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Moon cakes

The harvest moon is a time of great celebration in China. Referred to in English as both the Moon Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival, this holiday is held during the eighth full moon of the lunar year (Sept. 30 in 2012). And, as with summer’s Dragon Boat Festival and spring’s Chinese New Year, traditional foods are an important part of this major Chinese celebration.

When that huge white orb rises in the east at the end of this month, Chinese will do as they have done for millennia: gaze at the moon, nibble on the filled pastries known as moon cakes, and tell their children stories about the lady Chang’e and the jade rabbit who live up there.

Both of these tales have to do with the search for immortality. The husband of Chang’e obtained an elixir of immortality from the Queen of the Western Heavens. Before he could take it, though, Chang’e discovered the concoction, quickly swallowed when she heard her ill-tempered husband returning home, and floated up to the moon, where her face can still be seen — what we in the West call the Man in the Moon. If you rotate that image 90 degrees to the left (counterclockwise), you should also be able to make out the Jade Rabbit pounding up more elixir in a mortar.

Apollo 11′s Man on the Moon and a ‘Bunny Girl’

These two legends eventually crossed the Pacific to become part of American history: According to the Apollo 11 moon landing transcript in July 1969, Houston told astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin that “among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch out for a lovely girl with a big rabbit,” and the myth was then described to him. Aldrin replied, “OK. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.”

After she fled to the moon, Chang’e came to be worshiped in China as Taiyin niangniang, or the Moon Goddess. Traditional households used to offer moon cakes to her on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, as well as such seasonal presents as sprays of cockscomb flowers, soybean pods with their tendrils attached and muskmelons. This was a completely female ceremony, but as the sun went down, everyone in the village would walk outside with round paper lamps as reflections of the moon’s benevolent light, sharing the round cakes that mirror the shape of the moon, and celebrating the harvest season with a sweet treat.

Moon cakes: Recipes vary with region

Every region of China has its own version of moon cakes. In Beijing and the rest of the north, the pastry tends to be white, with a feathery exterior so flaky that this version is known as fanmao, or ruffled fur. In the areas around the Yangtze River near Shanghai, people make moon cakes of puff pastry, while in southern areas around Guangdong and even farther west, bakers prefer to use a cookie dough scented with caramel. This last version is the one we generally see in Chinese grocery stores.

The fillings, too, reflect the culinary styles of the region. Some are made with bean paste, others with Chinese dates or coconut, and still others with a crunchy mixture of nuts and dried fruits, as in the recipe in Part 2 of this series. Some even have a whole salted egg yolk wrapped up in sweet bean paste, which provides a lovely savory and buttery texture to each bite.

Top photo: Fruit- and nut-filled moon cakes. Credit: Carolyn Phillips

Coming on Sept. 26, Part 2: An updated recipe for fresh and delicious homemade moon cakes. For a sneak preview, see slide show below.

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Chinese pastry molds. Credit: Carolyn Phillips


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It was that time of the week. The servant had swept and mopped the floors around the house and then headed for the bathroom where she soaked the soiled clothes in a red bucket filled with soapy water. Then she grabbed the baseball bat-like stick and thrashed the fabrics with a rhythmic beat. Soon they made their way into a white plastic bucket filled with clean water for rinsing. Each piece of clothing was twisted dry, except for the cotton saris that lay, beaten clean, in a twisted pile on the bathroom’s white-tiled floor.

Meanwhile my mother, Amma, was in the kitchen heating up a large, stainless steel pot of water on a kerosene-fueled stove. She threw in a bowl of long-grain rice from a newer crop sold by the rice vendor who came to our door once a week with a large gunnysack trailing heavily over her left shoulder. The fresher the crop, the starchier the rice, I later found out, and this was important for my mother’s impending chore.

The water came to a second boil and the rice kernels rose to the top with each rising bubble, puffing up with heated pride. The cooked grains clouded the water sticky-white. With a slotted spoon, Amma scooped out a few grains, squishing one between her thumb and forefinger to test its doneness. Pleased to see it give in with no residual hardness, she placed a tight-fitting lid on the pot, lifted it off the stove and turned it on its side. With the lid slightly held back, she poured the starchy liquid into a large bowl in the sink. She didn’t have a colander.

