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The beauty of braising (pork chops, garlic, wine, and merquen)

Date: Wed, Feb 6, 2013

To braise is to sear a piece of meat beautifully brown on all sides over high heat, quickly, and then to deglaze the pan with some nice liquid (wine, or broth), add an aromatic or two, and pop it all into the oven to finish cooking for an hour. In this case the meat was pork chops, the aromatics a clove of garlic and a dash of merquen. Merquen are smoked chilis, dried, flaked and stored in a cute jar with a cork stopper. They were brought to us some time ago courtesy of the nice people who manage the Wines of Chile live blogger tasting twice a year. The "tasting kit" for the very first virtual tasting I was invited to attend included a bottle of merquen along with a stack of recipes, and all those delicious, brawny Chilean carmeneres.

Of course I drank the wines long ago, but I continue to use and enjoy the bottle of merquen. If you happen to have some too, use it sparingly until you decide how much you like the heat. A quarter teaspoon, to begin, will do. You will want your oven temperature, to finish the braising, to be about 325 F.

While the meat cooks in the oven, you might make some mashed potatoes and a salad perhaps, and pour the wine. It's February 6th ... you know what that means for us history geeks. Almost time to celebrate the wedding day of Queen Victoria! That will fall on February 10th. It has nothing to do with either pork chops or merquen. But thank goodness we history geeks live such rich inner lives.
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2010 Guenoc cabernet sauvignon

Date: Tue, Feb 5, 2013

Remember our Guenoc Victorian claret? This is made by the same people. (But, are they the same people who make Guenoc, with a fancy scrolled 'G'? Or have the original Guenocians changed their label?) Quite as good as the claret, if a bit brawnier. Retail, about$12.

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Dry Creek Vineyard chardonnay

Date: Sat, Feb 2, 2013

Exactly what you want from a California chardonnay, smooth buttery apples and a zing of acidity for refreshment. I don't think my readership is so immense that I risk starting some sort of freebie avalanche on the good people at Dry Creek when I say, -- they are so proud of this fine wine that on their website they actually invite you to "ask for a sample bottle." Perhaps they mean, "if you happen to be in California at our tasting rooms right this minute."

Otherwise, retail, about $20.
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Classic peanut butter cookies, plus Tom Swift

Date: Wed, Jan 30, 2013

Are the cookies ordinary? Yes. Are they unimproved, un-"re-thought," in the manner of gourmet cookbooks and magazines whose editors are (understandably) forever hunting for the new and delightful, and who would probably "jazz up" this old favorite somehow with African birdseye chilis, or something artisanal and foamed? Why -- yes. But they are also, shall we say, "dreamy." After you make them, I'll give you a retro, kiddie book to read. What better comfort on a blustery, snowy, dark January day?

When you make these cookies, use a natural peanut butter (the kind that has to be stirred when you open the jar, because the oils have risen to the top), and do sift the flour -- it makes a difference in texture and is more economical. (You end up using less flour.)

This recipe can be found in any standard American cookbook, but my version happens to come from a junior high school home economics class.

Peanut butter cookies
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup peanut butter
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 and 1/4 to 1 and 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Cream the butter, and beat in the white sugar until the mixture is fluffy; then beat in the brown sugar. Stir in the peanut butter, egg, and vanilla.

Mix the dry ingredients in a separate bowl, and add them all at once to the first mixture. Stir, and form into small balls (don't make them too big -- a little smaller than a golf ball is good). Press each ball down with a fork dipped in sugar, to make a cross hatch pattern.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes.


Then, speaking of junior high, sit down and enjoy the story of Tom Swift and his Triphibian Atomicar. It goes like this:

Review of Tom Swift and his Triphibian Atomicar

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

It’s impossible to pass up a title like Tom Swift and his Triphibian Atomicar, especially when the first two lines alone make the book worth its 50 cent, castoff price: " ‘Tom, your new atomic sports car is absolutely dreamy!’ said Phyllis Newton. Eighteen-year-old Tom Swift Jr. grinned at the pretty, dark haired girl ...."

