Articles in People
Cooking for dinner parties should be fun. If the occasion is a holiday, a birthday or a personal landmark, celebrating at home with a meal cements relationships with friends and family. But when preparing the meal is too much work, the fun goes away.
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With relative ease, chef Nicole Heaney shows how to create a flavorful dish featuring a filet of fish that is perfect for entertaining. The key for a dinner party, as she demonstrates, is a little planning.
In the kitchen at Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar in Monterey, California, chef de cuisine Heaney shows how to prepare sablefish with crispy skin in a brown butter sauce. Adding flavor, Heaney pairs the rich, fatty fish with al dente Brussels sprouts, creamy farro cooked risotto-style and savory apple puree to add acid and sweetness.
Key to making the festive plate is the combination of four elements, each of which takes very little effort to create. And of the four, three can be made ahead. The Brussels sprouts, farro and apple puree can be made hours ahead of the dinner or even the day before. Then, just before serving, reheat the three components and cook the sablefish as your guests are sitting down ready for a celebration.
For a delicious vegan and vegetarian meal, leave out the fish and serve the Brussels sprouts, farro and apple puree.
A kitchen with a view
Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar is the main restaurant at the Monterey Plaza Hotel on Cannery Row. Working with executive chef James Waller, Heaney cooks in a kitchen with a view of Monterey Bay. Growing up in Wyoming and working in Colorado and New Mexico, Heaney was an adult before she saw the Pacific Ocean.
She confesses that, even after a year at the restaurant, when baby humpback whales swim close to the restaurant, she joins the other kitchen staff members to rush outside for a closer look from the dining patio. There they watch as the whales breach for a long moment before disappearing in the cold blue water.
Her cooking is influenced by the time she spent in Sedona at Mii amo Café. Preparing meals for health-conscious guests of the resort and spa, Heaney learned the importance of clean, fresh flavors. Fats were kept to a minimum. The kitchen did not use butter or cream. Asian ingredients and techniques were frequently used.
The regime is not as strict at Schooners, but Heaney still creates dishes with distinctive flavors and innovative ingredients like the kelp noodles she uses to make her version of pad thai.
An avid reader of Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” she knows that the more you understand the chemistry of cooking, the better you can control the results. In her video demonstration, she points out the importance of using acid to round out flavors, as in the savory apple puree and farro risotto.
The apples Heaney uses are grown locally on the Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville, California. She recommends using Gala apples in the recipe. Heaney leaves on the peels to add flavor and color. Because the apples will be pureed, there is no need to cut them precisely.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Final assembly time: 5 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 3 cups sauce
4 large Gala apples, washed, pat dried, peels on
1 yellow onion, washed, peeled and trimmed, roughly chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup bourbon (optional)
Unsweetened apple juice to cover
Freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste
Kosher salt to taste
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1. Heat a large saucepan on a medium flame.
2. Cut open the apples. Remove and discard the core and seeds. Do not peel the apples. Cut the apples into large pieces.
3. Drizzle olive oil into saucepan, add onion and apples and sauté together until translucent.
4. Add bourbon (optional). Cook off the alcohol, which may catch fire. Be careful not to singe your eyebrows as chef Heaney once did.
5. Cover with unsweetened apple juice. Simmer on medium heat until reduced by half and the apples soften and begin to break down.
6. Puree in a large blender. Start blending on a low speed and progress to a higher speed until the puree is smooth.
7. Taste and season with lemon juice, apple cider vinegar and kosher salt.
8. If preparing ahead, store refrigerated in a sealed container.
9. Just before serving, reheat. Taste and adjust the seasoning and, if the puree is too thin, continue reducing on a medium flame to thicken.
Farro Risotto Fit for a Dinner Party
Cooking farro risotto-style means heating and hydrating the grain as if it were Arborio rice. Substituting farro for rice adds a nutty flavor. Heaney prefers her farro al dente but that choice is entirely personal. Many people prefer their risotto softer rather than al dente.
Better quality ingredients yield a better result. With risotto, that means using quality rice or, in this case, farro. The stock is as important. Canned stocks are available, but they are high in sodium content and can have an off-putting aroma. Homemade stocks are preferable. Any good quality stock can be used — beef, pork, chicken or seafood. For vegetarians and vegans, the farro can be prepared with vegetable broth and without the butter or Asiago cheese.
The cooking time may vary depending on the farro.
Like other whole spices, pepper has volatile oils. To preserve the freshness of its flavor, Heaney prefers to grind the peppercorns just before using.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 30 to 45 minutes
Final assembly time: 5 minutes
Total time: 40 to 55 minutes
Yield: serves 4
64 ounces hot stock, preferably homemade, can be vegetable, beef, pork, chicken or seafood
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice
1 large carrot, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice
2 large celery stalks, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice
3 garlic cloves, washed, peeled, rimmed, minced (optional)
16 ounces farro
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
1 bunch Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, leaves chopped fine
1 tablespoon chives, washed, chopped fine
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, washed, chopped fine
1 cup shredded Asiago cheese (optional)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt to taste
Black peppercorns, freshly ground, to taste
1. In a saucepan, heat stock on a low flame.
2. Heat a separate medium saucepan over a medium flame. When hot, add olive oil and sauté onions, carrots and celery until the vegetables are translucent.
3. Add farro. Stir well and sauté until lightly toasted.
4. Add garlic (optional) and sauté until translucent but do not brown.
5. Deglaze the pan with white wine. Cook until alcohol is fully cooked out.
6. Add hot stock in 6- to 8-ounce portion. Stir well.
7. As stock is absorbed, add more stock and stir well. Do not scald the farro.
8. Each time the stock is absorbed, add more stock until the liquid becomes cloudy and the farro softens.
9. If the farro is being made ahead, when the farro is soft but not yet soft enough to eat, or 75 percent cooked, remove from the burner, allow to cool and refrigerate in a sealed container.