Rice, starch and saris

My mother grabbed the starch-filled bowl and shuffled to the bathroom. She dunked the saris, one at a time, in the rice water, coating each with the starch and letting it soak through. After 15 minutes, each was lightly rinsed and wrung dry by hand. Akka, my grandmother, awoke from her nap and grabbed the saris that now lay in a bucket, waiting to be dried. She hung them out under the hot sun on a clothesline pulled taut between two hooks nailed on each end of the balcony’s wooden ledge.

Once dry, the saris were picked up by the ironing vendor. They came back into our home the same day, all starched and neatly pressed, smelling like hot, steamed, nutty rice.

There are many ways to cook rice, especially one as refined as basmati. The absorption/steeping method and the open-pot pasta method are ideal. Some people use rice cookers and even pressure cookers to cook this delicate grain, and I find that they generate too intense a heat, resulting in a mushy, overcooked texture.

To salt or not to salt the rice is the Shakespearean query. In my recipes for curries, stir-fries and chutneys, I use just enough salt to bring out the flavors, so I do recommend salting the rice you’ll be serving with them. If you don’t salt the rice, you may want to add a bit more salt to the dish you are serving with the rice.

Cooking Rice With the Absorption/Steeping Method

Makes 3 cups

Ingredients

1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice

1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt

Directions

1. Place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain. Now add 1½ cups cold water and let it sit at room temperature until the kernels soften, 20 to 30 minutes.

2. Stir in the salt, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until the water has evaporated from the surface and craters are starting to appear in the rice, 5 to 8 minutes. Then, and only then, stir once to bring the partially cooked layer from the bottom of the pan to the surface. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes (8 minutes for an electric burner, 10 minutes for a gas burner). Then turn off the heat and let the pan stand on that burner, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.

3. Remove the lid, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.

Cooking Rice With the Open-Pot Pasta Method

Makes 3 cups 

Ingredients

1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice

1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt

Directions

1. Fill a large saucepan halfway with water, and bring it to a rolling boil over medium-high heat.

2. While the water is heating, place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.

3. Add the rice to the boiling water, and stir once or twice. Bring the water to a boil again and continue to boil the rice vigorously, uncovered, stirring very rarely and only to test the kernels, until they are tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Immediately drain the rice into a colander and run cold water through it to stop the rice from continuing to cook. (The problem with his method is that the grain will go from just-right to overcooked in mere seconds if you are not attentive.)

4. Transfer the rice to a microwave-safe dish and stir in the salt. Just before you serve it, rewarm it at full power, covered, for 2 to 4 minutes.

Photo: Closeup of basmati rice. Courtesy of iStockphoto

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You wouldn’t necessarily peg Cleveland native and “Iron Chef” Michael Symon as a rye whiskey guy, but just this summer he started promoting the rustic spirit at food and wine festivals around the country, starting in June with the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen.

That’s where Symon introduced a few new cocktails based on rye, working with Knob Creek, a small-batch bourbon specialist started by Jim Beam’s grandson, a sixth-generation Master Distiller.

Rye whiskey was once America’s favorite, around the time of the early 1900s. It was the basis for many famous drinks — the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned among them. Today’s partisans will differ on whether rye, bourbon or other kinds of whiskeys work best, but early cocktail books definitely call for the Manhattan to be made with rye, vermouth and bitters, adorned with a maraschino cherry or two. The Old Fashioned also calls for the rye to be mixed with bitters and maraschino cherries, with a sugar cube and a squeeze of lemon giving it an identity of its own.

But Prohibition changed rye’s fortunes as people discovered bourbon. Sweeter and stronger, bourbon gave them more illicit bang for their buck.

Pendulum shift from bourbon to rye whiskey

Today’s chefs and bartenders, with a taste for savory, even slightly bitter drinks, are drawn to the spicy, herbal flavors of rye, with its pronounced taste of aged oak. Rye is a hardy cereal grain, and unlike bourbon, which is made from corn, rye whiskey is derived from at least 51% rye. The rest of the grain mash may contain other types of grain, like wheat and barley, though many producers use 100% rye. Like other American whiskeys, rye is then aged two years (or more) in charred oak barrels.

