Friday, March 12, 2010

Lost in Pronunciation: Greek Wine Review

Just fifteen dollars and four hours was all it cost to transport me to Boston. I highly recommend the Chinatown bus to anyone in need of a quick getaway from the city. The only downside was the bus stopping at a McDonald’s halfway through the trip and all the passengers bringing their grease-stained paper bags full of McGoodies back onto the bus. The stench in the air, fueled by packets of ketchup sludge and science-lab cheese, made me want to call for some smelling salts.

As an unexpected relief to the long bus commute, I stumbled upon a wine-tasting that featured ten Greek wineries. At the door I received a booklet containing a map of Greece and a list of indigenous grape varieties complete with their proper pronunciations. Even after much practice these terms were strange and awkward to pronounce. But after a few sips of wine my tongue was loosened and I was pronouncing terms like Agiorgitiko and Moschofilero with ease.

The wines poured also contained a smattering of familiar international grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. But the highlights of the tasting were the wines that consisted of the quaint indigenous varietals.

The most impressive wines came from GAI’A Wines which produces on the island of Santorini and in Upper Nemea. I respect that they choose to avoid international varieties and only focus on Greece’s indigenous grapes. GAI’A’s white wines are made from the Assyrtiko grape, a native of Santorini, which allows for high-quality, age-worthy wines with good acidity. The Thalassitis 2008 and the Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2009 were especially peculiar and full of character. The flavors and aromas leaned towards an oxidized style, evoking caramel or dulce de leche. These are white wines to be savored.

A notable sparkling white wine was presented by Domaine Spiropoulos, a certified organic winery in the Peloponnese. The Ode Panos NV, a distinctively dry and chalky sparkler, is made from the aromatic Moschofilero grape. I predict this wine will become the new darling of cutting-edge wine establishments throughout New York City.

As for reds, Domaine Harlaftis poured a consistently good portfolio that featured the Agiorgitiko grape variety. These grapes are grown organically though the winery is too small to invest in becoming certified organic. The Harlaftis Nemea 2008, which has spent time in old French oak barrels, provided a nose of forward and enticing fruit, much like the musky aromas found in a fruit preserve.

Most of the wines I tasted have every reason to win the palates of wine consumers and I hope they do. They’re surprisingly affordable, food-friendly, and introduce a whole new vocabulary to the table. I recommend foregoing international varieties and Retsina when shopping for Greek wines and boldly choosing the bottles labeled with names you can’t pronounce.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

To Beard or not to Beard

I recently interviewed for an assistant sommelier position at a major hotel in midtown Manhattan. After filling out the necessary paperwork, I met with an HR representative who quickly led me to his office deep down in the neon-lit, unglamorous basement of the hotel. Before I even had the chance to hang my coat and take a seat he began his long list of probing questions.

The questions, which were shot at me like the lightning round of a TV game show, were pointed and uncomfortable. I expected to be asked about my knowledge of Bordeaux and Burgundy, not my personal ethics. At one point in the interview he asked me to describe myself in a single word or phrase. Stunned, I wished I could opt to phone a friend to answer this one for me. How on earth can I create a tagline for myself on the fly?

Surprisingly, not one question was asked about food or wine. Instead he asked me to describe things like my most serious regrets and how I react to failure. It felt more like a confessional than a job interview and I was completely blindsided by his hard-hitting questions.

At the end of the interview he said he had one more question that may be uncomfortable for me to answer. My mind began to race, thinking of a question that could be any more uncomfortable than the last few. Would he ask about my sexuality, a death in the family, or how I once shoplifted at the grocery store when I was six? His eyebrows furrowed, he was about to ask something seriously personal.

“Mr. Bean, how attached are you to your facial hair?”

Apparently, this particular corporation bans beards. Well-groomed moustaches are okay but anything more than that is not allowed, unless, he specified, your beard is part of your religious practice.