10. If continuing to cook or if reheating, taste and continue cooking the farro until it is al dente or to your liking. Set aside until the fish is cooked.
11. Just before serving, to finish, add sweet butter (optional) and stir into the heated farro until melted.
12. Add Asiago cheese (optional) and stir well to melt.
13. Taste and season with fresh lemon juice, salt and freshly ground black pepper.
14. Just before plating, sprinkle in chopped fine parsley, chives and thyme and stir well.
15. Serve hot and plate as described below.
Caramelized Brussels Sprouts
Heaney prefers her Brussels sprouts al dente. Some people like them softer, in which case, after the Brussels sprouts are washed, trimmed and halved, blanch them in salted boiling water for two minutes, drain and then sauté as directed below.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Final assembly time: 5 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: serves 4
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 pound medium-sized Brussels sprouts, washed, discolored leaves removed, ends trimmed, halved
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black peppercorns to taste
1. Heat a large sauté pan.
2. Add extra virgin olive oil and halved Brussels sprouts.
3. Season to taste with kosher salt and black pepper.
4. Stir well to prevent burning. Sauté until Brussels sprouts are caramelized on both sides.
5. If the sprouts are to be served later or the next day, when they are cooked 75 percent, remove from the burner, allow to cool and refrigerate in an airtight container.
6. When the fish is cooking, heat the sauté pan with a small amount of olive oil. Add the cooked Brussels sprouts to reheat and plate with the fish, farro risotto and apple puree.
Crispy-Skin Sablefish in a Brown Butter Sauce
Also called black cod, sablefish is not actually cod. Heaney uses sablefish caught in nearby Morro Bay. She likes cooking the fish because it is almost “bulletproof.” The flesh is difficult to overcook and is almost always moist, flavorful and delicate.
In order to achieve a crispy skin, Heaney has developed a simple technique described in the directions. She recommends buying a wooden-handled fish spatula with a beveled edge, which helps remove the fish from the pan. The spatula is preferable to tongs, which tend to break apart the filets.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5 to 10 minutes
Final assembly time: 5 minutes
Total time: 15-20 minutes
Yield: serves 4
4 6-ounce skin-on filets of sablefish or black cod, washed, pat dried
1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sweet butter
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, leaves only, finely chopped
1. Season each filet with kosher salt and black pepper on both sides.
2. Heat a large sauté pan on a medium-high flame. When the pan is hot, reduce the flame to medium-low.
3. Add the olive oil. Allow the oil to heat.
4. Place the filets into the pan, skin side down. Do not overcrowd the pan, allowing space between each filet. If the filets are crowded together, the skin will not crisp.
Sear but do not burn the skin.
Jiggle the pan. That will help prevent the filets from sticking to the pan. If they do stick, use the fish spatula to gently release them from the bottom of the pan.
5. Add sweet butter to the pan and swirl around the filets.
6. Let the filets cook without fussing too much. The fish is cooked when the flesh is opaque.
7. Using the fish spatula, gently flip each filet over. Swirl the filets into the melted butter, being careful to brown but not burn the butter.
After 30 seconds, use a spoon to baste the filets with the melted butter.
8. At this point, the fish is cooked. Add parsley for color and season with lemon juice.
Put the saucepan to the side.
Assembling the dish:
Plate the fish when everyone is seated at the table.
All of the elements — fish, apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto — should be hot and ready to serve.
Select a large plate. Using the back of a soup spoon, spread a tablespoon of the apple puree across the plate. Add a good portion of the farro risotto in the middle of the plate, then the caramelized Brussels sprouts.
Gently add the sablefish filet, crispy skin side up. Spoon a little bit of the brown butter on top of the filet, farro and Brussels sprouts. And as chef Heaney says, “That is it.”
Serve the dish hot with a crisp white wine and let the festivities begin.
Main photo: Chef Nicole Heaney shows her sablefish with apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
With Europe on edge after the bombings in Paris, it is good to be reminded of the joy of sharing a meal with strangers. But what happens when you don’t know anyone at a dinner party, not even the host?
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During a recent evening in Brussels, I rang the doorbell of a complete stranger’s home promptly at 7 p.m. His ground-floor apartment was in an art nouveau-style row house built in the 1930s. The door opened, and Maher, an Egyptian political science Ph.D. candidate at Ghent University, gave me a warm welcome. (He, like other hosts of such dinners, chooses not to publicize his full name.)
I was the first to arrive for his “Egyptian Evening” (dinner and a movie), and as I took off my coat in the entryway, I resisted the temptation to blurt out that famous quote from “A Streetcar Named Desire”:
“I’ve always depended on the kindness (and in this case, the cooking skills) of strangers.”
BookaLokal — a new dining experience
Maher is just one of nearly 1,000 BookaLokal hosts in 47 countries, in more than 100 cities around the world. BookaLokal is a group dining website. To sign up for a dinner, go to bookalokal.com, choose which city you wish to dine in, browse the dinners, choose one and pay online.
The site was founded in 2012 in the Brussels kitchen of Evelyne White, a 32-year-old harpist, travel enthusiast and former investor from New York. I got to ask her a few questions before the dinner. Here’s what she told me about this unique dining experience.
How did you come up with the idea for BookaLokal?
Evelyne White: “I was inspired by the success of ‘sharing’ companies like Airbnb. If people can open their homes to strangers, why not open their kitchens and dining room tables?”
How does BookaLokal differ from other group dining sites?
Evelyne White: “BookaLokal has the widest range of hosts, from amateur hosts to professional chefs. Whereas some of our competitor sites only allow top chefs to join the site, we believe the best experiences can sometimes come from people like you and me, who are just passionate about hosting and meeting new people.”
This was certainly true of Maher, who is also the former editor-in-chief of The Daily News Egypt. He was an engaging host who gently steered us through the evening as if we were all old chums. We were a cozy group of eight in all (if you include one guest’s toddler), who hailed from countries such as Egypt, Portugal, Turkey and America.
