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2005 Antaño Rioja reserva -- it's not beer

Date: Mon, Mar 18, 2013

It's a small revelation, but here it is: when you are lucky enough to bring home a six pack of beer samples courtesy of a very well-respected American craft brewery, and you try each one over the course of several weeks; and each one makes you grimace; and then directly after passing off the last one to a beer lover you pour yourself a glass of wine to go with that chicken sandwich, you realize -- wine is after all a fruit juice. Beer is a sort of grass soup. And why hasn't anyone ever tried to make a beer out of the malted seed grains of ordinary lawn grass? Poa pratensis is the botanical name of Kentucky bluegrass, for instance. Think of the possibilities.

All this is not to cast aspersions on the good people who make and like beer. It is only to say I had a revelation. And it was this Rioja that happened to do it.

Retail, about $11. P.S. We tasted its crianza younger brother here.
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2010 Franceschi Rosso di Montalcino -- a pity

Date: Sun, Mar 17, 2013

A pity it was corked, that is. There is no mistaking the aroma of damp, mildewed cardboard, or a flooded basement after a summer storm.

The wine would have been lovely I am sure, if very acidic, which is to say very Italian -- meant to wash down food, not stand alone as a cocktail. Rosso di Montalcino, or "red of [the town of] Montalcino," is a DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) of Tuscany. The grape used is brunello, a clone of sangiovese. A step above our plain Rosso is Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) -- same grape, same land, stricter standards. Capital-B Brunellos are made from the best of the brunello harvest and are aged four years before bottling instead of one. The result is a famously "brawny," tannic, complex wine, and expensive, too, easily retailing for $60. Even then you are advised to stash it in your cellar for years so that it may soften and ripen. Our Rosso starts out fresher tasting and readier to drink, and costs in the $20 range.

As to the cork problem. It happens, in about 5 percent of wines, experts tell us. When we smell damp basement we are smelling a chemical compound called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole or TCA, which the human nose "can detect at levels as low as 30 parts per trillion" (Ron and Sharon Tyler Herbst, The New Wine Lover's Companion). Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible says that TCA comes from an interaction of certain bacteria with chemicals in the cork-cleaning process. The problem doesn't go away -- or does it? A few years ago the great Harold McGee, in his New York Times column the Curious Cook, passed on a tip from a scientist friend. Slosh your corked wine into a bowl with a piece of ordinary plastic wrap, the friend said, and damp basement will go away. TCA is "chemically similar to polyethylene and sticks to the plastic." Full disclosure: I tried this once with another wine, but in my opinion it didn't work.

For more on Franceschi's brunellos and rossos, see the February 20, 2013 article at NJ.com -- "Restrained winemaking elevates il Poggione's brunellos."
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"She never bought cheap stuff -- not a lady like Miss Hunt"

Date: Thu, Mar 14, 2013

Dear me. I was contemplating a bit of spring cleaning, a bit of re-purposing, as they say, of At First Glass. I thought I might change its name, free it up, give it a bigger focus than food and wine. I thought I would call it "Black Pony," after the cheap-o scotch that the detective finds in Laura's apartment after her murder. This is the (fictional) scotch that clues him in that something, in this mystery, is wrong with the clues themselves. He challenges Laura's maid, Bessie, about it. "But she never bought cheap stuff, did she? -- not a lady like Miss Hunt?"

"No," Bessie replies warily. And they go on to discuss where the bottle came from and who bought it, and who drank it with the cheap-o purchaser while Miss Hunt was ... away?

Aspiring to some blog-o originality and clarity of purpose, however, and not wanting to confuse people, I did a little investigating of the name and soon re-thought my ideas. There are already blogs out there called "Black Pony" or close variants of the same. This doesn't surprise me, nor am I surprised that all the Black Pony-ish domain names are used up, but I am somewhat troubled that the very first of them I came across must needs dabble in soft-core porn. Who knows how many others do also? And then there is the separate issue of the whole My Little Pony thing. No kidding. Google any phrase which happens to include the word "pony," and this universe pops up. "Ask Pony" (I ask you) blogs apparently exist by the thousands, and are run by people who love the toys, the cartoon series "Friendship is Magic," who love trying their hand at drawing the ponies, love inventing new plots for them and even updating them or melding their personalities with other cartoon or superhero characters. Sometimes the ponies get new, dark flaws ("Applejack becomes an alcoholic"). And all this is not even to scratch the surface of what is going on, My Little Pony-wise, at Fan Wiki. There are things that are canonical. There are people who know what that means.

