perfectly tart, fruit right from your back porch. This cluster of grapes was plucked from a friend’s backyard trellis and I can vouch that they taste better than any grapes bought in a store.
Grapes will grow pretty much anywhere in the U.S. as long as you plant the right variety for your region’s climate. I’m all for leaving winemaking to the experts, but if you do have aspirations of making your own version of Two Buck Chuck, make sure the grapes you plant are in the Vitis Vinifera family. Grapes in this family have the higher sugar and acidity needed for turning grape juice into delicious alcohol. This can make them tasty to snack on too, but wine grapes are also seedy and have tough skin. Table grapes have lower sugar, but they also have lower acidity, which balances their flavor and makes them good to eat. Vitis Labrusca is a North American species meant for snacking but not necessarily winemaking (if you’ve tasted Concord wine, you know what I mean.)
If you’re a city dweller with a small deck it’s possible to grow a grape vine out of a single a pot, then train the vine to grow up a post and/or across a trellis. Don’t expect beauty right away. For the first year or two your vine will basically look like a thick branch. See the big stick growing up out of this pot? That’s the vine. When it eventually grows across a trellis, it becomes leafy and green and produces the lovely cluster you see hanging here. There's nothing like sitting on the deck of a winery gazing out at acres of vines, but you shouldn't underestimate how happy a few clusters hanging off your back deck might make you.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Micro-Greens and Sprouts

During the summer, time moves at warp speed (can anyone believe today is August 1st?) This feeling of life passing by too quickly is ironic, since the heat of summer seems like it has the power to slow everything down to a leisurely crawl. One thing I do know about time: no one likes to waste it slaving away in a kitchen on a beautiful summer evening. Salads are the best route to a quick, easy meal in the summer and I've been eating plenty of them, but a girl cannot live on lettuce alone. To keep things interesting I’ve been digging deeper into the produce aisle and experimenting with Micro-Greens. Micro-greens are nothing new: think back a few dozen years and who among us did not have, or covet, a Chia Pet? Although Chia is actually packed with nutrients, its not a Micro-Green you're likely to see often in the produce aisle. You will see, however, Micro-Greens of cabbage, arugula, mizuna, radish, and numerous other vegetables and greens. When a plant is growing, the micro stage is the first point at which tiny leaves become visible. If the plant is harvested at this very young age, it is called a Micro-Green. Micro-greens are visually interesting in salads, adding different variations of color and texture, and often have more flavor than regular old lettuce. You can use Micro-Greens in the place of lettuce, or try adding them to other types of cold summer salads. I mixed chilled orzo pasta with feta, cucumbers and mint, then put a ring of Micro-greens around the outside of the bowl. The dish looked beautiful, and the Micro-greens added a little bit of texture and additional flavor to the pasta salad. Feeling that I had mastered Micro-Greens, the next week I delved into sprouts. Unlike Micro-Greens, which are grown in soil, sprouts are grown in water. For a long time the alfalfa sprout was the only one with name recognition, but now sprouts are readily available in all sorts of shapes and flavors. In the produce section or at the farmer's market look for broccoli sprouts, clover sprouts, sunflower sprouts, you name it, and its got a sprout. I tried Pea Sprouts, which have a similar flavor as alfalfa but have more of a "crunch" - kind of like alfalfa sprouts with a backbone. I roughly chopped the Pea Sprouts and added kalamata olives, baby tomatoes, avocado, and lemon and olive oil. When The Husband took his first bite of what I still claim is a delcious salad he said, not unkindly, "These Pea Sprouts taste like dirt." Now, I would have chosen the word "earthy," but what can I say. Sometimes one person's delicious culinary discovery in the produce aisle is just another person's dirt salad.