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I first tasted St-Germain in 2010, while attending a wine and spirits trade show in London. There, amid hundreds of booths offering samples of every conceivable alcoholic elixir, a statuesque Belle Epoque bottle caught my attention. Once I tasted the delicate elderflower liqueur inside, I knew I’d stumbled onto something truly different.
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St-Germain is made in France, but the idea for the liqueur was born in England. While visiting London on business in 2001, a young American named Robert Cooper tasted a cocktail made with elderflower syrup, and became intrigued by its unique flavor. As it happened, Cooper was in charge of marketing for Chambord, the French raspberry liqueur, which was developed for the U.S. market by his father.
Cooper returned to the States with the idea of creating an elderflower liqueur, but soon found that the process was more challenging than he’d imagined.
“I began vigorously working on the project in 2003, and it was not in marketing until early 2007,” Cooper said. By then he’d left the family spirits business to launch his own operation, Cooper Spirits International. “It was quite difficult to make the macerations from something as volatile as a fresh flower.”
St-Germain is made from the blossoms of wild elderflowers that bloom on the hillsides of the French Alps for just four to six weeks in early spring. Once the flowers have been hand-harvested, the race is on to process the fresh blossoms before they lose their delicate aroma and flavor.
They’re immediately macerated to preserve their freshness, and each day’s macerations are successively combined until the blooming period is over.
“We make the maceration once a year, much like a wine, surrounding the elderflower harvest,” Cooper explained. That means there’s only one chance each year to get it right.
The ‘bartenders’ bacon’
Cooper’s dedication has resulted not only in a wonderfully delicious liqueur, but something of a cocktail revolution.
In the six short years since its release, St-Germain has become a key player in U.S. artisan cocktail movement.
“St-Germain came on the market when the whole mixology and cocktail scene was really starting to catch fire,” said mixologist Mike Henderson of Root Down, an upscale Denver restaurant known for its creative cocktails.
“I think one of the reasons it’s been so successful is that it’s got a unique ability to go with just about everything,” he said. “It works equally well with vodka, gin, rum, tequila, whiskey, scotch and Champagne. It’s joked about in the cocktail community as being ‘bartenders’ bacon’ – it just makes everything a little bit better.”
Henderson includes St-Germain in three of Root Down’s signature drinks, including the Hummingbird (with Prosecco and sparkling water), the Spanish Estate (with rum, sherry vinegar and bitters) and the Pepper Blossom (with vodka, jalapeño syrup and citrus juices).
The complexity of St-Germain’s flavor, he said, is the secret to its versatility. “When you taste it, you get a lot of notes of lychee, pear and tropical fruit, and there’s some citrus in there,” Henderson said. “Because it’s got that depth and variety of flavors it has the ability to bring out whatever flavors it’s mixed with. For example, if you make a cocktail that’s got pear in it, St-Germain has this ability to bring out more pear. If you make a cocktail with kiwi in it, it has this weird ability to bring out more of that kiwi flavor.”
Global domination on the horizon
The wild popularity of St-Germain among cocktail devotees on both sides of the bar led liquor giant Bacardi to buy the brand from Cooper Spirits earlier this year, with the intention of turning it into an international brand “icon” à la Grey Goose vodka, purchased by Bacardi in 2004.
Although Cooper continues to work with Bacardi as St-Germain’s “brand guardian,” I can’t help wondering if global domination will mean a compromise in the liqueur’s artisan production process.
“I have been working diligently for the past three or four years on growing our capacity,” Cooper told me. “So long as we can procure the flowers in sufficient quantities, we can make more St-Germain.”
This spicy-sweet cocktail was created by Mike Henderson of Root Down, in Denver.
1¼ ounces vodka
1¼ ounces St-Germain
¾ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce grapefruit juice
½ ounce jalapeño-infused simple syrup*
2 basil leaves
Combine all ingredients except basil in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously for 10 seconds.
Strain liquid into a lowball glass and garnish with basil leaves.
*To make jalapeño-infused simple syrup, add 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of water and a fresh jalapeño (cut in half with seeds removed) to a small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves. Let syrup cool and remove pepper before using. Will keep in the refrigerator up to four weeks.