Most startling. I think, after all, At First Glass had better turn away blinking from the open door with the pony hurricane howling outside, quietly shut that door, and stick to what it knows. I think it had better keep the simple ten-dollar domain name that has served well enough for five years and more, even if it does prompt Adsense to automatically load in sidebar ads for replacement auto windows and shower stall glass blocks. Only -- only, alas. People who re-invent their blogs after five years seem so coolly decisive.

Now you've heard everything you may sip a cocktail. Fittingly, it will contain scotch. Remember the Rusty Nail? Does it not conjure memories of the grown-ups ordering trendy drinks at mid-'70s wedding receptions? If I add something else to it, olive brine perhaps, could it become the Rusty Nail holding the Horseshoe on My Little Pony's hoof? Anyway here it is, as simple as you like:

Rusty Nail

1 oz. (a little less than a jigger) Scotch
ditto, Drambuie (a liqueur, based on malt whisky, flavored with honey, spices, and herbs -- not the same thing as a cheap-o "malt liquor"!)

Stir both spirits in a glass filled with ice cubes, and serve.

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An interesting failure (lemon and beef)

Date: Wed, Mar 13, 2013

It may be that only the great Chef René Verdon himself could have pulled this one off. Or, perhaps some vital detail was left out of the recipe when the book went to press in 1963. For my part I, intrigued as I was by the combination of lemon and beef, was in the end forced to label the thing an interesting failure. It's because I took out of the oven and served forth a pot full of very, very lemony muscle fibers, tasting not remotely of beef. Any explanatory post-mortems, perhaps from people who know something of M. Verdon in his post-White House career -- his San Francisco restaurant Le Trianon, his five books -- would be welcome.

Meanwhile, feel free to try your luck.

Top sirloin lemon pot roast, from René Verdon's White House Chef Cookbook (1963)

1/2 cup lemon juice
3 slices lemon, quartered
2 Tbsp. minced onion
1 clove garlic, sliced
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. celery salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp thyme, dried
3 Tbsp flour, optional

1 five pound top sirloin roast
3 Tbsp melted butter

Mix all ingredients except the beef and butter in a small bowl. Cover and let sit in the refrigerator 24 hours. Oddly, it is this lemon marinade which just sits -- you will not use it to soak and tenderize the beef, although perhaps you should.

The next day, about four hours before you plan to serve dinner, melt the butter in a heavy stock pot. Dust the beef with 3 Tbsp. flour before searing, if desired. Brown the beef in the butter on all sides.

Add the lemon mixture, cover, and simmer on the stove or in a very slow oven (at about 225 F) for three hours or until the meat is tender.

Serve forth, and hope.

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Martin the Warrior's mushroom turnovers

Date: Sun, Mar 10, 2013

I am privileged to live with interesting young people. One of them discovered Brian Jacques' Redwall series of novels in childhood (think good medieval mice, and other woodland creatures, battling bad medieval rats). Now this young person not only still enjoys the books, but has also set herself the project of cooking all the foods mentioned in them.

It's a lot of food -- and she is not the only aficionado (-nada?) who does this. It seems the late Mr. Jacques was known for his love of food, and depicted his mice and woodland creatures feasting for a purpose. (He once explained that the wartime rationing of his childhood affected him.) His readers have taken up his enthusiasms. They buy and cook from officially published, if slim, Redwall cookbooks. They also do free-form cooking based on Redwall, because not every scene of revelry in the twenty-three novels includes recipes. Needless to say they also write blogs and manage websites about cooking from Redwall.

Some fans, like the interesting young person in my house, simply go on-line and search independently for recipes to plug into place when it's time to create a dish mentioned in Loam Hedge or Pearls of Lutra. Scarcely can the good people at Williams-Sonoma, for example, have realized that their recipe for holiday mushroom turnovers will do excellently when we want to cook from Martin the Warrior.

Here then for the first time is something like a guest post at At First Glass: I did not make these. I can assure you however that the good people at Williams-Sonoma know what they are doing. The turnovers are excellent. I enjoyed five more than my share at one sitting on a drab winter Sunday afternoon, washing them down with my "house cocktail," a delicious and tangy rum sour. The afternoon instantly turned far less drab.