Tom Swift is the male counterpart of Nancy Drew, the fantastically accomplished, brave, upright youth, mature enough to be out of school and driving around having adventures, but young enough to still require fully adult mentors, and adult rescuers from danger when adventure turns rough. Like Nancy, he also has a strong, wise, moneyed father, another scientist and inventor whose Swift Enterprises is doing well enough to provide young Tom with a four-square-mile laboratory and production plant, where he creates atomic energy capsules and tests new, super-strength plastics. Early on, there is an atomic explosion in Tom’s lab, but he and his friend Bud clean it up right away, and then they relax over a pot of cocoa.

The storyline is gloriously wild. Someone wants to steal the secret of Tom’s new vehicle, and then his mother and sister are given two fabulous rubies which have something to do both with important advances in maser communications, and with a cursed ruby mine in the struggling young nation of "Kabulistan." Sinister men in turbans spy through windows, and a bomb goes off in an airport. Tom drives cars, pilots planes, and calmly deals with everyone from predatory business executives in "Shopton" to shady antique booksellers in Teheran and mounted Kurdish tribesmen in the highlands of central Asia. When he first shows off his atomicar for the press, he himself takes the controls after a reporter mocks the planned use of a robot-driver. ("Good heavens, boy!" his father bursts out later. "You might have been killed if the repelatron-force ray from your anticrash device hadn’t stopped that truck!") On weekends, Tom relaxes with his family’s business friends, strolling the artists’ colony in Taos, or hiking, swimming, and playing tennis in the Adirondacks. They all eat good meals, fried chicken and biscuits at home, sheep’s head and pomegranates abroad. Because of his previous inventions he has had contact with representatives of advanced civilizations in outer space, but they don’t make an appearance in this book.

To author Appleton’s credit, and apart from the credit he deserves for his research, he does keep his eye on two things throughout the story. He bothers to describe Tom’s experiments, albeit loosely – there’s talk of "hydraulic pressure gear," and valves and megacycles – and he bothers to include real violence, not gratuitously but because Tom gets involved with violent men. Only once does a mute thug aim a carbine at Tom’s friend, but when he does, he means business.

Tom Swift’s adventures must have been great fun for a boy to plunge into, say on a fine, free summer afternoon in 1962. They’re still quite a tour de force now.
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May I import something (again)?

Date: Mon, Jan 28, 2013

It's winter. It's cold. It's dark. What better than to curl up on the couch with a cocktail, or better yet a nice glass of port or cream sherry, and read ghost stories? When I used to maintain a book review blog, I used to read more. Or was it the other way around? Allow me to import something.


What makes a ghost frightening? That it is more alive than we are.

From The Norton Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Brad Leithauser (1994), come these two to start a collection. First is Ann Bridge's marvelous "The Buick Saloon," originally published in 1936. An exotic setting -- the foreign Legation in Peking in the 1930s -- a dumpy little diplomatic wife who hears a disembodied female voice speaking French in the back of her chauffeured car (that's the Saloon); there is little more to be said, because to say too much more would be to reveal too much and spoil it all. Suffice it that Ann Bridge (pen name of Lady Mary Dolling Sanders O'Malley, English diplomat's wife) is, if not the find of a lifetime, at least the find of a good long time, for any appreciative reader. Just listen:
Below her Peking lay spread out -- a city turned by the trees which grow in every courtyard into the semblance of a green wood, out of which rose the immense golden roofs of the Forbidden City; beyond it, far away, the faint mauve line of the Western Hills hung on the sky.
And then she turns to overlook the old garden in the house by the Tartar wall, where the French voice had once been happy.

In the same anthology we find "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes," by Henry James (1868). Certainly he is a grander writer, one of the evidences of which I think is that unobtrusive, but always present, arch-browed humor which seems the mark of a master. But as a ghost story this one is less effective than Ann Bridge's. If ghosts are frightening because they are more alive than we are, then the ghost of this Romance is neither terribly alive nor terribly frightening.