Top photo: Elderflowers bloom in the French Alps for only four to six weeks each spring. Credit: Cooper Spirits International
When warm weather finally arrives after a wet, chilly winter, I can hardly wait to park myself on the front porch with a glass of wine, especially if it’s a gorgeous pink one. I’m not talking about the sweet swill I drank in college (anyone remember Boone’s Farm Tickle Pink?), but crisp, sophisticated dry rosé wines.
If you’re familiar with the pale pink wines of Southern France, you know about the fresh simplicity of a thirst-quenching rosé. In Northern California, the style is a little more intense in terms of color and flavors. And these days, it’s a bit more serious than in decades past.
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Until recently, nearly all California rosé was made as a sort of byproduct of red wine. Wineries would “bleed off” or siphon some red wine juice from the tank after a short period of contact with the grape skins, which would increase the skin-to-juice ratio of the remaining wine in the tank and give it better color. (Wine gets its color from grape skins, so the more skin contact it gets, the deeper its color will be.) The siphoned pink juice was then used to make rosé. The poetic-sounding name for this process is saignée (pronounced sahn-YAY), the French word for “bleed.”
The challenge with the saignée method is that the grapes used are planted, grown and harvested according to red-wine parameters. Whites are typically harvested earlier in the season than reds, which are left to ripen on the vines for weeks after the whites have been picked and crushed. As the season progresses, the grapes develop a higher sugar content, which can lead to rather intense wines with high levels of alcohol. There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re setting out to make red Pinot Noir or Syrah, but it’s not ideal if you’re aiming for a refreshing rosé.
Many California wineries (and French ones, too) still use the saignée process, but in the last several years, a growing contingent of vintners has begun making rosé on purpose, rather than as a happy bonus of red wine production.
Saignée wines can be very good in the right hands, but the wines that really wow me are made exclusively with rosé in mind, from start to finish. Because the grapes are farmed for rosé, the wines generally require less tinkering in the cellar to achieve the right balance of sugar/alcohol and acidity. They’re priced a bit higher than the siphoned-juice versions — often $15 or more per bottle — but there’s a wonderful payback in balance, freshness and complexity.
Here are four sophisticated pink wines to savor on the front porch, patio or wherever the season takes you.
- Beckmen Vineyards Santa Ynez Valley (California) Grenache Rosé 2011 ($18): This Santa Barbara County winery makes terrific Rhône-style wines, including this delicious pink Grenache. The wine has a beautiful light salmon color, and a soft aroma of red berries. It also has a refreshing brightness, with strawberry and lime flavors and a tangy finish. Try it with a salad topped with avocado and grilled shrimp.
- Bonny Doon Vineyard Central Coast (California) Vin Gris de Cigare 2012 ($16): This rosé from pink-wine champion Randall Grahm is made with a “less is more” approach. It’s a Rhône-style blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Rousanne, Grenache Blanc and Cinsault. Pale salmon pink in color, it has subtle aromas of fresh strawberries and peaches. It’s crisp and elegant, with some unexpected roundness midway through. This would be great with a grilled turkey burger, or seared ahi tuna.
- Clayhouse Wines Paso Robles (California) Adobe Pink 2011 ($14): Middleton Family Wines, a solid Paso Robles player, makes this fresh-and-tasty wine. It has a light pink color tinged with salmon, and aromas of strawberries and vanilla. It’s crisp and tangy, with bright citrus and strawberry flavors, kissed with soft vanilla.
- Korbel Brut Rosé (California) NV ($12.99): Sparklers are fantastic warm-weather wines, and this one, made from Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Gamay and Chenin Blanc, is among my go-to pinks. It has a pale salmon color, lively, small bubbles, and flavors of strawberries and black cherries. It’s more on the medium-dry side, but it’s so fresh-tasting and well balanced that you barely notice the sweetness. I’ve seen this wine at retail for less than $10 per bottle — a crazy-good deal.
Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2012 . Credit: Tina Caputo
It’s been more than 20 years since I moved from a suburb on the east side of Detroit to San Francisco, and there are a few things I miss about my childhood home. When I say “a few” I mean three: my family, warm summer nights and almond boneless chicken.
If you don’t live in Michigan, you’ve probably never heard of the dish we call ABC — at least not the version served in nearly every Chinese restaurant from Detroit to Petoskey. The dish consists of a battered and deep fried chicken breast cut into thick slices, laid on a bed of iceberg lettuce and topped with mild brown gravy, toasted almonds and a sprinkling of green onions.
