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, 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.