Here we follow two sisters in colonial Massachusetts as they fight, very quietly, over one well-to-do English suitor. When he picks one of them, the other must make the best of it. Rosalind and Perdita were neither very loving nor very hateful toward one another to begin with, so there is no question of a ruined sisterly love or a further embittered hate. When one of them becomes a ghost, it really is all about the clothes. The creepiest moment of the story occurs when they are both still living and polite. The betrothed sister plumbs the depths of the other's jealousy and quietly says, " 'At least grant me a year. In a year I can have a little boy, or even a little girl ....' "

The ghost story genre is a challenging one. A writer has to get the scope and the pace of the visitation(s) just right, or else the delicate souffle of fear, fantasy, and plausibility collapses. It collapses, I think, even for Ann Bridge in her "The Song in the House," contained in a different anthology -- The Fireside Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Edward Wagenknecht (1947). It's another beautiful story, but, a whole gardenful of bejeweled Elizabethan ghosts, and all in broad daylight? Alas, no.

Curiously enough, Ann Bridge's papers, thirty boxes of them, are now at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Someone gave them as a gift in 1975, the year after her death. It seems rather an abrupt document dump. I hope she doesn't haunt the place.
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2010 Terra Rosa malbec

Date: Sun, Jan 27, 2013

We like malbecs. Think of them as cherry pie in a glass, the best of them homemade cherry pie, the ordinary ones more like those little gooey fried Hostess pies you used to buy at the little local grocery store and eat on streetcorners with your little (gooey?) friends.

Retail, about $15. (It's homemade.)
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"Icy winter," Apple Sunrise

Date: Thu, Jan 24, 2013

"Let no one, however canny, induce you to work your land
When it's bone hard under a north wind.
Then icy winter closes down the countryside ...."

Virgil, the Georgics, Book 2; tr. C. Day Lewis (Anchor Books, 1964)

We daresay no one is going to induce Sir Nicholas Broadbottom (above) to work his land. He might, however, be persuaded to have a cocktail. Here, in keeping with the picture-theme of a breaking dawn, is Charles Schumann's recipe for an Apple Sunrise, from American Bar.

Pour each ingredient one after the other into a collins glass (a tall glass), and stir gently:

  • a few dashes fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 ounce (1 and 1/2 teaspoon) creme de cassis -- this gives our drink the flavor of black currant, a taste wine writers are forever recognizing and relishing in glasses of red wine. One would think they had all grown up playing in the shade of their mothers' black currant bushes. Remember how we studied this when we thought about received wisdom in wine?
  • 1 and 1/4 ounces (a little less than a jigger) Calvados -- (apple brandy)
  • 2 and 3/4 ounces (about two jiggers) fresh orange juice
Drink. Don't get hung up on received wisdom. Stay warm.
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2008 Antaño Crianza Rioja

Date: Wed, Jan 23, 2013

A Rioja will give you a light, olive-brine effect that heavier berry-and-caramel California reds, or Australian shirazes let's say, will not. Seriously: be prepared to taste green olives. The country of origin is Spain, the grape, tempranillo.

Retail, about $10.
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2009 Chateau Tour de Luchey

Date: Mon, Jan 21, 2013

When you tire of sugary California reds, take refuge in a trim, firm, and shockingly inexpensive Bordeaux.

Retail, about $9.
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it's nice

Date: Sun, Jan 20, 2013

So I bought a clock radio, and have taken both to falling asleep and waking up to our local classical music station, the world renowned WFMT. This is something I haven't done in perhaps thirty years. It's nice. (Clock radios still have timers! What a revelation!)

The station happens to have stopped playing, may I say faithfully at 6:00 am, a hymn I still remember, and always associate with (my nineteen-year-old self) getting up to catch the bus to a community college on fresh, cold, lavender-swathed winter mornings. I owned a lavender-colored coat and scarf then; and sometimes the winter morning light on hoarfrost and brown branches can look lavender. The lyrics to the hymn were prettily descriptive of all the seasons -- "the lane [or lake?] in its soft summer dew, the stars on a winter night." The chorus ended in something about "the bells in the valley belo-ow." Google the keywords as I may, I can't seem to find the hymn. Perhaps you know it?