Regardless of my answer to his question, I felt like the job opportunity was lost for me. My beard conveyed a certain attitude and marked me as some sort of anti-corporate rebel. I left the interview feeling like maybe I should sport a different look. Perhaps a clean-shaven face would open more doors and make me more appealing in certain job interviews. Job hunting is a lot like auditioning for a character role, but the challenge is that you are given no information on the specific qualities you are supposed to portray to win the part.

I never received another call from the hotel and I’m blaming it on the beard.

Since the interview, I’ve had to seriously think about the seemingly small details that may keep me from getting hired. I’m starting to think that it’s the subtle, non-verbal characteristics that set you apart and impress a potential employer. Rather than spending time revising my resume, maybe I should be spending more time with my razor.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Little White Lies

I promised there would be homemade pork buns. The occasion was a cocktail party in Brooklyn to celebrate and send off a good friend to Stockholm. All that was asked of me was to bring some sort of hors d’ouevre that I thought the guest of honor would enjoy. Knowing my Swedophile friend’s palate pretty well, I deemed the pillowy-white, slightly-sweet meat buns to be the most appropriate snack to bring to the party.

The day of the party came a little too quick and Monday morning found me in the kitchen with my laptop scouring the internet for the best recipe. One written by Japanese food blogger Makiko Itoh on seemed the most fitting and I immediately made a shopping list and went to work.

Not realizing that Chinese-style roasted pork (char siu) needs a lot of time to marinate, I made the not-so-proud decision to jump on a train to Chinatown to buy some prepared roast pork from a busy meat market on Grand Street. I asked for two pounds, received the usual pat on the back for being a white guy that speaks Chinese, and rushed back to my kitchen to begin making the dough.

The preparation went smoothly. Requiring quite a bit of flour and yeast, the dough was easy to work with and quick to rise. I chopped up the pork and tossed it in a wok with fresh ginger, scallions, and shiitake mushrooms. Adding flour and corn starch to the mixture seemed to meld the flavors together to make a cohesive, spicy filling for the buns. The process of stuffing the dough with the pork filling and pinching a seam to close each pastry was time-consuming but enjoyable in a Zen-like sort of way.

After I was finished I had rows and rows of little soft buns ready to be thrown into a pot to be steamed before being served to the guests. Nobody had to know that the pork concealed in each cloud-like pastry was not prepared in my kitchen. It was my secret.

Upon arrival, the buns became an interesting conversation piece. Curious guests poked at them, asked about what was inside, and ate them once they were properly steamed.

And then my moment of (un)truth arrived.

One of the guests politely inquired as to how the pork was prepared. And almost automatically, with false confidence, I explained how I started the night before, marinating the pork in honey and spice before slow-roasting the succulent meat for hours in my oven. Another pat on the back followed, though undeserved, and the party continued eating the buns with romantic visions of a home-cook carefully and patiently completing every step of the pork bun process by hand.

Why did I lie? Well, it’s complicated. Aside from more selfish reasons, my main reason for lying is the same reason parents lie about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It’s also the same reason little bits of information are fabricated by schoolteachers, politicians, and celebrities: people love a good story.

Had I told the guests I had cheated a bit in my preparation of the pork buns, they may have enjoyed them less. So I told them exactly what I thought they wanted to hear. I didn’t want to let them down.

As small and insignificant as this untruth may seem, this situation got me thinking. I’ve always thought of myself as a realist. I never planned to make my children believe that Santa Claus is an actual living person that delivers gifts via the living room fireplace. If I do carry on that Christmas tradition, I want them to know that Santa is just a fun story and that I am actually the one leaving them the gifts. I want my children to also question the motivations of highly-worshipped historical figures like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Rosa Parks.

But this pork bun lie has proved that maybe, when put in the position of a storyteller with open-eared and wide-eyed listeners aching for a good narrative, I may just give in to the urge to suspend reality in favor of a good story.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Baking Bread with Thoreau

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

During a recent reading of Thoreau’s Walden I couldn’t help but fantasize about living a more simplistic life. Waking up in the morning having nothing on my agenda but the daily necessities like eating and keeping warm seems like a very fulfilling lifestyle. While at Walden Pond Thoreau also spent a good deal of time reading, observing nature, and of course writing. His two-year experiment builds a case for a solitary, distraction-free happiness that in our present day of constant media-seeking seems unimaginable.