Martin the Warrior's (by way of Williams-Sonoma) mushroom turnovers*

  • 2 Tbs. unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 3 Tbs. finely chopped shallot
  • 12 oz. cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 1/2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 oz. Gruyère cheese, grated
  • 1 batch double-crust pie dough, divided into 2 disks and chilled (see related recipe, or use mine)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 Tbs. water


In a sauté pan over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the shallot and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms, thyme and rosemary, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are tender, 6 to 7 minutes. Add the cream and simmer for about 15 seconds, then remove from the heat. Fold in the cheese. Let the filling cool to room temperature.

Preheat an oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let stand for 5 minutes. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out dough into a large rectangle about 1/8 inch thick.

Cut the dough into squares measuring about 3 inches by 3 inches.* Lightly brush their edges with some of the egg wash. Fill with a scant 1 Tbs. of the mushroom filling (do not overfill), fold over and press together, and place on the prepared baking sheet. Gently pinch together any edges that are not fully crimped. Repeat with the remaining pastry rectangles and filling.

Lightly brush the tops and edges of the pastries with egg wash. Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving. Makes 24 turnovers.

*The original recipe is written to make use of a special pastry press which helps shape and cut the turnovers into uniform packages. Interesting Young Person rolled out the pastry and assembled everything by hand.

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2007 Nils late harvest sauvignon blanc

Date: Tue, Mar 5, 2013

Late harvest rieslings and riesling eisweins can be divine little desserts in a glass: the lemon cake-and-clove tastes of the riesling grape translate well into, let us be blunt, a glass of syrup. Late harvest wines like Nils, below, made from other grapes ["late harvest" means the grapes have been plucked late in the fall, after they have hung long enough on the vine to lose some water content naturally, and to concentrate the juices inside] -- other late harvest wines, I say, strike me as a bit odd in comparison. They are interesting and good, but can also remind one strangely of things that don't entirely go together, re dessert. Maybe mustard and caramel, for example, or olive brine and maple syrup.

But it is also possible to fail to do them justice, especially if one is in a hurry one night, or does not chill them enough one lazy winter afternoon. Luckily the sugars naturally present in late harvest wines help preserve them even after opening, so that one may try again to sort out the mustard and caramel a few weeks later, and no harm done.

Our Nils, you must know, comes from Napa Valley's Saddleback Cellars, is named for its winemaker Nils Venge (famed among other things for making the 1985 Groth cabernet sauvignon reserve which was the first California wine awarded 100 points by Robert Parker), and sells for $45 per 500 ml bottle from the winery website. These are all reasons enough to want to do it justice, and to be glad about the preserving qualities of sugar.

Tiny hint to those of us anticipating a quite middle-aged birthday. A dollop of something like Nils is just the treat to round off the evenings if you have noticed, in these latter days, that perhaps your waistline can no longer cope with the gargantuan midnight snacks of yesteryear. A careful pour in a champagne flute will do very well. Then off to bed with you, and listen to WFMT's opera broadcast (tonight it's Ernani), or dip into wonderful E.F. Benson's Secret Lives (first published, 1932).

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Pecan pie bars

Date: Fri, Mar 1, 2013

Ah, memories. Eating a cookie outdoors on the back porch. Was the weather ever really that warm? I ask while admiring the gray slush of the first day of March. See the summer afternoon sun glowing on the plate ... consider me, back when I was "Chicago Baking Examiner" for Examiner.com (do they still exist?).

Golly, it looks like they do. But is there still a baking examiner for the city? One fears not.

Anyway this unusual and very easy pecan pie bar recipe comes from Thoughts for Buffets, the same interesting old 1950s-era cookbook that is the source for Brisket Arcadia and Ozark pudding. Glancing over it I think you'll be struck by a number of things. We are required first of all to gather together only five ingredients, no salt or leavening among them. Then we must "butter a large jelly-roll pan very heavily." How heavily? One of our mere five ingredients is a quarter pound of butter. That's a stick. Nothing specifically says "use that." You'll figure it out.

Have ready:
4 eggs
1 pound of brown sugar
1 and 1/4 cups flour
1/4 pound softened butter
1 cup pecan nuts, coarsely chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Beat together until light and caramel colored the eggs, brown sugar, and flour. Use the softened butter to coat the jelly roll pan thickly (you may also use a 13 x 9 inch glass baking dish). Lay the chopped pecans over the butter and gently shake and tap the pan to scatter them. Spread the egg mixture over the nuts. Bake for 20 minutes.

