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Let’s say you bought some Cabernet Sauvignon vines from a local nursery to plant a vineyard. You decided on Cabernet because you determined that this particular grape variety would be best for your location because of its soil type, sun exposure and climate. But then a worrisome thought enters your head: What if the vines aren’t Cabernet Sauvignon after all, but some other less-suited variety? What if the nursery somehow got them mixed up with Sauvignon Blanc vines? That would be a mighty costly mistake.
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You could pray, sweat and grind your teeth until the first grape clusters appear, and then wait some more until they change color and mature enough for you to figure out the vines’ true identity. Or, you could call an ampelographer.
Ampelography is a type of grapevine botany that uses the physical traits of grape leaves to identify varieties. Grape leaves vary quite a bit between varieties, so a skilled ampelographer can easily distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc.
In the world of ampelography, it would be hard to find a more renowned practitioner than Virginia-based vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, who travels around the country lending her expertise to grape growers and vintners.
Among Morton’s clients is one of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc producers, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, which flew her out to the Napa Valley earlier this month to teach an ampelography class. I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop, and learn some tips from a master.
Before taking us into the vineyard, Morton explained the background and basics of vine identification. Lesson number one: “Looking at clusters is cheating.”
In the early days of the California wine industry, American vintners often brought back vine cuttings from Europe to plant in their vineyards. Sometimes, the varieties were not identified correctly, or were known in their native country by a different name than the one used by the rest of the world.
In the 1970s Morton began to discover that some vines planted in American vineyards were misidentified. For example, she said, in the Finger Lakes region of New York people used to say that the Chardonnay grown there tasted “Germanic,” due to the area’s cold climate. The real reason was because their “Chardonnay” was actually Riesling.
Up until the early 80s, nearly all of the “Pinot Blanc” planted in California was not Pinot Blanc but a French variety called Melon de Bourgogne. An ampelographer — Morton’s teacher, Pierre Galet — set the record straight. “It does not make you popular, pointing out other people’s mistakes,” Morton told the class.
Even so, her skills are in demand, even in the modern world of high-tech viticulture. Although DNA testing can identify varieties, Morton pointed out, it can’t distinguish between clones. Ampelography can. “There’s still practical value in this skill,” she said.
Anatomy of a grape leaf
According to Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include:
Lobes: If you imagine the leaf as a hand, the lobes would be the individual fingers that extend outward. Some leaves have prominent lobes, other leaves are shield-shaped and have none.
Petiolar sinus: This is the empty space surrounding the stem of the leaf. Some sinuses are wide open, others are very narrow.
Teeth: These are the serrations on the outside edge of the leaf. Some are jagged and sharp, others are rounded.
It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves.
In the vineyard
Providing each of us with a list of defining characteristics for several different grape varieties, Morton sent us out into St. Supery’s Dollarhide vineyard and challenged us to bring her back a leaf from each variety. If we got it wrong, we went back to try again.
Identifying the vines was more difficult than I expected. In a given vineyard row, not all of the leaves are identical, even among the same variety. Just when I would think I had a match, I’d notice that one of the distinguishing elements wasn’t quite right: The teeth were rounded instead of triangular or the surface was smooth instead of leathery. Each time I was sent back for another leaf, I came to respect Morton’s skill a little more.
Following are the characteristics of five of California’s most popular grape varieties:
Morton calls this leaf the “monkey face” or the “mask,” because when held with its tip facing up, it looks like it has eye and mouth holes. It has five lobes, rounded teeth and an open (or naked) petiolar sinus.
This is a shield-shaped leaf, with shallow, sawblade-like teeth and an open petiolar sinus. The vine’s young shoots will have red nodes that are distinctive to Chardonnay.
This leaf is longer than it is wide, with five prominent lobes, an open petiolar sinus and deep triangular teeth. It’s yellowish in color, with a waffled, leathery texture.