My first apartment in San Francisco was a 10-minute walk to Chinatown, but, to my great disappointment, my beloved ABC was nowhere to be found in the neighborhood’s Chinese restaurants and take-out joints.
“Do you have almond boneless chicken?” I asked countless restaurant servers.
“Yes, we have it.” They’d answer.
But when the dish arrived, it was always stir-fried instead of deep-fried. And where was the iceberg lettuce?
After years of disappointment, I finally came to accept that ABC was “a Michigan thing.”
But how did it get there? And why don’t we have it in California?
Tracing a dish’s history
I began searching for clues online and came across a 2010 article on the Detroit Free Press website. They’d asked readers to name the foods that define Detroit, and almond boneless chicken was the dish that came up over and over again.
Marshall Chin, owner of a Chinese fusion restaurant in the Detroit suburbs, theorized that ABC was one of the dishes that originated in the old chop suey houses in big cities where Chinese immigrants settled, including San Francisco.
Another Detroit-area restaurant owner, Raymond Wong, took Chin’s idea a step further. “I know it started in the San Francisco area, but in Detroit it became so popular that all Chinese restaurants had it,” he told the Free Press.
Could it really be true that ABC started out in San Francisco? I had my doubts, so I reached out to Andrew Coe, author of the book “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.”
Coe had never heard of ABC, or its alias War Su Gai, but my search for its history piqued his interest.
“Although their origins are in China, specifically around Toishan in Guangdong province, dishes like chop suey and chow mein developed specific regional variations as they spread through the U.S.,” he told me. “There’s a Minneapolis-style chow mein, for example, and a Rhode Island specialty called a chow mein sandwich. I have a feeling the same is true for almond chicken.”
I sent Coe a link to an ABC recipe published on a home cooks’ website, and he did some further digging. He discovered a similar recipe in one of the first Chinese cookbooks published in the United States, “The Chinese Cook Book” by Shiu Wong Chan, released in 1917. The dish was called Hung Yuen Guy Ding, and it was made from boneless chicken, almonds, water chestnuts, onions, mushrooms, celery, oil and stock — the same ingredients in ABC.
“It’s a typically goopy dish that was a specialty of the early Chinese-American restaurants,” he said. “I think that’s the root of your dish, but some creative Midwestern cooks have taken that inspiration and totally transformed and Americanized it — deep-frying, iceberg lettuce, gravy.”
Similar adaptations happened in New England with chop suey, he said, which morphed into “American chop suey,” made with elbow macaroni mixed with ground beef and tomato sauce.
Now we were getting somewhere. Did Coe think ABC’s predecessor could have started out in San Francisco and then migrated to Michigan, where it was Midwesternized?
“New York was actually much more an epicenter of Chinese-American food influences than San Francisco,” he said. “During the 19th century, Californians were much more anti-Chinese — violently so — than New Yorkers and refused to eat Chinese food. The American taste for Chinese food was actually first picked up in New York’s Chinatown and then spread all over the country, including to San Francisco.”
So now I had a good idea of where the dish originated, and how it ended up in Michigan. But I still wanted to know why ABC didn’t migrate beyond the state borders.
Chinese-American food captured in a menu collection
Further web surfing led me to a blog post about the Sweet and Sour Initiative, an ongoing project at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., which aims to tell the stories of Chinese people in America through food and restaurants. The collection includes thousands of menus from Chinese restaurants from across the country, spanning four decades. If anyone knew about the regional span of ABC, I figured, it had to be the folks behind the Sweet and Sour project.
“Although we have made an exhaustive search for regional dishes such as the one you are pursuing,” curator Cedric Yeh told me, “[ABC] hasn’t been one that we have run across. But all is not lost.”
Yeh put me in touch with John Eng-Wong, Visiting Scholar in Ethnic Studies at Brown University, who’s been working with Yeh on the Sweet and Sour Initiative. Eng-Wong was kind enough to do some research on my behalf.
“Almond boneless chicken seems to be well known and appreciated in Michigan, but it seems to have a foothold in many other places from Canada to Florida,” he said.