While the cake is warm, you may frost it with a combination of 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon softened butter, and 2 teaspoons lemon juice beaten into an icing; or you can leave it plain. Cut it into strips when it is cool. You will find the finished bars to be a slightly crunchy but rich cake layer atop a typically gooey and delicious pecan pie filling.

And, rather than reach for a glass of milk or cup of coffee with these, try them -- especially if you leave them unfrosted -- with a little glass of wine. An inexpensive but fruity and robust shiraz would be very nice, don't you think, or a crisp, sweet, and mouth-watering riesling?
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Martha shares the radiator

Date: Tue, Feb 26, 2013

You cannot be serious.

No. Really. What about The Glare do you not get?
Gawd, how I loathe things.

You realize you could just go away.

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2009 Mazzoni Piemonte barbera

Date: Fri, Feb 22, 2013

The barbera is a little-known grape, native to Italy's Piedmont -- hence Mazzoni's label below, cleverly announcing "Piemonte barbera" -- but few wines are fresher, juicier, or more fruity. Zippy and lively, a barbera is the perfect pizza wine. Do indulge.

Retail, about $15.
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Have some Ornellaia. Really.

Date: Tue, Feb 19, 2013

Let us sum up, dear things, and create a sort of timeline too: as far back as the 1940s, a family of winemakers in Tuscany (home of Chianti) begin to produce Sassicaia, meaning "place of stones." This is a red wine named for its unpromising vineyard and made, against all Chianti's rules, from French cabernet sauvignon instead of the approved Italian sangiovese. With time these unusual Sassicaias earn appreciation as "interesting and powerful."

Comes the year 1971. The winemakers' cousin, Piero Antinori, takes notice and makes a rule-breaking wine of his own. It is all sangiovese, but aged French-style in oak barrels, as Chiantis are not. He calls it Tignanello. It is "the first well known non-Chianti Chianti; the press nicknamed these new Italian wines 'super Tuscans' " (Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible).

1985. Piero Antinori's younger brother Ludovico takes notice and makes a wine of his own, next door to the vineyards of Sassicaia. He combines cabernet and merlot, the classic blend of French Bordeaux. He calls it Ornellaia, "place of ash trees," again for its unpromising site (think summer heat, rocks, and swamps, besides the ash trees).

The rest is all glory, and four star reviews, and vintage dates in wine guides highlighted in red. Not to mention more prestige than you can shake a stick at. "Wealthy bandwagonists," Hugh Johnson calls the Sassicaia/Ornellaia crowd, though he gives the big O. four stars and red ink, too. Especially, as it happens, the 1998 vintage.

An old cedar box
bright puckery acidity
sound strong tannin
thick, satiny, meaty taste
black pepper and tomato

one thinks: "this is

Yes, one may think all one likes, but in coping with a bottle of wine that sells at retail for about $200 or $300, a bottle from one of the (now) most prestigious DOCs in Italy -- Bolgheri, of the once unpromising stones and ash trees -- in coping with a bottle produced by the twenty-sixth generation of a legendary Italian wine making family, well. Anyone with a few decades' experience in wine is going to respond to a sample of this with more than my haiku of five lines. People with great experience, James Suckling for example who named this 1998 Ornellaia Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2001, are going to mention currants and blackberries and tapenade [an olive-and-caper paste used in Provençal cooking, and a good descriptor to remember the next time I want to say a wine seems "briny," or olive-like]. They are going to mention dried herbs, velvet, "fine minerality," and "incredible concentration." Hugh Johnson in his Pocket Wine Guide will simply say, after the bit about bandwagonists, "vy. good."

Can people with great experience therefore appreciate it more than we do? Perhaps.

Retail? Specifically? You had to ask. The 1998 vintage sells (at auction) for between $150 and $275 a bottle; the 2008 vintage retails at about $300.

To carry on the timeline -- July, 2008: go here for Steven Spurrier's Decanter interview with the Antinoro brothers, Ludovico and Piero,

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Semi-navigable megalopolis -- or liberal hell-hole?

Date: Sun, Feb 17, 2013

Don't worry. When I go off the [food and wine] reservation, you at least get a cocktail at the end.