In addition to the larger American whiskey houses such as Knob Creek (a division of Jim Beam), smaller producers are also getting into rye now.

Small-batch distillers of rye whiskey

Anchor Brewing in San Francisco was among the first, releasing Old Potrero Single Malt Rye Whiskey in 1996 looking back to the 19th century for step-by-step distillation inspiration, aging the whiskey in charred oak for three years for a mellower yet still spicy concoction.

Also look for Corsair Artisan Distillery’s Wry Moon from Nashville, Tenn., made in small batches and unaged so it will mix well for cocktails. Copper pot-distilled, it has rye’s distinctive peppery spiciness. Corsair also makes an aged 100% rye, double distilled and left to linger two-plus years in new charred oak, an intense expression for serious rye aficionados.

Rittenhouse is another great, small-batch distiller of rye, as are 1512 Spirits (Barbershop Rye) and High West, a distillery based in Park City, Utah, maker of Rendezvous Rye, a combination of 6-year-old and 16-year-old ryes, and Double Rye, another combo that mixes in corn mash as well, for a touch of sweetness. High West also makes Bourye, a rare blend of bourbon and rye in one bottle, and a 21-year-old Rocky Mountain Rye.

Knob Creek Spice of Life by Chef Michael Symon

Serves 1

Ingredients

4-5 fresh mint leaves

½ ounce white peach nectar

2½ ounces Knob Creek Rye

1 ounce ginger beer

Directions

1. Muddle mint, peach nectar and rye in the bottom of a shaker.

2. Add ice and shake vigorously.

3. Strain over ice and top with ginger beer.

Photo: Spice of Life cocktail, created by Michael Symon.  Credit: Courtesy of Knob Creek

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Cruzan Coconut Old Fashioned cocktail

Ah, rum. Once thought to be demonic, it has a thickly dark and stormy past. Rum is derived from molasses, the byproduct of refined sugar made from sugarcane, which is grown mostly in the humid West Indies.

The British, no strangers to sweet tooths, loved it, and early American settlers, so much closer to the source, started their own distilleries in and around what is now New England. It was during this colonial heyday that rum helped kick off a tradition of mixed drinks, and the rum punch and rum sling were born. Rum was a key part of the infamous “triangle trade” of sugar, rum and slaves during the colonial era. But the United States’ rift with Britain, and post-Revolution taxes on the spirit, drove rum into a decline in the U.S. Its popularity waxed and waned over the decades — it hit a high during Prohibition, inspired by Ernest Hemingway (a daiquiri man).

Rum market is rising

More recently, the mojito has become rum drink No. 1 in the U.S. Although the cocktail’s origins are traced to Cuba, it is thought to have been inspired by the bourbon-based mint julep of the American South. Like the mint julep, the mojito starts with fresh mint muddled with simple syrup, and is then mixed with fresh lime juice, rum and soda water, strained over cracked ice in a tall, frosty glass.

Spirits forecasters believe rum to be the next big thing, spurred by better quality and better marketing. The United States remains the biggest market in the Americas, consuming more than four times the volume of the second-biggest market, Cuba, according to market analysis by just-drinks.com/IWSR.

That amounts to almost 25 million 9-liter cases of rum sold in the U.S., worth $2.2 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Total rum sales from the year prior were up 1.4%, with growth even higher in the high-end premium (3.1%) and super-premium (2.4%) categories.

Notable countries of origin and their brands include Puerto Rico, where the world’s biggest brand, Bacardi, is made, Martinique (Clément, Rhum Vieux St. James), Jamaica (Appleton, Myer’s), Trinidad (Angostura) and Barbados (Mount Gay), as well as the British (Pusser’s) and U.S. Virgin Islands (Captain Morgan, Cruzan).

