Mondays aren’t notoriously good days. But this Monday, everything seems to be going right – I worked out this morning, had a deliciously crisp, cold apple for breakfast, and am still awake without having had my usual cappuccino.
But the best part of my day so far, has been lunch. I’ve recently discovered that the best way to have hot, fresh (well, kind of) French bread without gobbling an entire loaf in the hours before it goes stale, is to buy unbaked loaves, tear them into serving sizes, wrap them individually in aluminum foil, and freeze them.
I heated one of those bread packets in the oven until it was brown and crispy, smeared it with butter, and then topped it with Moroccan sardines in chili oil.
It was exactly what I wanted without knowing that I’d wanted it.
The softness of the sardines, their saltiness, that quick, subtle hit of chili and the richness of melted butter on crisped bread – sigh. It was delicious.
So you know that you swirl it in the glass with your pinkie finger pompously thrust out from your hand. And you know that you’ve got to take a long, slow whiff before sipping just the smallest bit and swishing it over your tongue. And you know that all this must be done with an impeccably smooth frown. But what exactly is it that you’re looking for when you taste a good wine? What do things like “vintage” or “tannins” mean – and how does that affect what you taste?
I’d like to explore what makes one wine different from another and what distinguishes a good wine from a bad one. Below, you’ll find some basic principles and vocabulary words which will be useful when further discussing wine.
What is wine?
Wine is fermented grape juice. In the process of fermentation, the sugar in the juice of crushed grapes is converted to alcohol, producing wine.
Ok. That was easy. Next question.
What is good wine?
Good wine is the result of different factors including soil, grapes (many wines are a mix of different varieties of grape), climate, and vineyard care. Not all wine grows better with age. Unlike a vintage store, where the older the ugly sequined dress the more expensive, vintage in the wine world simply denotes when the grapes were picked and the wine made.
How do I tell whether it’s good wine?
The process for determining the quality of a wine is as simple as look, smell, taste.
When you look at a wine, look for color and clarity. Hold the wine up to a white surface and check its color. Red wines can run the gamut from brick, ruby, purplish, or brownish, while white can be pale yellow, almost clear, or deep amber. Now check the wine’s opacity. A wine can be dense, bright, cloudy, or clear among other things. Swirl the glass to see if there are bits of cork or sediment. When you swirl the wine, rivulets will run down the side of glass – these are called tears or legs and determine the wine’s body and viscosity by the size and speed at which they form.
Swirling the glass also mingles oxygen with the wine, helping to vaporize some of the wine’s alcohol and release more of its natural aromas. Take a quick whiff of the wine for a first impression. Now, sticking your nose as far into the glass as possible without dipping it in wine, take a deep breath for a second opinion. Here is where a wine showcases its unique characteristics. Some wines are oaky, others smell like peaches, vanilla, or citrus. My favorite wine review once characterized a wine as “woody, with a hint of moss, grape leaves, and bacon.” Swirl the wine and sniff again.
Smelling a wine is important, because the taste of food or drink is only half determined by the tongue. The retronasal passage connecting the nose and mouth is actually responsible for most of the flavor of food – tasting is primarily re-smelling food in our mouths. Not to say that tasting a wine is not important.
There are three phases to wine taste, so take a sip of wine and roll it over your tongue. First is the attack phase, a wine’s first pungent punch on the palate. Alcohol content, tannin levels, acidity, and residual sugar all play critical roles in this phase. Too much alcohol will give the wine a harsh taste or make it overwhelmingly strong, while too many tannins, which occur naturally in the seeds and skins of grapes, will give the wine an astringent quality. Similarly, too little sugar will make a wine excessively dry while too much will make it overly sweet. A balanced acidity makes a wine crisp; too much will make it sour or harsh and too little will make it lifeless and dull. In the attack phase, you should get an idea of a wine’s intensity and complexity, but not necessarily its full flavors (like fruit or spice).
These full flavors should come out in the evolution phase. A red wine may taste like berries, plums, figs, pepper, cinnamon, cedar, or smoke, among other things, while a white wine may reveal hints of honey, herbs, butter, or earth. Feel for the body, or fullness, of the wine, how light or heavy it feels as you drink it and also the texture, whether it feels rough or smooth when you swallow.
The last phase of a wine taste is called the finish. This is how long the flavor lasts after it is swallowed–the aftertaste. Here, try to discern the difference between the length of time a wine remains in the back of your throat, whether it had a bitter kick, or whether a new flavor developed in your mouth after you swallowed. Ideally, the aftertaste should be refreshing and linger on the palate.
But I still don’t know whether it’s a good wine.
So you’ve read the basics of wine tasting, and you realized that there’s no pithy statement at the end of all that telling you exactly what makes wine good. And you’re right, there is no pithy dictum. The best advice I can give is to taste as many wines as you can and figure out what suits you best, whether its sweet wine or dry wine, heavy or light wine, white or red. And that’s not such a bad homework assignment.