A search of Chinese menus posted online confirmed that ABC is, in fact, a staple in eastern Canada (just across the Detroit River) as well as Ohio. And yes, it’s even occasionally found in Florida. I guess that disqualifies the dish as being a “Michigan thing.”
But in my mind — and the minds of thousands of Michiganders — almond boneless chicken will always taste like Detroit.
A recipe for ABC
To create a truly authentic recipe for Detroit-style almond boneless chicken, I enlisted the help of my friends Susie Mui-Shonk and Sandra Lee, two Michigan ex-pats who really know their ABC. When they were growing up in the Detroit area, their families owned Chinese restaurants in Detroit and the suburb of Livonia.
Thanks to verbal instructions from their family members and a recipe-development session in Susie’s San Francisco kitchen, we succeeded in cooking up a heaping platter of Michigan-Chinese comfort food.
Almond Boneless Chicken
For the chicken:
6 chicken breast halves, butterflied
Salt and pepper to taste
Corn oil for frying, about 2 quarts
For the batter:
1½ cups of water
¼ cup corn oil
¼ cup milk
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup corn starch
1 cup flour
For the gravy:
1½ tablespoons corn oil
1 large celery stalk, diced
⅓ cup canned sliced mushrooms, drained
⅓ cup canned bamboo shoots, drained and roughly chopped
⅓ cup canned water chestnuts, drained
3 cups chicken broth
1½ tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
4 tablespoons corn starch, dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
For the garnish:
⅓ cup sliced or ground almonds, toasted
4 whole green onions, thinly sliced
½ head iceberg lettuce, sliced crosswise
Prepare chicken and batter
1. To butterfly chicken breasts, place each breast on a cutting board smooth side down. Remove tender and save for another use. Turn breast over and with the edge of a knife parallel to the cutting board, slice breast in half widthwise almost to the outer edge. Keep edge intact and open breast along the fold. Breasts should be fairly uniform in thickness to promote even cooking. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together egg, water, oil and milk. Stir in baking soda, baking powder, corn starch and flour until incorporated.
1. Heat oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add celery and stir fry 2-3 minutes.
2. Add mushrooms, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots and stir fry 3-5 minutes.
3. Add chicken broth, soy sauce, oyster sauce, salt and sugar. Bring to a medium boil, cook about 7 minutes and stir in cornstarch-water mixture. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until sauce is thickened to gravy consistency (about 5 minutes).
4. Keep warm over very low heat.
1. Heat oil in a deep fryer or wok to 350 F.
2. Dip chicken pieces in batter, letting excess batter drip off.
3. Fry breasts, one or two at a time to avoid crowding, until golden brown, 5-7 minutes.
4. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.
5. Using a chef’s knife or cleaver, cut chicken width-wise into slices about ½ inches wide.
Assemble and serve
1. Arrange lettuce on a platter and top with chicken pieces.
2. Spoon gravy on top of chicken.
3. Sprinkle with green onions and almonds.
4. Serve with steamed rice.
Top photo: Almond boneless chicken. Credit: Tina Caputo
In my hometown of Petaluma, Calif., less than 20 miles from the Sonoma Coast, freshly shucked oysters are about as easy to come by as bread and milk. We eat them every way we can: raw on the half shell, barbecued, baked and deep fried.
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As an added selling point, he told me it was made by HenHouse Brewing Co. in Petaluma, an operation so small it doesn’t even qualify as a micro-brewery.
How could I not try it? I took a sip of the richly colored stout and found it to be smooth and creamy, with a subtle chocolate flavor and a refreshingly light body. If I hadn’t been told it was made with oysters, I never would have guessed. And did I mention that it was absolutely delicious?
Oysters and beer have a shared history
I’ve since learned that oyster stout is not exclusive to HenHouse or to Northern California. About a dozen U.S. breweries currently make oyster stout, including Upright Brewing and the Fort George Brewery in Oregon, the 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco, Flying Fish Brewing Co. in New Jersey and Harpoon Brewery in Boston. Each has its own spin on making oyster stout, with some using only the shells or the meat, and others using both.
The concept may sound novel, but oyster stout’s history can be traced as far back as Victorian England.