Meals made with love
The homemade dinner, served buffet-style, was simple and delicious: baba ganoush and pita bread; vegetables (peas, zucchini and carrots) cooked in tomato sauce and flavored with pepper, cinnamon and lemon juice; and kebab halla (beef cooked in creamy onion sauce) served with rice.
After serving ourselves, we settled down in the darkened living room to eat our dinner in front of “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an entertaining, thought-provoking Egyptian feminist film from 1959, which Maher projected on his living room wall.
Maher isn’t the only host with creative dining ideas: From a recent look at what’s offered on the BookaLokal website, choices include “Dinner Served on a Vintage Boat, Docked in the Amalfi Harbor,” Amalfi, Italy ($55); “Pig Roast and Comfort Food,” Washington, D.C. ($50); and “Dinner Inspired by Famous Food Quotes,” given by a former opera singer in New York City ($100).
A variety of venues
In addition to dinner, some hosts provide a variety of other eating and drinking experiences, such as “Seville Tapas and Wine Tour,” Spain ($50), and “Indian Buffet and Bollywood Dance Lesson,” Belgium ($42).
Worried about language barriers? Languages spoken by each host are listed on their profile page. Maher speaks English and Arabic; Ester, who lives in Rome, speaks Italian, English and Spanish.
“Our hosts come in all shapes and sizes,” said White. “We have culinary students, experienced host families, supper club organizers, and people with a passion for sharing their culture and connecting with new people.”
What are BookaLokal’s plans for the future?
Evelyne White: “Although BookaLokal started as a social dining site (a place to meet new people), we are seeing increased interest in private dining. If a host serves amazing Portuguese food for groups of six to 10 guests, why not book the host for a dinner with your own group of 10 friends?”
After the Egyptian film, we helped ourselves to more wine and Egyptian black tea (with cloves), and had a relaxed discussion about the film, women’s rights and Egyptian politics. Talking with people you don’t know within the confines of dinner at a stranger’s house is oddly liberating — perhaps similar to the surprise and delight of striking up pleasant conversations with strangers on an airplane. BookaLokal is a great dining choice for tourists visiting a new country, expats living abroad, and anyone interested in being inspired — and maybe even transported to another culture — by good food and stimulating conversation. As the Egyptian evening came to an end, I was reminded of another quote, this one from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savairn’s book “The Physiology of Taste” (1825):
“Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travelers due to reach their destination together.”
Main photo: The “Dinner at the Artist’s Home and Studio” in Amsterdam ($37 per person) featured ciabatta with salmon, crème fraîche, horseradish and dill; lasagna with pancetta and artichoke; and affogato al caffè. The hostess’s apartment is on the ground floor facing the IJ harbor, and when the weather is nice, she serves dinner outside on the quay. Credit: Copyright 2015 www.petrahart.com
Thanksgiving is the best of times. Friends and family gather together to celebrate one another and the season. And yet there is the nagging problem of devising a menu that protects tradition but still surprises. Chef Keith Stich has an answer. Use the flavors of Mexico. In his kitchen at Red O Restaurant in Santa Monica, California, Stich demonstrated how to spice up a traditional succotash by adding Mexican ingredients.
The Santa Monica restaurant is one of a dozen restaurants and bistros opened by chef Rick Bayless, well known for his many awards, cookbooks and television appearances. When Bayless was looking for a chef to help him expand his Southern California operation, he searched for chefs who shared his passion for Mexican cooking. Stich was selected for a cook-off in Chicago at Bayless’ Frontera Grill.
Inspired for succotash fusion
Growing up, Stich loved eating Mexican food. As a young chef, he specialized in the preparation of steak and seafood in restaurants in Colorado and California. He learned to cook dishes with strong, clean flavors. For the competition at Frontera Grill, Stich had to prepare one entrée. Four chefs competed. Stich would win or lose the job based on whether Bayless liked his lobster enchiladas.
The competition among the chefs was tough. But Bayless was impressed. He hired Stich to open Red O in Newport Beach. In a competitive setting, the restaurant did very well. After Newport Beach, Stich was asked to open the restaurant across from the Santa Monica pier, a prime tourist destination, and as corporate executive chef to oversee all three of the Southern California restaurants with more planned in the future.
Celebrating fresh, seasonal ingredients
As the seasons change and the cooks come up with innovations, Stich proposes new dishes to Bayless either over the phone or in person. Sometimes he’ll fly to Chicago and prepare the dishes in the Frontera Grill kitchen. Once Bayless signs off on the new dishes, Stich updates the Red O menus on the West Coast.
Making everything from scratch is an essential part of the Red O identity. Fresh limes and oranges are juiced in-house. All the salsas and sauces are made fresh. The produce comes from local purveyors and the farmers markets. In that sense, the West Coast cooks have a distinct advantage over their Midwestern colleagues. Leafy greens are available in abundance in January at the farmers markets in Los Angeles long before they appear in the Chicago markets.
Adding a Mexican twist to a classic
To create a flavorful side dish that would go well with traditional Thanksgiving dishes, Stich used butternut squash, the quintessential fall vegetable, as a substitute for beans in succotash. He gave the dish a flavor boost by adapting the restaurant’s street corn side dish. To the squash he added dry-salty cotija cheese, earthy poblano peppers and spicy cilantro.
So this Thanksgiving as you help yourself to slices of turkey, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, roasted sweet potatoes and green bean casserole, now you can add spice to tradition with a large serving of Mexican succotash.
Street Corn and Butternut Squash Succotash
Given how busy Thanksgiving Day can be, an advantage of Stich’s succotash is that all the elements can be cooked the day ahead and refrigerated in airtight containers. Just before serving, when the turkey is resting and the gravy is simmering, the succotash can be given a final sauté on the stove and served with the other dishes.
