Dorie Greenspan. Credit: Alan Richardson

With her latest book, “Baking Chez Moi,” acclaimed author Dorie Greenspan has fait mouche (hit the bull’s-eye) again. In this luscious culinary tome, Greenspan manages to break through the mystique of French baking techniques with ease and humor. She is, quite simply, the perfect guide for any baker who wants to explore everything from approachable variations on haute pâtisserie to those classic weekend cakes called teaux de voyages.

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"Baking Chez Moi"

By Dorie Greenspan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

496 pages

» Buy the book 

Of late, I’ve been poring over countless cookbooks for research. It’s made clear to me how important the author’s voice is in translating subject matter, recipes and technique. Greenspan’s uncomplicated, personable style makes me want to study her cookbooks cover to cover, with notebook in hand and an occasional smile. After all, how many cookbook authors will attribute a recipe’s success to “the magic of that vixen: chocolate”?

Reading “Baking Chez Moi” is like spending time with a best friend who happens to know just about everything there is to know about French baking, and whom to ask when she doesn’t. Even better, she’s a whiz at translating it into something that readers can conquer, not fear. It’s a skill that is never handier than when trying to attempt trickier French desserts like colorful macarons or her riff on Pierre Herme’s sumptuous Carrément Chocolat.

Anyone who has attempted advanced baking knows that it is an art of precision. Following directions to the letter is normally recommended. Yet while Greenspan encourages the exactitude of using metric weights and measures, she also allows for some interpretation, and in many cases promotes it.

Affectionately nicknamed “Miss One More Minute,” the author suggests that recipe timing is meant to be a well-defined guide but not absolute — especially when oven calibrations are never the same. Through her own tales of hits and misses, she gives the reader permission to play, including inventive sidebar suggestions she titles “Bonne Idées” (good ideas).

Cannelés, a popular French pastry. Credit: Alan Richardson

Cannelés, a popular French pastry. Credit: Alan Richardson

But what I like best about Greenspan’s approach with “Baking Chez Moi” is her active style of cross-pollination between recipes throughout the book. She moves from recipe to recipe just long enough to unearth the special character of each, then whisks along to find clever ways to employ it elsewhere, inviting the reader to jump right in and join her. And I took that invitation — after a first read, my copy was left with 17 sticky notes tagging the recipes I intend to try first.

Cannelés

Yield: 45 mini cannelés

From "Baking Chez Moi"

"This recipe was given to me by Joëlle Caussade, whose husband, Gilles, owns a lively Paris bistro, Le Petit Vendôme, where Joëlle makes the mini cannelés that are served with coffee.

"A word on timing: The batter needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours, so plan ahead.

"Serving: Cannelés are traditionally served alongside coffee or tea and often turn up on trays of mignardises, the small sweets that are after-dessert desserts.

"Storing: The batter needs to be refrigerated for at least 12 hours, but it can hold there for up to 3 days. As for the baked cannelés, they’re perfect the day they are made and still good, but firmer and chewier, the day after. Keep the cannelés in a dry place at room temperature. Lightly cover them if you like."

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (480 ml) whole milk
  • 1¼ cups (250 grams) sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (1 ounce; 28 grams) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup (136 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 2½ tablespoons dark rum
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • Melted unsalted butter, for the molds

