Articles in People

Megan Miller of Bitty Foods. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

Crickets, love ‘em or leave ‘em, are the soundtrack to our summer nights. Megan Miller, co-founder of Bitty Foods, sees them a bit differently.

“When I think of crickets, I think of the future of food,” she says. “Insects are in fact the most efficient form of protein on planet earth.” Miller spoke about the benefits of eating insects at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See video of her talk below).

Insects are eaten in many cultures, but Miller is well aware that many people find the idea less than appetizing. Bitty Foods has taken steps to reduce the barriers its products might face by turning crickets into something more palatable.

AUTHOR


Pam WeiszPam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

“It might be difficult for a lot people to consider eating whole insects, but they become a lot more manageable when they’re in the format of cricket flour,” she said.

The flour is made from whole insects dried and milled into a fine powder. Bitty Foods sells the flour, which has been mixed with other ingredients that enable it to be substituted for baking flour, as well as cookies made from cricket flour. These are available in three flavors: chocolate chip, chocolate cardamom and orange ginger.

These products represent the beginning of what is envisioned as a complete line of goods, beyond just snacks. As Miller explains, the vision is to take foods “that are normally completely carb-based and boost them with protein so you end up getting a much more nutritious meal.”

“The basic premise is that we are trying to introduce people in the U.S. to edible insects with delicious foods with good design,” she said. “We have gotten a really great reception faster than we expected.”

Miller lists five of the many reasons why the idea of eating insects should be taken seriously by those concerned about their health and/or the environment:

  1. Cricket flour has 7 grams of protein per quarter-cup serving as well as healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. Bitty Foods’ cricket flour is also gluten-free.
  2. Insects can be grown with very little land and very little water. If you feed crickets 10 pounds of feed, they will produce 9 pounds of edible cricket protein. By contrast, it takes 10 pounds of feed to get 1 pound of beef.
  3. If eating insects becomes common, we could reclaim some of the 30% of the Earth’s land surface — one-third of the Earth — which is currently being used by the livestock industry to grow animals and the grains the animals eat.
  4. We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 18% if insects become a part of the mainstream food supply.
  5. Having insects take the place of more resource-intensive sources of protein could lower the cost of food all around the world by about 33%. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has published a report  concluding that edible insects may be the key to stabilizing the global food supply.

 

Bitty_choc-chip

Bitty_choc-chip
Picture 1 of 4

Chocolate chip with cricket flour. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

Miller notes that there are 2,000 species of insects that can be, and are, eaten by people. She chose crickets because they don’t carry any diseases that are transmissible to humans and they don’t destroy crops, so people don’t have negative connotations. “I think crickets have a very nice cultural association for Westerners, with the nice chirping and the summer nights,” Miller says.

Bitty Foods now sells its products through its website, www.bittyfoods.com. The company recently began working with a food distributor and hopes to be in stores within a few months, starting in its home market of the Bay Area and then expanding to New York City.

Miller, who began her career as a trend forecaster and consumer researcher before turning to edible insects, thinks that edible insects are on the cusp of becoming trendy.

“I see a powerful shift happening in the way that people think about food,” she said. “People are more interested in sustainability than ever before and understanding where their food comes from. And thanks to the Internet we’re constantly being exposed to new trends and new ideas and even new cuisines.”

As a result, she predicts, “There’s an emerging edible insect industry in the U.S. In the next decade, insects will move from being a crazy, edgy food to being a completely mainstream food for most people.”

Main photo: Megan Miller in her Bitty Foods kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Bitty Foods

This story was written by Pam Weisz, deputy director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

Read More
Kissing couple with food

Can the kitchen hold the recipe for romance — or is the gender divide too great?

On a reality TV show known for romantic fantasy, a recent cooking-themed date fizzled more than it sizzled when “The Bachelorette,” Andi Dorfman, sought to heat things up with Brian (one of about a dozen eligible bachelors at her disposal) on a foodie date in the most romantic of locations — Marseille, France. But like a stubborn soufflé, the evening fell flat.

Before Andi and Brian enter a kitchen in which one can imagine Julia Child herself finding passion, contentment and satisfaction within the pleasures of French cuisine, they snuggle together in a private cinema. Andi and Brian view “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a cinematic adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ best-selling novel, in which a cross-cultural culinary rivalry yields compassion, transformation and love. The film inspires Andi to bring its plot to life. She and Brian visit local markets and shops, gathering ingredients for a French feast, an experience that Andi describes as one out of a movie or fairytale. Beyond a gastronomic adventure, however, Andi hopes to cook up some romance, to find her own recipe for love.

But instead of the sumptuous cooking and feeding scenes that viewers associate with food films, the passion quickly cools between Andi and Brian. As a man who does not cook, Brian admits that he is “outside of his comfort zone” and grows so uncomfortable in the kitchen that he emotionally shuts down, communicating with only curt responses and making no displays of affection. As they chop carrots, marinate frog legs, toss a salad and slice a baguette, they are spatially separated, standing back-to-back or on opposite ends of the kitchen space. Mimicking a scene from “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a disappointed Andi waves a limp asparagus spear in the air, the vegetable’s figurative impotence displaying the date’s failed chemistry.