In the meantime, why don't we enjoy something else that is nice? Here is a bit of culinary history recovered from the starched-ruff-and-saber era, which might for all I know be the same era as the hymn. Christian Guy, in An Illustrated History of French Cuisine (tr. Elisabeth Abbott, 1962), writes of nice things in the early seventeenth century:

There was one innovation: the guests tied their napkins around their necks; for more than a century before they had flung them over one shoulder or over the left arm. This change -- like the innovation of the fork -- resulted from the fashion for fluted linen collars which the wearers wished to protect. Because of those ruffs, every man also had to let his neighbor help him tie his napkin around his neck (whence the expression 'help make both ends meet').

Curious how the phrase "to make ends meet," to us, means to manage one's finances carefully, to get by. But the full phrase makes more sense in reference to a big cloth napkin. For if it is about money, -- what two ends are meeting? The ends of a dollar bill?

We think not. Below, one more nice thing, in keeping with one of our two new themes for the year. You remember we chose the Baroque and lemons. No kidding. One bright morning this week, my new clock radio and WFMT awakened me to "the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba," from Handel's Solomon.

Never heard of it? Me neither. But now we have.

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Date: Sat, Jan 19, 2013

For my taste it's among the best of cavas -- Spanish sparkling wines -- having an actual nutty and toasty flavor as opposed to just "lightness" or "freshness." I believe Codorníu is the granddaddy of them all, too. Yet in my retail world, people seem to pass it by. Perhaps its marketing department needs to rethink the label.

Retail, about $13
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Homemade butter, continued

Date: Tue, Jan 15, 2013

We began our butter making here.

It was all a part of the marvelous three-day weekend, which included the zoo and the conservatory, the fish and the orchids. Did I mention buying my post-Christmas treat, the little bottle of Chanel No. 5, on the Saturday? Show me a gift card from Macy's, and stand back. The more I wear it, the more its warm, rich fragrance (can it be reminiscent of a sort of fruit, and maybe allspice?) seems to grow on me. There's a story at Wikipedia about how the perfumer who presented his creation to Coco Chanel in the 1920s was trying to capture not only jasmine and rose but the "Arctic freshness" he had known while stationed in northernmost Russia interrogating Bolshevik prisoners in the days of the Russian Revolution. That sounds like tremendous hooey to me -- marketing with a capital M. But the scent is lovely. Certain People in my family claimed it reminded them of mosquito repellent and baby powder, but that can't be. Chanel No. 19 is said to be even more wondrous ... we must look about

Anyway, in the midst of all this activity came my first experiment in homemade, cultured butter. We wanted good butter to go with our challah to go with our weekend. An old post of David Leibowitz's got me started. In his list of amusing and useful links re: "real" butter, he includes The Traveler's Lunchbox, whose instructions on the making thereof are very thorough. The Traveler, in turn, credits "fellow blogger Dominic" of The Zen Kitchen for teaching him the art. Alas, after nearly six years the link to that particular post has been lost in the ethernet. It's understandable. The Cloud can't hold everything for all time.

Still. We carry on with what we do know. To make French or cultured butter, you cut the Traveler's recipe in half, and obtain --

2 cups heavy cream
4 Tablespoons plain yogurt ("without added gums or stabilizers" -- I used Chobani, but be careful because the packaging for Chobani's plain yogurt looks a lot like the packaging for their blueberry yogurt)
Ice water

Combine the cream and yogurt. Let the mixture sit, loosely covered at a warm room temperature (ideally about 70 to 75 F), for 12 to 18 hours, until it thickens. My cream developed a sort of skin on top, but that seemed to do no harm. If the cream "bubbles or turns gassy," discard it and start again. "Note that this has never happened to me," writes The Traveler's Lunchbox. It didn't happen to me either.