Directions

  1. At least 1 day before making the cannelés: Bring the milk, ¾ cup of the sugar and the butter to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring occasionally to make sure the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool until the mixture reaches 140 F. (If you don’t have a thermometer, cool the milk for 10 to 15 minutes; it should still feel hot to the touch.)
  2. While the milk is cooling, put the flour and the remaining ½ cup sugar into a strainer and sift them onto a piece of parchment or wax paper. Keep the strainer at hand.
  3. Working with a whisk, beat the eggs and yolk together in a large bowl until blended. Whisking without stopping, start adding the hot milk, just a little at first; then, when you’ve got about a quarter of the milk blended into the eggs, whisk in the remainder in a steady stream. Add the flour mixture all at once and whisk—don’t be afraid to be energetic—until the batter is homogeneous. You might have a few lumps here and there, but you can ignore them.
  4. Strain the batter into a large bowl or, better yet, a pitcher or a large measuring cup with a spout; discard any lumps in the strainer. Whisk in the rum and vanilla, cover the container tightly and refrigerate the batter for at least 12 hours. (The batter can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)
  5. Lightly brush the cannelé molds with melted butter and put the pan in the freezer. The pan needs to be frozen only for 30 minutes, but if you put it into the freezer right after you make the batter, you won’t have to wait for it on baking day.
  6. When you’re ready to bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 450 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Put a cooling rack on the sheet and put the frozen cannelé molds on the rack.
  7. Remove the batter from the fridge. It will have settled and formed layers, so give it a good whisking to bring it back together, then rap the container against the counter to debubble it a bit. Fill the cannelé molds about three-quarters full.
  8. Bake the cannelés for 30 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 400 F and bake for another 30 minutes or so. Cannelés are supposed to get very dark—black really—but if you’re concerned that yours are darkening too fast or too much, place a piece of parchment or foil over the molds. When properly baked, the bottoms will be dark and the sides of the little pastries will be a deep brown—think mahogany. (I spear a cannelé with a bamboo skewer and pull it out of its mold to inspect it.) While the cannelés bake, they may puff above the tops of the molds, like popovers or soufflés, and then, as they continue baking, or when they’re pulled from the oven, they’ll settle down. Pull the whole setup from the oven and put it on a cooling rack.
  9. Let the cannelés rest in their molds for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack. (Resting gives the tender pastries a chance to firm so they’ll hold their shape when unmolded.) Be careful: Even though you’ve waited 10 minutes, because of the caramelized sugar and melted butter, cannelés are hotter than most other pastries. Let the cannelés cool until they are only slightly warm or at room temperature.

 

 Main photo: Dorie Greenspan. Credit: Alan Richardson

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Beef tzimmes. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

I look forward to Rosh Hashana every year. It should be because it is the beginning of another new year, shimmering with possibilities. Or because each year I give myself permission to buy a new, stylish go-to-temple outfit. It’s also fall, the best, most exhilarating season in my New England home.

Religiously, Rosh Hashana (which this year begins at sundown Sept. 24) is the time to wipe away the troubles of last year and pledge to begin anew with resolutions for improvement in personal relationships and goals. Officially, Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the new year of the Jewish calendar, and always a season for coming together joyfully. It’s honey and apples, friends and family.

But if I am honest, my love of the holiday has nothing to do with any of this. Rosh Hashana is tzimmes season. Oozing with meat juices and richness, beef tzimmes may be the least politically correct dish in my repertoire from a nutritional standpoint. And I love it — umami heaven! It is full of rich, meaty flavor and thick with chunks of carrots, sweet potatoes, onions and prunes. It’s a production that requires planning but not that much skill.

Beef Tzimmes for Rosh Hashana

Prep Time: 2 hours

Cook Time: 5 hours

Total Time: 7 hours

Yield: 12 servings

Beef tzimmes is a major production for a major holiday. I love making this dish. People look forward to it every year, and as a result it transforms me into an iconic Jewish cook. It’s also not that hard to pull off, but it does take time. It’s very important to make the entire dish a day before serving so you can refrigerate and skim the fat. You’ll need a large, heavy roasting pan such as a turkey roaster. I make it in a huge Le Creuset pot, but any large, covered Dutch oven or roasting pan will do.

Ingredients

  • 6 short ribs (ask the butcher for the right cuts for this and the following meat)
  • 4 pounds beef flanken or brisket (not too lean)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • 5 pounds carrots, peeled and cut in big chunks
  • 6 to 8 onions, quartered
  • 2 cups honey
  • 2 cups dark brown sugar, plus more to sprinkle on top during cooking
  • A stick (or two) of cinnamon
  • Beef stock or water
  • 6 to 8 peeled sweet potatoes (or more to your preference)
  • 2 cups pitted prunes
  • 2 tablespoons matzo meal for thickening the sauce

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F and then roast the short ribs for an hour in the oven.
  2. Meanwhile, braise the flanken in a large sauté pan on the stove top.
  3. Place the bones in the bottom of a roasting pan and layer on top the chunks of flanken.
  4. Sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper to taste. (You can also adjust it before serving, after all flavors have come together.)
  5. Add the carrots, onions, honey, brown sugar, cinnamon and enough beef stock or water to cover the meat.
  6. Cook covered for three hours in a 350 F oven, turning the meat chunks occasionally.
  7. Add the sweet potatoes and prunes to the pan, adding more stock if necessary. Cook another 45 minutes, until the meat is soft.
  8. Strain off the liquid and reduce it on the stove top, then thicken it with matzo meal. Return it to the pan. The liquid should be about ¾ of the way up the pan.
  9. Sprinkle with brown sugar to caramelize on top.
  10. Return to the oven and cook uncovered for one hour. To degrease the meat, refrigerate for a few hours or overnight, and then remove fat. The dish is best served the day after cooking. The leftovers freeze beautifully.