As romantic as it seems I won’t be moving myself to the mountains anytime soon. It’s way too cold for me and I can’t imagine giving up my addiction to the media and the constant drama-buzz it provides. Perhaps I’ll reconsider if and when Sarah Palin is elected President in 2012.

But I do think that Thoreau has some interesting daily rituals involving eating and cooking. Weather permitting, Thoreau baked bread daily over an outdoor fire. In his own words, “I fixed a few boards over the fire, and sat under them to watch my loaf, and passed some pleasant hours that way.”

Though I opt to stay in the warm confines of my apartment in Brooklyn I wanted to incorporate this Zen-like practice of baking my own bread in the morning.

Never having baked bread before, I looked for a method that seemed simple and fool-proof. I first thumbed through Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and found his recipe for what he calls the “fastest yeast bread.” The recipe seemed simple enough but didn’t have the Waldenesque vibe I was looking for. Browsing on-line I found a recipe that could have been handed down by Thoreau himself.

Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan St. Bakery in Manhattan, created a method of baking bread that requires very little skill but a whole lot of what Thoreau would call “pleasant hours”. First you mix some flour (3 cups), salt (1¼ tsp.), water (1½ cups), and just a bit of yeast (¼ tsp.) in a bowl. After mixing for a minute, transfer the dough into a medium-sized bowl greased with some olive oil and then cover. Leave the dough in room temperature for at least twelve hours or even longer if you wish. When you see little bubbles at the top you can then remove the dough, fold it once or twice, and let it rest for about fifteen minutes inside the bowl. Once the dough is well-rested shape it into a ball and place it on a flour-covered cotton towel. You’ll need plenty of flour on your hands and work surface to handle the stubbornly sticky dough. Cover the ball with another towel and let it rise for another one or two hours. After the dough has risen to twice its original size it is ready to bake.

I used a 7-quart, cast-iron Dutch oven to bake my bread but you can also use a Pyrex or ceramic pot. Set the oven to 450-500°F and let the pot heat up for about thirty minutes without the dough. Bake the dough covered, seam side up, for 30 minutes and then uncovered for 15-30 minutes more. Depending on your own preference, judge for yourself when you think the bread is done.

After my first time following this recipe I ended up with some of the best bread I have ever tasted. The outside of the bread was hard and crackly while the inside was soft and chewy. The only real work required was the initial mixing of the ingredients and the final baking of the dough. Time takes care of the rest.

With the aromas of fresh-baked bread floating through my apartment I was inclined to be a little more philosophical and introspective. Writing some thoughts in my journal, I realized how a big part of my life was spent thinking about superficial matters. I felt I had invited the spirit of Thoreau into my home. He stayed for a while, but then I drove him off as soon as I left the kitchen to catch up on my latest obsession – the newest season of HBO’s Big Love.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Boxy is the New Sexy

While having drinks at Hearth in the East Village I overheard the bartender attempting to sell a boxed wine to a guy sitting at the bar. The customer looked skeptical and seemed to be on a date, perhaps worried that buying this wine-in-a-box would make him look like a cheapskate. The bartender, with box in hand, explained how the grapes are sourced from Argentina and sent to Canada where the wine is produced and packaged in lightweight Tetra-Pak boxes, allowing for a much lower shipping weight and less fuel emissions.

Her spiel was convincing, almost guilt-inducing, but the couple agreed with the wine and seemed to have a romantic evening with a deliciously fruity, carbon-reducing Malbec-in-a-box.

Curious, I visited a few different wine shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan and collected as many boxes of white wine that I could get my hands on (thank god they were cheap). I avoided the larger boxed wines and purchased only one-liter Tetra-Paks. Here are a few that I highly recommend:

My favorite wine of the bunch is a sleek and smoky Pinot Grigio from California labeled as “Bandit” and made by three winemakers who call themselves “The Three Thieves”. This wine was also the least expensive - only $8.99 at Bowery & Vine in Manhattan. The package is ridiculously boastful – these guys also call themselves “liberators of world class wine” – but the wine is surprisingly tasty. They source their grapes from various regions in California including Monterrey and Napa Counties.

