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Archive for the ‘Wine’ Category

Some things never change

oysters-plate.gifChange is good, sometimes great. And then there are some things that should never change. While new restaurants offer the excitement of unexplored potential, other places offer a warm, comforting routine. Last weekend, I visited just such a place – the Oyster Bar inside Grand Central Station.

Though now the shuckers are from Mexico and cellphone chatter echoes across the restaurant, walking into the Oyster Bar feels a bit like walking into a black and white photo. With arched, tiled ceilings that mimic the grand constellation-covered ceilings of the main terminal upstairs, the Oyster Bar invites weary travelers and curious tourists alike to settle into a seat at the bar or in the adjoining saloon and block out the madness of Midtown. Unlike the grand restaurants that look down upon the action upstairs, the Oyster Bar is tucked in a fairly quiet area, with windows facing a dim passageway that commuters stream down en route to the correct track.

The menu is strictly old school seafood house – boiled lobster served with clarified butter, seafood salad, chowder (both Manhattan and New England), clams casino, oysters Rockefeller, scallop roasts, crab cakes, and yes, oysters on the half shell! A large menu on the wall near the shuckers’ station displays handwritten signs with the current offering of oysters. Spanning both coasts of America and Canada, the choices range from the common Bluepoints to the quirkily named Tomahawks (from Long Island and Rhode Island, respectively).

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The oysters, served on a bed of crushed ice, come with a lemon wedge and two tiny paper cups – one filled with classic mignonette sauce and one filled with ketchup. The jar of horseradish sits next to the salt and pepper, ready to meet the ketchup and transform into cocktail sauce.

After downing several different kinds of the raw oysters, I was drawn towards a second order of the slightly sweet, firm Widow’s Holes (suspend all crude jokes at this point) from the East End of Long Island. Perfectly balanced between savory and sweet, metallic and meaty, the Widow’s Holes were definitely the highlight of my oyster exploration. What I relish about all oysters, though — not just the Widows Holes — is the slightly briny whiff of the ocean, followed by the mild seawater taste, all contained within that single slurp. Instant transport from the city to the beach in one bite.

The wine list is large, but surprisingly limited, given that the menu is seafood driven. In this temple to all things from the sea, I was dismayed to see so many oaky whites and big, robust reds. I suppose that if you’re going to keep a classic restaurant intact, you need a classic wine list, but this is one area I would’ve appreciated a bit of modernity. A California Cabernet does not, in fact, go with everything! The list is balanced evenly between whites and reds (unnessecarily so), and yet I struggled to choose a suitable white for oysters. In the end, I settled on a forgettable Chablis, but what I really wanted was a Muscadet or a minerally Chenin Blanc from the Loire. Even a steel-aged Chardonnay would’ve done the trick. Who orders Zinfandel with scallops anyway?

The scene is comfortable without trying to be. You can opt to sit at a table, but why would you? All the action’s at the various bars.

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On the left, a lone tourist studied his map of the city in between bites of scarlet lobster. His meal began with a carefully composed plate of oysters and ended with a perfect wedge of Key Lime pie, served on clunky diner china. Moments after he left, a ruddy faced man sat on the right. A pint of Brooklyn and six Kumamotoes, he ordered in one breath, with nary a glance at the menu. Two cops strolling through the terminal poked their heads in the open window behind the shuckers to crack a joke. Servers ran back and forth from the bar, carefully balancing chowders and bantering with each other. The manager came strolled over to announce the score to no one in particular, and that’s when I realized – how many times has this scene already been played out? And how many more times will it be? Hopefully I’ll be there one of those next times down the road.

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beer-pint-150.jpgFancy an IPA or an Extra Special Bitter? Lovers of bitter beer, beware – a large fire Tuesday at a hop storage warehouse in Washington State destroyed approximately 4% of the country’s entire hop harvest. Only time will tell whether or not this will translate into higher prices for certain brews that use large quantities of the delicate buds to add bitterness and aroma. Though hops are actually flowering vines, what brewmasters are really after is the tiny amount of sticky, yet highly flavorful resin that forms on the petals of the buds. Apparently this resin can also be highly combustible. Who knew that beer could be so dangerous?