Both "semi-navigable megalopolis" and "liberal hell-hole" are quotes from anonymous commenters on web-based articles about Chicago, articles more or less long lost in the ethernet. One commenter, years ago, explained that he had moved to some other, smaller city, because he could no longer stand coping with the semi-navigability; the other, not nearly so resourceful in his language, entertained a different set of grudges against the city -- taxes and violence topped the list -- and simply dismissed it all based on what political party he thought maintained the problems.

Perhaps hell-hole is a bit unfair. Michigan Avenue in daylight is very nice. Semi-navigable, I get. But both problems do add up, and one is struck by the occasional pithy wisdom of anonymous commenters. Not all are trolls.

To add up, for instance: if one knows that Music of the Baroque is presenting a concert of Handel's Water Music next week, at the Harris Theater which sits conveniently near the train station on Michigan Avenue, one is encouraged to hope (as Mr. Wise of the Mapp and Lucia books would say). Handel! The Baroque! Our theme for the year, along with lemons! Only an hour and a half commute, one way!

But no. The performance starts at 7:30 pm. They all start at 7:30 pm. Music of the Baroque further warns newbies that performances usually last about two hours. What a pity. No woman in her right mind is going to dodder about, even at the daylight-nice intersection of Michigan and Randolph, at 9:30 on a February night, and then go and wait for the train. Et cetera. Who on earth attends these concerts, and don't they rather worry? I hope at least the audience don't spend their entire time glancing furtively at watches and mentally rehearsing routes back. Through the liberal hel -- .

Anyway I had a blissful experience recently. My friend laughed in mock pity at the lack of adventurousness -- "you just stay inside and listen to the radio, dear" -- but it was delightful to keep safely under the covers at 9:30 on a weeknight, and hear La Bohème sung live from Lyric Opera (blocks and blocks away from the train station), and to think no matter how much they are enjoying themselves, all those people in all those plush seats must still struggle with the trip home. While I am home. And am hearing everything just as well as they are.

Or almost. Yes, yes, live shows are incomparable. But searching among my small collection of music CDs, I find I still own a disk of the Water Music done by Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert in 1983. Why can't I just listen to that? Trevor Pinnock is still alive too, so there's an added fillip. I'm only surprised and pleased because, the disk having been produced in the year I graduated high school, and this single disk specifically having been left behind by my ex-husband upon his decamping for true love and parts west, I naturally would have associated it utterly with a dead past had I not learned differently. (I think we used to play the music as newlyweds hosting dinner parties, to give the apartment tone.) Mr. P. even has a website. He is a CBE, Commander of the Order of the British Empire too, exactly as Mrs. Wise was. Imagine that.

So here is what I want you to do. I want you to admire this lovely bouquet of flowers,

and then navigate your way to YouTube, where you may listen to a bit of Handel whenever you like.

And I want you to have a cocktail. We'll pick one in keeping with our lemon theme for the year. What better than to try a "gin-and-French," again from Mapp and Lucia? I don't recall this drink mentioned in any of the novels -- we hear more of absinthe, vermouth, and Major Benjy's plain whisky-and-sodas -- but in the paradisial television films made from the books, Georgie (Nigel Hawthorne) requests one, so we will graciously assume the scriptwriter did some 1920s-era homework and accept its authenticity on that score. Besides, any time one finds a fellow blogger who actually also likes food, wine, retro things, and cocktails from Mapp and Lucia, one takes advantage. The Past on a Plate says that a gin and French is --

the juice of half a lemon (or about half a jigger of lemon juice)
a jigger of gin
a jigger of dry (French) vermouth
5 ounces tonic water

-- all stirred over ice in a tall glass. She notes that other sources simply call the thing a martini, which it would be, -- at least those versions that replace the lemon juice with a mere twist of lemon peel and further omit the tonic. Talking of authenticity and authority, BBC Food says a gin and French is equal parts gin and Lillet stirred over ice. Lillet, in turn, is a French brand-name aperitif wine, made from white or red Bordeaux mixed with citrus liqueurs plus a little quinine, and aged in oak barrels before bottling. The presence of quinine hints -- apparently -- at Lillet's original name, Kina Lillet. We say apparently because the waters so to speak are muddy here. If you absolutely wish to delve into the history of Lillet, its formulations and names, and which one is correct in a James Bond-ish "Vesper" martini, you could hardly do better than to consult Savoy Stomp's article "Kina Lillet 2012." They drag in Kingsley Amis ....