Separating out top-shelf rum

Mixed with high-quality molasses, high-end and super-premium rums are run through an extensive distillation process to get rid of any debris before aging takes place in charred American oak barrels, many of them previously used to age bourbon, for a minimum of 14 months. Some rums are aged upward of 12 years.

Single-barrel rums, after their initial time in used oak, are aged a second time in new American oak for anywhere from four to 12 years. More full-bodied than a younger rum, this category of rum takes on a lot of the barrel’s finer points, from notes of vanilla and toasted coconut to butterscotch and baking spices.

Smoothed by time, single-barrel rums may be enjoyed neat or on the rocks, but also lend a whole new level of complexity and flavor to cocktails. We use a single-barrel rum in our recipe this week.

Cruzan Coconut Old Fashioned

Serves 1

Ingredients

For the coconut water:

1 can coconut water

For the Old Fashioned:

Orange peel

2 ounces Cruzan Single Barrel Rum

½ ounce rich simple syrup

3 dashes bitters

Coconut water ice cubes (see additional recipe below)

 

Directions

1. Pour a can of coconut water into an ice cube tray, ­straining out pulp if necessary. Freeze for several hours.

2. Cut a wide swath of orange peel and lightly press it into the bottom of a rocks glass.

3. Add rum, syrup and bitters.

4. Drop in a few coconut water ice cubes and stir gently.

 

Photo: Cruzan Coconut Old Fashioned     Credit: Courtesy of Cruzan

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Wine author George Taber. Credit: Cliff Moore

For wine drinkers, these are the worst of times and the best of times. It’s the worst because wine prices have exploded in recent years, especially when it comes to French prestige wines. The entry of wealthy Chinese into the market has pushed up the prices of those rare wines to astronomical levels. Who would have thought that Lafite would be selling for $1,500 a bottle? I fear that my tongue will never again be blessed with the wonderful experience of a Mouton or a Richebourg.

At the same time, though, it’s the best of times because the world’s wine surplus, which is driving down wine prices, is unlikely to evaporate anytime soon. In addition, the quality of bargain wines is better than ever. Not everything out there is great, but much is outstanding.

Average, run-of-the-mill wine is better than ever before thanks to several major developments in the wine world. The first is that there are now very few technical secrets in winemaking. Technology flows at Internet speed from vineyard to vineyard. There was a time when the French had a lock on the world’s knowledge of how to make great wine. But today at dozens of enology schools around the world, students are learning new and better techniques. Young winemakers now routinely work two harvests a year, thus speeding up their professional development.

Terroir? Winemaking has gone global

The biggest benefactors of all this transfer of technology are the world’s hot wine regions. They have long been able to produce massive amounts of fruit, but until recently had to accept the tradeoff of low quality. Thanks to new technology such as drip irrigation and night harvesting, regions like Mendoza, Argentina, or the Central Valley of California are producing huge harvests with better quality.

Winemaking in the past century has spread from its European roots to just about every part of the world except the North Pole and the South Pole. Wine is made in every state in the U.S. Just in the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing the wines of Croatia and Colorado on their home turf. Connoisseurs looked with disdain on the wines of California until May 24, 1976, when some upstart winemakers from Napa turned the world upside down at the Paris Tasting. The Californians had simply copied French best practices and adapted them to the growing conditions nature gave them. That experience has now been repeated in many other countries.

Winemakers turning out $100 bottles or $1,000 bottles, though, have to keep preaching the myth of terroir to keep up their prices. They have to spread the belief that their grapes come from a unique spot of earth that has perfect growing conditions. The dirty little secret is that really good wine can be made in many places.

For the past four years, I have been working hard in the vineyards of bargain wines. I’ve tasted some terrible products, but they have been exceptions. The wines that average people drink on average days have improved. They may not be the wines you want to serve at a wedding or a golden anniversary, but they are perfectly fine daily wines. In the business they are known as Wednesday wines because that’s what people regularly drink on a Wednesday night at home when no one is looking. In my book “A Toast to Bargain Wines,” I listed some 400 Wednesday wines selling for less than $10 a bottle, and dozens of what I called splurge wines that go for less than $25.