Main photo: Beef tzimmes. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

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Beach plum jelly. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Thirty seven years ago, I met a man on an island off Cape Cod, Mass., and we had a summer romance. We made fish stew and grilled local striped bass. We baked bread, picked wild island grapes and took long beach walks. And when the summer was over, I figured I’d go back to my life and he would return to his.

But it didn’t happen that way. The relationship turned out to be the real deal. Thirty years ago this month, we were married, and now we are back on this island celebrating those three decades together.

This island is a place that never disappoints. Every time we come here, I worry movie stars and politicians will have ruined the place. And although there is much hype and McMansions are now littered along some of the shoreline, this is still a place of pristine beauty.

So here we are again, cooking local seafood and taking long beach walks and early morning swims in the almost too cold ocean waters. This year there’s been a bit of a drought on the island, and that has translated to dry fields and spotty lawns. But it has also produced a bumper crop of beach plums.

Each year when we come here in late summer/early fall, I hunt the dirt roads and beach paths for the elusive beach plums. They look like a cross between an oversize blueberry and a black-purple grape. Beach plums are stone fruits, related to other plums, cherries and peaches. They flower in late spring and bear fruit in the early fall, depending on the weather.

They grow along sandy paths near salt water. They are often planted for erosion control and feed off of salty sprays and sandy soil. They are very sour and sometimes bitter, full of a crisp, distinctively fruity, almost earthy taste. They make terrific jelly.

The day we arrived, I walked to the beach and was shocked to find bushes bursting with fruit — thousands of beach plums. I ran back home and got a huge bucket and started picking. It didn’t take long to fill that bucket and then another.

Beach plum jelly a balance of bitter and sweet

Making beach plum jelly is a lot like making wild grape jelly. (In fact, the recipe below works well for both.) If it were a perfect world, I would add a lot less sweetener to the jelly, but the sourness needs balance, and I’ve found a mixture of white sugar and maple syrup works well.

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Beach plums. Credit: Kathy Gunst

This recipe involves several steps, but it is actually quite simple. The gorgeous deep purple-pink color and sweet, tart flavors are at home on the day’s first buttered toast or used to glaze a duck, spread on a sharp cheddar cheese sandwich or serve as a condiment with grilled leg of lamb.

The jelly makes a wonderful anniversary gift. Like a long marriage, it is a great balance of sweet and bitter.

Beach Plum Jelly

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 jars

Use beach plums, Concord grapes or a combination to make the jelly. It will keep in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed Mason jar for well more than a month or can be canned and kept in a cool, dark spot for up to a year. More prep time will be needed for picking, and cook time includes time to drain the cooked plums.

Ingredients

  • About 20 cups beach plums
  • 4 cups water
  • About 3 cups sugar
  • About 1 cup maple syrup
  • 1 to 2 ounces liquid pectin

Directions

  1. Prepping the beach plums is crucial to good jelly. Remove all stems, rotten or moldy plums, or under-ripe beach plums (which will be hard and pale pink or red like a cranberry). Wash thoroughly and then measure the fruit.
  2. Place the clean beach plums into a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat.
  3. Lower the heat and, stirring frequently, cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fruit is softened.
  4. Place a colander or sieve over a large bowl or pot and pour the fruit through it. Let it strain by gently pushing down on the fruit with a wooden spoon or spatula to extract as much juice as possible. I let my plums strain all day, covered with a piece of clean cheesecloth to avoid fruit flies. It can sit for hours.
  5. When you think all the juice has been extracted, measure how much you have. Add about 1/2 cup sweetener for each cup of beach plum juice. (A half-cup will give you sweet-tart jelly, while 1 cup will obviously give you a sweeter jelly). I like to add a combination of sugar and maple syrup.
  6. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.
  7. Reduce heat to moderate and let simmer about 10 minutes.
  8. Add the pectin and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook about 10 minutes to allow the jelly to thicken.
  9. Taste for sweetness and adjust accordingly. To test for doneness, add a spoonful to a small plate and place in the freezer for 10 minutes. It should be quite thick.
  10. Put the jelly into sterilized jars and refrigerate or process for 20 minutes.