“It used to be that oysters were an everyman’s food, and stout was the everyman’s drink,” explained Collin McDonnell of HenHouse Brewing Co. “So you’d go to the bar and get a pint of stout and a bowl of oysters.” Eventually, someone came up with the idea of adding oysters to the beer during the brewing process.
To find out how oyster stout is made in modern times, I visited the tiny HenHouse brewing operation, housed in a leased corner of a co-manufacturing facility that makes soap and cosmetic products. The brewery was founded just over a year ago by McDonnell, Shane Goepel and Scott Goyne.
HenHouse brews its stout with the shells, meat and liquor of oysters from nearby Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall, and Drake’s Bay Oyster Co. in Inverness. Using local oysters, McDonnell said, gives the beer its unique personality.
“Northern California is really one of the meccas for oysters,” he said. “That, to us was a real opportunity to put terroir in our beer. You’re not going to get Northern California oyster flavor from Chesapeake Bay oysters or from English oysters. Those oysters will all have their own distinct flavors and characteristics based on the ecosystems that they grow in. So the idea that we could, by putting oysters in our beer, really give it a place in the world was really exciting.”
Balance, local flavors set North Coast oyster beer apart
Even using local oysters, there are batch-to-batch variations. “The oysters don’t always taste the same,” McDonnell said. “Some are a little bit salty, some are sweeter.”
HenHouse uses about 3 pounds of whole oysters and 3 pounds of shells per 31-gallon barrel. The shells go into the vat first, where they’re left to boil for about 30 minutes. The idea, McDonnell said, is to beat up the shells and get the mineral character out of them. “The shells are very high in calcium carbonate, and that gives the beer a really refreshing minerality and adds to the texture,” he said.
The whole oysters are bagged and boiled for a shorter period of time, so as not to impart too much oyster flavor. “You get some of the sea breeze and oyster character from the whole oysters,” McDonnell said. “But you’re not trying to make fish beer. You’re trying to make beer that hints at oysters.” Wild-crafted sea salt adds a touch of salinity that helps the stout pair well with food.
“The nice thing about the oyster stout, to me, is that it’s so food friendly,” McDonnell noted. “We wanted to make culinary beers, beers that you have with food.”
That fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s culinary mecca in the Napa Valley. Along with a prix fixe menu priced at $270 per person, the Michelin three-star restaurant features the HenHouse oyster stout on its beer list.
That’s quite a step up for a beer that started out as Victorian England’s version of Pabst Blue Ribbon. But even so, oyster stout is still a beer for the everyman.
“One of the things we said from the get-go was, we want to make beer our friends can afford to drink,” McDonnell said. “We’re not into expensive beer, we’re into affordable, local beer. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to make an oyster stout — that ‘everyman’s’ story really appealed to all of us.”
Top photo: HenHouse Brewing Company’s oyster stout. Credit: Tina Caputo
Like most wine writers, I’ve toured dozens of wineries, and seen the insides of more fermentation cellars than I care to recall. Vintners just love to show off their shiny stainless steel tanks, despite the fact that theirs look exactly like the ones at every other winery on the planet.
“You mean you have tanks?” they imagine us asking. “Well don’t just stand there, man, show them to me!”
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Just when I thought I’d seen every variation of fermentation tank known to winemaking, I came across something truly different: the concrete egg. Made of the same material as the average driveway and shaped like a giant chicken egg, the concrete egg began appearing in the cellars of West Coast wineries in 2003, and it seems to be hatching a legitimate winemaking trend.
Because concrete is porous, the tanks are said to be “breathable,” like barrels, but without adding any oak character to the wine. The egg shape plays a role, too, by helping to create a natural stirring effect during fermentation. And, some say, by channeling the celestial energy of the universe.
A concrete history
While egg-shaped tanks are a new invention, concrete tanks have been used in winemaking for centuries. Giant rectangular concrete vats were commonly used by large California wineries until a couple decades ago, when they fell out of fashion in favor of stainless steel.
But concrete vats continued to be used by wineries in Europe, including some of the great chateaux of Burgundy and Bordeaux. This caught the attention of Charles Thomas in the early 2000s, when he was the winemaker at Rudd Oakville Estate in the Napa Valley.