Cooking, gender and the celebrity chef

Andi and Brian’s disastrous food-focused date echoes a collision of expectations that surround cooking. Although the gender divide is softening in many households, conventional roles dictate that women are expected to cook in the home. Men more often are not. Rather, it is typically men who cook in professional kitchen as chefs. This episode of “The Bachelorette” taps into the increasingly commercialized sex appeal of celebrity chefs, who, even as female chefs make great strides in restaurant kitchens, continue to be mostly male. For example, a study from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that women are hired for only 19% of chef positions, a gender gap worthy of our ire.

And, in the American media, popular chefs exude a particular brand of rugged masculinity. Consider this description of Todd English in the New York Post: “By turns macho and sexy, charming and just a bit cheesy, he’s the guy you get your mojo back with on some far-flung Mediterranean island.” The iconic male chef is always in control — of himself, his knife, his ingredients, his suppliers and his staff. He is commanding. He is as “hot” as the roasting, boiling and sautéing that take place around him in the kitchen that he manages with an unwavering authority.

An unfulfilled food fantasy

Held to these standards of professionalism and macho masculinity, Brian fails to fulfill his role as the sexy chef in Andi’s food-film-inspired fantasy. He is not knowledgeable on cheese. He cannot describe how he prepares broccoli. He fails to seize the moment in every way. Beyond not playing his part, by not complimenting Andi’s command in the kitchen, he also fails to validate her femininity.

Cultures map gendered expectations onto food and cooking. Who cooks, why, how, what and when speak volumes about how a culture defines masculinity and femininity, professional prowess and familial devotion. There are also literal connections between food, sex and desire — from aphrodisiacs to food foreplay à la “9 1/2 Weeks”  or Tampopo.”

In the end, though, eaters need not hold themselves to professional standards or aspire to culinary fantasy. It is always an option to “just leave cooking to the movies,” as Andi and Brian did, rekindling their budding relationship at a restaurant over beef bourguignon, a dish whose depth and richness they can only hope their love might come to emulate.

Read More
Baumkuchen is cooked on a rotisserie. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

Of the American cities traditionally associated with cake — New Orleans with its King Cake, St. Louis with its gooey butter cake, Boston with its misnamed cream pie — Denver has never rated particular mention. But when that changes — and it will — it will be thanks to native daughter Heather Alcott and her extraordinary efforts to bring Baumkuchen to the U.S.

Though Baumkuchen has ancient roots and a long history in Europe, the concentrically layered cake has become a phenomenon in Japan in recent years. That’s where Alcott discovered it a few years ago, on a visit while living in Singapore, and immediately “fell in love,” she recalled.

Bringing Baumkuchen to U.S. proves to be no easy task

“It’s cooked on a rotisserie, so it isn’t fried, yet it has this doughnut-type texture. … I went back to the hotel and started doing some research that evening,” she said. Upon learning “everyone has had a hand in this cake — the Romans, the Germans, the Romanians — I thought, ‘This is something pretty special.’ And I knew I wanted to be the first person in the country” to offer the commercial Japanese version.

She became just that in February 2013, when she opened Glaze: The Baum Cake Shoppe — the name by which the online-retail business is still known, though the brick-and-mortar eatery is now a sushi-and-dessert lounge called Glaze by Sasa, in partnership with local Japanese eatery Sushi Sasa. Centered around the Red Dragon, her nickname for the 2,200-pound, custom-built oven outfitted with six spits, Alcott’s success has captured the attention of national media, including NPR. But the sheer lengths she went to to realize her dream make for a story in themselves.

Consider that the seemingly straightforward first step, signing a contract with the oven manufacturer, took more than two years. Even learning the name of the family-run company took some legwork, Alcott said. To this day she prefers to maintain its anonymity, and her first overture, by email in English, resulted in a flat refusal.

A Baumkuchen cake. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

A Baumkuchen cake. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

“I got a one-line response that said, ‘Thank you for your interest, but not right now. We’ve got a lot of growth already, and we’re just not ready for the USA.’ ” So she hired a translator and tried again, this time in Japanese. Clearly, her gesture was appreciated, as the team continued to respond, but there were “a good eight months of going back and forth” before a meeting was agreed to, and a year after the initial contact before it finally occurred.

“I took my husband with me to Japan,” Alcott explained, “because he has business experience there; he knows their style. First you go out for drinks and see if you even like each other. They hired a translator, and we could tell there was something there, so — many sakes later — we arranged for me to show them my business plan the next day.”

The result? “They ended up rejecting me. They didn’t understand Denver at all.” But they asked her to come back in a couple of months; by that point, they’d done some research on the market. “This time, they said, ‘Why not New York or San Francisco or Seattle?’ I said, ‘You have to trust me with this.’ They could see it in my face; I loved this product. But Denver is my home; I had to make it work here.”