Main photo: Beach plum jelly. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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Cafe French riffs on Gout and Goutte: Bad Taste or a Bad Case of Gout. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: As a sensitive and hungry boy, I learned valuable life lessons from the classic series of children’s books by Howard R. Garis featuring Uncle Wiggily Longears, an elderly, kind and wise rabbit. In each illustrated story, Uncle Wiggily takes on the vagaries of life in his forest habitat and solves a social or personal problem within his community of furry critters.

I can recall one episode with gastronomic implications. As best as I remember it, a young squirrel or possum with a taste for candy gets a terrible tummy ache that Uncle Wiggily helps to cure. At the end Uncle Wiggily concludes, “Too much of anything is not too good!”

Mark Twain’s taste for whiskey

Uncle Wiggily’s lesson in hunger management is like a Hallmark card version of Mark Twain’s earlier drollery: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Truth be told, Twain’s version, despite wise Wiggily’s input into my early childhood development, comes much closer to the true “gastronomical me”: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good food is barely enough.”

Which brings me circuitously to our next Café French™ lesson: the curious linguistic connection between biological and aesthetic taste (goût in French, pronounced goo), and the ailment, gout (goutte in French, pronounced goot), caused by too much taste for rich food and alcohol.

It’s all Greek, Latin, Old French and Anglo-Saxon to me

The use in English and French of the same words — taste and goût — for both aesthetic appreciation and perception of flavor — is deeply embedded in our two languages. As Voltaire, the French Enlightenment thinker, explained in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764), the English language  “… is a copy of ours in almost all the words which are not Saxon …”

The convoluted etymological links between French goût and English taste, and between French goutte and English gout, are no mere accident and took millennia to develop. Here is a cursory Café French glossary:

Goût (FR): From the Latin gustus, Old French goust = Taste. “Gustatory” in English and “gustative” in French come from the same sources. By the 18th century, goût was associated with aesthetic taste in France.

Goutte (FR): From the Latin gutta, Old French gote = Gout and Drop. It was thought as far back as the ninth century that this inflammatory ailment was caused by little drops of viscous humors seeping from the blood into the joints causing painful swelling — a theory close to the modern explanation.

Gout (ENG): Derives from the Old French gote (see goutte). Again, note Voltaire’s comment above about the origins of many English words.

Taste (ENG): From the Vulgar Latin tastāre and the Old French tast = Touch. The Old English smaecken — to taste — derives from the German schmecken, which translates as “to taste, try, smell, perceive.”

Paris taste and gout. Credit: L. John Harris

But why the same words in English, French and most other Romance languages for both aesthetic and physical taste? The complex etymology is well-documented, but I have not found an acceptable answer why our sense of taste — the human faculty least associated with art with a capital “A” (the fine arts) — is used as the metaphor for discerning, as Voltaire put it, “the feeling of beauty and defects in all the arts.”

Our other senses are, in fact, used in some contexts to describe aesthetic taste: You can have an eye for design and an ear for music. But you can’t have an eye for music or an ear for sculpture. Why then does “taste” apply so universally?

Is it because when we taste something, we bring the object of that sense (food and beverage) into the body itself, which, I would argue, renders taste unique among the human senses in being more sensitive? This is a simple explanation I can live with. After all, bad food can kill you. Bad paintings just make you sick.

Uncle Wiggily meets Voltaire in Paris

Voltaire’s ideas about taste emerged at a time when Paris had become Europe’s capital of le bon goût — in art, style, fashion and gastronomy — during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV (1638-1715), the Ralph Lauren of French monarchs. The cafe had arrived as the chic nexus of good taste (both kinds) and the go-to spot for that new, exotic beverage — coffee. But cafes mainly catered to a small Parisian elite in Voltaire’s day. “Taste,” he noted, ” … like philosophy, belongs only to a small number of privileged souls.”

Today, the cafe serves good taste to a much broader swath of souls; less privileged perhaps, but still human. So, imagine for a moment that Uncle Wiggily had ventured out from his forest to travel to Paris with a group of young furry souls — chipmunks, possums, bunnies and bear cubs. They are seated at Voltaire’s favorite cafe, Café Procope (established in 1686 and still going strong), happily nibbling on wedges of quiche and sipping cups of chocolat chaud. The elderly, kind and wise Uncle Wiggily Longears would, of course, be admonishing his charges in his best rabbit French, “Trop de quoi que ce soit n’est pas trop bon!” Too much of anything is not too good …

Main illustration credit: L. John Harris

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Underwood cans of wine from the Union Wine Co. Credit: Union Wine Co.