This five-lobed leaf is green in color, with a wavy texture. It has a narrow, almost-closed petiolar sinus, a round shape and rounded teeth. The lobes have three prominent troughs that resemble spouts from a fountain.
This leaf is a heart-shaped shield, with a relatively narrow petiolar sinus and shallow pointy teeth. It has a puffy, quilted look and a thick, leathery texture.
Main photo: In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Tina Caputo
Portugal is famous for producing two styles of wine that couldn’t be more different: Port and Vinho Verde. Port is known as a wine for winter — rich and warming, perfect for fireside sipping. Vinho Verde is the yin to Port’s yang — light, fresh and (typically) white. Vinho Verde is a wine for spring.
With a name that translates to “green wine,” in reference to its youth and freshness, Vinho Verde comes from the rainy region of the same name in the northwest corner of Portugal. While reds and rosés are also made there, Vinho Verde wines are primarily white. Known for their crispness, acidity and light effervescence, the wines are naturally low in alcohol and usually priced under $10.
The new Vinho Verde
While those cheap-and-cheerful wines are still plentiful, a new style of Vinho Verde wines is emerging alongside them. Like their traditional cousins, these wines are crisp and refreshing, yet they’re drier, riper and more mature in character. Their alcohol levels are low compared to many other whites, but at 12%, they’re a bit higher than the traditional 8% or 9% for Vinho Verde. Prices also have gone up, from about $7 a bottle to a still-affordable range of $11 to $20.
Another notable change is that producers are starting to showcase single-grape varieties such as Alvarinho, Loureiro and Trajadura, which were traditionally blended together.
This new approach is the result of a campaign by the region’s viticulture commission to encourage growers to plant in new locations, and improve their farming practices. Instead of using the old pergola trellis systems, growers are wire-training the vines on more modern systems. Rather than planting on the valley floors, they’re planting on slopes. The result has been a remarkable increase in the quality and complexity of the wines.
Wines for spring dishes
The great thing about the new-wave Vinho Verde wines is that they’re still wonderful for spring sipping. Not laden down with heavy oak, the wines pair beautifully with warm-weather dishes, including salads, shellfish and grilled fish. In Portugal, where fabulous fresh seafood is plentiful, Vinho Verde is often served with grilled sardines, arroz de marisco (seafood rice) and clams cooked in a cataplana.
Here are four delicious Vinho Verde wines to help you ring in spring:
Quinta de Gomariz Loureiro 2014 ($13): Made from the Loureiro grape, this wine has a spicy, floral aroma. It has fresh citrus notes on the palate, accented with spice and a bit of orange peel flavor on the finish.
Vercoope Via Latina Loureiro 2014 ($18): This wine has lovely aromas of green apples and citrus, with light floral notes. It’s fresh and crisp, with citrus and green apple flavors, and just a bit of tropical fruit. It’s nicely balanced, with bright acidity.
Aromas das Castas
Aromas Das Castas Alvarinho-Trajadura 2014 ($12): With a fresh, peachy aroma, this wine is slightly spritzy, with tangy citrus and peach flavors. It has a nice long finish, with a note of lemon zest.
Casa de Vilacetinho
Casa de Vilacetinho 2013 ($11): A blend of Avesso, Arinto, Azal and Loureiro grapes, this wine has citrus and tropical fruit aromas. It’s off-dry and a little bit fizzy, with stone fruit and citrus flavors.
Main photo: A new style of Vinho Verde wines is emerging, and it’s perfect for springtime sipping. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo
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Corned beef and cabbage. Irish stew. Soda bread. These are the foods Americans associate with Irish cooking, especially on St Patrick’s Day. But while these dishes are certainly old favorites, they have little to do with modern Irish cooking.
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According to Nuala Cullen, culinary historian and author of the new cookbook “The Best of Irish Country Cooking,” contemporary Irish cuisine is both a rediscovery of the country’s rich culinary heritage and a reflection of its international influences.