Still, another no. Alcott admits that if she’d been living in the States, she’d have given up at this point. But because she was “on their back doorstep in Singapore,” she pushed onward — and finally, the company president agreed to build the oven.

“I’ve since been told that the Japanese reject you three times before they accept you,” she said, laughing.

Getting the Baumkuchenmeister seal of approval

The second step was for Alcott and her pastry chef to go through the certification process, training with the manufacturer’s Baumkuchenmeister and not only learning the recipes but adapting them for use in a high-altitude American kitchen. That meant more international flights, more translators and months of ingredient adjustments as Alcott began her search for the perfect organic cultured butter, matcha (green-tea powder) and so on.

“They flew over here to test and weigh my eggs! They had to be fresh and just the right size — not too large, not too small. I had to fly over my almond flour, cake flour, sugars. It probably looked like we were shipping cocaine,” Alcott joked.

But every little detail made a difference: “If the batter’s too runny or too thick, it won’t stay on the spit.” In the midst of all this, she received a call from the president: “They said, ‘The oven just isn’t perfect enough. We have to take it all apart and start over.’ ”

Heather Alcott has nicknamed her Baumkuchen oven the Red Dragon. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

Heather Alcott has nicknamed her Baumkuchen oven the Red Dragon. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

Eventually, of course, that darned oven did arrive in Denver. “I actually hugged it before it got on the boat from Japan,” Alcott said. Once it was installed behind glass in her Congress Park space, “the president, his top engineer and his top chef all flew out to turn it on for the first time,” per a contractual agreement. “We all cheered.”

It’s hard to believe that the drop-dead gorgeous, luscious-but-refined Baumkuchen cakes Glaze now turns out are infused with such blood, sweat and tears. Each takes 24 hours to make; the pastry chefs shoot for 21 layers, but the final tally can depend on everything from the base flavor (“the chocolate is so fluffy, it sometimes has to be pulled earlier”) to local weather conditions.

They also experiment with new flavors, such as orange and pumpkin. Surprisingly, “the Japanese are so supportive; they love the innovation,” Alcott said. “We have become the test kitchen for Baumkuchen in this country.”

While we Denverites are lucky to have them, you can purchase Glaze’s products too. But don’t hold your breath for a brick-and-mortar outpost anytime soon. As Alcott put it, “I take this opportunity I’ve been given day by day.”

Main photo: Baumkuchen is cooked on a rotisserie. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

Read More
Lollies from The Fat Duck restaurant. Credit: La Varenne archive

What can a home cook take away from the Modernist Cuisine’s food movement? Personally speaking, I have not bought a Pacojet or a whipping siphon, though I know one or two home cooks who have done so. I did find a kit online that included lecithin powder (for foams), agar agar (a forerunner of gelatin made from seaweed), calcium lactate and sodium alginate (for balloons). One hilarious afternoon was spent concocting Balsamic Pearls and Mojito Balloons, but that was as far as it went.

It has inspired in me a new Modernist “Ten Commandments,” motivated by the version that journalists Henri Gault and Christian Millau laid out more than 40 years ago on the fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine. My first five Modernist commandments appeared in Part 1 of this series. These are the final five:

Rule VI: Explore fantasy. Symbolism is a recurrent theme in Modernist Cuisine. Modernist chefs love to turn the world upside down and you never know what you may find. Ferran Adrià’s giant white globe, when cracked, shatters like an edible eggshell, but what looks like white chocolate proves to taste of gorgonzola cheese. At Alinea restaurant in Chicago, ayu tuna is perched on a giant, dense black morel mushroom, the ocean and the earth. Amid the drama and intrigue of Modernist dishes, appearance is often left to speak for itself. You can take or leave Adrià’s desiccated Braque-like skeleton of a real fish on your plate; it has no garnish at all. (“Ugh,” a friend said.)

 

El Bulli's Prawns Two Firings is boiled and then fried before serving. Credit: La Varenne archive

ElBulli’s Prawns Two Firings is boiled and then fried before serving. Credit: La Varenne archive

Rule VII: Be inventive. Modernist Cuisine is certainly amusing. Who could not smile at Alinea’s bottomless “plate” supporting a liquid truffle ravioli, a single, earthy bite that explodes in the mouth. Often in Modernist Cuisine, things are not what they seem — at the U.K. restaurant The Fat Duck, a trio of tiny retro lollipops proves to be an apple sorbet with walnut and celery; a chilled mousse of foie gras; and oddest of all, a striped ice cream of avocado and salmon flavored with horseradish. Modernist cooking implies a sense of adventure. I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed Red Cabbage Gazpacho with a Grain Mustard Ice Cream at The Fat Duck, but it sure made me pay attention.

Alinea Chef Grant Achatz creates chocolate pie with a sprinkling of lavender sugar. Credit: La Varenne archive

Alinea chef Grant Achatz finishes chocolate pie with a sprinkling of lavender sugar. Credit: La Varenne archive

Rule VIII: Play with temperature. Only in the last 100 years have chefs been able to play with hot and cold when cooking and serving food. Today’s precise temperatures and timings have opened a whole new world. Professional kitchens have become laboratories demanding a new approach to cooking. This leads to playful presentations such as Adrià’s white chocolate soufflé that evaporates into thin air within five minutes, or the Roca brothers’ anchovy stuffed olives dipped in caramel.