Summer may be on its way out, but autumn weather brings a new promise of leaves to be peeped, apples to be picked and trips to the country in cooler weather. Whether you take to the road in your car, on your bike or on a train, a well-stocked picnic basket or knapsack is an ideal complement to the day.

With less worry about the summer heat and insects ruining your moveable feast, the thought of a cool-weather picnic is made more appealing thanks to the wide variety of single-serve wines built for portability and proportioned serving.

Single-serve wines are not a new phenomenon, per se. Certainly, small bottles, as one might find in a hotel minibar or an airplane, have been around a long time, but those tend to be glass, making them less ideal for on-the-go enjoyment, and they also require bringing along stemware for imbibing.

Novel packaging part of the single-serve wine game

Newer versions of single-serve wines have come to market in a variety of clever forms, leveraging unbreakable packaging materials like plastic and tin in portion sizes of one or two drinks. Often, the uniqueness of the packaging can be the biggest draw, because, with a few exceptions, the wines are mainly serviceable rather than spectacular — and at a price many will find too high given that, as with most mini or single-serve food and drink items, the cost per glass often outstrips the cost of an entire bottle.

Yet among these offerings there are those that don’t sacrifice taste or quality regardless of the sexy packaging. The versions detailed below represent a variety to choose from, many of them quite good of their own accord.

But first, a tip for buying and storing single serve wines: Non-glass packaging is not conducive to long storage times, as with traditional glass bottles. Tin and plastic can alter the taste of the wines if held long enough, particularly in fluctuating temperatures.

If you prefer to go with a total bottle experience, a variety of portable wine stoppers, such as the multicolored Rabbit Flipper/Pourer, are inexpensive enough to have on hand to re-cork that better bottle. And when you’re done, handy Wine Wipes purport to ensure your pearly whites stay that way, even after a couple of glasses of red (about $8 for a pack of 12).

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Bottles of FlyWine. Credit: FlyWine

Sofia Blanc de Blanc Mini: Dry but slightly sweet with good effervescence, each wee scarlet can comes complete with its own matching straw. While convenient to consume like a grown-up soda, the taste is better when decanted into a champagne flute. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces. $18 to $20 per four-pack of single-serve cans).

Baby Voga Italia Sparkling: The chic bottle may call to mind a fancy hand-soap dispenser or bottle of perfume, but the single-serve sparkling wine has a solid, respectable flavor. Great to have on hand for those special occasions that may call for a toast but just a sip will do. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $6 to $7)

FlyWine: This line of Sonoma Valley, California, reds and whites under the monikers “The Kitchen Sink” “Fly Your Way” and “The Party Starter” respectively are packaged in glass bottles with a TSA-approved volume of liquid so that it can be purchased for in-flight travel. The wines are solid table wines without fanfare and though pricier than most in-flight options, they’re tastier too. (100ml, 3.3 ounces, $10 to $13)

Stack: So named because its Reidl-esque plastic glasses stack on top of one another, these wines come in Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet and Merlot. The white wines were quite sharp with the taste of alcohol, but the reds were somewhat better. While the glasses are adorable, the foil seal is very close to the top of the liquid so even when removed, there is little chance for the wine to breathe. It’s also a bit difficult to drink toward the bottom of the glass because of the narrowness of the mouth. There are better options at the price point, but those little glasses are cute. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $15 per four-pack)

Steelhead Vineyards Wine for One: Available in Merlot and Chardonnay, Steelhead’s single-serve offering is easily the most elegant self-contained wine. The plastic wine glass fits over the plastic bottle, forming a seal that is twisted off, and then the glass is ready to use. Like other offerings, the wines are solid and not harsh — good enough for simple picnic or barbecue fare. (12 pack, 187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $49)

Union Wine Co. Underwood: Equal to two glasses, this slick canned wine is a delightful surprise. Easy to transport and easy to enjoy, this wine is not bubbly but simple, still wine. It must be said that the taste of the can is subtly present in the Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, and while the can is pretty cool, the price might be too much to pay for novelty when for not too much more you can get a pretty good bottle of wine packaged the old-fashioned way. (375ml, 12.6 ounces, 2 servings, $6)

