Friday, August 31, 2007

I scream, you scream, we all scream for mac & cheese!

A quick and hearty shout-out to my local, Bar Etats-Unis, which was named one of the top ten spots for macaroni and cheese in the city (outer boroughs included, too). Their version is big enough for two, with parmesan and cheddar and a super-rich bechamel base. It comes bubbling hot in a rustic crock, crusty on top and creamy underneath. Awesome stuff, folks, especially with a glass of red wine. Mmmmm...

Thursday, August 30, 2007

All that sparkles is gold (and sometimes pink).

I am in love with champagne.

I have always enjoyed champagne, but only in the last couple of years have I begun to develop a true appreciation for it, an appreciation that borders on worship. It's a drink with endless variations, a spectrum of flavors, the added textural element of the bubbles (which vary so widely from wine to wine), and it makes everything so gosh-darn special. Plus, it's way more fun to learn about than still wine - you've got the yeast, the degorgement, the riddling...fascinating.

Plus, champagne has inspired some of the loveliest drinking-related bon mots yet coined, including the (apocryphal) "Come quickly, I'm drinking the stars," attributed to Don Perignon, and, more recently, this one from The Philadelphia Story: "Champagne is funny stuff. I'm used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back; champagne is heavy mist before my eyes."

If you ask someone from France if what Schramsberg Vineyards produces in California is champagne, they will poo-poo you. If you ask a member of Schramsberg's staff, they will launch into a mini-lecture on the methode champenoise and the 1891 Treaty of Madrid, which provided France with sole ownership of the term "champagne." Schramsberg's product may not technically be champagne, but it's absolutely stellar.

Our tour of the Schramsberg facilities began with the long ascent of a narrow, curving drive. We were a bit early, so we spent some time enjoying the crisp sunshine of a Calistoga morning and chatting with the staff about the tornado that had touched down that day in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The other members of our tour trickled in, and at 10:30 we gathered by the Frog Pond to begin.

Our guide gave us a bit of the history of the estate, originally established by Jacob Schram in 1862. The hillside vineyards reminded him of those used to grow Riesling in his native Germany, and he bought the land and began his wine-making business (he had been a barber by trade). Eventually the family sold the property, and nothing much of note really happened to it until Jack and Jamie Davies bought the land in 1965.

The Davies' were specifically interested in making sparkling wines, but only discovered after moving onto the land that the hot Calistoga hillsides (Calistoga is typically 5 to 15 degrees warmer than the rest of the Napa Valley) were not particularly hospitable to the two grapes essential to champagne, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They set about finding suppliers in other parts of the valley, and produced their first sparkling vintage in 1965. Widespread fame came in 1972, when President Nixon used the 1969 in his toast to China. Schramsberg has been the official sparkling wine of U.S. presidents ever since.

After the history lesson, we proceeded into the caves. Based on my trip to the Champagne region of France, I knew we'd be spending most of our time in the cellars looking out for the remnants of bottles that had exploded during the aging process and hearing about the magic of riddling and its grand finale, degorgement.

Riddling is so cool - in order to get the sediment produced by the yeast (whose carbon dioxide exhalations remain behind to make your champagne good and bubbly, or subtly creamy, depending) out of the bottle, the riddler comes around periodically and turns the bottle just so. With his or her hands. A tiny bit each time, with just their fingertips, ever so lightly. A good riddler turns upwards of 20,000 bottles each day. Schramsberg's turns 35,000.

Once the sediment has collected in the bottom of the bottle, and been coaxed toward the neck, it's time for the degorgement. Basically, they freeze the neck of the champagne, open it, allow the ice cube (which now contains the sediment) to pop out, top the bottle off quickly with the dosage (whose contents differ from maker to maker) and seal the whole thing up again. A few months of aging incorporate the dosage into the wine, and bam! Champagne ready for drinking.

After a spin around the caves, we were led into an empty room, at the back of which stood a table - our tasting was in the caves! This was one of the neater things about the visit. It felt very personal and intimate, and we never felt rushed. Quite the opposite, actually - the computers were down, so the staff from upstairs brought a sixth bottle for us to taste (to keep us occupied so that we could place orders on said computer before we left).

We tasted the Blanc de Blancs first. Blanc de Blancs means "white of whites," and contains only Chardonnay grapes. It was tart, full of apple flavor, and would have paired beautifully with oysters. Its bubbles were lively but small, popping all over the tongue. Next up, the Blanc de Noirs, which, as you've probably guessed, is a white champagne made entirely of Pinot Noir grapes. This one was true to its Pinot origins, full of berry flavors and a subtler bubble than the Blanc de Blancs.