Rule IX: Avoid static presentation. For Modernist chefs, presentation can be a challenge. The landscaped plates of nouvelle cuisine, and the towers on the plate that came later, are gone. Today’s eyes are sated with the movement and color we see on all sides at all times. In the dining room, the solution seems to be a return to nature with wood, slate, green leaves, trees, rocks and pebbles; glass is a strong component that extends to the table itself and the general surroundings. Many chefs opt for simplicity, with small plain white plates (often in curious shapes) geared to tiny portions that speak for themselves. At Spain’s elBulli (sadly now closed), even the flatware was miniature.

Rule X: Keep the diner busy. Finally, expect to participate in a Modernist meal. You will be asked to stir, crush and crack the food in front of you, and often to eat it with your fingers. You may be blindfolded, or asked to lick the anonymous purées in an array of tiny spoons. At Alinea a balloon floated to my table and it was an effort of will to pop and devour the sphere of apple taffy tied with a fruit leather string, as instructed. I’ve always been an inflator, not a popper of balloons.

 

Willan_Alinea_6376

Willan_Alinea_6376
Picture 1 of 3

At Alinea, Anne Willan, left, and her assistant Nicole enjoy their green apple taffy balloons, suspended on a fruit leather strand. Credit: La Varenne archive

Reflections on the Modernists

The Modernist Cuisine’s practitioners are an odd lot. Most stay behind the scenes, sometimes greeting at the door, more often leaving a more personal relationship to be established by the server.

In Europe, service tends to be discreet, so on a recent visit to Alinea I was touched that chef Grant Achatz himself created a chocolate pie with a sweet pastry crust on our tabletop. This gave us a chance to talk, a pleasure he repeated for every table, not just for special guests.

Just three days after my visit to Alinea, I heard the grand master of them all, Adrià, speaking in Chicago. He is credited with originating the whole Modernist movement and has trained many of the younger exponents. Adrià is a communicator, a ball of fire on the podium and in the kitchen, and he is the inspiration behind an online culinary encyclopedia to be called the “Gastropedia.”

What is there to be taken from all of this? Just as nouvelle cuisine is now long forgotten, it may turn out that the abstract, technically tricky concepts of Modernist chefs never have wide application. But right now, their vision and enthusiasm is trickling down to the tables of every hot spot in Hollywood. Their small plates and global ingredients are already creating a new world of cooking and eating. We are more adventurous and more curious. We are better informed about food. Cooking is becoming more a part of our lives, and a mom or pop actually cooking in the kitchen is coming closer to reality. Or so I would like to think.

Main photo: Lollies from The Fat Duck restaurant. Credit: La Varenne archive

Read More
A beautiful rose is shaped with a knife from a single apple at elBulli. Credit: La Varenne archive

It was almost 40 years ago in Paris that I opened La Varenne Cooking School, and the nouvelle cuisine movement was sweeping France. Today we’re in the midst of similar radical change, and novelties are exploding, literally, on our plates in the movement called Modernist Cuisine. To be asked to taste pop rocks in the palm of your hand that turn out to be Parmesan cheese is really very odd — and provocative. So is a pocket watch, marked with the hours, that is designed to dissolve in a bowl of hot consommé.

A dozen top chefs around the world — José Andrés and Grant Achatz in the U.S., Heston Blumenthal in England, the Roca brothers and Ferran Adrià, the father of them all, in Spain, together with a handful of others — share the same culinary principles, and often the same ideals. The original fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine were laid out by two journalists, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who named them the “Ten Commandments.” It inspired me to consider the Ten Commandments of Modernist Cuisine. Here, in Part 1, are the first five, and in Part 2, we’ll look at the final five.

Rule I: Appeal to all the senses. You can count on a Modernist chef to tickle every sense. Tastes roam freely among such favorite ingredients as sea urchin, anchovy, olive, wild game, liver, blood, lemon and honey. At the table, we’re kept busy, mixing and matching mysterious seasonings, dried powders, foams, marinades and dips. Our Modernist noses tingle as casserole lids and glass bells release the pungency of fresh truffle or the lemon vapor from a single whole scallop in its shell. We listen too to the crack of a breaking crust, or the snap of shattering ice. At Achatz’s Alinea restaurant in Chicago my ears perk up at the trickle of water beneath the mini-iceberg sheltering foamed-topped Kumamoto oysters. The same multi-sensory appeal is true of our favorite traditional foods. Modernist cooks are simply exploring more ways of doing it.

Alinea

A glittering spread of seafood sits above a melting block of ice on seaweed at Alinea. Credit: La Varenne archive

Rule II: Explore the global cooking landscape. Modernist chefs are global players; they seek ingredients, staff and, most important, inspiration from all over the world. Often they themselves have trained away from home, gathering knowledge of new techniques and multinational styles of cooking. Top kitchens welcome bright young people who are willing to learn new ideas and work hard, and many have waiting lists of applicants.