Poblano chilies and cotija cheese are available in Latin markets. In order to achieve the Mexican flavor profile, the chilies cannot be substituted with green bell peppers; nor can the cotija cheese be replaced with feta cheese.
Because corn season is ending, Stich suggests buying fresh corn now if possible, boiling the cobs as directed, cutting off the kernels and freezing in corn stock, which is made as described below. Cover the kernels with the stock, seal and freeze. The stock will protect the kernels from freezer burn. The day before using, defrost the containers. Strain out the kernels and use them as indicated in the recipe. Reserve and refreeze the corn stock to use in soups and stocks.
When fresh corn is not available in the markets, frozen corn may be substituted, but not canned corn.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Final assembly time: 5 minutes
Total time: 60 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 ears of yellow corn, shucked, washed
1 small butternut squash, washed, seeded, diced, yielding 1½ cups
1 small red onion, washed, peeled, trimmed, diced, yielding ½ cup
1 roasted large poblano chili, washed, charred, seeded, cleaned, yielding ¾ cup cooked
2 tablespoon grated cotija cheese plus ½ tablespoon as garnish
½ tablespoon fresh cilantro, washed, leaves only, finely chopped
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½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon canola oil
Sea salt to taste
1 tablespoon micro cilantro (optional)
2 tablespoons sour cream or Mexican creama (optional)
1. Preheat a grill.
2. Boil the corn on the cobs in water uncovered for 30 minutes.
3. Remove the corn from the water. Using tongs, place the corn on the hot grill. Turn frequently until the outside is slightly charred.
4. Place the grilled ears of corn into a bowl of water with two cups of ice cubes.
5. Once the corn is chilled, use a sharp knife and cut off the kernels. As much as possible, keep the kernels together in slabs. Set aside and if not using until the next day, place in an airtight container and refrigerate.
6. If the kernels are to be frozen, place the cobs back in the hot water. Boil another 30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by half. Set aside to cool. Then place the cooked kernels in an airtight container and cover with the corn stock. Seal and freeze.
7. Peel the butternut squash, removing the outer skin, seeds and fibers inside. Discard. Using a sharp knife, cut the squash into ¼-inch dice.
8. Add the kosher salt to a pot of water. Bring to a boil. Add the diced squash and cook quickly, approximately 45 to 60 seconds or until fork tender.
9. Prepare an ice bath. Strain the cooked squash and place into the ice bath to chill. Set aside and if not using until the next day, refrigerate in an airtight container.
10. Place the poblano chili over a high flame on the stove burner. Char the outside, turning often to evenly blister the skin. Remove and place under running water. Rinse off the blackened skin. Cut open the chili. Remove the stem and all the seeds and discard. Cut the poblano into ¼-inch dice.
11. Finely grate the cotija cheese. Set aside and if not using until the next day, refrigerate in an airtight container.
12. With all the elements cooked and prepped, all that is needed is to combine and lightly sauté the ingredients. Heat a large saucepan. Add the canola oil.
13. Sauté the diced red onion until translucent and lightly browned. Add the poblano chili, stir well to heat, then add butternut squash and corn kernels until all ingredients are hot.
14. Sprinkle the cotija cheese on top and heat until the cheese melts. Mix in the chopped cilantro.
15. Transfer the succotash to a serving bowl. Garnish with more grated cotija. Decorate with dollops of sour cream or Mexican creama (optional) and micro cilantro (optional). Serve hot.
Main photo: Red O Restaurant Thanksgiving succotash made with corn, poblano chilies, butternut squash, onion, cotija cheese and cilantro. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Six small offset spatulas. A stainless steel falafel maker. A Tiffany bowl weighing as much as a bowling ball. A set of measuring cups with broken handles. This was just a random sampling of the miscellany populating my kitchen countertops on Day One of a decluttering extravaganza.
By the time I’d pulled out my every culinary possession from the shelves, cupboards and drawers, I was stunned by the flea market collection I’d amassed in the dozen years since a complete kitchen remodel.
If you recognize this decluttering spree as one inspired by the KonMari method sweeping the nation, you’d be right. The only caveat is that as a professional cook and cookbook author, clothing — the category the best-selling Japanese author Marie Kondo puts at the top of her “start here” list — was not exactly my biggest issue. Instead, I had shelves stuffed with cookbooks from past writing projects, scrappy old cookware and a motley collection of chopsticks in need of retirement, just to start.
As I contemplated the state of my kitchen, I realized that the American “cooking room” represents a culturally unique problem compared wirth the Japanese kitchen. Often the largest room in the house, the kitchen is as much a social gathering space as a functional space — not to mention a convenient storage space for culinary and everyday items alike. In short, our kitchens are a complete mess!
So, here’s how I adapted this international organizing expert’s advice and cleaned up my act.
Five categories for kitchens
One of the premises of Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” is that decluttering room by room is a common pitfall. Her foolproof strategy centers on cleaning according to a list of clutter-prone categories (clothing, books, papers, and so on.) But, as there was no category for my set of Perrier Jouët champagne glasses, warped cutting board or dusty soup tureen, I was forced to take some liberties — a lot of them, in fact.
Taking stock of all the items unique to kitchens, I constructed a top-five list — appliances, pots and pans, dishes and glassware, knives and utensils, and cookbooks — for a decluttering action plan.
Array everything you own with a plug on the counter and count them up. Does the number surprise you? Now, give away every single one that does not inspire you to whip up something in it you haven’t made in a while. (I consider this the culinary equivalent of Kondo’s decision-making question, “Does it bring you joy?”)
Pots and pans
It’s likely you cook most meals in the same two favorite pans. There are your keepers. Toss out the redundant and the worn out, unless it’s cast iron that just needs some TLC. Save your one good pasta/soup pot, preferably with a steamer insert, plus a saucepan. Commit to buying open stock cookware (never sets) of your most beloved brand forever more.
Dishes and glassware
Unless you’re hosting monthly pop-ups at your place you probably have more serving pieces, including plates, bowls, coffee mugs and juice glasses than your family needs. Keep your favorites. Consider, like I did, putting your wedding china to everyday use.