“Food was generally simple and used seasonal homegrown produce,” said the Dublin-based writer of her childhood in post-World War II Ireland. “Even in urban areas, many families grew potatoes and salad vegetables. Soups and homemade bread were common, and there was no such thing as preprepared food.”
Today the approach is much the same, but with a creative twist.
“The ‘new style’ of Irish cooking incorporates a lot of outside influences, such as Asian and Thai, as well as all sorts of ingredients from continental Europe,” Cullen said. “It is a merging of these ingredients with a pride in fresh, quality Irish products to produce something fresh and exciting.”
Visitors to Ireland these days are often surprised to discover that there’s more to eat than corned beef and potatoes. “Many tourists expect lots of ham, cabbage, potatoes and fried food,” Cullen said. Instead, they find wonderful Irish cheeses, butter, fresh seafood, meats and vegetables.
Forget the green beer
While no particular dish is traditional for St. Patrick’s Day, a roast dinner around the family table is the typical format.
“For many years pubs and bars were closed on the day, so celebrating was done in the home,” Cullen said. “Most families will have their favorite Sunday dinner. The appetizer can be a warming soup or smoked salmon. The entrée is often roast chicken, beef, turkey or salmon, usually served with roast or mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.”
And no, Cullen confirmed, they do not wash it all down with green beer.
Although Cullen’s cookbook does include traditional favorites such as corned beef and Irish stew, most of its recipes showcase Ireland’s fresh seafood, meats and produce.
Baked salmon encrusted with herbs; crab soup with saffron; mussels with bacon and red wine; and ham wrapped in pastry are just some of the unexpected dishes featured in “The Best of Irish County Cooking.”
And if you still feel the need to consume something green on St. Patrick’s Day, there’s always Cullen’s brightly hued “spring green soup,” or cream-simmered peas with little gem lettuces.
Baked Salmon Encrusted With Herbs
For maximum effect and not too much effort, this baked salmon has it all. Ask your fishmonger to split your fish lengthwise into two long fillets. A 3-pound fish will be enough for six with side dishes. From “The Best of Irish County Cooking” (Interlink Publishing, March 2015)
Yield: 6 to 7 servings
1-inch cube of fresh ginger
6 canned anchovies, drained
8 tablespoons butter, divided
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped scallions
Grated zest of 1 lemon
3 to 5 pounds salmon, filleted
¾ cup bread crumbs made from day-old bread
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the sauce
3 egg yolks
1 ¼ cups cream
5 to 6 sorrel leaves, ribs removed, leaves chopped
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro or parsley
1. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Mash the ginger to a paste with the anchovies, 5 tablespoons of the butter, the parsley, scallions, and grated zest of half the lemon. Butter a sheet of parchment paper that will fit the salmon and use it to line a large baking sheet. Lay one salmon fillet on the paper, skin-side down, and spread with half the herb butter. Lay the other fillet on top, skin-side up, reversing the wide end over the narrow end of the bottom fillet. Spread the remaining herb butter on top. Cover the salmon with the bread crumbs, patting them down lightly, season well, and dot with the remaining butter.
2. Bake for 12 minutes per 1 pound of fish for smaller fish, but a 6- to 7-pound fish will not require more than an hour.
3. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Season the egg yolks with salt and pepper and beat them together. Bring the cream to a boil with the sorrel leaves and lemon zest and cook to reduce for a few moments. Cool slightly, then pour the cream mixture slowly into the yolks, stirring all the time. Return to the saucepan and over a low heat, cook, stirring continuously without allowing it to boil, until the sauce thickens slightly.
4. When the fish is cooked, use the parchment paper to lift the fish onto a heated serving dish and strain the buttery fish juices into the sauce. Add the cilantro or parsley and serve.
Note: If the sauce shows signs of becoming lumpy, scrape immediately into a blender and purée for a few seconds.