Leading chefs have always enjoyed passing on their knowledge to the next generation, but today it is different. The students come from all over the world, they are younger and half a dozen languages may be used in the kitchen. This means that culinary knowledge — techniques, ingredients, cultural backgrounds — is now flying around the globe. At the very top restaurants, the diners too come from a multitude of countries, lining up for a year or more for a table.

El Bulli Spherical Olives

Spherical olives, an elBulli classic, burst with olive oil on the tongue. Credit: La Varenne archive

Rule III: Create another world. All four of the Modernist restaurants I’ve visited pulled me into their own world before I’d even stepped inside the door. In a couple of cases it amounted to a long, featureless entrance corridor cutting off the outside from the splendors to come. Britain’s The Fat Duck lives in its own environment, surrounded by cottages in an archetypal English village. The now-closed elBulli in Spain involved a minor pilgrimage up and over a deserted hillside (except for the sheep) to arrive at an unobtrusive seaside villa on the Mediterranean.

Rule IV: Escape into a new landscape. The Modernist menu is formless with little sense of beginning or end and you will have no written list as guide. In a while, after say eight courses of what may become 15 or even 30, the meal becomes a timeless fugue, an ebb and flow of blending and contrasting dishes. In principle, fish comes first and sweets last, but this pattern is interrupted all the time. Japanese kaiseki banquets follow a similar theme. Indeed there are many parallels with the Japanese and Modernist tradition, particularly with the unobtrusive decor, designed to focus on the food itself.

 

Willan_EDITEDelBulliChocolateTeaCup

Willan_EDITEDelBulliChocolateTeaCup
Picture 1 of 4

The Fat Duck's "reverse" sandwiches with a sliver of toast in the center are part of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Credit: La Varenne archive

Rule V: Take advantage of technology. New techniques are so much a part of the Modernist movement that it is often referred to as scientific cooking — or even less accurately, molecular gastronomy. Both terms are nonsense, Blumenthal and I are in agreement here. “Science is not the point,” he declares. “Today’s cooking has not come from nowhere. Everything has roots including science in the kitchen. For instance, there was a Futurist Cuisine movement in Italy led by Filippo Marinetti in the 1930s and today’s Modernist Cuisine has clear links with that.”

In contrast, Blumenthal is completely at home with the term “Modernist Cuisine.” The successful chefs of today are far more than scientists. They may use modern techniques such as slow cooking in a vacuum pack, controlled dehydration, or the low temperatures created by liquid nitrogen, but they display the same originality as Futurists and other innovative cooks of the past.

Part 2: The final five commandments, and what can a home cook take away from all this?

Main photo: A beautiful rose is shaped with a knife from a single apple at elBulli. Credit: La Varenne archive

Read More
A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

The 2014 Auction Napa Valley-The American Wine Classic shattered last year’s record and raised a staggering $18.7 million over one weekend in June.

The auction was the brainchild of the late Robert Mondavi, known as the “Godfather” of Napa Valley. His vision was supported by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, and the auction was launched in 1981. To date, the group has invested more than $120 million from auction proceeds in Napa County nonprofit organizations.

As in previous years, 2014 auction lots were gilded with trips to far-flung locales in private jets or luxury yachts, flashy sports cars, magnums of pricey Napa red wine and the ultimate indulgence — dinner for 50 at the venerable French Laundry restaurant.

After all, this is the Napa Valley brand: touting high-end Cabernets and projecting a sexy, glamorous image. And it takes a village to stage an auction of this magnitude — an event that draws oenophiles from around the globe.

Napa Valley’s vintners are as diverse as its terroir. There are the stratospheric cult labels such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin and Araujo. Then there’s the other face of Napa: winemakers who are active participants in the auction but seek a lower profile.

After the adrenaline rush of this year’s auction slowed Sunday morning, I had the opportunity to meet one such winemaking family, the Biales of Robert Biale Vineyards, who are among the pioneers making up Napa’s historic landscape.

Clementina Biale, 82 years young, and her son Bob Biale greeted me in the matriarch’s Tudor-style house in the city of Napa. For 70 years, the family has farmed Zinfandel in Cabernet country. “Aldo loved Zinfandel,” Clementina said of her late husband while walking us out to the terrace overlooking vineyards planted with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sangiovese.

Today, the Biales are continuing their family tradition of Zinfandel. Their annual production of 15,000 cases includes 12,000 cases of 14 vineyard-designate Zinfandels from various properties in the Oak Knoll appellation and 3,000 cases of Petite Sirah and blends. The wines reflect elegance and balanced fruit — none of the jamminess you associate with Zinfandel.

“Napa was full of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah,” Bob Biale said. Then Cabernet Sauvignon came along in the late 1960s. After Napa’s win at the 1976 Judgment of Paris competition, Cabernet became even more popular, he said. “Napans found that Cab grows well, so they pulled out all the Zinfandel.”