Knives and utensils
Line up your knives and select the one you reach for without thinking, the one that also feels good in your hand. Ideally, this is a chef’s knife or utility knife. Add in the best paring knife you own, then get them both sharpened. (This is all you need unless you practice a bit of home butchery.) Similarly for cooking utensils — spatulas, spoons, whisks — we all own more than we need. Whittle down to the essential.
With Internet recipes at your fingertips, cookbooks now have a different role in our lives. I honed my collection from hundreds down to dozens, holding onto only those I wanted to read or browse in my hands. As for the host of recipe files and clippings, those belong in Kondo’s “sentimental” category, so save those for a rainy day.
By following this list methodically, I quickly eliminated tired, outmoded, unloved and otherwise useless belongings while rediscovering the joy inherent in Le Creuset Dutch ovens, a few good knives and a solid cutting board readily on hand. All that newfound linear feet of shelving breathed with space and light. And so did I.
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Due to the vast quantities of kitchen belongings covering every free counter, chair and floor space within minutes, I used liquor boxes, which are just the right size for gathering cluttered items in the same category and don’t get too heavy. They’re also easily moved, so you can clear space on the dining table to eat a meal. Still, I recommend blitzing through this project. And bank on ordering takeout.
Once I’d conquered these top five categories, I was inspired in subsequent days to winnow the spice cabinets, then the cooking oils and the host of forgotten dry goods. But these areas are for extra credit only.
There is just one obligatory final task before you sit back to enjoy a well-earned glass of wine in your favorite stemware: Throw out all of your oven mitts as well as the dish towels with stains, holes and burns and buy new ones immediately. No questions asked.
Main photo: A best-seller inspires the urge to declutter a kitchen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Joe Whittle Photography
It doesn’t matter where you live or what language you speak: Good food can bring strangers to a table and, in a short period of time, make them friends. But in Palmar Grande, a town in the Dominican Republic, it’s doing something even more powerful: It’s creating social and economic change.
In this country, 40% of the populace lives below the poverty line, and the average household income is below $6,000. For a group of 30 women who needed to work but didn’t want to leave their families in search of jobs, the solution was to band together: In 2008, they created Chocal. Cacao is a primary crop for area farmers, so making chocolate seemed a natural choice. Along with ready-to-eat artisanal sweets, they sell bolas, which are used to make hot chocolate, and even tropical wines in flavors like cherry, star fruit, tangerine and, of course, cocoa. I met many members of this women’s collective when visiting the area as a guest of the cruise line Fathom.
The nuts of chocolate-factory work…
Their rustic facility may not have the polished image that one typically associates with chocolatiers. It’s located off the beaten path on the island’s north coast, where travelers by foot and horseback comprise a regular portion of daily traffic. But it’s obviously loved and cared for, and the aroma of roasting cocoa beans lets you know you’re in the right place.
Making chocolate is nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds. Far from the shiny, modern kitchens of television cooking shows, Chocal has only basic machinery; much of the work is done the old-fashioned way. A group of gals sorting cocoa beans by hand while keeping a watchful eye on the roasting machines is the closest thing you’ll find to an assembly line here.
…And the bolts
The aluminum-like foil to wrap chocolate bars is cut by hand, using a sturdy piece of cardboard as a guide to ensure the size is right. After the foil covers are folded around hand-molded rectangular blocks, a decorative wrapper is secured in place by a steady pair of hands wielding a glue gun. The women smile as they talk about their work, and even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish, it’s obvious they love what they do.
Some are here five days a week, others are part-time; Chocal isn’t the type of business that’s run by crunching numbers. When a big order comes in, many will pick up weekend shifts. And the night before an order ships, it’s not unusual to find all the women working late. When help is needed, whether on the factory floor or in the office, someone is always there.
Measuring sweet success
To an outsider, the odds of Chocal’s success might seem slim. Some of the women — who range from about 30 to over 50 years old — are unable to read or write, and none had culinary training when they began the company. But throw the classic business model out the window, and what’s left is a group of women who believed chocolate could be used to cultivate their community. “We wanted to change our quality of life,” founder Noemi Crisostomo told me through a translator. At 38, the mother of three children ages 15 to 22 has gone from unemployment to co-ownership in record time.
Over a decade, the collective has grown at a healthy pace. When it began, the women volunteered their time; today they receive wages, but a majority of their profits is being used to pay back a government loan that allowed them to renovate their facilities and invest in some machinery to improve production. Still, the pay they do receive is helping to make big changes in their lives and the lives of their families. Crisostomo is one of two of the women now studying at a local university; another’s son is also enrolled thanks to earnings from Chocal. Cement has replaced dirt in the floors of many of their homes. Their kitchens are stocked with better food, and their kids have new books and clothes for school.
A new opportunity for growth
Their sweet goods are now stocked on the shelves of a major local grocery chain. But growth means expanding into new markets and developing the flexibility to respond to increased yet still fluctuating demand. Chocal may have found a way to deal with both in cruise line Fathom.
The connection makes great business sense. Fathom is reinventing the idea of a cruise vacation by adding volunteer opportunities to the package. When travelers arrive at Amber Cove, the Caribbean’s first new cruise port in nearly a decade, they won’t flock to the beach — they’ll head to Chocal’s kitchen to help make chocolate.
With activities like sorting through cocoa beans and tempering chocolate, this field trip for ship guests sounds like a cooking class, but it’s actually a sweet community-service project. Chocolate-making cruisers have the potential to boost Chocal’s production and push an ambitious group of remarkable entrepreneurs to the next level of success.
Of course, after a day of rolling up their sleeves and creating chocolate confections, the travelers turned freelance chocolatiers are sure to buy a few bars to take home. (I know from experience that it’s hard to resist.) As more cruise ships dock here, more tourists buy chocolate. It’s a vacation sugar rush that’s good for everyone involved.