However you choose to experiment with Georgie's treat, be aware that it is going to be potent. Equal parts gin and vermouth make for a bigger little drink-y than our master Charles Schumann, for one, would likely allow. Even Lillet is 17% alcohol. Qui-hi.

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Champagne Henriot, Brut Souverain

Date: Sat, Feb 16, 2013

Do we dare break it out, for an ordinary Saturday night with oh, I don't know, chips and dip and a viewing of A Summer Place on Netflix? Or maybe The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? Something retro like that. Last weekend, you see, was not terribly restful. This one deserves to be.

More on Champagne Henriot; retail, about $40.

Maybe you'd better fry your own chips and make your own dip, so as to feel gourmet, and worthy. Or source yourself some perfect fresh oysters, and see what all that fuss is about.
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"Marvelous pigs in satin!" (weekend stories)

Date: Mon, Feb 11, 2013

"Marvelous pigs in satin" comes from the movie James and the Giant Peach, which you may have seen a thousand times, too, if like me you had young children watching Disney films in the '90s and '00s. At a crucial point, one of the characters assures another that "marvelous things will happen!" but he says it in a thunderstorm or something, so his words are half-lost. The other characters think he has inexplicably yelled "mar-vel-ous pi-igs in satin!" In my house "marvelous pigs in satin" has now become a shorthand way of saying don't worry, things might change, everything will be fine, this could be the best thing that ever happened, try it you might like it, etc.

The phrase came to mind over the weekend when one child was stuck on the expressway in the snow, heading home with all the other commuters at five miles per hour, having failed to pick up her karate sparring equipment for the big tournament on Sunday. At that time the other child was cooking dinner -- we'll learn more about it when we discuss "dinner in half an hour, really" -- while the other other child showered after a workout but before settling down to do more math homework. Don't worry, I said to the child in the snow, and the one at the stove, and the one grappling with factoring polynomials (I ask you. No, seriously. I do ask you). Marvelous pigs in satin! Dinner will be delightful, sensei (karate instructor) may be able to loan some sparring equipment, with study you may do all right factoring polynomials.

Or, we may all end up sitting squashed in the back seat of a police car in Rolling Meadows in the rain on Sunday afternoon, clutching karate trophies while the tow truck pulls away and the nice officer fills out an accident report. The day's weather could not possibly have been more dreary, and this on the anniversary of Queen Victoria's wedding too! Absurd. Marvelous things don't always happen.

Anyway, more random stories: remember how nice it is to own a clock radio again, and fall asleep to the classical sounds of WFMT? The trouble with this new habit is that one never knows what WFMT will play next. Gentle tinny harpsichords, or a bit of Saint-Saëns, are all very well and soothing at ten o'clock at night. But so often the announcer's voice seems to come on so loud, as he informs you that "THAT WAS CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS' 'AQUARIUM,' FROM THE CARNIVAL OF THE ANIMALS." Or, one may be listening to a most interesting and complex and intense piano piece, backed by a great deal of static and fuzziness, as though the recording came interestingly from a very old vinyl album ... a blank space. One must have fallen asleep. Suddenly a poor but brave male voice shout-sings the solo "Miracle of Miracles" from Fiddler on the Roof.

This really did happen a few nights ago. It was ghastly. My startled brain reached back from oblivion to grab some sort of anchor or memory to cope with this. (Probably a reptilian survival mechanism. Bite!) What should surface but a recollection of my freshman-year high school science teacher onstage, as Motel the tailor, singing this song and creditably too in a faculty-student production of the play. I can still see, not only him in full cry, but also the look of the program typed out on brown paper on a real typewriter, before the days of computers and default Word text-wrap. His name was Stan Something-or-other-incredibly-long-and-Polish. Since he was the only male teacher in an all-girls school, of course we were all mad about him. As we were not a little in awe of the senior girls playing alongside him.

The radio station followed up this professional rendition of "Miracles" with a late-night interview with the professional himself. Not our Stan, but Austin Pendleton, they called him. Is it true, as I read somewhere, that every single experience we ever have and everything we ever see is permanently recorded in the brain, but that we forget the bulk of them, so that we can function unburdened by it all? Even memories of the casts of screwball comedies? I ask because, in my sleepy half-oblivion and having already revisited my high school's Spring Musical circa 1980, even the name Austin Pendleton slotted into place. This actor played, did he not, the role of the rich, wonderfully nerdy scientist-benefactor handing out fellowships to Ryan O'Neal in What's Up Doc?