Biale family has humble origins

An active octogenarian, Clementina drives around Napa doing errands and going to church. She draws the line at driving on the freeway, though.

“I never went to university,” she told me. “I was happy to raise a good family. We had a good life, nothing fancy.”

A few times a week, Clementina visits the humble barn-like Biale tasting room in Napa, where her handmade aprons and bottle bags are sold among other items.

“Aldo always said you don’t need a million-dollar room to have good wine,” she said fondly about her husband, who passed away in 2009 at age 80.

Aldo Biale was born in 1929 on Napa’s Mount Veeder to Pietro and Christina, who arrived in the early 1920s from Liguria, Italy. To help Aldo learn English, the family moved to the valley floor and purchased its first 5-acre parcel in 1937. They planted Zinfandel and fruit orchards while also raising white leghorn chickens. Pietro passed away in 1942, leaving 13-year-old Aldo and his mother to tend the ranch.

 

biale2

biale2
Picture 1 of 5

Clementina Biale with her son, Bob Biale, on the terrace of her house overlooking the 6-acre vineyard in Napa. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

In 1953, Aldo visited Italy for the first time and met Clementina in Piedmont. “He took me to a fiesta,” she recalled.

They married a year later, and Clementina arrived in Napa in 1954. She raised four children and helped out in the farming operation.

In his teen years, Aldo worked on the family vineyards, delivering fresh eggs in the community. At age 14, he figured out there was more money in wine than selling Zinfandel grapes at $25 per ton, so he started making homemade jug wine and sold it without a license until the mid-1960s. Aldo continued selling grapes until 1990, including to such companies as Gallo and the St. Helena Co-op.

Aldo also kept his day job, working for Napa City’s Water Department. He would come home at 4 p.m. and start farming till 10. “There were lights on the tractor,” Bob recalled. “He had chores for me and my brothers. Now I’m glad we grew up this way and learned from him.”

As we taste the Black Chicken Zinfandel, a blend from different vineyards, Clementina tells the story behind the label. The name was a code for the jug wine for customers who ordered by telephone. The Biale family’s phone was on a party line, meaning it was shared with possibly nosy neighbors.

Clementina had just arrived from Italy when she answered a call from someone asking for two dozen eggs and a black chicken. “I said to this fella, ‘We have no black chicken, we have white,’ ” she said, laughing. She soon learned it was the code for Aldo’s secret Zinfandel.

“But my father’s dream was to have a brand that was our own wine,” Bob said. That was realized when Aldo and Bob founded Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991. Later, a partnership was formed with Dave Pramuk and Dave Perry.

“We had a nice little team, but we still kept our day jobs,” Bob said. He worked with the cellar team crew at Beringer.

Bob reflects sadly about the old-vine Zinfandels that were pulled out and replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon. He points in part to Robert Mondavi for this conversion.

“He was right by planting more Cab varietal, which put Napa on the map,” Bob said. “God bless him, that Cab conversion has allowed us growers to actually make a living. But it came with a sacrifice by removing old Zinfandel.”

Standing by their Zinfandels, the Biales are part of Napa’s mosaic of vintners. Over the years, Biale wine has been poured at the barrel auction’s marketplace tasting. “I am considering participating in the barrel auction next year,” Bob said.

That Biale Zin is sure to stand out in a barrel room full of Napa Cabs.

Main photo: A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Read More
Chef Regina Charboneau's new book about Mississippi River cuisines includes the recipe for her legendary biscuits. Credit: Brooke Jackson

In Julia Reed’s foreword for “Mississippi Current,” the new book by chef and restaurateur Regina Charboneau, she tells how she visits Charboneau’s Southern home to get doses of “biscuit love.” It’s an apt metaphor for the chef’s graciousness and hospitality, which she conveys, in part, through her croissant-influenced biscuits. If that sounds like an unlikely fusion, think again, for “Mississippi Current” gently merges the many culinary cultures found along the mighty river’s path.

One of Charboneau’s roles is culinary director of the American Queen, a luxury paddleboat that sails the Mississippi. When I asked her recently about her inspiration for the book, she said, “It was a confluence of my experience growing up in Natchez, traveling along the river with the American Queen and time spent with my husband in his hometown of Minneapolis. The American Queen played a huge role, as I was introduced to so many towns and stops along the river all with different cuisines and menu staples.”

Each chapter represents a gastronomic region along the Mississippi with recipes laid out as menus for different meals. The journey begins at the headwaters in Minnesota. The river’s culinary melting pot includes Native American, European, Jewish, African-American and Vietnamese cuisines, using ingredients that include wild rice, corn, lemongrass, cabbage, specialty greens and herbs. Her menus feature pork bánh mì style sandwiches, pirogi made with bacon and sweet potatoes, fried walleye, and wild rice and corn fritters — to name just a few.