Main photo: Inspecting cacao beans at Chocal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann
Grenache is in the midst of a renaissance in California, proving that decades of abuse can’t keep a great wine grape down. Two decades ago, it was being pulled out of California vineyards at an alarming rate. An increasingly sophisticated American wine-drinking public was giving up the simple, fruity jug wines into which most California Grenache had gone in favor of darker, more robust red grapes. Between 1994 and 2004, Grenache acreage declined from 12,107 to 7,762, and to 5,909 in 2014.
A tale of two Grenaches
At the same time, Grenache has never received so much buzz. Writers with such diverse tastes as Wine Spectator’s James Laube (“Grenache … is proving to be one of the most exciting and enticing wines to emerge in California in the past decade, capable of stardom”) and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné (“The hopes for Grenache ascendent have come to pass”) have championed the grape in recent years. And wineries are betting on Grenache’s future. A search in Wine Spectator’s California ratings database for Grenache from the 1994 vintage returns 11 matches, just two of which were red wines labeled Grenache (an additional three were Grenache rosés, and the other six blends that included the grape). By 2004, the same search returns 30 matches, 13 of which were labeled Grenache. From 2012 (the most recent vintage for which most reds have been submitted for review), the search returns 130 matches, 45 of which were labeled Grenache.
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Both the decline and the renaissance can be understood by looking at where Grenache was and is being planted. In 1994, just 256 acres, less than 2 percent of the total, was found in the coastal or mountain counties that make California’s best wines. The rest was found in the deep, fertile soils of the Central Valley, where it was a key component of the field blends that went unacknowledged into jug wines (think “Hearty Burgundy” and the like). As those wines lost popularity in the American market, so too did the demand for the simple, fruity juice that Grenache produced in its Central Valley home.
But all locations are not the same for California Grenache. Over the same two decades that overall acreage has declined by more than half, the acreage in the high-quality coastal and mountain areas increased 437 percent, to 1,376 acres. Even so, in premium areas, Grenache has become downright scarce, even though it is productive and easy to grow. In the Central Coast, Grenache is now one of the most in-demand grapes and commands a premium price, averaging $1,797 per ton in 2014, higher than Merlot ($1,056 a ton), Syrah ($1,357 a ton), Zinfandel ($1,407 a ton) and even Cabernet Sauvignon ($1,464 a ton).
The world’s grape
Grenache is long overdue for its California renaissance. Widely planted in France, Spain and Australia, Grenache is the world’s second-most-planted grape by acreage. It makes up some 60 percent of the acreage in the Rhone Valley and 70 percent of the acreage in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Add in significant plantings in Spain and Australia, as well as the thousands of acres in California, and Grenache accounts for the second-greatest worldwide acreage of any wine grape.
It is little surprise why. Grenache is a vigorous grape, relatively easy to grow and productive. It produces fruit with both good sugars (producing full body) and good acids (maintaining freshness). It makes wines that are nearly always cheerful, full of fruit and refreshing. There’s a useful white-skinned variant (Grenache Blanc) and even a pink-skinned one (Grenache Gris).
Whether in a Cotes-du-Rhone or a Rioja, an Australian GSM or a Provence rosé, wines based on Grenache provide enormous pleasure for a typically reasonable price.
So what happened in California?
The bad old days
Grenache in California has had a checkered history. Largely planted in the Central Valley and irrigated extensively because of its ability to produce enormous crops when given enough water, Grenache formed the (unacknowledged) core of many of the jug wines in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve heard tales of Grenache producing as much as 20 tons per acre in parts of the Central Valley. Even as recently as 2012, California’s Grape Crush Pricing District 13 (including Fresno, Madera and Tulare Counties, which contains most of the Central Valley Grenache acreage) produced 50,029 tons of fruit from 3,640 acres of Grenache: an average of 13.7 tons per acre. For comparison, our highest-ever yield per acre from our vineyard was 3.6 tons per acre, in 2006.
As you might expect, grapes produced at those massive yields are rarely distinguished. And in the rare cases where it was bottled on its own in the 1960s and 1970s, “California Grenache” was simple, light in color, and often sweet. The grape had fallen decisively out of favor by the 1980s, when a new generation of producers, mostly in Napa, focused their attention, and the attention of the American market, on the classic grapes of Bordeaux. Acreage in California declined correspondingly, from a peak near 20,000 acres in the 1980s to 11,000 acres in 2000 and just 5,909 acres today.
And yet, in the reasons for Grenache’s decline lie the seeds of its rebirth.
Why now, for Grenache?
Several factors are driving a new interest in Grenache. First, the whole category of Rhone varieties has a new generation of devotees, both among consumers and among producers. American producers, inspired by the growing availability of high-quality examples from the Rhone Valley and convinced that California’s Mediterranean climate should be a congenial one for the Rhone’s Mediterranean grapes, started making wine in increasing numbers through the 1990s. With critical mass came organizations like Rhone Rangers, Hospice du Rhone and the Grenache Association, all dedicated to providing Rhone lovers a community in which to discover new favorites.
The American wine market’s increasing openness to new varieties, and the growth of the tasting room culture, allowed many of these maverick producers to connect with enthusiastic customers in a way that would have been inconceivable two decades ago. Blends, too, have become a hot category in recent years, and it’s hard to think of a grape that has benefited more than Grenache, whose combination of full body, generous fruit, moderate tannins and refreshing acidity make it an exemplary blending partner.
Grenache can be made in many styles, from robust and high-octane to ethereal and highly spiced, which allows it to appeal to both winemakers looking to make wines to impress with their hedonistic appeal, and those looking to make wines that are more ethereal and intellectual.
And yet, it’s likely that none of this would have happened without new clones.