Main photo: Nuala Cullen’s herb-encrusted salmon is a show stopper for St. Patrick’s Day, or any other day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group Inc.
The slogan “Fish Fry Fridays” is a familiar one to Catholics this time of year. On Fridays during Lent, which falls from Feb. 18 to April 4 in 2015, meat is strictly off limits.
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This practice stems from the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday: Because he sacrificed his flesh for the sake of mankind on that day, Catholics (and members of other Christian denominations) are asked to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. The period of sacrifice ends on Easter Sunday, usually with the devouring of a large ham.
While the Lenten season may sound a bit somber, churches have found a way to turn meatless Fridays into community celebrations. They’re called fish fries, and for decades, these events have brought people together in church basements and event rooms, where they enjoy heaping plates of fried fish, French fries and coleslaw.
Friday fish fries are occasionally held on the West Coast and in other U.S. regions, but they’re ubiquitous in the Midwest. When I was a kid in Michigan, my dad brought home take-out fish fry dinners from our church nearly every Friday during Lent. It was something my sister and I looked forward to each year with gluttonous relish (so much for sacrifice). But when I raise the topic with Californian friends who grew up Catholic, I’m met with blank stares. Or undisguised envy.
The epicenter of the Midwest’s fish fry tradition, I’ve come to learn, is St. Louis, Missouri. Fish fries abound in that city, so much so that a local man was inspired to create a website called FridayNightFish.com, devoted to reviewing Lenten fish fries.
The site is run by Stephen Ibendahl (a.k.a. Fish Fry Guy), owner of a St. Louis-area consulting firm that specializes in community and urban planning. Each Friday during Lent, Ibendahl heads out with his family to sample and review a fish fry. After the season ends, he names a Best Fish Fry winner for the year, along with a Fan Favorite.
According to Ibendahl, who has attended at least 50 different fish fries over the years, St. Louis is a fish fry hub because the city’s residents have a strong spirit of community. “It gives parishes and churches a chance to come together,” he said, pointing out that most of the events are run by volunteers. “You’ll see everyone involved in a parish fish fry, from the men frying the fish to teenagers clearing tables.”
What makes a great fish fry? “You have to have great fried cod,” Ibendahl said. “That’s essential.” Tasty sides are a plus, he added, along with special touches such as “real plates” or live music.
Ibendahl’s Best Fish Fry winner for years running is St. Pius V Catholic Church in St. Louis, which hosts its annual “Fabulous Fish Fry” every Friday during Lent. The fry not only features two kinds of fried fish, but homemade sides and desserts, live music and beer. For each weekly fish fry, volunteers prepare meals for about 700 people, including take-out orders. An adult meal costs only $8.
“We prepare fried cod loins, huge fillets of fried catfish and baked cod,” said St. Pius V parishioner Kathy Donahue, who estimates a typical weekly fish order at 350 pounds. “We hand-bread both the cod loins and catfish, and the catfish is breaded with a special mix of regular and Cajun breading to give it a little kick.”
The fish is served with homemade tartar and cocktail sauces, and fresh lemon slices.
To go along with the fish, volunteers make about 100 pounds of potato salad and 40 to 50 pounds of coleslaw each week. There are also “tons” of macaroni and cheese, applesauce and a variety of scratch-made desserts. Dinners are served on real china, not paper plates.
And that’s not all. “A popular draw is our live band Clan Jameson — all parishioners who play Irish music,” Donahue said. “Plus we have a wide assortment of craft and regular beer served by ‘The Precious Bar Maids,’ who are really the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. We also have our very own Frying Nun, a sister of the Precious Blood, who fries our catfish.”
This extravaganza is a far cry from the simple fish fries of my childhood, which featured only fried cod, fries and coleslaw. But that’s the fun of the fish fry — no two are exactly the same.
“When you travel around to different fish fries,” Ibendahl said, “each one is a little different.”