Why yes, he did. I looked him up when fully alert the next day. Not only that. Austin Pendleton has evidently had a long and successful career, not the least of his achievements being that he originated, originated I say, the role of Motel the tailor in the very first Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway in 1964. So what do I know? Perhaps he sang very nicely after all.

But after all I mustn't forget, this is a food and wine blog. During lulls in the competition at the karate tournament, I read Karen Hess' Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery (Columbia University Press, 1981, 1995). Karen Hess' scholarship is wondrous to behold. Imagine knowing about "the Runic thorn,"* imagine having access to real, rare manuscripts, at the Bodleian, at the New York Botanical Garden Library (didn't know there was one). But I must ask. Why is her tone so angry and joyless? She reminds me of M.F. K. Fisher, except that Karen Hess is a starchy, displeased (cooking-)school mistress where Fisher is more an offended dove/wordsmith-artiste. Both hate the modern world's defilement of all traditional food sources and ancient cooking techniques. Both especially hate having to share the world with other human beings who have rushed the pace of degradation by thankfully embracing atrocities like pasteurized cream, metal stoves with piped-in gas, and refrigeration. Everything was better, you see, when ovens were brick, oysters were pickled the Tudor way, and there was no atomic fallout in Our Lakes and Streams. "All salt and freshwater creatures must have had a fine clean taste that none of us has ever tasted, nor ever shall," Mrs. Hess pronounces. Oh really. No mention of cholera in olden-time drinking water, for a start. She even hates flour, at least in sauces. So incidentally does America's Test Kitchen's own Chris Kimball, who in Fannie's Last Supper (2010) wrote an entire book about Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook, in which he in fact did not recreate a meal Fannie would have recognized, partly because he didn't like her "floury" sauces.

We won't dwell. I only wonder whether, among the great foodies, these attitudes are sometimes stunts and business decisions. As to Mrs. Hess -- unless it was a stunt -- let us pray God that in heaven they at least keep her away from Julia Child, whom in life she called a "dithering idiot."

We won't dwell; we'll return to earth and to our own kitchens. What follows is not exactly a recipe for a marvelous pig in satin, but something like: it's a bit of pork with apples and cream, adapted and simplified from a dish in René Verdon's White House Chef Cookbook (1967) -- on weekends you see, among our random stories, we also tend to cook from books randomly pulled off the pantry shelf. M. Verdon dedicated this one to the late President and his family, in gratitude for their giving him "the happiest years of his life." Mere happiness, and a modern recipe done with pasteurized cream. I fear the better sort among us would be appalled.

"Roast Loin of Pork St. Cloud"
4 pound pork loin roast (or pork shoulder)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 Tbsp butter
1 cup white wine
1 cup applesauce
1 large apple, sliced thin
brown sugar (about 1-2 Tbsp)
1/2 cup heavy cream
Melt the butter in a heavy pot, and brown the pork on all sides. Scatter the garlic and celery atop the meat. Pour on the wine. Cover the pot and place it in a preheated 300 F oven, to bake slowly for 3 to 4 hours. (Turn the heat down to 225 F after the first hour.)

About half an hour before serving, take the pot out of the oven and add to the liquid in the pan the applesauce and the sliced apples, which you will tuck around the meat. Sprinkle a little brown sugar over the apples. Return all to the oven and cook until the apples are tender. Pour in the cream, stir it up and simmer it for five more minutes.

*The Runic thorn shows up as the letter y, pronounced "th" in old English words like ye -- which is not an archaic "you" but instead is read "the," as yn reads "then."
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Beau Joie brut

Date: Sat, Feb 9, 2013

Isn't it gorgeous? The name means "beautiful joy," but la joie is feminine, so why is the wine not called Belle Joie? Never mind, we won't quibble.

Retail, about $90. Don't quibble -- just take a breath, you'll feel better in a minute.

And no, I haven't tried it yet. Note that it will taste absolutely bone dry. Beau Joie's website explains that the wine is made with zero "dosage," no "liqueur d'expédition." In other words, no extra shot of reserve wine and/or sugar is added to the finished champagne before final corking.

I'm saving it for a special occasion. Maybe Valentine's Day, to be savored with pan-seared salmon, and couscous, and some sort of vegetable dressed with butter and Moroccan preserved lemons? Yes, why ever not?
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