These winemakers are also ultra web-savvy. Their website,, is designed to be a social network of people who come together to talk about their wines. They also keep a hip, gossipy blog called Wino of the Day where they can promote their wines but also keep up-to-date by talking about current pop and political icons such as Lady Gaga, Jenny Sanford, and the cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore. Luckily they have a good wine to back up the hipness.

Another wine worth mentioning is a slightly-oaked Chardonnay made by the Boisset family in Languedoc- Roussillon and labeled The French Rabbit. Not quite as boastful, this wine markets itself as a more humble wine concerned with sustainable farming and reducing carbon. This wine, which can be found at Fermented Grapes in Brooklyn for $9.99, paired nicely with a meal of roasted chicken with herbs and vegetables.

Though these wines are not sexy like their curvaceous glass counterparts – even the way the wine pours from the spout lacks finesse – I found them to be just as delicious. This Valentine’s Day go green (or just go cheap) and take a chance on a boxed wine. If you're worried about looking cheap or unromantic, pour the wine into an attractive decanter and hide the Tetra-Pak from your date. Just be sure to recycle.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Turnip Cake

It would have made more sense for me to make a carrot cake. Everyone loves a carrot cake, especially topped with a thick layer of cream cheese frosting. The last time I made a carrot cake it was consumed before it had time to set and cool properly.

Last Sunday I made a turnip cake. Unlike my immediately popular carrot cake, the turnip cake was a tough sell. It’s been four days since I made the cake and more than half of it is still sitting in my fridge.

The turnip cake, a traditional dim sum dish, is not sweet but savory. A white turnip is chopped up and combined with rice flour, Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms, and dried shrimps. This mixture is poured into a cake pan, steamed for an hour, sliced into small rectangles, thrown into a pan to fry, then topped with a bit of cilantro and hoisin sauce.

I was introduced to this peculiar dish years ago as a young Mormon missionary in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Missionaries in my area were often invited by Chinese church members to join them for dim sum. We all thought this was a friendly gesture but now I think we were invited to be the entertainment. Our Chinese friends found it amusing to call all sorts of strange dishes to the table just to watch us corn-fed American boys struggle with the new flavors and textures.

At one of these dim sum lunches I became the victim of a cruel joke. A fried chicken, all parts still intact, was ordered for the table. I was told that that Chinese people savor the chicken’s head as the most delectable part of the bird. Not aware that I actually believed them, my friends placed the bird’s head on my plate. Everyone was stunned when I trustingly bit into a deep-fried chicken brain.

Once initiated I was willing to try just about anything new in Chinatown – jellyfish tentacles, chicken feet, and even fried frog legs. And now I understand the joy of introducing these strange culinary traditions to my unacquainted friends. This is why I went to all the trouble to make something not so immediately loveable such as the turnip cake.

I was invited to have dinner at a friend’s apartment Sunday night. I brought the freshly steamed turnip cake to offer as an appetizer. I fried small pieces to the right amount of crispiness and tried to plate my creation to look as enticing and friendly as possible. I watched and smiled as my friends poked nervously at their plates, wishing the turnip cake was actually a carrot cake.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Ugly Food

During my holiday visit to Utah I met a friend at one of Salt Lake City’s few teahouses for dim sum. We ordered dish after dish, most of them standards, including ha gow (shrimp dumplings, siu my (pork dumplings), and cha siu bao (roasted pork buns). All of these tasty bites came to the table in traditional wooden baskets looking cute and delectable. There is something very festive-feeling about dim sum. Just about everything comes wrapped like a present inside a dumpling, bun, roll, ball, or wonton.