Bargain wine lovers: Here’s an eye-opening blind tasting

I regularly do blind tastings with friends to help educate anyone with an open mind about undiscovered gems. I had such an event on a recent weeknight. As part of a charity auction, I had offered to do a wine tasting at my home on Block Island, R.I., which is located 12 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. After looking around my wine cellar, I decided on a tasting of Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot and picked three in each category.

The four tasters were regular wine drinkers, but not connoisseurs. They enjoy all sorts of wines, but one woman admitted that she bought more expensive wines to give as gifts than what she drank regularly. She said she drinks mostly $10 wines.

The wines fell into three categories: inexpensive, moderately priced and expensive. The three Sauvignon Blancs: Charles Shaw 2010 ($3); Clos Floridene Graves 1999 ($26); Moraga Blanc 2007 ($65). The three Merlots: Charles Shaw 2010 ($3), Château Reignac 2000 ($18); Plump Jack 2004 ($52). I had bought the Charles Shaw wines in New Jersey, so my Two Buck Chuck was Three Buck Chuck. The French-style wines were generally blends, but with a predominance of Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot.

My guests tasted both the whites and the reds before I let them know the results. In the white category, three of the four selected Charles Shaw as their favorite. Among the reds, there was a tie between Charles Shaw and Château Reignac. I was not surprised because I’ve now done similar tastings dozens of times, and the other results were similar. In a blind tasting average wine drinkers seem to prefer inexpensive wines. So why do people buy $100 or $1,000 bottles of wine? I don’t get it. Are they really just buying the label?

We then discussed the results and the implications while drinking a bottle of 2000 Vin de Constance, one my favorites dessert wines, in part because Napoleon asked for it on his deathbed. There is story in every wine bottle.

Photo: George M. Taber.  Credit: Cliff Moore

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Chef Claus Henricksen of Denmark

An hour west of the thriving culinary mecca of Copenhagen is an 800-year-old castle clinging to the shore of the frigid North Sea. Unlike so many of the country’s castles that have been transformed into museum pieces, the fortified white walls of Dragsholm Slot envelope a thriving industry that includes a hotel and two restaurants.

One restaurant is a casual bistro called The Eatery that serves traditional Danish fare, the other is a fine dining establishment overlooking acres of land from which nearly all of the tasting menu’s ingredients are sourced. It’s an idyllic place for chef Claus Henriksen, 31 and the former sous chef of Noma. There he oversees both restaurants and the castle’s robust catering and events division.

Henriksen eschews meat-heavy dishes in order to showcase the intensely flavored vegetables he harvests from his garden each day: Grilled asparagus and garden sorrel with crispy rye bread croutons and garden herbs; glazed lamb brains and new potatoes with onions, pickled tapioca and lovage; and thyme and mint granita with fresh goat cheese meringue strike a perfect balance between protein and produce.

 

 

The extraordinary surroundings of electric green hills spilling into rich fields, ancient orchards and hedgerows populated with beehives sustain his frenetic seven-day work week and remind him to slow down and absorb the sublime energy reverberating around him. In this interview with Henriksen, we discover why visitors to Copenhagen who invest the time to journey to Dragsholm are justly rewarded by an experience that not only stimulates their palettes, but ignites their spirits.

What do you like most about working at Dragsholm Slot?

It’s the quietness. If you have free time here you can walk outside and enjoy everything that’s around you. The only thing you can do in the middle of a city is step out your door and drink. If you need ten carrots here, you can go and get ten carrots instead of calling a producer and telling them you need ten carrots.

Where do you think this New Nordic obsession came from?

Until around twelve years ago the only thing Danish chefs desired was to purchase everything from France. It’s the way the chef was brought up. We didn’t understand the meaning and significance of our own surroundings. And then we started to look more internally. When you’re growing, there comes a point when you want to do something different than what you’re parents are doing. That’s what happened to Danish chefs. We wanted to rebel against the status-quo and use Danish products instead of imports. A lot of our chefs went out in the 90s and the beginning of the 2000’s to work abroad. They started to see that in other areas of the world, chefs only used local products and we started to think that we could do the same thing. [Chefs cooking] New Nordic cuisine focus on the ingredients and listen to the environment in order to truly understand it. These principles can be applied anywhere in the world.