Third, the J. Schram, which was one of the most full-bodied champagnes I've tasted. It could stand up to lamb, something that can't be said for many sparkling wines. We followed it with the Brut Rose - I have a soft spot for pink champagne, and this one was no exception. It was divine, and our guide recommended pairing it with lobster or buttered popcorn. I hope to put both suggestions to good use someday soon.

Finally, we moved on to the Reserve, which had a deep caramel flavor - it would be lovely after dinner or on its own. The bottle rushed down to compensate for the computer lag time was the Cremant, a sweeter wine - perfect with or instead of dessert.

So, basically, all I have left to say about Schramsberg is this - you should go. Or at least get up, go to the wine store, and buy a couple of bottles. But you shouldn't store them in the fridge for more than a month (which is an awfully good excuse to drink anything you've got in there right now).

Pre-degorgement photo courtesy of Google Images. Photos of Schramsberg's Frog Pond and the Rose champagne courtesy of yours truly.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

There's nothing wrong with a burger...or three.

My recent travels have presented me with the opportunity to eat lots of great meals: ris de veau at Bouchon, coq au vin at Bistro Jeanty, steak with Bearnaise sauce as prepared by Nick - and quite a few burgers.

Hamburgers, not cheeseburgers, you understand. Though I've warmed to cheese over the last couple of years (I hated it with a flaming, burning passion from early childhood - odd, given my willingness to eat almost anything else.), I still don't like it on my burgers. So don't even ask.

The burger is perhaps the quintessential American food, something that rang true with me as never before on my trip to Strasbourg last year. Louisa and I met an incredibly charming (I'm swooning at the memory) French man at a bar near the cathedral who had attended UT Austin for university.

By the end of it, he said, people didn't believe him when he told them he was French. He himself only realized how truly Americanized he'd become when he mastered the art of driving while eating a hamburger. And I believe it - I picture him, from time to time, cruising down a two-lane, rural Texas highway, burger in hand, the wind in his hair (because, of course, he's driving a red convertible), and think: "Good lord, how American."

The freedom of the open road epitomized by a hand-held meal. Like Henri*, I associate burgers with driving and travel, and so am not terribly surprised that my first lunches upon arrival in Norwalk, Fresno and Calistoga, respectively, were hamburgers all.

First up, H n' B's Hop in Norwalk, Ohio. I admit, this was my first old-fashioned hamburger hop ever. As Louisa and I pulled up, I looked around for the waitresses in bobby socks and roller skates, but, alas, you now go inside to order off of the hand-written menu.

I went for the hamburger meal (with fries) and a small vanilla shake. After all, I was on vacation, people. Louisa ordered the BBQ beef sandwich and sauerkraut balls, an Ohio specialty of which I'd been ignorant before my visit (look for a separate post on those later). We grabbed a table in the dappled shade of the Hop's wooden canopy and waited patiently for our food and drinks.

They called our names, and we ran up to the counter, salivating. Now, I know it doesn't look like much, but trust me, this burger was awfully good. Straightforward, with robust, beefy flavor, and just the right size. I'm sure I'll get hate mail for this one, but I really don't like a thick hamburger patty - they're hard to eat, messy, and don't leave enough bite clearance for the good stuff, like tomatoes, pickles and onions. The condiments on this were good, but the beef was the standout. Not surprising, given I was in the Midwest, land of excellent beef (though too often also the land of excellent beef overcooked to point where its excellence goes bye-bye).

The shake was thick and delicious, rich and robustly vanilla, and definitely not light on the ice cream. Just the way I like it. Needless to say, I was quite full as we tottered back to the car. Oof.

My next hamburger experience came at a restaurant that is, frankly, the standard by which I judge all other fast food burgers: In n' Out Burger. If you are not yet familiar with In n' Out, you must live east of the Mississippi or somewhere outside of the States. If this is the case, I advise you to buy a plane ticket to parts west as soon as possible - they've got stores all over California, and a couple in Nevada, I think. Go. Go now.

Why are their burgers so good? Well, they're delicious. Oh, ok - so, the meat is never frozen. It's fresh. The veggies? Ditto. Including the potatoes, which are peeled and sliced into tiny little french fries right there in the store. Right there in front of you!

Whenever I visit my mom in Fresno, I make every effort to visit In n' Out for a double meat with fries and a Diet Coke. It just makes me smile. Some people don't like "secret" or "special" sauces - not me. Condiment-loving fiend that I am, I just can't get enough. Onions? Bring it on - I'm not kissing anyone tonight. Pickles? Marry me.