Clones to the rescue
At Tablas Creek, we brought in clones of all our grapes from our partners at Beaucastel, and Grenache was a major reason why we decided to go through the considerable time and expense of doing so. When we started to research the available clones of Grenache in California, we were not excited by what we found: enormous clusters with massive berries, much larger than we were used to seeing at Beaucastel, with flavors that were fruity and friendly enough but not exciting. Sure, some of that could be attributed to being overirrigated, overcropped and planted in the wrong places, but we thought there was something inherently different about the raw material. It was this conclusion that cemented our decision to bring in our own clones from France rather than make the best of the clones that were available here.
We weren’t the only people to bring in new clones of Grenache, but the net effect of the arrival of new clones in the mid-1990s was dramatic. A new generation of producers started planting Grenache in the high-quality coastal and mountain appellations where its previous footprint had been negligible. Acreage statistics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that in coastal and foothills counties its acreage has grown at about 10 percent per year since 1995. The 1,000-plus acres of new plantings in high-quality areas has driven a critical resurgence for Grenache.
Celebrating Grenache’s present
How about the Rhone Rangers? This organization of some 120 wineries, mostly from California but also including producers of Grenache and other Rhone-style grapes from Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Arizona and Michigan, holds two big events each year, in San Francisco (late spring) and in Los Angeles (Nov. 6-7). It also oversees local chapters in Paso Robles, El Dorado, California North Coast, Santa Barbara, and Virginia, and has organized a traveling show that has taken Grenache and its brethren in recent years to Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York and Seattle. For information, visit Rhone Rangers.
Hospice du Rhone has celebrated producers working with Rhone varieties with a four-day blowout of seminars, tastings, lunches, dinners, an auction and a legendary collection of after-hours parties most years since 1991. The 2016 celebration will be held in Paso Robles on April 14-16. For more, visit Hospice du Rhone.
The wines of France’s Rhone Valley are predominantly Grenache, from humble Cotes du Rhones to the greatest Chateauneuf du Papes. This is also true of most southern French rosés. These are all promoted by Inter-Rhone. For a complete listing of their events and activities, visit Inter-Rhone’s website.
Grenache even has an international day, organized by the Grenache Association each year on the third Friday in September (this year, it was Sept. 18) with tastings organized in Rhone-producing regions from France to Australia to South Africa to California.
A bright future for Grenache
What’s next for Grenache here in America? It seems like it’s poised for a surge, for many reasons. Quality has never been better. In California, the grape is increasingly being planted in the right places, and just as important being pulled out of the wrong places. The clones that are available are better than they’ve ever been before. In general, the producers who are working with Grenache now are Rhone specialists, which suggests it’s in the hands of people who will know what to do with it, unlike, say, Syrah, which was planted speculatively in lots of the wrong locations by growers who were guessing at what California’s next big grape would be. (Syrah is only now recovering after years in the wilderness.)
In the vineyard, Grenache is particularly well suited to dry-farming, ever more important in a future where droughts are likely to become more frequent and more severe. And it has shown around the world it can thrive in many different soils, in a range of moderate to warm climates, and be made, according to a winemaker’s taste, in a variety of styles, from bright and spicy to deeply fruity and luscious.
The wine press and trade seems solidly behind Grenache right now; nearly every writer I’ve spoken with in the last few years has remarked on how they think Grenache is poised for greatness in America. And the market seems increasingly comfortable with blends, where Grenache shines.
Will Grenache be the next big thing in California? I’m not sure I would wish that on it. But will it see success over the coming decades? I think that’s an easy prediction.
Main photo: Suddenly, Grenache grown in California is coming back into favor. Credit: Copyright 2013 Tablas Creek Vineyard
Few of the commuters, shoppers and office staff in Manchester’s city center in northwest England know the roof of their historic cathedral is also home to around a quarter of a million workers.
They might feel some concern if they learn these other drones are, in fact, bees. Or they might marvel at the thought of “rus in urbe,” the rural pursuit of beekeeping in the crucible of the world’s great 19th-century Industrial Revolution. They might marvel as well as at the heavenly quality of the honey produced in these sacred surroundings.
Up on the roof
The project to keep bees on the leaden roof of the cathedral, which has medieval origins, was originally encouraged by its dean as part of the “Dig the City” urban garden initiative in 2012. The project has grown each year, as have the honey yields.
For the greater good
Honorary Canon Adrian Rhodes tends his hives with all the devotion of a biblical shepherd for his flock. In the fascinating structure of bee society, he sees some parallel with medieval monastery life where one person reigned supreme, all had their allotted jobs, the community came first and individuals would sacrifice their lives for the greater good — just as a bee dies once it has stung.
It is a recent calling for the former hospital chaplain and psychotherapist of international standing known as the “Canon Apiarist,” who also keeps bees and makes honey at his suburban Manchester home.
A modern twist
Urban and suburban beekeeping is a relatively modern activity but one that increasingly makes sense as monoculture, chemicals and loss of habitat, such as wild meadows and hedgerows, dominate the agricultural landscape.
And, according to Rhodes, city bees provide the best honey.
Sweet treat for bees
Honeybees can fly up to a kilometer from their hives, and inner-city Manchester provides fine foraging. Many canals and railway lines, remainders of extensive Victorian industrialization, have untouched verges. Allotments also provide some of the best hunting grounds, and in return the bees pollinate the produce.
Add to that roof gardens, window boxes, parks and tree-filled squares, and Rhodes’ “ladies” have no need to roam far from home. One lime tree in flower, he explains, can have as much potential as an acre of field. And, although the invasion of the Himalayan balsam plant is cursed by many, it is a sweet boon to the honeybees.
‘You can’t run away’
The cathedral runs a program to help the long-term unemployed, and Rhodes mentors a trainee beekeeper to help him or her learn important life skills.
“You’ve got to turn up on time, take orders and show patience, courage and calmness. The bees must always come first,” he says. “When you get thousands of them buzzing around you, it can be a bit scary but you can’t run away or abandon them. You have to complete the task and learn how to think under pressure.”