Thinking there must be something to this concrete thing, Thomas, now the head of winemaking at Quintessa in Napa Valley, went to see Marc Nomblot, whose family makes concrete wine vats in Burgundy. Nomblot told him that the egg-shaped tank was originally designed for French winemaker Michel Chapoutier, who, as a follower of the sometimes-mystical biodynamic approach to agriculture, believed there was special power in the egg shape.
“An upright egg is supposed to concentrate the energy vortex of the celestial energy,” Thomas said. “But it had already turned my head before Marc told me anything about the biodynamic philosophy.”
Thomas brought two eggs back to California in 2003. “These were probably the first new concrete tanks in Napa Valley in at least 40 years,” he said.
And so began a trend.
Physics or magic of egg-shaped tanks?
Once Thomas was able to test-drive his eggs, he discovered some unexpected benefits.
“My rationalization was that maybe I’d get the richness of a barrel fermentation without the oak character, and I did,” he said. “But what I didn’t count on was a greater level of complexity beyond what you would have seen in a stainless steel vessel.”
When Thomas moved to Quintessa in 2008, he began using concrete eggs for the winery’s Illumination Sauvignon Blanc. Now the winery has 13 of them.
“Stainless steel has a brightness and a purity of aroma and fruit,” he said. “Concrete also has purity of fruit, but with more complexity aromatically. In the mouthfeel, stainless steel is a bit leaner and tighter, and the concrete is going to have a little bit rounder, richer mouthfeel in the wine.”
Although some claim that the convection from fermentation inside the egg creates a vortex that continually mixes the lees, leading to better mouthfeel in the wine, Thomas isn’t completely convinced. “There are a lot of ‘true believers’ out there that go further with this than I would in terms of claims,” he said.
Anna Matzinger, winemaker at Archery Summit in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, takes a more lighthearted attitude toward the alleged powers of the concrete egg. She has used one to make Archery Summit’s Ab Ovo (“from the egg,” in Latin) Pinot Gris since 2008.
“What the egg offers is this really interesting textural depth, and then you still get the precision of what you might get in stainless steel fermentation,” Matzinger said.
And a little magic can’t hurt, either.
“Those who follow biodynamics think (the vortex theory) is a terrific idea,” she said, “because a vortex is connecting the energies of the cosmos to the energies of the earth.”
Does she actually believe that stuff about the cosmos?
“Any time you can talk about the universe conspiring to help you do something better, why not just go with it?” she said. “I say that in jest a little bit, but I also think it’s kind of interesting. If you stood over any stainless steel tank of white wine fermenting, it’s kind of moving around in a circle. Whether it’s doing that differently in the egg because of the rounded bottom, and if it’s more connected with the cosmos because of that, I’m not quite sure. But I still think there’s something magical about the egg.”
Although concrete eggs are used primarily for white wines, they can also be used for reds.
Viader Vineyards & Winery in Napa Valley has used concrete eggs for a variety of wines since 2004. “I find it ideal for our Petit Verdot,” director of operations Alan Viader said. The egg-fermented wine is part of the blend for Viader’s V, which sells for $150 per bottle.
The egg contributes to the mouthfeel and weight of the wine, Viader said, while preserving fruit character and delicate aromatics. “Wines are usually better quality than the exact same lot of wine fermented in our square concrete tanks,” he said. “If I had the space I’d love to have dozens of eggs in all different sizes.”
At nearly double the price of an equivalent-capacity stainless steel tank, that could get expensive. But even so, interest in the eggs continues to grow, according to Steve Rosenblatt of Sonoma Cast Stone in Northern California.
“We began by selling exactly a dozen eggs the first year,” said Rosenblatt, whose company began producing them in 2010. Last year, he sold more than double that number.
Although that doesn’t exactly constitute widespread adoption, Rosenblatt predicts that more wineries will try the eggs as word gets around. “With any trend there are always the leaders and the followers.”
And the leaders tend to give much more interesting cellar tours.
Eggs in a row. Credit: Sonoma Cast Stone
Contrary to what we see depicted on television, Americans’ holiday food traditions aren’t always, well, traditional. As a first-generation Italian-American, I grew up thinking that everyone ate lasagna along with their Thanksgiving turkey and passed around a giant bowl of whole fruit and fennel before dessert.
In my husband’s half-Mexican family, it wouldn’t be Christmas dinner without tamales. This took some getting used to when we first began spending holidays with his parents in Texas. Tamales? What kind of food is that to serve on Christmas Day?
