Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Prosecco Seeks the Spotlight

It is sometimes gets lumped in with the likes of Asti Spumante and other sparkling wines that you see people drop a sugar cube into.

But the people who produce Prosecco are hoping to change that. According to the N.Y. Times:

With its fresh flavor, pleasing bubbles and gentle price tag — it typically sells for $10 to $20 a bottle — prosecco has gained many fans worldwide. Global sales have been growing by double-digit percentages for 10 years, to more than 150 million bottles last year.

And with consumers in an economizing mood this holiday season, prosecco is an increasingly popular alternative to Champagne, which has been soaring in price.

But unfortunately there is an image problem:

Because prosecco is the name of a grape, like chardonnay or cabernet, anyone can use the name.

Today, about 60 percent of all prosecco — some eight million cases — comes from producers outside the traditional prosecco-growing region of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, a cluster of villages about a half-hour’s drive north of Venice.

. . . The newcomers are not held to the same strict production standards as the traditional producers, which are tightly governed under Italian wine laws.

One product, Rich Prosecco, is made by an Austrian company whose ads feature Paris Hilton. In some, she is naked and spray-painted gold. What’s worse to some producers, the product is sold in a 6.8-ounce can, in gas stations as well as stores, for around $3.

“It’s absolutely vulgar,” says Vittorio Zoppi, marketing manager for the prosecco consortium

An Unflattering Phrase

In World War II, the U.S. military wrote and distributed a special booklet entitled "Instructions for American Servicemen in France."

The booklet provided an overview of the culture of la belle France, including a description of the kinds of food and drink that U.S. soldiers would likely encounter. Here is one excerpt that amused me — an excerpt that seems most appropriate as champagne bottles are readied to celebrate the new year:

Champagne is that expensive fizzy processed white wine.

Fizzy processed white wine. Not exactly the words that Madison Avenue would use to sell champagne.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Linzer Torte

It's one of several culinary treasures that I hope to enjoy during my brief trip to Vienna over the New Year's weekend.

Bread dumplings, Wiener Schnitzel and apple strudel are some other tasty dishes that I can think of.

All That Leftover Food

If you no longer have a household full of relatives or friends, and you won't come close to eating all of the holiday leftovers that are still sitting in your refrigerator, what should you do? tackles the question in this post.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Fruitcakes: The Scourge of Xmas

I had thought that fruitcake had virtually disappeared. That it had gone the way of shag carpeting and pet rocks. But, no — a fruitcake was one of the "gifts" brought to my in-laws' house from visitors during the week of Christmas.

It looked every bit as unappetizing as they have always looked to me.

I began to wonder where the hell people were getting these things they call "fruitcake." Were they making them at home or buying them at stores or online? I did a quick online Google search and discovered a host of companies that make, sell and ship fruitcakes.

Shameful. It's one thing to make and sell such insidious contraband, but it's a whole 'nother to profit from it.

There are good things that can come from combining fruit and cake -- Black Forest Cake, Hummingbird Cake, etc. -- but "fruitcake" isn't one of them.

Whenever I see a fruitcake with those hideous, artificially colored, red-and-green candied fruits (that look like bad imitations of JuJy Fruits), the only polite thing I can do is to sigh.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Holiday Hiatus

Foodphoria is going to take a brief holiday break. We'll return with fresh posts on Monday, Dec. 29th.

Buying Bubbly

The foodie website has this list of the "Top Ten Budget Champagnes." Their prices range from $27 to $40 a bottle.

That may not sound like "budget" champagne to you, but the Euro-dollar exchange rate has made it tougher and tougher to find reasonably priced champagne.

Below this list of "budget" champagnes, you will also find links to other "top tens" of sparkling wine.

Wondering what's the difference between a blanc de blanc and a blanc de noir champagne? Here is a good cheat sheet that explains the different varietals of champagne.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dining at the Clinton Library

I was in Little Rock, Ark., this past week visiting members of my family, and I happened to eat lunch at the restaurant in the Clinton Presidential Library. The restaurant is appropriately named Forty-Two.

The restaurant looks out over the Arkansas River and also has a view of an old railway bridge that traverses the river. The menu is somewhat eclectic, sporting entrees such as fried catfish and a variety of salads.

My Thai chicken salad had an excellent vinagrette, but it featured only a few tiny pieces of chicken. The rice noodles could have been wonderful, but they were undercooked -- enough so that I seriously considered asking our server to take it back to the kitchen.

My companion's entree was so-so. (That was both her opinion and mine.)

This did not inspire us to eat dessert, but it's a good thing we decided to take a chance on it because the dessert that we split was superb. We ordered the green apple crumble with cinnamon ice cream. The texture of the apple crumble was very similar to a bread pudding. Extremely moist.

For what it's worth, here's another review of Forty-Two.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ode to Cookies

Tired of listening to the ongoing debate about the state of the auto industry? Or the state of the housing market? Then read what Slate's Sara Dickerman has to say about the state of the cookie. Here are some of her observations and declarations:

It's hard to imagine a world without Thin Mints! Although everyone I know is cutting back in one way or another, I think this could still be a good year for cookies.

. . . over the past decade or so we've watched our chocolate get better, our access to organic eggs and higher-fat butter grow, and our sugar options diversify.

And on the subject of sugar and butter and health: Dorie and David, I agree that cookies can be part of a healthful diet, even as I stay wary of "healthy" cookies. For the most part, I've been doing my best to replace mediocre sweets with smaller bites of more intensely flavored goodies. One delicious square of brownie is better — and, I wager, better for you — than omega-3 fortified biscuits by the handful.
Everybody raves about chocolate chip cookies and oatmeal cookies, but I would still take a molasses cookie or a butterscotch-ice box cookie over them any day.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Key Is the Butter

When it comes to making holiday cookies that tickle the taste buds, the N.Y. Times' Julia Moskin explains why butter is the key.

The most common mistakes made by home bakers, professionals say, have to do with the care and handling of one ingredient: butter. Creaming butter correctly, keeping butter doughs cold, and starting with fresh, good-tasting butter are vital details that professionals take for granted, and home bakers often miss.

Butter is basically an emulsion of water in fat, with some dairy solids that help hold them together. But food scientists, chefs and dairy professionals stress butter’s unique and sensitive nature the way helicopter parents dote on a gifted child.

. . . For mixing and creaming, butter should be about 65 degrees: cold to the touch but warm enough to spread. Just three degrees warmer, at 68 degrees, it begins to melt.

. . . Cold butter’s ability to hold air is vital to creating what pastry chefs call structure — the framework of flour, butter, sugar, eggs and leavening that makes up most baked goods.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Restaurant Review: Adour

Well, here's my take on Adour, Alain Ducasse's Washington, D.C. restaurant.

First, let me say that I had a little "intelligence" going into this dining experience -- only a few days before, the Wash Post's Tom Sietsema had written this review of Adour.

The atmosphere at the restaurant is pleasant. The ornate, coffered ceiling that pre-existed Adour is still there, but the window treatments and lighting below have a more subtle, contemporary look.

There are two foie gras dishes on the list of appetizers. Both were excellent, but the seared foie gras with an "onion belt" was the best of the two. For what it's worth, the two diners next to our table both ordered the hamachi appetizer. It looked really good, but (obviously) looks aren't conclusive.

For entrees, my significant-other and I had the duck breast and the beef tenderloin with short ribs. Although the tenderloin was simply good but not great, the short ribs made the beef entree superb. The short ribs had been braised for several hours, and they were absolutely succulent. The duck was good, but not exceptional.

Neither of us ate dessert. (Well, what I mean is that neither of us ordered dessert.) But, as is the custom at many upper-crust restaurants, we received some complimentary petit fours. These included homemade macaroons, which are in a class far above anything that I have ever heard called a macaroon before. Both the chocolate and the raspberry macaroons (pictured above) were utterly sublime. The filling is like an intensely flavored ganache.

So, as shocking as it may seem, the best thing we ate at Adour was gratis.

The wine list at Adour deserves a lot of credit for diversity in price and varietals. We had a Nuit-St.-Georges that was excellent.

I was pleased with Adour, but I wasn't wow'd by it. Sure, I'd go back to Adour, but its menu prices won't make it easy for me to do so. It's worth a splurge when you have one of those special occasions, or if you're dining on an expense account.

P.S. - Adour should have tried to create a bathroom that's located in the same zip code as the restaurant itself.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Anticipating Dinner

I am treating my significant-other to dinner this evening at Alain Ducasse's Adour at the St. Regis Hotel here in Washington, D.C. I'm looking forward to what should be a gastronomic tour de force.

I'll share observations about the dinner in a post tomorrow.

But I have one quick comment about the website -- where's the wine list? Adour has a paragraph about how its wine list is

a hand-picked seasonal selection of over 400 wines, showcasing a variety from main wine producing regions around the world, tailored to the seasonal mood
and menu.
Blah, blah, blah. Glad you're so impressed with your wine cellar, but it sure would be nice for your diners to know what's actually in your cellar. Adour should at least provide a wine list on its site just as most other high-end restaurants do. 'Nuff said.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cravin' 'Em in Houston

From what I can tell, the cupcake craze has made it to just about every large metro area of the country.

Over the weekend, I was in Houston for a wedding and was strolling in a shopping area on the city's west side when I stumbled on Crave Cupcakes. They have all of the traditional cupcakes -- vanilla with chocolate frosting, chocolate with vanilla frosting, lemon, and strawberry.

But they also have 2 more interesting (perhaps seasonal?) flavors: gingerbread and pumpkin. A friend and I did a little tasting of our own. Gingerbread with cream cheese frosting was our favorite.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Only Martha Stewart Has Time . . .

. . . to do what the L.A. Times recommends -- namely that ordinary Americans this holiday season consider "baking" their gifts to one another:

Make a stack of shortbread cookies spiced with your neighbor's favorite lavender, then tie them up in cellophane the color of her kitchen. Or wrap up a tin of brownies in the sports page for a friend who's a rabid Lakers fan . . .

Use antique bottles found at flea markets (sterilize them first) to show off a rich caramel sauce spiked with Cognac or a batch of vinegar you've infused with thyme and peppercorns.
Isn't this what gourmet shops like Dean & Deluca and Williams-Sonoma are for? If you've actually got time to make own vinegar by infusing it with sprigs of thyme and then placing it in some decorative bottles, then you must have too much time on your hands. Sorry, but that's my theory. Christmas is stressful enough without encouraging ordinary people to start behaving like they're Martha Stewart. Chill out.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Cost-Conscious Diner in NYC

Finding a "great" meal for two people in New York City for under $100? Including tax and tip?

That sounds like a pipe dream, but N.Y. Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni has recommendations in this article for where diners in the Big Apple can find it. In these economically shaky times, something tells me this article will be read very closely.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Brioche and Coffee

Yesterday, I stopped for a late breakfast at Bread & Chocolate, located just off the corner of 23rd and M Streets in D.C.

It's one of the few bakeries I've seen in Washington where you can find brioche. Real brioche, like what you'd find in Europe. Marvelous with a cup of java.

Their apple croissants are also excellent. And they serve cappuccino in a simple white, but wonderfully large, ceramic mug. Nice froth on top.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What (Truly) Goes With Chocolate

The food blog Method is featuring this recipe for strawberry-chocolate chip cupcakes. I can't decide if that's too weird or not. I like Neapolitan ice cream, but I must admit that the idea of combining chocolate with strawberry in a cupcake just sounds slightly strange.

But why is that?

I guess it's really just a matter of what we're used to eating or seeing on menus.

Chocolate is often paired with cherries. Or raspberries. Occasionally orange. But few other fruits seem to make the cut when it comes to what we'll match with chocolate. Ever heard of a dessert featuring chocolate and apples? Or chocolate and peaches? Of course not -- and for good reason.

But does strawberry deserve to make the cut? The foodie-caterer at the blog Bash! could have made this chocolate cake with a strawberry ganache, but instead she made it with a raspberry ganache. (She even went to the trouble of substituting the raspberries for a recipe that originally called for strawberries.)

Looking beyond fruits, it can get even trickier. The chocolatier Richart of Paris is pretty blunt about its assessment:
One of the most interesting aspects of fine chocolate is that it doesn't much like company.
Richart has a web page entitled "Chocolate Harmonies" that offers advice on which wines, liqueurs and other drinks go well with chocolate. They correctly recommend pairing port with chocolate.

Anxiety in the Land of Vanilla

Most people who have cooked with real vanilla bean know that the crème de la crème of vanilla bean is found on the island of Madagascar. But, as the Associated Press reports, a deadly crop fungus could jeopardize the world's most prized vanilla crop.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I Chose Beef Bourguignon . . .

. . . over a Moroccan chicken recipe, and I wasn't disappointed by my decision. With snow flurries falling on Saturday afternoon, Beef Bourguignon proved to be a wonderful comfort food for a relaxed dinner.

I developed a recipe that leaned heavily on two recipes that I had found in recent days. If it looks like my Beef Bourguignon has a lot of carrots, it's because my significant other doesn't care for carrots so I happily took more than my fair share. Anyway, here is the recipe I used:

Beef Bourguignon (serves 4)

6 oz. can of tomato paste
2 cups of dry red wine (not “cooking wine”)
2 cups of reduced fat, lower-sodium beef broth (reserve an extra 1/4 cup for other uses)
1/4 cup of canola or vegetable oil
1-1/2 lbs. of beef chuck or sirloin, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-1/2 to 2-inch cubes
1/4 cup of Cognac or brandy
1/4 cup of flour, minus one tablespoon
3 tablespoons of butter
2 carrots, diced
A dozen Cremini or white mushrooms, sliced
A dozen pearl onions, peeled
4 garlic cloves, crushed or chopped
5-6 slices of bacon, cooked and then crumbled into small pieces
1 teaspoon of dried thyme
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
2 tablespoons of veal or beef demi-glace (available at Williams-Sonoma)


1. In a large mixing bowl, whisk 2/3 of the tomato paste (4 oz.) together with a 1/2 cup of the red wine. (Set aside the remaining tomato paste.) Then add the remainder of the red wine. Transfer the tomato paste-wine mixture to a dutch oven or large oven-proof casserole.

2. Pour the beef broth into the dutch oven and stir slightly just to incorporate.

3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil begins to smoke, place the beef cubes in the skillet and sear them. In about 6 or 7 minutes, once the meat is browned, turn the pieces of beef over. Continue cooking for a few more minutes and then add the Cognac, turning the skillet slightly to ensure that it spreads throughout the skillet.

4. Reduce the heat to medium and then sprinkle the flour over the meat. Use a spatula to incorporate the flour into the beef and pan juices. Remove the skillet from the heat and use a spoon to place the beef and all the pan juices into the dutch oven.

5. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

6. Return the large skillet to the burner, reduce heat to medium-high and add the butter to it. Wait for the butter to melt and then add the carrots and mushrooms. Sautée the vegetables for 5 minutes and then spoon them into the dutch oven.

7. Add the pearl onions to the dutch oven. (Trim the root end of the pearl onions, but leave the root ends intact to hold the onions together as they cook.) Add the garlic, crumbled bacon, thyme and oregano to the dutch oven. Soften the demi-glace by placing it with a tablespoon of beef broth either in the microwave or in a small saucepan over very low heat. Then spoon it into the dutch oven, stirring well.

8. Place the dutch oven (covered) into the oven for 60 minutes.

9. After the beef has cooked for 60 minutes, turn down the oven to 300 degrees and remove the dutch oven. Give the beef mixture a few stirs, re-cover it and place it back in the oven, allowing it to cook at 300 degrees for another 60 minutes.

10. After the second 60-minute period of cooking, remove the dutch oven and test the carrots to make sure they are done. Check the consistency of the Beef Bourguignon. It should have thickened to the consistency of a sauce. If it’s not thick enough, spoon the remaining (2 ounces) tomato paste into a metal mixing bowl and add 2 tablespoons of beef broth. Use a whisk to combine the paste and broth, and then add it to the dutch oven, stirring thoroughly.

11. Serve the Beef Bourguignon over egg noodles or couscous. Drink a good red wine with it — a French Burgundy or Syrah will pair nicely.

Beef Bourguignon, Part II

As a follow up to the recipe posted above, I have a few observations to pass along. I've learned there are two keys for a good Beef Bourguignon.

The first key is the meat you choose. Do not — repeat, do not — buy what grocery meat sections label as “stew meat” or “beef stew.” Most of these pre-sliced pieces are scraps leftover from a variety of other cuts of beef. You never know exactly what you’re getting. If you look closely at “stew meat,” what you see is uniformly red — almost none of the beef is marbled. That may be good for reducing fat, but it’s a disaster for a long-cooking dish like Beef Bourguignon in which the fat within the meat bathes it and keeps it from drying out.

(Trust me: I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.) So go with beef cuts like chuck roast or sirloin that are slightly marbled. You’ll be glad you did.

The second key is the cooking temperature. Resist the temptation to “hurry up” your meal by raising the oven temp. Although the dutch oven is covered and even though the beef itself is covered in a broth-wine mixture, you don’t want the ingredients inside the dutch oven to reach a hard boil.

Remember: You’re trying to braise the beef, not boil it. Even good cuts of beef can dry out if they are cooked at an excessively high temp.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Dinner Decision

Okay. I have a decision to make tomorrow.

My significant other is returning home from an out-of-town trip on Saturday afternoon. I plan to have dinner ready. I want to make something good and hearty, but not too labor-intensive. So I was thinking of a dish that I can make in a dutch oven.

So should I make Moroccan Chicken or should I make Beef Bourguignon? Decisions, decisions.

I'm leaning toward Beef Bourguignon, which is depicted in the photo above. I've made it before, but that was years ago, and I don't know where I stashed the recipe. I found this recipe on for Beef Bourguignon. It looks good, but I'd probably eliminate the potatoes and just serve it over egg noodles.
Hmmmm . . . . .

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Obsessive About Cocktails

So my friends think I can be a wine snob?

Apparently, there are more than a few cocktail aficionados who put me to shame.

This N.Y. Times article talks about people who are obsessive about their cocktails -- so much so that in at least one case, they decide to make their own ice:

Mayur Subbarao is a serious drinker. This isn’t to suggest that Mr. Subbarao, a 34-year-old environmental lawyer in Manhattan, drinks to excess — he’s openly disdainful of “binge drinking”— but rather that he drinks cocktails with a seriousness that, even he admits, sometimes borders on obsession.

He makes his own block ice, daily, by freezing water in a loaf pan and then carving it into oversize chunks for use in cocktails, and he sometimes travels to Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, to harvest colder, more esteemed cubes of ice from a friend who owns a Kold-Draft ice machine.

. . . While cocktail geekdom is nothing new, the latest faction revels in the same kind of fussiness that inspires home cooks to faithfully replicate Thomas Keller’s chicken stock recipe.

“It all starts with an innocent experimentation with pomegranate juice, trying to make a passable grenadine,” explained Paul Clarke, a Seattle-based cocktail blogger. “The next thing you know, your refrigerator is full of homemade pineapple and raspberry syrups, gomme syrup, made with gum arabic to give it an extra-luscious mouth-feel.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Buzz About Puck's "The Source"

Yesterday, I walked right past The Source (Wolfgang Puck's newly launched restaurant), but I still haven't eaten there yet. The restaurant, located in the Penn Quarter section of Washington, D.C., has been open for about a year.

The Source initially opened for dinner only, but now it is open for both lunch and dinner. Has anyone had an experience at The Source worth sharing?

On his blog, interior designer Patrick Baglino raves about the restaurant's visual appeal:

The design of The Source is razor sharp, super polished, very sleek, sophisticated and cutting edge.

. . . The modern aesthetic design boasts floor-to-ceiling windows that line the restaurant and a two-story, temperature-controlled glass wine wall linking the main floor with the upstairs that holds the more than 2,000 bottles of the restaurant’s impressive collection.
The only two friends I know who have eaten at The Source had very positive comments about the interior space, but both felt the food was not quite up to the sticker-shock prices.

I was disappointed to read that the interior of the restaurant is so noisy that, according to the Washington Post's Tom Sietsema, diners "must speak with (a) raised voice" in order to be understood. Somewhere along the way, America's leading restauranteurs seem to have confused noise with sophistication.

This is a tough economic environment in which to operate a restaurant, even in supposedly recession-proof Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Italy's Lackluster Whites

So after a long day at work, I met a friend last night at Proof for a late-night dinner. As usual, the food was very good. This was the first time, however, that I had medicore vino.

The glass of Tempranillo I ordered with my second course seemed a little musty and never quite opened up. Disappointing.

The other wine disappointment was my own fault because I decided to ignore my decades-long experience and order a glass of an Italian white. (What was I thinking?) It was an unusual varietal, but it was so bland that I'd just as soon forget its name.

What is it with Italy and white wine? The two just don't go together. I can tolerate Orvieto, but let's be honest -- it's no prize. Some Italian vintners produce chardonnays, but I've never been dazzled by any of 'em (full disclosure: I'm not much of a chard drinker anyway).

And even those white wines that seem to work in parts of Italy (like Vermentino, for example) actually taste better when they're produced in Spain.

Wait a second. I just thought of an Italian white that I really think is pretty decent: Vernaccia di San Gimignano. But wouldn't you know it? According to this website, an Italian producer of Vernaccia states: "Vernaccia is really a red wine made from white grapes."

I guess that explains why I like it. (Not that I understood what the hell she meant by that statement.)