To find a fish fry near you, check out these regional “Fish Fry Finders”:
Main photo: A Friday night fish fry typically includes fried cod, french fries and coleslaw. Credit: Tina Caputo
As a food writer and obsessive home cook, I own an array of kitchen tools and gadgets that, in the eyes of some people, may qualify me as a hoarder. I have devices created specifically for removing the pits from mangoes, picking up and serving stalks of asparagus — only asparagus! — and stamping out perfect ravioli one at a time.
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I scored my most recent acquisitions as part of my quest to make authentic Detroit-style pizza in my California kitchen. These items included a specialized square pan, a plastic lid to cover the pan while the dough is proofing, two pizza stones (you need two to simulate the deck ovens used by Detroit pizza cooks) and a cutter designed for square pizzas. My husband said I was insane.
Although his comment seemed a bit unfair — I didn’t hear him complaining of my madness while he was inhaling the delicious pizza I created with my new tools — it did get me thinking. How much of this stuff do I really need? If our kitchen was on fire and I could rescue only a few items, which ones would they be? I ended up with seven, in no particular order:
Microplane grater/zester. Why did it take so long for someone to invent a tool that can make quick work of a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, zest an orange in minutes flat and easily transform a hunk of ginger into a finely grated mound, all without grating your knuckles in the process? $10 well spent!
Chef’s knife. I have a block full of knives of different sizes, weights and serrations, but the one I almost always reach for is a classic chef’s knife. When I bought it, it pained me to have to fork over $100 for a single knife, but it’s proved itself worthy of the investment in its usefulness and longevity. Here’s my justification: I use my chef’s knife at least three times a week, and I’ve had it for eight years. That means I’ve used it 1,248 times, at a per-use price of only 8 cents. A bargain!
Immersion/stick blender. Before this small appliance came into my life, I wasted untold hours ladling tomato sauce and soups into a blender, in several batches, just to puree them into the desired smoothness. Now I just stick this clever device straight into the pot and blend soups and sauces into submission — no time wasted, no messy clean-up. Blender, who?
Stand mixer. When I was in my 20s my mom gave me a KitchenAid stand mixer for Christmas. As a single girl with no roommates, I wondered what I would do with such a grown-up appliance. As it turned out I found plenty of things to do with it, from whipping up mom’s recipe for buttercream frosting to rolling out and cutting fresh pasta dough (using the mixer’s pasta-making attachment) to mixing up Detroit-style pizza dough.
Pressure cooker. I own both a pressure cooker and a slow cooker/crock pot, and I’d let the crock pot burn in my theoretical kitchen fire every time. Although it may sound effortless to throw a few ingredients into a crock pot, plug it in and have a succulent dinner waiting six hours later, the reality is far more labor intensive. Before those ingredients go into the pot there are vegetables to chop and meat to brown, and there is no way I’m doing all that at 6 a.m. before work. Using a pressure cooker, a beef stew that would have taken all day to simmer in a crock pot is ready (and equally delicious) in less than an hour.
Enameled cast iron Dutch oven. There is a time and place for taking it slow, and this pot is the ideal vessel for doing just that. Cast iron has excellent heat distribution and retention, which makes it better than stainless steel for cooking long-simmering soups and marinara sauces. I wouldn’t cook my spaghetti sauce in anything else. As a bonus, the enamel coating means there’s no need to season the pot, and it’s super easy to clean.
Kitchen calculator. Want to cut a recipe down by half or a third, but don’t know how many tablespoons are in 1/8 cup? Need to quickly convert tablespoons to teaspoons or liquid cups to dry cups? Presto! This little calculator does it all. Sure, there’s probably an app for that, but I’d rather spill chicken broth on a sturdy $30 gadget than a $600 tablet.
Sadly, my new pizza slicer didn’t make the cut.