It didn’t take me long to get over that attitude. I mean, have you ever tasted homemade tamales? Just the thought of those corn-husk-wrapped parcels of masa and slow-cooked, chili-spiced meat sets my mouth to watering.
I soon began craving Christmas tamales even in years when we weren’t visiting Texas. To get my fix I invited friends, Mexican and otherwise, to join in tamale-making assembly lines at our house, or latched onto their families’ holiday tamale-fests. If I couldn’t find the time and extra hands to make them myself (the process is hugely labor-intensive, even if you have helpers) I could always buy some from the neighborhood tamale ladies who set up shop in the church courtyard after Spanish mass.
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As the 2012 Christmas holiday draws near, I can’t help thinking about the less fortunate. Delicious homemade tamales are easy enough to come by here in Northern California, where there’s a large Hispanic population, but what do people do in, say, suburban Michigan, when Dec. 25 rolls around?
There among the holiday PR pitches cluttering up my email in-box was the answer: mail-order tamales. Yes, tamalistas in Texas are standing by, ready to ship their corn-husked parcels to tamale-deprived people across the country.
That raised yet another question: Are they any good?
Based in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, the Texas Tamale Warehouse has been in business for more than 20 years. The Houston-based Texas Tamale Company began in the 1980s as a home-based operation making lard- and gluten-free tamales, then grew into a street cart and eventually, a restaurant and retailer.
Although these companies offer a dizzying variety of tamales, from sweet potato to filet mignon, I based my assessments on the traditional chicken, beef and pork varieties — my personal benchmarks of tamale goodness.
Tamales from both companies arrived frozen (or semi-frozen), sealed in plastic and packed in Styrofoam coolers. But that’s pretty much where the visual similarities ended. The tamales from the Texas Tamale Warehouse (TTW) were plump and moist inside their vacuum-sealed bags, while the ones from the Texas Tamale Company (TTC) were skinnier — around the circumference of a roll of quarters – and their husks were almost dry. This made me wonder whether the meat inside the TTC husks would be equally devoid of moisture.
I followed the cooking instructions and steamed the tamales, standing them upright in the pot so the fillings wouldn’t leak out, for about 15 minutes. By the time they were hot and steamy, the formerly dry-husked TTC tamales more closely resembled the TTW tamales.
Texas Tamale Company
TTC sent me two varieties of tamale: chicken and beef. The beef filling was well-seasoned, with mild, smoky spice and a nice beefy flavor. The chicken filling was closer to finely ground than shredded, but it had a mild spiciness that was very appealing. It was even tastier with a little tomatillo salsa added.
Texas Tamale Warehouse
I sampled pork and chicken tamales from TTW, in both traditional and habañero versions. These tamales looked more appetizing than the TTC versions, with a thicker layer of the corn-based masa dough surrounding the fillings. The meat inside had a better texture, with larger, more discernible pieces. The standard pork and chicken tamales were mildly spiced, with good seasoning and texture. The habañero versions kicked up the spice, with a medium heat level on the chicken that added a layer of complexity to its flavor. The habañero pork version began at a medium spice level, and turned up the heat with each bite to reach a sweat-inducing crescendo.
Filling the void
While I knew it wasn’t quite fair, I couldn’t help comparing the mail-order tamales with homemade, and not surprisingly, they didn’t measure up. Although the flavor was very good on the varieties I tasted, I would have liked to see bigger pieces of shredded meat, and more flavorful masa (lard just might be the secret ingredient when it comes to tamales).
Would I order them here in California, where homemade tamales are almost literally a dime a dozen? Nope. But if I lived in Iowa or North Dakota and had a major hankering for Christmas tamales, I wouldn’t hesitate. After all, good-but-not-great tamales are still better than none.
A holiday assortment from the Texas Tamale Warehouse, including five dozen tamales, costs $59.95, plus around $20 for ground shipping. Christmas orders must be received by noon CST on Dec. 18 for ground shipping, or noon on Dec. 20 for air-shipping.
A four-dozen tamale sampler from the Texas Tamale Company costs $74.80, which includes two-day air shipping. Order by Dec. 19 to receive the tamales in time for Christmas.
Top photo: Tamales steaming. Credit: Tina Caputo