When ready to make butter, chill the cream down from room temperature to about 60 degrees F. This is not a big change. Placing the bowl in the refrigerator for a few minutes should be enough to effect it. Then, whip the cream with an electric beater, until it -- the cream, not the beater -- "breaks." This means that after forming beautiful, dessert-worthy whipped cream it will churn up into a glop of small soft yellowy beads, and will instantly exude a thin white liquid that pools at the bottom of the bowl. Stop whipping at this point, or the liquid will fly all over the kitchen. This liquid is buttermilk.

Pour off the buttermilk into a clean cup -- in the picture above, it has already been done, so you don't see a pool -- and reserve that in the fridge for another use. A number of chocolate cake recipes happen to call for just a cup of buttermilk, so you might explore that possibility.

Now it is necessary to wash your fresh butter. Pour some ice water, which you have ready to hand in a clean bowl, into the bowl of drained butter. Work and knead it with a fork, and pour off the resulting cloudy water. (The point of washing butter is to remove any remaining buttermilk residues, the presence of which could quickly turn the butter rancid.) Keep on adding ice water, mashing all with a fork, pouring off the clouded water, and then adding fresh water and mashing again. You have finished washing when the water pours off almost completely clear. The cold water, of course, also helps solidify the butter.

If you wish to salt your butter, do so now, to taste. With practice your imagination may run wild here, and lead you off into the fragrant realms -- all rolling grassy hills, sunny valleys, and cows grazing peacefully in the rising mists of a summer dawn -- of flavored butters. Why salt only? Why not garlic, or lemon, or pepper, or clove, why not rum or thyme or vanilla?

All that lies in our future. Now, having salted carefully -- why, we have finished. Our "French" or "cultured" butter is ready to pack into any receptacle, whether a cup, ramekin, specially designed butter mold or what have you. Cover it or wrap it tightly before refrigerating it, as it will readily absorb foreign odors.

And what was the point of it all, besides having fun and learning a new kitchen skill, and savoring something delicious to spread on challah at a winter picnic? The point was to try to recreate what butter used to taste like when it was made on the farm, before pasteurized cream and industrial production made the indispensable yellow sticks cheap, hygienic, plentiful, and bland. Centuries ago, the farm wife skimmed off the cream from her milk over several days, collecting it until she had enough to churn into butter. While it held in pans or pails, benign lactic acid bacteria accosted it, souring it slightly. When the farm wife churned this cultured cream, the result was butter with a savory tang unknown in what we buy today. Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking writes, "Continental Europe still prefers the flavor of this lightly fermented 'cultured' butter to the 'sweet cream' butter made common in the 19th century by the use of ice, the development of refrigeration, and the mechanical cream separator" (p. 33). This explains why we must stumble upon recipes for homemade cultured butter in the blogs of Britons like the Traveler, or Paris-based expatriates like David Leibowitz, who have tasted both and like the one much better.

With good reason. Do try it -- it is delicious.
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2006 Chateau Tanunda Noble Baron shiraz

Date: Mon, Jan 14, 2013

Splendid. On a cold winter's day it will warm you up no end.

More on Chateau Tanunda, Barossa Valley, Australia, here. You may recall we met the 2008 vintage earlier in 2012. Retail, about $45.
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Pretty pictures --

Date: Sun, Jan 13, 2013

I am still playing with my new camera. Don't worry, at the end of the photo essay you may have a cocktail.

Now amid the greenery and the orchids, the spilling water and the lovebirds, the klipspringers and the meerkats, we have also seen a lot of fish. (Is there anything prettier than a koi pond? We think not.) So, let us carry on the theme and make a fish-referenced cocktail. Here is Charles Schumann's Red Snapper, from American Bar.

2 ounces (a little more than a jigger) cream
dash grenadine
1/4 ounce (1 and 1/2 teaspoons) Galliano
1 ounce (about half a jigger) white rum

Shake well over ice cubes in a cocktail shaker, strain into a cocktail glass.
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