Main photo: The author would rescue these well-loved kitchen tools in a fire. Credit: Tina Caputo
There’s something about drinking cocktails on New Year’s Eve that makes the occasion feel extra festive. But on New Year’s Day, there’s often something about those very same cocktails that feels like a big mistake. One way to avoid starting off the New Year with a blistering hangover is to steer clear of the offending drinks altogether. Another, some say, is to make healthier cocktails, using kombucha as a mixer.
Dating back more than 2,000 years, kombucha is a fermented beverage made by adding a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast to sweetened tea. The resulting drink has a slight effervescence, and a pleasant sweet-tart flavor, but that’s not the main reason people drink it. Because it’s rich in probiotics (“good” bacteria), unpasteurized kombucha is used as a digestive aid that can offer protection from harmful bacteria and boost the immune system.
It also makes a delicious cocktail.
“Kombucha is really complex and interesting, more flavorful than soda, and drier,” said Jasmine Dravis, co-owner of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar in Petaluma, California.
It also has less sugar than soda and juices, which, along with kombucha’s gut-health benefits, may help prevent morning-after suffering.
“That’s the thing when people drink traditional alcoholic cocktails,” Dravis said. “Most of the hangover is the result of a battle between the alcohol and the sugar. With sugary cocktails, you’re going to be very out of balance the next morning.”
When Dravis and her husband Joseph, a kombucha brewer, opened Native Kitchen in October, they created a list of sophisticated kombucha cocktails that are not only a pleasure to drink, but potentially healthful.
“We thought, if we came up with a low-sugar way to mix our cocktails with kombucha, which supports your gut health, we’d be bringing some balance to the table,” Dravis said.
“OK, you’re still drinking alcohol, but you’re not going to feel the harsh effects that you normally would,” she continued. “The perfect example is our Ginger Mule. We use fresh ginger and kombucha and some vodka, and I can tell you that when I drink it I feel much better than if I had just consumed a high-sugar cocktail with ginger beer and vodka.”
The bar also serves a kombucha mimosa, which replaces half of the orange juice with fermented tea.
“I can tell you from firsthand experience that when I drink regular mimosas I can get a headache, or I feel low after drinking them,” Dravis said. “There’s definitely going to be a more sustained, balanced feeling when you drink a kombucha mimosa because you don’t get the sugar crash.”
Dravis isn’t the only one who believes kombucha can help prevent hangovers. Eric Childs, founder of Kombucha Brooklyn, claims that drinking kombucha between alcoholic drinks results in “reverse toxmosis,” and that drinking it the morning after can cure a hangover thanks to kombucha’s detoxifying properties.
For those who are already suffering from a hangover, Native Kitchen offers kombucha on draft, along with kombucha elixirs such as the Pommy, a mixture of pomegranate juice, kombucha, local honey, lime juice and bee pollen.
The key to alleviating a hangover, Dravis said, is to reduce acidity in the body, and kombucha can help with that. “When you’re hung over your body is in a state of complete acidity from the excess sugar and the alcohol, so you’re going to want a quick boost of alkalinity,” she said.
Although there’s no solid scientific proof of these claims, they seem to make a fair amount of sense. And when kombucha cocktails are as delicious as Native Kitchen’s, lining up volunteers for further “research” shouldn’t be a problem.
The Ginger Mule
2 ounces vodka
1 ounce honey
Juice of 1/2 lime
3 ounces kombucha
1 ounce ginger juice*
*If you don’t have a juicer, you can use a ginger-flavored kombucha, or muddle a small piece of ginger in the shaker.
1. Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until mixed.
2. Serve over ice in a copper mug or double old fashioned glass, garnished with a lime wheel.
3 ounces pomegranate juice
1 ounce lime juice
1 teaspoon local honey
6 ounces kombucha (any flavor)
Small pinch of bee pollen (available in health food stores)
1. Add all ingredients except the pollen to a shaker with ice and shake until mixed.
2. Strain into a flute glass and sprinkle bee pollen on top.
Main photo: Jasmine Dravis of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar shows off a kombucha cocktail. Credit: Tina Caputo