Vini: Cleverly packaged as giant vials bundled together in packs of four to equal one bottle, Vini comes in red and white blended table wine. Single varietals are in the works. As with Fly Wine, this product benefits from being packaged in glass, which doesn’t compromise the wine taste. Certainly drinkable, the real appeal of this product is in the tactile nature of the container, which fits pleasantly in the hand. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $9 to $10 per vial)

Zipz: Shaped like a traditional stemmed wine glass, these plastic goblets are available in vintage year Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. The packs can be purchased as single varietals or mixed. Overall the wines were a bit harsh and did not hold up as well as the other single-serve options, but they were the most useful to transport and easy to drink. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $40 per 12 pack)

Main photo: Underwood cans of wine from the Union Wine Co. Credit: Union Wine Co.

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Corn grows in fields in California's Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.

Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.

Agribusiness central to region

Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.

Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.

Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.

The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.

Produce packinghouses

Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”

Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.

There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.

World Ag Expo

One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.

The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.

The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.

Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

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Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

I hope you don’t think it’s rude, but I’m restoring my gut flora as I type. Ever since I discovered that 90% of my health lives in my gut, I decided to take action. At this very moment, I’ve got 10 probiotic strains and 100 billion live cultures on my stomach’s stage. I’m trying to revive my good bacteria because the warmup act was some heavy-metal thrashers.

I got tested for heavy metals, at my doctor’s behest, to see what was causing my liver congestion and inflammation. Turns out I have too much Alice Cooper. Sure, I have Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin and Metallica too, but my high volume of Alice, or aluminum, concerns me the most since my dad had Alzheimer’s. I’d like to detox, but not with one of those generic, kale-me-now juice cleanses. I want a chelation plan that’s tailored to my individual chemical body burden, or as I call it, Toxic Life Overload (TLO).

We all have TLO. I’m not special. The only difference is that I peed in some plastic jugs for two days, and now I’m acquainted with the whole Mötley Crüe. The fact is, we live in a chemical stew of toxic food, water, air and products that we clean with, sleep with and slather on our skin.

Industrial chemical pollution begins in the womb. Lead, mercury, pesticides, BPA and up to 232 industrial chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood of newborns. The Environmental Working Group tested more than 200 people for 540 industrial chemicals and found 482 of them in their bodies. In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel declared that the number of cancers caused by toxic chemicals is “grossly underestimated” and warned that Americans face “grievous harm” from largely unregulated chemicals that contaminate air, water and food.

The autoimmune effect

Is it a coincidence that over the last 30 years, the autoimmune epidemic has nearly tripled to more than 100 diseases? About 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease — 75% of them women — including multiple sclerosis, lupus, Crohn’s, Celiac, chronic fatigue, thyroiditus, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

But I’m starting to think that knowing my TLO is TMI. I thought knowledge would lead to prevention, but I’m too busy worrying about Quiet Riot sneaking up on me to prevent anything but a good night’s sleep. From every BPA plastic container to each GMO corn kernel, I hear those Black Flag, Anthrax and Megadeth songs screaming in my head.

The new mind-body connection

Most diseases arise from the interaction between a person’s genetic makeup and the environmental agents to which he or she is exposed. Yet I’ve been reading up on the new science of epigenetics, which is the theory that your thoughts and beliefs can alter your gene expression. I’m talking major shifts in cellular activity leading to physiological changes. Optimism, altruism, visualization, healing energy, meditation and prayer are all said to have epigenetic effects.

Scientifically proven or not, many prominent doctors, scientists and health practitioners are touting this line of thinking. Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of  “The Biology of Belief” asserts that genes and DNA don’t control our biology — that DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our thoughts. Deepak Chopra claims there’s more and more evidence of the mind-body connection, and that we can transform our own biology by responding to all that we experience, including thoughts, feelings, words and actions. He says that regardless of the genes we inherit, change at this level allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate.

Does that mean if I change the way I think, my dad’s Alzheimer’s won’t necessarily be mine? But what about Alice Cooper? He’s not in my genetic makeup, but he’s still in my blood. Thank God he’s not in my makeup. Who needs all that black and white shmutz on their face? Hey, was that gratitude? Maybe it really works!

OK … here I go. I’m changing my tune. From now on, this Twisted Sister is gonna be more Pharrell Williams. Sure, his songs are lightweight, but at least they’re not heavy metal. If I could just turn down the volume, it might be music to my gut.