Next stop is “Twain Country,” which encompasses Missouri down to where the Arkansas River meets the Mississippi. Beyond the history and heritage of Mark Twain, French, German, Irish, Italian and, most recently, Bosnian influences help define the area. Ingredients such as black walnuts, figs, catfish and locally produced Missouri wine find their way into recipes with Charboneau’s signature touch. The inspired dishes in this chapter include a jazz brunch featuring Eggs Sardou, black walnut cake with brandied plum sauce, and toasted ravioli — a St. Louis classic.

In the lower Mississippi area, stretching from Memphis into the Louisiana bayou, dishes include ingredients such as shellfish, cornmeal for bread and tamales, pork, bacon and grits. Oh, and bourbon, lots of bourbon. You can almost feel the soft breeze off the river reading through the menus with names like “Blessing of the Fleet Lunch” and “Gulf Seafood Dinner.”

A native Southerner with French training

Charboneau’s background as a native Southerner influences her dishes as does her French training in the kitchen. “Most are inspired by classic recipes and the agriculture of each region of the river,” she said. “But I brought in modern and personal twists to all of the recipes. For example, deviled eggs, a Delta tradition, have my personal and nontraditional touch by adding the crab meat and wasabi caviar.”

This style carries over into the cocktails and use of bourbon, Herbsaint and other types of alcohol throughout the book. A classic New Orleans Ramos Fizz is updated using Magellan gin flavored with iris and rosewater, bourbon is infused with figs and used to make a classic sidecar, Herbsaint shows up in hollandaise and a martini is enlivened with limoncello.

Asked for her favorite recipe in “Mississippi Current,” she said, “The sweet potato pirogi is one because it is the epitome of what I have tried to do with the book: taking something traditional and experimenting with the ingredients to make something that feels simultaneously old and new. The shrimp and smoked tomato cream over savory grits because it is the way I cook and a tradition in my own home for friends and guests. It feels like the dish is catching up in popularity to my biscuits!”

Her biscuits are legendary, layered with a pound of butter and margarine making each bite puffy, flaky and crisp. The dough is barely mixed so that big lumps of margarine get incorporated by folding and rolling, similar to the French lacquered doughs of croissant and puff pastry. She shares the recipe in the book with copious notes about her technique. The dough is frozen after being cut in biscuit shapes, a step that Charboneau said is crucial to the flakiness of the final product.

Charboneau frequently says Mississippi River water runs through her veins. In “Mississippi Current” she shares her passion for the history, culture, heritage and food of the regions along the banks of that mighty river.

Regina's butter biscuits. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Baking the croissant-influenced biscuits in muffin tins helps keep their shape with perfect crispness on the bottom. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Regina's Butter Biscuits

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 3 hours

Yield: Makes about 2 dozen large

Serving Size: Start with one biscuit

Ingredients

  • 4 cups flour
  • ¼ cup baking powder
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1½ cups (3 sticks) salted margarine, chilled and cut in ½” cubes
  • ½ cup (1 stick) salted butter, chilled and cut in ½” cubes
  • 1¾ cups buttermilk, chilled

Directions

  1. Put the flour, baking powder and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Turn the machine on low and blend the dry ingredients for 15 seconds.
  2. Add the magarine and butter cubes and the buttermilk to the flour mixture before turning on the mixer. Turn the mixer on medium and count to 10. This goes very quickly; the key is to not overmix the dough. There will be large chunks the size of quarters of butter and margarine in the dough. That’s just how it should be. Don’t mix it any more. Once the dough is rolled and folded, it will become smooth.
  3. Scrape the dough from the bowl onto a generously floured work surface and shape into a rectangle about 2 inches thick. Fold the dough into thirds and with a rolling pin, roll the dough out to a 2 inch thickness. Fold it again into thirds, give the dough a quarter turn, and roll it out again to a 2 inch thickness. Continue folding, turning and rolling the dough until it is smooth and the dough has yellow ribbons of butter and margarine. This is a sign that the biscuits will be flaky.
  4. Roll the dough to 1½ inch thickness. Using a 2 inch biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds. When rerolling the dough, gently stack it to retain the layers. Do not overwork the dough.
  5. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the biscuits to plastic bags. The unbaked biscuits can be frozen for two months.
  6. To bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Place however many frozen biscuits you want to serve in the cups of muffin tins. Let thaw in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Bake until golden brown, 23-25 minutes. Serve right out of the oven – biscuits are best freshly baked. Baking them in muffin tins is key as it helps the biscuits keep their shape and get the perfect crispness on the bottom.

Main photo: Chef Regina Charboneau’s new book about Mississippi River cuisines includes the recipe for her legendary biscuits. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Read More
Earl Flewellen's honey butter sauce. Credit: Brooke Jackson

The sweet, amber liquid melted with a bite of chocolate in my mouth, creating a symphony of complementary flavors. Somehow the avocado honey combined with the earthy dark chocolate made for an ethereal combination.

I was at a tasting hosted by the National Honey Board, led by Marie Simmons, award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher. Simmons, whose latest book is “Taste of Honey: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Cooking With 40 Varietals,” had already talked the group through three samples of honey, going from lightest in color to darkest. Each type was paired with a food that complemented it: alfalfa with a slice of cheddar, tupelo with a buttered cracker, and dark, bold buckwheat with a roasted sweet potato, creating a flavor explosion.