Let me paint a picture for you: I’m standing in a cramped kitchen with a dripping, raw chicken cradled in one hand and a giant knife in the other. I am about to cut up said chicken, when I realize that I actually have no clue what cutting up a chicken entails. “Somebody grab The Joy of Cooking,” I yell, growing frantic with the weight of the chicken in my hand. (Chickens, although small, are deceptively heavy, and I did start lifting weights after this incident).
The Joy of Cooking, my kitchen bible, is procured, and with reassurance, the voice of Irma Rombauer tells me, “With a little practice and a sharp knife, you can easily cut a whole chicken, duck, turkey, or goose into serving pieces.” Thanks, Irma.
First published in 1931 as a coping mechanism for dealing with her husband’s suicide, The Joy of Cooking was Irma Rombauer’s first foray into helping cooks everywhere keep their households happy. Joy was a departure from other era cookbooks written mostly by cooking schools or dieticians. “Talking about ridiculous cookbooks,” said M. F. K. Fisher about her generation’s offerings, “One, lavishly larded with instructive photographs, illustrates the correct way to serve dinner rolls, each tied with satin ribbon and a red, red rose!”
Instead of such impractical or hard to follow instructions, Rombauer offered recipes suited for day to day life and included basic instructions for commonly used cooking techniques. After hitting on the action method–working the ingredients list into the directions–she republished the book in 1936 with Bobbs-Merrill and began a family-run cookbook empire.
Joy has undergone a number of reprints since then–not all of them lauded. It has tried to move with changing attitudes toward food, substituting unrationed substances for costlier commodities during WWII, adapting to post-war appliances like freezers in the home, and expanding to include international recipes when it appeared that there was a demand for them. However, some of Joy‘s attempts at modernization were less well-received, like the 1997 version which eliminated the conversational tone of the instructions and removed the sections on ice cream preparation and home canning. Even the newest 2006 edition that I love so much has been criticized for use of ingredients like Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and what the New York Times calls, “a cloying coat of nostalgia.”
While not every recipe of the 4,500 included in the book is quality, what keeps bringing me back to The Joy of Cooking is the simply-expressed, yet encyclopedic range of knowledge contained between those thousand-odd pages. Joy assumes you have never cooked before in your life and walks you all the way from cleaning salad greens to making homemade marshmallows and smattering juicy tid-bits about everything you’ve ever wanted to know about what you eat in between.
Here’s one of my favorite recipes from The Joy of Cooking:
This dish is sometimes served as is, with bowls of garnishes such as grated cheese, shredded lettuce, guacamole, and chopped tomatoes on the side. It is also a tasty filling for tortillas–enchiladas, tacos, tostados–as well as a stuffing for chile peppers.
Cook in a large skillet, mashing down to crumble the meat, until the beef starts to brown:
1 pound ground beef
1 cup fresh chorizo
If a lot of fat is released, drain the meat on paper towels and return to the pan. Add:
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
Cook for a few minutes, then add:
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of ground cloves
1 bay leaf
Simmer, covered for 30 minutes. Add:
½ cup raisins (I prefer golden raisins)
½ cup slivered blanched almonds
½ cup pitted black olives, chopped
Cook, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes. Remove bay leaf before serving. (I recommend this dish with warmed tortillas, lettuce, tomato, shredded cheddar cheese, and avocado.)
My housemates and I have decided to start up a less-than-innovative tradition within our group of friends: Brunch. Sunday Brunch, to be more exact. Sunday Brunch Potluck style to be precise. We figure that food is the best reason to come together, our house the best location, and Sunday the best time to prepare for the upcoming week.
As I said, this tradition is nothing new. In fact, we are rapidly approaching the 115th anniversary of the first publicized use of “Brunch.” Back in 1895, an Englishman, Guy Beringer, pleaded to the general readership of Hunter’s Weekly to delay breakfast and combine it with the mid-day meal. Unbeknownst to us, there were reasons other than as an excuse for gathering during the first push to popularize this meal. Beringer’s main arguing point for creating a conjoined meal rested largely on the goings on the night before; he wanted to drink more, until later, and not feel bad about it. In fact, Beringer also became revolutionary by suggesting that alcoholic drinks be taken with Brunch, which spawned (not until later) the birth of the Bloody Mary and mimosa.
Everybody loves donuts. Almost every culture has the compulsion to throw a wad of dough into a hot pile of oil, fry it, cover or fill it with something delicious, and eat it. In Austria, krapfen stuffed with vanilla cream or apricot jam, are a particularly popular Carnival food. In Indonesia, a ring-shaped dough of flour and mashed potatoes is fried and coated in powdered sugar or confectioners icing and called donat kentang. China, Israel, Germany, Greece, and a slew of other countries have their own version of a donut. In France, they have beignets.
I’ve never had a particularly good relationship with beignets. I burned my arm once making them when I was twelve years old. One spoonful of dough dropped too hastily in a deceptively still pool of oil, and three kiss-shaped scars were suddenly splattered on my arm. Since that encounter, every time someone said the word beignet, drawing out the last syllable with nasal panache, I’d grimace and think, What a pretentious way to say donut. Although I can just barely find the scars now, I hadn’t had another beignet until last Sunday after the Super Bowl.