We also ordered a dish the Cantonese speakers call "ha chong fun". In English it translates as “shrimp rice roll”. Consisting of shrimp wrapped inside a roll made of ground rice, there is nothing cute or attractive about this dish. In fact, it usually looks sort of wet, slimy, and inedible. I’ve been out with many friends who refuse to eat this dish, complaining about the slippery, gelatinous texture.

But today my friend and I are feeling tolerant and will eat just about anything (although this time we decided to forgo the highly hideous-looking chicken feet).

My chopsticks nervously attempted to transfer one of the long, white rolls to my plate. This dish is as stubborn as it is unattractive. After many badgering attempts I had a mutilated clump of ha chong fun on my plate. It now looked even uglier sitting there in a puddle of soy sauce with pieces of shrimp exposed through the roll’s puncture wounds. The unsightly appearance of the roll took away any excitement I had about eating it.

Like many dim sums before, I had forgotten everything about the way it looked as soon as the roll got to my mouth. The shrimp was surprisingly fresh and crisp while the ground rice was perfectly chewy and gummy. Clean and precise flavors filled the mouth as this ugly duckling of a rice roll transformed to reveal its true value.

Are we willing to forgive our food for being drab, unattractive, or messy? Does an attractive presentation enhance a meal or does it confuse the eater into thinking something will taste better because it comes wrapped in a dainty-looking dumpling? Ugly food can be the most delicious food to grace our palates but many are unwilling to look past the appearance of food.

After leaving the restaurant I thought about wearing a blindfold the next time I sit down for dim sum. I might even give chicken feet a second chance.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Eat your heart out Hasbro.

When I was just a young boy all I wanted for Christmas was an Easy-Bake Oven. I was enticed by Hasbro's colorful, jingly commercials showing young kids baking little frosted cakes. My dad made it very clear that this was a girly toy and refused to indulge my "feminine" interest in baking.

In an attempt to reach a compromise, my parents bought for me a drafting desk. In their eyes the desk was a safe balance between a Barbie doll and say, a baseball mitt. It was actually a very nice desk, with a lid that opened upward and an attached lamp that moved on hinges. But it wasn't really what I wanted. I wanted to bake cakes.

Year after year I asked for the oven. I never got it. Later I gave up when I realized that I was old enough to start using the real oven in our kitchen. I somehow convinced my mom to enroll me in some youth community cooking classes I heard about at school. I told her that all the boys in my class were signed up. Without consulting with my dad, she hesitantly signed me up for the class. The class was taught by a plump Mormon housewife with a sweet tooth. We learned to make coffee cake (even though Mormons do NOT drink coffee), chocolate pudding, peanut butter squares, and cherry pie. It was fat camp in reverse and I loved every minute of it.

But I felt guilty enjoying the classes. I had lied to my mother about there being boys in the class. The truth was, I was the only boy in the class. I also felt like I was disappointing my dad, who relentlessly tried to get me interested in tossing around a baseball with him in the front yard.

As parental pressures accumulated, I eventually caved. I didn't want to let my parents down as the effeminate son who enjoys being in the kitchen baking fruit tarts or picking tomatoes in the backyard garden. I never joined the Little League but I was willing to compromise by joining the swim team. I could tell my dad was pleased to see me doing something athletic. Little did he know that my main motivation to attend those early morning practices was the sight of boys in Speedos. As I became more aware of gender expectations, I was compelled to hide the side of myself that enjoyed being in the kitchen.

In recent years my childhood fascination with food has resurfaced. Cooking at home and working as a waiter, barista, bartender, wine store clerk, and member of a food co-op has given me the foodie thrills I was seeking in my youth.

As a recent follower of the Slow Food movement, I am on a mission to explore my current food surroundings in New York City and beyond. Among other things, I plan to visit restaurants old and new, hold neighborhood potlucks and wine tastings, try new recipes at home, get involved in food activism, and travel to local farms and vineyards to get as close as I can to what we eat and drink.

I would like to use this blog as a journal of sorts where I will document my food findings and hopefully develop a diverse network of fellow "foodamentalists". All are invited to sit at the table to both partake and share new ways to experience and enjoy what we eat, with or without the use of an EZ-Bake Oven.