But then again, there’s always prosecco. Woman of many talents, Paris Hilton, is the new spokesperson for a brand of bubbly-in-a-can called Rich Prosecco. paris_prosecco.jpg Though the fizzy beverage is all-Italian, it will be sold solely in Germany for now, with the possible addition of other foreign markets – apparently, it’s not legal to sell prosecco out of aluminum in Italy. While Miss Hilton declares the beverage “yummy,” Rich Prosecco owner Guenther Aloys has a more complex reason for selecting Hilton: “Nobody else currently embodies carefree lust for life as convincingly and glamorously as Paris Hilton. That’s why she’s matches Rich Prosecco so well.” Lest we forget, the heiress was arrested in early September on drunk driving charges.

If you think that most rice comes magically from a man named Uncle Ben, the Christian Science Monitor is ready to reeducate you on the dying art of harvesting wild rice. While most “wild” rice today comes in fact from cultivated paddies, some Minnesotans are keeping the tradition alive by hand harvesting the grains. For those in other parts of the country, Native Harvest – a project of the White Earth Indian Reservation – offers mail order for local wild rice, as well as other traditional food staples, such as hominy and maple syrup. The reservation also manages a handy website about the perils wild rice currently faces.

fresh-pork-dumpling.jpgSlate writer Tim Wu searches for authenticity of another sort in his feature about how to find real, honest-to-god Chinese style dumplings. Wu breaks down the regional differences between various types of dumplings, and he also elaborates upon the “magic ratio” that quality dumplings must achieve – the perfect balance between meat and dough. Whether five-for-a-dollar or upscale Asian fusion, the road to dumpling making is lined with potential landmines.

In case you missed it, last weekend was the 21st Farm Aid concert. Though it may seem somewhat surreal, this year’s concert was held in the urban jungle known as Camden, New Jersey. willie_nelson_marijuana_american.gifConcert organizers pointed out that the concert is also meant to draw attention to urban farming projects, as well as the problem of poor nutrition in the inner city. And heck, NJ is the Garden State after all. At any rate, Willie Nelson was able to spring the slammer in order to join pals Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp and Neil Young, among others, on stage.

And it looks the Farm Aid money will be much needed this year for many small, family farmers in the Midwest, who are facing the second warmest year on record since 1895. The high temps have led to a severe drought across much of the country, which has also dried up harvest profits. Many small scale farmers are not eligible for the same subsidies as the big boys, so get out to the local farmers’ markets to show your support!

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Freestyle cooking

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I have a confession to make. My eyes are bigger than my stomach. No matter what’s on my mental shopping list, a few extra ingredients always make their way into my basket. It’s not potato chips or sweets I’m after, though. I love ingredients – spices, grains, sweeteners, etc. The quirkier, the more obscure the ingredient, the more I’m drawn to it. Foreign lettering on the package and/or ventures outside of Manhattan to buy the food items are a plus. Doesn’t every dedicated chef need millet, quinoa, Israeli cous cous, wheatberries, farro, bulghur, corn meal, corn flour, hominy and rolled oats to make their kitchen complete?

I never have a specific meal in mind, but rather a fuzzy date in the future when I will wow my friends with ingredients they can’t even pronounce. Every now and then, when the packages are beginning to grow a bit dusty and when opening a cabinet means getting smacked in the head by a package of pomegranate seeds, I know that it’s time for freestyle cooking. This is when I thoroughly examine the cupboard and pick out a new ingredient or two. I throw in a few things from the fridge and maybe a piece of fish or meat and, well, hope for the best.

I’m an amateur, and I don’t claim to be otherwise. Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m doing. But with the subconscious knowledge of food gleaned from many a magazine or newspaper article, along with the tidbits I’ve learned in restaurants, I mix and match my ingredients as I go. I believe that with a little bit of information and a big craving, the results will always be at least passable.

Last week, I broke out two of my ingredients that had been languishing in the back of the cupboard – Himalayan red rice from Kalustyans (a.k.a. the hoarder’s mecca) and Japanese panko bread crumbs. Sort of related, right? Okay, not at all, but here’s how things went… First, I assembled all of my other ingredients – a fillet of wild Alaskan salmon (in season right now), shitake mushrooms, ginger, limes, garlic, soy sauce, grapeseed oil, celery, onion, chicken stock and fresh spinach (yes, it’s in a bag, but last week = pre-spinach-paranoia).