I asked a chef many years ago why we were using asparagus and cherries all year long. He said, “I don’t care. It’s in season somewhere in the world.” Twenty years ago that was the philosophy. I think this is what inspired Danish chefs to cook differently. The way we cook now in Scandinavia is fresher and more thoughtful. Twenty years ago everything revolved around a prime piece of meat such as tenderloin, and supporting it were truffles, foie gras, lobster, langoustines. Now we are more focused on flavors. If you spend more time coaxing out the flavor of something simple, you will be rewarded. It’s more challenging to do this, but it’s more fulfilling too.

Is it an exciting time to be a chef in Denmark at the moment?

If you don’t look at it as an exciting time, you might as well quit. You have to appreciate the challenges and the virtues in every season and find virtue in your work each and every day. If your interest wanes, stop and reassess. If you’re happy, then your guest will be happy, because your happiness comes through in your cuisine.

What are the fundamental principles that guide you when cooking?

For me the most important thing is to have a contented guest who understands what I’m doing. If my cuisine sometimes get a little too crazy, I will dial-it back and begin all over again. You have to be willing to do this. I think that one problem in kitchens all over the world is that people are afraid to start over.

The cooking here is very personal. It’s about integrity. It’s about using, producing, showing the produce in its best light ,and then you can always add something for a final flourish. I want it to be balanced. Sometimes people say it’s a little too powerful and that’s true, because it’s filled with flavor. This doesn’t mean that we’re adding a lot of elements, it tastes so intense because the natural flavors are so fresh. We are showing here the best of what the farmers and fishermen are doing. You can do fancy things but if you don’t have the best ingredients, it won’t work. And vice versa. There has to be a balance and this balance must include the best of everything.

Top photo: Claus Henriksen of Dragsholm Slot. Credit: Sandeep Patwal

Slide show credit: Sandeep Patwal

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Elin's Wine Pick: 2011 Handley Pinot Gris Helluva Vineyards

Only a handful of California wineries make good wines from Pinot Gris. One of them is the round-textured 2011 Handley Cellars Pinot Gris from their Helluva Vineyard, with its lemongrass and honeysuckle aromas. Another winner from this year’s Critics Challenge annual wine competition, it’s a white that combines coastal freshness, nectarine and mineral flavors, and enough weight to match rich salmon or pork dishes.

Milla Handley was one of Anderson Valley’s pioneers. She first made wine there in 1982, when she fermented and aged 10 barrels of Chardonnay in her home basement. Now the winery produces a wide range of varietals, from Gewürztraminer to Pinot Noir (she makes four), and an excellent sparkling wine, too.

Most vintages of Handley’s Pinot Gris are blends of grapes from three vineyards located in both the cooler and warmer ends of the valley. But cold, rainy weather in 2011 posed even more serious challenges than usual in the Anderson Valley — especially in the cool northern end closer to the ocean. On my tasting tour during last fall’s harvest, I encountered worried winemakers bemoaning the gray skies, hoping for some sun to ripen the grapes, and wondering how long they could dare to wait before picking.

Grapes in two of Handley’s Pinot Gris vineyards were pretty much a washout. Only those in Helluva vineyard, near Boonville in the hotter, southern part of the valley, managed to ripen, which is why the 2011 is labeled as a single vineyard. Even so, the alcohol level is nearly a degree lower than Handley’s 2010.

The same and different: Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio (as it’s known in Italy) are actually the same grape. Yet the two names have come to stand for quite different styles of wine. Pinot Grigio is generally lighter and crisper and all too frequently fairly innocuous. Wines labeled Pinot Gris tend to be modeled on the fuller-bodied, richer examples from Alsace that can age for decades.

Handley’s version is closer to Alsace, but 2011′s cool weather gave it a tangy acidity. That combination of crispness and luscious round texture makes it a terrific — and versatile — food wine for summer or the rest of the year.