Calm above the city
It’s not just the trainees who take away these life lessons. As Rhodes says, “Beekeeping teaches me to take time out from a busy life, and gives me a calm moment out of time.”
It may also be the effect of the aromatic church incense smoke he uses to distract the bees when he needs to lift the frames from the hives.
The honey may be blessed, but collecting it can also be a blessed nuisance. The hives have to be secured against wind (highly problematic on a building whose ancient structure is under government protection), and the heat off the lead roof can also cause the beekeeper problems in summer.
A lack of water supply on top of the the building makes it even more complicated. Access by narrow Harry Potter-style stone spiral steps is also a problem, especially when it comes to removing the honey-dripping frames for extraction. A good supply of plastic bags and a chain of volunteers is the answer.
The extraction is done in the cathedral, where they also jar and label the “Heavenly Honey.” It is neither pasteurized nor heat-treated, simply filtered, and the jars are sold to the cathedral community at a modest price, although there are plans to sell online.
The city’s symbol
Coincidentally, the civic symbol of Manchester is a bee: It reflects a city that is industrious, hardworking, innovative and community-minded, part of a region that also saw the birth of the great cooperative movement in 1844 to provide an affordable alternative to poor-quality and high-priced food and provisions.
The canon apiarist’s bees are part of a proud tradition.
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Main photo: Honorary Canon Adrian Rhodes with his beehives on the roof of Manchester Cathedral. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
The flavors of the mountains were something to celebrate at an international Slow Food event that brought together chefs from throughout Europe.
Bra, a charming village in Italy’s Piedmont region, hosted the 10th edition of Cheese that under the aegis of Slow Food marks the biennial major meeting point for the best products of the international dairy industry. Cheese 2015 featured mountain cuisine by selecting seven European Slow Food chefs (who, thankfully, are not offended if you call them “cook” instead of “chef”).
They took turns at the stove to create seven “jewels” that represent different regions and different stories all related to mountain traditions. I met them and tried their dishes.
From the Piedmont
Let’s start with a rich Piedmont Hot Pot with beef, carrots, celery and a slightly garlicky green sauce, traditionally accompanied by a glass of broth. It was like a jump into the past, thanks to Carlo Rocca and his wife, Manuela, who run the 1894 Osteria Paschera in Caraglio, Valle Grana, Italy. Buying from local farmers and choosing only what is in season are their two guiding principles.
Their signature dish? Culumbot, young pigeons cooked in a casserole on a wood-fired stove. Carlo and Manuela also have an aversion to waste; they make their dishes based on reservations, and if there are leftovers, they urge their guests to take them home.
Thomas Zwink from the Ammergau Alps, Germany, prepared spaetzle (small, irregularly shaped dumplings made with wheat flour, eggs and water) with a sauce made from two mountain cheeses, Emmentaler and Romadour, and butter. Zwink opened the Dorfwirt two years ago, following extended travels as a freelance gastronome.
Lots of work and lots of play go into his cuisine, along with top-quality ingredients. He is renowned for his beef cheek braised in red wine. He champions humane treatment of the animals raised for food, cultivates the herbs he uses and is on a first-name basis with the producers of the cheeses he offers.
The menu moved east to feature kwaśnica, a Polish soup with potatoes, cabbage, porcini mushrooms and pork ribs. It was cooked by Sylwester Lis, chef of Hotel Bukovina, in the Tatra Mountains of Poland.
“It’s a traditional meat and vegetables dish, although once I made a fish version with crayfish necks prepared with cumin butter. They said that I desecrated kwaśnica, but many liked it,” said Lis, who often dares to combine the typical regional cuisine of the area with a modern fusion approach.
Shaped by geography
A classic mountain menu always features some kind of soup and polenta.
A hearty soup with mini-spelt from Upper Provence, accompanied by sausages, was the dish prepared by The Slow Food Coolporteur Gap Convivium of Hautes Alpes, France. This group highlights the biodiversity of the Southern Alps. A dry climate and soil that is resistant to farming have always characterized this region, equidistant from the sea and the Alps, and have shaped its cuisine: simple and poor. Grain, bread, pork (the fatty cuts, because the leaner, more desirable ones were sold) and potatoes were for centuries the main ingredients.
Meret Bissegger prepared a polenta rossa with farina bòna flour, ragout of dried chestnuts, porcini mushrooms, roasted Caprauna radish and spiced cabbage. Bisseger is the soul of Casa Merogusto in Valle di Blenio, Switzerland. She has published two books, in which she combines her fervor for what is good, clean and fair with the use of simple, high-quality ingredients produced on a small scale.
Back to Italy
Annarita di Nunno served a potato-stuffed giant tortel with casòlet cheese from the Val di Sole, served with white cabbage salad and speck from Trentino.
Di Nunno, a young painter and art expert from the Salento, in Puglia, decided that she needed an abrupt change and moved to Trentino to begin a new adventure in the restaurant business with her husband, Sergio. Today, Annarita is the cook at the Locanda delle Tre Chiavi in Vallagarina, Italy, where she is celebrated for her vegetable dishes and, most of all, her desserts.
Back in time
Moreno Janda grew up with his parents at the inn Bussola da Gino in Catena di Quarrata, Pistoia, Italy. Its main feature is the recovery of old cooking techniques and raw materials not very present on our tables, such as giblets from chicken or fagioli serpenti, rare Tuscan heirloom string bean; serpente means snake and the reason for the name is the shape of it.
Janda’s dish reflects his goal: handmade Pontremoli testarolo, a sort of pancake made with water, flour and salt, first cooked in the testo, a large heavy cast iron skillet with a dome-shaped lid. Then the testarolo is cut and cooked again in hot water for a few minutes and served as a pasta dish.
“Making the testarolo requires a knowledge of materials and techniques, which is becoming rare these days,” Janda says proudly.
Main photo: Carlo Rocca prepares his Piedmont Hot Pot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca
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