Two of my regular cooking companions had invited me to a study hall featuring beignets and black coffee. Drawn to any event involving food, I packed a bag with reading and headed to the kitchen in which they were busy mixing dough. The recipe was one from Gourmet, part of a Middle Eastern feast, and featured rose water, orange juice, and lemon zest in addition to the flour, butter, and eggs that formed the basis of the batter. The gathering involved little studying–I read nothing–and a lot of cooking, chatting, and eating. These beignets were nothing like the flat pads of dough I had tried to make as a twelve year old. Moist, bite sized packets flew assembly-line style from the hot oil into a bowl of almond flour and sugar and into our mouths.
Intrigued at my increasingly positive relationship to this delicacy, I looked into the history of the beignet and its relationship to the less sophisticated donut. In France, beignet is a disparate term for fried pastry filled with something–fruits, vegetables, meats, small children–really anything the French decide to put in it. Donuts with jelly or custard fillings most resemble the beignets of France.
Beignets, however, evolved outside of France, most notably in New Orleans, where the pastry was brought to the area in the 18th Century, most likely by the Ursuline Nuns. These beignets, precursors for the hole-in-the-middle donuts sold in every grocery store, have since become the Louisiana State Donut, making Louisiana one of two states with a state donut (the other is Massachusetts with the Boston cream donut). Versus their French cousins, American beignets are not filled with anything, but are fluffy piles of deep fried dough usually topped with confectioners sugar or icing. They can be large, small, or intermediate, but always, they are sweet.
The nice thing about living in a country where the flavors of one culture can be superimposed on the basic food of another culture, is that something like an orange scented beignet can exist. Middle Eastern flavors plus a French dessert put together in an American magazine. In retrospect, I think, that’s fusion food at its best. At the time, the only thing going through my mind was delicious.
Check out the recipe for Orange Scented Beignets at: Epicurious.com-Orange-Scented-Beignets
One afternoon, two years ago, as Josh and I stood in my kitchen, munching on bagel chips and goat cheese, we came to the unsettling conclusion that our life plans were almost identical. We were both English majors, studying creative writing at Davidson College, both wanted to go to culinary school, and both wanted to enter careers that somehow combined the two.
Since that discovery, we’ve been cooking together, sharing recipes, and arguing about the merits – or demerits – of everything we eat. And since that conversation, we’ve also come to realize that we share many of the same philosophies about eating, cooking, and writing – and how each of those elements influences, and also shapes, our lives.
My own love for food writing came from an unlikely source, the lavish and loving descriptions of feasts in the Redwall books, a children’s series created by Brian Jacques that chronicles the epic lives of a loyal band of mice, badgers, and otters as they battle an evil contingent of weasels and foxes. I read and reread mealtime scenes in Redwall, imagining the taste of Mossflower soup, the smell of fresh biscuits with butter and honey, hotcakes, and nut bread. Brain Jacques, my first food writer.
After Redwall, I started reading my mother’s cookbooks, her back issues of Saveur, even the recipe section in Southern Living. Although I grew up in a home that consistently had good food and freshly prepared meals, I first discovered my passion for food by reading about it. That progression, from reading to cooking, and now to writing, may be unconventional, but for me, reading, writing, and eating are invariably intertwined. I read to understand my culture, I write to understand myself, and I cook to understand how it all relates.
For me, there wasn’t a Volta, a change in time, an epiphany when I decided “I must cook,” or “I must write.” To be honest, I’m still grappling with what those terms really mean. Do I cook for people, do I cook with people; my conundrum seems to sprout from prepositions and their implications.
I did, however, stumble into cooking first. Living in a house with an apartment upstairs provided interesting sets of people residing directly above me. My family went through a couple of different residents, until Michele moved in. She ended up staying for eight years. Also a personal chef, nutritionist and dietician, food was a strong part of her life. After a few months of coming home from school to aromas of butternut squash soup, orange chocolate soufflé, and pumpkin spice cookies, I ventured upstairs with a question about cooking pasta and came downstairs with a stack of Bon Appetit. Finding myself increasingly curious about food, I would fit in an episode of Good Eats on the Food Network after waiting tables all night, find a recipe from one of the Bon Appetit and take to the kitchen. In the morning my mom would ask why she dreamt of scones, pies, and cookies all night, until she’d see the platter on the back counter.
I write for both of us when I say that food is more than nourishment for our bodies. Food is something we need to share in any way possible. “Companion,” after all, means “those who break bread together.” We all eat to live, and some of us live to eat, cook, and talk about it later. That’s why we’re here. Well, that–and because we like how it tastes. Eat me. Drink me.
This time she found a little bottle on it, (`which certainly was not here before,’ said Alice,) and round the neck of the bottle was a paper label, with the words `DRINK ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters. [...] Soon her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: she opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words `EAT ME’ were beautifully marked in currants. `Well, I’ll eat it,’ said Alice, `and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if it makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door; so either way I’ll get into the garden, and I don’t care which happens!’ – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland