Thursday, April 29, 2010
It is delicious, so perhaps our answer should be "oh, never mind."
3/4 cup vegetable oil (not olive oil)
2 cups sour cream
2 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder
2 and 1/4 cups cornmeal
2 jalapeno peppers
1/2 green pepper
1/4 tsp chili powder
2 cups canned, creamed corn
2 and 1/2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Preheat the oven to 350. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add the oil, sour cream, and salt, and mix well. Mix the baking powder and cornmeal together, and add to the first mixture. Chop the jalapeno and green peppers and add, along with the chili powder and the corn. Beat with a wooden spoon for 2 minutes.
Grease a heavy skillet, and pour in half the batter. Sprinkle with half the cheese. Top with the remaining batter and then the rest of the cheese. Bake for 45 minutes; serve from the skillet (it makes 8 wedges).
Monday, April 26, 2010
You might guess Congress would have other things to micromanage, and alas, they do. But for the moment, we wine geeks are talking about the making of yet another law, this one regarding alcohol (read wine) purchases. Across state lines. From small wineries or retailers, perhaps even via the Internet. Purchases directly shipped to you, the buyer, without your using a wholesale distributor for the transaction. Which means the wholesale distributor hasn't made any money from your choice.
That's bad. The wholesaler wants you to be impelled to shop local retail stores for wine, so that you buy whatever he has already placed (and made money from) there. If he's a big distributor, he especially doesn't want you fumfering around trying little boutique wines from Oblivion, Texas, which aren't worth his while to represent, the discovery of which keeps you happily shopping the web and away from your local stores.
Now bless his heart, of course the nice wholesale liquor distributor wants to make a living. So does your nice local merchant. Together, they offer you a nice, big selection of good, affordable wines, replenished all the time. But if you learn from your experiences browsing and buying there, and happily venture out to other wines from other sources, the wholesaler rather quickly notices and says No: you will stay with me, and you'll please to buy what I bring to you. In fact, let's make this permanent.
How so? Via House Resolution 5034, the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness act of 2010 ("the CARE act") sponsored by the National Beer Wholesalers Association. If passed, this will make it federal law that anyone suing any state over any state law regarding liquor shipments -- i.e., someone in Wisconsin suing for the right to buy wine from Oblivion, Texas -- will have to prove that whatever existing state law he is suing about, far from being onerous, is "ineffective" regarding liquor distribution. That it doesn't do much at all.
Now that's confusing, isn't it? Why would wholesalers, bent on keeping you shopping locally, craft some crazy national law outlining what argument your state-level liquor distribution lawsuit must make? Why assume people will sue to buy wine? Ah, but they do. We had better get some background, before it all becomes still more confusing.
After the repeal of Prohibition, the federal government essentially took its hands off liquor, leaving the regulation of alcohol sales and consumption to the states and to counties and communities. The resulting, overlapping 70-year-old webs of booze laws were meant to ensure the orderly movement of "intoxicating liquors" from those who made and sold them to those who wanted them, all in keeping with local standards, the need to prevent teens' finding Demon Rum, and the need to collect taxes. It's that 70-year- old web of laws which rises up and clings to you in silly and hysterical ways, whenever you want to do something involving Demon Rum, for instance host a wine tasting in a public building in a town where, it turns out, you can't bring alcohol into a public building. Not that I'm bitter, but who knew?
The other major aftereffect of Prohibition's repeal, partner to the fact of state and local control becoming everything, was the establishment of just that three-tiered, producer-to-wholesaler-to-retailer alcohol distribution system. Apparently spending the 1920s watching the Mob source hootch, from bathtub to point of sale, convinced the freshly all-powerful states that it would be best to make sure separate entities manufactured, distributed, and sold liquor, so that nobody had a violent, price-gouging monopoly of the whole process. All fine; but the trouble is that by now the middle tier of the system, wholesale distributors, consider that all these bootleg-era laws and aftereffects amount to legal guarantees that their industry shall exist. Nay prosper -- even if bright souls like you increasingly see ways to get interesting, boutique hootch without it. And note one big change in those seven decades. All fifty states now have wineries. These wineries would like to exist, too, nay prosper, and the best way to do that is to reach as many consumers as possible, as freely as possible. Kevin Zraly writes in his American Wine Guide that, for seventy years, from Repeal until 2005, "distribution has been the main obstacle to growth, especially for smaller wineries."
And what is significant about the year 2005? In its concentration on the niceties of lawsuits and liquor, the smart people say HR 5034 is a painstakingly thought-out reaction to, and a deconstruction of, a Supreme Court case of that year, which wine geeks know about but not many other people do. Kevin Zraly refers to it as Wine Wholesalers Association v Heald, but it has come to be called Granholm v. Heald, because the case involved mostly Michigan issues (the governor of Michigan is Jennifer Granholm.) In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that Michigan's liquor distribution laws, which had banned direct wine shipments to consumers from out-of-state wineries, could not stand because they violated the Constitution's guarantee that all the 50 states are a free market (the Commerce Clause). Liquor wholesalers trying to confine Michigan consumers to the (Michigan only) wineries they represented argued "we are obeying state laws mandating the maintenance of orderly markets and of tax revenue collection, and are helping keep liquor from being directly shipped to teens." The Court essentially responded, "you can still obey all those laws even if you are not making money when adult citizens order wine from outside Michigan." And of course, being a Supreme Court decision, this ruling applies to all the states. No state may discriminate between in-state or out-of-state wineries "in matters of direct-to-consumer shipping" (Wine Spectator, April 16, 2010).
Granholm opened a flood of other lawsuits of the same sort, and as a result, challenged states have changed their laws such that consumers in 37 of them may now buy wine from out of state wineries. Out of state retail purchases are another matter; Illinois' wholesalers, for example, plugged that gap as of June 1, 2008, with the result that I can't buy wine, say, from San Francisco's famed K & L Merchants. Neither can you, if you live in any one of 32 other states whose liquor distribution laws command you to shop local. A pity; their inventory seems so interesting.
Hence, HR 5034's intent to go as national as Granholm did, and to control what you might call the narrative of any further lawsuits. If you plan to sue, the bill says, be prepared not to argue a blessed thing about commerce or your right to buy wine. Prep, instead, to argue that your state's liquor distribution laws are "ineffective." (It would be as if a group of doctors wrote a law to say that someone suing a doctor for malpractice had to prove instead that a state's malpractice laws were ineffective. Hardly the point.) One more thing: the bill also exudes a kind of protective coating over itself and over the situation that wholesalers find themselves in right now. It says that current state liquor distribution laws and networks need never be bothered again about whether or not they "burden commerce" or stand "inconsistent with any Act of the Congress," past, present, or future, apparently. So here, the U.S. Congress freezes an entire economic and legal scenario for one industry, decrees that it shall decree this one last item regarding it, and then recuses itself from the subject. Would that they might decree their own abandonment of a topic more often.
If HR 5034 passes, excising as it does Congress and the courts from the arena where people fight over the right to buy wine, the only authority figures left there will be the state legislatures. That serves the wholesalers just fine. It only takes a few lawmakers, bought and paid for and typically representing districts obviously not filled with a wine loving demographic, to sponsor little-noticed legislation erecting firewalls between wine consumers, wineries, and retailers across the country. That's an unpleasant thing to say, but it would be naive to imagine that wholesalers' campaign contributions to the right state lawmakers have no effect on the lawmakers' votes. Two years ago, Illinois wholesalers only needed two sponsoring legislators, Rep. Edward Acevedo and Sen. James. F. Clayborne Jr., plus Governor Blagojevich, to plug that retail sales gap with a nice shiny new law forbidding me to shop through K & L.
Wine geeks throughout the blogosphere are agog at this, and rightly so. But I must admit. A brilliant mind or minds came up with this bill. It seems to me perfect in its logic and its foresight. I wonder if it resulted from five years of heated committee meetings and legal study in dusty libraries, or if it was the product of a single genius. I suspect the latter, only because it seems more romantic -- and because it lets me indulge the fancy that whoever it was also plays very good chess. And, memo to the good guys in the wine industry: find whoever it was and hire him.
Salutes aside, the question is, do enough Americans care about buying wine as they wish, to contact their Congressmen and say, "please oppose HR 5034"? Or are wine geeks too marginal a group to be heard? Some people say this bill will never make it to a vote. Some say it's the end of your wine club, so enjoy your shipments from Cakebread while you can. Who is your representative?
The four sponsors of the "CARE act" are Bill Delahunt (D, Massachusetts), Mike Quigley (D, Illinois), Howard Coble (R, North Carolina) and Jason Chaffetz (R, Utah).
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Thursday, April 22, 2010
From The New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook, by Yvonne Young Tarr (1972). "Unbelievably delicious," she writes, giving it three asterisks alongside the title, which indicates it's a recipe that her family frequently requested.
The idea of oatmeal being anything other than a porridge served plain at breakfast may seem too odd; and yet as luck would have it, I encountered Mexican oatmeal soup at about the same time I found a "receipt" for a very old dish called a "flummery caudle," in William Carew Hazlitt's Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine (yay, Project Gutenberg!). A flummery caudle was a mixture of oats cooked in water, left to thicken overnight, and then seasoned with wine, mace, nutmeg, lemon and orange juice, and butter and sugar, and eaten for breakfast.
Just reading that expands the mind, and prepares it for the combination of oats, chicken stock, tomatoes, and garlic, to be eaten for dinner. What makes it authentically Mexican? Mrs. Tarr -- and yes, even in 1972, she was not Ms. but Mrs. Tarr -- does not say.
Mexican oatmeal soup
1 and 1/3 cups rolled oats (Bob's Red Mill now makes gluten-free oats)
8 Tbsp butter (1 stick)
1 large onion, chopped
3 large cloves garlic, diced
2 large tomatoes, chopped
6 cups chicken broth
1 tsp salt
Toast the oats in a large heavy skillet, until they are browned but not burned. Put the toasted oats in a bowl and set aside.
Melt the butter in a skillet, and add the onions and garlic and cook gently until they soften, about five minutes or so. Then add the tomatoes, broth, and salt, and pour in the oats. Bring to a boil and boil for six minutes over medium heat. Serve hot.
(Mexican cornbread goes well with the soup.)
Monday, April 19, 2010
Alder Yarrow writes a post in Vinography, April 15, on "The coming carnage in the California wine industry." Dang, there's my title.
The story is simple. It takes a lot of money to produce good wines. Land, buildings, farm equipment, payroll, you name it, it all costs a lot. Even strange little "custom crush" companies, which aren't wineries themselves but which buy grapes, oak barrels, and bottles, and make wine in a rented space and label it under some dreamy fake-farm name, Plushland Hills or something, need financing. When they are finally made, good red wines in particular must be stored for many months before they can be brought to market, which just increases the scary time lag between the investment in them and the recouping of that investment through sales. This is why, Yarrow explains, you see so much California sauvignon blanc. That wine at least is a safe bet, "six months from grape to $."
Naturally, most California wine producers are not running on the private fortune of a passionate owner. They are running on loans from banks like any other business. The collateral they put up to get the loan is their inventory. If they can't pay back debts, the bank "swoops in" and sells off the wine on the market, just as it would a foreclosed house.
Enter the Great Recession. People are not buying expensive Napa wines now. Closed wallets in the liquor store aisles mean stock gathering dust there, and in wholesalers' warehouses and finally in Napa makers' warehouses, too. No money coming in of course means no funds for future production, but a concomitant problem is that all that collateral has lost so much value. Plushland Hills can no longer confidently assure a bank that yes, this stuff will sell for between $30 and $100 a bottle, should you need to take it from us. Not so. People don't want it at any price.
According to Yarrow's sources, there is so much worthless high-end wine sitting on pallets in California that there is no way it can all be sold, not even on internet sales sites which you or I might never have heard of like Cinderella Wine or Wines Til Sold Out. Napa banks don't even want to seize the inventory, because they know its value is going to keep on plummeting. Why take responsibility for trying to unload it?
Mr. Yarrow says it did occur to him that the sources he interviewed might have had some nefarious motive for yelling that the sky is falling, but he "couldn't think of one." Of course he can, and so can I, and so can some of the readers who commented on his article. (Their input is an education in itself, by the way, especially that from professionals in the "wine-related real estate field," i.e., consultants who help failing wineries sell and get out.) Let me elaborate. I got my first lessons in economics from Gone With The Wind, not that I understood them at the time. In the novel, Rhett Butler is an excitingly scandalous character because he is a speculator. He buys anything, cotton, guns, luxury goods, cheap, and hangs on to them in warehouses in London or Charleston or any port, until the demand for cotton, guns, or laces and silks grows so that he can name his own price for it all. Then he sells. He makes a killing and doesn't care whether or not the Confederacy, starved for one thing while he ships another, needs him to follow a more patriotic business model.
Now Margaret Mitchell's grasp of economics might have been a bit shaky -- warehoused goods by definition are not wanted, so why accumulate them? -- but if I were one of Alder Yarrow's sources hyperventilating about the "shitstorm" of foreclosures coming to Napa in the next eighteen months, some variety of speculation might be my motive. Warehouses loaded with wine at someone else's expense, with '06 and even '05 vintages, will be valuable again someday. It's only a question of time. " 'The sharks are circling,' " Yarrow quotes. If I had money, I'd be planning soon to make like Rhett Butler and start buying the wine up cheap, not to warehouse it again but to sell it on the spot. But of course, until the perfect time comes, I'd want to keep all the other sharks away and depress the inventories' value by insisting, in interviews with prestigious bloggers, that the sky is falling. That no one wants this stuff.
It all constitutes a fascinating lesson in what I suppose is the basic economic question, and that is, what makes things valuable? What's the "right" or "realistic" price of a bottle of beautifully made Napa wine?
The answer is that there is no correct price of anything. Things are valuable exactly to the extent people think they are, and always under constantly changing sets of circumstances. We'll all know the correct, just price of high end Napa wines, soon. When they start selling. Is $5.99 unthinkable? But that's six times better than $0.
Meanwhile, California wine producers face the same situation as would-be home sellers since the sub-prime housing crash. Their assets are worth less than their debts. This is especially true of the custom crush companies which don't even have real estate to sell off. A lot of cute little boutique labels, which may have had a loyal following, are going to "vaporize." Or so Alder Yarrow's sources tell him. Is the "shitstorm" even actually on its way, and are hundreds of Napa winemakers and banks "fucked"? (I do wish the sources had been less foul-mouthed. The mixed metaphors are a separate problem.) The astute and experienced readers who commented on his post seem to fall into three groups: those who agree the sky is falling, those who say nonsense, everything is fine and getting better, and those who say yes, Napa is hurting but the wine making trade has always been iffy, and this economic cycle will purge the lightweights who had no business being there.
Meanwhile, the wine sits, the banks sit, Napa sits. Here are some things I would do.
If I were a consumer, I'd use this time to my advantage, to explore interesting and fairly inexpensive product from Italy, Spain, Chile, from anywhere and certainly from less glamorous regions of California (Paso Robles, anyone?). Or I would just shop the sales, as consumers do, and make a mental note to look, in the next few years, for the coming glut of good California Recession wines, already nicely aged.
If I were a wholesale distributor, I think I'd look the wineries in the eye and say, extremely politely, "I hear you're drowning in inventory. I'll pay you X bucks a case, take it or leave it."
If I were a liquor store owner, I think I'd look wholesalers in the eye and say, extremely pleasantly, "I hear they're drowning in inventory. I'll pay you X bucks a case, take it or leave it. And no deals about a twenty- or a fifty-case 'drop' (a drop is a delivery amount and/or a required purchase quantity). Send me three." And to any outraged sputterings about "realistic" or "true" value, I would answer, "Yes, you're welcome, I'm trying to help you sell your wine."
And if I were the CEO of a great big place like Gallo, why, my goodness. I would be salivating now at the prospect of buying up dozens -- scores? hundreds? -- of defaulted properties in Napa Valley. Imagine slapping that 0-85000 bar code on a lot of new bottles, and quietly presenting Plushland Hills, or who knows? Cakebread, Duckhorn, or Silver Oak to the world as a Gallo brand for $12.99, $9.99 on sale. I imagine Gallo would have as much sense as Rhett Butler under these interesting circumstances, wouldn't you? -- or as any savvy consumer hanging on to his money and deciding what price is right. " 'Slow money on the upbuilding, fast money in the crack-up,' " Rhett reminds Scarlett O'Hara when they discuss how to get rich when countries (read industries) rise and when they fall.
But I merely ... speculate. And I do bet Gallo will be okay.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Completely right, completely planned wine, exactly what the chardonnay lover wants for $10 t0 $12. No characteristic of chardonnay stands out -- not acidity, nor high alcohol, nor light tropic fruits; and no characteristic of oak stands out -- not vanilla, or caramel, or butter, or anything. Sweet, smooth, and woody, entirely pulled together; simple, face forward, and ready for yeoman duty at the table. A focus group wine, a primer of a wine.
In its own way, almost as fascinating as something better. Well done, sirs.
Retail, about $12
Saturday, April 10, 2010
No? Good. So then what makes this potage a "French" spring soup? Perhaps the addition of cream at the end. Perhaps just the name. It comes from the Good Housekeeping Cookbook, published in 1963. Good Housekeeping, whether the magazine or its cookbooks, usually serves as a reliable source of worthy recipes, but I must say this particular edition also includes the worst professional food photography I have ever seen.
This is a little surprising, because you can tell they were trying. By the 1960s, food styling and photography had begun to come into their own as arts. The use of more natural lighting and more gracefully staged backgrounds had begun to give pictures of food the look of something you would actually cook and eat and put on your table. This is as opposed to the blurry surrealism of food photography in cookbooks and pamphlets from the 1940s and '50s, in which crowded banquet tables groaning with colorful roasts, fruit salads, and platters of baked Alaska seem to have been quickly snapped in some kind of glaring, depthless anti-light, spinning somewhere in outer space. Yes, the photographers at Good Housekeeping were trying -- there's a bit of art in the napkin and the fake grapes draped over the wicker basket, and in the bottle of oil-and-vinegar (truly "French"!) salad dressing poised nearby. It's just the food stylists who had no clue. Or perhaps, by sheer coincidence, all the recipes that got the color-plate treatment were duds? Slices of cold roast beef neatly layered into, and neatly cascading out of, a huge, footed, clear glass bowl, do not make me ever want to prepare or eat "Roast beef hearty party salad." The same goes for "Honeydew salad supper," which seems to be red strawberries and white cottage cheese stuffed into the pale green melon, and "Shrimp casserole Harpin," which seems to be orange glop.
But the potage printanier, French spring soup, is a winner. If you'll indulge me, I'll provide the picture.
You begin the recipe by sauteeing 3 chopped leeks and 1 chopped onion in 3 Tbsp butter, until they are nicely softened, about 10 minutes or so.
3 potatoes, peeled, sliced thin
1 carrot, peeled, sliced thin
1 and 1/2 tsp. salt
2 quarts water
Bring the soup to a boil, cover, lower the heat, and simmer 15 minutes. Next, stir in 1/4 cup uncooked rice and 12 stalks asparagus, chopped into 1 inch pieces. Cover again, and continue simmering for another 25 minutes.
Now add 1/2 pound raw spinach, snipped fine. Stir this in, and continue simmering, covered, another 5 minutes.
Last, stir in 4 tsp salt, freshly ground pepper to taste, and 1 cup heavy cream. Heat through and serve.
You may notice that the recipe calls for 5 and 1/2 teaspoons of salt in total, which is almost 2 Tablespoons. Cookbook writers before about the mid 1970s do not seem to have been concerned with our great bugaboos, salt and fat; they wrote mostly for women anxious to get the most out of their food dollars, not for women anxious about health. James Beard in one of his books frankly complained that half the problem with most people's cooking was that it lacked the salt needed, not to taste salty, but to taste right. Don't be shy, he exhorted. In fact, if memory serves, he may have been the master who declared that no soup will taste right unless a full Tablespoon of salt is allowed for every quart of liquid. That would put him in happy agreement with the test kitchen staff who laid down the salt instructions for this potage. I mention it all, not to quail before the modern bugaboos, but to allow that indeed this soup is very salty -- very good, but very salty -- and to allow that perhaps you will want to use a more discreet hand with the measuring spoons, for taste's sake.
And as for that beef salad: perhaps you will want to judge the photo for yourself. If we call it French beef salad, will it look better?
Thursday, April 8, 2010
There are times when you want something sweet and home baked for dessert, even if you worked all day and have no intention of going out shopping for baking ingredients at 6:30 at night. If you flip through a copy of Betty Crocker's Ultimate Cookie Book, you'll find this great and easy recipe for Double Apple Bars. It requires only a few ingredients, it doesn't make you fuss with softened butter, and you don't even grease the baking pan. If you're lucky enough to have some baking essentials plus applesauce and a fresh apple on hand, you're ready.
After-work double apple bars
- 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
- 3/4 cup applesauce
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 egg
- 1 and 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 chopped apple, cored but not peeled
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Mix the brown sugar, applesauce, oil, and egg in a large bowl. Stir in the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Stir in the apple.
Spread the batter in an ungreased 9 x 9 x 2 pan. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired (the bars are sweet without it).
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Effen Black Cherry vodka
Some people love the cool bracing steeliness of vodka; I prefer the mysterious, spice-musk warmth of gin. Both are, according to our master Charles Schumann, the two vital mixers at the bar, though vodka wins the prize for those who like their liquor plain. "In the past and still today," he says, "drinkers who prefer their liquor straight up agree that vodka is the spirit least likely to give one a hangover."
A good thing, too. Given Mr. Schumann's further insistence, based on years of experience running his famed eponymous Bar, that a great cocktail includes three basic ingredients -- the base, the modifier, and the flavoring agent -- I would suggest that Effen Black Cherry vodka is best enjoyed as is, over ice. The powerful scent of maraschino cherries and the sweetness of vanilla make it a cocktail in itself.
Now the very idea of adding flavorings to a base spirit can spark arguments. It requires such talent (one argument goes), such experience and care to craft a fine vodka, gin, or whiskey, that additions to it are rarely grace notes, and are more likely profanations. And yet (the counterargument goes) lots of spirits already have approved things added to them. Who decided that that was all right, and is it all just a matter of innovations hallowed by time? Mr. Schumann, in American Bar, allows for "small amounts of lightly aromatic substances" in good vodkas, substances that match vodka in bracing steeliness: buffalo grass, pepper, sherry, or lemon. Can there be room also for cherry and vanilla? We'll see. I saw one gentleman look up at Effen on the shelf, give a start, and stomp away, growling, "Jeez, it's like 'Moogen-David.' "
I'm told that this variety of Effen is popular mixed with cola or even orange soda. I tried it like so, but found the combination clunky and too sweet. The company website offers some drink recipes that are at the very least imaginative, sometimes to the point of flamboyance and sometimes skating beyond flamboyance right out to the edge of ghastliness. Consider, for example, the Black Pearl, which calls for our Effen, blue curacao, cranberry juice, lemon lime soda, and the otherwise unexplained Raspberry Liqueur float. "Mix ingredients and serve as a martini with a colored sugar rim." Cherries Jubilee sounds a little simpler -- just the vodka, a dark chocolate liqueur, and a white chocolate liqueur, plus a dash of grenadine -- or you might be better off with Berries and Cherries, a drink of muddled (crushed in the bottom of the glass) blueberries, the vodka, and a dash of simple syrup.
Effen's packaging is easily recognized. It's the tall, elegant cylinder with the rubber sheath, the better not to slip out of the hands of the professional bartenders whose needs were anticipated in the bottle's design. As for the arresting name: the vodka comes from the Netherlands. "Effen" is Dutch for smooth. I believe it also carries connotations of "those are some pretty clever English-speaking marketing people in Holland, aren't they?"
Retail: about $36