Somehow, the sum of the two ingredients of each pairing exceeded the parts, demonstrating the versatility and nuances of honey. With more than 300 varieties in the United States today, the uses and pairings are seemingly boundless, which is what Simmons said inspired her to write the book.

Honey more versatile than people realize

” ‘Taste of Honey,’ the book, exists because an editor who lives in Kansas City, Mo., was flummoxed by the array of different varietal honey at her local farmers market and called me to ask me which one she should buy and that there should be a book on the subject,” Simmons said. “After her call I went to my files — yes, I’m a paper person — and found an inches-thick mess of many dog-eared clippings about honey and lots of old honey recipes.”

The book is an ode to all things bees and honey. Simmons, a prolific writer with upward of 20 cookbooks under her belt, touches on every aspect of beekeeping, production, varieties, tastings and pairings along with 60 recipes. At the end of each chapter is a “quick hits” section with creative, simple suggestions for ways to use honey in every meal of the day.

As she led the tasting, her passion for the topic was palpable. Someone from the audience asked what to do when honey crystallizes, and she said, “I spread it on a warm piece of buttered toast and let it melt, then pop it in my mouth!” She told us that using honey in sweets and baked goods is a natural, but she was most inspired when cooking with it in savory recipes.

The book is chock full of interesting main dishes trotting around the globe, from a tagine with lamb and figs to a Vietnamese-style beef stew to Chinese stir-fry with cabbage and peanuts. Honey tempers the heat of spices, balances the salt and acid and complements aromatics like garlic, elevating savory dishes to heavenly heights.

Simmons devotes a section in the beginning of the book to in-depth descriptions of honey varieties, how-tos for hosting a comparison tasting, and cheese and honey pairings. She sat with a cheese expert, and together they sampled platters of different cheeses with types of honey. Here is some of Simmons’ advice on the topic:

“Colors of honey: Notice the colors play into the flavor notes. Orange blossom honey, for instance, is a delicate floral honey and like other more lightly colored, floral honeys. It goes best with full-fat dairy: whole-milk yogurt, heavy cream; I love orange or lemon blossom honey with a sweet rich fresh goat cheese. It tastes like lemon meringue pie. Also cream cheese cake with orange blossom honey is amazing.

“As the color of honey darkens, the flavors become more pronounced. Wildflower honey with its spectrum of flavors from fennel to rosemary to goldenrod to fruit blossom to spice notes can be fabulous with a mildly salty/fatty cheese. I like it especially with the buttery and nutty notes in Comte or Gruyere cheese.

“The only cheeses that can be challenging with honey are the bloomy rind type: Camembert, Brie, etc., although there are some bright lights in that arena as well.”

 

jackson_honeypeanutbrittle

jackson_honeypeanutbrittle
Picture 1 of 3

Salted honey peanut brittle. Credit: Brooke Jackson

As part of her research, Simmons traveled around visiting beekeepers and learning about their craft. One such interesting character is Earl Flewellen, an apiarist and restaurateur in Port Costa, Calif., who used a Kickstarter campaign to launch his bee farm. He serves his honey and other goodies at the Honey House Cafe in this village perched on the Carquinez Strait of San Francisco Bay. His recipe for caramel-like Honey Butter Sauce is included in the book.

Simmons’ journey of writing “Taste of Honey” taught her about unusual honeys, how they are sourced and collected, and the myriad ways this miracle of nature can be used for eating and health. Ultimately, it led her to her sweet spot, an urban farmstead in Eugene, Ore., where she has a small garden plot and raises chickens for eggs and, of course, bees for honey.

Here is an easy, delicious recipe from the book. Simmons suggests an everyday honey variety, such as clover or orange blossom, for the brittle.

Salted Honey Peanut Brittle

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 24 pieces.

Adapted from “Taste of Honey” by Marie Simmons.

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing foil
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup honey
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons coarse salt, divided
  • 1½ cups dry-roasted, lightly salted peanuts

Directions

  1. Line a sheet pan with lightly buttered foil.
  2. Combine the butter, sugar, honey, cream and 1 teaspoon salt in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan. Heat over medium-low, stirring until the mixture comes to a boil.
  3. Boil, stirring frequently, over medium to medium-low heat for 4 to 5 minutes or until the mixture turns a deep amber color. Adjust the heat to maintain a steady boil and stir to keep the mixture from boiling over or scorching.
  4. Stir in the peanuts. Immediately scrape the mixture onto the prepared pan, spreading it in a single layer with a rubber spatula.
  5. Sprinkle the surface evenly with remaining 1 teaspoon salt.
  6. Cool thoroughly, about 1 hour. Lift from the pan. Break into irregularly shaped pieces. Stored at room temperature in a cool, dry place, the brittle keeps indefinitely.

Main photo: Earl Flewellen’s Honey Butter Sauce. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Read More