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After its opening in 1999, Melisse restaurant in Santa Monica quickly became the hallmark of fine dining in Los Angeles. Chef-owner Josiah Citrin has since earned two Michelin stars for his sophisticated dining room and the thoughtful and exuberant California-French cuisine that comes from his kitchen. When other chefs were re-imagining their menus in the face of the recession, Citrin plowed on with his intricate dishes, artful showcases of premium ingredients at their inspired best.

Now he’s written a cookbook to show the rest of us how it’s done. “In Pursuit of Excellence” is not for the dabbler cook. When Citrin suggests reading his recipes several times before starting, believe him. A call for a quarter-cup of grape juice means blending a cup of grapes with water and passing the mixture through a chinoise. A rabbit recipe involves turning a whole bunny into a rillette.

Line up the pots and pans

The chapters, organized like a menu, begin with amuse bouches. These are not your average appetite whetters: Fennel flan with orange gelee, cashew foam and vanilla; Kabocha squash agnelotti with pomegranate seeds, black trumpet mushrooms, walnut crumble and sage froth.  Next comes a parade of first courses: Seared foie gras with banyuls-poached figs and ginger spice; Alaskan king crab with asparagus puree, asparagus royale and passion fruit-rosemary emulsion. (Citrin likes to present a single ingredient in different styles on the same plate.) After completing any one of these dishes, your guests will understand if you order out for the rest of the meal. You can pass the book — large format, glossy-paged, with gorgeous photos by Matt Kiefer -– around the table to show what you might have done with a bit more time and kitchen help.

But for the indefatigable and ambitious, Citrin and writer Patricia Aranka Smith provide a cornucopia of expert possibility, a take-home course in out-of-the-park fine dining. True, these dishes tend to require an involved series of elements, but Citrin holds readers’ hands through each: Côte de boeuf with mini potato leek tortes, pan-simmered little gems lettuce, sauteed mushrooms, herb butter and herb jus; Chatham Bay cod seared and confit, with purple Peruvian potatoes, red wine onions, red onion puree and Melisse broth; paper roasted rabbit with white bean hummus and Meyer lemon gastrique. Conceivably overwhelmed at a glance, a beginner cook can start by choosing just one element, the hummus say, or the leek torts, and work their way up the ladder — as they would in a restaurant kitchen. The soups –- fava bean, creamless pea, potato leek –- are well within reach (put Argan oil on your shopping list), as are several seasonal salads.

A chapter on cheeses and appropriate accompaniments such as walnut bread and candied kumquats precedes the chapter on desserts. The latter, no surprise, are complex, but, again, any cook can find a single element and call it a day — forget the mousse, flan and bon bons of the chocolate chocolate chocolate extravaganza and just make the soufflé. The sticky toffee pudding can stand proudly on its own, minus the hibiscus consommé and mocha malt ice cream.

Help is on the way

Citrin, aware that his recipes are challenging, offers plenty of support. “In Pursuit of Excellence” begins with tips on Melisse methodology. For instance, store sauces in a thermos so they stay hot, and invest in an immersion blender to make soups. He suggests a garnishing salt-and-pepper mix of three parts Fleur de Sel to one part cracked Telicherry pepper, and tells us what olive oils and vinegar he prefers. Various cutting techniques are described alongside vibrant photos of vegetables reduced to dice, batons and julienne strips. The final chapter comprises what Citrin considers base recipes: preserved lemons, duck confit, banyuls vinaigrette and Maine lobster with butter made from its coral.

Melisse has stayed at the top of the heap in a notoriously fickle restaurant town through dint of Citrin’s unfailing passion, an expertise forged through decades of hard work, and a creative genius that seems constantly renewed through expression on his plates. With this self-published book, Citrin shares his pursuit of excellence to inspire ours.

“Buy Josiah Citrin’s “In Pursuit of Excellence” Now!


Zester Daily contributor Margot Dougherty, the food editor for Los Angeles magazine for many years, is a freelance writer and Zester contributing editor living in Venice, Calif. Her work has appeared in Saveur, More, Town & Country and Conde Nast Traveler among other magazines.

Top photo composite:

Josiah Citrin. Credit: Charles Park Photography

Book jacket. Credit: Matthew Keifer

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