Because I’m happy … clap along … sing this song and turn off that Mötley Crüe … Happy … clap along, sing this song and stop stressin’ ’bout the stew …

Main photo: Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

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Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery's vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

If you live in Seattle, you summer at Lake Chelan.

It’s a requirement of residency, along with buying your pearl barley at the co-op and stoically facing down nine months of gloom each year. You load up the Subaru Outback and make the 180-mile trek across the Cascade Mountains to a narrow glacier-fed lake that cuts into those peaks for 50-plus miles. There you swim, boat and bake — or burn — for a few of the inland region’s 300 days of sunshine a year.

And increasingly, you travel from winery to winery, tasting local bottlings that are expanding in number and quality.

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state, and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Wine grapes have been grown on the lakeshore since the late 1800s. But Chelan is still an infant among American wine regions when it comes to commercial production, going back less than two decades. The 24,040-acre Lake Chelan American Viticulture Area — the 11th AVA in Washington state — is only 5 years old. It remains part of the 11-million acre Columbia River AVA, one of the powerhouse regions in a state that ranks 2nd only to California in U.S. wine production.

Lake Chelan Valley’s unique properties — including the lake’s cooling effect that helps counter eastern Washington’s relentless heat — have been attracting winemakers and growers, sandwiched among the area’s traditional apple orchards. From a handful a decade ago, the area now has more than 20 wineries with an upstart temperament and, sometimes, a quirky sense of humor. (The Hard Row to Hoe winery takes its name from an enterprising oarsman who nearly a century ago carried workers across the lake to an equally enterprising brothel.)

The lake’s wineries are bottling a wide range of grapes from Chelan and the broader Columbia River region, from Syrah to the obscure Picpoul.

Charlie and Lacey Lybecker know about both grapes — and about pursuing the dream of making wines on a small scale in a corner of Washington wine country.

The Lybeckers are in their sixth year of producing wines, for the past three years from Cairdeas Winery on Highway 150 near the town of Manson. Their operation says family owned and operated, down to 2-year-old Eugene in his father’s arms as Charlie passed through the tasting shed on a recent afternoon.

Cairdeas, which means friendship, goodwill or alliance in ancient Gaelic, is a dream still in the midst of being fulfilled for Charlie, 34, and Lacey, 31. They produced their first bottles in their home in West Seattle and were looking to relocate to eastern Washington wine country when Lacey came to Chelan on a business trip.

Getting in while Lake Chelan Valley’s young and growing

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery's 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache blanc, Roussanne and Picpout. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery’s 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Picpoul. Credit: Roger Ainsley

“As soon as we saw Lake Chelan, it was like there’s no other option,” says Charlie, who studied winemaking at Seattle’s Northwest Wine Academy. “It was really appealing to us to get in while it’s still young and see the valley grow and help it grow.”

Cairdeas reflects their passion for Rhone varietals — Syrahs, Viogniers, Roussanne — with the grapes coming from around the Columbia River AVA, some from Chelan. Their method for sourcing grapes is straightforward: When they taste a great wine from the region that reflects the style they are seeking, they find out where the grapes came from and go knocking at the grower’s door.

By next spring, however, about half of their six acres near the lakeshore will be planted with their own Syrah.

“There are some very high-quality grapes coming out. I think people are really experimenting a lot and seeing what types of grapes grow really well here,” Charlie says. “For my personal taste, I think the Syrah from Lake Chelan is absolutely the best.”

And then there’s Picpoul, an obscure grape that Charlie has used to advantage in his “new favorite white wine right now,” Cairdeas’ Southern White. “It’s an extremely acidic grape by itself but has great flavors and we use it as a blending grape,” he explains. The result: a bright wine with a broad palette of flavors that could work in place of Sauvignon Blanc with a simple grilled chicken.

The Lybeckers hope to tap in to Lake Chelan’s natural advantages, including as a wine tourist destination. As Lacey notes, the lake comes ready made with tourism infrastructure — lakeshore hotels, golf courses, water sports and winter snow skiing — that some Washington wine regions had to create from scratch.

Their goals are at once ambitious and limited: Having grown from producing 250 cases in 2009 to slightly over 2,000 this year, they figure on topping off at about 4,000 cases. Then build a new tasting room facing the lake. Add a picnic area and a pond. Maybe offer up farm dinners.

“We are always going to be a very small family winery,” Charlie says.

Adds Lacey: “We want to make sure we always have our hands in the process.”

Main photo: Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery’s vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

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