I am, however, undecided in the matter of In n' Out's fries. Yes, they're fresh and taste more like potatoes than any other fast food fry I have ever tasted in my life. But they're a little bit...soggy. Like someone forgot to teach the In n' Out folks the old fry 'em twice trick. But I get them anyway, because I'm a sucker.

Finally, a visit to Taylor's Automatic Refresher in St. Helena. I'm sure it's not the case, but I wouldn't be surprised if people trying to get to Taylor's is the reason traffic in St. Helena is so maddening around lunchtime - it's that good, and that popular. Don't be fooled by the picture on the website - it's mobbed around the clock (though I managed to escape the worst of it by going for lunch at 2:00 PM).

I ordered a hamburger, fries, and (gasp!) a Diet Coke, then grabbed a seat at one of the picnic tables to wait for my name (Megan B.) to be called by the cute boy manning the microphone. The total (around $10) was the highest by far of my three hamburger outings, not surprising given the locale (Napa Valley) and the clientele (those who prefer their down-home food come with upscale trappings, including gourmet pickles and bottles of wine).

Let me start with the fries - Taylor's fries were, hands-down, the winners in their category (for this go-round, at least). Crisp, perfectly salted, and piping hot, they tasted of potato and of summer, and tasted great dipped in mayonnaise (my ultimate test, as ketchup is awfully acidic and can mask weak potato flavor).

Finally, the hamburger. This was a hamburger worthy of its price tag. The Taylor's sauce is mustardy where In n' Out's is ketchupy, and the deeper flavor goes well with the as-close-to-cucumber-as-you-can-be-and-still-be-a-pickle new pickles (my favorites). The toppings were around the burger - the lettuce and tomato below, pickles above, and I enjoyed this pre-packaging of the tasty meat. Not quite as purely beefy as H n' B's, it was still well-seasoned and tasty. Plus, they asked me how I wanted it cooked - and managed medium-rare, even with a satisfactorily thin patty. A feat few can manage, friends.

*Not his real name, but we never asked what it was, and it seemed to suit him best.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Where Keller and Trotter have trod before me.

I arrived at Nick and Louisa's place in Norwalk, Ohio anticipating a flurry of high-cholesterol deliciousness, immersed as they currently are into Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Little did I know that I would be making a vegetable pilgrimage before the week was out.

Louisa does some volunteer work with a great organization called the Culinary Vegetable Institute; among their many programs is something called Veggie U, which combats childhood obesity through classroom education on sustainable farming and nutrition, as well as the science of raising crops. Pretty cool stuff, right?

The Institute grew out of The Chef's Garden, a family-run farm that provides produce to some of the country's greatest chefs, including Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. Louisa did a little fancy footwork (mentioned my involvement with eGullet and this little blog), and scored us a tour of the facility one afternoon.

We started in the main building, built in a lodge style and built around a large entertaining space, which opens directly onto the restaurant-quality kitchen. Chef-customers are welcome to bring their staffs (there is a chef's suite upstairs and "quarters" for the staff in the basement) and work on new menu items with the produce on hand. The Institute also hosts special events - a few weeks after I visited, they held their annual Food and Wine fundraiser (Louisa, formerly of the publishing world, ran Paula Deen's book signing).

The whole concept of the Garden - experimental, sustainable farming, year-round production, quality produce provided directly to the finest chefs - is a cool one, and the property lives up to expectations. The gardens themselves are gorgeous and full of new and fascinating varieties of vegetables and fruits, most noticeably lettuces. Understandable, given the demand for them and their delicacy - just the thing for an experimental farm courting fancy-schmancy restaurants.

Naughty Queenie!

I have been a very bad girl.

July and August have been a bit hectic for me; lots of travel (Ohio, Massachusetts, California), lots of family drama, a get the idea. But that's no excuse, dear readers, for leaving you in the lurch! So, in the next few days, steady yourselves for a marathon of posts about Ohio, Napa, summer produce...and BURGERS.

In the meantime, here's a non-food-related tidbit to whet your palates. As some of you know, my little baby brother is now all grown up and has started a theatre company here in NYC with his friend Geordie (Jer Bear is the Producing Director, Geordie Broadwater is the Creative Director). I am a proud board member.

Their third season kicks off in September with the world premiere of "You May Go Now," a play by Bekah Brunstetter. Tickets are now available, and, believe me, you WANT to go - I read the play last night, and it's awesome.

So go to and check it out and buy tickets. And if you want to donate some dough, that would be excellent, too - theatre created by young people is as worthy a cause as most, I would say.

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