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Most of this meal took very little time to assemble or cook. The Himalayan Red Rice was by far the slowest item. It took much longer to cook than ordinary rice, maybe even a bit longer than brown rice. Let’s just say that I was able to answer the final question on Jeopardy, respond to about ten emails, update my podcasts and read the entire day’s gossip on Gawker. Once the rice had thoroughly absorbed the stock, I popped the salmon in one pan, the spinach in a second, and the sliced shitakes in a third. Five minutes later, voila! Instant presto freestyle meal number one.

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Lest I forget about the wine, for my cobbled together freestyle meal, I took myself down to the local wine shop to see how far a ten dollar bill could go. In the back of my mind, I was thinking New Zealand sauvignon blanc, because I wanted a crisp, light-to-medium bodied white wine with tropical notes. Unfortunately, the New Zealand shelf contained nothing under $15, so I picked the next logical choice for well-made, inexpensive whites – South America. manta-wine-bottle2.jpgA torrontes from Argentina flirted with me, but I didn’t want to risk opening a wine that was too floral for my gingery soy sauce flavored salmon. After considering some steel-aged chardonnay, I went back to my first grape varietal – sauvignon blanc—but this time from the Central Valley of Chile, a great place to find very inexpensive, simple table wines with character. Made by Casa Julia Estate, the wine I chose was named “Manta,” a reference to the traditional work apron worn by the indigenous peoples of Chile, according to the label. In fact, the wine is even dedicated to the estate’s harvest workers. Casa Julia Estate also practices sustainable winemaking. Truly, have you ever seen another wine so perfectly marketed to Upper West Side NPR-listening New York Times-reading oenophiles? I wonder how much of the wine the workers actually get to consume… Anyway! The good news for me is that the wine came in at $6.99, well below my target price. As for tasting notes, it was a perfect match for my meal. The wine was light-bodied, with fresh acidity and a multitude of fruit notes – mainly lime and citrus, with undertones of tropical fruit and even some herbal notes. All in all, thanks migrant workers for a tasty quaff!

Oh, and on a final note, since the rice went forth and multiplied like nothing I’ve ever seen, I had plenty for a late breakfast/early lunch the next day – gently rewarmed in a little bit of butter, topped with spinach and a big ole fried runny egg.

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In recent edible news

modern-spork.jpgJust when you thought that the spork couldn’t possibly be improved upon, the New York Times reports that Swedish designer Joachim Nordwall has created an updated version for a hiking gear company called Light My Fire. Rather than combine the bowl of the spoon with the tines of the fork, Nordwall has placed each on opposing ends – think kayak paddle – and added a serrated metal edge to one side of the fork end. This sturdy plastic new all-in-one utensil comes in a Lifesavers array of colors, and while it’s meant for camping, it might also find a home in the lunchbox. One question though – how are you supposed to use the knife if you have without something to anchor the food? Hmmm…

What do the results of the recent presidential election in Mexico have to do with the country’s steadily declining consumption of traditional masa tortillas? In a fascinating article for Grist, Tom Philpott draws the connection between conservative Mexican policies and the rise in price of handmade corn tortillas. Apparently, cheap white bread is making headway in Mexican supermarkets. Just the image of a taco wrapped in Wonderbread gives me the willies.

According to Newsday, New York State is about to receive a bumper crop of apples – an estimated 25 million bushels! apples.jpgFrom Newton Pippins to Jonagolds, local farmers’ markets will soon be bursting with varieties beyond the standard Red Delicious. Since a little cold storage goes a long way in keeping apples fresh well into the winter and spring, there’s time to try them all. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but what about apple pie, apple strudel, applesauce, apple chutney, apple butter and of course, apple cider? Let the recipes begin!

jancisnew.jpg In her column in London’s Financial Times, world renowned wine geek/goddess Jancis Robinson details the process of editing the third edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine, which now contains some 3,900 entries. While to some, the hefty tome seems like a killer doorstop, to most in the wine world, it’s as good as the Holy Word. New entries include winemaking advances in Denmark, thanks to global warming, as well as a description of the decrease in Russian wine consumption partly caused by an aggressive anti-alcohol campaign headed by former Commie Ringleader Gorbachev.

And lastly, one of my favorite food magazines, Chow, was recently reborn as an internet publication. Though it’s print days were glorious but short-lived, the first pages of the new internet edition seem promising. Since the company that nows owns Chow also recently acquired Chowhound, the two websites are now linked together. Welcome back, Chow!

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